This is a republication of a post authored by Andrew Korybko, which was first published in OneWorld. It has been adapted with full permissions obtained from the author.
Vladislav Surkov, the man who served under President Putin in one capacity or another from 1999-2020, and was referred to by observers at home and abroad as the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal”, published an intriguing prediction for the future. The original version is in Russian and hasn’t yet been officially translated to English to the best of the author’s knowledge but was reported upon by RT. Nevertheless, Google Translate does a decent job of conveying his main points. The present analysis will summarize his thoughts and then offer the author’s interpretation thereof as well as his own prediction.
“The Golden Age”:
Surkov begins on a philosophical note by reminding readers of the second law of thermodynamics, which in the socio-political context is explained as the inevitability of chaos. The past two decades of Russian stability followed the unpredictability of the 1980s and 1990s where such chaos became uncontrollable. Surkov predicts that the last 20 years will be seen in hindsight as a “golden age”. Be that as it may, this “golden age” hasn’t yet ended and might not for some time yet, but that doesn’t mean that chaos can be indefinitely controlled.
Cyber Pressure Valves:
Up until this point, Surkov observed how the internet served as a pressure valve of sorts for social chaos, but he’s pessimistic that it’ll remain so due to increasing control over this global network and its weaponization by actors such as the Pentagon. The chaos that’s displaced from cyberspace, he predicts, will manifest itself in the creation of parallel social processes and structures in real life. These might be difficult to discern because participants might still continue to shout conventional political slogans, vote, and do other things which superficially suggest that no such chaos is brewing in their society.
This actually weakens the state system because it leads to a type of socio-political apathy, for lack of a better description, whereby people only pretend to be passionate about participating in the official order because they expect that doing so is “a banal password for gaining access to the system of distribution of positions and privileges.” It goes without saying that while Surkov doesn’t explicitly state such, his observations can be interpreted as referring to the present state of Russian society or at least his prediction of its state in the very near future.
In such a situation, what people aren’t saying (their “silence” as he describes it) becomes more important than what they actually say. Be that as it may, Surkov reassures readers that “The use of extracts of historical memory, expired morality, administrative and spiritual values and other heavy social preservatives in unlimited doses ensures the preservation of the desired stability…yet it is unwise to ignore the ‘non-problem’.” If these unaddressed socio-political tensions suddenly spiral out of control, a repeat of the 1980s is possible with a similarly destructive outcome, he warns.
Instrumentalizing External Chaos:
The solution, however, mustn’t be any sort of radical opening up of the system lest it also ends up collapsing, albeit for different reasons. He once again compares the potential outcome of such an approach to the 1980s and 1990s. Since “Social entropy is highly toxic”, Surkov simply suggests getting rid of it, as in literally exporting everything abroad. He candidly writes that “Exporting chaos is nothing new. Divide and Conquer is an ancient recipe. Separation is synonymous with chaos. Unite your own + disunite others = you will rule over both.”
Surkov continues by adding that “Throughout the centuries, the Russian state, with its austere and sedentary political interior, has survived solely thanks to its relentless pursuit of its own boundaries. It has long forgotten how to survive, and most likely never knew how to survive in other ways. For Russia, constant expansion is not just one of the ideas, but the true existential of our historical being. Imperial technologies are still effective today, when empires are renamed superpowers. The Crimean consensus is a vivid example of the consolidation of society due to the chaos in the neighboring country.”
He also observes that “Complaints from Brussels and Washington about Moscow’s interference, the impossibility of settling significant conflicts around the globe without Russian participation show that our state has not lost its imperial instincts.” Importantly, none of this was mentioned in RT’s report about his article, possibly because of how “politically sensitive” it is to discuss. Even so, it’s crucially important to consider since Surkov is regarded as one of the most influential Russian socio-political thinkers of this century. One would therefore do well to think deeply about his observations no matter how “uncomfortable” they might be at first thought.
American & Chinese Chaos:
In spite of breaking the “taboo” in talking about how he believes that his country has exploited external chaos for the purpose of managing naturally occurring internal tensions that he considers scientifically inevitable due to his interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics, Surkov acknowledges that Russia pales in this respect in comparison to the US. He then predicts that America will continue aggressively exporting chaos across the world through financial, social, and political means, with a particular emphasis on the Global South regions of Africa, Asia, and Eurasia. What he’s most worried about, however, is the chaos that he claims is growing inside of China.
