“Today, these words may be perceived by some people with hostility.
They can be interpreted in many possible ways. Yet, many people will hear me.”1
Russian President Vladimir Putin
IT HAS taken me a long time to get around to writing this article. I kept putting it off, as though I was waiting for something. But soon the cause was Ukraine. It was obvious what we generally needed to do to make our work in the Slavic world more effective, but I did not know how we should deal with the openly Russophobic Kiev regime that was bent on confrontation with our country. We could not build a fascist element into our system of foreign relations. And anyway, the general climate of international relations actively fostered by the neoliberals was depressing.
The breakup of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of the Eastern bloc, and the demise of Yugoslavia produced a host of independent states – most quite small in terms of area or population and with ruling elites that have had to constantly maneuver between East and West in search of a place in today’s turbulent world. Such constant vacillation leads to weakness and an inability to clearly formulate national interests.
This flirting makes the elites, or some of them, of new states easy prey for Western political strategists who try to pit them against our country. As a result, a new cordon sanitaire is being built around Russia. The strategic situation in Ukraine that preceded the Russian special military operation was a huge achievement of the West, an implementation of plans that we had been fighting against successfully for centuries. What a joy for the West! It had proved so easy to change the government in Kiev that our adversaries assumed that Belarus would be just as easy to tear away from Russia. And shifting the Russian border eastward to near Smolensk and Bryansk would be a dream come true for our global rivals, pushing Russia 400 years back to the times of pre-Petrine Muscovy.
No proposals concerning Ukraine with its unchecked Russophobia would have made any sense. I did think that, at some point, after the Ukrainians got fed up – or sobered up, to be more precise – and realized that Russophobia was a hindrance to development, we would have to come up with a concrete agenda regarding Ukraine. But such a realization would clearly have been long in coming.
Nobody expected Putin to launch a military operation in Ukraine. I must confess, I had underestimated the profundity of our leader. He is a genius!!! I mean it – I’m not being some trite sycophant. Let’s just do an analysis.
At the Yalta Conference, which laid the foundations for a new world order, Joseph Stalin said to Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill: “In a sense, we are setting ourselves the goal of guaranteeing peace for at least the next 50 years.” It was 46 years after the Yalta Conference that the USSR collapsed. That happened in 1991. Peace came to an end with the civil war in Yugoslavia, the first Chechen campaign, Tajikistan, Transnistria, Georgia, Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. Conflicts reignited in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Humanity entered a new era, not the best in its history – a neoliberal era that benefited the West. Now everything was to be based on supposed rules. The “winners” of the Cold War assumed that the new free-for-all era would erode the moral foundations of the Slavo-Muslim civilization and provide them direct access to its riches. Throughout that period, Russia faced unprecedented external pressure, threats, and blackmail. We have been living in this environment for 31 years. Times of change are coming, and our leader, responding to external security challenges and threats to the country, merely accelerated that process by launching the military operation in Ukraine. He thus hastened the arrival of another world order – one we will have to build and defend.
After “focusing” for so long, Russia rushed forward, showing [itself to be] one more indisputable center of power. This forward movement inexorably precipitates the end of the era of neoliberal geopolitical experiments, this black mark in human history – so it is only natural to wonder what the post-neoliberal world will be like, what its political, economic, and social organization will be.
In reading Putin’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” one understands the factors imparting a new, Slavic dimension to our foreign policy. For objective and subjective reasons, that dimension was not a priority of Russia’s foreign policy for a long time. But it was always around, at times sinking into oblivion and at times resurging. There were and are so many objections to it being anywhere near the top of Moscow’s foreign policy agenda.
Importantly, [Putin’s] article admits mistakes that led to the Ukraine crisis and shows Russia’s historic past and present role in Slavic unification processes.
Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) was a watershed moment in Moscow’s Slavic unification policy. In a public address, Putin expressed disappointment with Russia’s relations with the West and declared that it made no sense for Russia to continue to cooperate with the West in the current format.
That was an unequivocal indication that Russia would revise its foreign policy. Undoubtedly, Russia will continue to prioritize its relations with China, India, other Asia-Pacific nations, and member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as well as the Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern countries. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will be Russia’s main partners in terms of international organizations. Russia will remain involved in integration processes in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) format and, of course, in the format of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
But there should definitely be a major addendum to Russia’s foreign policy agenda – the Balkans. Russia should seek a more extensive presence in the region and stronger influence in it.
