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[EWB Interview] Notte: Russia is using grievances against the West to portray itself as defender against US hegemony

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine still ongoing, new crises are breaking out across the world, from Israel and Palestine to Nagorno-Karabakh and the Sahel. How should this global instability be interpreted and what is the current global role of Russia almost two years since the invasion and Western attempts to isolate it? What does Russia currently want and how does it plan to achieve it?

These are some of the topics we discussed with Hanna Notte, director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Notte was a participant at the Belgrade Security Conference 2023 (BSC), where she took part in the panel discussion on Russia.

European Western Balkans: Do you believe that in the last two years, since the invasion on Ukraine, the Russian position in the global sense and its possibility to project power has become stronger or weaker than before?

Hanna Notte: It became stronger in some ways and weaker in others. Russia has been severely sanctioned and isolated from the West in an unprecedented fashion. When it comes to the consequences for the Russian economy and its ability to conduct relations with the West, you cannot compare what the West did after 2014 and the annexation of Crimea to February 2022. The rapture from the West has been much more severe, and that has led to some elements of weakening, especially because Russia lost Europe as an important customer for its hydrocarbons and lost Western investment in Russia.

But Russia has been relatively resilient in protecting its relationships with non-Western countries and in some instances even expanding those relationships across the Global South, and with China and India. That has complex reasons, it is partially a function of these countries’ interests. They might be critical of the war in Ukraine, but they are far away from it, they have troubles in their own regions and their own economic concerns, and they are not willing to abandon Russia as a partner just because of the war in Ukraine.

They don’t see the war necessarily as this litmus test of a rule-based international order in the way that Western states frame it. They say “what about Iraq in 2003, what about other wars of aggression that were waged in the past”? So Russia has been largely able to make sure those countries don’t join Western sanctions. Even countries like Turkey or the Gulf States, have become harbors for Russian assets, others have become avenues for Russian sanctions evasion, and others in Asia have become customers for Russian energy products.

So, Russia is not, I would argue, isolated globally and it is now increasingly benefiting from “Ukraine fatigue” among the countries in the Global South. This is felt in multilateral diplomacy, in multilateral institutions where, after the war in Ukraine started, Ukraine was everything that the Western states wanted to talk about. And of course, a lot of countries pushed back against that.

So, I guess it is a mixture of weakening and strengthening. The way I look at Russia, it is a country that will emerge from this war bruised, but not beaten. And it will be able to sustain a long war if that’s what Moscow chooses to do because it is not this isolated country in the way that the West likes to portray it.

EWB: You mentioned at the Belgrade Security Conference that Russia is using this anticolonial narrative and grievances that some countries might have with the West to strengthen support for itself. Is that a global strategy of Russia, to be the “anti-Western great power”?

HN: Yes, this narrative is a significant part of Russia’s strategy. Its whataboutism, “what about the West violating international law, what about the West waging wars”, portraying the West – particularly the United States, but in some instances also Europe when we talk about African audiences – as this power that wants to dominate the international system, and portraying Russia as the country that is leading the rest of the world away from this US hegemony. If you look at Russian diplomats and officials talking with African or Latin American audiences, that framing is a significant part of Russia’s strategy.

Russia is also making the case to these countries that this is not a war that pits Ukraine against Russia, but that Russia is fighting the collective West in Ukraine. It’s really the narrative that portrays the war as a proxy war, a narrative in which Ukraine doesn’t really have agency and it is just a puppet state that has been instrumentalized by the Western powers.

Now of course if that is how you frame it – and I think this narrative does resonate with a lot of audiences in the Global South who also look at this war as a Russia-West war – it leads Russia to emerge as this David that is taking on the global Goliath, the big United States.

EWB: Is there a particular value system that Russia tries to export worldwide or it is more a matter of “we are not the West, we don’t have particular demands from you”, like the West does in terms od democracy, human rights, etc.?

HN: It is both. It is about being pragmatic toward countries, and saying “we don’t come with specific expectations regarding the rule of law or democracy or human rights”. Russia does business with pretty much everyone who wants to do business with Russia.

But then there are other, more specific elements to Russia’s narrative which resonate with some constituencies across the globe. Russia does cast itself as an actor that protects traditional values, that is against woke culture. Putin has for years railed against transgender rights, taking on the West for destroying the traditional family. This is perhaps not the main element of Russia’s messaging, but Russia realizes that with some constituents in the Global South this kind of reasoning does resonate.

