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A Disappearing Trick


Russian foreign policy may seem to follow a clear strategy to restore the country’s position as a global superpower. In reality, it is merely an extension of its domestic weakness.

© Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via REUTERS

The most common complaint about Russia’s foreign policy theses days is that it is becoming more aggressive and expansionist. Both US and European policymakers believe that Russia is now a serious challenge to global peace and stability. However, while this description might be accurate—Russia has already proven how dangerous it can be, especially to its neighbors—there is another phenomenon that has come to characterize Russia’s foreign policy: its absence. In its place, Russia has amassed a patchwork of interests, alliances of convenience, and grudges.

Contemporary Russian foreign policy was born in 1999, as Russian leadership—and more importantly the Russian public—began to grow deeply disillusioned with the West. At the time, the survival of Russia’s political elite depended upon both the suppression of separatism within Russia and the restoration of Russia’s global role. When Putin was elevated to the position of president, he tried to restore the country’s political relationships—not only with post-Soviet states, but also with the former USSR’s most corrupt allies. He paid visits to North Korea and Cuba during his first year in office and wrote off more than $40 billion of Soviet-era debts owed by Mongolia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Syria, Nicaragua, and other nations between 2000 and 2004. This did little to establish beneficial relationships, but these steps were quite popular inside Russia and contributed to the ascent of Putin’s approval ratings in the early 2000s.

When Putin began to consolidate his position, he used the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US to dramatically shift the country’s foreign policy. In exchange for its support for the Western mission in Afghanistan, Russia was able to improve its economic relations with both the US and Europe. Moscow founded the Russia-NATO council in 2002, with Putin calling European integration a “hope” for Russia. It seemed that Russia was briefly able to accept Washington’s special role in the world and maintain a steady rapprochement with the West.

A Short-Lived Honeymoon

The honeymoon ended in 2003 with the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq. Russia sided with Germany and France against the invasion, and for a brief time, it was possible to imagine the beginnings of a new Moscow-Berlin-Paris alliance. But it was short-lived: Moscow turned its back on Europe after the major European powers denounced its behavior towards Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004/05. With the exception of brief overtures to the West, like the ”Partnership for Modernization” with the EU and a ”reset” with the US, Russia had returned to its skepticism of the West.

This culminated in Russia’s ”pivot to the East,” as the Kremlin called its decision to rely more on a rising China to buttress Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, and ”Eurasian integration,” another response to the hardening of Russia-Western relations. The deep alienation from the West after the Ukraine crisis also led Russian leadership to develop relations with the most authoritarian regimes in the world, from Iran to Venezuela and Syria to Sudan. These connections cost money, and for a dubious rate of return: Over the last five years, Russians lent to and invested in Venezuela and Syria without achieving any foreign policy effects at all. Russia’s involvement in Syria in 2015 was meant to force the West to recognize Russia’s claims in the post-Soviet space, but neither the Americans nor the Europeans expressed any willingness to fight terror alongside a nation that was itself perceived as a terrorist power.

Thus, Russian foreign policy has come a remarkable full circle: it started with pure anti-Americanism, entered situational alliances with the United States and major European powers, then pivoted to the East, and ended by building ineffective partner-client relationships with disreputable political regimes. With Putin seeking another presidential term, extending his time as Russia’s leader to a quarter of a century, it is obvious he lacks any agenda for engaging with the world in the future.

A Domestic Imperative

President Putin might be not a very good strategic planner, but his actions are at least well thought out. Experts have been predicting his fall since 2002, but his regime remains reasonably healthy, and no organized opposition exists in the country. Putin’s foreign policy has been one of the foundations of his hold on power, and it reflects the shifting roles of Russia’s elites and its public in domestic policies.

When Putin assumed presidential power in the early 2000s, he sought popular support rather than that of the elites. This changed in 2002/03: With all the major state-owned corporations under the control of his allies and Russian businesses subdued, Putin’s major focus shifted to the interests of the elites. This is when the era of constructive foreign policy began. Until at least 2007, Russia’s foreign policy was largely underpinned by a desire to connect with the West, driven by Russian businessmen who wanted to join the global financial elite. Moscow opposed NATO and EU enlargement in the post-Soviet zone, but until the end of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure, Russia cooperated productively with the US and Europe.

The decisive change came in 2011. Putin was disturbed by the implications of the Arab Spring revolutions, which had deposed a number of local strongmen, and felt his suspicions confirmed by massive street rallies held throughout Russia in response to the rigged 2011 Duma elections. In 2012, Putin won re-election with only 63.3 percent of the popular vote, a much lower margin than his 71.3 percent in 2004 and Medvedev’s 70.3 percent in 2008. He refocused his attention on the public and tried to galvanize support, especially since economic growth was faltering.

Without any vision for the future, the Kremlin decided to bet on a set of ideas for a post-Soviet reconstruction, a plan outlined in an article Putin published in the Izvestia newspaper in late 2011. These ideas failed: By the end of 2013, it was clear that Ukraine was moving westwards, and the benefits of closer ties with Kazakhstan and Belarus were negligible. In November 2013, the Levada Center recorded the lowest ever popular support for Mr. Putin—60.7 percent, compared with 85.9 percent when he allowed Medvedev to take over in April 2008. The occupation of Crimea in February and March 2014 and the subsequent war in Ukraine had far more to do with domestic concerns than global considerations. It was one of Putin’s boldest moves and it resonated strongly with the public. From this time on, Russia’s foreign policy began to vanish, replaced by an imaginary discourse meant to serve domestic political needs.

