Invigorating Russia’s Foreign Policy
No. 4 2005 October/December
Sergei Kortunov


Professor, is Head of the International Affairs Department at the State University–Higher School of Economics.

If the state of Russia’s foreign policy could be summed up in
one word, “crisis” would be the most fitting description. The
crisis is wide-ranging, systemic, and structural. Furthermore, it
is accompanied by highly coordinated pressure on Russia from the
principal international players. Meanwhile, talk about the
“pragmatism” of President Putin’s course is only designed to cover
up the obvious fact that the country’s foreign policy is sporadic
and based on a response-to-emergency formula. It is not built as a
coherent system of pre-emptive measures. Not surprisingly, Moscow
has been suffering one setback after another in international
At the same time, nobody doubts the high professionalism of
Russia’s diplomatic corps. What then are the causes of the
prevailing situation?


First, the crisis is conceptual: Russia lacks a viable,
realistic foreign policy concept. The Foreign Policy Concept of the
Russian Federation that the president approved in June 2000
contained many correct propositions and conclusions, but generally
speaking, it was obviously out-of-date. More importantly, neither
the concept nor the president’s subsequent pronouncements
(including his annual state-of-the-nation addresses to the Federal
Assembly) answered the question about Russia’s national identity.
Unfortunately, not only the outside world but even Russian society
itself still has trouble understanding what we are – an entirely
new state that was put on the map only in 1991. Is the new Russia
the successor to the Soviet Union who voluntarily “reduced” its
territory and swapped a planned economy for a wild-market economy,
or the legal inheritor of millennium-old Russian traditions?

Thomas Graham, a well-known U.S. political scientist, aptly
observed that the key to success lies in Russia’s new identity in
the contemporary world, something that the majority of the Russian
people and the country’s political elite are not ready for yet.
This lack of identity is the main reason why Russia has not yet
made a strategic choice as to which nations it views as allies and
which nations it views as adversaries.

Second, the crisis is institutional: there is no effective
mechanism for preparing, making or implementing foreign-policy
decisions. Unfortunately, during Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the
situation has not improved; in fact, it has worsened. The principle
of collegiality and transparency of foreign policy decision-making
is being applied much less consistently than it was under Boris
Yeltsin. This raises many questions about the rationale behind
specific moves, while the responsibility for foreign policy
activity rests with just one person – the Russian president.
Oftentimes, especially in dealing with the CIS countries (Belarus,
Ukraine, and Georgia), the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Russian
Security Council, and even the Foreign Policy Department of the
Presidential Administration have been sidelined, while the head of
state becomes a veritable hostage to his inner circle – a circle
that is not always very proficient. Generally speaking, the trend
toward a loosening of administrative discipline in the sphere of
foreign policy, which emerged under Boris Yeltsin, has deepened
greatly. Not even express directives from the Russian president are
carried out any longer.

As is popularly known, during the Soviet era there was a
coordination mechanism for the elaboration of foreign policy
positions – namely, the Interdepartmental Commission of the CPSU
Central Committee (the so-called “group of five”), which drafted
resolutions on basic national security matters with the
participation of the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the
KGB, and the Council of Ministers’ Military-Industrial Commission.
It was largely through this mechanism that the Soviet Union
achieved great successes in nuclear arms control, nonproliferation,
and the limitation of conventional forces in Europe. This mechanism
helped neutralize the active opponents of disarmament and
encouraged the country’s political and military leaders to search
for compromises with their partners. 

In post-Soviet Russia, however, nothing has come anywhere close
to such effectiveness. Attempts during the past several years to
install an appropriate mechanism – be it inside or outside the RF
Security Council – have been invariably thwarted by various state
and government agencies. Interagency commissions, however, only
lead to the dissipation of effort, duplication and, eventually, to
greater irresponsibility and lower effectiveness of state policy.
These commissions, which lie within the jurisdiction of the Russian
Security Council, are meant to harmonize security positions.
However, they are unable to take over the functions of drafting and
preparing appropriate decisions, or synchronizing the activities of
government ministries and departments. Furthermore, as it turns
out, the Foreign Ministry plays merely a symbolic role as a foreign
policy coordinator.

