Foreign policy is a key element of a country’s national interests. The fundamental objectives of Russia’s foreign policy are formalized in the Russian Foreign Policy Concept (2013) and presidential decree “On Measures to Implement the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” (2012). Both were drafted before the Ukrainian conflict heralded a new era, at a time when the events in Syria were the biggest problem facing the world community. Russia was poised to provide financial assistance to the crisis-hit European Union and still hoped to lure Ukraine into Eurasian integration.
Since then, the international situation has changed dramatically. The conflict in and around Ukraine is now a major problem in the Euro-Atlantic space, Russia is under the sanctions regime, and the Russian-led new integration organizations in the post-Soviet space are in crisis. In fact, several questions have arisen: Have Russia’s national interests changed? Is it time for Russia to revise its foreign policy concept? Or are national interests a constant and the current discrepancy between what Russia is doing and the declared objectives of its foreign policy doctrine is just a situation forced upon it from outside, which might well be temporary?
The Desire and the Reality
Let us look at what foreign policy course Russian diplomacy should pursue in order to be in line with the doctrinal guidelines currently in effect. The 2013 Concept states that “in accordance with the top priority objective of the national security policy, which is to ensure the protection of an individual, society, and the state, foreign policy should be focused primarily on pursuing the following basic goals (hereinafter in abridged quotes):
- “ensuring the security of the country, protecting and strengthening its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and securing its high standing in the international community as one of the influential and competitive poles of the modern world;
- creating favourable external conditions for the steady and dynamic growth of the Russian economy and its technological modernization with a view to putting it on an innovation-based development track, as well as for improving the quality of life, strengthening legislation and democratic institutions, and ensuring human rights and freedoms;
- active promotion of international peace and universal security and stability in order to establish a just and democratic system of international relations based on collective decision-making in addressing global issues, on the primacy of international law, including, first of all, the UN Charter, as well as on equal, partnership relations between nations with the central coordinating role of the UN;
- promoting good-neighborly relations with adjoining states and helping to overcome existing and prevent potential tensions and conflicts in regions adjacent to the Russian Federation;
- developing mutually beneficial and equal bilateral and multilateral partnership relations with foreign states, interstate associations, international organizations and forums on the basis of respect for independence and sovereignty, pragmatism, transparency, multi-vector approaches, predictability, and non-confrontational protection of national interests;
- strengthening Russia’s positions in the global trade and economic system, providing diplomatic support to national economic operators abroad, and preventing discrimination against Russian goods, services, or investments;
- ensuring comprehensive protection of the rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots residing abroad;
- promoting the Russian language and strengthening its positions in the world, disseminating information on the achievements of the peoples of Russia, and consolidating the Russian diaspora abroad;
- facilitating the development of a constructive dialogue and partnership relations between civilizations in the interests of enhancing accord among various cultures and confessions and ensuring their mutual enrichment.”
With the ongoing Ukrainian crisis these goals have become practically unattainable. Russia’s position in the world community can hardly be called “firm or high-standing,” at least in the West. At the same time, the East, curious and observing, has been sitting on the fence: the interest with which it was watching the first phase of the crisis has given way to a wait-and-see approach. Also, “a steady and dynamic growth” of the Russian economy is out of the question because of the sanctions.
Russia has never achieved a stable course towards “technological modernization and innovation-based development tracks.” New technological partners have not replaced the West, while Russia’s population and the quality of life continue to decrease. The strengthening of legislation, democratic institutions, and ensuring human rights and freedoms are nowhere in sight: in fact, the reverse is true.
The UN Security Council has been heavily criticized for not playing any role in settling the Ukrainian conflict, but the UN problem has been around for a long time, and, of course, Russia could not make it right on its own. What makes the matter worse is that until last spring Russia had firmly adhered to one policy line; i.e. commitment to the letter of international law, the inviolability of sovereignty, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Although this stance was a major irritant for the West, everybody acknowledged its integrity and consistency. But after March 2014, Russia found it difficult to play the role of the main champion of the UN Charter.
Having made the decision to bring back Crimea, Russia put the right of people to self-determination above sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state. Now it has to constantly prove its cause, which makes foreign partners apprehensive that Russia is taking a fully revisionist path. While resorting to various methods to support the Donbass militia, Russia has challenged the non-interference principle.
