Vol. 12 No. 7
23 February 2006

Kremlin takes on a new foreign policy approach

For the first time for nearly two decades Russia has its eyes on the rest of the world in a much more assertive way, writes Nicu Popescu

Recently, Russian foreign policy has been marked by a new sense of self-confidence. Russia's agenda is not inward looking contrary to the situation just a few years ago.

Russia wants and thinks it is ready to act assertively tout azimuth. A simple comparison suffices. In 2000 the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation stated that the top priority of its foreign policy was to "create favorable external conditions for steady development of Russia, for improving its economy". Accordingly Russia's foreign policy was subordinated to domestic imperatives.
In 2005 the mood changed. In his 2005 annual address President Vladimir Putin claimed that it was "certain that Russia should continue its civilizing mission on the Eurasian continent".
The new Russian self-confidence comes from a number of political, economic and international factors. Economically, Russia has known steady growth since 1999 and a significant inflow of cash stemming from high oil and gas prices. Unlike in the 1990s, Russia is not concerned with lack of resources to pursue its foreign policy. The 2000 Foreign Policy Concept bluntly stated that Russia's capacity to address the challenges it faced was "aggravated by the limited resource support for the foreign policy". Today Putin claims that "the growth of the economy, political stability and the strengthening of the state have had a beneficial effect on Russia's international position". The mood has certainly changed.

Another factor of self-confidence relates to domestic politics. The current elites have ensured a nearly indisputable dominance at the expense of democratic pluralism. There is a certain paradox in that internationally the Russian elite project their state as strong, dynamic and pragmatic, whereas internally they often depict the state as weak, vulnerable and alarmist.
The then head of presidential administration (and currently a presidential hopeful) Dmitry Medvedev stated in April 2005 that "if we cannot consolidate the elites, Russia will disappear as a state". Thus, the main objective is to preserve Russia as a state and everybody should rally behind this objective and the current elites.

It is claimed that Russia today is in a moment of existential danger posed by Islamic terrorists and Western-inspired 'orange' revolutionaries. Consequently, in extreme times when statehood is endangered, the Putin government needs extreme powers. The centralisation of power and open authoritarianism is not only excused and explained, but deemed necessary and legitimised. It is the only way to preserve the state and the nation. As a result of such a discourse there remains no systemic force in Russia that would or could challenge the dominance of the Putin administration. The political space in Russia has been shaped in a way that only non-systemic forces - extremist nationalists and Islamic terrorists - are the challengers. In this context Putin is seen as the lesser of the evils. Even Mikhail Khodorkovsky claims from jail that Putin is "more liberal and more democratic than 70% of the population".

International events also seem to play into the hands of a newly found feeling of strength in Russia. Iraq is in a quagmire. The US is too busy running around in the Afghanistan-Iraq-Iran triangle. The EU is seen as being in a profound and paralysing crisis. In fact, many Russians fail to see that the EU crisis is profound but certainly not paralysing. Both the US and EU need Russia in their attempts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability for non-peaceful use. In the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) the democratic governments that emerged after the 'Rose and Orange revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine respectively perform with great difficulties. Mikhail Saakashvili's popularity seems to be decreasing, economic progress is slow to come and political centralisation seems to be on the rise in Georgia.
In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko is weak, economic performance is declining and political stability is not yet seen at the end of the tunnel. In contrast, the regimes in Belarus and Uzbekistan seem as strong as ever. All these international events make Russia feel that its hour has finally arrived.

The 'new thinking' of the Russian Federation, was recently put forward as an article for the Wall Street Journal by Sergei Ivanov, the deputy prime minister and minister of defence (and another presidential hopeful). He recently claimed that Russia's two main challenges are "interference in Russia's internal affairs by foreign states, either directly or through structures that they support... [and] violent assault on the constitutional order of some post-Soviet states".

No distinction is made between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and networks used to finance terrorist activities in Russia and the Western-funded democracy-promoting NGOs. Both are seen as being seen as foreign organisations seeking to destabilise the internal situation in Russia.

What are the policy implications of the new Russian self-confidence? To cite but one, on 31 January Putin asked "if one considers that Kosovo can be granted full state independence, then why do we have to refuse the same right to Abkhazians and South Ossetians?" The problem for the EU is that lack of a settlement in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria undermines not only the viability of the Moldovan and Georgian states, but also the success of the EU's European Neighbourhood Policy in the east. As such, Russia's use of the Kosovo's likely independence as a precedent for the secessionist entities in Georgia and Moldova will be not only a new stumbling block for the EU-Russia security partnership, but also a serious challenge for the success of the European Neighbourhood Policy in Moldova and South Caucasus.

Putin said in the aftermath of the Beslan siege "the weak get beaten up". This is the new prism through which Russia sees its relations with all its international partners, including the EU and the US. The combative mood is there to stay.

  • Nicu Popescu is OSI research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. nicu.popescu@ceps.be

  • © Copyright 2006 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.


    Also downloadable at http://www.ceps.be/files/NW/NWatch13.pdf