Surkov dramatically compares the People’s Republic to Mount Vesuvius. In his words, “Chinese restraint masks the enormous reserves of chaos amassed by a disciplined nation. If you put your ear to the Great Wall, you can hear how they boil. When the internal contradictions of the Celestial Empire overflow, it will become the most important issuer of entropy, challenging American leadership on this topic. Beijing is rising steeply above the world, and the geopolitical situation for many peoples resembles life in the vicinity of Vesuvius: everything is fine, but when the eruption of China begins, who will become Pompeii?” By contrast, he says that the EU could go either way as an exporter or absorber of chaos.
“Spheres Of Influence”
The next rhetorical point that Surkov makes is to compare the emission of social entropy (chaos) by states to carbon emissions. Just like the world is seeking to regulate the latter, so too must it regulate the former. Previous instances of this like the Congress of Vienna and Yalta Conference, however, “became possible and successful only after chaos reached the level of hell.” The solution, as he sees it, is for the Great Powers to officially or unofficially delineate “spheres of influence” between them in order to avert a similar tragedy from transpiring. That’s because Surkov considers such spheres “contractual space[s] for dissipating and disposing of the chaos that is being driven out of a(n) (un)stable political system.”
He warns that “If there is no agreement, turbulent currents generated by supercountries begin to collide with each other, generating devastating geopolitical storms. To avoid such collisions, you need to direct each stream in a separate channel.” What Surkov doesn’t note is that these same “spheres of influence” might not only come at the expense of the “influenced” countries/people (whether objectively the case or subjectively being manipulated by external parties to appear as such to mobilize the “influenced” populations against their “patron”), but could also become the scene of proxy wars between rival Great Powers. Cynically speaking, he might expect that to be how these “pressure valves” actually function.
His closing comments deserve to be quoted in full:
“In the meantime, the world is enjoying its multi-polarity, a parade of post-Soviet nationalisms and sovereignties. But in the next historical cycle, the forgotten today globalization and internationalization will return and cover this twilight Multipolarity. And Russia will receive its share in the new global collection of lands (or rather, spaces), confirming its status as one of the few globalizers, as it happened in the era of the Third Rome or the Third International. Russia will expand not because it is good, and not because it is bad, but because it is physics.”VLADIMIR SURKOV
In other words, Russia will inevitably expand since this is scientifically and historically natural.
Constructively Critiquing the Grey Cardinal
Surkov’s predictions generally make a lot of sense though it’s questionable whether his assessment of China is accurate, or if he’s just unwittingly falling for the plethora of false narratives that foresee that country’s collapse in the near future but never ultimately pan out. That crucial critique of his article aside, which is by no means insignificant since it suggests a fundamental misreading of Russia’s top strategic partner and the state that’s arguably one of the two contemporary superpowers nowadays, the rest of it carries with it a certain logic that’s difficult to argue with. Socio-political chaos is indeed natural and inevitable, with the only uncertainty being exactly how it manifests itself and when.
The most resilient states do indeed seek to release internal tensions by directing such forces outward, though it would be ideal if they simply take advantage of preexisting chaotic processes unleashed by others like Russia did with Crimea in US-destabilized Ukraine or find a way to transform this energy into something constructive like China is doing through (its) global network of Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) connectivity projects. The most irresponsible option is to weaponize chaos as a means for destabilizing one’s rivals like the US does through Hybrid Warfare. Ideally, Russia won’t turn the West’s hitherto false fearmongering about this into a self-fulfilling prophecy since that would destabilize its own periphery.
In order to better understand the geostrategic context in which Russia is operating, the author recommends that the reader review his following analyses or at least skim through them:
* 3 June 2020: “Pakistan’s Role In Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership”
* 17 February 2021: “Why Structural Realists Are Wrong To Predict That Russia Will Help The US Against China”
* 11 June 2021: “Towards Increasingly Complex Multipolarity: Scenario For The Future”
* 24 June 2021: “The Geostrategic Challenges Of Russia’s ‘Ummah Pivot’”
* 14 July 2021: “Russia’s ‘Ummah Pivot’: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement”
* 6 August 2021: “Russian Scholar Karaganov Articulated Russia’s Balancing Act With China”
* 27 September 2021: “Comparing The Contours Of Russia’s Ummah Pivot In Syria & Afghanistan”
* 7 October 2021: “Towards Bi-Multipolarity”
* 2 November 2021: “What Explains Putin’s Embrace Of The Conventional COVID-19 Narrative?”