I would like to cite a World War II story that is still relevant. Churchill insisted for political rather than military reasons that the Balkans should be the theater for the second front. His aim was to prevent the Red Army from moving into Europe. Roosevelt told his son Elliott that, whenever Churchill insisted on invading the Balkans, it was clear to everyone what he was after.2
This was a Versailles-style plan to create a cordon sanitaire between the USSR and the West in central Europe and the Balkans.3 Another part of Churchill’s Balkan strategy was the idea of establishing an anti-Russian association of Balkan Danubian states. The Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile signed a mutual alliance pact in January 1942 in what was the second stage of the formation of an anti-Soviet bloc. A Polish-Czechoslovak agreement was signed in London around the same time to set up a Central European alliance.
But doesn’t today’s drawing of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO (Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia are already part of the alliance), as well as the Central European Initiative, the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, developments in Ukraine, and pressure on Belarus represent a present-day cordon sanitaire strategy? This obviously means that the West is not about to respect Russian interests, to say nothing of entering a serious dialogue with Russia on an equal footing.
But apparently things are not that hopeless. Let’s leave Ukraine and the special operation aside and look at what Russia has been doing outside the former Soviet Union. One outstanding example is Russia’s effective efforts to rebuff the terrorist aggression in Syria. Russia’s actions protected that country’s government system and enabled our country to play a much more prominent role throughout the Middle East and North Africa. There are not many nations today that would be able to achieve anything in the eastern Mediterranean without taking Moscow’s position into account or even relying on it. Yes, that came at some cost, but there are no handouts in high-level politics. Ultimately, it was after realizing its vulnerability that the US agreed to détente in its relations with the USSR, and our country had to invest considerable intellectual and financial resources to achieve military parity with the US.
Today as never before, we need a powerful, well-structured European strategy with a focus on work in countries where we have opportunities to strengthen our positions tremendously. That would give us more points of contact with the West and provide more topics for frank dialogue. There are pragmatists in Europe and the US. Why should they spend their resources if there is no threat to their strategic plans to oust current regimes in former Soviet republics?
The European Union does not have the resources to make the outcome of a conflict with Russia predictable. Centrifugal processes may start – and should be stimulated – that would undermine the foundations of the heavily bureaucratized EU. In fact, such difficulties were apparently one reason for the Brexit referendum in Britain.
Right now, it is important that we keep pressing on. Only dynamic action can bring resounding victory. In addition, we need a serious, detailed analysis. Let’s attempt to do a brief, general analysis right now, moving along the “arc of instability,” as it were, starting from the north.
The situation in Belarus remains complicated. It is essential for us how it pans out. Ukraine has taught us a lesson. Membership in the EAEU, CIS, and CSTO, and observer status in the SCO, remain powerful factors keeping Belarus involved in Eurasian processes. Of course, the Union State of Russia and Belarus is paramount. Russian-Belarusian integration rests on 28 programs that encompass practically all economic sectors. These programs will help harmonize Russian and Belarusian legislation, iron out differences between the two countries’ economic models, and make economic cooperation between them more effective. Russia will continue to seek closer and more extensive strategic interaction with Belarus, seeing it as a paradigm of bilateral cooperation.
As for Europe, right now there’s nothing to talk about. Europe is experiencing processes that will be prolonged and painful, including for us. The current neoliberal rule will drain all stamina from the EU, and therefore the latter faces inevitable transformation. Self-adoration does little to motivate self-improvement. Narcissus was so entranced by his reflection that he did not notice that he had grown old.
The Balkans are a different story altogether. Russia retains unquestionable prestige in the region. Moscow should focus primarily on relations between ethnic Serbs and Muslims (i.e., the Bosnian Muslim community) and not the Albanian factor in Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Though few people know this, the Bosnian Muslims are Slavs (unlike the Albanians). They are ethnic Serbs who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule because that made it easier for them to do business or climb the career ladder. Most Bosnian Muslims accepted Josip Broz Tito’s revolutionary reforms, and many of the ideological control officers in the Yugoslav Partisans (the National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Yugoslavia) had Muslim names. Yugoslavia could have remained an important regional actor even without Croatia and Slovenia, but not without Bosnia. That is why the Srebrenica massacre happened.
