Russia in a Changing World

The following is the Editor’s Note from Vol. 55, Issue 6 of Russian Politics & Law.

All of the articles in this issue of Russian Politics and Law hail from the venerable Russian-language journal Mirovaia ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniiaWorld Economy and International Relations – published by the equally venerable Russian Academy of Sciences institute of the same name, better known at home and abroad by its acronym, IMEMO. For academics in the field of international relations, there is no more prestigious journal in Russia.

The articles presented here are not particularly academic, however – although their authors are serious, well-established scholars. Absent from all of them is theory: the reader will find no discussion of constructivism vs realism, or world systems of the global political economy (though the authors’ theoretical assumptions and biases can, of course, be read between the lines). Rather, each piece represents an attempt to come to terms with where Russia finds itself in the world today and where it might be headed.

The first two pieces look westward, to the US. In the least Russia-centric article of the bunch, Petr Yakovlev, tries to come to grips with the same question that is vexing so many English-speaking analysts – what US President Donald Trump means for the world. Yakovlev’s analysis is dispassionate, refraining from judgment about whether Trump is right or wrong, good or bad, focusing instead on his approach to the social and economic challenges thrown up by globalization, and the disruption he has so evidently caused in relations with Europe and with America’s own ‘near abroad’. A scholar at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, it is that region in particular on which Yakovlev focuses.

IMEMO’s own Viktoria Zhuravleva examines the longer arc of US-Russian relations. One of Russia’s preeminent experts on American politics, Zhuravleva argues that three factors make at least some degree conflict between the two powers almost structurally inevitable: the mutual and deep-seated psychological ‘othering’ by both societies, the fundamental lack of understanding of how politics in each country operates, and the lack of an institutional structure that might undergird a more stable relationship. In this context, she argues, Trump (like Russian President Vladimir Putin) is almost incidental.

Yana Leksiutina, from St. Petersburg State University, globalizes the focus, noting that Trump’s America is not the only disruptive force in the world. Turning her attention to BRICS – a bloc of major emerging markets in which the Kremlin has invested quite a bit of political and financial capital – Leksiutina asks whether the economic balance of power in the bloc is shifting from China to India. Her answer, more or less, is ‘not quite yet’.

The final two contributions keep the focus on economic issues. Vladimir Faltsman, an economist at the Russian Presidential Academy of the National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), declares Russia to be in a “trade crisis”, exacerbated by relatively week oil prices and international sanctions, but with roots going much deeper into the structure of Russia’s economy itself.[1] Dmitry Izotov, an economist at the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Khabarovsk, likewise analyses the prospects for expanding and diversifying Russia’s foreign trade, with a particular focus on the Pacific Rim. There, he argues, the strategic competition between the US and China presents Russia with a menu of can’t-lose options.

Notably missing from all of these articles is anything even remotely reminiscent of the rhetoric so often heard from the Russian Foreign Ministry, from the Kremlin or on the Russian airwaves. None of the authors here are happy with the situation in which their country finds itself today, and all of the contributions aim to propose workable policy solutions in one field or another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the articles are directly critical of the Russian government. (Faltsman comes closest, writing that no progress on trade is possible without “a radical improvement of the geopolitical situation”, the strong suggestion being that the onus for achieving this progress rests with Moscow.) But neither do the authors rail against Washington or London or Brussels or anyone else: they argue that Russia is ineffective, rather than aggrieved; beleaguered, rather than beset. Thus, even at the conservative core of the Russian foreign policy establishment – in the most venerable of journals and institutes – thinking is far from captured by the kind of revanchism and paranoia that many Western readers may assume.

One other note is in order. English-language readers – and perhaps Americans in particular – may find a lot of the analysis here jarring. The descriptions of American (and, to a lesser extent, European) politics may seem simplistic, at times even naïve. Trump, for example, is taken at face value, without the skepticism (or cynicism) that some readers may feel is due. It is an apt illustration , I suppose, of Zhuravleva’s point that neither side truly understands and appreciates the complexities (and anxieties) of the other. But it is also an invitation to wonder what Russian readers think when they read about their own country on the pages of leading English-language journals.

[1] The term Faltsman uses is vnezhniaia ekonomicheskaia deiatel’nost’ – external economic activity – a Soviet-era term that in fact captures more than just trade. But because the term is unfamiliar to English-language readers, and because Faltsman in fact focuses exclusively on trade (excluding investment and other activity from his analysis), I have replaced it with the simpler term.

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