Global Governance
Origins and Challenges of Putin’s Conservative Strategy

A conservative foreign policy presupposes reliance on manipulation rather than forceful pressure. Since this approach is inevitably associated with limited resources, first we must ask the question of their distribution in specific situations. However, under the pressure of those powers that behave in a revolutionary way, the conductor of a conservative strategy will increasingly face situations that will require him to use force to prevent revolutionary change, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev, who took part in the 18th Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Given all the many costs that were organically inherent in the post-Cold War international order, its most important achievement was that none of the powers that felt that their interests had not been justly met were humiliated to the extent of being driven to revolutionary behaviour. Now, after the destruction of the previous international order, Russia, one of the two strongest countries in the world militarily, has proclaimed conservatism as its foreign policy doctrine. 

Addressing the participants of the Valdai Club Annual Meeting last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that “now, when the world is going through a structural disruption, the importance of reasonable conservatism as the foundation for a political course has skyrocketed — precisely because of the multiplying risks and dangers, and the fragility of the reality around us”. This statement, along with a number of other theses sounded in his speech, allows us to define Russia as the only power that does not seek to rebuild or eliminate the existing international order, but would like to strengthen it and sees the current rules and norms serve as the basis of its survival strategy. 

Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club. Transcript of the Plenary Session of the 18th Annual Meeting
Vladimir Putin took part in the final plenary session of the 18th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club. This year’s theme is Global Shake-up in the 21st Century: The Individual, Values and the State.   The plenary session’s moderator was Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.
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Such a policy is being formulated amid conditions where the main opponents and friends of Russia are more and more ready, if not for a revolutionary breakdown of the foundations of the existing order, then for its decisive revision in their favour. For quite a long time, it was Moscow that was accused of revisionism — attempts, alongside China, to revise the basic rules and customs that arose after the Cold War, which was replaced by Western domination within the Liberal World Order. These accusations were based on the hypothesis that this particular order contains the basis for the long-term sustainability of world politics and economics. Therefore, the balance of rights and opportunities established within its framework was, in the opinion of the United States and its allies, the most fair. Moscow and Beijing, as they acquired new power resources for this, sought to disrupt this stability for their own benefit. 

Accordingly, it was the actions of Russia and China that led, according to the most widespread opinion, to a gradual weakening of the existing order and its final collapse in our days. This, in fact, cannot be considered a correct diagnosis. Both great powers were satisfied with their fixed position in world affairs, which was set formally, by order of the UN, where they remain permanent members of the Security Council. Russia has not yet put forward demands to revise those achievements of Western institutions that have become the most significant since the end of the Cold War — the enlargement of NATO and the European Union. Russia and China also traditionally adhered to a conservative position on most of the fundamental issues of non-proliferation or arms control and constantly spoke out in solidarity with other members of the UN Security Council on the problematic nuclear programmes of North Korea or Iran. 

For its part, the United States and its European allies, almost from the very beginning, moved towards abandoning the rules and norms of international communication inherited from the second half of the 20th century. It was these powers that, since the mid-1990s, have raised the issue of revising the composition of the UN Security Council, and called for the abandonment of such basic provisions of its Charter as the inviolability of the sovereignty of individual states; since the early 2000s, they have been revising existing agreements and treaties in the field of arms control. The creation of a missile defence system by the United States was a decisive step towards breaking the existing international order. 

The Europeans, in turn, not only supported their NATO allies, but at the regional level created a system in which EU rules would rise above the UN Charter and the leading regional organisation, the OSCE. These numerous manifestations of “strategic frivolity”, if they cannot be regarded as an example of revolutionary behaviour, then certainly they have a revisionist nature in relation to the legitimate foundations of the international order after the Cold War. 

Therefore, now it is not surprising that it is Russia that rhetorically turns to conservative idea when it seeks to formulate the fundamental provisions of its foreign policy in the context of a crumbling world. Apparently, it is necessary to understand that the most important stimulus for Moscow here is precisely the policy of the West, which is borderline revolutionary. But we must not forget about China — with this state Russia now has the most friendly relations, but Beijing also may, under certain circumstances, be unable to restrain its power within the existing rules and norms. 

