Russia has pursued a multi-vector foreign policy since 2000, when Vladimir Putin began his first term as Russian president. Putin focused on establishing strong alliance – type relations with the United States and on further integration with the European Union as part of what was called Russia’s “European choice.” That short period was characterized by Putin’s support for the U.S. after the events of 11 September 2001 and was highlighted by Putin’s speech to the German parliament in October 2001. By the middle of the decade, however, Russia had left the West’s political orbit to position itself in opposition to the U.S. on key global policy issues. The culmination of that period is the five-day Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and its most prominent “literary testament” is Putin’s Munich speech of February 2007. The third period was Dmitry Medvedev’s in form, but Putin’s in essence. It was marked by a ‘reset’ in Russian-U.S. relations and textually characterized by an order from the Russian government to foster ‘modernization partnerships’ with developed states.   

The change in Russian foreign policy orientation does not coincide precisely with the presidential terms of Putin and Medvedev, but there is some connection there. Russia’s foreign policy has changed again following Putin’s return to power, but the change in presidents is certainly not the main reason for that. Putin remained the leader under Medvedev and it was he who determined the foreign policy vector. In fact, the “Libyan episode” was not Medvedev’s improvisation: it was definitely Putin who ordered the Russian delegation to abstain from voting in the UN Security Council. New key factors include significant changes in Russia’s domestic situation and a shifting global environment in which this policy is implemented.  

The Domestic Enviroment

In the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been qualitative changes in Russian society. About 20 percent of the population has achieved a modicum of financial security and an intellectual level that makes their active participation in public life possible and even necessary. This part of society unilaterally denounced the tacit “mutual non-interference” pact with the authorities whereby the government refrained from intruding in the private life of its citizens and the latter stayed clear of politics. As a result, the Russian governance formula – authoritarianism with the consent of those being governed – had eroded in part and contented consumers turned into angry townspeople, or protocitizens. In late 2011 and early 2012, public anger spilled onto the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major Russian cities.  

The authorities immediately classified this movement as a product of subversive activities by the West, primarily by the U.S. Putin publicly accused the U.S. Department of State of financing the protests. By so doing the authorities tried to portray the opposition as a Western fifth column that wanted to weaken Russia as much as possible, and to present itself as a national patriotic force that defended the independence and integrity of the country. When Putin declared himself the winner of the presidential election at a public rally in the evening of 4 March 2012, his words sounded like a declaration of victory over a foreign enemy and its collaborators inside the country.  

Putin’s first decisions as the newly elected president were aimed at neutralizing potential sources of foreign influence on Russia’s political situation. A law was adopted hastily, which required Russian foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign agents. Russia demanded that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) stop all operations in the country. The Russian government withdrew from several agreements with the U.S., such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, where the U.S. appeared to be the donor and Russia the recipient of aid. At the same time, the Russian government followed a policy of conspicuously conservative principles rather than imitating liberalism, as it did before. 

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, the topic of Russia went largely unmentioned except for an ambiguous statement by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who referred to Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress scrapped the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment in late 2012, but adopted the controversial Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions against Russian officials who had reportedly violated human rights. In response, the Russian parliament passed a law that banned the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. This mobilized a portion of the U.S. public against Russia, while anti-American rhetoric in Russia became one of the pillars underpinning official patriotism.

These steps taken by Moscow coupled with targeted political repressions against Russian opposition leaders, the harsh verdict against members of the female punk band Pussy Riot, who had staged a unsanctioned performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, as well as unscheduled inspections of German political foundations in Moscow, had led to increased criticism of Russia’s domestic policy in EU countries. For their part, the Russian authorities had for the first time since 1991 said that they did not fully share contemporary European values, including those related to human rights, and would steer their own course. 

All this has prompted the following conclusions: 

  • Russia’s domestic policy and the reaction in the U.S. and Europe have for the first time in the post-Soviet period interfered with Russia’s relations with the U.S. and the EU.
  • This interference has created a tendency where internal affairs partially ‘occupy’ bilateral relations.
  • Russian official patriotism is fostered openly using, among other things, anti-American rhetoric.  
  • Disagreements between Russia and the EU have become not only situational and political, but also substantive and axiological in nature. 

