From a Post-Soviet to a Russian Foreign Policy
No. 4 2008 October/December
Alexander V. Lukin

Doctor of Philosophy
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Institute for International Studies
Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Head of the Department of International Relations


SPIN RSCI: 6899-4298
ORCID: 0000-0002-1962-2892
ResearcherID: L-4986-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 7102949872


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: Room 4101, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia.

Russia took military action in support of South Ossetia last
August and this has undermined the model of Russian-Western
relations that arose in the 1990s and has created a new situation
in the world – one of real, rather than declared, multipolarity.
The backbone elements are Moscow’s refusal to stick to the rules of
the game laid down by the West and its readiness to oppose the
West, at least in some aspects that have a bearing on Russia’s
fundamental interests, even at the cost of a serious confrontation.
What is the root cause of the situation and its aftermath for
Russia and how should we construe our policy so as to use it in our


Back in 1951, the widely acclaimed U.S. expert on Soviet policy
George Kennan wrote: “These […] are the things for which an
American well-wisher may hope from the Russia of the future: that
she lift forever the Iron Curtain, that she recognize certain
limitations to the internal authority of government, and that she
abandon, as ruinous and unworthy, the ancient game of imperialist
expansion and oppression.” He made a remark further, saying: “If
she is prepared to do these things, then Americans will not need to
concern themselves more deeply with her nature and purposes; the
basic demands of a more stable world order will then have been met,
and the area in which a foreign people can usefully have thoughts
and suggestions will have been filled.”

Russia surpassed all the expectations of U.S. analysts in 1991
and 1992 as the Soviet Union fell apart. Moscow recognized the full
independence of not only all its former Eastern European
satellites, but the independence of the former Soviet republics, as
well. The Communist Party lost power; and a democratic opposition
seized the helm and launched radical market reforms. More than
that, the government embarked on an overtly pro-Western foreign
policy course and accepted the role of a junior partner to the
“civilized world.”

But let us turn back to George Kennan’s article. He foresaw the
complexities that would arise in defining state sovereignty in case
the Soviet Union transformed into a freer state, and he called for
refraining from accelerating the collapse of the country. Kennan,
the author of the ‘containment’ doctrine, believed that the U.S.
“would do well to avoid incurring any responsibility for views or
positions on these subjects; for any specific solutions they may
advocate will some day become a source of great bitterness against
them, and they will find themselves drawn into controversies that
have little or nothing to do with the issue of human freedom.”

Kennan went on to say: “What is plainly necessary, and the only
solution worthy of American encouragement, is the rise of such a
spirit among all the peoples concerned as would give to border and
institutional arrangements in that troubled area an entirely new,
and greatly reduced, significance. Whether that spirit will
actually arise, we cannot tell. And precisely because we cannot
tell this, Americans should be extremely careful in committing
their support or encouragement to any specific arrangements in this
sphere […].” He predicted, among other things, the inevitable
independence of the Baltic states, but he said along with it that
“Ukraine is economically as much a part of Russia as Pennsylvania
is a part of the United States,” and that is why he called for
staying away from advocating some kind of specific status for it in

Kennan also issued a warning with regard to the satellite states
– the Eastern European countries dependent on the Soviet Union.
While speaking out for their full independence, he observed that
the Americans willing to ooze encouraging influence in that part of
the world would do a good thing by telling their friends in the
countries behind the Iron Curtain – provided they had them there –
that they should stop speculating wearingly over the so-called
national borders and patriotic feelings of misled language

The U.S. and European diplomacy acted on George Kennan’s
recommendations in the opposite way. Nationalism in Yugoslavia and
in the former Soviet Union was used to undermine their sovereignty
and to weaken these two states. Anti-Russian feelings in the
countries that used to make up the Soviet Union or that stayed
within its sphere of influence were instigated in every conceivable
manner. The West did not feel satisfied with the fact that the
Soviet Union had changed beyond the U.S. leaders’ most audacious
dreams. A decision was taken to continue pressing Russia until it
fully submitted its foreign policy to Washington’s desires,
ephemeral and controversial at times.

This kind of approach to Russia has invited criticism in the
U.S., as well. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman
described the U.S. disputes on this in an article in mid-August
2008: “Let’s start with us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union,
I was among the group – led by George Kennan, the father of
‘containment’ theory, Senator Sam Nunn and the foreign policy
expert Michael Mandelbaum – that argued against expanding NATO, at
that time. It seemed to us that since we had finally brought down
Soviet communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia the most
important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and
integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the Cold
War – to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and
integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles?
Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than
bringing the Czech Navy into NATO? All of this was especially true
because, we argued, there was no big problem on the world stage
that we could effectively address without Russia […]. No, said the
Clinton foreign policy team, we’re going to cram NATO expansion
down the Russians’ throats, because Moscow is weak and, by the way,
they’ll get used to it. Message to Russians: We expect you to
behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like
you’re still the Soviet Union. The Cold War is over for you, but
not for us.”

