The XII Asian Conference, entitled “Russia and Asia in a Changing World Order” was held in Moscow at the beginning of this month. Experts from 10 countries, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Japan, and others were in attendance.
The meeting was organized by Russia’s largest think tank, the Valdai Discussion Club, and its topic, according to organizers, related to the world’s transformation. “The international order that emerged after the end of the Cold War is over — a new one is emerging before our eyes,” according to the Valdai Club website.
The same idea is promoted by other Russian experts. For example, Igor Istomin, Associate Professor of the Department of Applied Analysis of International Problems (MGIMO) wrote that: “The rise of China and — to a lesser extent — India, brings these countries to a point where their growing economic capabilities do not comport with the boundaries of what is permissible, and dissatisfaction with this fact leads to real consequences.”
This neatly (and not coincidentally) dovetails with the Kremlin’s strategic talking points. Russian experts emphasize the strengthening of new players in the world arena and state that this will inevitably lead to a new ordering of the world which, as it did a century ago, threatens world war and other upheavals. Russia’s proposed solution to the problem it describes is clear — there should be a so-called “New Yalta,” organized by the great powers and deaf to the desires of smaller countries, to divide the world into spheres of influence.
As with so much of the Kremlin’s output, there is some truth in what is described. It is, for example, very possible that a rising power like China, will see the world as Wilhelmine Germany did at the start of the 20th century — as a club from which it is excluded. This is clearly dangerous. And, equally clearly, Russia does not fear this outcome, it appears to relish it.
Russia’s policy toward Ukraine is thus in part an attempt to reorganize the current world order. Yet its means of achieving this — that the West accept that it falls within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence — is too ambitious a demand. The Western world simply cannot ignore the will of a sovereign European country applying for protection from external aggression. Ignoring such a request would be tantamount to admitting the bankruptcy of the Western world and the collapse of the entire system of international security.
It is hard to see the current massing of troops and tanks on Ukraine’s border as anything other than crude 20th-century sledgehammer politics. It is the act of a country that avidly seeks a re-ordering of the world which it dislikes and considers unfair. Russia is, therefore, seeking to stoke chaos, a world where its actions would be indistinguishable against a background of other non-systemic authoritarian players also acting free from outside constraint.
Russia is actively working to build a coalition of states not bound by international legal obligations and the rules of the game adopted by the Western world, promoting itself as an exporter of so-called “technical sovereignty”; this involves solutions and technologies that are independent of the West to build critical infrastructure and other digital systems.
The developers of this idea have set themselves the global task of “creating their own competitive technological ecosystem and becoming a key participant in the process of developing new rules of the game.” To this end, in 2018, the “Technological Sovereignty Exports Association” was created in Russia, headed by former spy Andrei Bezrukov, better known in the United States as Donald Heathfield. (Amusingly, the Association’s website is marked by Western internet providers as an insecure connection, which, accordingly, cannot ensure the security of its users’ data.)
The former intelligence officer endlessly insists that, unlike the United States, Russian technology provides Russia’s allies with true sovereignty, in contrast to the allegedly obsessive American control over systems it supplies. This is especially piquant in view of the way Russia seeks to ensure full control, including censorship, over the internet at home. It is also worth noting the constant efforts by Russian intelligence services to access confidential correspondence. In particular, back in May, the FSB announced its intention to create a universal system for mobile applications allowing it to snoop and bypass encrypted systems.
As San Francisco IT specialist Michael Talanov explained in an interview with this author, Russia’s authorities have had access to the personal information of users for a long time — Russian special services can intercept all communications in its territory, something made possible by obtaining dummy SSL encryption certificates from international internet regulators. This is supposed to be limited to those suspected of terrorist activity, but the Kremlin abuses the system. Talanov says this is also used to replace internet content. It is logical to assume that by supplying technologies to other countries, the Kremlin will ensure access to their information too.
Pro-Kremlin experts also openly suggest that Russia acts as an exporter of international insecurity. This idea is made with surprising candor by another Kremlin ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, who openly called on the Russian authorities to export chaos to neighboring countries to distract from internal problems. “The Crimean consensus is a vivid example of the consolidation of society at the expense of chaos in a neighboring country,” Surkov frankly admitted.
A Russian government less focused on restoring an imagined golden age of Soviet greatness could exploit the country’s genuine geographical, technological, cultural, and other advantages to a benign end. But for this Russian government, that would be impossible. The chosen path of aggression and confrontation with the West, and ever-greater repression at home, are baked into policy for the foreseeable future.
The West can ignore this, or take note, and prepare for what must follow. But either way, Russia has already decided on a policy of conflict.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. Author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.