East-West conflict over Ukraine is likely to continue to loom large when it comes to Russian foreign relations, especially as there seems no way – short of a third world war – that it is ever likely to relent on the main issue, its annexation of Crimea.
Moscow: It cannot be repeated often enough that Russia is a gargantuan country. Though its head and shoulders are in Europe, its enormous trunk occupies the entire northern sphere of Asia; at the eastern extreme its immediate neighbours are Japan, Korea and the US. In the far west the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, nowadays an armed fortress, rubs shoulders with Sweden, Finland and several NATO countries. Across its sprawling southern frontier, Russia looks down upon the Balkans, the turbulent Middle East, the uneasy states of central Asia and shares a 3,000 mile border with China. In the far north it lays claim to the lion’s share of the fast-melting Arctic, stretching up to the North Pole, where its chief future competitors will be Canada, Norway and Denmark.
What is most surprising for foreigners is that, although Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, the majority ethnic Russian population across that vast expanse – from the Pacific to the Baltic – tends to be extremely homogeneous not only in tradition, culture and religion, but also in their political views and the ways in which they regard the outside world. Regional diversity, a major factor in the way some countries relate with the world, hardly applies at all to Russia.
To describe the foreign outlook and priorities of such a vast and multi-faced entity has never been easy to do without caricatures, but seems doubly difficult amid a fast-changing world in which long-standing certainties are evaporating, alliances are shifting and the very notion of global order is under attack.
Shifts in Russia’s foreign policy doctrine
Over the past 15 years the Russian government has published four different versions of its “foreign policy doctrine,” the most recent one signed into law by President Vladimir Putin just last December. They trace the evolution of Russian priorities from a transitional post-communist country eager to integrate with the West, especially the EU, to one that today feels burned by Western rejection, criticism and sanctions, and now sees its future in economic and political alliances in Asia, particularly with China.
Throughout its history, Russia has always nursed a sense of being a separate civilisation – superior to what it viewed as the morally lax and politically disorderly West – even as it hungered for the means of scientific, industrial and military superiority that were hallmarks of the West. That feeling reached a climax during the seven decades that the USSR attempted to build a full-scale alternative society that would be capable of outdoing the West in modern achievements. It failed spectacularly. Ironically, Russia today is more liberal and westernised than at any previous time, with a consumer economy and a constitution that differs little from that of France (though Russian implementation and political culture make for quite a different reality).
But Putin increasingly stresses Russia’s adherence to “traditional” values and has permitted the Russian Orthodox Church to wield more influence than it has since Czarist times. Russia has positioned itself as a bastion of social conservatism against what it views as the self-destructive liberalism of the West, criticising it on issues like same-sex marriage, the breakdown of the traditional family and the ongoing process of globalisation that dissolves borders and dilutes national identities. It’s hardly a comprehensive or challenging ideology, as Communism was, but the Kremlin talks about its current standoff with the West in terms of “duelling values.” It is also accused of seeking to forge political alliances with nationalists, anti-establishment populists and social conservatives in Europe and the US.
“Americans believe in their own exceptional role in the world, and that is rooted in the conviction that the US is the strongest country,” says Sergei Markov, a frequent adviser to Putin. “Russia has an anti-exceptional mood, based on our awareness that we are relatively weak and vulnerable from all sides. Hence, we favour a multi-polar world, in which national sovereignty is respected and all players are treated as equals.”
More ominously, the tone of Russia’s doctrine has shifted from a state that calculated relations with the outside world mostly in terms of trade, economic development and political cooperation, to one that now views the threat of international terrorism as paramount, and the possibility of regional wars around its periphery as something to actively prepare for. Russia is, in fact, in the midst of a $300 billion programme to replace 70% of its military hardware by 2020 with new generations of domestically-produced equipment, especially fighter planes, air defence systems, cruise missiles and tanks. Over the past decade a sweeping military reform has abolished the Soviet-era mass mobilisation army, reduced mandatory military service from three years to one, and created a spearhead of professional units – such as the “little green men” who swiftly and bloodlessly seized control of Crimea three years ago – which it intends to expand. The main, even urgent, concern is to develop rapid-deployment forces capable of intervening in Russia’s immediate region.
“While the danger of unleashing a large-scale war, including a nuclear conflict, remains low among leading states, there are increasing risks of their involvement in regional conflicts and the escalation of crises,” observes the latest version of the doctrine.
Geopolitics from Russia’s perspective
People in various corners of the world may regard Russia through the prism of their local anxieties and concerns, but the heavily-centralised and bureaucratised Russian state sees a broad and unified geopolitical picture, with Moscow at the centre. Its overriding concern is to preserve and extend Russia’s status, prestige and authority as a leading global power.
