Victory on Points: Pragmatism in Foreign Policy
№3 2003 July/September

The global community generally recognizes that Russia has moved
toward a more pragmatic approach in its relations with the outside
world. It is gratifying to see that Russia’s foreign policy has
parted with the overblown ideological principles of the Soviet era,
as well as the excessive emotionality of the early post-Soviet
years. But what does the new buzzword ‘pragmatism’ really mean?

Some people tend to interpret it along the lines of the simple
adage: “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Say, should Russia
support the U.S. on a particularly crucial issue, it could expect
trade preferences from the U.S.; or should Russia side with Germany
and France, it could hope for a breakthrough for joining the World
Trade Organization. This vision of pragmatism has very little to do
with reality and is quite often fraught with bitter disappointments
– Russians tend to dive into hatred straight from affection.

The Western political culture provides scant allowances for
gratitude, and the Russian officials who misunderstood this often
felt somewhat short-changed by their foreign counterparts. Their
logic worked something like this: Do you see how much we did for
them under Gorbachev and Yeltsin – we disbanded the Warsaw Pact, we
pulled our troops out of Germany and allowed the country to unify
and, finally, we joined the antiterrorist coalition. And what do we
get in response? They continue to threaten us with the
Jackson-Vanik amendment; they don’t let us into Europe…

It is important to realize that the West considers Russia’s
steps to meet its interests halfway as a return to normality and
the result of some sort of natural event. Western politicians
generally believe that Russia has dropped, although somewhat
inconclusively, the image of a pariah state and has assimilated
civilized rules of the game. This change was lucrative at first,
with benefits taking the form of loans, aid, and advice. The
situation was similar to that of an ex-convict who is provided
money for housing and social rehabilitation right after his release
from jail. Thank God Russia is rapidly acquiring the reputation of
a solid partner in its own right and a country easily adapting to
the outside world; it is a country that has no need whatsoever for
Big Brothers.

Russian efforts to meet the West halfway and to transform the
Soviet-era superpower spirit have brought about a change in the
perception of Russia abroad. It has been seen most clearly over the
past few years as Russia’s foreign policy acquired a logical
content that its partner countries found comprehensible. A
pragmatic approach means that a country has transparently
formulated its strategic goals, while the methods of achieving them
are flexible and based on a somber analysis of the country’s
capabilities, not based on worn out clich?s. Pragmatism implies the
earnest accounting of interests, gleaning of the most essential
principles that are not subject to bargaining, and the
identification of policy aspects that can be dropped if need be.
Pragmatic policy defends vital principles, not dogmas.

A pragmatist is a real professional who offers quick reactions
to changes in international policy, constantly adjusts his
positions, and can take unorthodox decisions in disadvantageous
situations. Frankly speaking, Russia is not in the position to
benefit from any international crisis at the moment – it has far
fewer tools for handling extreme situations than most of its
partners. In light of the situation, a clearly regulated and
predictable world order – something that Russian leaders have been
calling for – appears to be a pressing necessity for Russia rather
than just a Moscow slogan. Global and regional stability is a
premise for Russia’s steady development, given its need to fight
against international terrorism together with its numerous domestic

President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly of
the Russian Federation (the Parliament), in May, 2003, specified an
unambiguous strategic goal – Russia’s return to the ranks of the
rich, developed, powerful, and highly reputed nations, for which
purpose its foreign policy is expected to set down the necessary
conditions, thus making the state more secure and helping it
integrate into the world community. But it is important for us to
understand that diplomacy alone will not attain this far-sighted
goal. Even a new Talleyrand will fail to build up a country’s
international prestige in the absence of economic progress, the
lack of society’s consolidation and the necessary domestic

Russia will regain its economic might and discard its dependence
on handouts from international financial institutions and
unpredictable market fluctuations only when its manufacturing
sector becomes competitive in all industries. Competition in the
field of innovative ideas is also crucial for development, as it is
intensifying in international affairs and elsewhere. Russia’s
ability to compete will depend to a large degree on what shape its
state apparatus and society in general acquires. At the present
time, these areas are far less competitive than is Russian
business, which is gaining new international positions in many

A dilemma for the UN: Reform or marginalization

What set of foreign policy instruments does Russia have at its
disposal at the time of the general crisis concerning the system of
international relations?

