Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explains the historic role of Russia in shaping the world order and calls for greater cooperation in solving the world’s most pressing problems.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his annual news conference in Moscow on Jan. 26. Photo: AP

This is the abridged and modified version of the article that was first published in Russia in Global Affairs magazine. The English version can be found here.

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International relations have entered a very difficult period, and Russia once again finds itself at the crossroads of key trends that determine the direction of future global development. Many different opinions have been expressed in this connection including the fear that we have a distorted view of the international situation and Russia’s international standing. This is an echo of the eternal dispute between pro-Western liberals and the advocates of Russia’s unique path.

There are also those, both in Russia and outside of it, who believe that Russia is doomed to drag behind, trying to catch up with the West and forced to bend to other players’ rules, and hence will be unable to claim its rightful place in international affairs.

It is an established fact that a substantiated foreign policy is impossible without reliance on history. This reference to history is absolutely justified, especially considering recent celebrations. In 2015, Russia celebrated the 70th anniversary of victory in the World War II. In 2014, it marked a century since the start of World War I. In 2012, Russia marked 200 years of the Battle of Borodino against Napoleon and 400 years of Moscow’s liberation from the Polish invaders. If one looks at these events carefully, one will see that they point to Russia’s special role in European and global history.

History doesn’t confirm the widespread belief that Russia has always camped in Europe’s backyard and has been Europe’s political outsider. After all, the adoption of Christianity in Russia in 988 – Russia marked 1025 years of that event quite recently – boosted the development of state institutions, social relations and culture and eventually made Kievan Rus a full member of the European community.

At that time, dynastic marriages were the best gauge of a country’s role in the system of international relations. In the 11th century, three daughters of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise became the queens of Norway and Denmark, Hungary and France. Yaroslav’s sister married the Polish king and his granddaughter the German emperor.

Historical context

Extensive research highlights the high cultural and spiritual level of Rus of those days, a level that was frequently higher than in Western European states. Many prominent Western thinkers recognized that Rus was part of the European context. At the same time, Russian people possessed a cultural matrix of their own and an original type of spirituality and never merged with the West.

It is instructive to recall in this connection what was for the Russian people a tragic and in many respects critical epoch of the Mongolian invasion. To quote prominent historian and ethnologist Lev Gumilyov, the Mongolian invasion had prompted the emergence of a new Russian ethnos and the Great Steppe had given us an additional impetus for development.

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Rus bent under but was not broken by the heavy Mongolian yoke, and managed to emerge from this dire trial as a single state, which was later regarded by both the West and the East as the successor to the Byzantine Empire that ceased to exist in 1453. But while the rapidly developing Moscow state naturally played an increasing role in European affairs, the European countries had apprehensions about the nascent giant in the East and tried to isolate it whenever possible and prevent it from taking part in Europe’s most important affairs.

However, Russian Emperor Peter the Great managed to put Russia into the category of Europe’s leading countries in a little over two decades. Since that time Russia’s position could no longer be ignored. Not a single European issue could be resolved without Russia’s opinion. Russia’s size, power and influence grew substantially under Catherine the Great when, as then Chancellor Alexander Bezborodko put it, “Not a single cannon in Europe could be fired without our consent.”

Likewise, a reputable researcher of Russian history, Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, the permanent secretary of the French Academy, said that the Russian Empire was the greatest empire of all times in the totality of all parameters – its size, an ability to administer its territories and the longevity of its existence. Following Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, she insists that history has imbued Russia with the mission of being a link between the East and the West.

Next year Russia will mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Today there is the need to develop a balanced and objective assessment of those events, especially in an environment where, particularly in the West, many are willing to use this date to mount even more information attacks on Russia, and to portray the 1917 Revolution as a barbaric coup that dragged down all of European history. Even worse, they want to equate the Soviet regime to Nazism, and partially blame it for starting World War II.

But is clear that the anti-Russian aspirations of the European elites, and their desire to unleash Hitler's war machine on the Soviet Union played their fatal part here. Redressing the situation after this terrible disaster involved the participation of our country as a key partner in determining the parameters of the European and the world order.

In this context, the notion of the “clash of two totalitarianisms,” which is now actively inculcated in European minds, is groundless. The Soviet Union, for all its evils, never aimed to destroy entire nations. Former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who all his life was a principled opponent of the Soviet Union and played a major role in going from the World War II alliance to a new confrontation with the Soviet Union, said that graciousness – life in accordance with conscience – is the Russian way of doing things.