Foreign Affairs

The global crisis of 2008-2009 was not only the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression, but it also exposed the moral deficiencies of modern capitalism and serious public governance flaws in most developed Western democracies. The U.S. witnessed a lethargic post-crisis growth, while in the EU the crisis had developed into a drawn-out recession. Debt problems in some of the countries endangered not only the integrity of the Euro zone, but also the common European currency. The crisis exacerbated social problems in some European countries. The U.S. federal debt and budget deficit had reached such a scale that both had become a serious foreign policy constraint for the country.

The results of U.S. foreign policy in the early 21st century do not look impressive. Iraq collapsed into chaos after the withdrawal of U.S. troops; the scheduled U.S. pullout from Afghanistan is fraught with a civil war in that country; Iran is continuing its nuclear program despite Western sanctions and subversive Israeli actions; and North Korea is conducting missile and nuclear tests and threatening the world with a war. Finally, the Arab Spring, which the White House eventually supported after initial hesitation, has paved the way to power for Islamists who have no intention of pursuing a friendly U.S. foreign policy. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, which is hostile to the U.S. and has been repeatedly “buried” by the West, remains in power. Amidst all this, China is growing, albeit slowly, and asserting its national interests even stronger than ever. The Asia Pacific Region is turning into a central venue not only for trade, but also for global affairs.

The conclusions made in Russia can probably be stated as follows:   

  • The multipolar world much talked about since the mid-1990s is becoming a reality.
  • The era of sole Western domination is coming to an end. The West has lost its moral authority and can no longer be a model for Russia. Democracy does not guarantee high-quality public governance. 
  • U.S. foreign policy is as costly as it is ineffective. Washington has overstrained itself in the international arena and its strategy is more destructive than constructive, and more often than not unrealistic.
  • Thus, Russia’s foreign policy independence should be complemented with moral and political independence. Alignment with Western values is an outdated approach and Moscow will go its own way. 

Economic Conditions

The economic situation in the world has also changed. After plunging during the financial crisis, oil prices have rebounded to above $100 per barrel for Brent crude. However, prices have not grown any higher and a European recession, a slow economic recovery in the U.S., and an economic slowdown in China may push oil prices down further. Russia can only fulfill its budget obligations if the price of oil stays at its current high level. The launch of commercial shale gas production in the U.S. has led to an energy revolution and changed the situation on global markets. It has opened up prospects for U.S. energy independence by 2030 and prompted a global redistribution of gas exports and gas trade in favor of spot transactions. Coupled with measures taken by EU countries after ‘gas wars’ in 2006 and 2009, Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas has declined considerably and the region is now less vulnerable to disruptions in gas supplies. 

Along with the further development of liquid natural gas (LNG) production, this factor has strongly affected Russian gas giant Gazprom’s positions on international markets. The European Union ordered a probe into Gazprom’s activities in some EU countries in a bid to force the Russian gas company to change its business practices in Europe and, specifically, revisit the price formula for pipeline gas supplied from Russia. This has forced Gazprom to step up operations in Asia and try to make strong inroads into Japan and South Korea, and enter the Chinese market. Moreover, Russia’s foreign economic position changed drastically after its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in August 2012. After nineteen years of persistent accession talks, Russian negotiators succeeded in gaining significant concessions from its partners, yet WTO membership became a painful reality for a number of Russian sectors, primarily agriculture. As a result, Russia has developed an aversion to further integration into the global economy. 

Foreign Policy “on All Fronts”

Vladimir Putin’s first international meetings after his inauguration revealed the pattern of Russia’s ‘renovated’ foreign policy. On the day of the event, Putin received the heads of all the CIS states in Moscow, thus emphasizing the role of Russia as the center of a post-Soviet Eurasia. According to tradition, Putin made his first foreign trip to Minsk, the capital of an allied Belarus. Subsequently, he visited Berlin and Paris, Russia’s main partners in the European Union. The European topic was continued several days later at the Russia-EU summit in St. Petersburg. Next, the Russian president met with a number of other visiting leaders from European countries, including Italy and Luxembourg.