Russia can make up for the weaknesses of its economy and
insufficient levers of influence by stepping up international
activity and defending its views and positions in every possible
way. (In so doing, it must not overlook the growing influence of
the non-governmental international institutions. Russia can also
gain considerably by borrowing from the experiences of the
Soviet-era societies of friendship with foreign countries.) The
attention that President Putin has been giving to foreign policy in
the past three years suggests that the Russian government
understands this. A greater focus on world affairs also indicates
that the practices of the 1990s, when Russia’s general
international passivity would occasionally be interrupted by bursts
of rash actions, have ceased.

The UN is still occupying the prime position among all of the
other international forums, and even the harshest critics of that
aged and universal institution must admit that its mechanism,
formed over decades, is absolutely unique. On the other hand, the
functioning of the Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent
member, seems to require a major upgrade. The UN Charter, composed
in 1945, particularly the notorious Article 2 (7), which stipulates
unequivocal non-interference in “matters which are essentially
within the domestic jurisdiction of any state,” fails to meet the
reality of the present. It is worthwhile to note that, in certain
situations, the pre-eminence of state sovereignty fades in
importance against the backdrop of genocide, humanitarian
catastrophes, global destabilization, or the necessity to punish
aggressors. Such situations require the elaboration of a strict
mechanism for decision-making, and a reformed UN and Security
Council must have the exclusive power to decide on interference in
a country’s domestic affairs, whatever the rebukes toward those two
agencies may now be.

It is highly desirable that the initiative for reforming the
principles of global security governance come from within the UN
itself. The member countries should set up an expert group of
representatives from all parts of the globe. Since Russia has a
vital interest in the efficacious functioning of the UN Security
Council and the UN at large, it might take the helm of such reform
efforts. But it must be understood that any attempts to conserve
the UN in its present form, in the hope of initiating its
self-recovery, are predictably doomed from the beginning. The most
probable outcome will be utter frustration – the UN will lose all
of its significance and will turn into an ineffectual debating

The UN crisis is not the root cause of the present problems in
international relations, it is the consequence. The efficiency of
the steps it takes depends to a great degree on the ability of the
key international actors, including Russia, to attain consensus or,
to put it differently, to take prompt and rational actions. When
the members agree on an issue, the UN proves to be very expedient,
as was the case following the Iraqi war. Collective pressure on
certain conflicting parties through the use of authority, threats
of sanctions, and international public opinion has had rather good
effects in the Middle East, as well as with the more immediate
scenarios involving Iran and North Korea.

Russia may have a secondary role in the settlement of such
conflicts. An example is the diplomatic Quartet of international
mediators who have proposed their Road Map for an Arab-Israeli
peace settlement. Although the Quartet is led by Washington, this
factor does not reduce Russia’s interest in settling the conflict,
which sends waves of instability across the region and the entire
Islamic world. Who will receive the laurels of peacemaker is
unimportant; the main thing is to remove the long-standing impasse.
The same argument could be applied to the current standoff with
North Korea. Many people in Russia are aggravated by the fact that
their country, which initially broke the reclusive behavior of the
Pyongyang leadership three years ago, seems to have been pushed
aside from the Korean peace settlement, while China has picked up
the leading role. One occasionally hears offhand remarks that
question why “we have not been invited” to participate in the
settlement process.

Actually, Russia’s main interest is to see the current tensions
on the Korean Peninsula defused rather than to ensure itself a
place in the defusing process by hook or by crook. Even if the two
Koreas are reconciled without Russia’s decisive contribution
(although I am confident that Russia’s help will still be needed),
the long-term benefits for Russia from such a reunification are
obvious. A reunified Korea will definitely wish to intensify their
cooperation with Russia, as well as purchase our raw materials.
Besides, many shipments that will be transported between Europe and
Southeast Asia will have to cross Russia and Korea; Pyongyang and
Seoul both hope to get revenues from cargo transits across their
territories. Such are the reasons why a peace settlement has such
significance; it will be a significant victory for Russia as

In recent years, the Group of Eight industrialized nations have
been taking on some functions similar to those performed by the UN
Security Council. Security issues are now proceeding concurrently
with economic ones on the agendas of the G-8 forums. Yet, this
informal organization of the leading world powers does not have
opportunities for political action comparable to those of the
Security Council, and its legitimacy has a totally different
dimension. G-8 forums focus primarily on economy and economic
aspects of security issues, and it seems reasonable that the group
should continue to focus on economic matters in the future.