If one takes an unbiased look at the smaller European countries, which previously were part of the Warsaw Treaty, and are now members of the EU or NATO, it is clear that the issue was not about going from subjugation to freedom, which Western masterminds like to talk about, but rather a change of leadership. The representatives of these countries concede behind closed doors that they can’t take any significant decision without the green light from Washington or Brussels.

The thorny challenges of the current post-war world order

The post-war world order relied on confrontation between two world systems and was far from ideal, yet it was sufficient to preserve international peace and to avoid the worst possible temptation – the use of weapons of mass destruction, primarily nuclear weapons. There is no substance behind the popular belief that the Soviet Union’s dissolution signified Western victory in the Cold War. It was the result of our people’s will for change plus an unlucky chain of events.

These developments resulted in a truly tectonic shift in the international landscape. In fact, they changed global politics altogether, considering that the end of the Cold War and related ideological confrontation offered a unique opportunity to change the European architecture on the principles of indivisible and equal security and broad cooperation without dividing lines.

The world had a practical chance to mend Europe’s divide and implement the dream of a common European home, which many European thinkers and politicians, including President Charles de Gaulle of France, wholeheartedly embraced. Russia was fully open to this option and advanced many proposals and initiatives in this connection. Logically, we should have created a new foundation for European security by strengthening the military and political components of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Unfortunately, our Western partners chose differently. They opted to expand NATO eastward and to advance the geopolitical space they controlled closer to the Russian border. This is the essence of the systemic problems that have soured Russia’s relations with the United States and the European Union. It is notable that George Kennan, the architect of the U.S. policy of containment of the Soviet Union, said in his winter years that the ratification of NATO expansion was “a tragic mistake.”

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The underlying problem of this Western policy is that it disregarded the global context. The current globalized world is based on an unprecedented interconnection between countries, and so it’s impossible to develop relations between Russia and the EU as if they remained at the core of global politics as during the Cold War. We must take note of the powerful processes that are underway in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

The second wave of globalization (the first occurred before World War I) led to the dispersal of global economic might and, hence, of political influence, and to the emergence of new and large centers of power, primarily in the Asia-Pacific Region. China’s rapid upsurge is the clearest example. Owing to unprecedented economic growth rates, in just three decades it became the second and, calculated as per purchasing power parity, the leading economy in the world. This example illustrates an axiomatic fact – there are many development models – which rules out the monotony of existence within the uniform, Western frame of reference.

The competition for the shaping of the world order in the 21st century has toughened. The transition from the Cold War to a new international system proved to be much longer and more painful than it seemed 20-25 years ago.

Cooperation, instead of confrontation

A reliable solution to the problems of the modern world can only be achieved through serious and honest cooperation between the leading states and their associations in order to address common challenges. Such an interaction should include all the colors of the modern world and be based on its cultural and civilizational diversity, as well as reflect the interests of the international community’s key stakeholders.

When these principles are applied in practice, it is possible to achieve specific and tangible results, such as the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons, the agreement on stopping hostilities in Syria, and the development of the basic parameters of the global climate agreement.

The most important task is to join our efforts against not some far-fetched, but very real challenges, among which the terrorist aggression is the most pressing one. The extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), Jabhat an-Nusra and the like managed for the first time to establish control over large territories in Syria and Iraq.

Russia is not seeking confrontation with the United States, or the European Union, or NATO. On the contrary, Russia is open to the widest possible cooperation with its Western partners. Moscow believes that the best way to ensure the interests of the peoples living in Europe is to form a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so that the newly formed Eurasian Economic Union could be an integrating link between Europe and Asia Pacific. We strive to do our best to overcome obstacles on that way, including the settlement of the Ukraine crisis on the basis of the Minsk Agreements.

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Russia agrees with such an approach and will continue to defend the principles of law and justice in international affairs. Speaking about Russia's role in the world as a great power, Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin said that the greatness of a country is not determined by the size of its territory or the number of its inhabitants, but by the capacity of its people and its government to take on the burden of great world problems and to deal with these problems in a creative manner.

A great power is the one which, asserting its existence and its interest, introduces a creative and meaningful legal idea to the entire assembly of the nations, the entire “concert” of the peoples and states. It is difficult to disagree with these words.

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

This is the abridged and modified version of the article that was first published in Russia in Global Affairs magazine. The English version can be found here.