The U.S. calculations proved to be wrong – it did not take
account of either the real international situation, Russia’s size
as a country or the nature of its political culture. First and
foremost, the growth in world energy prices, which had in many ways
been boosted by U.S. foreign policy, and a rationalization of the
Russian government’s economic course led to a sizable increase in
Russia’s financial capabilities. But even regardless of the whims
of the market, it was illogical at the least to hope that a country
like Russia would always remain weak and irresolute. That is why
the course, which the veteran Russian diplomat Anatoly Adamishin
described by citing the Italian saying “to give out nothing, to
take away everything and to demand more,” was fraught with

The aftermath saw the disillusionment of the elites and the
rank-and-file with the West’s foreign policy and models of
development, which gave a push to the strengthening of
authoritarian tendencies and reduced the influence of liberal
parties and the models of development they promoted. Russian
foreign policy then turned toward the setting up of an alternative
center of power.


While Soviet foreign policy was based on an ideological
confrontation with the “imperialist world” personified by the West
and the facilitation of its destruction was the eventual objective
of that policy, post-Soviet foreign policy was the carryover of
residual Soviet features; i.e., the paradigm centered on the
exclusive role of interaction with the West minus the radical goal
of the latter’s destruction. This means that post-Soviet policy
evolved from the realization that the former “imperialist world”
(now labeled by different political forces in Russia as “the
civilized world,” the West, NATO, the Euro-Atlantic Axis, etc.) was
the center of the universe and the only actor in world politics
worth giving attention to. It suggested that Russia should interact
with almost no one else but the “civilized world.” The Russian
political leadership in various periods (and various political
forces with differing political orientation) called for different,
and often quite opposing, forms of interaction with the West,
ranging from full incorporation as a junior partner (like it was in
the early 1990s) to putting up tough opposition to the West (like
what happened soon after the bombing raids started against

However, even though the concept of multipolarity was specified
in the official documents on foreign policy and they would set out
Russia’s foreign policy priorities correctly at times, the
practical foreign policy steps did not go beyond the traditional
Russian-Western post-Soviet paradigm, while relations with other
partners (China, Iran, the Middle East) would often be viewed as a
lever for putting pressure on the West or as a mechanism for
influencing it. These regions were not viewed as actors having
significance per se.

This post-Soviet approach was grounded in the first place in the
residual Soviet mentality of the people standing at the helm of
foreign policy and was highly counterproductive, as it impeded the
correct identification of Russian foreign policy interests and the
efficacious implementation of measures backing them up. Instead,
foreign policy making turned into an endless chain of intermittent
concessions and confrontational gestures toward the West. Moscow
made concessions – often to the detriment of Russia’s national
interests – with the hope that they would be reciprocated, and when
no reciprocal steps were made, it would launch acts of revenge
stemming from the logic that suggested: “Take that and enjoy it,
although it won’t make us any better off.” This kind of policy
could be seen almost throughout the entire tenure of Foreign
Minister Andrei Kozyrev. It gave way to a tougher line when Yevgeny
Primakov replaced Kozyrev as foreign minister. Senseless
concessions on the Yugoslav problems had led to the UN enforcement
of the blockade of Yugoslavia and they could not be remedied with
the aid of overdue efforts to prevent the bombing of Serbia. Once
the bombing raids did begin, inefficient manifestations of
displeasure followed, including Primakov’s famous order to turn his
jet back home over the Atlantic. Victor Chernomyrdin’s advice to
Slobodan Milosevic to give up positions during the bombings was
followed by the senseless and sudden advance of Russian
paratroopers from Bosnia to Kosovo and their subsequent and equally
senseless withdrawal from there. The first years of the 21st
century were also marked with a number of irrational gestures of
goodwill, like the shutting down of a Russian radio electronic
surveillance center at Lourdes, Cuba, and a Russian naval base in
Cam Ranh, Vietnam. Experts differ in their assessments of the need
for both shutdowns, but in any case those decisions could have been
taken in the format of a bilateral agreement with the U.S. and not
as unilateral concessions.