The summit in Evian, France, in the summer of 2003, made
manifest a broadening scope of the G-8’s responsibilities, however.
In particular, the summit set up a Counter-Terrorism Action Group
(CTAG). This broadening of functions may furnish Russia with new
opportunities for cooperation. It is important that the CTAG
closely cooperate with a counterpart committee of the Security
Council, which coordinates worldwide efforts in that field. Russia
can, and must, participate in the activities of the
Counter-Terrorism Action Group; it will have its own sphere of
responsibility, embracing the Commonwealth of Independent States
(CIS) and the territory of the Shanghai Cooperation

The CIS and Russia’s interests

Russia-NATO relations provoked strong debates throughout the
1990s, but today the general approach to the organization is much
calmer. Russia’s interaction with the North Atlantic Alliance has
significance as a foreign policy priority, as it sets an
encouraging tune to Russia’s ongoing relations with the West. This
is an achievement in itself, given the record of the past decades
when NATO was a major irritant for Russia. Although this bloc
continues to expand, it is becoming obvious that it is a regional
rather than global organization. Its eastward spread has one
significant consequence for Russia – the incorporation of former
Soviet republics and, possibly in the future, some of the CIS
member states.

There has been much talk recently that the CIS is a traditional
sphere of Russia’s strategic interests. Let us clarify the idea.
This should not be interpreted as a revival of some latent imperial
ambitions: Moscow has no plans of dictating to its neighbors whom
to befriend or how to behave, nevertheless, problems emerging in
the CIS countries do have direct bearing on Russia, and the world
community must reckon with it. The former Soviet republics, where
millions of ethnic Russians are now living, are the closest
partners for Russia. Historical, cultural and economic ties that
link Russia and the CIS countries date back centuries, and most
migrants whom Russia has accommodated over the past decade have
arrived from those countries. Despite variegated remarks from
domestic and European critics, an unbiased analysis shows that
Russia is quite possibly the most democratic country on the
territory of the former USSR, and has every right to seek
international support in its attempts to settle particular
conflicts with Georgia, Turkmenistan and other countries.

Bureaucrats in demand

Our relationship with the European Union has been controversial
and rather painful of late. For one thing, the EU is expanding, and
a colossus with a population of almost half a billion people has
now emerged on Russia’s borders. Furthermore, Russia had high
expectations that a common European home would be built in the near
future, yet the old disputes on whether or not Russia is part of
Europe still continue. The latter problem has waned into the
background, though: Russia’s geographical, political and cultural
specificity can scarcely be an obstacle for a rapprochement with
the European Union whose charter proclaims unity in diversity.

Once the new countries are admitted into the EU, it will account
for more than half of Russia’s foreign trade; the importance of
defending our mutual economic interests will be mounting. Still,
the Europeans are in no hurry to address many problems regarding
Russia. These include trade in fissionable materials, anti-dumping
laws, commodity quotas, mutual access to markets, unwarranted
subsidies for export, and yet another suspension on the question of
Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization. It would not
be constructive to blame the entire situation on the lethargy of
the European bureaucrats; the lack of progress in Russia-EU
relations is largely due to the divergence of economic interests
between the two parties. The solution of these contentious issues
demands that Russia and Europe have a good mutual understanding of
each other, while committing themselves to scrupulous daily work;
these should be performed apart from political impulses.

Strange enough, Russia finds itself short of highly qualified
bureaucrats who can speak with European partners in the same terms,
that is, in the language of legislative acts rather than political
declarations. The EU is organized through heaps of legal norms and
rules, and there is an obvious need to sort out the legal
mechanisms that would make rapprochement easier.

Russia is now paying the price for its years of isolation and
flagging attention to developments in the Old World. A United
Europe is going to operate by rules that were drafted without our
participation and without account of our interests. The only option
for Russia is to study in detail the regulations which bind the
community of nations it is living side by side with. Russia needs
that scrutiny in order to minimize the damage that it may incur
from the admission to the EU of its former allies in Eastern and
Central Europe, or even draw some benefits from these developments.
Also, we will have to learn how to influence the elaboration of
regulations in the European community, using our intellectual
resources and levers of pressure. European integration is a complex
and dynamic process, which must be constantly monitored.

