• Zachary Paikin
    Zachary Paikin is a graduate of PICREADI's 2017 Meeting Russia program. He is an expert from Canada about to complete his PhD in International Relations at the University of Kent.
  • Zachary takes interest in international order theory and is keen on examining today's great power rivalry, focusing on the Russia-West relations in particular. PICREADI talked to Zachary about the mixed nature of the modern political landscape.
This interview comes in several parts. For your easy navigation, please find the table of contents below.

I. Liberalism and multipolarity
II. Russia's soul-search: Europe and/or Asia
Prospects for engagement


You argue that while according to Europe's narrative, one has to adhere to liberal values to be considered its part, this approach does not stand scrutiny since Europe has always been a pluralistic civilization. Could you elaborate on that?

Zachary Paikin (ZP): In the modern European history there was never a time when all the major players adhered to the same guiding ideology. They might have had agreed upon civilizational norms to regulate their conduct, though. Thus, in the XIX century, the most famous period of great power relations in Europe, France and Britain represented the liberal forces whereas Prussia, later Germany, Austria and Russia made up the conservative Holy Alliance. Yet, all these actors came together to construct an international society of states and maintain a balance of power that was contractually understood between them and enforced jointly.

For some reason, today's great powers seem to no longer be able to do that. I can suggest a couple of explanatory ideas here. The first is that the world has become too multicultural: we now have a truly global international society of states rather than a European or Europe-centered one. All its members are considered equal, and at the same time, they are too culturally different ever to forge a system of agreed upon norms that would guide their conduct beyond the regulatory sphere itself and affirm some elements of shared identity. It must be noted that there are a number of globally accepted common goals at this point, however the question whether those are merely regulatory or indicate a deeper solidarity between various cultural backgrounds, remains open. The second possible explanation is that liberalism has changed, tensions and contradictions within it abound. On the one hand, liberalism presumably involves commitment to pluralism, acknowledgement of diversity within a given society and domestically, this holds: liberals believe in upholding minority rights, celebrating multiculturalism et cetera. At the international level, liberal forces point to the importance of state sovereignty and the right of different cultures to differentiate themselves. In parallel with that there is another liberal belief that tends towards imposing liberal values on others even if they do not necessarily agree with them. That involves promoting human rights, women's rights, intervening and infringing on national states' sovereignty for the purpose of advancing certain ideological or other humanitarian aims. We see a natural tension here because liberalism, theoretically, comprises both trends at once: it believes in pluralism as well as in promoting and imposing liberal values. In recent decades there has been a shift from a liberal international order that emphasizes pluralism towards liberalism that is not able to pursue pragmatic relations with non-liberal powers. The problem stems from the desire of the post-Cold War West-led liberal order to expand rather than undergo fundamental transformation. Neither Russia nor China, as powerful but also dissimilar countries, can ever find a room in an American-led global order as it stands.
At the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), a new post-war security system was established in Europe
Zero-sum approach followed by the West is one trigger of Russia's Eurasian overtures
PICREADI: Is Russia's advocacy for multipolarity then to be perceived as an interest in redefining international order? And Russian-led Eurasian initiatives — as an indication of a sense of futility of doing that alone?

ZP: I do not think that the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) will ever be able to rival blocs such as the EU, MERCOSUR, NAFTA or other leading trading blocs. Particularly not without Ukraine: just as it was crucial for the USSR, it is difficult today to imagine the EEU rising to a status equal to that of the mentioned groups, with Ukraine not taking part. This is not to say we should not engage with the Union, I think we should because it is Russia's signature initiative, its point of pride and we should try to build bridges between the EEU and other blocs.

What Russia's actions reveal is an underlying tension in its foreign policy, namely that as much as it wants to partner with countries with whom it increasingly shares international normative agenda, like China, the goal nonetheless is for Russia to maintain its status as an independent great power and to preserve its sovereign international decision-making. Russia-China relations are so productive today partly due to the West having adopted a zero-sum game approach to dealing with Russia, in which the countries in the shared neighborhood between the two are prompted to choose one side: either they lean West or East. No such dynamics exists in Russia-China relations, China does not challenge the legitimacy of Russia's presence in Central Asia, so there is less of a potential for challenge there. Yet, the launch of the Greater Eurasia project, which includes China, comes across as a signal of Kremlin's awareness of its inability to secure the independent great power status on its own. Russia needs to use China instrumentally in order to achieve its aim of creating a more polycentric, multipolar world. Russians have been drawing attention to the growing multipolarity for a long time now, and by repeating something many times, one often makes desired reality come to life. In sum, we definitely are in a period of change. In my view, Russia has done a relatively good job playing a relatively bad hand: even if it continues to decline, Russia progresses towards securing a seat at the great power table where the rules are going to be written.

