While Sergey Lavrov's article outlining Russia's historical role in shaping the world order is impressive, it still fails to lay out how exactly Russia plans to play a role in providing for its future development, security and stability.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to participants of consultations between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition in Moscow in January, 2015. Photo: AP

 For a very different take read: "Russia, the world order and history as seen by Foreign Minister Lavrov"

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov recently published a lengthy article about the historical basis of Russia's current foreign policy. “Russia's Foreign Policy: Historical background was published in Russia in Global Affairs journal, but it's clear that its contents are of significant interest not only for scientists and specialists, but also for a much wider audience.

In fact, we're dealing with a comprehensive ideological manifesto that can only be compared in its rhetorical power to the famous Munich Speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007. However, this manifesto presents Russian foreign policy in a much wider historical context. There's no doubt that this text of Lavrov's should be carefully reviewed by those struggling to understand the driving forces of Russian behavior in foreign policy.

The main conclusion to which one can come after reading the article: Russian foreign policy is based on a couple of nearly unavoidable contradictions. These contradictions leave no chance for success to either the enemies of Russia (because all resources are allocated to fight them) or to those who would like to be friends and collaborate (because Russia has no resources left for effective collaboration).

The same contradictions have been forcing Russia to move in circles, trying to catch up with the developing world for many centuries, and there seems to be no way out of this never-ending cycle.

The flaws of Lavrov’s arguments

Of course, Lavrov himself says nothing of the kind in his article. His conclusions, on the contrary, are rather positive and moderately optimistic. The foreign minister still believes in collaboration with the West, in victory over terrorism, and the prospect of creating “a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific” based on the “partnership of civilizations.” But it’s quite difficult to understand how historic Russia, so masterfully depicted by the author, can play a role of “provider of the values of sustainable development, security and stability.”

From his first words, Lavrov takes a defensive position: He talks about the intention to fight back against those who consider Russia a backward country, an “outsider of European politics.” It seems like an understandable desire for a minister of foreign affairs. But an obvious question arises: Should a great country be trying to prove its greatness in the face of critics with an article in an academic journal? Can the power of intellectual arguments, no matter how impressive, turn a backward country into a modern one, or make a leader out of an outsider?

Certainly not, but it’s important to understand that here we’re dealing not with a logical mistake of a respected author, but with Russia’s historic style of communication with the outside world. Russia is used to justifying itself and answering various accusations. In time it became a norm, an integral part of foreign policy rhetoric. Lavrov, just like famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin two centuries ago, is continuing the endless discussion with “Russia’s slanderers.”

History as panacea

What does the foreign minister choose for arguments, where does he intend to look for material to persuade the readers of Russia’s greatness? History, of course. Another trick that doesn’t fully follow the laws of logic, and yet perfectly fits Russia’s worldview. If we were already great in the year 988, and now we celebrate the anniversaries of the October Revolution and the Battle of Borodino – how can anyone doubt that Russia’s not an outsider?

Russia’s history, just as with many other old empires, serves as a solid anchor that helps it survive any misfortunes. If the country hadn’t vanished in a thousand years, why should it now? If it was a leader in the 19th century, what’s holding it back from being a leader in the 21st? Did everything change so drastically?

To confirm the historical greatness of their country, Russian authors habitually quote Western authorities: “If you don’t believe us, you’ve got to believe your respected ones.” In this context, Lavrov recalls European kings who took daughters of ancient Russian princes for wives, and French researcher Helene Carrere d’Encausse, who called Russia of the 18th century “the greatest empire of all times,” and U.S. legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger, who spoke of Russia as a “key element of any global balance.”

The opinion of foreigners and Western expertise has always been highly valued in Russia. Behind it was always a hidden acceptance of Russia’s own backwardness, with the Western leadership in various spheres. Quoting European kings, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Kissinger, Lavrov is but following an established stereotype. What’s ironic is that by trying to prove the absence of backwardness, Russian minister unwillingly demonstrates one of its most obvious syndromes.

From justification to accusation

From justifications Lavrov turns to accusations, which is also very typical for Russian foreign policy discourse. The minister writes about the West’s never-changing urge to “put Russian lands under full control.” What’s interesting is that a real conquest of Russian lands by Tatars in the 13th century is viewed by Lavrov rather positively: A short-term submission to religiously tolerant Golden Horde rulers helped Russian people preserve their faith. In case of submission to the West, according to Lavrov’s article, it wouldn’t have been possible to preserve their identity.

Such excursions into history surely are very interesting in the context of contemporary international politics. It seems that Lavrov is hinting: Russia would rather become China’s “little sister” than accept the hegemony of the West. History teaches us that such an option should be viewed as a lesser evil. What’s notable is that submission by itself isn’t declared wholly unacceptable. It’s only important to avoid submission to the West.

There’s a very typical passage about the destiny of Eastern European countries after the end of the Cold War. According to Lavrov, they didn’t go “from subjugation to freedom… but rather a change of leadership.” Good leader for bad leader, it seems from the context.

Here the author moves to another compulsory part of any Russian texts on foreign policy: A discussion about who should be the leader in international affairs. Speaking for equality and respect to national sovereignty, Lavrov often lets the cat out of the bag and puts not the imaginary “partnership of civilizations,” but Russian dominance as a state possessing a variety of unique qualities against American hegemony.

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Back in the 11th century, Russia outperformed Europe in cultural and spiritual development, according to Lavrov. Then Russia became heir to the Byzantine Empire. In the 18th century, as stated by then-councilor Alexey Bezborodko, “Not a single cannon in Europe could be fired without our consent.” Today, Lavrov thinks, Russia should follow the covenants of political philosopher Ivan Ilyin and “introduce a creative and meaningful legal idea to the entire assembly of the nations, the entire concert of the peoples and states.”

Lavrov, a renowned professional of his trade, gave a full and adequate review of historical ideological bases of modern Russian foreign policy in his article. However, in contrast with the author’s intentions, the readers got to see many of its less attractive traits.

The article depicts the politics of a state not so sure in its powers, a state that tries to hold on to its great past, not finding solid ground in the present and future. Such is its politics, stuck at justifications and accusations, the fight for status, with a full lack of positive strategic ideas and program of development.

All that Russia offers the world is opposition to U.S. hegemony, a fight with global terrorism and interstate relationships based on a “moral basis formed by traditional values.” Such a humble set of ideas can hardly comply with the expectations of humankind in the early 21st century.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.