This tendency saw a special surge after September 11, 2001, when
Russia fully supported the U.S. In addition, it offered a feeble
reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile
Treaty and did not object to the deployment of anti-terrorist
coalition forces in Central Asia. A reversion came about, however,
when no reciprocal reaction came from the West. The follow-up
embraced the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) calls in
2005 for coalition countries to decide on the deadlines for the
stay of their military contingents in SCO member-states, arms deals
with Iran, Syria and Venezuela, demarches against Britain, a
suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, etc.
When seen against the background of blatant lobbying in favor of
major corporations, this policy of flip-flops resulted in the lack
of practical achievements in the international arena. Russia’s
image plummeted in the West, where Russia was perceived as a
forced, complicated and unpredictable partner, and in other parts
of the globe, where Moscow’s conduct was seen as the one lacking a
clear line.

In theory, Russia faced a choice between a return to the policy
in the format of the Western system and strategy, and the upkeep of
an independent line. However, the policies pursued by the West –
and primarily by Washington – deprived Moscow of this choice. On
the foreign policy plane, Russia could not turn into a country in
the vein of Poland that always comes around to fundamental
concessions in spite of certain frictions, or in the vein of Japan
and Turkey, whose specific internal organization is always pardoned
due to their strategic significance and full obedience in issues of
military strategy. The West has embraced them as valuable members
of the coalition and ones whose opinions are heeded. As for Russia,
it was issued a demand for unconditional surrender on all

By taking military action in South Ossetia, Russia sent a
justified – and quite possibly, much overdue – signal that it did
not find the post-Soviet foreign policy paradigm acceptable any
longer. The West did miss a historic opportunity to incorporate
Russia into the system of its own unions, as it preferred minor and
instantaneous interests instead to Russia. Yet one should perceive
this as a reality. The commonplace grievances against the West and
the willingness to serve it in the same way are unacceptable for
Russia both from the point of view of its genuine interests and its
real capabilities. There is much more practicality in the
recommendations of people who say that Moscow should formulate for
itself and offer to the world a program of realistic and pragmatic
foreign policy matching its genuine strategic interests and the
goals of economic and social development. (For an example of this
see Alexei Arbatov’s article “Don’t Throw Stones in a Glass House”.
Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3, July-September 2008.)


A foreign policy course that meets Russia’s national interests
in earnest could become an alternative to the post-Soviet approach.
Its goal might be a return of foreign policy attractiveness to
Russia – something that is known as ‘soft power’ today.
Historically, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union had certain
attractiveness. The Russian Empire symbolized the Orthodox
Christian world and was a center of gravity for pan-Slavic
movements. At certain periods it was a pillar of struggle with
international revolutionary tendencies, like after the defeat of
Napoleonic France. The Soviet Union offered an alternative to
bourgeois civilization and quite a number of people would long view
it as a rising ideal society, for which they were ready to
sacrifice their lives. Today’s Russia does not offer anything –
apart from its mineral resources – that would deserve at least some
interest, to say nothing of sacrificing one’s life. Its soft power,
non-aggressive attraction, and moral and ideological influence have
dropped to zero. It does not promote either a democratic ideal
(similar to the U.S.) or a fundamentalist ideal (similar to some
Islamic countries and movements). It does not serve as a model of
successful integration on the basis of democracy (like the EU) or a
pattern of speedy development (like China that has aroused global
interest with the so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’ as an alternative
to the ‘Washington Consensus’). Russia is not a crucial and useful
ally for anyone (the way Japan is for the U.S.) or anyone’s bitter
enemy (like Iran is for the U.S.). Naturally, someone can say that
the world has a large number of countries that do not offer
anything special to mankind (e.g. the small states of Europe). But
they do not claim the role of independent centers of power, to say
nothing of being separate civilizations, since they are part of the
European one. In the meantime, an attempt to integrate Russia into
Europe flopped, and that is why Russia must look for ways to
consolidate its own soft power and seek things that it could offer
to the rest of the world, albeit not on the Soviet scale of the

Russia’s transition to a new foreign policy envisions a number
of measures: to formulate basic national interests; to understand
which of them correspond to the interests of other major
international players in the field of world politics; to turn the
areas of convergent interests into guidelines for Russian foreign
policy attractiveness; and, by cooperating in those areas, to
induce partners to concessions on the items where their interests
are not identical with Russia’s.