PICREADI: According to the Hegemonic Stability Theory, the order set up by a hegemon lives on as long as all of its members derive benefits from its existence and are not willing to risk them by challenging status quo. Does the US qualify for a hegemon of this kind nowadays?

ZP: The US is the only country in the world today that is capable of deploying comprehensive power at the global level: it can project diplomatic, economic, cultural and military influence anywhere and all at once. That does not mean that its stakes are necessarily high or that it should be wasting its power in places like Central Asia where other powers, such as Russia and China, have far greater interests. But if it wants to project its influence there, it is technically capable of doing so. I do not think it is a good strategy — on the contrary, if there is any lesson from the past 30 years that the US needs to learn is that there is a difference between preeminence and omnipotence. Being the preeminent country able to lead the process of terms-setting in international affairs does not translate into the US having to seek primacy in every single geostrategically relevant theater on the globe. The American strategy for the past 30 years has been just that: to be more powerful than Russia in Europe, to be more powerful than any power in the Middle East, to be more powerful than China in the Western Pacific and that is just a strategy for antagonizing other great powers, it is leading to rivalry and is surely not a wise strategy.

Hegemon is a term that does not just imply military and economic prowess, but also a degree of legitimacy, meaning that other smaller countries accept the hegemon's leadership. In terms of preeminence, as much as China and Russia would like to be seen as equal great powers, they can hardly challenge the American potential to continue leading the terms-setting on the economic front and setting the tone for great power relations, generally. Already Vadim Tsimbursky has talked about a multi-unipolar system in which the US remains the most powerful country but other states, such as China and Russia, are capable of checking American power in their own regions, where stakes for these states far exceed those of the US — and this is true today. There have been many attempts to conceptualize such a system in China, and one of them posits that there exist one superpower and many great powers.

So by and large there is an agreement behind the shape of the international system but it leads to a degree of tension because Russian power has returned and Chinese power has risen to the extent where they are capable of checking American power but they are not able to challenge the US head-on. One example is the situation in the South China Sea, in which China is able to achieve sea denial to the US, but is not able to assert sea control on its own. The current state of affairs is thus fundamentally prone to tension. China and Russia feel less powerful than the US and are fearful of collision, since their security risks are way greater. This disbalance explains the naturally unstable relations between the US and the other great powers.
As China continues its naval modernization, the US-China competition in the Western Pacific grows worrisome
Europe may achieve strategic autonomy over the long term, but NATO legacy weighs heavily and no consensus is found

Let us turn to another region of your interest and discuss the circumstances the EU finds itself in. With the post-Cold War European security architecture falling apart, the Union seems to worry about lacking autonomy and outsourcing defense. On the one hand, it stays committed to NATO, even though at times the member states take part in its operations reluctantly, but on the other hand, we witness repeated calls for investing in uniquely European security initiatives. Is it a plausible scenario in your eyes, that with Germany assuming greater political leadership, the Union would become more active globally and ultimately develop larger strategic autonomy?

ZP: It might be plausible over the medium to long term but it is certainly not plausible over the short term. There have been many instances of discussions on achieving strategic autonomy, but when push comes to shove, it gets clear that Europe is still fundamentally woven into the Transatlantic alliance. In one example, when the US chose to withdraw from the JCPOA, as much as the European powers wished to keep this agreement, they were not prepared to rupture the relationship with the US. Playing a key role in guiding the global financial system, the US exerts a tremendous influence over the EU's capacity to deal with Iran, even if the Union does not like it. Dmitri Trenin pointed out that in the wake of the INF treaty being abrogated by the US and Russia, there has not been a massive initiative or a sense of urgency in the EU to create a new European security arrangement in partnership with Russia.

