Tag Archives: Sergei Lavrov

Liberal illiberalism

This is turning out to be a good week for hearing from top-level Russian ministers. First Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov penned an article for Russia in Global Affairs, and then Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gave an interview to Moskovskii Komsomolets. The latter has got the most publicity so far, in large part because it’s the first interview Shoigu has given in many years, but I didn’t find much of interest in it. The main takeaway was that Russian soldiers now all have access to a washing machine. The fact that this is considered such a great thing makes it clear just how terrible conditions in the Russian army were until very recently. Beyond that, the interviewer tried occasionally to ask Shoygu personal questions, but the defence minister generally refused to be drawn, except to say that ‘I have great nostalgia for the Soviet Union’ and to inform us that his mother comes from Ukraine and that he himself was baptised, aged 5, in a church in Stakhanov in Lugansk Oblast. That last revelation drives home the point that the war in Donbass is quite personal to many Russians. Is someone like Shoigu going to let the Russian state abandon Lugansk?? Somehow, I doubt it.

Beyond that, Shoigu’s perspective on world events was pretty much what one would expect. The world is ceasing to be unipolar, he argued, ‘And naturally, the West doesn’t like this, and it’s exerting every effort to regain its monopoly of influence in the world.’ To this end it’s doing what it can to overthrow potential rivals, ‘And of course this is done under the pretext of spreading democracy.’

This is pretty much the consensus viewpoint in Russia as far as I can tell, and it should come as no surprise, therefore, that in his article Sergei Lavrov says pretty much the same thing. But what makes Lavrov’s article interesting from my point of view is where he goes from there. The main theme of the article is the failings of Western liberalism. Again, this is hardly something new. But what I found revealing was the logic that Lavrov used. This is what he had to say:

The West’s reaction to what is happening allows one to judge the true principles of its wordview. The rhetoric on the themes of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ are accompanied by the promotion of approaches based on inequality, injustice and egoism, and conviction of their own exceptionalism.

‘Liberalism’, which the West claims to be defending, gives centre place to the person, his rights and freedom. And that raises the question: how does this correspond with the policy of sanctions? … Sanctions directly strike ordinary people, their well-being, and destroy their social-economic rights. How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people? …

As for Europe, the zealots of the liberal idea get on fine with massive breaches of the rights of the Russian speaking population of the European Union. …

And what’s ‘liberal’ about the visa and other sanctions imposed by the West against those living in Russian Crimea? They are punished for the democratic expression of their will to rejoin their historic motherland. …

Liberalism in its healthy, undistorted meaning, was traditionally the main constituent of world, and Russian, political thought. However, the multiplicity of models of development do not permit one to conclude that there is no alternative to the Western ‘basket’ of liberal values. …

[The West] has developed the concept of a ‘rules-based order’. … Its aim is to undermine internationally agreed legal instruments. …

In the economic realm, protective barriers have become the norm. …

What’s the result? In politics, the shaking of the international legal foundations, the growth of instability … in the realm of security, the washing away of the boundary between coercive and non-coercive methods of achieving external political goals … in the economic world – increased volatility, and fierce competition for markets.

Much has been said of late of Russia’s alleged ‘conservative turn’. Lavrov’s assault on liberalism will no doubt be added to the evidence in support of that. But read it closely. How does Lavrov attack Western liberals? By reference to liberal ideals! He appeals to human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. In short, it’s a homage to classical liberalism – liberalism in its ‘healthy, undistorted meaning’ as Lavrov puts it, liberalism which is, in his words, ‘traditionally the main constituent of … Russian political thought.’

In other words, the complaint is that Western liberals are hypocrites and have ceased to practice what they preach. They claim to be liberal, but they’re not. But there’s nothing here which challenges the ‘liberal international order’. If anything, it’s a call to return to the liberal international order.

I fully appreciate that this is a controversial interpretation of Russian thinking. Again and again we are told that the Russian government is illiberal and hell bent on destroying the ‘liberal international order’. I think that makes the mistake of taking radical geopolitical thinkers like Aleksandr Dugin and assuming that the Russian state shares their ambitions. But, as I see it, the Russian state is actually far more cautious. Far from wanting to destroy the international system, it would rather like to preserve it, but considers that the West is undermining it. For all the talk of a ‘conservative turn’, I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. I don’t see that it has any different political vocabulary to offer the world other than that of liberalism – human rights, democracy, free trade etc. Even when criticising liberalism, the Russian state uses its language. In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa noted that, ‘Russia makes no claim to revise the existing international order, but demands that the leading powers abide by the mutually established rules.’ I think that Lavrov’s article backs that conclusion up.



Speaking about the explosion which killed 11 people in St Petersburg on Monday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘media speculations that the terrorist attack is revenge against Russia for our policy in Syria … are cynical and mean.’ Lavrov’s comment is similar to those made by various Western politicians and political commentators in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in their countries. They have denied that the attacks were ‘blowback’ resulting from military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. They have claimed also that the imputation of blowback somehow justifies or excuses terrorism, and thus should not be made.

This is a poor argument. Explaining is not the same as justifying. Anti-terrorism policy must be judged by whether it is likely to increase or decrease terrorism, not by whether one thinks the terrorists’ reaction to the policy is justified. So if the policy consists of bombing people in other countries in order to kill terrorists there, but the foreseeable side effect is that you radicalize some people who live in your own country and they then bomb you there, then your anti-terrorism policy is a bad policy. It is counterproductive.

I have no idea whether the attack in St Petersburg was blowback from Russia’s military campaign in Syria, but it’s a possibility which deserves serious consideration and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because it’s politically inconvenient. Generally speaking I see no evidence that military intervention in the Middle East or Central Asia has done anything to make the intervening countries more secure. And that applies not only to Western countries, but also to Russia.

Philosophical hodge-podge

In the 1930s, the Young Russians movement of Alexander Kazem-Bek attempted to rally Russian emigres around the slogan ‘For Tsar and Soviets’. It didn’t catch on, but if Kazem-Bek were alive today, he would find his idea doing rather better. As a historian, one of the things I have found most striking about Russia in the past decade is the way that its people manage to mix together utterly contradictory symbols and beliefs, such as Tsar and Soviets. Extreme examples include a scandalous icon which briefly appeared in a St Petersburg church in 2008 and which depicted a meeting between Stalin and the blind holy woman Saint Matrona of Moscow in 1941, and another Stalin icon which was displayed in June 2015 at Prokhorovka, the site of the largest tank battle of World War II. Other less outrageous mixings of the Soviet and the Orthodox, or the Soviet and the Imperial, abound.

St Matrona and Stalin

A lot of Russians seem not to notice the obvious inherent contradictions in mixing these things together. Rather, they appear to synthesize them in a way which somehow makes sense to them. I found it interesting, therefore, to observe Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, doing the same thing in an article he wrote last week for the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Continue reading Philosophical hodge-podge

Difference vs. Division: guest post by Yury Lisitsa

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has written an important new article outlining the historical and philosophical foundations of the Russian government’s view of the world and Russia’s place in it. I plan to post my response to it in the next couple of days. In the meantime, noting that Lavrov ended by citing philosopher Ivan Ilyin, I asked Yuri Lisitsa, who has edited and published 30 volumes of Ilyin’s works, for his reaction. Yuri has kindly given me permission to publish his thoughts, which you can read below (my amateur translation):


Continue reading Difference vs. Division: guest post by Yury Lisitsa