It is important for Russia to study the EU’s effective laws and
projected legislative changes; Russia must make its position known
to the EU before one or another law is passed on the continent. At
the very least, we must be in the know about what is transpiring in
the European process. For example, had Russia begun a discussion a
couple of years earlier concerning transits between the Kaliningrad
enclave and other parts of Russian territory, the result would have
been much more advantageous.

On the other hand, I was astonished to learn that Russian
officials had begun consultations with the EU on mutual visa-free
traveling with the discussion of the abolition of visas for the
holders of diplomatic or so-called service passports. I believe it
would be very reasonable, in the first place, to abolish visas for
those who add value to the Russian economy, such as businessmen,
students and scientists. The bureaucracy has many other privileges,
and the Russian government would rather begin by reorganizing its
own consulates abroad, the disheveled operations of which are the
source of many complaints from Europe. If Russia succeeds in this
area, it will then have a moral right to demand the same treatment
of its citizens at the European consulates in Russia. Russia could
ease visa issuance formalities for the Europeans in the future to
build up a flow of investment and tourists from the EU, and that
would provide obvious benefits.

What we have in common with the Council of Europe

There has been a certain change in the political aspects of
Russia’s relations with Europe. The Europeans have altered their
position on Chechnya, especially after a referendum on that North
Caucasian territory. Europe followed the U.S. in recognition of
connections between the Chechen militants and al Qaeda, and
stressed support for Russia’s political will to solve the problem
in the spirit of peace, trustworthiness, human rights, economic and
social rehabilitation. Calls are becoming louder in Europe to
reassess the Chechen problem, and to stop describing the militants
as freedom-fighters and to regard them as part of the international
terrorist community. The only place where the Chechen problem is
interpreted along the old lines is in the Parliamentary Assembly of
the Council of Europe (PACE).

Comments in the mass media or by us, the people working with
PACE, may have produced an impression that this organization has no
other business than criticizing Moscow for its violations of human
rights against the Chechens. The fanning of this problem plays into
the hands of some forces inside Russia, and in European countries
where oppositionists may use it as a tool of self-promotion. In the
meantime, Russia’s place in the Council of Europe is not at all
that of a scapegoat. Our representatives have joined work on over
40 key documents setting the basic parameters for the Common
European Area. Russia is also ready to sign multilateral agreements
in the Council of Europe format, which means its further European
integration and the stepping up of trade, scientific, and
humanitarian exchanges.

The EU’s development motivates the Council of Europe to readjust
its activity and its status so as to avoid any unnecessary
duplication of these actions. Some analysts believe its functions
will be reduced over time to the monitoring of human rights, above
all in countries neighboring the EU. Russia is unlikely to benefit
from such a turn in events, and the Council of Europe is unlikely
to be satisfied with the role of a go-between for the EU. This is
the aspect where our interests meet, and why Russia should refrain
from understating the Council’s role and threatening with a
withdrawal from it. On the contrary, we should help it play a
noticeable role in building the Common European Area, and use it as
a podium for declaring our goals.

Playing the whole field

Russia is a full-fledged member of the family of civilized
nations, which does not preclude having special views or roles in
it. It is advisable, perhaps, that Russia pay more attention to its
relations with countries in the South and in the East as well,
since it has great neighbors not only in the West. There is a
condition for this, however: we must not act in the vein of
spontaneity while intensifying relations with China, India, the
Arab world, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. We must not
produce an impression that we are building a union against the U.S.
or the West with them. If our position is logical and is part of a
general strategic plan for developing foreign policy along all
vectors, we will always be able to explain our views and find
compromise solutions if problems arise.

A country that does not have many real levers of influence at
its disposal at the moment has to display flexibility,
resourcefulness and diplomatic skills. Russia must offer rapid
reactions to events or even foresee them, using every window of
opportunity that may open in the international arena. It must make
scores wherever possible, and not sniff at small achievements. The
one who cannot knock out others has to develop maneuverability. If
we recall the terminology of a more intellectual sport, Russia will
have to play the whole field rather than some of its squares, if it
wants to remain a world power.