After the end of the Cold War, there was a desire to come up with a sort of a greater Europe, in which the OSCE might have taken on a bigger role in collaboratively upholding security across the wider European space, but the problem was that all the resources from the beginning were located within NATO. So when a crisis in the former Yugoslavia unfolded, seeing as all the resources were already found under the NATO structures, the easiest thing to do was for NATO to intervene — and that came with consequences. Unfortunately, expediency took precedence over vision in that case and there have been no shortage of other examples where the EU or separate European powers have tried to reach out to Russia but Russia has concluded that the EU security is, number one, merely a part of the American security umbrella and number two, France alone is not able to convince other European powers on how to change Europe's course. Germany and other Central and Eastern European countries are not on board with Macron's vision, so as much as Moscow would be happy to welcome the initiative that President Macron has launched, the prospects of this endeavor are uncertain. There might be a few symbolic concessions here and there but nothing that fundamentally changes Russia's foreign policy behavior or basic strategy.

Russia differs from an average European nation-state but insists on being European, hence the tension
PICREADI: Would you characterize Russia's foreign policy today as opportunistic? You call the Eurasian concept not a genuine conviction or self-identification with Eurasia but rather a temporary strategy. In line with describing Europe as a pluralistic civilization, would you call Russia a civilization of its own and what would its distinctive features be, if so?

ZP: This is one of the big questions. Christopher Coker wrote an excellent book on the rise of civilizational states, where he talks about countries like Russia and China in particular as having civilizational discourses of their own, claiming they represent separate unique civilizations. Recognizing the world as a space for coexistence of disparate civilizations tempers the extent to which there can be any kind of universalism, an idea that comes with important consequences for the future of great power relations. I personally am sceptical at the notion that Russia is a distinct civilization of its own. I know that some people like to put forward this idea that it is a Eurasian civilization that is somehow distinct from Europe, either because they genuinely believe it or they put it forward for instrumental purposes in trying to demonstrate why Russia should reject Western or liberal values. I do not think that this discourse enjoys a lot of currency even in Russia, because the fact is that Russia belongs to European civilization but is distinct.

Russia is situated on the periphery of Europe and there were several centuries when Russia was cut off from the rest of Europe, during the Mongol-Tatar yoke in particular. Just by looking at geography and composition of Russia, one notices that it is very different from the average European nation-state. Hence the tension is immanent. Part of the rivalry between Europe and Russia today stems not from the fact that Russia claims to be a distinct Eurasian civilization, but to the contrary, it comes from it saying, we are a European civilization, but we are not liberal like you. And that fundamentally challenges the idea of what Europe is for Western European countries, leading to a discourse of contestation.

On the surface, Russia has a feeling of belonging to Europe but cannot forge a security order that is cooperative with Europe, in part because of the rival norms and visions that both sides have for organizing the wider European space. Russia wants to be treated as an equal power and Europe insists on the right of countries such as Ukraine to choose their international orientation — the rivalry is inherent and it exposes the extent to which ideas matter in international affairs. And yet it is also hard to imagine Russia belonging to any sort of Asian framework in which it appears as an equal leading power on pair with China, India or Japan, for whom the stakes in the Indo-Pacific region are always going to be far higher than Russia's stakes.

Russia is caught in a difficult situation. It has a global great power legacy, wants to be able to project its power and influence globally, have a role to play at the global level and since it still is able to check American power in a number of regions, that is likely to continue. But at the same time Russia's fundamental interests, now that it has been reduced from a superpower status, are far more geographically constrained. Its stakes in regions such as Europe and to a lesser extent, but still significantly, the Middle East, will always exceed its interests in the Far East, even though Russia made a significant effort to develop that territory. Part of it might be just a desire to put itself forward as an equal player in that region as well or perhaps even a constructive player. We are beginning to see the forging of a Russian foreign policy that prioritizes great power concerns in those areas that are most geostrategically relevant to Moscow, like Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus or the Middle East. When it comes to regions where the stakes are lower for Russia, like in the Far East, it is at times putting forward elements of neutrality or follows a more collaborative framework to approaching those regions. It is interesting to see how that is going to play out and lead to Russia developing a more mature, predictable, reliable foreign policy over the course of the next several years, a decade or beyond. There have been many continuities throughout Russia's history but nonetheless, the Russian Federation is a new state that is still finding its footing in both domestic governance and a foreign policy strategy that is fit for its current status in the world.
For more on Russia-EU relations, see this interview by PICREADI
The US reserves the right to step outside the rules to enforce the world order; but its legitimacy is undermined
PICREADI: As you mentioned internal politics, let me ask you this question. The trend that is apparent not only in Russia but across the post-Soviet space is that constitutions stipulate the primacy of the national law over international law provisions. However, the rule of law remains if not an alien concept, then an underdeveloped practice — informal ties play too much of a role in state's functioning. It is fair to refer to the US breaching international law on numerous occasions or even argue that the international law is by nature difficult to enforce. And yet, domestically, that contrast in the role and application of the rule of law is striking. Does this characterize Russia as an Asian state?