Turning his attention to Asia, Putin went to Tashkent where he made an attempt, apparently unsuccessful, to draw Uzbek President Islam Karimov into his integration plans. Shortly after, Uzbekistan announced its secession from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The next stage of Putin’s diplomacy was Beijing, where he held bilateral meetings with Chinese leaders and attended a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. In the months that followed, Putin visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Israel, and Palestine. He was planning to visit Pakistan as well, but changed his mind at the last minute. Putin also traveled to Turkey and India. But the main diplomatic event of the year was the Asia Pacific Cooperation Summit (APEC) in Vladivostok, where the Russian president received leaders from around two dozens of countries. 

By contrast, Putin decided not to attend a series of multilateral meetings. It was clear from the very beginning that the NATO summit in Chicago would be held without Russia since no agreement on missile defense had been reached. However, Putin’s refusal to take part in the G8 summit in Camp David, where it had been moved following Russia’s absence at the NATO summit in Chicago, was a complete surprise. Officially, the Kremlin said that Putin needed to finalize a new Russian government. Unofficially, the decision was a reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s absence from the APEC summit. Russia’s demarche, which was quite unprecedented in the history of Russia’s participation in such summits, showed that the super elite Group of Eight, which Russia still did not quite fit in, is not an unquestionable priority for Putin. The only meeting that was of real interest to him – with President Obama – took place a month later, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico.

The geographical spread of Putin’s visits and meetings indicates Russia’s foreign policy priorities. First, Russia pays attention to integration within the CIS. Second, Russia is raising the level of relations with Asia. Third, Russia is narrowing down and ‘economizing’ relations with the European Union and lowering the priority of relations with NATO and other Western institutions. Fourth, Russia is keeping its distance from the U.S. These conclusions are borne out not only by the analysis of a new version of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept, which was approved by Putin in February 2013, but also by the practical policy in each of these areas.      

A Eurasian Union

Putin published an article on a Eurasian Union in October 2011 ahead of the parliamentary elections, which became the first foreign policy manifesto of Russia’s new political cycle. The article clearly had domestic implications: the idea of reunifying post-Soviet countries one way or another is quite popular among the constituents. However it would be wrong to reduce everything to mere propaganda. Putin had decided as far back as 2009 to speed up the creation of a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, although at that time this step could seemingly have complicated Russia’s admission to the WTO. Putin has obviously learned a lesson from the global economic crisis: regional integration is more reliable than globalization. This policy has continued: the Common Economic Space of the three countries has been in effect since 2012 and a full-fledged Eurasian Economic Union is set to become a reality in 2015. 

There are several things to consider when it comes to the economic integration of post-Soviet countries. First, deep integration can only by voluntary and mainly economic. Political integration between Russia and newly independent states beyond policy coordination is unrealistic. Second, broader integration beyond the Customs Union and Common Economic Space is either unfeasible or fraught with serious losses. Similar to positions held by Mikhail Gorbachev and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Putin is convinced that the Russian center of power will have no critical mass without Ukraine. However the Ukrainian leadership obviously understands that close integration with Russia could mean a drift toward assimilation and gradual curtailment of the ‘Ukrainian project.’ Even if Ukraine’s present or future government has to face unresolvable financial problems and support integration with Moscow, this will inevitably provoke a political crisis in the country or even a split.

Uzbek integration appears just as unlikely. Over the past twenty years, Tashkent has developed its own view on its role and place in the region, and neither President Karimov nor his potential successors will want to become a part of the Russian-Eurasian center of power. However, this may not be the case with smaller Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Neither can claim regional leadership, but both will try to keep their freedom of action. At the same time, the premature integration of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will not only stimulate huge financial injections from Russia, but also hurt the entire integration project.    

Russia’s shift in focus to Asia and the Pacific region is so far, a declaration. Fears persist that the APEC summit in Vladivostok in September 2012 marked its end rather than beginning. A new political focus will only be seriously considered if Russia reevaluates its current geopolitical position as a European-Pacific country and if the country works out a strategy that will match this position. Russia should prioritize two main goals: the “dual integration” of the Russian East with the rest of the country and of Russia itself by combining its eastern regions with the Asia Pacific Region. The main national security risk comes from the fact that Russia’s most economically depressed region borders the world’s most rapidly growing region. Finding and implementing an adequate development model for Russia’s Pacific regions could solve this problem. Whether Russia can enjoy the benefits of being the neighbor of rapidly growing Asian economies will depend on this solution.

