Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept: A Combination of Ambitious Nostalgia and Pragmatism


February saw the publication of the updated foreign policy concept of the Russian Federation, a document defining the country’s foreign policy goals, objectives and priorities. The updated concept replaced a similar document published in July 2008. For Georgia, a country partly occupied by Russia, this document outlining the occupier’s foreign policy is of special interest. I started reading this concept without the expectation of finding any positive surprises regarding the territorial integrity of Georgia. My interest lay in seeing how realistic, pragmatic and responsive Russia’s foreign policy doctrine might be to the common challenges of the international community.

In its updated foreign policy concept, Russia overvalues its possibilities in the international arena. Clearly, the political elite view their country not just as an influential state but as a state with a “historic mission.” When reading the concept, one gets the impression that this mission includes the difficult tasks of ensuring world security and forming the international security system in general. The concept openly states that Russia is a balancing factor in international relations and that it plays a significant role in the development of world civilization. One of the key foreign policy goals of Russia is to maintain and strengthen its firm and influential position in the international community to serve the interests of the Russian Federation as one of strongest and most competitive centers in the modern world.

Judging by the document, the conceptual attitude of the Russian political elite towards the international system has not changed a bit. Russia has emphasized the multipolarity of the international system once again. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the establishment of such a model is possible only by the weakening the historical West – the United States first and foremost– and by developing several political and economic centers of gravity in the international arena. In a multipolar international system Russia sees itself as one such gravitational center. At the same time, given the challenges of the modern era, Russia clearly understands that it is not an easy task to maintain this position. Russia no longer views the growing role of Asia, and of China in particular, as a counterbalance to the West, as a clearly favorable condition for it under the multipolar international system. It considers the deepening of relations with the West as one of the factors strengthening its position in the international arena. Nevertheless, given how Russia intends to fulfill this foreign policy objective and how it defines its international relations priorities at both the global and regional levels, it is obvious that the current Russian political elite again consider the West, and especially the United States, as its rival rather than its strategic partner.

Russia considers the enhancement of the role of the United Nations as the central actor in regulating international relations as a means of protecting its interests in the multipolar international system. Maintaining the special role and privileges of the UN Security Council and its permanent members is Russia’s priority for ensuring international security. Russia’s updated foreign policy concept criticizes the “creativity” of “some countries” in interpreting the provisions of the UN Charter and their applying “double standards” and “ignoring” the provisions of the Charter by interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. Coordination and further cooperation with China within the framework of the UN Security Council has been identified as a priority objective. It is obvious that Russia has not come up with any effective new formula to strengthen its significance in the global arena – it is merely sticking to the one devised for the Soviet Union in the post-World War II architecture of international relations. Russia, as a successor of the Soviet Union, still relies on those special levers envisaged under that architecture.

One of the more effective means for Russia to strengthen its competitiveness is to advance its integrational process with the countries of the former Soviet Union. Russia intends to spare no effort to incorporate these countries into the regional platforms it leads. To put it simply, under the multipolar model of international relations, Russia’s restoration of its sphere of influence is a necessary prerequisite for both the fulfillment of its “historic mission” and the achievement of its political and economic goals in the international arena.

In terms of political and economic integration, compared to the 2008 document, the 2013 foreign policy concept places stronger emphasis on the formation and development of the Eurasian Economic Union than on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Geopolitically, Russia sees the Eurasian Union as a regional center paralleling those of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. It is worth noting that one of the objectives of Russia’s updated foreign policy concept is to function as a trade and economic link between Europe and the Asia/Pacific region. This, inter alia, must be fulfilled by the enhanced involvement of Russia in the transcontinental cargo shipment routes now being formed.

In the context of regional security, the development of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) remains a priority for Russia. Among Russia’s top priority security objectives are the neutralization of threats related to Afghanistan (terrorism, drug smuggling, illegal migration, et cetera) and preventing destabilization in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. To this end, Russia prioritizes the enhancement of CSTO’s capacities for rapid reaction and peacekeeping missions and the coordination of the foreign policies of CSTO member states.

A clear-cut priority of Russia’s foreign policy remains supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia “forming into modern democratic states, strengthening their international positions, ensuring their security, and social and economic recovery.” As regards its relationship with Georgia, Russia advises us to accept the new “political reality” of the South Caucasus – or, more specifically, the reality it has created in our country. Considering the readiness of the Georgian government, only in this setting does Russia consider it possible to normalize relations with Georgia.

Russia sees the involvement of former Soviet republics in parallel integrational processes as a threat to its strategic interest to establish and strengthen its own sphere of influence. The foreign policy concept even reminds CIS member states that, when developing relations with other states, they must take into account the necessity of fulfilling all obligations within the framework of regional integrational structures established by Russia, as well as the necessity of further developing existing integrational processes and deepening cooperation. It is interesting that the concept emphasizes the deeper involvement of Ukraine as a priority partner in regional integrational processes within the CIS.

Russia continues to consider NATO enlargement as a threat to its interests and national security. Despite the existing challenges to global and regional security, Russia views the approach of NATO military infrastructure towards its borders as a threat to its security and regards NATO enlargement as a distortion of the balance of power for the security of Europe.

Russia’s foreign policy in relation to the European Union is much more modern and pragmatic. Russia views the development of relations with the EU as a strategic step and is willing to deepen its partnership with it. The EU is identified as a key trade and economic partner and visa liberalization with the EU is set as an important objective. The foreign policy concept does not even rule out the possibility of establishing a common market with the EU in future. In contrast to the 2008 concept, the updated foreign policy document sets the development of cooperation with the EU on security issues as a separate priority, as it does with any dialogue on political issues of international importance.

As regards the development of relations with the United States, Russia’s foreign policy objectives are less ambitious than they were in 2008 and are even somewhat confrontational. The 2008 document clearly indicated the need to develop a strategic partnership between Russia and the United States. The 2013 concept only defines long-term priorities with regard to the United States and these are mostly concerned with what the United States must not do to harm Russia’s interests rather than what Russia must do to develop positive relations.

Among Russia’s long-term priorities is the development of trade and economic relations with the United States. Yet another long-term priority, spelled out in the spirit and terminology of the Cold War, is the development of a culture for managing controversial issues based on pragmatism and a balance of interests (rather than on the reconciliation of different positions) in order to make relations between Russia and the US more stable and predictable. The concept underlines that Russia-US bilateral relations must be based on the principles of equality, non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and respect for each other’s interests. It is noteworthy that the concept calls upon the US to fully observe the UN Charter when acting in the international arena and to refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. According to the concept, Russia will actively counteract any extraterritorial sanctions imposed against Russian citizens and legal persons by the United States. At the same time, a clear-cut objective of Russia’s foreign policy is the simplification of its visa regime with the United States.

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the interest Russia’s foreign policy concept pays to so-called “soft power”. In addition to the methods of classical of diplomacy, it seems that Russia intends to protect its international interests by using civil society, information technologies and by stepping up its humanitarian and cultural activities. In recent times it has become obvious that, instead of relying on rigid propaganda, Russia has been trying to exploit the potential of soft power by using more modern and multi-vector activities. Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia’s approach to soft power is not free from the Cold War perspective: once again, Russia is calling upon the West to stop manipulating public opinion with the aim of influencing certain states and to stop meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign states under the guise of human rights programs.



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