Understanding Russia’s Foreign Policy in the Age of Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: @KremlinRussia/Twitter, October 21, 2020)

Understanding Russia’s foreign policy concept under the era of President Vladimir Putin is not easy. Many people ignore the fact that a country’s foreign policy is a reflection of its domestic considerations. When it comes to Russia, we often read and “enlighten” ourselves with the analysis of “Western experts and scholars” who may end up with biased and non-objective analyses. In order to understand a country’s foreign policy and its internal dynamics, you have to study and understand its history, culture and values. You don’t have to be an insider, but you must at least respect the values and way of thinking of the people and the elite. You also cannot judge a country and how it wages international relations based on the writings of non-professional foreign journalists. History also plays an essential role in foreign policymaking as certain historical events, traumas and ideologies may shape the decision-making process in international affairs. Oliver Stone sums up this concern by saying, “If Vladimir Putin is indeed the great enemy of the United States, then at least we should try to understand him.” The 2020 Artsakh War has raised questions regarding Moscow’s foreign policy and its position during the war. This article will lend to an understanding how Putin’s Russia deals with regional and international politics to safeguard its national interests.

How did young Putin’s life shape his future career?

Usually, in powerful states, foreign policy decision-making is influenced by strong institutions (security councils, army), lobbying groups (energy firms, oil companies, think tanks…), or strong leaders. Russia’s foreign policy to some extent is a reflection of Putin’s character and life. Putin was a KGB officer in Eastern Germany and understands security dynamics with good knowledge about zero-sum games and NATO’s policies. If we dig into Putin’s biography, we will realize that the events of WWII had a direct impact on his life. Putin led a poor and miserable childhood. His father, who was exempt from duty, lost his legs while volunteering to defend Leningrad against the Nazis and later worked as a physically disabled factory worker. His mother, who had lost a child (two years old) to diphtheria and nearly starved to death during the war, swept streets, cleaned lab equipment and took on other odd jobs for meager pay.

To pass the time, Putin and his friends harassed the rats that plagued his apartment’s stairwell. It was during one of those rodent hunts that the future president learned a valuable lesson regarding international politics: “Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.” Putin got away, but the memory would shape his view of international relations: Never push your enemy to the corner, because he will attack you with all his force.

Young Putin, who was addicted to sports, later joined the KGB. He said, “I understood that in any situation, whether I was right or not, I had to be strong, to be able to strike back. I also learned that you have to always be ready to strike back in a flash.” He was keen on martial arts and eventually became a black belt in judo, which taught him the philosophy of flexibility. In an interview with Oliver Stone, Putin stated, “Sometimes you can give way to others. If that is the way leading to victory…” Like the rest of his generation he watched spy films and admitted that during his school years, under the influence of books and films, he decided to work for the KGB. It is important to highlight that as a student Putin was influenced by Ivan Ilyin’s religious, political and monarchic philosophy. I would assume that Ilyin’s ideas on Ukraine have a certain impact on Putin’s policy over Kiev, since according to the philosopher, if Ukraine is separated from Russia, then it would become its mortal enemy.

The Pillars of Putin’s Russian Foreign Policy

One of the best books I have read about Russian foreign policy under Putin was written by Angela Stent, Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest (2019). The book analyzes how Russia returned to the world stage as a respected, feared and admired great power. To clarify her analysis, she explains the seven pillars that shape Russia’s foreign policy under Putin:

First, the West should recognize that Russia has the right to a seat at the table on all major international decisions and to be treated equally as a global player. Russia’s active participation in conflict resolution efforts ranging from Iran’s nuclear crisis to the conflict in North Korea is proof of this point. 

Second, Russia’s interests are as legitimate as those of the West. Russians believe that what happened to Kosovo in 1999 was an “illegitimate” intervention in which NATO took advantage of Russia’s weakness, tried to expand eastward and divided Serbia. When Russia took control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the 2008 Russian-Georgia war, Putin once again reminded the West that Russia also has legitimate interests and is ready to wage military intervention to protect them. 

