International relations have entered a very difficult period, and Russia once again finds itself at the crossroads of key trends that determine the vector of future global development. Many different opinions have been expressed in this connection including the fear that the Russians have a distorted view of the international situation and Russia’s international standing. This, in fact, echoes the eternal dispute between pro-Western liberals and the advocates of Russia’s unique path. There are also those, both in Russia and outside of it, who believe that Russia is doomed to drag behind, trying to catch up with the West and forced to bend to other players’ rules, and hence will be unable to claim its rightful place in international affairs.
In 2014, amid the Ukraine crisis, Russia broke out of the post–Cold War system and openly challenged US dominance, ending a quarter century of cordial relations among great powers and giving birth to intense competition. Two years on, confrontation with the United States and estrangement from EU countries are now salient features of Russia’s international environment. On the other hand, Russia has entered a severe economic crisis brought about by the demise of its oil-dependent economic model. The outcome of this complicated situation will not only determine Russia’s future, but will also have a significant impact on the international system.
Main Foreign Policy Priorities
Russia’s immediate foreign policy goal is to withstand the pressure being mounted by the US and her allies. Russia wants to reduce its political isolation, boost its economy in the wake of sanctions and low oil prices and fight back in the information space.
Kremlin is, however, adamant to follow its current foreign policy course as it isn’t willing to step back to reconcile with the West. Moreover, its entry into the Syrian foray has also broken America’s monopoly on the global use of force.
Thus, Russia’s principal foreign policy priorities, as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and Syria, are: (i) to thwart Nato’s any advance in Eastern Europe; and (ii) to confirm its status as a great power outside the post-Soviet space. Russia wants to make its rivals to acknowledge Russia’s security interests and accept its importance as a global power.
Moscow’s engagement with the West on various issues is evinced by these priorities. Through Minsk II agreement (Feb 2015), Russia sought to thwart Ukraine’s accession to Nato as well as to install a pro-Russian element there. Russia wants to regain the role of a major outside power also in the Middle East and it wants to keep Syria as its geopolitical and military stronghold.
Russia’s willingness to engage with the Europeans on Ukraine and its offer of a coalition against the ISIS in Syria were linked to Moscow’s objectives of lifting — or progressively easing — the EU sanctions and reviving economic relations with Western Europe. Russia is hoping for a renationalization of EU countries’ policies which would open new opportunities for better bilateral relations between Russia and individual European states.
However, Russia is also looking for other options as well because its rupture with the West has increased the importance of its non-Western partners. Making relations with the world’s biggest economy, China, more productive is the top priority at present. However, this entente has its limits; the Chinese are cautious not to damage their business ties with the US; Russia is cautious not to fall under the sway of the economically-dominant partner.
For Russia, the G20 and the BRICS have replaced the G8, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could take the place of the suspended Russia-EU summitry and Nato-Russia Council.
Moscow is in the process of settling down in the non-Western world. Brazil, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa and Vietnam are emerging as key partners there. However, this process will take much time before Moscow feels comfortable in its new international setting.
Rhetorically, furthering Eurasian economic integration is among Moscow’s major priorities. In reality, the economic crisis that has affected all of Eurasia — particularly Russia itself — as well as Russia’s political confrontation with the West has put the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) on the backburner. Keeping close bilateral relations with the partner countries Belarus and Kazakhstan, however, will be important.
Key Foreign Policy Constituencies
Putin remains the decider on all key issues i.e. foreign, security and defence, etc. In office as president since 2000 (with a term as prime minister from 2008 to 2012), Putin is by now one of the world’s most experienced leaders. His absolute power in his country rests on his unprecedented and stable popularity among ordinary Russians. His foreign policy of great-power revival is a major element in this regard and Western backlash only helps consolidate support for him.
Putin is assisted by a group of senior aides who make up the Security Council of the Russian Federation (SCRF). The SCRF’s purview is wider than national security as usually defined in the West as it can take up virtually any issue of national importance, including economics, finance, demographics and even culture.
The Russian security community also plays the key role in helping Putin conceive, shape and execute foreign policy decisions. The group’s worldview presents international relations in terms of a never-ending struggle for dominance and influence among a few powerful countries. The animus in the group against the US runs very deep.
The present environment of US-Russian confrontation has substantially increased the influence of the defence community, both in the armed forces and in the military industry. The use of force has again become an active instrument of Russia’s foreign policy. The military industry, supported by a large-scale defence modernization programme, is also being promoted as a locomotive of Russia’s attempt at reindustrialization. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is the most trusted politician in Russia after Putin.
The security, defence and industrial community benefits from the high approval ratings that ordinary Russian people give to the Kremlin’s proactive foreign policy and to the armed forces. Virtually the entire political elite — from the parliament and the parties in the Duma to governors, mayors, and the state-run media — is united on the issue of Russian patriotism.
Russian business community is more concerned with the economic disruption resulting from confrontation with the US and alienation from the EU. However, state-owned corporations faithfully follow the government line; and many small- and medium-sized businesses are supportive of Putin.
Key Ideological Influences
On April 7, during a forum of the All-National People’s Front “Truth and Justice”, Putin remarked surge of nationalism is Russia in the following words:
“For the Russian people, the feeling of patriotism and national identity is very important — this is something that European countries have been losing, unfortunately. We have it inside us. We have it in our hearts – our love for the Fatherland. It is important what I am about to say. One of the main components of our national identity, one of our values and ideas is patriotism.”
In Kremlin’s version, Russian state is believed to be the centre of a Russian world, a civilization that traces its spiritual and temporal roots to Byzantium and Orthodox Christianity.
