Modern Diplomacy
Politics and Strategy

An indispensable condition for the implementation of Russia’s long-term strategy is its victory in the on-going conflict in Ukraine. The most important criterion for such a victory is a state that is guaranteed not to lead to a resumption of war after some time, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Trenin.

Before answering which is more important — politics or strategy — you need to define the terms. Politics is a very broad concept. It includes a wide range of meanings — from a political course, which, if desired, can be called a strategy, to the smallest opportunistic steps of a tactical nature. In addition, the concept of politics can denote the activities of not one, but an infinite number of subjects: for example, the domestic politics of Israel, the politics of the great powers in the Pacific, or the world politics of the first quarter of the 21st century.

Compared with this, the concept of strategy is much narrower and more definite. Strategy includes two main components — the goal that the subject is striving for, and the general path chosen by this subject to achieve this goal. Strategy is very sensitive to circumstances, constantly being adjusted, but the specific details of moving towards the goal are thought of as tactics. Unlike politics, which originated in civilian government and involves interaction with other forces operating in the same field, strategy, which has its roots in military affairs, involves resistance, i. e. there must be an enemy.

At the time of the Prussian military theorist Karl Clausewitz, who famously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, namely violent ones, strategy meant military strategy, which was strictly subordinated to politics as the highest category. Subsequently, the usage of these words has changed. More and more often, strategy began to be understood as higher politics, while politics often began to mean political tactics.

Having dealt with the concepts, we can now formulate a really important question: what is the meaning of strategy in an era of fundamental change in the world? Of course, it is very good to have a clear goal and clearly imagine the path of movement towards this goal. But what if the goal turns out to be a mirage, and the intended path of movement towards it leads to a dead end? Or — having correctly determined the end point of the movement and correctly plotted the route, the strategist along the way encounters unexpected small or large obstacles (“friction”, as Clausewitz defined them), leading him astray. Therefore, the intended goal must be realistic, and the ways to achieve it must be multivariate.

It’s obvious to everyone that the modern world has entered a period of crises: geopolitical (an acute phase of rivalry between the great powers amid the emergence of new players on the world stage), economic (regionalisation of the world economy and finance), values (the inability of contemporary Western values to become universal and the struggle between tradition and innovations within the West itself, as well as between the West and the countries of the East and South, including now also the North — Russia), etc. The most important factor influencing the course and outcome of each of these crises has been the rapid improvement of technology in various fields — from computer science to bioengineering. These circumstances make not just the prediction of the general course of events, but even the direction they’re heading in, an extremely difficult task.

In the crises of our time, therefore, it is especially dangerous to soar into the clouds of one’s own fantasies. It is no less dangerous to lie down in a drift, surrendering to the mercy of the currents.

It follows from this that the strategist (as goal-setter and navigator) and the politician (as pilot) must act together and in the closest contact with each other.

For a strategist in these conditions, it is important, first of all, to determine the dominant trends in world development, thus creating a framework for goal setting. Furthermore, the strategist is obliged to “fit” possible and realistic goals for his country into this framework, taking into account the potential of the state. Since a strategy is fundamentally different from a plan, in that it necessarily takes into account the actions of opponents, the strategist must imagine the strategy of opponents and determine the path to defeating them, or at least the road to strategic success.

While the strategist looks into the distance, the politician carefully looks around him, as well as under his feet, and also from time to time looks behind his back. The situation is constantly changing, and in crisis conditions, especially if there are several at once, it changes rapidly and often unexpectedly. The politician makes sure that the alignment of forces — primarily in his own country — remains favourable for the implementation of the chosen strategy: goal-setting, after all, is always the prerogative of the current government. A change of power usually means a change or at least a correction of goals and, accordingly, ways to achieve them. The politician must also closely monitor the actions of foreign players, parrying or taking them into account in the interests of the national strategy.

It all looks rather abstract so far. So let’s sharpen the question. What could be the strategy and policy of Russia in the current conditions, a year after the start of the special military operation in Ukraine?

First of all, let’s assess the current situation. The result of the conflict has already been a radical change in the external environment in which Russia is located. Its political relations with the collective West and its allies have become openly hostile: the armed conflict in Ukraine is the West’s proxy war against Russia. Economic relations with this part of the world have been completely undermined and are shrinking like shagreen leather. Cultural, scientific, sports and humanitarian ties have drastically declined; the information war has gained maximum intensity, and in Europe again — now at the initiative of the West — an “iron curtain” has fallen. It is important to understand that all this is not just another zigzag in our country’s centuries-old relations with its Western neighbours, but a deep protracted conflict with long-term consequences.

