Looking out Five Years: Ideological, Geopolitical, and Economic Drivers of Russian Foreign Policy
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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

This is the third article in a series looking ahead at the drivers of Russian foreign policy from 2017 to 2022.

In 2016, Putin came up with Russia’s national idea: patriotism. In the Kremlin’s version, Russian patriotism is above all about the state, which is the highest civic value. Attitudes toward the state have become the main criteria in judging historical and contemporary figures and ordinary citizens. The Russian state is believed to be the center of a Russian world, a civilization that traces its spiritual and temporal roots to Byzantium and Orthodox Christianity. Besides the Russian Federation, the Russian world encompasses Ukraine (minus its Greek Catholic western regions), Belarus, and Moldova, as well as the Russian diaspora around the world. Its central pillar and main source of cohesion is the Russian Orthodox Church. For Putin, his continued presidency is a God-given mission.

Thus, Russia has pivoted away from the European choice that Putin announced in the early 2000s and that the country had de facto pursued since the toppling of the Communist system in 1991. This pivot to Russia’s own cultural and historical heritage, with an emphasis on the imperial period, is often described as Eurasianism. The European cultural influence remains, but in its classical rather than the contemporary, EU-shaped form. The Kremlin’s current attitudes to the EU can be compared with the views on Europe exhibited in the nineteenth century by Emperor Alexander III and his grandfather, Emperor Nicholas I: Russia is in, but not of, Europe. The present-day Russian Federation sees itself as occupying a unique central position in northern Eurasia, equidistant from Asia, North America, the Middle East, and Europe.

While calling themselves conservatives, Russian leaders essentially remain pragmatic. They are prepared to do deals with anyone, irrespective of their counterparts’ ideology, which they privately view with cynicism. What they vehemently reject is revolution. In the Kremlin’s view, U.S. and EU support for democracy and human rights is a tool of foreign policy that is more effective in destroying authoritarian regimes than in subsequently building democratic systems of governance on their ruins. One reason many Russian officials preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is that they expected Trump, when elected, to stop meddling in Russian domestic affairs.

In Russia, the Kremlin employs a number of liberals in the economic policy department, consistent with Putin’s basic preference for the market over total state control of the economy. With his policies in Crimea and Ukraine, Putin has been able to turn himself into a hero for nationalists, who are also managed on the Kremlin’s behalf by veteran political operator Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The Communist Party is thoroughly domesticated in the Duma, while its founder, Vladimir Lenin, is often reviled as a traitor for his collusion with Germany against the domestic Russian regime during World War I. All these groups basically support the Kremlin’s current foreign policy.

Moscow’s main current concern and policy driver is the setting in of the long cycle of low energy and other commodity prices. The sharp drop in the oil price in 2014 and 2015 has markedly devalued Russia’s geopolitical importance vis-à-vis its principal customers in Europe and Asia. The idea of an energy superpower, popular in the mid-2000s, has been finally and completely dispelled. This situation objectively pushes the Kremlin toward diversifying the Russian economy. Successful diversification, however, would require the country to adopt a wholly different politico-economic model, with a business-friendly environment, support for entrepreneurship, and an emphasis on technological innovation.

Such a model would end the domination of the ruling moneyed elites and therefore cannot be adopted by them. Thus, Russia finds itself again at a crossroads with a three-way choice: reform the economy and dismantle the existing politico-economic setup; go for a wholesale economic mobilization dominated by the state; or keep the system intact and face the prospect of continued decline and possibly an upheaval in the end. It is likely that the choice will be put off for as long as possible, given its consequences for the elites. It may not be made by the end of the present decade, but it can hardly be postponed beyond 2025 or 2030.

In the near to medium term, Russia is likely to face the challenge of Islamist radicalism on its southern borders. The Middle East is generating instability that is already spreading to other parts of the Muslim world, including Central Asia and areas of the Caucasus. Former Soviet countries in the region that have survived their first twenty-five years of independence exhibit some of the features that helped produce the Arab Spring. In Afghanistan, the Islamic State has built a presence with a view to expanding its influence through the whole country and beyond. Russia, which since 2015 has been directly involved in the war in Syria, may have to fight closer to home, always mindful of the dangers of Islamic State–induced extremism and terrorism in Russia itself. In 2017, Russia experienced its first major terrorist attack in three and a half years in the Saint Petersburg Metro attack of April 3.

In the long term, demographics remain one of Russia’s main concerns. The rate of population decline has slowed down, and the incorporation of Crimea has added over 2 million people to Russia’s total population, which now stands at 144 million. But there is a growing shortage of workers, strategically important regions such as the Russian Far East remain sparsely populated, and immigration from Central Asia presents both an integration and a security challenge. 

Geopolitically, Putin has become used to punching far above Russia’s economic weight. This has produced some stunning successes, but it is not sustainable in the long term without reforms that would unchain Russia’s still huge potential for growth and development, or economic mobilization, which would produce a short-term effect but would ultimately result in Russia’s economic and political collapse.

Reform, however, would be exceedingly difficult under conditions of confrontation with the United States, which are unlikely to ease considerably in the next five years. Even if the EU sanctions are formally lifted, the political risks for Europeans of doing business with Russia will be high, resulting in continuing serious impediments to economic relations. Japan’s willingness to reach out to Russia as a hedge against China’s rise will be tempered by Washington’s opposition to such rapprochement. Ways around the sanctions regime will have to be found that operate below Washington’s radar.

With economic ties to the West constrained by politics, Russia has moved actively to explore opportunities elsewhere. This has not been easy, as current Russian exports to non-Western countries are dominated by products whose price structures have collapsed and will not recover much in the foreseeable future. It is not clear whether Russia and China will be able to significantly upgrade their economic relations by 2021. However, if Russia manages to come up with more products that can find markets in China, India, Iran, Southeast Asia, and the Gulf Arab states, it can partly compensate for the losses in trade with the West and diversify its economic relations.

Carnegie Moscow Center