Much has been written about the success of Russian diplomacy in 2013. And whether you greet it with glee or alarm, there is a sense that Russia is on the verge of something new. The past year marked the end of the anti-crisis phase in Russian foreign policy. Russia was out to prove its ability to be independent and influence world events. It has done this. What’s next?
The anti-crisis phase in Russian foreign policy lasted for a decade. It started in 2003 when Moscow opposed the US invasion of Iraq together with Paris and Berlin. Five years later, Russia used the war in South Ossetia to draw a red line beyond which it would not tolerate further NATO expansion. It demonstrated that it would defend this line by all means, up to the use of force.
Five years after the war, Russia faced a similar situation as the European Union tried to draw Ukraine into its sphere of influence. This time Russia withstood Western pressure with limited effort, relying almost exclusively on the power of persuasion and a moderate financial injection.
The diplomatic collision over Syria showed that Russia has restored its ability to seize the initiative and skillfully maneuver to achieve a good outcome for itself and the majority of players involved.
The Soviet Union periodically flaunted its diplomatic prowess, but its collapse hobbled Russia on the international stage for years.
This past decade in Russian foreign policy has been the polar opposite of the decade that came before. From 1993, when the question of Russia’s form of government was finally resolved, until 2003 Russia tried to join the “civilized world” by various means and in the face of changing circumstances.
Russia initially operated from a position of weakness due to a chronic domestic crisis and dependence on foreign financial injections, though later began to assert its equality with other powers. During his first term as president, Vladimir Putin proposed that Russia, Europe and America devise a new model of mutually advantageous coexistence – a deal that would finally turn the page on the Cold War. Russia suggested investment and technology exchange with the European Union, and close partnership with the United States against the common threat of terrorism and radical Islam.
Putin was rebuffed, and so in the early 2000s Russia recalibrated and sought instead to prove its self-sufficiency – to show that it did not need the West, and that the West, in fact, needed Russia in some cases. Relations with the West suffered as result of confrontations over a range of issues – Iraq, the Orange Revolution, Putin’s Munich speech, the Georgian war, the Arab Spring and Russia’s demonstrative declaration of anti-liberal values.
This decade passed in emergency mode. Russia was constantly on the lookout for pitfalls and ready to respond immediately.
At first Russia thought Europe and America would make deliberate moves against it, but later came to expect only ill-conceived and irrational behavior that, in Russia’s view, destabilized the world.
Be that as it may, the substance of Russia’s foreign policy was clear. Its main goal was to enhance Russia’s international status. Russia certainly has improved its standing (not to be confused with positive perceptions or popularity), but it has exhausted the benefits of this strategy.
Russia will never become a superpower again and not only because of its limited potential. The main reason is that the very concept of a superpower is receding into the past. The United States is bound to lose its status as the sole remaining superpower, though it will surely be “first among equals” in the club of countries with the greatest ability to influence (though not control) events.
Russia’s foreign policy traditionally has been the prerogative of a supreme authority that is supposedly best equipped to make decisions. Indeed, how a country conducts itself on the world stage is the product of a diverse array of opinions and aspirations, all the more so in a heterogeneous country like Russia. Who but the government can reflect the full complexity of society and turn it into a cohesive foreign policy?
Naturally, diplomatic victories are popular. Most people want their nation to be an influential player in the world. This feeling is especially acute in Russia, where regaining lost ground has near universal support after the steep decline of the 1990s.
Status in the world is important but not all-important. Russia’s diverse society is beginning to define its interests, and as it matures, its focus will move beyond urgent domestic issues to the international sphere. A decision will have to be made: is foreign policy merely a means to gain prestige, or should it meet specific needs of industries, religious associations, the country’s numerous ethnic communities and different social strata?
The middle class, whose opinion carries the most weight in the majority of countries, is growing and becoming more active in Russia. What should it expect from foreign policy apart from things like visa-free travel? What are the expectations of pensioners or those who are about to retire? After all, their pensions will be paid from the same National Wealth Fund that just bent the rules to provide $15 billion to save Viktor Yanukovych.
Do Russia’s predominately Sunni Muslims support our official stance on Bashar al-Assad, who is almost universally opposed by Sunni? To what extent do residents of large cities, who are concerned about labor migration from Central Asia, share the Kremlin’s desire to create a Eurasian Union? And the list goes on and on.
Crafting a balanced foreign policy is a challenge for any country. It requires a degree of professionalism that our officials sometimes lack. But we also need a public mechanism for coordinating the interests of different groups and forums for serious public discussion of international issues, not just TV talk shows where debates on world issues are reduced to whether someone is “for us or for the enemy.”
Our society needs to be better educated on international issues, and the government has a stake in making sure this happens.
While it can be useful to have an ignorant public that can be easily excited by populist or chauvinist slogans, sometimes the government has to make unpopular decisions that only a society aware of the complexity and ambiguity of the world will be prepared to accept.
This is the challenge of Russia’s foreign policy in the next decade. It will have to educate the public about the real world and create a mechanism capable of reflecting the interests of the majority of the population.