A Besieged Fortress

The Russian government has no actual need to improve the country’s relationships with the West because it derives its legitimacy predominantly from the current showdown. It also has little need to be active on other foreign policy vectors, since it simply has nothing to offer except the sale of energy resources and weapons. Welcoming international pariahs like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro or Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir should not be considered an element of foreign policy. The Kremlin simply wishes for Russia to look like a besieged fortress, under attack by the West.

And it has worked well: Putin’s approval ratings haven’t dipped below 80 percent since the annexation of Crimea, even though the economy has stagnated and personal disposable incomes have declined for the fourth year in a row. As it becomes more obvious that Putin is unable to provide Russians with improved conditions or Russia with expanding international influence, his only realistic option is to claim that only because of him, Russia is successfully withstanding growing external pressure. No one in the Kremlin wants relations with the West to improve. This would not make much of a difference to Russia’s economic landscape, and without an ”enemy” it would become much more difficult to explain why the country’s economy is performing so poorly, why military spending is so high, and why corruption is rampant.

The dismantling of Russia’s foreign policy also allows the government to change the entire worldview of the Russian people. As the country’s self-image as a besieged fortress has become more deeply ingrained, the Kremlin has tried to extend it, turning the whole history of the country into a story of defensive wars and praising the wisdom of ”strong rulers” who led the country to victory. Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin, the rulers who were responsible for the most brutal repressions of the Russian people in history, are nowadays the most glorified leaders in the nation’s history. For facilitating Putin’s political victories, some politicians have in fact suggested extending voting rights to 27 million people killed during World War II. More absurd initiatives are certain to follow. Books published with the support of foreign NGOs are confiscated, Russian non-profits that receive foreign grants or produce research for foreign customers are pressured; the country is being brainwashed, and its self-made isolation is a contributing factor.

To see that the Kremlin will not change its course now, one need only look at how its foreign policy actors have changed their language. Any trace of diplomatic politeness has completely disappeared. Putin described US sanction policy as ”clownery that cannot be tolerated;” Aleksey Pushkov, the chairman of the State Duma’s foreign policy committee, described the United States as a power ”approaching the point of a mental breakdown.” All of this underlines the fact that Russia’s foreign policy statements are used not to manage relations with other countries, but rather to impress a domestic audience.

A Vicious Cycle

This development could in fact be rather good for the Western powers. Many see Russia as a revisionist power that wants to change the borders of Europe and rewrite the rules that took hold after the end of the Cold War. But it has not been successful in this pursuit. Putin wanted to consolidate the post-Soviet space and keep Ukraine inside Russia’s sphere of influence, but instead of regaining Ukraine, he had to settle for Crimea; the Eurasian Union looks dysfunctional, with even Armenia disgruntled with its rules; China has not been a valuable investment partner; and the West is tightening its sanctions. In 2008 and 2014 Putin had targets he could invade and occupy without having to directly confront the West militarily, but now he does not. The country’s shift to domestic rhetoric in its foreign policy reflects the clear fact that the Kremlin realizes it has no chance of military expansion, and no means with which to respond to Western sanctions.

Under these conditions, Moscow’s only rational course is what it has already chosen: Abandoning any hope for positive change and nurturing a domestic climate of fear and hatred. This approach allows Russian authorities to both mobilize their subjects’ political and electoral support and channel hundreds of billions of rubles from the budget to fund the military and military equipment manufacturers (who represent, along with their family members, up to 11 percent of the Russian population). This strategy precludes any full-scale military conflict with the NATO countries for two obvious reasons: First, the Russian people do not want to go to war. No one was killed in Crimea, and during the subsequent conflict in Donbass the highest estimates of casualties among Russian servicemen are around two to three thousand people. In Syria, the combined losses of the regular army and the mercenaries Russia employed totaled less than 300. A single day of direct engagement with NATO forces would claim many more lives.

The second is that the Russian army isn’t fit for a full-scale war. It possesses only about a tenth of the tanks, armored vehicles, and guns that the eastern flank of NATO forces in Europe (not counting Greek and Turkish armies) can command. Even with 4.3 percent of its GDP spent on defense, Russia will need 30 to 40 years to catch up with its main opponents in just one theater. At the same time, the country possesses no means to respond to Western sanctions and nothing to offer in exchange for these sanctions being lifted. Thus, Putin is now able only to interfere with foreign elections and influence public opinion abroad by either waging disinformation campaigns or secretly funding fringe political parties. The Kremlin is stuck in its current foreign policy stance. Like a caged dog, it can only bark louder and louder.

The main challenge Putin’s regime now faces is the need to preserve its popularity within Russia while maintaining the international status quo—avoiding becoming a rogue state or attracting further sanctions. The West’s response to such a tactic should be based on a deep understanding of its own strategic superiority and the recognition that Putin’s Russia will run out of steam much more quickly than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union did. The gap between Putin’s non-existing foreign policy and his desperate rhetoric may broaden, but it will produce neither substantial benefits for Russia nor existential threats for the West.