Nonetheless, a booming economy fueled by the hike in oil prices along with pervasive instability plaguing the Middle East encourages Russian leadership to pursue a more assertive foreign policy agenda. Does this however mean we are in for another Cold War-like confrontation with Russia?
Realistically, for Russia the cost of a new Cold War would be disastrous and it would by no means serve its long term interests. The huge internal problems faced by Russia currently, such as the mounting demographic crisis, should be the main preoccupation for the current Russian leadership for a time to come and will effectively prevent the country from striving to retrieve its super power stature, which it once enjoyed during the Soviet era.
At any rate, Moscow becomes more assertive in articulating its foreign policy goals and the message is quite clear: Russia is the country to be reckoned with. Given its scarce recourses in terms of implementing its foreign policies, Russia can however only aspire to further cement its regional power position. For one to understand where the current Russian foreign policy is heading, one needs to look back at least to the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it is one of the main misconceptions about Russian foreign policy that all its supposed negative or even hostile traits are being ascribed solely to Putin’s ascendancy to power while we tend to wholesale forget about Yeltsin’s era, for instance. It can be, however, argued that Putin’s foreign policy is all but a continuation of a long and painful process of Russia’s quest for its place in the world.
Given Russia’s geopolitical realities and its historical experience, Moscow is presupposed to strive to reinvent itself as an influential actor on the world stage. Moreover, as is the case with any other country, Russia seeks to establish a safe environment around itself. Disagree though we may on the means, which Moscow employs to attain this goal, one can hardly deny Russia its right to promote its national interests. In other words, Russia has every right to implement policies that would bear fruits for the country’s well-being. This is not however to say that every aspect of Russian foreign policy is acceptable in its own right and of course there have been some worrying trends in Russian foreign policy now and then but one should be careful to dismiss it on the grounds that Moscow has been acting in some sort of neo-imperialistic mold. Detractors of Russia would, perhaps rightly, point out that the country’s foreign policy can be hardly separated from its domestic affairs, namely a supposed crack-down on democracy taking place under Putin’s watch. Yet again a Russian democracy is far from being the mirror image of a Western style democracy and even Yeltsin had displayed some anti-democratic tendencies as he was fending off his political rivals. Indeed, Russian democracy is still in a painful process of maturation, which is further being complicated by the undeniable lack of previous exposure to democratic principles of governance.
Going back to Russian foreign policy, it makes itself heard especially with regard to a global energy market, Russia’s relations with former soviet republics and last but not least there is a host of specific issues to which Moscow pursues an overtly assertive policy even to the point it is in clear defiance with the West.
Firstly, there is the question of Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier, which for Europe as a whole matters a great deal. What is more, one might wonder to what extent Moscow can exploit its energy-leverage in order to affect its consumers‘ political course. With recent gas crises in Ukraine and Georgia in mind, Russia is being portrayed as a cunning puppet-master ready to abuse its wealth of natural recourses to pursue its agenda. Russia is however, much more constrained in its freedom of action than it might seem. In fact, for Moscow oil and gas export is one if not the principal source of revenue, so if Russia attempted to cut off oil supply to the European market, it would in turn inadvertently badly damage its economy. Similarly, assuming that Russia can redirect a bulk of its energy export toward East-Asian markets does not seem to be based on reality. For Russia to do so it would entail not only considerable technical difficulties but also a host of security implications especially with regard to China. Vast mostly uninhabited expenses of Russian Far East rich in natural resources seem to be too much of a temptation for neighboring, overpopulated and energy-hungry China. Russian leadership is more or less aware of the situation and is therefore very careful with its pronouncements concerning building pipelines directly to China, which Peking is of course longing for.
The China-Russian relations are rather circumspect glued only by both countries‘ opposition to the notion of a world run by the USA as the only superpower. At the end of the day, however, China and Russia tout their cooperation in order to impress the outside world rather than to translate it into real actions.
Secondly, when we turn to what once used to be the Soviet Union, we see how Russia has been struggling to redefine its relations with post-soviet republics. Long gone are the times of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) a regional grouping once seen as a means of projecting Moscow’s power throughout a former Soviet space, Russia now stresses the need for nurturing bilateral relations or promoting various smaller clearly one-purpose-groupings, witness the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) for instance.
Yet still, Russian leadership feels apprehensive of the outsiders‘ meddling in what is perceived as its natural sphere of influence. Indeed, the outbreak of the so-called “colored revolutions” propelled Moscow to act more erratic in an effort to stem further changes. True or not, some political forces in Russia blame Washington in this regard and want Russia to do more to limit the US influence in the region. In cooperation with its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCE) Moscow openly calls for the withdrawal of the US forces form Central Asia and is ready to back the regimes, which have fallen from Washington’s grace recently. Some even speak of the dawn of a new Great Game with the United States and Russia competing for the influence in the Central Asian region.
It goes by no surprise then that Moscow wants to maintain its influence in its immediate neighborhood as it would be the case with any other country. Russia nevertheless realizes its limits and refrains from policies which would prove too costly both financially and politically. Pushing for more cooperation in energy Russia gradually emphasizes over all economic cooperation with former Soviet republics. Worth-mentioning is the fact that although it might be partly politically motivated, Moscow’s unwillingness to supply its neighbors with cheap oil and gas is rather economically motivated than anything else. In fact, even as far as Belorussia is concerned, Moscow ponders ceasing supplying it with cheap energy.
With respect to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, conflict resolution and other issues of global importance, Russia wants to be included in the decision making processes of these issues. During the Soviet era, it was said that there was hardly an issue not to be solved without Moscow taking part in it. This however changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia saw its influence dwindle and often its voice ignored. Beginning with the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as Russian Foreign Minister, Russia was slowly but surly returning back in places like the Middle East and the Balkans. At that time, Russian foreign policy has made some headway in strengthening its image as an international actor.
The growing importance of Russia as an energy supplier coupled with the intermittent rows with Washington has emboldened Moscow to pursue a more daring foreign policy course. In fact, Russia refuses to back down in its weapons sales to Venezuela, Iran and other countries deemed by some Western countries as a security threat. Furthermore, together with China, Moscow opposes sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council and continues helping the Iranian regime with building the Bushehr nuclear plant. Although at the same time, Russian diplomats attempt to talk Teheran into making its nuclear program more transparent. The Russian more assertive foreign policy stance no doubt irritates Washington and at least publicly sends the US-Russian relationship to its record low since Putin’s coming to power.
Concluding, Russia is growing in importance in the international arena and this trend will probably continue for some time to come. Faced with still huge internal problems, it is however uncertain how much of a regional power Russia can become. In a sense Russia is still in transition, meaning that for Russia to succeed as a country in the future, it will be pivotal first of all to sort out its internal difficulties, which could be only possible with a friendly and prosperous international environment to which Russia will make its way as a respectable member.