Russia Chooses Autarchy—and Isolation—Over Cooperation

William Courtney
Former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan

In a provocative new essay, Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to President Vladimir Putin, says Russia is ending a centuries-long quest to join the West and preparing for “100 years (200? 300?) of geopolitical solitude.” If Russia goes this way it will be because of unwise policies, not a Western cold shoulder.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez told of fictional Macondo, an isolated town that became a bustling city then lost its way. Russia, too, has gone off course. A glaring example is its aggression in Ukraine, of which Surkov is a Kremlin architect. The war has alienated Russia’s largest neighbor and driven that neighbor westward, and led to unprecedented Russian isolation from the West.

In response, the West in 2014, imposed sectoral sanctions that impede Russia’s access to international finance, energy and defense technology. In response to accumulated concerns about Russia’s malign activities, the U.S. roiled Moscow’s stock market by sanctioning two leading business tycoons (among others) and their substantial enterprises. Russia’s misbehavior has fed opposition in parts of Europe to the planned Nord Stream II gas pipeline to run under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany.

Surkov says “solitude does not mean complete isolation,” for Russia will “engage in trade, attract investments, exchange know-how.” But Russia’s actions jeopardize this. The Ukraine invasion, complicity in Syrian atrocities, and political warfare against the West strain the West’s patience with Russia. Such adventurism, along with sanctions and fear of more to come, is spooking investors and lowering the value of Russia’s economic assets.

Russia would exacerbate its problems if it were to choose isolation as a strategy. Russia derives benefit from economic integration. It belongs to the G20 and the World Trade Organization, which give Moscow a voice in the global economic order. In 2016, Russia was the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and the second largest for oil. It was also the largest exporter of nuclear reactors; second largest of aluminumammonia and potash, and arms; and third largest of coalsteel, and wheat. Russia is a large importer of machinery and vehicles. These sources of strength and vitality are put at risk if Russia opts for solitude.

In the political and security realm, Russia gains by being a great power and an active, and at times helpful, permanent member of the UN Security Council. Moscow lessens dangers by working with Washington to implement the New START Treaty, which limits long-range nuclear weaponry. Russia protects itself by cooperating with others to avert the proliferation of weaponry of mass destruction. Moscow’s role is a “prerequisite to (the) global success” of such efforts, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Yet, despite the benefits of engagement, Russia is moving on several fronts toward autarchy:

  • In annexing Crimea and securing its Black Sea Fleet, and in building a space launch facilitythat duplicates Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Russia is incurring high political and financial costs.
  • By designing a Eurasian Economic Unionwith high tariffs, Russia reduces its competitiveness and lessens the value of its location between two huge economies, China and Europe.
  • In pressing the wealthy to repatriatesome of the $1 trillion or so they hold abroad, Russia hurts entrepreneurs trying to build global enterprises.
  • By banning imports of many Western agro-food products, Russia raises costs to consumers, most of whose incomes have fallen in recent years.
  • In imploring students in “unfriendly countries” to come home, Russia hinders companies that need foreign-trained talent to help them expand abroad and integrate into global value chains. This also means fewer Russians will have a deep understanding of foreign technology and societies.

Contrary to Surkov’s lament, the West has not sought to weaken or exclude Russia. The G7 expanded to the G8 by including Russia in 1997 even though it was not an advanced democracy (Russia was removed after its aggression in Ukraine). The West backed Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organization, even cajoling Georgia not to veto it. NATO created a high-level NATO-Russia Council for consultation and joint action.

Poor policies have thrown Russia off track. Earlier it leveraged reforms and energy to lift its economy to upper middle-income status. Now structural barriers sap economic momentum. In 2015, the government and state-owned companies accounted for 70 percent of GDP, double the share from a decade earlier. Russia has boosted its prestige and Western ties by facilitating the shipment of supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and by helping to achieve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria have erased gains.

If Russia were to act as a cooperative great power, and improve its economy and open itself to wider trade and investment, its influence would rise and integration with the West would deepen. If Russia obsesses on economic autarchy, political isolation, and military adventures, its slide may be more akin to Macondo’s.

The Author is William Courtney

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and executive director of the RAND Business Leaders Forum.  In 2014 he retired from Computer Sciences Corporation (now CSRA) as senior principal for federal policy strategy. From 1972 through 1999, he was a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State. He co-chaired the U.S. delegation to the review conference that prepared for the 1999 Summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in... Read More

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