The truly titanic efforts by the RF president’s foreign policy
adviser are incapable of reversing this situation. Thus, there is
in effect no foreign policy coordination on the state level.

Judging by the extent to which Russia’s foreign policy
objectives are matched by the available means and resources, it
fails to rely on a system of strategic planning that considers
short-, medium- and long-term foreign policy options. Nor is there
a thorough analysis of the current international situation, which
cannot be based on any of the patterns or stereotypes inherited
from the Soviet era.

Perhaps only a handful of non-governmental organizations – such
as the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, the “Russia in a
United Europe” public committee, and the Expert Board of the
Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee – can be seen as an
embryo of such a system. The Kremlin, however, is not particularly
inclined to listen to the expert recommendations from these

The lack of a strategic planning system (the Strategic Planning
Group that was recently created at the RF Security Council does not
count), which would rest on a sound analytical basis, has in fact
caused Russia’s foreign policy crisis. After all, none of the
strategic objectives formulated by the country’s political
leadership during the past 15 years have been achieved.

An important, although not necessarily the main cause of
Russia’s foreign policy crisis, is its visibly declining
international image (although during the first several years of
Putin’s rule, it tended to improve). Unfortunately, in recent years
Russia has ceased to be an attractive partner for its neighbors. In
the past couple of years, Moscow has been confronting a barrage of
criticism (for the most part fair and well-grounded) from the
outside world. Experience shows that the semi-feudal relations that
still exist in a number of Russia’s internal-policy spheres are
utterly incompatible with the post-industrial architecture of the
developed world into which – judging by the Russian president’s
annual state-of-the-nation addresses to the Federal Assembly – it
wants to integrate.

Finally, there is a lack of well-trained, qualified personnel,
as well as a general degradation, of the diplomatic service. This
is largely due to the fact that a diplomatic career in Russia (in
contrast to all other countries, including former Soviet republics)
is no longer seen as prestigious, primarily because of poor
compensation. There are few young and talented cadres worthy of
replacing the handful of Foreign Service veterans who received
excellent schooling at the Soviet Foreign Ministry and are still at
their posts. This means only one thing: Russia is doomed to being
beaten by both its partners and opponents within the international


Sporadic, or purely subjective foreign policy decisions,
ill-considered and based on considerations of expediency, are
unacceptable in the modern world. This is what Russia – not only
its political leadership, but the entire political class – should
think about today.

First, in order to overcome the conceptual crisis in its foreign
policy, Russia should first correct the issue of its national
identity. Russia must make a clean break with the preposterous
attempts of the 1990s to come across as “pure and innocent” and
strive for a kind of “new” Russia that builds its statehood from
zero. The country should unequivocally and unconditionally define
itself as a successor to the historical – i.e., millennium-old –
Russia. It will of course have to assume responsibility for all of
its past sins, including – unpleasant as this may be – the sins of
the Soviet era. But the game is worth the candle; at this point,
Russia will once again become a subject of world history,
recognizable and understandable to all. Until it does this, our
foreign partners, including the United States, will hardly be able
to formulate a correct policy line toward Russia, maintaining their
wait-and-see position.

In other words, we should define our identity and tell the whole
world exactly what we are. This is critical, for instance, for
Russian-U.S. relations. If we have been in existence for a mere 15
years, then we cannot claim a more significant role than as a U.S.
client state. If we view ourselves as a mini-USSR, we are doomed to
mini-confrontation with the United States, not to mention defeat in
a mini-Cold War, and ultimately, mini-disintegration. If, however,
we define ourselves as millennium-old Russia, then partnership and
even strategic alliance with America, not to mention Europe, will
be a natural option for us.

