What Putin says and what Putin does
On July 24th, Tashkent will host the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The largest military-political organization on the Eurasian continent is preparing to become even greater. In this year, SCO will include India and Pakistan, while Syria and Israel are also ready to start cooperation. Russia also intends to accelerate Iran’s accession to the SCO. In fact, Russia is creating a bloc of countries centered around it and China which will inevitably challenge US hegemony. And if the US is now trying to win over India, then Russia, through the SCO, is trying to find a compromise between Iran and Syria on the one hand and Israel on other. The SCO is becoming not only a Central Asian, but a Pan-Eurasian entity. And this organization is not only tying itself to the Middle East. Earlier, it was stated that applications for membership in the SCO had also come from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
A week ago, while speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is beginning the construction of "greater Eurasia":
Now we are proposing to consider the prospects for more extensive Eurasian partnership involving the EAEU and those countries with which we already have close partnership - China, India, Pakistan and Iran - and certainly our CIS partners, and other interested countries and associations.
The updated SCO is to become a military-political union providing security to a large space of Eurasia. Thus, this common security space will be built where the US has no place.
At the same time, for the first time ever, Putin declared the USA to be the sole superpower:
America is a great power, today perhaps the only superpower. We accept this. We want to work with the United States and we are prepared to. No matter how these elections go, eventually they will take place. There will be a [new] head of state with extensive powers. There are complicated internal political and economic processes at work in the United States. The world needs a powerful country like the United States, and we also need it.
Is there a contradiction between Putin's words on the USA and the trend of creating extended Eurasian partnership? In fact, there is. The change in Putin's rhetoric demonstrates the changing balance between word and deeds in Russia’s stance on multipolarity. In the late 1990’s, when Evgeny Primakov became the Russian foreign minister and then prime minister, the term 'multipolarity' was introduced into the Russian political language for the first time. Putin inherited this concept and although he declared the course towards multipolarity, in the first years of his presidency Russia was not very opposed to the USA. Moreover, Russia participated in the American “war on terror” and assisted the US in Afghanistan. Russia spoke about multipolarity while acting as if the USA were the sole superpower. Things started to change after the American invasion in Iraq and the color revolution in Ukraine in 2004.
Then the balance between more independent Russian foreign policy and the multipolar discourse of Russian leadership was established. Russia dared to blame the US and at the same time gradually built a network of multipolar persuasion, albeit not challenging directly US hegemony ...
After 2008 and the war with Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia demonstrated that it had become a solid regional power. But the most structural change occurred only after 2014. Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and especially Russian engagement in Syrian war showed that Russia was becoming global power. This greatly increased the weight of this struggle.
Now we are seeing a situation in which Russia’s positions are the exact reverse of what they were in the 2000’s. In the field of realpolitik, Putin’s Russia is acting more and more independently, but is compensating this with a decrease in anti-American rhetoric paired even with a verbal recognition of the United States’ status as the sole superpower. If in the 2000’s, Russia combined multipolar rhetoric with pro-American policies in the spirit of peripheral realism, then nowadays it is merging the realization of a completely changing world with more moderate rhetoric. The results of the SCO meeting reveal that Russia is not changing its ultimate goal, but is merely moderating its rhetoric the more dangerous steps it takes.
Earlier, we pointed out a combination of two trends of Russian foreign policy under Putin: one of “peripheral realism” and the other one of global proportions.
The specificity of Russian peripheral realism is the exploitation of the pulses and the initiatives of global realists. Since 2008, Russia has put critical challenges before itself, overcome them, and then used this opportunity to trade up for a more favorable place in the US-centric world.
But now the game is changing. Due to geopolitical circumstances, Russia has been forced to opt for a worsening of relations with the West, but in order to preserve its hegemony the West cannot opt for a total worsening of relations with Russia. Russia is not challenging the ideology of the West and is not fighting hegemony in the field of public discourse. As an old school realist, Putin primarily believes in hard power, not in ideology or the promotion of multipolar discourse. Therefore, if Russia’s position will be strengthened by hard power, this may very well be accompanied by concessions in the field of discourse, which the Russian government considers to be least significant. Thus, the rhetoric of peripheral realism may be used in order to promote the agenda of global realism.