Other indirect risks are generated by the widening rift between leading Asia and Pacific Rim countries, primarily between China and the U.S. and between China and its neighbors: Japan, Vietnam, and India. Russia should learn the art of maneuvering to ensure its own interests, while staying away from the disputes and conflicts of other countries. But these are distant prospects. Now Russia is maneuvering tactically or operationally at best. Having become a member of the   prestigious East Asian Summit in 2012, the Russian government had decided to limit its participation in its first EAS meeting to the level of foreign minister. It is symbolic that the new Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first foreign trip in March 2013 to Moscow. China’s strategy is to strengthen relations with Russia as its strategic rear and supplier of resources. In June 2013, a major oil deal between Rosneft and CNPC was announced, worth $270 billion. However, it seems that there is no strategy on the other end of the line.    

“Economizing” Relations with the European Union

The European Union is Russia’s main trading partner with bilateral trade exceeding $400 billion – five times the volume of trade between Russia and China. The EU accounts for more than 50 percent of Russia’s foreign trade, while the share of Moscow’s Customs Union partners is less than seven percent. Until recently, there was hope that Russia’s admission to the WTO would give a new impetus to Russian-EU trade and economic relations. But this never came true. Russia needs to absorb the consequences of its accession to the WTO, while Europe has an acute domestic crisis on its hands. As a result, both partners have limited their interaction to a narrow circle of practical and even technical tasks, such as visas, trade disputes, etc., and the resolution of existing disagreements. The political situation in Russia evokes an ever increasingly critical reaction in Europe. Russia’s negative attitude toward EU policies, primarily German, were fueled by the methods used to handle the Cyprus debt problem in March 2013, after which major Russian customers at Cyprus banks lost their money. Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev publicly criticized those methods and numerous media outlets labeled them as anti-Russian. 

In international affairs Russia supported France’s military operation in Mali, but drifted far from Paris, London, and even Berlin over Syria. Moscow’s position on Syria appeared to be in sharp contrast to its stance on Libya in 2011, not because of the change in Russian presidents, but because of how NATO had conducted the Libyan operation. Russia was angry over the fact that an operation authorized by the UN Security Council to protect peaceful civilians from government troops had expanded in scope to encompass regime change in Libya and to remove its leader. The Libyan lesson prompted Russia to assume a tougher position at the UN.

Russia’s position at the UN concerns the authorized use of force in international affairs and especially control over its use, as well as the assessment of the situation in Syria and, separately, the nature and motives of forces that are fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. Next come specific Russian interests in Syria. Russia has not called so much for keeping al-Assad in power, as for preventing a foreign-led armed intervention in Syria. Nor would Russia like to see Islamic radicals come to power in Syria. Both aspects are fundamentally important, but have a practical side as well: Assad may be followed by other authoritarian rulers who are true allies of Russia. At the same time, Russia has stated its readiness to cooperate with the West on Syria if the U.S. and its allies agree to act in accordance with the UN Charter and give up attempts to overthrow the regime in Damascus by force. In May 2013, Russia and the United States agreed to work towards a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The initiative, however, turned out difficult to implement, due to different policy goals in Washington and Moscow. 

“Sovereign Distancing” from the U.S.

During his first year after returning to the Kremlin, Putin was preoccupied mainly with strengthening Russia’s sovereignty with regard to the U.S. The actual response to the Magnitsky Act was not the adoption law, but a law that made it illegal for Russian government officials to keep money abroad. This solved two problems at once: to make members of the Russian government less vulnerable in foreign countries and to tighten discipline within the upper echelons of power in Russia to make those officials more dependent on the Kremlin.

