Highs and Lows: Russia’s Foreign Policy at the start of 2018
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Dmitry V. Trenin

National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
The Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),
Moscow, Russia
The Center for International Security
The Sector for Non-Proliferation and Arms Limitation
Lead Researcher

The year 2017 brought Russian foreign policy both major successes and bitter disappointments. One clear accomplishment has been the completion of the main phase of the military operation in Syria. Russia did not only reach its immediate objectives of keeping the Bashar Assad regime in power and thus ensuring the legal integrity of the Syrian state, as well as defeating the forces of the Islamic State organization, which is officially prohibited in Russia as terrorist. It also achieved an intermediate objective of making Russia again an influential player in the Middle East, and reached the ultimate objective of the entire Syrian operation: confirming Russia’s status as a global great power.

Relations with the West, on the other hand, brought nothing but disappointment. Hopes that new U.S. President Donald Trump would end the standoff with Russia weren’t just dashed, but replaced with far gloomier forecasts regarding the future of Russian-U.S. relations.

The investigation of Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which seeks to uncover evidence of treason in the actions of Trump and his team, has created a psychological climate in the United States in which Congress continues to expand sanctions against Russia in retribution for Kremlin interference in the U.S. election, while the media portray Russia as a greater enemy of the United States than the Soviet Union was.

In late January 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department came up with a long list of Russian officials and business figures with close links to the Kremlin. While no new U.S. sanctions were announced, this “naming and shaming” of two hundred-plus prominent Russian people enhanced Russia’s reputation in the West as a “toxic” country. In these conditions, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to build a personal relationship with Trump can have only very modest results.

Europe yielded further disappointment for Russia. The winner of the May 2017 presidential election in France wasn’t the candidate favored by Moscow, François Fillon, but rather Emmanuel Macron, who is significantly tougher on Russia. Hopes that Paris would spearhead the process of easing and then lifting sanctions against Russia have evaporated, and the dynamics of French foreign policy under Macron are more likely to drive Moscow and Paris further apart politically than to bring them closer together. 

A similar trend has been developing during the past few years in Russo-German relations, which have regressed from being a crucial pillar of stability in Europe to mutual irritation and growing suspicion. Focused on managing its internal problems, the European Union — with the exception of its eastern flank member states — is less interested in Russia than ever before. As a result, Moscow hasn’t been able to compensate for the virtual blockade in relations with the United States by making progress in Europe.

The central cause of Russia’s troubled relations with Europe is the enduring armed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region and the inability of the parties to conflict even to effect a ceasefire along the line of contact. Constant crossfire with continued casualties runs counter to Moscow’s interests and only reinforces Kiev’s claim as a victim of aggression.

Aware of this, as well as of the low probability of regime change in Ukraine in a direction favorable to the Kremlin, Putin proposed last autumn deploying UN peacekeepers to the region. Predictably, Ukraine and the United States rejected this “Cyprus-style” model for freezing the conflict. Russia, in turn, rebuffed European attempts to extend Putin’s proposal to the entire conflict region. Contacts between the Kremlin and the White House representatives on Ukraine have not yet borne fruit. If Syria was the high point of Russian policy in 2017, Ukraine was undoubtedly its low point.

Compared with these major successes and bitter disappointments, other aspects of Russia’s foreign policy were not so sensational. China has been getting increasingly greater access to Russian energy resources and military technologies, while Moscow has been working closer with Beijing to coordinate policies in the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. 

At the same time, wider economic cooperation between Russia and China has not moved ahead too far. Russia’s response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has been underwhelming, and the asymmetry is growing between Russia, which has yet to launch its strategy for economic and scientific-technological development, and the increasingly stronger and more dynamic China. 

Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have gradually built a relationship of greater trust and mutual understanding, and the two nations are on the verge of addressing the most sensitive subjects in bilateral relations: a potential peace treaty and the territorial dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands.

No analysis of developments in Russia’s foreign policy in 2017 is complete, however, without a brief overview of two other factors: the methods and the costs of foreign policy.

Recently, Russia has significantly expanded its foreign policy arsenal. Foreign propaganda, which was thought to have perished along with the Soviet Union, has instead been reborn in a new, more dynamic form, and has become a key component of Moscow’s foreign policy. 

The new propaganda does not tout the achievements of the Russian political system, economy, science and technology, culture, or ideology and values. Nor does it endeavor to promote the Russian foreign policy agenda. Instead, it focuses on criticizing modern Western society (from within rather than from without), discrediting Western democracy “in its true form,” and articulating a compelling alternative to mainstream media. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the Western radio propaganda that was popular in the U.S.S.R.

Another development is the diversification of Moscow’s political contacts. For many years, contact was limited to communication with government officials and the systemic opposition. Today, the playing field is much wider. A landmark move was the very public invitation of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen to the Kremlin during the French election campaign. 

Russian politicians are forging connections with forces in Europe that are considered to be far right or far left. Using state-controlled media, Moscow makes clear its preferred candidates in various elections, expressing a willingness to work with any candidates who enjoy substantive support in their own countries.

Russia likely learned this from watching the frequent contact between top Western officials and the non-systemic opposition in countries with authoritarian regimes. These contacts often include material support, whether open or covert. The new communication format, on top of the resurgence of foreign policy propaganda, has shocked Western elites, which had gotten unaccustomed over the past three decades to seeing Moscow’s political activism in external arenas.

The third innovation is the involvement in Russian foreign policy of citizens and groups that are ostensibly not linked to the state. Putin has referred to “patriotic hackers,” the presence of Russian “volunteers” in the Donbas is openly admitted, and there are reports of private military contractors in Syria. There are media that are privately owned but are “friendly” to the Kremlin, and sponsors that finance various projects beneficial to the Kremlin.

This expansion of its foreign policy arsenal allows Russia to take actions without formally being responsible for them. In this respect, the Russian authorities, which likely coordinate the activity in one way or another, are following the example of today’s Western world — with its numerous players that frequently work in the foreign policy arena hand in hand with government representatives in some semblance of a public-private partnership — rather than the example of the Soviet Union.

The scale and scope of Russia’s current foreign policy present a sharp contrast to its limited economic and financial capabilities. Judging from Putin’s statements, the Kremlin is aware of the risk of potential overexertion: the lesson of the Soviet Union is still fresh in the memories of many. Indirect indicators suggest that Russia was able to keep expenses on the Syria campaign affordable. Furthermore, the campaign paid for itself — and will continue to do so — by raising the prestige of Russia and Russian weapons in the Middle East, one of the world’s main arms markets. 

On the other hand, some moves, such as the invitation of Le Pen to the Kremlin, are probably intended to make a statement rather than to achieve a concrete result. The presumed actions of Russian “patriotic hackers” in the United States prompted such outrage that the U.S. political elite took a unanimous and tough anti-Russian stance, which translated into harsher sanctions. The main problem here appears to be that the Kremlin got carried away with the tactical effects and operational aspects of foreign policy, without setting strategic objectives and working out the means to achieve them. And this, of course, is not a new problem.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.