It is also time for Russia to declare its national project,
which has yet to be finalized. As far as it can be interpreted from
disparate statements by the Russian leadership, in general outline,
this project boils down to two key ideas:

– modernization in the midst of a transition to postindustrial
society with all of its trappings, including the appropriate
quality of life and political freedoms for all citizens; and
– Russia’s cautious but sufficiently rapid integration into the
world economy as an equal partner of the developed countries, while
preserving its national sovereignty.

These two objectives are inseparable from each other: one cannot
be attained without the other. The first is directly linked with
Russia’s economic transition to an innovative development model (as
opposed to mobilization-based development, which is no longer
possible now); together with a move to a ‘knowledge economy’ that
is today the key to development in the postindustrial world. The
second task involves ensuring the competitiveness of sovereign
Russia, its economy, specific sectors of industry, companies,
businesspeople, and even ordinary citizens in the context of
globalization – in short, the task that was formulated by Vladimir
Putin in his 2003 state-of-the-nation address to the Federal

A reasonable and carefully formulated transition to an
innovative development model can, under certain circumstances,
ensure Russia the status as one of the world’s intellectual leaders
(one of the world’s principal science laboratories).

Postindustrial society as the basis of a national project also
puts the country’s foreign policy priorities into
In the foreign policy sphere, Russia should orient itself, above
all, toward those states that have already embraced an innovative
development model and built a postindustrial society, as well as
countries sharing the same cultural and other values, with Russia.
These are primarily countries of Western Europe and the United
States that are the cradle and foundation of our common Christian
civilization. It is important to uphold Russia’s European identity.
Russia is an inseparable part of Greater Europe, thus the European
vector is paramount.

At the same time, Russia should not bank on modern Europe
receiving it into its fold with outstretched arms. The Old World
has not as yet fully understood its own identity, let alone
formulated its attitude toward Russia (not least because Russia has
not defined its own identity). We have yet to prove to the
Europeans that Greater Europe – not the European Union as it is
today, but a truly inclusive community of European nations, capable
of developing dynamically and competing for influence with the
United States and the rapidly advancing Asian region – is
impossible without Russia on the economic, political, cultural or
military fronts.

Therefore, there can only be one principal development vector
for Russia, and that is in Greater Europe, without the dividing
lines where, for example, Ukraine would not be confronted with the
dilemma of orienting itself toward either the East or the West. The
contention that Russia is “too big for Europe” is ridiculous, to
say the least. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is not known for his
sympathy for Russia, has no doubt about its European future.
Russia’s security and democratic freedoms hinge on Europe; of
course, this is not going to happen next year, but in the next
decade, as he predicted in an interview with the Kommersant daily
in December 2004.

Geopolitically, Russia is a Eurasian and therefore a global
power. This makes it inevitable that it has close interaction with
key international players, above all China and India (these
countries are rapidly emerging as an important part of the world’s
innovative economy), Iran, the Arab countries and Turkey. Finally,
it necessitates a strategic alliance with the United States on
global security problems.

Yet such foreign policy strategies as “multivector setup,”
“multipolarity,” and “unique path” (as distinct from the European
path), need rethinking. Upon closer examination, the idea of a
“multipolar world order” that is upheld by many Russian politicians
and diplomats, is actually extremely dangerous for Russia. In its
present condition, it falls far short of the status as one of the
“poles” in this construction. Given Russia’s irreversible
demographic decline, its territory will be literally torn to pieces
by the more dynamic “poles.” As far as the “unique path” is
concerned, this road has already been followed on more than one
occasion by Russia, each time resulting in a national catastrophe.
Russia could tempt fate once again, of course, but it would
probably be its last attempt.

If the European development vector is given priority, it will be
much easier to build relations with the newly independent states as
well. While integrating into Europe, Russia should not hinder its
neighbors’ movement in the same direction. At the same time, Moscow
does not have to pay for this movement by remaining the donor of a
former empire. Russia will not force its neighbors into unions or
alliances. But it will also abandon the practice of concessions for
the sake of preserving a semblance of influence on the neighboring
states and subsidizing their development at the expense of its own
taxpayer. Strictly speaking, Russia should immediately pull out of
the CIS and stop the “peoples’ friendship” game wherein only the
newly independent states stand to win.