With the exception of “sovereignization,” which has more to do with Russia’s domestic policy than with the U.S., Putin’s priorities in relations with the West, and specifically with the U.S., concern business, which he hopes to attract to Russia. Putin has pinned his hopes for qualitative changes in relations with the U.S. on entrepreneurs. In Putin’s opinion, the interests of U.S. business can do what arms agreements with the U.S. cannot; namely, make partners respect Russia’s interests and abandon attempts to interfere in its domestic affairs.  

Putin has instructed the government to raise Russia’s ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index by 100 points, from 120th to 20th, by 2020. However with virtually no rule of law existing as such, it would be impossible to achieve that goal, but Putin obviously thinks that a purely technological method is justified in tackling this task. At the end of the first year of his presidency, Putin can be given credit for a number of agreements reached between Russian oil company Rosneft and Western energy majors, such as ExxonMobil and BP. For the time being, Russia ranks 112th in the World Bank rating. 

In issues concerning the military and politics, Moscow is not a leader and has long been loosing to the U.S. Despite the anti-American media campaign, agreements with the U.S. and NATO on the transit of Afghan cargoes through Russia remain in force. Initial reaction to the cancellation of the U.S./NATO missile defense system plans in Europe, which had worried Moscow, was quite subdued. Similarly for Obama’s proposal of further cuts in U.S. and Russian strategy arsenals. The U.S.-Russian summit in Moscow, set for September 2013, will answer the question whether Putin and Obama can construct a productive relationship between the two of them.  

Rearming the Army and Navy

For several years Putin repeated the maxim “the weakest goes to the wall.” In 2008, Russia launched military reform. In 2011, the government announced an ambitious ten-year military rearmament program worth 20 trillion rubles and a program to revamp the defense industry to turn it into the locomotive of a new industrialization campaign. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was appointed to implement the program. Failures at missile defense cooperation talks with the U.S. and NATO in 2010-2011 prodded the Kremlin into drafting a program for its own missile defense against the U.S. and the North Atlantic Alliance and build up nuclear deterrence capabilities. Although the current military doctrine adopted in 2010 considers a large-scale war with Russia unlikely, it names the U.S. and NATO as potential enemies at the regional and local levels. 

The dismissal of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, accused of tolerating corruption in the fall of 2012, brought about some changes in plans for military development, but did not affect their priority status. Sergei Shoigu, who is reputed to be a good administrator, was appointed to replace Serdyukov. The Russian Navy conducted its first maneuvers in twenty years in the Mediterranean Sea in late 2012, followed by surprise exercises by the Black Sea Fleet that Putin ordered in the spring of 2013.  Several other maneuvers followed in short order.

Preoccupied with building up its military strength, Russia appears to be much more reserved about arms control issues: further reductions in strategic offensive weapons have been linked to U.S. missile defense constraints; control over non-strategic nuclear forces has been conditioned, inter alia, on the resolution of the issue of precision weapons, while conventional arms control should be resumed on a totally new basis other than that set forth in the CFE Treaty, including its adapted version. A nuclear-free world is considered a dangerous illusion and efforts to build it a risky business.  

Conclusions and Prospects

Despite the new president, basically the same group of officials have shaped and implemented Russian foreign policy over the past year. However, foreign policy consensus is waning. There are two key factors involved in this process: the specific foreign economic interests of certain state-owned and private corporations, companies, clans, etc.; and the further political and ideological stratification of society, in which different groups propose various foreign policy vectors. This process has no direct relation to the government reshuffle and will continue to gain momentum as society wakes up. In the foreseeable future, Vladimir Putin will determine Russia’s foreign policy in key areas and the existing bureaucratic machinery will carry out this policy. But in the future different interests and ideologies will struggle over foreign policy.

It is too early to say what Putin’s foreign policy will look like during his third term in office. Crucial decisions have yet to be made and historic speeches have yet to be written. The conditions in which Russia exists are changing rapidly and in ways that are not always predictable. However, one can already say that the abovementioned tendencies will continue – a geopolitical shift toward Eurasia and the Asia Pacific Region; symbolic ‘sovereignization’ of Russia and its further distancing from the U.S. and Europe; and the erosion of a foreign policy consensus. The fourth edition of Putin’s foreign policy will most likely differ significantly from the previous three.

This article originally appeared in Russia in Global Affairs.