From a Post-Soviet to a Russian Foreign Policy

16 november 2008

Alexander Lukin is Department Head, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, School of International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics; Director, Center for East Asian and SCO Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Resume: The post-Soviet foreign policy paradigm rested on the exclusive role of interaction with the West. A foreign policy course that meets Russia’s national interests in earnest could become an alternative to the post-Soviet approach. Its goal might be a return of foreign policy attractiveness to Russia – something that is known as ‘soft power’ today.

Russia took military action in support of South Ossetia last August and this has undermined the model of Russian-Western relations that arose in the 1990s and has created a new situation in the world – one of real, rather than declared, multipolarity. The backbone elements are Moscow’s refusal to stick to the rules of the game laid down by the West and its readiness to oppose the West, at least in some aspects that have a bearing on Russia’s fundamental interests, even at the cost of a serious confrontation. What is the root cause of the situation and its aftermath for Russia and how should we construe our policy so as to use it in our interests?


Back in 1951, the widely acclaimed U.S. expert on Soviet policy George Kennan wrote: “These […] are the things for which an American well-wisher may hope from the Russia of the future: that she lift forever the Iron Curtain, that she recognize certain limitations to the internal authority of government, and that she abandon, as ruinous and unworthy, the ancient game of imperialist expansion and oppression.” He made a remark further, saying: “If she is prepared to do these things, then Americans will not need to concern themselves more deeply with her nature and purposes; the basic demands of a more stable world order will then have been met, and the area in which a foreign people can usefully have thoughts and suggestions will have been filled.”

Russia surpassed all the expectations of U.S. analysts in 1991 and 1992 as the Soviet Union fell apart. Moscow recognized the full independence of not only all its former Eastern European satellites, but the independence of the former Soviet republics, as well. The Communist Party lost power; and a democratic opposition seized the helm and launched radical market reforms. More than that, the government embarked on an overtly pro-Western foreign policy course and accepted the role of a junior partner to the “civilized world.”

But let us turn back to George Kennan’s article. He foresaw the complexities that would arise in defining state sovereignty in case the Soviet Union transformed into a freer state, and he called for refraining from accelerating the collapse of the country. Kennan, the author of the ‘containment’ doctrine, believed that the U.S. “would do well to avoid incurring any responsibility for views or positions on these subjects; for any specific solutions they may advocate will some day become a source of great bitterness against them, and they will find themselves drawn into controversies that have little or nothing to do with the issue of human freedom.”

Kennan went on to say: “What is plainly necessary, and the only solution worthy of American encouragement, is the rise of such a spirit among all the peoples concerned as would give to border and institutional arrangements in that troubled area an entirely new, and greatly reduced, significance. Whether that spirit will actually arise, we cannot tell. And precisely because we cannot tell this, Americans should be extremely careful in committing their support or encouragement to any specific arrangements in this sphere […].” He predicted, among other things, the inevitable independence of the Baltic states, but he said along with it that “Ukraine is economically as much a part of Russia as Pennsylvania is a part of the United States,” and that is why he called for staying away from advocating some kind of specific status for it in advance.

Kennan also issued a warning with regard to the satellite states – the Eastern European countries dependent on the Soviet Union. While speaking out for their full independence, he observed that the Americans willing to ooze encouraging influence in that part of the world would do a good thing by telling their friends in the countries behind the Iron Curtain – provided they had them there – that they should stop speculating wearingly over the so-called national borders and patriotic feelings of misled language groups.

The U.S. and European diplomacy acted on George Kennan’s recommendations in the opposite way. Nationalism in Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet Union was used to undermine their sovereignty and to weaken these two states. Anti-Russian feelings in the countries that used to make up the Soviet Union or that stayed within its sphere of influence were instigated in every conceivable manner. The West did not feel satisfied with the fact that the Soviet Union had changed beyond the U.S. leaders’ most audacious dreams. A decision was taken to continue pressing Russia until it fully submitted its foreign policy to Washington’s desires, ephemeral and controversial at times.

This kind of approach to Russia has invited criticism in the U.S., as well. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described the U.S. disputes on this in an article in mid-August 2008: “Let’s start with us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was among the group – led by George Kennan, the father of ‘containment’ theory, Senator Sam Nunn and the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum – that argued against expanding NATO, at that time. It seemed to us that since we had finally brought down Soviet communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia the most important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the Cold War – to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO? All of this was especially true because, we argued, there was no big problem on the world stage that we could effectively address without Russia […]. No, said the Clinton foreign policy team, we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats, because Moscow is weak and, by the way, they’ll get used to it. Message to Russians: We expect you to behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like you’re still the Soviet Union. The Cold War is over for you, but not for us.”