The wealth of knowledge contained in the 11 analyses cited above will now be oversimplified for the reader’s convenience so that everyone can at least be at the same baseline before proceeding.
Russia’s “Balancing” Act
Russia’s 21st-century grand strategy is to become the supreme “balancing” force in Eurasia, to which end it’s prioritizing relations with non-traditional partners. The Kremlin aspires to balance between East and West, or China and the US/EU, the latter pair of which it hopes to enter into a rapprochement with (ergo this summer’s Biden-Putin Summit as well as the second one that they’re organizing). As for managing China, Russia sees India as the most “friendly/gentle” counterweight since all three of them participate in BRICS and the SCO. So as to help keep India’s pro-American tilt as of late in check, Russia is expanding relations with Chinese-aligned Pakistan, to which it hopes to directly connect via a trans-Afghan railway.
The “Ummah Pivot”
Unlike what many in the Mainstream and Alternative Media alike both claimed, Russia never truly carried out a “Pivot to the East” after reunifying with Crimea, but actually undertook what can now be described as its “Ummah Pivot” by comprehensively expanding its influence in the southern direction among mostly Muslim countries. This “third way” was thought to be a pragmatic balance between potential disproportionate dependence on the East (China) and uncomfortable unilateral concessions towards the West (US/EU). The “Ummah Pivot” can also pair with the Russian-Pakistani rapprochement to balance ties with India so that Moscow doesn’t ever run the risk of becoming Delhi’s “junior partner”.
Be that as it may, India is expected to occupy a pivotal role in the Kremlin’s emerging Eurasian-wide “balancing” act, but the extent to which this promising axis of interests goes is dependent on Delhi’s political will and its ability to withstand its newfound Washington ally’s pressure if the US begins to fear that it’s going too far in that direction. In the event that the Indian pillar of this “balancing” act underperforms, then Russia can simply rely more on the “Ummah” one to avoid any potential disproportionate dependence on China without having to carry out uncomfortable unilateral concessions towards the West to that end instead.
“World War C”
Amidst all of this external “balancing”, Russia is also doing a lot of internal “balancing” too as the country implements far-reaching “reforms” aimed at applying the precepts associated with the “Great Reset”/”Fourth Industrial Revolution” (GR/4IR) to its socio-economic situation. President Putin envisions Russia emerging as among the world’s leaders in this global systemic transition, which explains why his government is considering some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 restrictions, including the potential banning of so-called “antivax” content by making it legally equivalent to bestiality according to RT’s latest update. These measures are seemingly meant to ensure compliance with the “new normal”.
Nevertheless, they’re not exactly popular among many, to put it mildly, which might explain the timing of Surkov’s article considering his knack for reading the country’s socio-political climate at any given moment. That’s not to say that anti-GR/4IR unrest is imminent, just that the full-spectrum paradigm-changing consequences that were catalyzed by the world’s uncoordinated attempts to contain COVID-19 (“World War C”) and the Russian leadership’s increasingly obvious embrace of the GR/4IR model as the supposedly most optimal way forward under such circumstances presents the greatest risk in the coming future that the country’s preexisting socio-political chaos will once again become unleashed.
Containing Chaos Through “Spheres Of Influence”
The grey cardinal believes that this scenario (whether triggered by the factors that were described in the preceding paragraph or whatever else might prompt it at a later time) can be averted by offloading these growing internal tensions through some vague form of foreign expansionism that doesn’t necessarily have to take the conventional form that Crimea did or the unconventional one that the American variant that was earlier described does either. However it happens, it – whatever “it” ends up being – must nevertheless happen otherwise Russia risks a return to the 1980s and 1990s like Surkov warned on several occasions. The solution, as he sees it, is to urgently delineate “spheres of influence”.