The 2013 Russian foreign policy concept underscores that “arbitrary and politically motivated interpretation of fundamental international legal norms and principles such as the non-use or threat of force, peaceful settlement of international disputes, respect for sovereignty, and territorial integrity of states, the right of peoples to self-determination, in favour of certain countries pose particular danger to international peace, law, and order.” We should note that the right of people to self-determination is mentioned only in this paragraph of the Concept, whereas the importance of the principle of territorial integrity is emphasized five times throughout the text. Also, the Concept refers to the principle of sovereignty 13 times. President Vladimir Putin’s May 2012 decree mentioned the principle of territorial integrity three times, and sovereignty four times. Not a word was said about defending the right of people to self-determination.
In his speech at the annual Munich Security Conference in February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “what took place in Crimea is stipulated in the UN Charter: self-determination.” Lavrov added that the document contained several principles, “and a nation’s right to self-determination was a key one. Territorial integrity and self-determination must be respected.” This statement was an obvious inconsistency between Russia’s key doctrinal document and current understanding of its national interests.
Furthermore, the 2013 Concept states: “It is unacceptable that military interventions and other forms of interference which undermine the foundations of international law based on the principle of sovereign equality of states be carried out on the pretext of implementing the concept of “responsibility to protect.” Yet it is actually through “the responsibility to protect” that the Russian authorities have explained their policy towards Ukraine from the very beginning; first in Crimea, and then in Donbass. Russia clearly changed its attitude to this principle as events in Ukraine unfolded in 2014 and is now ready to actively protect the “Russian world.” Consequently, this provision of the Concept no longer reflects the real national interests of the Russian Federation, as now understood by the country’s leadership.
Objective No 4 – “promoting good-neighborly relations with adjoining states” – can be considered a failure too, both with respect to Ukraine and the Baltic States. Even the leaders of friendly neighboring states that joined alliances with Russia looked quite nervous as the Russian administration added the idea of “the Russian world” to the political vocabulary.
Except now there is more interest in the Russian language since confrontation has increased the demand in the West for specialists with a good command of Russian.
What Did We Fight For?
But perhaps the opposite is true and the Ukrainian conflict did not cancel Russia’s previous foreign policy objectives, but showed how pressing they were? Perhaps the conflict around Ukraine could have been avoided if the tasks based on Russian national interests and formalized in its doctrines had been fully accomplished?
For example, what if Russia and the European Union, as Vladimir Putin’s 2012 decree states, had attained the “strategic objective to create one economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” The same decree instructs Russian diplomats to “seek an agreement with the European Union on reciprocal abolition of entry visas for short-term travel of their citizens,” to “defend the principles of equality and mutual benefit in working on a new strategic partnership framework agreement between Russia and the European Union,” and to “develop a mutually beneficial energy partnership with the aim of creating a common European energy sector.”
Russia-EU disagreements over these issues – above all in trade – triggered the Ukrainian crisis. As for the energy sphere, establishing a common European energy sector looks unfeasible, especially since the Russian government and the European Commission essentially oppose future development strategies.
In relations with the U.S., Russian diplomacy should “pursue the policy of ensuring stable and predictable cooperation based on the principles of equality, non-interference in internal affairs, and respect for mutual interests, with the goal of taking bilateral cooperation to a truly strategic level.” But if U.S.-Russian strategic relationship were truly strategic, would the current confrontation be possible?
In his 2012 keynote article “Russia and the Changing World,” Putin stated that “in recent years a good deal has been done to develop Russian-American relations. Even so, we have not managed to fundamentally change the matrix of our relations, which continue to ebb and flow.”
“The instability of the partnership with America is due in part to the tenacity of some well-known stereotypes and phobias, particularly the perception of Russia on Capitol Hill,” he wrote. “But the main problem is that bilateral political dialogue and cooperation do not rest on a solid economic foundation. The current level of bilateral trade falls far short of the potential of our economies. The same is true of mutual investments. We have yet to create a safety net that would protect our relations against ups and downs.”
In the present situation, talk about a “solid economic foundation” with the U.S. seems to be hopelessly obsolete: the immediate concern is to avoid direct confrontation. Things might have been different if the two states had had that “safety net.” After all, the U.S. cannot afford such confrontation with China, despite many irritants in relations between the two countries.