The sphere of Russia’s fundamental national interests should not
be interpreted too broadly, especially considering Russia’s current
position. It must incorporate solely the interests that are
directly relevant to the future of the nation, the ones the nation
should defend with all of its might. The Russia of today does not
seek to conquer the world or to subdue it with the aid of its
ideology in the manner that the Soviet Union did, and that is why
it has much more modest national interests. Russia’s general
objective today consists of speedy economic and social development,
improving living standards so that they match those in the most
developed nations, and ensuring political and social stability.
This objective provides for setting the following foreign policy

1. A leading role in combating the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), first of all
nuclear armaments. The goal of this struggle is specified in all
the major documents on Russian foreign policy, but in reality
Russia has taken a very inactive position in the area. One can
clearly see here a post-Soviet paradigm that dictated the
dependence of each specific case on the level of relations between
Moscow and the West, as well as on the benefits that one or another
group of lobbyists could draw from cooperation with each particular
country in the sphere of defense or nuclear technologies. The
result is that Russia not only declines to position itself as an
unambiguous opponent of proliferation, but, on the contrary, it
tries to mitigate the measures taken by partners, as in the
situation with Iran or North Korea. For a number of reasons a
position of this kind obviously stands in discrepancy with its own

Russia is the only country capable of delivering a retaliatory
nuclear strike against the U.S. It is one of the two nuclear giants
in this sphere – a factor putting it on a par with the U.S. and
above all other countries. Proliferation of WMD devalues its
military power and objectively reduces its influence in today’s
world, as Russia is behind not only the U.S., but also many other
states in all other aspects (conventional armed forces, economic
might, etc.).

Proceeding from this, Russia needs to play a leading role in
adopting collective measures against countries with aspirations in
the field of WMD. It must have an opportunity to act against them
resolutely and even unilaterally in some cases.

2. A leading role in fighting international
terrorism and religious extremism. International terrorism and
religious, above all Islamic, extremism poses no less a threat to
Russia than to the West, and that is why we must move over to a
policy of authoring our own initiatives and backing them up with
practical steps instead of passive participation or
acceptance/non-acceptance of one or another Western initiative.

For instance, Russia could put forth new proposals on
stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and curbing the drug
threat coming out of there. It could rally the mechanisms of the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization to this end, for instance.
Central Asian countries and Afghanistan itself, which is clearly
frustrated by the Western military operation, would hail an
activation of Russia’s encouraging role. The matter at hand is the
full-scale ensuring of Central Asian security using the resources
of the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
On a broader scale, Russia could conduct a tougher policy toward
the organizations and states sponsoring international terrorism,
and support secular regimes in countries with a predominantly
Muslim population. This should not be accompanied by interventions
in their domestic affairs under the pretext of defending human
rights (like the West does).

3. Strengthening friendly regimes in
neighboring countries. Every country has a natural desire to see
friendly regimes in neighboring countries. The persistent attuning
of relations with them might set the scene for the resolution of
Russia’s top national task priority for today – rapid economic and
social growth. Moscow’s inconsistent course and the provocative
policies of the West have so far been producing an impression on
some of Russia’s neighbors that extreme Russophobia in foreign
policy pays back in terms of economic benefits and security
guarantees from the West.

The new situation in Georgia should change this impression to
some degree. Georgian orientation toward NATO and the U.S. and
radical Russophobia, to which the Georgian government linked its
hopes for the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity,
have failed, as the West has actually turned out to be incapable of
guaranteeing Georgia’s security and territorial integrity. This was
a discouraging lesson for some countries, and subsequent events –
like the rather cool reception given to U.S. Vice President Richard
Cheney in Baku or the toning down of anti-Russian rhetoric by some
forces in Ukraine – suggest that definite conclusions have been
made. Still, a positive program is needed all the same. Russia must
show that good relations with it provide firm guarantees of
sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow could issue such
guarantees on its own, as well as within the framework of the CSTO
and, to some extent, the SCO.

The threat of terrorism linked to Islamic radicalism and the
problem of drug trafficking causes the biggest concern in the field
of security in many CIS countries, and especially in Central Asia.
If Russia turned into a world leader in fighting these perils, it
would give a boost to its image in this part of the world. As for
territorial integrity, CIS countries are mostly concerned with
various forms of separatism in this area, and the hasty official
recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did little to build up
Russia’s popularity. As it is impossible to play the situation over
now, explanations are needed to suggest that the refusal to
acknowledge the territorial integrity of Georgia was a very special
case touched off by extreme Georgian nationalism and anti-Russian
policies. But given a more acceptable political course by any other
of its neighbors, Russia (unlike NATO) would always be ready to use
all of its military might to protect a neighbor’s territorial

Apart from the factors involving force, we must also use
economic levers. Neighboring states friendly to Russia should be
entitled to tangible economic benefits. The case in hand does not
imply any subsidies. It implies mutually beneficial economic
measures – preferential access to markets, priority issuance of
contracts, etc. It is important for Russia to resolutely break up
situations where neighbors with high anti-Russian sentiments – like
Estonia or Latvia – get big bonuses from economic cooperation with
Russia, while countries that treat Russia fairly get nothing in
return. This requires a firm state position, a suppression of
egotistic interests of certain corporations and, in some case, a
subordination of purely financial interests of the state to an
overall foreign policy course meeting the interests of the

