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Russian foreign policy in the 21st century

Jakub Kulhánek Jakub Kulhánek / Ed. 18. 2. 2016

Russian foreign policy has been a constant source of controversy, especially recently as Moscow moved to exercise a more assertive policy on the international stage. Moreover, some people even speak about the impeding Cold War-like confrontation with Russia. Indeed, much has been written about the alleged worsening in West-Russia relations; however, this rather insular assessment of the current developments in Russian external relations fails to address the broader picture of the long-term trends in Russian foreign policy dynamics.

This paper intends to offer a distinct view of Russian foreign policy in order to set parameters in which Russia may act in the international arena, at least in the short term. By no means, however, should this paper be considered an attempt at a thorough analysis of Russian external relations. In its analysis, this paper will draw on the already discernable trends in Russian foreign policy conduct. The point of departure for this article is the assertion that Russian foreign policy finds itself in the seemingly unfinished process of transformation, whereby still struggling to make sense of the country’s role in the world.

Russia, awash in oil money, desires to raise its global profile. This is happening in sharp contrast to the relative state of weakness the country had experienced for much of the 1990s. Consumed by a myriad of internal problems and cherishing false hopes of reversing the decline of Russian influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin had pursued incoherent and often misguided policies with little hope of success. This short-lived love affair with the West in the early 1990s quickly gave way to increasingly erratic outbursts from Moscow, indignant at what it perceived as little respect for its interests abroad. The more Russia tried to play great power politics, however, the more it was made to realize the painful limits of its own power. The apparent ineptitude of Russian foreign policy was, for instance, clearly manifested during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Ostensibly, the lessons of that era were not lost on the Russian political elite; they were in large measure to shape Russia’s foreign policy perspective.

The dawn of Yeltsin’s presidency saw attempts at a more pragmatic foreign policy approach, if only out of ever increasing awareness of its own limitation. Yet, it was not until Vladimir Putin’s elevation to the Kremlin for Russia to fully embrace pragmatism in international affairs in order to conduct its relations with the outside world in such a way as to make complimentary its goals with it existing capabilities. Not only is Putin credited for the economization of Russian foreign policy, but also he is recognized for adopting a more pro-Western orientation. This was mainly true of Putin’s first term in office. Moreover, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 apparently enabled the Russian leader to push for stronger ties with the West. A good case in point is Putin’s consent to US troop deployments in Central Asia.

However decisive a moment for Russian foreign policy, Russia’s choosing to cooperate with the US-led coalition may not have been much of a choice after all; the country’s options were very limited. First, the rapidly changing international environment following the events of September 11, 2001 created a new geopolitical paradigm in which Russia and other countries had to operate. Second, Putin’s freedom to act levied was restrained by different cliques and interest groups inside Russia, although this was not to become apparent for some time.

In the same vein, one should perhaps look at what some now call a resurgent Russian foreign policy as not an aberration but as an onerous process of adjusting to post-Soviet realities. Arguably, this confrontational streak in Russian relations with the outside world is as much the result of a multitude of external and internal factors as it is the result of the intrinsic trends in the country’s foreign policy-making. First, Russia in the wake of 9/11 went again through the all too familiar pattern of longing for a privileged partnership with the West, only to incur a fall out with the West in general and the US in particular over some of their irreconcilable differences and unrealistic expectations. Second, Russia is in a far more advantageous geopolitical situation than was the case in the early 1990s, which means that Moscow can better project its influence abroad. Third, the notion of Russia as a great power – something that in fact has never quite disappeared from the Russian elite’s radar screen – again appears to be generating much excitement among the Russian foreign policy elite.

As things stand right now, Russia is returning to normalcy, following the cataclysmic events of 1991. Russia should be regarded as just another foreign policy actor and not an anomaly. Emboldened by its rise in power, Moscow might seek to play a far greater role in the world than the means at the disposal of the Russian government would allow. That said, Russia is on course to strive for more room to maneuver, perhaps as far as aspiring to become a new center of gravity like the US, EU and China. This inadvertently leads us to discuss what pitfalls may befall Russia down the road.

Russia faces very many challenges in the international arena; especially should the country opt out for a more ambitious foreign policy agenda. Nobody disputes Russia’s every right to project its influence abroad. However, this carries a risk that Russia’s foreign policy machinery may overheat. Similarly, is it really feasible, not to mention desirable, for Russia to compete with geopolitical heavyweights, such as the US, China and to some extent the EU. All this comes down to what extent Moscow will be able to tailor the country’s foreign policy according to its capabilities, while making sure Russia would not be marginalized either by its actions or other world powers.

To conclude, Russia is to pursue as independent a foreign policy course as possible, perhaps to much dismay of some in the West. While Russia is likely to remain a regional power in post-Soviet space, at the same time, it could only aspire to a second-tier super power status at best. Under the current circumstances, the deepening of the integration with Europe – arguably Russia’s natural choice – should be ruled out at least for now. In fact, it would be no small exaggeration that for the EU Russia may become a strategic competitor, perhaps the same way China is nowadays. In the end, the question remains to what extent Russia could afford to pursue an overly ambitious foreign policy agenda without exhausting its potential and thus banishing the country to ever greater international isolation.

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