ZP: You are saying that the rule of law is a fundamentally Western or European phenomenon, this is an interesting point but I would take it with a grain of salt. Russia has had problems with the rule of law for centuries, but I do not think this necessarily makes Russia Asian. According to Francis Fukuyama, the stronger rule of law traditions in the Western Europe are explained by the feudal lords having had accumulated enough power in the course of several centuries for them to be able to effectively check the rule of the centralizing monarchs of the early modern period. This helped create an internal balance of power that eventually allowed for the codification of a more stable legal system. Whereas in Russia, because the country was cut off from Europe during the Mongol-Tatar occupation, these feudal lords did not have several centuries, they barely had a couple of centuries before they had to face centralizing initiatives of the tsars. This led to a much stronger central rule in Russia which was only buttressed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Cesaro-Papist tradition of fusing religious and political power in one. Now, is an Eastern Orthodox tradition an Asian tradition? It is a Christian tradition. Again we see that different value and political systems have always competed with one another for legitimacy in Europe, and this will continue.

However, neoconservatives in the US propose that the US has the right to occasionally step outside the rules-based international order in order to uphold that order for everybody else. Obviously, countries like Russia and China are never going to approve of such a system. And we find a similar situation within Russia, there is a dual state. It has a constitutional political order which is to a certain extent respected and upheld, but a regime in Moscow reserves the right to sometimes act outside those rules in order to manage Russia's overall economic and political development goals of a longer term. One of the ways that I would interpret President Putin's constitutional reforms is that he is trying to finally render these Russian political institutions durable, independent, resilient and self-sufficient over the longer term. Dmitri Trenin elaborated on the notion that the situation Putin inherited at the end of the 1990s was just so disorderly that the focus over the last 20 years has been simply on restoring domestic order and in doing so, Putin has not been able to create a viable national elite that has ultimately transformed the regime into a fully-fledged state. So what he is trying to do now is to ensure the viability of the institutions themselves. Whether or not he is going to succeed in doing that, particularly in an international environment that is somewhat hostile to Russia's interests now, is an open question. This means that Russia is going to remain an interesting country to study for quite some time and the international order is likely to remain in flux as well seeing as Russia retains the ability to project its power in many different regions across Eurasia thanks to its broad geography.
The Great Stand on the Ugra river (1480) marked the end of the Mongol-Tatar yoke
Selective engagement is not efficient; to normalize relations, sides shall be discussing their normative divergence

Let me jump at the opportunity to ask you about the prospects of the Russian-Canadian relations, that are at this point quite frosty and nearly dormant. Is there a way to revive them and how could that possibly be done? Is the selective engagement approach adopted by the EU an option to consider?

ZP: If you listen to both major political parties in Canada, the prevailing opinion is that there is not much to talk about in Canada-Russia relations until "Russia changes its behavior". But clearly there is a lesson to learn from the past 6 years since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and that is, Russia is not going to be changing its behavior, Russia has made it very clear that it is prepared to pay a significant price in order to maintain its sovereign decision-making in global affairs. Speaking of the prospects for engagement with Russia, selective engagement I do not think has been a success for the EU, it has not fundamentally transformed EU-Russia relations and anyway it is not changing the paradigm according to which those relations take place. Selective engagement is also selective disengagement. And selective engagement, even though it was not a principle officially put forward until recently, was effectively the European approach to dealing with Russia for a long time. In spite of this idea that we are supposed to be creating common European spaces, in reality it was always some form of selective engagement. And that did not resolve the problem of a fundamental incongruence in the normative visions between the EU and Russia, which contributed to the onset of the Ukraine crisis and the rivalry we have now. So what is the content of this selective engagement? Is the EU supposed to determine it alone? As Andrey Kortunov pointed out, it resembles more a mere statement of principle rather than a serious strategy.

