Is BRICS a useful framework for Russia’s global agenda?
Analyse Geopolitiek & Wereldorde

Is BRICS a useful framework for Russia’s global agenda?

04 Feb 2019 - 14:37
Photo: Pixabay
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Russia has always actively promoted BRICS-cooperation in an effort to constitute an anti-Western coalition to counter a hegemonic United States and stimulate the creation of a new multi-polar world order with Moscow as one of the leading centres in power relations. However, Russia’s current economic status as well as China’s ideas about the future world order raise important questions regarding Russia’s regional and global ambitions, including in the BRICS-framework.

First of all, the Russian claim to Great Power-status is not supported by a strong economic and financial basis. And as long as Russia is unable or unwilling to return to a policy of modernisation and diversification of its economy, Moscow will have only limited capabilities to project its influence on a global level. This would raise the question to what extent Russia could still be regarded as an “emerging power”, as conceptualised in the original ideas about BRIC(S) as a newly arising group of powers in international relations?

Secondly, it seems that only China (and to some degree India) could still be regarded as emerging regional and/or global powers. In as far as the BRICS could still be conceived as an influential force in global affairs, to what extent does Russia’s anti-western agenda converge with especially China’s ideas about the future world order? Has Russia in any way succeeded in using the BRICS to promote its own global agenda?

Russia in decline
Some years before the BRICS-grouping was institutionalised, there had already been serious doubts as to whether Russia could really be counted as an emerging economic power. In 2006 Neil Macfarlane concluded in an article on the “R” in BRICS, that Russia was playing a holding game in foreign policy and had not been able to reverse its economic and financial decline (and with it its decline in power status) after the demise of the Soviet Union1 .

International business centre Moscow
The international business centre in Moscow © Flickr / M.M. Czarnecki

Whereas Russian foreign policy expert Dmitri Trenin had considered Russia in 2002 as being on the “border between geopolitics and globalization”2 , he gradually had to concede that Russia had returned to hard core geopolitics and was withdrawing from a closer relationship and integration with the West, as Moscow realised that its geopolitical interests would only be undermined by an increasingly unilateral and hegemonic United States. In this sense, president Putin’s famous anti-western speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 should have come as no surprise.

Although president Medvedev tried to reset relations with the West and develop a series of modernisation partnerships with numerous countries including the US,  China, the EU and important bilateral economic partners in Europe, such policies ultimately failed, as political interests of the ruling elite would not allow for any modernisation beyond purely technical adaptations to the system. A real diversification away from fundamental dependence of the Russian economy and budget on exports of raw materials and energy resources in particular, did not materialise. Also efforts to improve economic governance and transparency and moves towards a functioning rule of law, which would have improved conditions for (foreign) investments, ultimately failed.

When president Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the stage had already been set for a policy of economic sovereignty and an increasing role of the state in the Russian economy. Economic sovereignty was increasingly considered as serving the political and security interests of the ruling elite best, whereas closer interactions with the West could undermine the system and ultimately threaten the regime, as the “colour revolutions” in the Russian “Near Abroad” had demonstrated.

The Ukraine crisis, Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions only strengthened this process towards economic sovereignty and in some sectors, like agriculture, economic self-sufficiency. Sanctions and a simultaneous drop in the oil price would hurt the Russian economy and Russia’s financial position, although the process now has been stabilised, partly because of a rise in the price of oil and gas. After all, the Russian state budget still depends for more than fifty percent on the income from energy exports.

Russia can claim the right to be regarded as a Great Power but (…) a strong economic base is needed to really support any such claim in practice

In reaction to this crisis in relations with the West and to escape from the effects of Western sanctions, Russia undertook a number of steps to shield its economy from Western influence and strengthen its own economic sovereignty:

  • Pivot to Asia and especially strive for closer economic and financial relations with China, partly to counter the negative effects of financial and economic sanctions and decrease dependency on energy exports to Europe;
  • Cooperate more closely with OPEC and oil-producing states, like Saudi Arabia, to stabilise world oil prices;
  • Attempt to “re-nationalise” the Russian financial and economic elite and bring the outward capital flow to a halt. “De-offshorisatsiya” would have to reverse capital flows back into the Russian economy;
  • Encourage policies of “de-dollarisation” and cooperate with other countries, including China on currency-swaps in bilateral trade relations and develop a payment system, which could eventually replace the international SWIFT-banking system. In principle, the BRICS-framework could be helpful in this respect as well3 .

In reality, such policies have been only partially successful, as relations with non-western countries could only compensate for financial losses and decreasing transfer of dual-use technologies (which is now under Western sanctions) to a limited extent and energy relations still remain very much dependent on European markets, at least in the short- to medium-term. Therefore, several Russian experts have already argued that Moscow would have to return to policies of economic modernisation and against that background improve relations with the West and work towards a settlement of geopolitical conflicts, especially the Ukraine conflict4 .

Putin and Jinping at BRICS summit 2015
Russian president Putin and Chinese president Jinping at a BRICS-summit in 2015. © Wikimedia Commons

However, such recommendations have not been translated into Russian policies and neither are they expected to be, as the Russian economy has relatively stabilised and the risks of re-opening the country to Western influence are deemed not worthwhile in view of discussions on Russia’s political future after 2024, if and when president Putin is supposed to finally leave office.