However, if we consider other objectives in relations with the U.S. set out in Putin’s May decree, none of them has been achieved, except for ensuring the implementation of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. The objectives were as follows:
First. “To give priority attention to increasing high-quality trade and economic cooperation, broadening the work of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, and ensuring equal, non-discriminatory conditions for bilateral trade on a constant and unconditional basis.” What really happened? A large project has been cancelled that would have established trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. The presidential commission stopped functioning at the U.S. initiative.
Second. “To work actively on preventing unilateral extraterritorial sanctions by the U.S. against Russian legal entities and individuals.” What happened was that the U.S. imposed sanctions not only against a number of Russian legal entities and individuals, but also targeted entire sectors, including banking, energy, and defense.
Third. “To promote initiatives pertaining to further liberalization of visa regime.” What actually happened was the suspension of talks at the U.S. initiative.
Fourth. “To work on the basis that talks on the further reduction of strategic offensive arms are possible only within the context of taking into account any and all factors influencing global strategic stability.” In reality, the talks are deadlocked. However, this objective cannot be considered a failure because of a reservation about “taking into account any and all factors influencing global strategic stability.”
Fifth. “To be committed to Russia’s position regarding the creation of a U.S. global missile defense system and seek firm guarantees that it is not aimed against Russian nuclear forces.” The reality is that the U.S. is continuing to build its anti-missile defense segment in Europe. The talks with Russia have been suspended.
Despite the severing of relations in almost all other spheres, the only provision that has been executed concerns “ensuring a step-by-step implementation of the new START Treaty of April 8, 2010 between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
If we judge by concrete results, the desire for strategic partnership with the U.S. should be taken off the list of Russian national priorities as absolutely unfeasible, even if the Ukrainian crisis showed how much such partnership was needed…
Incidentally, in a scrutiny of policy papers of various levels one cannot miss yet another paradox. For a long time, Russia talked about shifting priorities from the West, mainly towards East Asia and the Asia-Pacific Region. Yet the exposition of Russia’s Asia policy still cannot compare with how much Russia elaborates on the Western vector in terms of detailing its interests or the amount of attention paid to it. Formally, the two doctrines are balanced, but there is no doubt that Russia’s Western-centrism is still in place.
The 2013 concept says that “fundamental and rapid changes not only create serious risks but also provide the Russian Federation with new opportunities.” It elaborates: “Russia is pursuing an independent foreign policy guided by its national interests and based on unconditional respect for international law.” This will not get any argument. We only have to understand to what extent Russian national interests changed (if at all) in connection with the Ukrainian conflict (and against the backdrop of the radicalization of Islam and instability in the Middle East, which the effective policy papers hardly mention) and what foreign policy Russia should pursue in this connection.
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Understandably, diplomats can work without any doctrines or concepts (which they actually do) in turbulent or revolutionary times. The rapid changes in the world increasingly look like collapsing structures rather than planned restructuring, running ahead of any bureaucratic designs in all countries without exception. Admittedly, the contrast between conceptual basis and practice in the Russian case looks outrageous at present.
A lack of understanding about national development prospects (not merely for foreign policy, but for the state in general, society, and the socio-political system) and confusion over self-identity are more pernicious to formulating the strategic reference points in foreign policy than the current uncertain international situation in which Russia finds itself or even the increasingly chaotic world system.
Despite all respect for diplomats and professionals in security policy responsible for writing doctrines and concepts, there is a growing impression that someone else should handle these matters. Russia certainly finds itself at another pivotal turn in its history and the fact that the search for a Russian strategy is taking place amid fundamental global changes adds significance to this historic period. In this situation, the documents steeped in diplomatic parlance trying to describe, in bureaucratic terms, the borderline between what one wishes and what one really has, while hedging against possible reprimands from superiors, are practically worthless.
A mechanism of conceptualizing national interests is needed, which would embrace all strata of society and be able to mould its demands and aspirations into a development vector. But even the most brilliant officials from the Foreign Ministry or the Security Council should not be given this task at first. They will take it over when the national consensus has been spelled out in a language understood by the state machine. The masters of bureaucratic state language then can go ahead and finish the work.