I don’t look at Russia’s messaging as being one particular thing: Russia has this overarching message, being the antidote towards a fractured and declining West, but then it has also specific elements within it that speak to different audiences, like this appeal to conservative and traditional values which I mentioned.

EWB: What do you consider to be the key regions in the world for Russia at this point? Where are its main interests?

HN: The game is global. In the West and in Europe in particular, Russia has no more pretensions in terms of believing that it can go back to a status quo ante and reconstruct relations. I think they have understood that that ship has sailed. The rapture has been too severe, so the main aim now is to wear down support for Ukraine. And everywhere else it is about building up support and consolidating partnerships.

I would say that in the years prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the big focus of Russia was in the Middle East. There, they have consolidated ties, they went into Syria in 2015 and used that as a platform to project power into the Middle East.

Moscow; Photo: Tanjug/AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Now they are catching up in other regions, hence this greater focus on Africa. Since February of last year the Russians have become really active towards Africa and then also in Latin America and Asia-Pacific. They are doing more than prior to the war in Ukraine, but I also think they understand that their ability to project power in the Western hemisphere is limited. They have selective ties with countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua or Cuba, but there are no pretensions to be a major player.

I think that Russia’s predominant focus is still on the Middle East and in Africa, and then it is also about building defense relationships with countries that are hostile towards the West and that can become sources of support for Russia.

That’s why I have argued that there is an “axis of the sanctioned” forming which combines countries form different parts of the world – Iran, North Korea, Myanmar –  countries that can give some sort of military support for Russia. And because Russia gives these countries different kinds of defense and military support in return, these countries are becoming sources of tension in their own regions, which also benefits Russia in this broader geopolitical confrontation with the West.

EWB: Is it also about opening new fronts, defocusing or distracting the West from Ukraine?

HN: I think this element exists, but I wouldn’t exaggerate it. I will give you an argument about how I look at this latest outburst of violence between Israel and Hamas to make this point. I think that this new war can benefit Russia. The US already sent a strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean, there is a concern as to whether the US can over the medium- to long-term send military support to both Ukraine and Israel, as there might be a squeeze on the resources. Of course it benefits Russia if there is a diversion of attention of Western countries away from NATO’s eastern flank into other theaters.

But Russia needs to be careful how far this game goes, because if war in the Middle East escalates into a bigger war, for instance between Israel and Iran, it could also harm Russian interests. Russia is present in Syria, it has bases in Syria which are important for Russian power, so destabilization of Syria in a broader war is not something Russia wants. And it is not something that Russia could deal with right now because it has a fairly limited presence in Syria – enough for safeguarding its interests in a stable, status quo situation.

Russian foreign policy is interested in cultivating, what I would call, calibrated levels of instability – low levels of instability that suck up resources, that deflect attention, but not something that escalates into a bigger war and that can harm Russian interests.

EWB: What about Europe and the Western Balkans? Is Russian strategy primarily destructive, creating crises, maybe helping the far right to destabilize the EU, using open ethnic conflicts to create new crisis? Or it is also playing carefully with how much trouble it creates in the region?

HN: I think in Europe it is now primarily a destructive actor. Maybe that wasn’t the case two years ago, because Russia then still had a trade relationship with Europe and perhaps wasn’t interested in total destabilization, but the game has changed since last February.

EWB: My point was whether Russia is also careful with Europe and the Western Balkans in the sense that if it gets too hot, then maybe Russia loses its existing leverage?

HN: I think that has changed, Russia cannot stoke open conflict in Europe. I don’t think that they have that kind of leverage. They like to cultivate ties with right-wing actors, but I don’t think that Russian leverage is big enough to provoke conflict in European societies, including the Western Balkans.

I think Russia would like to undermine support among societies here for the Western model, for integration into Europe. It’s not the path that Russia wants these countries to take, because anything that validates a Western future for this region undermines Russia’s claim of presenting an antidote to the West. Whether Russia has leverage to do that is another question.

I think what recently happened in the South Caucasus and the way that Russia kind of abandoned its traditional ally Armenia – partially because of limited bandwidth, but also partially because of very pragmatic relations with Azerbaijan and especially with Turkey which has become even more important to Russia because of the war in Ukraine – shows that Russia cannot be necessarily trusted as a partner, and I hope that this message is also heard in this part of the world.

EWB: It can often be heard that the reason why Russian influence is so strong in the Western Balkans is because the region has been neglected by the West. Do you believe that the EU enlargement in the region would close the door for Russian influence if we know that it also exists in EU and NATO members states?