With this approach, the post-Soviet space will cease to be an
arena of rivalry between Russia and the West. The European states
of the CIS (Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus) will become a field for
partnership mainly between Russia and the EU; the Central Asian
states and Kazakhstan, between Russia and the United States (in the
not so distant future, also China); the South Caucasus countries,
between Russia, the EU and the United States (eventually with
Iran). This approach, among other things, unties Russia’s hands in
interacting with the pro-Russian opposition in those countries.

Second, it is necessary to pass special legislation that
outlines the procedures for formulating and implementing
foreign-policy decisions, effectively synchronizing the activities
of various government agencies under the general supervision of the
president in the interest of pursuing a uniform foreign policy
line. This procedure should follow the principle of collegiality,
encompassing all foreign policy agencies and relying on analysis
and expertise by governmental and non-governmental think tanks that
Russia must establish and generously finance.

Under the guidelines of the Russian Constitution, it is the
president who makes fundamental foreign policy decisions. There is,
however, a pressing need for preliminary coordination between the
relevant state officials – specifically, the head of government,
the secretary of the Security Council, and top officials at the
Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Federal Security
Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). At the
current stage of state-building in Russia, this procedure should
also be open to representatives of the legislative branch: speakers
of the Federation Council and the State Duma. This is necessary in
order to ensure a unified position by the top representatives of
the two branches of government on major foreign policy issues,
i.e., elementary administrative discipline. The aforementioned
officials should form a new foreign policy and international
affairs body under the Russian president. This should be a new
organization since all of the existing bodies, including the
Russian Security Council, have proven unfit to perform this
function. This new organization would be analogous to the U.S.
National Security Council. In this context, it would be necessary
to introduce a position similar to that of the U.S. national
security adviser, occupied by an authoritative diplomat (with a
small but well equipped and efficient staff). A newly introduced
bill, On Coordination of the Activity of State Power Agencies in
the Foreign Policy Sphere, drafted by the Expert Board of the
Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee, is relevant to this
issue and is pending.

Third, commensurability, that is, a balanced mix of objectives
and available resources, is a major foreign policy principle. A
carefully planned and prudent resource policy is not only vital to
ensure an effective foreign policy; it is crucial for Russia’s
viability as a state, its national economy, specific industrial
sectors, domestic business, innovative systems, etc., in the global
world. This, in turn, is one of the prerequisites of national

Fourth, Russia’s image definitely needs improvement. At the same
time, it should be remembered that any PR efforts, any financial
inputs, will prove useless unless the internal situation improves
as well. To have a respectable image abroad, Russia must be
attractive, not just appear attractive. Thus, the main effort to
salvage the country’s image should be deployed at home, not

Fifth, it is imperative to provide more prestige to a career in
the diplomatic service. To this end, a Russian diplomat –
regardless of whether he is posted abroad or in Moscow – should be
able to enjoy a decent life style. Moreover, he wants assurances
that the state will take care of him when he retires. In short, a
diplomat must not feel like a second-rate citizen, with his status
on the social ladder beneath the dignity of his position. 


Despite the significance of the problem, the ongoing foreign
policy crisis in Russia should not be overdramatized. Generally
speaking, such a systemic crisis can actually play a positive role
if steps are taken to drastically modernize and improve the system.
Furthermore, the current stage in Russia’s history is definitely
not the worst-case scenario. The absence of far-reaching external
threats enables Russia to concentrate on its internal problems
perhaps for the first time. On the other hand, perhaps never before
in its history have Russia’s resources been so limited
(paradoxically, the windfall oil revenues do not address this
problem: these funds are all but ineffectual in the absence of
mechanisms, principles and priorities for their effective use).