The U.S. calculations proved to be wrong – it did not take account of either the real international situation, Russia’s size as a country or the nature of its political culture. First and foremost, the growth in world energy prices, which had in many ways been boosted by U.S. foreign policy, and a rationalization of the Russian government’s economic course led to a sizable increase in Russia’s financial capabilities. But even regardless of the whims of the market, it was illogical at the least to hope that a country like Russia would always remain weak and irresolute. That is why the course, which the veteran Russian diplomat Anatoly Adamishin described by citing the Italian saying “to give out nothing, to take away everything and to demand more,” was fraught with catastrophe.

The aftermath saw the disillusionment of the elites and the rank-and-file with the West’s foreign policy and models of development, which gave a push to the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies and reduced the influence of liberal parties and the models of development they promoted. Russian foreign policy then turned toward the setting up of an alternative center of power.


While Soviet foreign policy was based on an ideological confrontation with the “imperialist world” personified by the West and the facilitation of its destruction was the eventual objective of that policy, post-Soviet foreign policy was the carryover of residual Soviet features; i.e., the paradigm centered on the exclusive role of interaction with the West minus the radical goal of the latter’s destruction. This means that post-Soviet policy evolved from the realization that the former “imperialist world” (now labeled by different political forces in Russia as “the civilized world,” the West, NATO, the Euro-Atlantic Axis, etc.) was the center of the universe and the only actor in world politics worth giving attention to. It suggested that Russia should interact with almost no one else but the “civilized world.” The Russian political leadership in various periods (and various political forces with differing political orientation) called for different, and often quite opposing, forms of interaction with the West, ranging from full incorporation as a junior partner (like it was in the early 1990s) to putting up tough opposition to the West (like what happened soon after the bombing raids started against Yugoslavia).

However, even though the concept of multipolarity was specified in the official documents on foreign policy and they would set out Russia’s foreign policy priorities correctly at times, the practical foreign policy steps did not go beyond the traditional Russian-Western post-Soviet paradigm, while relations with other partners (China, Iran, the Middle East) would often be viewed as a lever for putting pressure on the West or as a mechanism for influencing it. These regions were not viewed as actors having significance per se.

This post-Soviet approach was grounded in the first place in the residual Soviet mentality of the people standing at the helm of foreign policy and was highly counterproductive, as it impeded the correct identification of Russian foreign policy interests and the efficacious implementation of measures backing them up. Instead, foreign policy making turned into an endless chain of intermittent concessions and confrontational gestures toward the West. Moscow made concessions – often to the detriment of Russia’s national interests – with the hope that they would be reciprocated, and when no reciprocal steps were made, it would launch acts of revenge stemming from the logic that suggested: “Take that and enjoy it, although it won’t make us any better off.” This kind of policy could be seen almost throughout the entire tenure of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. It gave way to a tougher line when Yevgeny Primakov replaced Kozyrev as foreign minister. Senseless concessions on the Yugoslav problems had led to the UN enforcement of the blockade of Yugoslavia and they could not be remedied with the aid of overdue efforts to prevent the bombing of Serbia. Once the bombing raids did begin, inefficient manifestations of displeasure followed, including Primakov’s famous order to turn his jet back home over the Atlantic. Victor Chernomyrdin’s advice to Slobodan Milosevic to give up positions during the bombings was followed by the senseless and sudden advance of Russian paratroopers from Bosnia to Kosovo and their subsequent and equally senseless withdrawal from there. The first years of the 21st century were also marked with a number of irrational gestures of goodwill, like the shutting down of a Russian radio electronic surveillance center at Lourdes, Cuba, and a Russian naval base in Cam Ranh, Vietnam. Experts differ in their assessments of the need for both shutdowns, but in any case those decisions could have been taken in the format of a bilateral agreement with the U.S. and not as unilateral concessions.