Today, any attempt at conciliation is hindered by “historical memory” – accusations of genocide, etc. But it is essential that conciliation attempts continue, and we should promote them. Why? Because it is in our interest that the Balkan states be stable and pursue independent foreign policies. We should target young politicians both in the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Republika Srpska. These people have a different outlook and ways of handling practical matters. They are generally not nationalistic and realize that Bosnia and Serbia have lived together for centuries and will continue to live together and cooperate. Serbia still has large-scale business ties with Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is essential, therefore, that in developing strategic relations with Serbia, Russia does not forget Serbia’s western neighbor Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia should work for the creation of a fourth Yugoslavia. This is a vital goal, and the keys to it today lie in Sarajevo, not in Belgrade.
But attaining any goal of this kind requires careful systemic work, not emotional drive, which is sometimes our approach, unfortunately.
This should start with extensive expert research. This research should include discussions that I am sure would conclude that the existence of Yugoslavia benefited the Balkan peoples, made them more significant, gave them stronger positions in relations with the West, and enabled them to make major social and economic achievements. A close union of southern Slavs was conditional in the past on a deep division between East and West. Now is the time for a new southern Slavic union. It has not yet been possible to hold the discussions I mentioned, but I think the public would be interested. Everyone is waiting for statistics, key dates, and anniversaries, but this should be a mainstream subject. Incidentally, there is an anniversary coming up: November 26, 2022 marks 80 years since the establishment of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia, which was set up in Bihać, Bosnia, and proclaimed a policy to create a second, socialist Yugoslavia.
Next, political scientists, journalists, and historians should be brought in. When the first few missiles slammed into Belgrade in March 1999, Yugoslav and ex-Soviet pop music stars gave a joint concert for the first time in many years. Today, Russian and Serbian journalists should give a joint powerful and interesting “press concert.” I mean it when I say interesting – I’m sure everyone would be thrilled with the subject matter.
Next, there should be broad public debate, targeted action, work with bloggers and students, and the organization of special courses at universities in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Macedonia, and Montenegro. There is nothing new about the nature of such a process. It is essentially a “from no to yes” system. Let me explain. The word “no” would, for example, have described the role of women in society until the late 19th century, but that “no” turned to “yes” by the mid-20th century due to the efforts of politicians, feminists, and other activists, as well as propaganda in the press. One may object that this change took nearly 50 years. Yes, but it is up to us how fast things happen, and today is the era of information and the Internet. Scientific and scholarly literature and fiction takes four, maybe five times as fast to disseminate today as all those decades ago, and that means that opinions and attitudes can be shaped much more quickly.
Finally, the issue must move into the political realm. Some political party or movement will certainly take it up. Look at the problems that the EU and NATO have created, at the empty words and hopes they have been generating. The West has never helped anyone. We should be self-reliant, cooperate with East and West, prevent eruptions of nationalism, and remember the sacrifices and lessons of the Yugoslav civil war. These few things can form a future political agenda. We need to realize that all political forces in the post-Yugoslav republics have European orientations. There’s nothing else there. Thirty years have gone by, but this general European orientation remains intact. It needs to be changed, and we need to find out how serious and influential that orientation is.
One point to add. During a recent UN Security Council debate on the situation in Kosovo, the Albanian permanent representative to the UN responded to Serb criticism of a proposal by Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti to unify Kosovo with Albania. The representative said it was Albania’s main task to help make the Balkans a single space. There you have it! But the Balkan unification agenda should not be handed over to the Albanians.
Like the Yalta system or Bretton Woods system, the emerging world order must have a name. There can be no unnamed eras, nor can there be a world based on neoliberal rules.
In the early 1990s, Western political scientists and philosophers labeled the neoliberal world “the end of history,” which suggested it was the paragon of excellence. If that were true, it would be pretty bad. But no, Mr. Fukuyama, history goes on!
1 From “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” an article by Russian President Vladimir Putin published on July 12, 2021.
2 Ruzvelt Elliot. Yego glazami. Moscow, 1947, pp. 186-187.
3 Istoriya Vtoroy mirovoy voyny. 1939-1945. Volume 6. Moscow, 1977, p. 27.