A balanced mix of ends and means prioritizes Russia’s European
development vector, especially considering its irreversible
demographic decline. Given the overriding priority of sustainable,
democratic development, as well as its limited resources, Russia
cannot afford to get involved in foreign wars or reckless
adventures. Its foreign policy should not be aggressive, not even
overly ambitious. 

The postwar development of Japan and Germany shows that a (de
facto) great-power status can be maintained even with a
considerable moderation of foreign-policy ambitions. In this
respect, national history is also quite instructive.

Following the end of the Times of Trouble and the signing of the
Deulin Peace Accords with Poland in 1618, Russia was not only weak,
it bled white. Until the late 17th century – that is, for about 70
years – Russia avoided any protracted armed conflicts against
formidable opponents. During the same period, however, and without
going to war, it incorporated the left-bank Ukraine and Kiev, as
well as Siberia, all the way up the Pacific and along the southern
Chinese border. These events happened thanks to a clever
foreign-policy course and initiative. During this period, by
staying out of serious conflicts and not pursuing an aggressive
policy, Russia expanded its territory more than any other time in
its history. Following a military-political “vegetation” that
lasted 80 years, devastated Russia eventually built up such a
military-economic capability that it subsequently emerged
victorious against Sweden, at that time one of the most formidable
European powers, in a 21-year-war.

After the death of Peter the Great (1725) and up until the
Seven-Year War (1756-1763), Russia once again resembled an almost
ruined state. However, once again it minimized its foreign policy
ambitions, especially in the most risky region – Europe. It seemed
that it did not have an independent foreign policy line, acting
merely as the ally of others. Yet even that period of peace and
humiliation was parlayed into a series of subsequent foreign policy
victories and triumphs by Catherine the Great, when almost all of
western Russia was reunited; Turkey was routed, and according to
historian Vassily Klyuchevsky, “Russian state territory expanded
and restored to its historical borders both in the south and in the
west.” Of the 50 governorates that Russia had, 11 were acquired
under Catherine the Great. Whereas at the start of her reign,
Russia’s population was not more than 20 million, by the end of her
reign, it was at least 34 million (i.e., growing by
three-quarters). Meanwhile, state revenues had more than
quadrupled. Russia firmly integrated into world (at that time this
meant European) politics as one of the most influential powers.
Count Alexander Bezborodko thus was able to tell young Russian
diplomats: “I don’t know how it is going to be on your watch, but
on our watch, not a single cannon in Europe dared fire a shell
without our permission.”

In the wake of its defeat in the Crimean War in 1856 (just as at
the end of the Times of Trouble and the death of Peter the Great),
Russia once again moderated its foreign policy claims and
geopolitical ambitions. For 21 years, in the expression of
Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov, it “kept its cool and focused on
getting things done,” dealing mainly with domestic matters and
building up its power base. At that time, the Russian Empire had no
allies. Yet when Russia had to sign the humiliating Paris Treaty
(1856), Count Nikolai Orlov, a Russian diplomat, exclaimed: “Yes,
ladies and gentlemen, we’ve suffered a defeat, and we are
withdrawing from the Balkans. But don’t you worry: we’ll come
back.” A mere 13 years passed, and Russia returned to the Balkans
and the Black Sea. No country, not even the “only superpower” –
Great Britain, which pursued an anti-Russia policy – could do
anything about it.

Thus, periods of relative passivity in the realm of foreign
policy are not always bad. This is something to be pondered by
certain Russian “statists” who – some honestly, some disingenuously
– are playing the “great-powerism” card without bothering to take
stock of the country’s available resources. Their recommendations
could spell a national disaster, which the world witnessed twice in
the twentieth century.

The other choice is to focus on internal matters, which includes
the generation and effective use of resources, together with
dynamic economic development in the next several years (or, the
international situation permitting, even decades). All of this is a
key to Russia’s forthcoming triumphs, not least of all in the
foreign policy sphere. An important factor in these future triumphs
(hopefully a not-so-distant future) is a prudent, careful overhaul
of the country’s foreign policy mechanism.