This tendency saw a special surge after September 11, 2001, when Russia fully supported the U.S. In addition, it offered a feeble reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and did not object to the deployment of anti-terrorist coalition forces in Central Asia. A reversion came about, however, when no reciprocal reaction came from the West. The follow-up embraced the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) calls in 2005 for coalition countries to decide on the deadlines for the stay of their military contingents in SCO member-states, arms deals with Iran, Syria and Venezuela, demarches against Britain, a suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, etc. When seen against the background of blatant lobbying in favor of major corporations, this policy of flip-flops resulted in the lack of practical achievements in the international arena. Russia’s image plummeted in the West, where Russia was perceived as a forced, complicated and unpredictable partner, and in other parts of the globe, where Moscow’s conduct was seen as the one lacking a clear line.

In theory, Russia faced a choice between a return to the policy in the format of the Western system and strategy, and the upkeep of an independent line. However, the policies pursued by the West – and primarily by Washington – deprived Moscow of this choice. On the foreign policy plane, Russia could not turn into a country in the vein of Poland that always comes around to fundamental concessions in spite of certain frictions, or in the vein of Japan and Turkey, whose specific internal organization is always pardoned due to their strategic significance and full obedience in issues of military strategy. The West has embraced them as valuable members of the coalition and ones whose opinions are heeded. As for Russia, it was issued a demand for unconditional surrender on all items.

By taking military action in South Ossetia, Russia sent a justified – and quite possibly, much overdue – signal that it did not find the post-Soviet foreign policy paradigm acceptable any longer. The West did miss a historic opportunity to incorporate Russia into the system of its own unions, as it preferred minor and instantaneous interests instead to Russia. Yet one should perceive this as a reality. The commonplace grievances against the West and the willingness to serve it in the same way are unacceptable for Russia both from the point of view of its genuine interests and its real capabilities. There is much more practicality in the recommendations of people who say that Moscow should formulate for itself and offer to the world a program of realistic and pragmatic foreign policy matching its genuine strategic interests and the goals of economic and social development. (For an example of this see Alexei Arbatov’s article “Don’t Throw Stones in a Glass House”. Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3, July-September 2008.)


A foreign policy course that meets Russia’s national interests in earnest could become an alternative to the post-Soviet approach. Its goal might be a return of foreign policy attractiveness to Russia – something that is known as ‘soft power’ today. Historically, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union had certain attractiveness. The Russian Empire symbolized the Orthodox Christian world and was a center of gravity for pan-Slavic movements. At certain periods it was a pillar of struggle with international revolutionary tendencies, like after the defeat of Napoleonic France. The Soviet Union offered an alternative to bourgeois civilization and quite a number of people would long view it as a rising ideal society, for which they were ready to sacrifice their lives. Today’s Russia does not offer anything – apart from its mineral resources – that would deserve at least some interest, to say nothing of sacrificing one’s life. Its soft power, non-aggressive attraction, and moral and ideological influence have dropped to zero. It does not promote either a democratic ideal (similar to the U.S.) or a fundamentalist ideal (similar to some Islamic countries and movements). It does not serve as a model of successful integration on the basis of democracy (like the EU) or a pattern of speedy development (like China that has aroused global interest with the so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’ as an alternative to the ‘Washington Consensus’). Russia is not a crucial and useful ally for anyone (the way Japan is for the U.S.) or anyone’s bitter enemy (like Iran is for the U.S.). Naturally, someone can say that the world has a large number of countries that do not offer anything special to mankind (e.g. the small states of Europe). But they do not claim the role of independent centers of power, to say nothing of being separate civilizations, since they are part of the European one. In the meantime, an attempt to integrate Russia into Europe flopped, and that is why Russia must look for ways to consolidate its own soft power and seek things that it could offer to the rest of the world, albeit not on the Soviet scale of the past.

Russia’s transition to a new foreign policy envisions a number of measures: to formulate basic national interests; to understand which of them correspond to the interests of other major international players in the field of world politics; to turn the areas of convergent interests into guidelines for Russian foreign policy attractiveness; and, by cooperating in those areas, to induce partners to concessions on the items where their interests are not identical with Russia’s.