Third, Russia has a right to a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. It defines its vital security perimeter not as the borders of the Russian Federation but as the borders of the post-Soviet space. Russia ensures that its former-Soviet neighbors do not join any military alliances (such as NATO) deemed hostile to Russia’s core national security interests. The wars with Ukraine and Georgia can be explained from this angle, since Russia fears that NATO does not fulfill its promises, continually expanding eastward since the 1990s into Russia’s surroundings and threatening the country’s national interests, especially in the Black Sea area. The Kremlin views the post-Soviet countries as part of its own defense perimeter and believes that it must control this strategic space. From this point we should understand that Moscow did not annex either South Ossetia or Abkhazia; instead, it used what could be called “NATO’s model of expansion” as adopted in the Balkans in the late 1990s. Moreover, after the war in Ukraine (2014), both Georgia and Ukraine lost their territorial integrity, further prolonging their anticipated NATO membership. In the end, Russian experts claim that a friendly Georgia or a “neutral” Ukraine serving as a buffer zone would have been a much more important security guarantee for Russia than some small non-stable break-away regions. However, some disagree and debate whether Russia wants to see these frozen conflicts end, since, with a lack of resolutions, Russia would have leverage over the conflicting parties. By directly intervening in both Georgia and Ukraine and sending peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has achieved three goals: making it difficult for these states to function effectively, perpetuating post-Soviet interdependence syndrome and forcing the West to acknowledge the limitations of its influence in Russia’s neighborhood. As for Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), we may have been unaware of the Russian-Turkish backchannel negotiations during the war, but it was clear that Russia did its best to prevent Turkish military deployment in the strategic occupied cities of Nagorno-Karabakh such as Shushi and Hadrut and instead agreed on a Turkish observation post a few kilometers from Aghdam, thus thwarting any Turkish or NATO threat to the Russian control territory of Artsakh. 

Fourth, Russia does not seek allies in the Western sense of the word but mutually beneficial instrumental partnerships with countries such as China that do not restrict Russia’s freedom to act or pass judgment on its international situation. Many “Western commentators” fall into the trap of arguing that there are Russian-Chinese, Russian-Iranian or Russian-Turkish military alliances in Eurasia or the Middle East. This is wrong since Russia does not engage in alliances with major or regional powers where its position is threatened. Unlike the CSTO where Russia can lead small states, Russia avoids direct military clashes with any major nuclear power such as the US. As Putin stated in his 2012 pre-election article, Russia has practically always had the privilege of pursuing an independent foreign policy, which will continue into the future.

Fifth, Russia will continue to present itself as a supporter of the status quo, an advocate of conservative values and an international power that respects established leaders. Russia sees itself as the leader of “conservative international” and as a protector of leaders who face challenges from “color revolutions,” which Putin believes are orchestrated by the West. For this reason, Russia viewed the 2018 events in Armenia with suspicion; many Russian newspapers drew a parallel between the events in Armenia to the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine. 

Sixth, Russia believes its interest is best served by a fractured Western alliance; hence it will continue to support anti-American and Eurosceptic groups and populist movements in Europe. Russia’s support for right-wing political parties such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Germany’s Alternative for Germany Party (AFD) or the secessionist movements in the UK (Scotland) and Spain (Catalonia) fall in this category. 

Finally, Russia will push to confront and reform the US-imposed post-Cold war liberal unipolar international order. For Russia, a new order must be established that would resemble the 19th-century European concert of powers, with China, Russia, and the US dividing the world into spheres of influence. For this purpose, Putin has cultivated the idea of Russian exceptionalism: a country bestriding both Europe and Asia with a unique Eurasian destiny as the center of a new, multipolar world. The advocates of Eurasianism in Russia believe that while their country belongs to both Europe and Asia, it is neither fully European nor fully Asian. This unique Eurasian identity has meant that Russia can adopt from both civilizations. After all, the EU’s attempts to bring Russia’s western neighbors into its orbit pushed Putin to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a group of post-Soviet states intended to strengthen Russia’s influence in a multipolar world.