Russia’s former strategy, starting with Peter the Great, of Europeanising the country and occupying a prominent place among the great powers of Europe and the West, is no longer relevant.

Russia, however, is not completely isolated. It has maintained and is developing partnerships in many areas with new world centres of power, regional powers and other countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This part of the world community includes most of the states of the world, where most of the world’s population lives and where more than half of the world’s economy is concentrated. It can rightfully be called the World Majority — with a clear understanding, of course, that this majority is not a bloc and that the countries included in it are not Russia’s allies. They are guided primarily by national interests and are deeply integrated into the global economy and the Western-centric institutions serving it, which significantly limits interaction with Russia.

The sharp shift of the outer contour has caused profound changes inside Russia. The old model of predominantly raw material exports and technological imports no longer works. The political system, built according to the liberal American-French patterns and then more or less successfully adapted — in fact, not in form — to domestic traditions, obviously requires a major overhaul. The quasi-ideology of pragmatism and the cult of money that prevailed in the country after the collapse of the USSR proved to be flawed and harmful. In short, the end of the historical orientation towards integration with the Western world logically necessitates a reorientation of Russia towards itself. But what does this mean? To what kind of “yourself”: Soviet, tsarist, or some other?

An indispensable condition for the implementation of Russia’s long-term strategy is its victory in the on-going conflict in Ukraine. The most important criterion for such a victory is a state that is guaranteed not to lead to a resumption of war after some time. On the contrary, the defeat of Russia — if such a possibility is purely hypothetically admitted — is capable of provoking the destabilisation of the Russian Federation, fraught with the collapse of Russian statehood.

The stakes for Russia in the on-going conflict are thus as high as possible, and fundamentally higher than the stakes for the United States and its allies.

This in itself serves as a factor that works in Russia’s favour, but, of course, does not guarantee its success.

The strategic goal of post-war Russia should be to strengthen it as one of the leading world powers (this is a condition for survival and maintaining security) with a dynamically developing economy and its own technological base (this is absolutely necessary for real sovereignty in the world of the 21st century), an educated and healthy population; a society based on values shared by the majority of the people, as well as on the principles of solidarity and justice; a political system that ensures the unity of power, at the centre of which lies the principle of harmonious cooperation between the main social groups, ideological movements, sectoral, regional and local interests and the resolution of emerging contradictions on the basis of law.

The way to implement this strategic goal remains mainly within the country. The key section of this path is the formation of an elite devoted to and serving their country — and only then, as a character in a popular historical film said, — themselves. A critically important moment is the choice of the head of state, especially during the transition of power to a new leader. This choice is not limited to the actual procedure of elections; it includes the selection and training of candidates and their “breaking in” in different positions and in different situations, as well as the rules and norms of the transfer of power. The strong popular foundation of the entire power structure is local self-government, which should be as open as possible to citizens and fully capable of solving any local problems.

There is no need to prescribe here even the main aspects of the strategy in the field of economics and finance, science and technology, values and culture, and so on. It must be understood, however, that in order for strategic plans not to remain just plans on paper, as often happens, the strategist must either be simultaneously a skilled politician (the preferred option), or work closely with a subordinate corps of experienced and sophisticated politicians. And here we must be aware that strategy is a struggle — and not only with circumstances, but also with very specific interests and living people as their carriers. Politics is at the same time the art of gaining (and retaining) leadership, and strategy is, in the words of Alexander Suvorov, the science of winning. If used on its own, nothing will work out.

As for foreign policy, the Russian strategy of moving towards the goal of a major world player outlined above presupposes — in addition to many obvious things — active participation in the construction of a new world order that excludes the dominance of any one country or group of countries. For Russia on its own, this is an unbearable task. Therefore, it makes sense to start efforts in the direction of peace-building with the development of existing institutions and practices among non-Western countries — from the BRICS and SCO to the EAEU and the CSTO. This is a huge and complex task that requires the coordinated efforts of many states, but it is precisely here that we may find the platform for building political, economic, financial and other institutions that are sufficient to address the realities of the first half of the 21st century.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.