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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked last month at the Primakov Readings International Forum whether Moscow was ‘playing out of our league on a number of international issues’.
He responded by telling the gathering designed to mark the life and contributions of the late Russian academic and journalist: ‘I have read and still hear criticism about how we in vain got tangled up in the Donbass and in the Syrian conflict’.
Lavrov went on to more specifically justify why Russia could not stand by and stay silent as events unfolded in Ukraine, saying ‘if we had not done what we did, we would have betrayed our civilisation, which our ancestors had created over centuries’.
Although he does not exactly say what they ‘have done’, Lavrov noted that, based on Russia’s weight in world politics, they could not stand by and leave ‘Russians and Russian speakers in the lurch after the organisers of the unconstitutional armed coup, supported from abroad, as their first act, announced the banning of many things linked to the Russian language, introduced discrimination of the Russian language and then announced that Russians in Crimea must be expelled’.
Lavrov is forthright in the admission of Russian involvement, although this has been hinted at before. Having initially claimed that no Russian troops were involved in the conflict, Putin eventually admitted to the presence of Russian soldiers during the annexation of Crimea and that there were people in Ukraine ‘who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere’. However, he still emphasised that this did not mean ‘regular’ troops.
The foreign minister now seems to have gone even further. However, apart from generating a mild media sensation, does it really matter if the Russians now admit to involvement when the evidence was clear long ago?
It does, particularly in one context: that is, when Western policymakers seek to persuade Russia to come back to what they view as the ‘rules-based’ international order following what has happened in Ukraine, and to some extent Syria.
Some would argue that such an order did not necessarily exist in the first place. Nevertheless, it continues to be a policy goal for Western governments wishing to encourage a more cooperative Russia to reiterate the objective of restoring respect for a rules-based international order.
In Ukraine, Moscow has demonstrated that it has a fundamentally different view of the rules governing the fate of non-EU/NATO former-Soviet and Eastern European states compared with those of stronger powers such as Russia.
Moscow wishes to maintain a sphere of influence in this area, a demand that no Western government seems willing to accommodate. To further justify its own intervention, Russia has been quick to point to the hypocrisy of Western foreign policy.
The rules-based system becomes a relative concept in Moscow’s view, because the West already violated it with military interventions, in places such as Iraq and Libya, in the name of promoting the rule of law and democratisation.
Yet Russia simultaneously speaks of its own desire for an international world order, either appropriating such language as a counternarrative to Western rhetoric or by defining it differently.
In his latest speech, Lavrov said that there needed to be a higher level of mutual trust between economic powers as a multipolar world developed. This, he said, could be achieved only through observing ‘fundamental principles of international life, such as sovereignty of states, non-interference in their internal affairs and the resolution of disputes by peaceful means’.
This is opposite to the action Russia took in Ukraine, and the subsequent lies from Moscow about what really happened hardly indicates a genuine desire for building international trust.
However, Lavrov’s speech juxtaposes this with a call for the respect of the national interests of big powers, getting to the heart of how Russia really sees its desired world order: it is one in which rules are to be observed, but only after the big powers agreed to them based on their national interests.
This approach indicates that, for now, the West and Russia will find compromise or agreement on the major challenges unlikely. When recently asked what Britain would like to see from Russia, one UK government official said, ‘we want Russia to respect international law and the sovereignty of Ukraine’.
Although these are important principles to uphold publicly, repeating them as a goal will not change Russia’s mind, unless there is a broader Western willingness to use more pressure levers to dissuade Moscow from taking more action. For as Lavrov’s recent speech indicates, anyone can use words and rhetorical games, but little changes.
That does not preclude small-scale, specific discussions which need to be had between Russia and the West in managing the risks inherent in the current confrontations in Ukraine and elsewhere. Both sides can be clearer on what they want from the other at an implementable level. But on bigger strategic accommodation, there is little hope for now.
Banner image: Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov want a rules-based world order, too. But they define it differently from the West.