While there appears to be no appetite in Moscow today to return to a full-scale arms race with the US, or regain the former USSR’s network of satellite and client states, Russia does appear to be building up its role in new multi-national associations. These include the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which may well expand in the near future, the only such group of states that neither the US nor any of its allies belongs to. Russia’s foreign policy doctrine highlights its position as a permanent UN Security Council member, a remnant of its former superpower status. On issues like nuclear arms control and the civil war in Syria, Moscow seeks to engage the US as an equal negotiating partner, just as the Soviet Union would have done. But the latest version of the doctrine also talks about ad hoc “networking” that might create temporary alliances of states to deal with specific issues. Russia’s recent sponsorship, with Iran and Turkey, of peace talks for Syria in Kazakhstan – without direct US participation – may be a sign that Moscow is seriously exploring such new forms of diplomacy.
Most Russians seem to think the tough policies pursued by Putin are succeeding in bringing back the former USSR’s lost authority and prestige. The West may have looked on in alarm as Russia swiftly annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea – home to a major Russian naval base – after a pro-Western government seized power in Kiev in 2014, and Moscow decisively intervened in Syria’s civil war the next year, but many Russians view those episodes with approval. A mid-2015 poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 87% of Russians agreed with the annexation of Crimea. While the full extent of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil war has never been officially admitted, polls show that a majority of Russians accept the Kremlin’s explanations for its policies there. Somewhat slimmer majorities support Russia’s 16-month old war of intervention in Syria. Putin’s personal approval rating has soared during the East-West crisis of the past three years, from a low of 54% in 2013, to over 80% today.
“There is a growing understanding that Russia is not some regional dwarf, but a world power with its own zone of influence,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs commission of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. “People increasingly recognise that we live in a multi-polar world, Russia has its role to play, and other big powers should take care how they behave in our neighbourhood.”
As immense as Russia is, it’s important to recognise that the lands ruled from Moscow were much larger in the past. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it shed 14 republics around its periphery that became independent states. Though many of these have moved to integrate with their own regions, a key priority in Moscow remains to gather them back into Russian-led military and economic unions. These efforts have enjoyed little success. The Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – Russia’s version of NATO – has been plagued by a lack of cohesion and differing priorities among its members; Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, while Belarus is neighbour to three NATO states. Russia’s answer to the EU, the Eurasian Economic union – a free trade bloc of five post-Soviet countries created in 2015 – has yet to post any notable successes.
But when Russians speak of their “sphere of influence,” they primarily mean these former Soviet states, particularly those with large Russian-speaking minorities. Key among these is Ukraine, which would be the most important prize in Russia’s efforts to re-integrate the post-Soviet region. The present tense crisis in Russia’s relations with the West was precipitated when Ukrainians overthrew their pro-Moscow president three years ago, with the aim of aligning more closely with the EU and NATO, and Russia reacted by annexing Crimea and supporting a pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s east.
East-West conflict over Ukraine is likely to continue to loom large, especially as there seems no way – short of a third world war – that Russia is ever likely to relent on the main issue, its annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s pivot to the East
For Russia, whose foreign policy doctrine prioritised “modernising alliances” with advanced countries, especially the EU, as recently as six years ago, that crisis has led to what experts say is an irreversible change of direction toward Asia. China, in particular, whose businesses find it easier to deal with Russia’s brand of state-led, crony capitalism than their Western counterparts do. Many leading Asian states are closer to Moscow on geopolitical issues as well, and their leaders are never inclined to slap on sanctions or deliver sermons on human rights or democracy issues.
“Our pivot to the east is permanent,” says Markov. “Russia has grown disillusioned with the West and its values through bitter experience. Basically, what the West does is contrary to what it says.”
The growing competition between Russia and the West, on full display in near-proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria and growing accusations of Russian political meddling and cyber-attempts to undermine Western democracy, is likely to continue, experts say.
The Kremlin has long argued that Western secret services are constantly plotting to foment “coloured revolutions” in countries like Georgia and Ukraine. One of the main tools of subversion, Russian officials claim, is through foreign-owned media and funding of non-governmental groups that engage in “democracy promotion.” Russia has cracked down hard in both areas in the past few years.
Moscow itself is spending huge sums on a vast international broadcasting empire centred around the multi-lingual RT television network, although this is viewed with alarm in the West as part of Russia’s machinery of subversion rather than a traditional “soft power” venture.
“It’s true that soft power is not Russia’s strong suit,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Psychologically, we are just not good at that.”
Russia possesses a rich cultural heritage and, unlike the former USSR, it is capable of making a non-ideological case to support its foreign policies. Yet it has so far been unable to develop agencies of outreach comparable to the Alliance Francaise or the British Council. Its state-funded global TV network RT remains far more polemical and apparently incapable of criticising its paymasters than, say, the BBC or France24.
As to the only country Russians deign to compare themselves with, the US, the picture in the latest doctrine – which was clearly prepared with a Hillary Clinton presidency in mind – anticipates that global competition with the US will likely intensify. No one is sure what to expect from the incoming Donald Trump administration, and the apparent chaos of his first month in the White House has created audible consternation in Russia’s foreign policy community.
“The US is and will remain the main reference point for Russia,” says Lukyanov. “Perhaps Trump will accelerate the tendency for global order to break down, which will create lots of new headaches, as well as opportunities and temptations for Russia. It’s a very confusing time, and nobody can be pleased about that.”