Although the BRICS-framework can be useful for Russia to realise some of its economic ambitions, Russia itself can under the present conditions not be considered a real emerging economy, which would be able to cope effectively with both internal (including demographic), and external challenges. Russia can claim the right to be regarded as a Great Power, but like any good student of Marx should know, a strong economic base is needed to really support any such claim in practice.

Russia’s ambitions to create a multi-polar world order
Long before the Ukraine crisis started, Russia’s resistance to a unipolar world order, dominated by a hegemonic United States, has stimulated Moscow to search for other non-western partners in reshaping the global order. In this context, Russia’s ambition remains to re-emerge as a Great Power on the global stage and for Moscow to constitute one of the major poles in a multi-polar world order, on a par with Washington, Beijing (and possibly Brussels).

This Great Power-thinking has led Russia to claim not only equal status with other powers, but also to have its own zone of special interest/influence in its “Near Abroad”. The “shared neighbourhood” of the “countries in-between” (between the EU and Russia) has thus gradually been turned into a “contested neighbourhood”, culminating in the Ukraine crisis.

The BRICS-format has only been able to create an “illusion of convergence”, as both Russia and China play at different and parallel chess boards with partly diverging agenda’s

Russia’s current conflict with the West has made the search for non-western allies and partners for Moscow even more urgent. Most importantly, Russia undertook a renewed “pivot to Asia” and actively strives for an ever closer strategic partnership with rising China. In this vein, Russia’s policies have changed from integration in a Greater Europe into its new project of a Greater Eurasia, in which Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) would constitute the central building blocks.

As indicated above, Russia’s strategic partnership with China constituted the main thrust of its efforts to rewrite the rules of global order, in view of underlying power shifts and partly to compensate for the economic and financial effects of western sanctions. In this respect, China’s One Belt, One Road-project offered both an opportunity and a major challenge to Russia’s claims to Great Power-status.

The BRICS-framework has played only a limited role in supporting Russia’s more global agenda in its effort to cooperate closely with China. Whereas Beijing also opposes US hegemony and wants to limit western influence on its internal politics, it would be unwilling to underwrite in full Moscow’s anti-western and anti-American agenda, because of its own financial and economic interests in dealing with the West. China challenges western-dominated institutions, like IMF and World Bank, but essentially strives for more influence within such organisations or China organises parallel institutions whenever its claim for a stronger Chinese position is not honoured. In this sense, the BRICS-format  has only been able to create an “illusion of convergence”, as both Russia and China play at different and parallel chess boards with partly diverging agenda’s5 .

The only other BRICS-partner playing a more substantial role in Russia’s geopolitical approach would be India, but India is part of more complicated power games with China (being also close to Pakistan) and the US, which has been warming up to entertain closer (security) relations with New Delhi. In spite of Moscow’s ambitions, for the time being Russia remains a secondary player in South-West Asia.

The economic and financial promise of BRICS as emerging powers and especially emerging economies has hardly been realised

Recently, Moscow seems to have become somewhat disappointed in the limited economic and financial results of its strategic partnership with China and feels increasingly challenged by China’s economic and financial power projection, including in Central Asia. Therefore, Russia has concentrated on consolidation of the EAEU. Partnership between China and the EAEU remains limited and a real Free Trade Agreement remains a long-term prospect.

In practice, Russia fears to become China’s junior partner in an increasingly asymmetric power relationship, although officially Moscow pretends otherwise6 . Therefore, Moscow attempts to hedge and balance against preponderant Chinese influence by dominating parallel organisations of post-soviet states, in which China is not represented. In this sense, the broader China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation finds its parallels in the CSTO (Common Security Treaty Organisation) and economically in the EAEU.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Victory Park, Moscow
Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Victory Park, Moscow © Flickr / Коля Саныч

Both for China and Russia the BRICS-framework is only one of several different organisations which could be used to promote their respective global agenda’s and both Moscow and Beijing use bilateral relations with third parties as much, whenever it suits them best.

Although individual BRICS-countries like Russia sometimes seem to challenge the present global order, the BRICS as such do not constitute an effective framework for pushing Russia’s anti-western agenda. Therefore, for Russia this framework is only useful in a limited way, in parallel to other multilateral frameworks (UN, SCO, EAEU) and bilateral strategic partnerships, most importantly with China.

The economic and financial promise of BRICS as emerging powers and especially emerging economies has hardly been realised. In this respect, China is basically in a category of its own. Although the Russian economy has stabilised after a profound economic and financial crisis, without a return to modernisation and improved relations with the West, Russia will continue to lag behind and can not really qualify as an “emerging market”.

For a Russia which is striving for a renewed position and status as a global Great Power, the relationship with China is crucial. Recent disappointment that this relationship has offered only a limited contribution to Russia’s re-emergence as a Great Power, even running the risk of turning Russia into a junior partner of China, has contributed to the idea that Moscow will have to practice strategic patience and rebuild its own resources in what Kremlin-adviser Surkov has recently labelled “one hundred years of solitude”7 . Multilateral frameworks, like BRICS, have only a limited practical value in Moscow’s views and are mainly useful in projecting an image of Russia as a global power. In this respect, BRICS summits are mainly a public relations exercise.


Tony van der Togt
Senior onderzoeker Rusland bij Instituut Clingendael.