The sphere of Russia’s fundamental national interests should not be interpreted too broadly, especially considering Russia’s current position. It must incorporate solely the interests that are directly relevant to the future of the nation, the ones the nation should defend with all of its might. The Russia of today does not seek to conquer the world or to subdue it with the aid of its ideology in the manner that the Soviet Union did, and that is why it has much more modest national interests. Russia’s general objective today consists of speedy economic and social development, improving living standards so that they match those in the most developed nations, and ensuring political and social stability. This objective provides for setting the following foreign policy tasks:

1. A leading role in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), first of all nuclear armaments. The goal of this struggle is specified in all the major documents on Russian foreign policy, but in reality Russia has taken a very inactive position in the area. One can clearly see here a post-Soviet paradigm that dictated the dependence of each specific case on the level of relations between Moscow and the West, as well as on the benefits that one or another group of lobbyists could draw from cooperation with each particular country in the sphere of defense or nuclear technologies. The result is that Russia not only declines to position itself as an unambiguous opponent of proliferation, but, on the contrary, it tries to mitigate the measures taken by partners, as in the situation with Iran or North Korea. For a number of reasons a position of this kind obviously stands in discrepancy with its own interests.

Russia is the only country capable of delivering a retaliatory nuclear strike against the U.S. It is one of the two nuclear giants in this sphere – a factor putting it on a par with the U.S. and above all other countries. Proliferation of WMD devalues its military power and objectively reduces its influence in today’s world, as Russia is behind not only the U.S., but also many other states in all other aspects (conventional armed forces, economic might, etc.).

Proceeding from this, Russia needs to play a leading role in adopting collective measures against countries with aspirations in the field of WMD. It must have an opportunity to act against them resolutely and even unilaterally in some cases.

2. A leading role in fighting international terrorism and religious extremism. International terrorism and religious, above all Islamic, extremism poses no less a threat to Russia than to the West, and that is why we must move over to a policy of authoring our own initiatives and backing them up with practical steps instead of passive participation or acceptance/non-acceptance of one or another Western initiative.

For instance, Russia could put forth new proposals on stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and curbing the drug threat coming out of there. It could rally the mechanisms of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to this end, for instance. Central Asian countries and Afghanistan itself, which is clearly frustrated by the Western military operation, would hail an activation of Russia’s encouraging role. The matter at hand is the full-scale ensuring of Central Asian security using the resources of the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). On a broader scale, Russia could conduct a tougher policy toward the organizations and states sponsoring international terrorism, and support secular regimes in countries with a predominantly Muslim population. This should not be accompanied by interventions in their domestic affairs under the pretext of defending human rights (like the West does).

3. Strengthening friendly regimes in neighboring countries. Every country has a natural desire to see friendly regimes in neighboring countries. The persistent attuning of relations with them might set the scene for the resolution of Russia’s top national task priority for today – rapid economic and social growth. Moscow’s inconsistent course and the provocative policies of the West have so far been producing an impression on some of Russia’s neighbors that extreme Russophobia in foreign policy pays back in terms of economic benefits and security guarantees from the West.

The new situation in Georgia should change this impression to some degree. Georgian orientation toward NATO and the U.S. and radical Russophobia, to which the Georgian government linked its hopes for the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity, have failed, as the West has actually turned out to be incapable of guaranteeing Georgia’s security and territorial integrity. This was a discouraging lesson for some countries, and subsequent events – like the rather cool reception given to U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney in Baku or the toning down of anti-Russian rhetoric by some forces in Ukraine – suggest that definite conclusions have been made. Still, a positive program is needed all the same. Russia must show that good relations with it provide firm guarantees of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow could issue such guarantees on its own, as well as within the framework of the CSTO and, to some extent, the SCO.

The threat of terrorism linked to Islamic radicalism and the problem of drug trafficking causes the biggest concern in the field of security in many CIS countries, and especially in Central Asia. If Russia turned into a world leader in fighting these perils, it would give a boost to its image in this part of the world. As for territorial integrity, CIS countries are mostly concerned with various forms of separatism in this area, and the hasty official recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did little to build up Russia’s popularity. As it is impossible to play the situation over now, explanations are needed to suggest that the refusal to acknowledge the territorial integrity of Georgia was a very special case touched off by extreme Georgian nationalism and anti-Russian policies. But given a more acceptable political course by any other of its neighbors, Russia (unlike NATO) would always be ready to use all of its military might to protect a neighbor’s territorial integrity.

Apart from the factors involving force, we must also use economic levers. Neighboring states friendly to Russia should be entitled to tangible economic benefits. The case in hand does not imply any subsidies. It implies mutually beneficial economic measures – preferential access to markets, priority issuance of contracts, etc. It is important for Russia to resolutely break up situations where neighbors with high anti-Russian sentiments – like Estonia or Latvia – get big bonuses from economic cooperation with Russia, while countries that treat Russia fairly get nothing in return. This requires a firm state position, a suppression of egotistic interests of certain corporations and, in some case, a subordination of purely financial interests of the state to an overall foreign policy course meeting the interests of the state.