Russia’s conservative foreign policy ideology is a response to the pressure exerted on the international order by the West, which, as a result of a change in the balance of power, has lost the ability to break the generally accepted rules. In any event, it can gradually destroy them due to the fact that it occupies a central place in the global power composition. 

In recent years, the revolutionary behaviour of the West has spread to encompass ethics. This does not change the task — to break the existing order and create on its basis a new one, more favourable to the interests of the United States and its allies. The post-Cold War order can no longer, together with its institutions, be a source of development for the community of liberal market democracies.

The balance of power, which has shifted in favour of China and other Asian countries, deprives the Liberal World Order of all meaning in the eyes of its creators. As a result, they are pursuing an active policy to destroy it.

Of all the modern great powers, it is Russia that is best suited for such a strategy. First, it is a multinational state, and the management of its polyethnic population is an existential necessity in its modern capacity. This, in itself, creates the need to search for an internal balance, the only correct basis for which can be evasion from revolutionary decisions in matters of politics, economics and ideology. The traditional rhetoric adopted in Russia on the issue of family values refers to the basic cultural foundations of its constituent peoples and therefore inevitably comes into conflict with the revolutionary approach of the West. Geopolitically, Russia is the state least dependent on the influence of the international order. It has enough resources and can defend itself without relying on allies. But, at the same time, Russia is too complex in its structure to pursue a harsh foreign policy. 

However, when addressing the conservative doctrine in its foreign policy, Russia needs to take into account several structural features of this approach. First of all, a conservative foreign policy is the most difficult type of strategy for a big state. Moreover, when it comes to a nuclear superpower, military capabilities always create the preconditions for more decisive action, if not at the global, then at the regional level. Such a strategy requires statesmen with an extraordinary ability to understand the nature of the processes and phenomena of international life, as well as deep psychological insight. These qualities are, admittedly, the hallmarks of the modern head of the Russian state, but they are hardly transmitted institutionally. Therefore, we cannot be sure that a change of leadership at this or that stage of history will not require additional efforts in order to compensate for Vladimir Putin’s unique personality. 

Second, a conservative foreign policy by its very nature does not imply a “fear of change” or a “holding game”, but the ability to constantly and flexibly respond to the actions of other significant powers or structural changes in international politics. In this regard, the Russian foreign policy of recent years is really conservative — it does not imply strict adherence to a certain path, but finds solutions in accordance with the emerging situation. The meaning of the conservative strategy of survival is to constantly maintain the balance of power among all the players that are significant for the international world. 

In other words, a conservative foreign policy presupposes reliance on manipulation rather than forceful pressure. Since this approach is inevitably associated with limited resources, first we must ask the question of their distribution in specific situations. However, under the pressure of those powers that behave in a revolutionary way, the conductor of a conservative strategy will increasingly face situations that will require him to use force to prevent revolutionary change. 

In the past decade, Russia has already done this successfully in the Middle East. Military intervention in Syria has brought the region into balance and stopped its slide into the “war of all against all” abyss. Russia’s firm position has made a special contribution to the preservation of a legitimate government in Venezuela and is gradually influencing the state of affairs in Africa, where the European countries are losing their positions and are ready to accept the onset of chaos. But we cannot expect that the reasons for Russia’s military interventions will diminish. 

Finally, a conservative strategy requires constant strengthening of the internal resource base. To ensure that cooperation with China does not cease to be a diplomatic choice for Russia, turning into a basic condition for survival, it will need to continue to focus its main efforts on its own improvement. This means the inevitability of an extremely attentive attitude to the dynamics of the development of Russian society and the choice of those recipes that will be used to solve the arising problems. In other words, a conservative power must develop the ability to live with its own understandings and act with minimal dependence on external ideological influence in areas that are significant for maintaining social and political stability.

Plenary Session at the 18th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.