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Russian foreign policy-making has become increasingly the preserve of President Putin, as the foreign and defence ministries have been marginalised, but the President is still subject to constraints. Some of those constraints may lead to decisions that may not be in the long-term national interest. That would not be unique to Russia, but there the tendency seems marked.

Russian foreign policy is based on realist assumptions: a vision of a zero-sum competition between nations using largely hard power to establish spheres of interest based on geography. Policy is aimed at restoring national pride and regaining Russia’s place at the top table in world affairs. Defence spending has been going up and Putin’s popularity is reported to be at near-record highs.

Corruption is a significant driver of foreign policy; Russia is perceived as easily the most corrupt of the world’s major nations – BRICS members and permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency was followed by a turning-point year in 2014, which saw the stand-off with the West over Russian intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the dramatic fall in the oil price. Since then, hard-line nationalist assumptions have increasingly entered official Russian foreign policy, although they have by no means taken it over completely. As economic difficulties have increased, conservative nationalism and an assertive foreign policy have increasingly been used to bolster the legitimacy of the government at home.

An increasingly nationalistic assessment of interests has meant that relations with the West have continued on a rocky course. The sharp deterioration caused by the annexation of Crimea and the military involvement in Ukraine was crystallised in the cancellation of the G8 meeting in Sochi and the suspension of Russia from that group.

As relations with the West have worsened, increasing attention has been focussed on Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’ strategies, including covert use of the armed forces, propaganda warfare, energy politics, cyber attacks and indeed, according to some analysts, the deliberate spread of corruption as a foreign policy tool, aiming to co-opt elites in vulnerable countries, making resistance to Russian interests less likely. Many of these techniques are far from new, however – the Soviet Union was adept at many of them – and far from exclusively Russian. Western countries too are seeking alternatives to ‘boots on the ground’; resistance to troop casualties is high among Russian as well as Western publics.

Russia skilfully uses non-conventional tools and, significantly, practices ‘escalation control’ of more conventional armed conflicts, making sure that conflicts stay just under the radar, or are unpredictable enough to keep adversaries destabilised, or hit the right note to support political positions.

In spite of the concentration on hybrid warfare and ‘escalation control’ of conflict, Russia is still placing significant emphasis on its armed forces, undergoing a military modernisation programme to professionalise its armed forces, on which it is spending a higher proportion of GDP than most Western countries.

Russia is also modernising its nuclear arsenal with more reliable weapons. This is not an escalation, as suggested in some quarters, but any reduction in the size of the arsenal is likely to level off in the next few years. There are some sharp disagreements with the West and the US, particularly, over compliance with the arms control treaties to which both are party. And there is the question of missile defence. The stationing of missile defence systems in Eastern Europe is seen in Russia as a threat to Russian nuclear deterrence, something which the US denies.  

With the stationing of nuclear-capable missile systems in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and increasing exercises by both Russian and Western nuclear-capable forces, together with questions about tactical nuclear weapons, there is increasing concern that the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons may be lowering, making their use more likely.

With complicated relations with the West, Russia has been cultivating other potential partners and groupings. Moscow is pursuing its Eurasian Union plan, to include several former Soviet states. There is also the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which brings together Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Some former members have left this group. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a forum including China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan have agreed to become full members and there are a number of observer states. Other, more unexpected countries such as Egypt are also moving closer to Moscow.

China is Russia’s most important alternative to Western partnership, especially as regards the economy, but the relationship is unbalanced, because China is so much more powerful economically than Russia, especially since the energy price falls. Some Russians even see Russia’s eastern territories as increasingly vulnerable to informal Chinese colonisation. Nevertheless, Sino-Russian cooperation should not be dismissed. Russia and China share many strategic goals, have voted together many times on the UN Security Council and, tellingly, have sharply increased their military collaboration in recent years.

Russia is not as isolated as some Western commentators suggest; Moscow has considerable support for many of its positions and the Russia’s proposal that the West is in long-term decline has plenty of support, especially in those countries who feature in this scenario as the rising powers. There are nevertheless plenty of difficulties for Russia – levels of trust between Russia and former Soviet states are not always very high, particularly after Russian intervention in Ukraine. Russia’s economic weakness makes Western countries and China more attractive economic partners.

Russia is often perceived to be interested in breaking up the EU so that it can come to more advantageous arrangements with individual states, using its energy as a lever. Some nationalists in Russia celebrated the British vote to leave the EU as heralding the end of the Atlantic domination of Europe and the beginning of a new Eurasian togetherness. The Kremlin’s official line was rather more sober, pointing out Russia’s interest in a stable, prosperous and predictable Europe.

Concerns have been raised about the security of the Baltic States, with increasing Russian ‘provocations’ in or near European waters and airspace, particularly in the Baltics and Scandinavia. Some have argued that NATO could do little to stop an invasion of countries such as Estonia and Latvia.

NATO has taken significant steps to strengthen its ability to respond in the event of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and the UK is participating in the NATO Readiness Action Plan, which involves pre-positioning equipment and rotating more forces in Central and Eastern Europe. More is likely to be agreed at the forthcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw.

The situation in Syria remains intractable. Russia’s military campaign there has succeeded in pushing Russian interests onto the international agenda, but there is sharp disagreement between Russia and the West about Syria which it is difficult to imagine being resolved easily, and the Russian intervention has many potential dangers for Russia (as well as other participants) in the longer term, particularly in relation to its relations with other states in the Middle east.

Many opportunities for cooperation between Russia and the West remain, if enough mutual trust can be found. Space, terrorism and the disposal of nuclear materials remain two of the areas of fruitful collaboration, although none is without its difficulties.

Sanctions and, probably more importantly, the fall in the price of oil have shown up the weaknesses in the Russian economy. Analysts talk of the old Putin deal – authoritarian government in exchange for rising living standards – being replaced by a new one: authoritarian government and squeezed living standards in return for a restoration of national pride and Western countries taking notice of Russia. The Syrian military intervention and the creation of a ‘frozen conflict’ in Ukraine may have achieved this aim. In the longer term, that may prove to be a poor deal for Russians.

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