These points also are highlighted in Rein Mullerson’s book Geopolitics and the Clash of Ideologies: Dawn of a New Order, in which he emphasizes that from the Russian point of view, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bipolar world order represented a double humiliation in Russia: the loss of the post-Soviet states and the creation of a global order to which the United States and its allies expected Russia to conform. Russians always feel they had been betrayed by great powers, such as in the 1990s, when the US promised that NATO would not expand eastward, and in 2011 when NATO maneuvered the UNSC 1973 “no-fly zone” resolution under the pretext of “humanitarian intervention” and instead invaded Libya and toppled its autocrat.

Beyond Eurasia: Russia becomes a global power

Coming to Eurasia, where most of us are interested, Russian foreign policy has three main goals. The first goal is to pursue economic and political integration of its neighbors via the newly created Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and upgrades to the existing Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance. The second goal is to expand Russia’s influence in the region through the use of “soft power” and the promotion of Russian cultural centers and exchange programs. The third goal is to apply economic pressure (mainly in the realm of energy under the guidance of Gazprom, which has a major influence on foreign policy decision making when it comes to energy politics and pipelines) or indirect military pressure against those states seeking to exit Russia’s influence and to seek integration via the frozen conflicts or direct military actions. It is worth mentioning that today Russia has a military presence in nine of the 15 former Soviet republics: Armenia (including Nagorno-Karabakh), Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine. This enables it to project military power effectively in its neighborhood.

Russia’s relations with the US and much of Europe became adversarial following the war in Ukraine (2014) and Crimea’s decision to join Russia. Hence, to escape from Western economic and political sanctions, Russia deepened its partnership with China, increased its influential role in the Middle East and returned to areas of the world from which it was forced to withdraw after the collapse of the USSR. Moreover, Russia’s seat and the veto power on the United Nations Security Council have enabled Moscow to exercise influence well beyond its capabilities. Russia’s ability to thwart Western interests has also enabled it to advance its own interests globally. Thus all Western attempts to isolate Russia after the seizure of Crimea have failed.

Under Putin, Russia also expanded to the Middle East, militarily siding with Syrian President Bashar al Assad and exerting its influence all over the Levant and beyond. Once again, Russia’s intervention in Syria was a reflection of its domestic calculations. Putin’s Middle East policy has been informed by the domestic imperative to contain and prevent future separatist and Islamist terrorist movements emanating from North Caucasus. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, between 3,500–4,000 of the roughly 8,500 individuals from Russia, Afghanistan and the post-Soviet countries serving in ISIS were Russian Chechens (although numbers vary from source to source). Moscow was concerned that some of them may return, spread radical ideas and engage in terror activities in their home country, thus posing a national security threat. The fact that these uprisings were largely carried out in the name of Islam had potentially serious implications for Russia’s own Muslim populations. Six years have passed since Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and now Moscow is the only great power that talks to the Shia and Sunni states, Turks, Iranians and the Israelis. With US President Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, Russia has replaced the US by now as the go-to player in a fractured and violent area of key global strategic importance.

But Russia has its challenges too which may affect its foreign policymaking in the future. Foreign policy in any country is driven by domestic considerations. In Russia, foreign policy aids in consolidating the system Putin has created and securing domestic stability. In the future, Russia will have to face two important challenges: fluctuation of oil prices and demographic decline. Russia remains largely dependent on its revenues from oil and gas, which constitute 50 percent of its national budget. If the global price of oil decreases, Russia’s economy would be exposed. Demographics pose another major challenge. The Russian population is declining, and while the Slavic birthrate is falling, Russia’s Muslim population continues to grow. In the near future, experts argue that one-fifth of the Russian population will be Muslim. This may pose some challenges to Russia’s territorial integrity and raise alarms for its small allies especially in the Caucasus where their security is completely dependent on Moscow.

