‘Every state’, said Hegel, ‘is sovereign and autonomous against its neighbours’. But, he continued, ‘A state is as little an actual individual without relations to other states as an individual is actually a person without rapport with other persons’. What makes a state a state, therefore, is its relations with other states, which in turn means that what makes a state is its recognition as a state by other states. ‘When wars and disputes arise,’ Hegel concluded, ‘the trait which gives them a significance for world history is that they are struggles for recognition’.
One can view the history of Russian foreign policy as one long struggle for recognition, driven by the desire of Russian rulers to be recognized as an equal by their European ‘partners’ (or during the Cold War by the United States). Tsars, General Secretaries, and Presidents have longed for this recognition from the West, have yearned to be accepted as an equal by it, only to find themselves rejected time after time. As long as this struggle for recognition continues, conflicts between East and West will continue also.
There are only two ways out of this situation: either the West finally recognizes Russia as an equal, or Russia stops looking for recognition from the West. To be quite honest, the first isn’t likely, at least not in my lifetime. So what about the second?
Much has been written about Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’. Rebuffed by Western institutions, suffering from economic sanctions, and observing the shifting balance of global economic power to Asia (most notably to China), the Russian state has in recent years begun to shift its attention eastwards, expanding its economic and military ties both to China and to other Asian states.
In this context, Vladimir Putin’s comments to the Valdai Club this week about a possible military alliance with China are bound to excite interest. Asked about the possibility of such an alliance, Putin remarked that, ‘we don’t need it, but, theoretically it’s possible to imagine it.’ Putin pointed to recent joint Russian-Chinese military exercises as evidence of the two countries’ growing cooperation, and noted that Russia has provided China with modern technology to enhance its military power. Speaking of a possible alliance, Putin concluded that, ‘Time will show how it will develop’, adding that, ‘we won’t exclude it.’
The pivot to Asia is an inevitable product not only of the rise of China but also of the fact that Europe is governed by international institutions established during the Cold War, most notably the European Union and NATO. These are by their very natures incapable of including the Russian Federation. Russia can push and push as much as it likes, but the aspiration for a Europe ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’ is not going to come about.
There is, it seems, a growing realization in Russia that this is the case. In essence, it is increasingly understood that the struggle for recognition with the West is pointless, as the West is incapable of providing the recognition that Russia desires.
This at least was the sentiment behind Vladislav Surkov’s 2018 article ‘The Loneliness of the Half-Breed’ which argued that the time had come to admit ‘the completion of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the end of numerous fruitless attempts to become part of Western civilization, to join the “good family” of European peoples.’ Russia should give up the effort, Surkov said, and go its own way.
Surkov has always been a bit of an oddball, so one could hardly view his article as proof of a fundamental shift in thinking by the mass of Russia’s ruling class. But this month we have seen somewhat similar ideas coming out of the mouth of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In response to the threat of more EU sanctions, Lavrov commented:
People who are responsible for the Western foreign policy and do not understand the need for mutually respectful dialogue, we probably have to suspend dialogue with them for a while. Especially since [President of the European Commission] Ursula von der Leyen is saying that geopolitical cooperation with the current Russian authorities is not working. So let it be if that’s what they want.
The talk of ‘mutually respectful dialogue’ is straight out of the politics of struggle for recognition. What’s new is the willingness to walk away, to say ‘you won’t recognize us, well in that case “screw you”.’ The question then is whether this is just a tactic to try and force recognition, or whether it constitutes a truly new way of viewing the world, in which the struggle for recognition from the West has been abandoned.
Certainly there are some Russians, especially among Eurasianists and what I call ‘isolationist’ conservatives, who would like it to be the latter. But I feel that in reality it is the former. Not for a moment do I think that Russia is ever likely to forge a formal military alliance with China, not only because the Russians surely understand that they would be by far the junior partner in such a marriage, but also because there exists a huge cultural divide between China and Russia. Rather I suspect that the spectre of a Russo-Chinese alliance is a tool used to scare the Americans to try and knock some sense into them.
More generally, it seems to me that for all the frustration with the West, it remains the essential ‘other’ to which Russian elites look. Watch TV talk shows, for instance. They complain about the West all the time, but in the process of complaining about it, they talk about it. By contrast, they hardly talk about China at all. For all the sense of injured pride, they look West. It’s Courchevel they go to for vacation, not Chongquing.
In short, while it’s obvious that for pragmatic economic and geopolitical reasons, Russia will inevitably focus more on the East in decades to come, I still feel that it will never abandon the desire for recognition from what the Slavophile Aleksei Khomiakov called ‘the land of holy wonders’ – the West. And the West in turn will continue to deny it. I hope I’m wrong (and I often am!), but if I’m right, the struggle for recognition will continue unresolved for a long time to come.