HN: It depends on how successful the process goes and what Western countries can offer to societies here. I understand that there is a lot of frustration here with how long this process has taken. It would really depend on how things play out on that front in the coming years, otherwise Russia can continue to tap into frustrations with Western countries, just as it is tapping into frustration with Western countries in other parts of the world.

EWB: We are frequently discussing external actors’ influence in the Western Balkans and Europe in general, where China and Russia are always put in the same boat. Do you see their interest in Europe as compatible? Russia wants to sow discord and create crises, but does China want the same or maybe it has completely different interests?

HN: I think China’s interests are still predominantly economic, so there is perhaps some divergence between Russia and China. I see China as less of an actor necessarily interested in sowing instability and flaming violence.

The same goes for example for the Middle East, where China depends on the free flow of hydrocarbons from the Persian Gulf. It would not want an escalation in the Middle East that would undermine that, and with Europe, it maintains important economic ties which it values, especially now in light of troubles in the Chinese economy. There is no perfect alignment of interests between Russia and China.

Aleksandar Vučić and Xi Jinping; Photo: Tanjug / Dimitrije Groll

EWB: Why do we see so many crises at the moment in the sense of long-frozen conflicts now suddenly being reopened? Is there a systematic reason in terms of global instability that causes all these crises?

HN: I actually co-published an essay on this in Foreign Affairs, together with historian Michael Kimmage, entitled “The age of great power distraction”. In the essay we make the argument that the environment that we currently witness internationally is one of a toxic combination of great power competition and great power distraction. The great powers are pursuing competition and the war in Ukraine is a manifestation of Russia-West great power competition. The US and China are also in great power competition.

As a result, there is laser-like focus on specific conflicts that really matter for this competition. Taiwan is a focal point. Ukraine, of course, is also a focal point, because the West says the rule-based international order is on the line in Ukraine, and Russia also sees it as a systemic struggle.

So, we have this focus on competition and that also leads to distraction from a lot of other conflicts that are breaking out. The civil war in Sudan is absolutely devastating, so many were killed in Ethiopia, we have the situation in South Caucasus, now we have this conflict between Hamas and Israel, where everyone was completely caught off-guard, perhaps because there wasn’t this laser-like attention on the situation in the Middle East that we would have needed in order to see this coming. In addition, the great powers – especially the United States and Europe – are also distracted by domestic politics.

And there is an objective power shift playing out. Middle powers and local actors are punching above their weight, a lot of countries are gathering strength vis-à-vis the so called “great powers” and are conducting a more independent foreign policy that cannot necessarily be contained by the great powers. Who set a red line for Azerbaijan over the summer? No one was able to do that.

So, it’s this combination of competition and distraction that is in our view characterizing the current international environment and making it so volatile, unpredictable, dangerous, and violent.

EWB: How big do you think the danger is for this particular situation to spark into a global conflict?

HN: I don’t see that this situation can spark into a global conflict of the type of World War One or World War Two. I see a multiplication of local wars and local crises which are not necessarily fully connected to each other.

The question about another global conflict emanates more from the question regarding a nuclear escalation of the war in Ukraine, which is a separate topic. My own view right now is that there have been more dangerous points over the last 20 months than where we are now in terms of the risks of nuclear escalation with Russia. I don’t see such a risk as being imminent, mostly because Russia feels itself right now to be in a fairly comfortable situation. The war is not going so bad for Russia right now, the Ukrainian counteroffensive didn’t bring the results that many in the West hoped for.

As long as this conflict is ongoing, Russia will likely keep up the specter of the risk of nuclear escalation, mostly in order to play with fears in European societies. So, the nuclear dimension is where the risk of full-blown escalation resides, not from the picture that I painted of great power competition and distraction.

EWB: Do you believe that Russia would be ready to trade its interests in the Western Balkans – namely the question of Kosovo which it capitalized on in Georgia and Ukraine – for something that the West can give to Russia in some future resolution?

HN: I’m not sure that is how Russian diplomacy works, this kind of linkage or engagement in pragmatic trades. I also think that the way things played out in 1999 were a huge grievance for Russian foreign policy at the time.

Most importantly, Russia’s principled position on that conflict and what happened has underpinned how it has justified the annexation of Crimea and its position on the Ukraine war. So I don’t think that this position is something that can be traded from the point of view of Russian foreign policy.

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