When it comes to Canada, I am personally of the view that if we chose to engage deeper with Russia across the Arctic, that could lead to a deeper relationship across multiple policy fronts over the medium to longer term. But I do not see this happening any time soon. And on other issues, as much as Russia would like to cooperate on the environment or counter-terrorism, for example, these are not areas where Canada can play a leading role in setting the agenda and getting Moscow's attention. With the Arctic, however, that possibility is always going to be there. Whether or not any relevant initiative would have the potential to bring about a closer relationship depends on how Canada decides to position itself in the future. It has an option to continue identifying with the Western political community or to think of itself as of an independent state with its particular interests — and gain Russia's respect. Picturing these scenarios, we shall remember that people-to-people contacts are crucial and every possible change would require a solid launchpad of mutual understanding and trust.

PICREADI: Finally, since PICREADI is focused on exploring and advancing Russian public diplomacy, let us consider the following. Against the background of the Russia-West estrangement, would you say that Russian attempts to picture itself in a more positive light via public diplomacy initiatives will keep failing until Russia takes unilateral steps to soften the consequences of the crisis?

ZP: Apologizing is out of the question, I think that Russians believe that the West is to blame for the Ukraine crisis, and China probably agrees with Russia more so than it agrees with the West on this front. While I do not think that there is going to be a solution to the crisis any time soon, there is a possibility of gradually freezing the conflict as a way of gradually moving forward in Russia-West relations. Any significant transformation would of course require some progress on the Ukrainian issue, but there can be small elements of cooperation or selective engagement in other fields. As I argued earlier, that would not resolve the security dilemma, but would at least dial down the temperature. On the flipside, the conflict has the potential to reignite at any point based on any number of random triggers. So these public diplomacy initiatives we are engaging in have a great role to play over the medium to long term, it is important that we have these person-to-person networks. It is to be noted, however, that despite Europe and Russia, unlike North America and Russia, having those strong contacts, they did not play enough of a role in helping to prevent the miscommunication and the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Nevertheless, let us hope that this work at the track 2 and track 1.5 levels will eventually empower the ability to get something done at the track 1 level. But it is not going to happen any time soon because President Putin is extremely toxic in the West right now. We have seen as a result of the Ukraine crisis these fundamental Cold War era stereotypes reignite themselves on both sides and it is going to take a while for that to subside. Any fundamental reset in Russia-West relations is not going to happen as long as Putin is in the Kremlin. I do not believe that Russian foreign policy behavior would change massively even if someone like Alexey Navalny would become president. Yet, once or if it becomes clear that the current regime is going to survive well beyond Putin, maybe that will lead to a new modus vivendi between both sides or at least some understanding in which we will not necessarily like each other but we will find a way to live with each other. That might be something that will occur but again, ideas, images and identities count a great deal in international affairs. As long as we continue to refer to one another as our primary Other images in which we see what we do not like about ourselves and we are exclusively focused on condemning the excesses of the other — both sides do this — it is going to be hard to get past the current situation. And I guess it is very useful for both sides to have this Other image for self-identity-related purposes, it has been going on for a long time and even predates the Cold War, so I do not know how we overcome it. The only difference now is that global power is shifting away from Europe and the West, and any opportunity to create a common European space that could have upheld, as an additional pillar, the global order is perhaps unlikely to occur as a result of this constant identity-related and norm-related contestation between Russia and Western countries. It means that the shape of this increasingly disorderly international system, as the power of non-West continuingly rises, and the impact that is going to have on Russia-West relations, will be very interesting to observe. We will have no shortage of questions to reflect upon and those of us who are doing conceptual work are fortunate because we are going to be in a job for quite some time. Regrettably, track 2 forces today are not able to play their supplementary role to help move the yardstick at a higher level, but we shall stay optimistic and work towards that end.

Interviewed by Madina Plieva, PICREADI editor-in-chief

Cover picture: a fragment of the Berlin Wall, photo by Madina Plieva