The global pandemic outbreak has led to severe consequences on health as well as imposed unprecedented restrictions on ordinary life. In the case of Russia, although it saw considerable successes in resisting and fighting the pandemic early on, challenges have mounted by increasing numbers. Although its fight is going to continue, it is increasingly clear as per proclamations from authorities that restrictions may be lifted soon in a staggered manner. The President has left the decision to lift restrictions to governors depending on the situation in the provinces. Though the situation globally may be considered as an unprecedented crisis, in Russia there has been no panic among authorities or population, necessary restrictions have been followed and living with the virus has been internalized on a daily basis in the country’s framework for a stage by stage exit from the emergency. Such a position has allowed the Russian people to perceive the decision made by the authorities as rational. The further steps to curb infection in Russia as well as in other countries may be accelerated by the use of smartphone applications that can help in monitoring and subsequently to lift restrictions on people’s movement.
All major social services in Russia, education, health system, retails, food services, are working remotely, though the speed of their reorientation to embrace the new form of working has not been the same in all cases and many are still coping up. One of the major reasons for this rapid and vast pandemic outbreak maybe that previous pandemics in Asia (SARS, MERS) were seen as exotic diseases and were not considered potential global challenges that may confront humanity one day. Contrary to the critical views of many, Russia found herself better prepared than argued previously by the pessimists. The full consequences of the pandemic will necessitate considerable rethinking and more informed public discussions in the future when all the reliable data appears. Concrete measures must be implemented in practice for these discussions to have any results.
The pandemic showed that at least for Russia that the reliability of one’s own political and economic system is very important.. It has also become clear that hyper-globalization will perhaps end and people living in Russia will be more dependent on internal processes. At the same time, being less dependent on the world has meant that Russia has suffered less from the pandemic. Russia’s considerable diversification of its export/import operations even before the pandemic created a framework. The destination towards the import substitution was correct but it needed to be more pragmatic and more oriented to higher quality.
The pandemic has shown that the current times may lead not only to end hyper-globalization but also curb excessive consumerism. The Russian economy is now based on market principles of mercantilism where inequality was seen as an inevitable evil of market society being simultaneously the driver of economic growth. In such a scenario, the goal is to harmonize economic principles with equality. And even if the economic space is shrinking, not losing freedom and curtailing human rights should be a priority. The goal now may be to find a new equilibrium between the real economic conditions and freedom, in which economics is inseparable from politics.
The pandemic has also shown that the regions closer to Russia are more important for it. There are two consequences from this conclusion: not only is the sustainability of a national economy important but also regionalism and trans-regionalism. Both problems are related to the economic necessities to build, save, and develop the value, production, and supply chains based on regional/trans-regional cooperation. At the same time, it is important to ensure the development of the market which is broader than the national territory. In the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia is the major economic driver while the productivity and purchasing power of all other state-members are not enough to foster considerable self-sustainable economic growth.
In order to build a multilateral Eurasia with strong regional ties, Russia needs to find a way out of the political deadlock with Europe and simultaneously carefully weigh how to use regionalism to foster its economic relations within the existing Russia-China partnership.
The COVID-19 pandemic may not completely transform the international system but will influence states’ behaviour and may help them reconsider their foreign policy. Firstly, it is understood by all that now war may not be the major tool in geopolitical games. That does not mean that there will be no wars at all. However, a war now may induce economic consequences which could be worse than of the pandemic. Thus, to ensure an exit from the pandemic while avoiding economic depression may become as acute as fighting pandemic alongside a geopolitical competition. The proclaimed decoupling of American and Chinese economies is dependent on the ability of the US to persuade its allies and the rest of the world to re-channel financial flows and reorient values, production and supply chains. Since many national economies including that of the European countries are already deeply connected to the Chinese economy and China may ensure technological cooperation with Europe as well as with Russia, the country can succeed to switch to a stable indigenous growth supported by skilful foreign policy based on the combination of multilateralism, trans-regionalism and regionalism. China’s goal may be to avoid as much as possible international cooperation with the West, particularly the US and its allies, while at the same time, strengthening its cooperation with Russia. This policy may play an important role in further strengthening of Russian-Chinese relations.
So, for China both her regional and international involvements are important. This is the reason why the PRC predominantly seeks minimization of disagreements. China has already deployed all state instruments to further pursue a regionalist as well as the global agenda in the form of “Belt and Road” (BRI) initiative. Her future efforts are dependent on the ability to create a real “win-win” regional and trans-regional alignment based on a constructive and just agenda in the framework of the BRI project as a multilateral initiative.
The US may not withdraw to be completely irrelevant from the Asian agenda in the post COVID19 order. The reason for this conclusion is simple: all significant political shifts in the US domestic and foreign policies have great regional and global repercussions. So, for East Asia and Asia in general both the US and China are important for the foreseeable future. Because of their possible geopolitical competition, this century may not be an Asian Century in terms of economics but certainly an Asian Century in terms of geopolitics: – A North-East Asian regionalism in a post-pandemic era may be driven by strengthened Russian-Chinese partnership; the US will look indifferently on the Korean peninsula unless there are no further developments in the North Korean ICBM program, and an East Asian regionalism will be driven by a balance of economic and security considerations with the prevalence of economics. Thus, the centre of geopolitical competition in Asia-Pacific as a whole may move to the newly constructed Indo-Pacific with the involvement of the US and their security allies.
*** The author is the Director of the Centre for Comprehensive Chinese Studies and Regional Projects, MGIMO University, Russia. He is also a member of KIIPS Editorial Advisory Board ***