4. Areas of convergence with Western interests. Russia needs smooth working relations with the West that would facilitate its economic progress and attaining a prominent place in world politics. Alexei Arbatov made an accurate observation when he said that in a multipolar world “the current international system […] puts into a more lucrative position the nation or the coalition that builds better relations with centers of power” (“Don’t Throw Stones in a Glass House”. Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3, July-September 2008, p. 204). Some of the aforementioned Russian interests are identical or partly coincide with the interests of the West. In the first place, these are the nonproliferation of WMD and fighting international terrorism and drug trafficking. Cooperation can and must be continued in these areas. The problem is that the West’s previous policies have stripped it of any trust from Russia.

Proceeding from the above, cooperation with the West must not be unconditional, but based on clear-cut agreements (preferably written ones) pegged to a system of mutual concessions. Verbal assurances alone will not do. For instance, Russia may toughen its position on the Iranian nuclear problem, step up joint efforts in Afghanistan or stay away from exporting some armaments to certain countries, but it must have a clear answer about the benefits it will get in return. Reluctance to agree with Moscow or a desire to violate already concluded agreements must see tough measures in response. This is the only way to rebuild the reputation of a decent and consistent partner.

5. Relations with other centers of power. The role of the SCO as an organization instrumental in coordinating interests with China – another center of power – is growing for Russia in a genuinely multipolar world. In being less powerful than the West, Moscow and Beijing will seek closer cooperation, although their interests will not always be identical. For instance, China will not support Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, yet it will watch with satisfaction Moscow’s efforts to stop a further expansion of NATO. Another tantalizing prospect is to set up an organization that is an alternative to the G8. It might be formed through a merger of the informal BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) with several larger countries which the G8 will not admit for various reasons – for instance, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Mexico and Nigeria. This association might start competing with the G8’s economic influence in several years’ time, and Russia might consolidate its influence in the world considerably being a member of both groups at the same time.

6. The Georgian dilemma. The situation in Georgia as a precedent of Russia’s new political activity will remain in the limelight of international politics for quite some time in the sense that different countries and centers of power will have to formulate their own assessments of it and put forward various plans for changing it. In this context, Russia would flout its own interests by rejecting all discussions of any opportunities. Tbilisi may change the anti-Russian vector of its policy, at least in theory, and Moscow should grease this change even if the latter requires years or even decades to materialize. The realization that Georgia has lost a part of its territory precisely due to its pro-NATO drive and that the continuation of this course will eternalize the impossibility of any cohabitation with South Ossetia and Abkhazia must dawn on the Georgians some day.

As an example, one can look at the situation in Cyprus where the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey, has existed as a real independent state for more than 20 years. The republic has agreed to talks with the Greek Cypriot-controlled part of Cyprus under pressure from Ankara that craves EU membership, although the outcome of these talks is yet unclear. Georgia has not shown any stimuli yet that might prompt Russia to exert pressure on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the contrary, its diehard confidence in the potency of Western pressures as a tool for resolving any problems has produced a directly opposite reaction. But if forces crop up in Georgia that will assess the prospects for coexistence with Abkhazia and South Ossetia pragmatically and not in the terms of ideologized post-Soviet mentality, the idea of a neutral status and the observance of some other rules of the game might generate a proper stimulus. Naturally, it is still too early to say what forms such coexistence might take, but in any case they must be absolutely acceptable to the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

7. Importance of informational activity. Moscow did not come off well on the information plane during the events in South Ossetia, and especially during the first days of the conflict when it found itself unable to adequately present to the international mass media its own position and the real state of affairs in the conflict zone. Part of the blame for this goes to Russia itself, even though it did run into a wall of ideologically anti-Russian information. The interesting thing is that assertions about Russia’s strength and the lack of a need to explain anything to anyone are coming precisely from the people who failed to duly inform international public opinion earlier. Such assertions are highly dangerous, as they may result in the isolation of Russia in the global information sphere and subsequently in other spheres, as well.

The situation makes it necessary to set up a state agency responsible for the timely updating of foreign reporters on real events. Had such an agency been set up before August 2008, the world would have perceived Russia’s position with much more understanding today.

Last updated 16 november 2008, 15:52

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