However, despite the above-mentioned challenges, Russia’s reemergence as a global player (I would not call it a superpower yet) capable of projecting power well beyond its immediate neighborhood was unexpected and quite remarkable, for many observers, given its limited economic resources and demographic decline. Now Russia, thanks to Putin’s foreign policy strategy, is venturing back into Eurasia, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and other places from which it withdrew after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in Political Science in 2013. He founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog in 2010. He was a Research Assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the Regional Officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi, and Yerevan, and presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to the various local and regional newspapers and presenter of the “Turkey Today” program in Radio Voice of Van.
Yeghia Tashjian

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Regional analyst & researcher. PPIA graduate @AUB_lebanon. Associate Fellow @IFI_AUB co @ArmenianWeekly #MiddleEast #Caucasus #Geopolitics #EnergySecurity
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11 Comments

  1. Brilliant work, Yeghia. When it comes to understanding Russia and geopolitics, you are without doubt a shining light in a world of darkness.

    In my opinion, Russia is the last front against Western imperialism, Globalism, Pan-Turkism, Islamic Wahhabism and Zionism. Russia is also humanity’s last hope for the preservation of apostolic Christianity, the White race, classical European culture, the traditional family and the traditional nation state. Finally, Russia is the only reason why we have an Armenia today. Our tiny, remote, landlocked and impoverished nation surrounded by powerful Turkic/Islamic enemies has survived for the past 200-plus years in the south Caucasus ONLY because of the geopolitical factor that Russia brings to the region.

    As a Diasporan Armenian I reserve the right to the following: Armenia can survive without its Diaspora, Armenia cannot survive without Russia.

    Therefore, Armenians need to embrace Russia as obsessively as they have unfortunately embraced toxic West. Our desire to live like Westerners and embrace Western influences during the past 30 years has severely hurt Armenia culturally, militarily, economically and politically. Armenia needs Russia economically, militarily, politically and, most important of all, culturally. Russia must be seen by Armenians as a historic opportunity. Armenians must strive to be in Russia what Jews are in the United States. Armenians must reject “complimentary politics” and Armenia must fully enter Russia’s orbit. Equally important, we as a people must totally reject all attempts to drive a wedge between Russia and Armenia by those in our society serving Western and Turkish interests.

    Long live Armenia. Long live Russia. And may God protect and preserve Russian-Armenian friendship from all enemies both foreign and domestic.

    • No, Russia let pan-Turkism deeper into the Caucasus when he allowed Turkey to fully entrench itself in Azerbaijan and, soon, the Caspian too, during the 44 day war.

      Georgia is still open as a pan-Turkish corridor just as it has been for 30 years.

      Putin betrayed its Armenian ally and treated it with disrespect for nothing. Armenians deserved none of this.

      Russia is losing everywhere as NATO creeps closer and China pushes Russia out of Central Asia. Russia also destabilized Iran in the recent war.

    • Preservation of the white race? Really going all in on the racism, aren’t you? And anyway, I can guarantee you that plenty of people will not consider the Armenians “white”.

    • Agreed. Armenia the last 3 years slapped Russia in the face and don’t realize it. Sad. Russia is our ally though and has done a LOT for us, but people are just ignorant and letting the NATO/US/EU trolls win, sadly.

  2. Russia in effect conducted a war against Armenians last year by saying and doing nothing as Turkey flew F16s and terrorists into Azerbaijan. 5000 dead Armenians and many wounded, plus utter destruction. This is no way to treat an ally. Azerbaijan won only because Russia let Turkey in.

    It was a deliberate and very nasty action by Putin. And he’s not done yet.

    Russia could have stopped the war before it began just as it stopped it 44 days later.

    Putin has an image of this “big man” who is all powerful.

    Yet Russia has lost yeastern Europe, most of Ukraine, all of Georgia, and you can bet that Assad of Syria is expecting a double-cross by Putin just as Putin double-crossed Armenians.

    Belarus is on its way out of the Russian orbit too.

    Ever notice that no country voluntarily associates itself with Russia. Russia is a nasty country that other countries run away from when they are able to.

    • Assad can expect betrayal from Putin in the sense that the former’s most immediate enemy is Israel, and no one can touch Israel militarily (least of all Russia).