PAKAFUZ + NSTC + ZC = Ummah Pivot
Against the geostrategic context that was described in the author’s 11 articles enumerated several paragraphs above, this could likely take the form of Russia consolidating its emerging influence across the “Ummah”. In particular, this could be done through the combination of the planned trans-Afghan railway to Pakistan (PAKAFAZ), the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) across Azerbaijan and Iran, and Baku’s proposed six-party regional integration platform that could unlock Russia’s direct overland access to Turkey (and thenceforth potentially Syria and beyond) through the Zangezur Corridor (ZC). All three of these – PAKAFUZ, NSTC, and ZC – are apolitical, economically driven, and mutually beneficial.
Taken together, they’d unprecedentedly reinforce Russia’s influence in this geostrategic space at the center of the Eastern Hemisphere while enabling the Kremlin to rely on the third pole of influence apart from East (China) or West (US/EU) in order to more effectively fulfill its 21st-century grand strategic goal of becoming Eurasia’s supreme “balancing” force. This outcome would also enhance its “balancing” capabilities vis-à-vis India, potentially serving as a deterrent of sorts to it too openly siding with the US against China and eventually being pressured by its newfound ally into reducing ties with Russia. This proposed “sphere of influence” could also lead to the convergence of Orthodox and Islamic Civilizations.
Taken together, they’d unprecedentedly reinforce Russia’s influence in this geostrategic space at the center of the Eastern Hemisphere while enabling the Kremlin to rely on the third pole of influence apart from East (China) or West (US/EU) in order to more effectively fulfill its 21st-century grand strategic goal of becoming Eurasia’s supreme “balancing” force. This outcome would also enhance its “balancing” capabilities vis-à-vis India, potentially serving as a deterrent of sorts to it too openly siding with the US against China and eventually being pressured by its newfound ally into reducing ties with Russia. This proposed “sphere of influence” could also lead to the convergence of Orthodox and Islamic Civilizations.Andrew Korybko
The Turkish Challenge
The challenge, of course, will be in managing the expansion of Turkey’s own influence within this space, especially in the Central Asian and South Caucasus regions that are extremely sensitive from Russia’s perspective. Thus far, Presidents Putin and Erdogan have managed to responsibly regulate their rivalry there following the Syrian model that for the most part succeeded in de-escalating naturally occurring tensions in that country, which could have easily been externally exploited by the US for divide-and-rule purposes. So long as these two leaders can get the entirety of their permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) to do the same after their tenure ends, then it’ll be sustainable.
If not, then the maximum extent of Russia’s “sphere of influence” within the “Ummah” will be limited, as will the prospects of an Orthodox-Islamic convergence over the long term. Not only that, but Central Asia and the South Caucasus might emerge as heated theaters of rivalry between these two owing to their overlapping “spheres of influence” (remembering that the concept of the Turkic World overlaps with the Russian World in these two regions and even parts of the Russian Federation itself). This relevant insight against the larger geostrategic context that was presented enables observers to better understand how Surkov’s prediction for delineating “spheres of influence” might play out in practice.
The sustainable establishment of a Russian-Turkish axis will be just as pivotal, if not more, to Russia’s grand strategic interests than the Russian-Indian one that was earlier described. Without the first-mentioned, Russia risks being mired in proxy wars with Turkey across its “Near Abroad” and even as far afield as West Asia (principally the Levant with Syria as the Kremlin’s centerpiece) and North Africa (Libya). Absent a Russian-Indian axis, Russia might have difficulty averting disproportionate dependence on China, especially in the event that the People’s Republic comes out on top in its New Cold War with the US like Karaganov warned in the earlier cited analysis.
To summarize everything, Surkov’s prediction – apart from his fears of China’s chaotic collapse – is solid, as is his proposed solution of urgently delineating “spheres of influence” between Great Powers. Building upon his insight, it’s recommended that Russia concentrates the bulk of its efforts across the “Ummah” where it’s recently established unprecedented influence and has more promising prospects of further expanding such than anywhere else in the world. So as to sustainably ensure stability within this broad space and reap mutually beneficial dividends for all involved parties, the Eurasian Great Power must responsibly regulate its rivalry with Turkey there and even consider strategically partnering with it.