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.