    • Remember when Putin said:” Erdogan did not break any internation law in the recent Karabach war”

      So sending Terrorist to foreign countries to fight there dirty wars is now internationally ok?
      He whitewashed Erogans sending of Jihadis to Arzach, the same Jihadis he is bombing in Syrian and do not want in Russia.

      There are also dirty Putin-Erdogan dealsalso in Syria, Putin stoppen 2, 3 times the advancing Syrian Army into Idlib.
      Everytime he just demanded from Erdogan some lip service like: “Syrian territorial integrity is not harmed”

      I think Putin missplayed here and it will bring a bigger harm to Russia in the futer then the benefits for the short term.

    • Are you insane? Belarus is getting closer to Russia. The West conducted a war against Armenians, through proxies.
      Russia is so important that the West desperately tries to invade it, and kill its allies.
      What do you think NATO is for?

  3. If you are to believe that Russia is Armenia’s ally you have to look deep into Putin’s upbringing with rats and his judo philosophies to explain why he sold weapons that would kill Armenians. You have to really think about what Russia’s interests are and why they would let Turks butcher Armenians and get so powerful in the Caucasus.

    However, if you just open your eyes you will see that Russia has been Turkey’s servant/ծառա in the Caucasus since the Bolshevik revolution and they have continued to be that way to this day. Even the most pro Russia Armenians still haven’t been able to explain how their “ally” has been a Turk’s servant for over a century. The “we betrayed them by electing Nikol” conclusion doesn’t work very well because Russia was Turkey’s servant 99 years before Nikol got into power.

    This article is a classic way of coping by making up Russia as something bigger than it is. The goal is to avoid reality in which Ivan has been kissing Mehmet’s feet in the Caucasus for over a century.

  4. While I agree with the author on his analysis of Russian mentality behind some of their moves, the recent geopolitical developments in the Caucuses, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East doesn’t bode well for Russia, never minding the internal economic and political struggles the country is currently going through. Russia, through its inaction, allowed Turkey to gain a firm foothold in the Caucuses in the Artsakh War. Turkey is becoming increasingly emboldened in their proxy war with Russia and countered Russia in the Libyan Civil War through its offensive operations against Haftar, effectively annexed Northern Syria and created a thorny buffer zone against Assad in Syria, continues to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in Crimea, and opened the door to selling Turkmen oil through Azerbaijan by the Artsakh War. All of these moves are a threat to Russia and their foreign policy. I don’t say these things to make a value judgement, I’m looking at it from a realpolitik lens.

    Russia likes to market itself as a guardian against expansionist Western Imperialism, but this strategy is reactive to say the least, if not downright archaic. None of the people living in these countries view Russia as a liberator. At most, they see Russia as another foreign power seeking to establish dominance in their respective country. Sure, when you’re threatened by another power, your immediate reaction will be to seek an ally who’s self-professedly opposed to the said domination. But that doesn’t make Russia a bastion of democracy or a freedom-loving nation.

    If I were Russia, I’d still seek to counter NATO and Western allies, but go about it much differently. I’d make peace with Turkey and divide influence in the Middle East and Caucuses, and pull Turkey out of NATO. I’d invest heavily in Central Asia to mold the country’s image from a bloody oppressor to a strategic partner, to counter China’s encroachment in the area. Lastly, I’d give Crimea back to Ukraine. I know this is hard for many Russians to hear, but Crimea has cost Russia $200 billion + in sanctions since 2016. They must objectively ask themselves if Crimea is worth $200 billion+ and becoming a pariah in the international community. The answer is an astounding no.

    Once Russia fixes its image in these regions, play the strategic partner and be ready to jump in at the first opportunity to gain political favors against Western dominance. That’s how you gain influence in the 21st century. You must corrupt, not coerce.

    This is all coming from a Turk so I hope they don’t take my advice lol! :P

  5. Every time Armenians crew up, it must be Russia’s fault!
    Russia, Russia, Russia!!! Our Russophobes sound just like Democrats LOL
    Wake up folks, Armenia won’t survive a single day without Russia.

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