4. Areas of convergence with Western interests.
Russia needs smooth working relations with the West that would
facilitate its economic progress and attaining a prominent place in
world politics. Alexei Arbatov made an accurate observation when he
said that in a multipolar world “the current international system
[…] puts into a more lucrative position the nation or the coalition
that builds better relations with centers of power” (“Don’t Throw
Stones in a Glass House”. Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3,
July-September 2008, p. 204). Some of the aforementioned Russian
interests are identical or partly coincide with the interests of
the West. In the first place, these are the nonproliferation of WMD
and fighting international terrorism and drug trafficking.
Cooperation can and must be continued in these areas. The problem
is that the West’s previous policies have stripped it of any trust
from Russia.

Proceeding from the above, cooperation with the West must not be
unconditional, but based on clear-cut agreements (preferably
written ones) pegged to a system of mutual concessions. Verbal
assurances alone will not do. For instance, Russia may toughen its
position on the Iranian nuclear problem, step up joint efforts in
Afghanistan or stay away from exporting some armaments to certain
countries, but it must have a clear answer about the benefits it
will get in return. Reluctance to agree with Moscow or a desire to
violate already concluded agreements must see tough measures in
response. This is the only way to rebuild the reputation of a
decent and consistent partner.

5. Relations with other centers of power. The
role of the SCO as an organization instrumental in coordinating
interests with China – another center of power – is growing for
Russia in a genuinely multipolar world. In being less powerful than
the West, Moscow and Beijing will seek closer cooperation, although
their interests will not always be identical. For instance, China
will not support Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, yet it will watch with satisfaction Moscow’s efforts to
stop a further expansion of NATO. Another tantalizing prospect is
to set up an organization that is an alternative to the G8. It
might be formed through a merger of the informal BRIC (Brazil,
Russia, India and China) with several larger countries which the G8
will not admit for various reasons – for instance, Indonesia,
Malaysia, South Africa, Mexico and Nigeria. This association might
start competing with the G8’s economic influence in several years’
time, and Russia might consolidate its influence in the world
considerably being a member of both groups at the same time.

6. The Georgian dilemma. The situation in
Georgia as a precedent of Russia’s new political activity will
remain in the limelight of international politics for quite some
time in the sense that different countries and centers of power
will have to formulate their own assessments of it and put forward
various plans for changing it. In this context, Russia would flout
its own interests by rejecting all discussions of any
opportunities. Tbilisi may change the anti-Russian vector of its
policy, at least in theory, and Moscow should grease this change
even if the latter requires years or even decades to materialize.
The realization that Georgia has lost a part of its territory
precisely due to its pro-NATO drive and that the continuation of
this course will eternalize the impossibility of any cohabitation
with South Ossetia and Abkhazia must dawn on the Georgians some

As an example, one can look at the situation in Cyprus where the
Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by
Turkey, has existed as a real independent state for more than 20
years. The republic has agreed to talks with the Greek
Cypriot-controlled part of Cyprus under pressure from Ankara that
craves EU membership, although the outcome of these talks is yet
unclear. Georgia has not shown any stimuli yet that might prompt
Russia to exert pressure on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the
contrary, its diehard confidence in the potency of Western
pressures as a tool for resolving any problems has produced a
directly opposite reaction. But if forces crop up in Georgia that
will assess the prospects for coexistence with Abkhazia and South
Ossetia pragmatically and not in the terms of ideologized
post-Soviet mentality, the idea of a neutral status and the
observance of some other rules of the game might generate a proper
stimulus. Naturally, it is still too early to say what forms such
coexistence might take, but in any case they must be absolutely
acceptable to the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

7. Importance of informational activity. Moscow
did not come off well on the information plane during the events in
South Ossetia, and especially during the first days of the conflict
when it found itself unable to adequately present to the
international mass media its own position and the real state of
affairs in the conflict zone. Part of the blame for this goes to
Russia itself, even though it did run into a wall of ideologically
anti-Russian information. The interesting thing is that assertions
about Russia’s strength and the lack of a need to explain anything
to anyone are coming precisely from the people who failed to duly
inform international public opinion earlier. Such assertions are
highly dangerous, as they may result in the isolation of Russia in
the global information sphere and subsequently in other spheres, as

The situation makes it necessary to set up a state agency
responsible for the timely updating of foreign reporters on real
events. Had such an agency been set up before August 2008, the
world would have perceived Russia’s position with much more
understanding today.