Vladimir Putin and the BRICS: What’s next?



Russia's annexation of Crimea and the continued uncertainty regarding Ukraine's territorial integrity has led to the most serious geopolitical tensions in more than a decade, likely to influence global political dynamics for years to come. So far, Vladimir Putin's gamble is paying off: Russia has taken the West by surprise, and even in the United States few believe that sanctions may change Moscow's behavior, other than complicating a constructive dialogue. Even if Vladimir Putin decided to invade eastern Ukraine,  Transnistria (a pro-Russian province of Moldova) or any other region with many ethnic Russians outside of NATO, a Western military response seems extremely unlikely. His goal of recreating a Russian sphere of influence - in the economic, political and security realm - seems within reach.

And yet, in the long term, Russia faces severe economic risks. Europe will seek to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, while Putin will have to limit Russia's reliance on the West by establishing stronger trade links with its near abroad and emerging powers, principally China. Trade between the West and Russia is unlikely to dry up entirely, but it will suffer substantially - this, in turn, may lead to the more permanent establishment of separate strategic spheres. More importantly, transatlantic relations will improve, the European project will regain its purpose, and NATO will receive a boost - precisely the things Russia tried to avoid. Putin's gamble to divide the West is unlikely to work. In the short term, however, little indicates that this new scenario may threaten Putin's internal political legitimacy.

At the same time, Russia's behavior will inevitably complicate the United States' capacity to increase its diplomatic and military presence in East Asia. It remains the United States’ goal to tie China down in its region and reduce Beijing's global reach (based on the idea that enjoying security at home allows countries to engage in far-flung areas). Yet just like the War on Terror during the first decade of the 21st century, tension between NATO and Russia may consume far more policy attention than US policy makers had hoped for, yet again affecting their capacity to meaningfully contain China.

None of this changes the larger global narrative that China will overtake the US economy in the early 2020s but the United States will retain military supremacy for several decades. Yet Russia's newfound assertiveness supports those who suggest that the world is headed towards a more messy type of multipolarity in which the expectation of a global acceptance of Western rules and norms of economic and political governance will turn out to be illusory. The consequences of this new scenario, which Charles Kupchan calls "no-one's world", will be instantly felt in places like the Middle East, where disagreements between Russia and the United States can stymie progress in Syria and Iran. Rather than causing the new scenario, Russia's move has merely shown that multipolarity is already a reality, and that the United States' notion of an international community that shares a set of "principles and norms" is flawed, even as the world is increasingly connected by commerce and media.

What does all this mean for the future of the BRICS? Will the developments so far divide or strengthen the grouping? 

“This is an event that will sow discord within the BRICS’ grouping and will make the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, and others think more carefully about their support for and partnership with Russia,” according to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Rajan Menon has argued that “India is a highly diverse nation, as is China and, in a way, South Africa, too. So the idea of holding a referendum to become separate states is naturally very troubling to them.”

Yet while BRICS may not have supported Russia outright, their recent declaration in The Hague clearly showed that they are unwilling to go along with Western attempts to isolate Russia. One important element of Putin's gamble is the assumption that the BRICS countries will soften the economic and political blow Russia will suffer as a consequence of Western sanctions. So far, everything suggests that Russia's BRICS membership will save it from complete political isolation. This may have less to do with the BRICS' stance on Russia's annexation of Crimea (they have not supported it), but with their scepticism of the West's decision to apply economic sanctions and their unease with Western dominance more generally.

The suggestions that Russia could transform the BRICS into an anti-Western bloc are thus misguided. In 2013, Russia published a "BRICS Strategy Document", saying that "the BRICS association can potentially become a key element of a new system of global governance". In the report, Russia frequently uses the term “institutionalization”, pointing to Russia’s desire to further strengthen intra-BRICS cooperation. As a consequence, the 6th BRICS Summit in Fortaleza (Brazil) in July will face unprecedented global scrutiny. 

However, Russia's hopes are unlikely to be fulfilled. The final declaration of the next BRICS Summit will not condemn Russia for annexing Crimea, yet neither will it explicitly support the Kremlin. Given that neither Brazil, South Africa, India nor China have an interest expressing a strong opinion on the matter and their unwillingness to risk their ties with the United States and Europe, the grouping will not emerge as key agenda setter on the Crimea issue - even though the BRICS' refusal to join the West in isolating Russia can be seen as a short-term victory for the Kremlin. Yet analysts who believe Russia's move sows discord among the BRICS are also likely to be mistaken. Key projects like the BRICS development bank will continue to be discussed - even though the bank is unlikely to start operating anytime soon, as fundamental questions (e.g. regarding its location) remain unresolved. 

Read also:

Russia goes to Africa

Russia lays out its vision for the BRICS – others should, too

BRICS undermine Western attempt to isolate Russia

What is Russia’s role in the BRICS?

Photo credit: TIME Magazine