Russia has pivoted away from the European choice that the country had de facto pursued since the toppling of the Communist system in 1991. This pivot to Russia’s own cultural and historical heritage, with an emphasis on the imperial period, is often described as Eurasianism. Kremlin’s current attitudes to the EU can be compared with the views on Europe exhibited in the 19th century by Emperor Alexander III and his grandfather, Emperor Nicholas I: “Russia is in but not of Europe”. The present-day Russian Federation sees itself as occupying a unique central position in northern Eurasia, equidistant from Asia, North America, the Middle East and Europe. And, with his policies in Crimea and Ukraine, Putin has been able to turn himself into a hero for nationalists.
Key Geopolitical Concerns and Policy Drivers
Moscow’s main current concern and policy driver is the beginning of the long cycle of low energy and other commodity prices. The sharp drop in the oil price has markedly devalued Russia’s geopolitical importance vis-à-vis its principal customers in Europe and Asia. This situation objectively pushes the Kremlin toward diversifying the Russian economy. Successful diversification, however, would require the country to adopt a wholly different politico-economic model, with a business-friendly environment and an emphasis on technological innovation.
Such a model may end the domination of the ruling elite. Thus, Russia finds itself again at a crossroads with a three-way choice: reform the economy and dismantle the existing politico-economic setup; go for a wholesale economic mobilization dominated by the state; or keep the system intact and face the prospect of continued decline and possibly an upheaval in the end. In the next five years, some sort of a choice between these three options will have to be made.
In the near to medium term, Russia is likely to face the challenge of Islamist radicalism on its southern borders. The Middle East is generating instability that is already spreading to other parts of the Muslim world, including Central Asia and areas of the Caucasus. Former Soviet countries i.e. Central Asian Republics (CARs), that have survived their first twenty-five years of independence exhibit some of the features that helped produce the Arab Spring. In Afghanistan, the Islamic State has built a presence and is expanding its influence through the whole country and beyond.
In the long term, demographics remain one of Russia’s main concerns. The rate of population decline has slowed down, and the incorporation of Crimea has added over 2 million people to Russia’s total, which now stands at 146 million. But there is a growing shortage of workers, strategically important regions such as the Russian Far East remain sparsely populated, and the integration of immigrants from Central Asia presents a challenge.
The Role of the Economy
Geopolitically, Putin has become used to punching far above Russia’s economic weight. This has produced some stunning successes, but it is not sustainable even in the medium term without reform, which would unchain Russia’s still huge potential for growth and development, or economic mobilization, which would give a short-term effect but would ultimately result in Russia’s economic and political collapse.
Reforming would be exceedingly difficult under conditions of confrontation with the US and EU. Even if the EU sanctions are lifted by 2020, the political risks for Europeans of doing business with Russia will be high, resulting in continuing serious impediments to economic relations. Japan’s willingness to reach out to Russia will be tempered by Washington’s opposition to such rapprochement. Ways will have to be found around the sanctions regime and below Washington’s radar screen.
With economic ties to the West constrained by politics, Russia will need to more actively explore opportunities elsewhere. This will not be easy, as the current Russian exports to non-Western countries are dominated by products whose price structures have collapsed and will not recover much in the foreseeable future. If Russia manages to come up with more products that can find markets in China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Southeast Asia, and the Gulf Arab states, it can partly compensate for the losses in trade with the West and diversify its economic relations.
What should Washington and Europe Expect?
In the next five years, Russia’s relations with the US and Europe will be competitive and tense. Russia will not invade Nato territory unprovoked, but incidents along the new frontline from the Arctic to the Baltic to the Black Sea, as well as elsewhere, may occasionally happen. Russia will, therefore, continue to resort to a number of equalizers ranging from increased reliance on nuclear deterrence to the creation of local balances in Moscow’s favour.
Managing Russian-Western conflict under these circumstances will be of utmost importance. In the general environment of confrontation, Russia’s interaction with Western countries will be at best transactional, based on national interests when those happen to coincide or come sufficiently close. Rather than shying away from partnering with the West, Moscow will be ready to work with Washington and its allies on those issues. However, Russia will engage only when it is satisfied that the US treats it as an equal and takes Russian interests into account. For the Kremlin, this is the ultimate foreign policy goal.
Specifically, attaining this goal would require getting the West to honour Russia’s security space by ruling out Nato membership for Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine or any other former Soviet republic; giving those countries a neutral status between Russia and NATO; managing international crises jointly under the aegis of the UN Security Council, in which Russia has veto power; and restoring normal economic ties between the West and Russia while resolving the issue of Donbas on the basis of the Minsk II agreement and finding a formula for recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, in accordance with the wishes of Crimean residents.
On broader issues of world order, Russia has offered no alternative design to what exists today and no comprehensive reform blueprint. It is not the world order as such that Moscow has challenged, but the US domination of that order. Thus, Moscow’s claims have been more procedural than substantive.
With the confrontation and alienation becoming more deeply entrenched with each passing year, the Russians have become more sceptical about a truly global order. In their view, this order is being replaced by regional arrangements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in addition to historical alliances with the United States; China’s One Belt, One Road initiative; and so on. The sanctions imposed by the West have demolished the One World concept that they bought into at the end of the Cold War. Thus, Russia has started paying more attention to regional and subregional compacts: BRICS, SCO, EEU, Collective Security Treaty Organization and others.
However, whether Russia’s foreign policy will achieve its objectives at whatever level will depend primarily on the success or failure of Russia’s economic re-launch. The next five years will provide an answer to this.