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Russia’s Two Track Foreign Policy

  • Geopolitics
  • 9 Months ago
  • 5 min read
Russia’s Two Track Foreign Policy

Russia’s Two Track Foreign Policy

Dmitri Trenin
Dmitri Trenin - Research Professor, Higher School of Economics, Moscow

Over the past 16 months the war in Ukraine, which began as a “special military operation” – more special, indeed, than military – has morphed into a direct, if not yet a kinetic military  conflict with the American-led West. Even more important, the war has reshaped Russia  massively from within. The economy, faced with the most severe sanctions so far imposed on any country, is not only seeking ways to go around the sanctions or substitute for the Western products and technologies, which are no longer available. Russia has begun transforming itself away from being the world’s gas station that it came to be known for in the wake of the  Soviet Union’s demise. Russian society, which had become increasingly atomized as few  made instant fortunes, is now relearning solidarity and finding a common cause through  volunteer work. In terms of values, patriotism—reviled and scorned in the immediate post-Soviet period—now trumps liberalism, the former champion, with its cosmopolitan flavour. There is also a strong demand for something like a set of ideas to guide the country toward the future. Seen against this background, changes in Russia’s foreign policy, which are more noticeable from the outside than domestic developments, are but the tip of the iceberg. Yet, they too matter a lot.

The House of Foes 

Essentially, the war in Ukraine has produced an earthquake in the realm of Russia’s external  strategy, its use of diplomacy and military force, and radically altered the way Moscow looks  at the rest of the world. The Foreign Policy Concept released last March is an indicator of  where things have gone so far, but it is only a first step in a fundamentally new direction. This direction negates not only the “new thinking” of Mikhail Gorbachev, the “let’s be allies  with the West” posture of Boris Yeltsin, and even the “Greater Europe all the way to Vladivostok” aspirations of Vladimir Putin as a young president. In some of its crucial  elements the new approach closes books on a much longer historical period of Russian  history—one that was ushered in by Peter I, Russia’s great modernizer and Westernizer of the  early eighteenth century. 

The collective West’s vehement, uniform, and massive reaction to the Russian special  military operation in Ukraine and NATO’s progressively deeper involvement in the war there  has split the universe of Russia’s foreign policy into two very different pieces. West of  Russia’s borders, there is a “House of Foes,” composed of the United States, with its Anglo Saxon retinue, and the countries of Europe, which are—for the first time—formally viewed  in Moscow as nothing more than America’s satellites. Depending on how one defines  adherence, this group numbers a few dozen countries, which the Russian Foreign Ministry  has officially designated as “unfriendly.” While President Putin has publicly suggested that  “unfriendliness” refers to current Western policies rather than the respective countries as such, and the Foreign Policy Concept still leaves the door open for a more peaceful, interests based relationship with both America and Europe in some distant future, this positive scenario is conditional on those countries going through a complete turnover of their elites and the resultant change of their Russia policies. Certainly, it implies that Russia would also achieve its objectives in Ukraine. 

In any event, a future new normal in Russian-Western relations is not expected to come about  in the near- or even medium-term future. The next 10 to 15, if not 20 years, are widely expected in Russia to be a period of hybrid war, which might well expand beyond Ukraine and escalate above the conventional level. In the latter case, of course, the war will be shorter, but the consequences will be vastly greater.

The shooting proxy war in Ukraine, of course, is only one dimension of the conflict, which is also being fiercely fought in the economic, financial, information, infrastructure, psychological, and other domains. Thus, for the foreseeable future, war, irrespective of the adjective one uses to qualify it, is likely to remain the principal form of interaction between Russia and the West. For the purposes of Moscow’s foreign policy, the United States and its allies—even if only as states rather than nations— remain long-term adversaries. 

For Russia, this conflict is existential: should it lose it, the country will not only be stripped  of its great power status but also, de facto, its sovereignty. Some fear that Russia may even be  broken into a few pieces for better management from the outside. Many observers view the situation as no less serious than in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union; or in early 1917, when setbacks on the battlefield during World War I undermined the public trust in the Tsar’s leadership and provoked a revolution that ended the Russian Empire and eventually led to a bloody civil war.

The United States, Moscow is convinced, will not stop at anything to defend its global hegemony that Russia’s forceful comeback to the international scene is challenging. 

So far, while the initial – and, as it turned out, flawed – expectations of the special military  operation have been dashed, Moscow has been able to get its act together, withstand the tremendous pressure from the combined West which arms Ukraine to the teeth, supplies it with real-time intelligence, and participates in operations planning and execution. Albeit at a high price, Russia has drawn lessons from its initial setbacks – both political and military – and is determined to reach its objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine. Recognizing that, the outgoing Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, General Milley, has recently called Russia one of the world’s three great powers, alongside the United States and China.  

What is happening in Ukraine and between Russia and the West more broadly, however, is  only one piece of a much wider process that precipitates a change in the world order—away  from the post-Cold War U.S. global hegemony and the five centuries-long Western dominance in world affairs. In the United States, that global geopolitical turbulence was  dubbed, under President Donald Trump, great-power competition; and it is now presented, by  the Joe Biden Administration, as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Russians, for their part, see the underlying cause for the world conflict in the accelerating  transition of the world’s economic, technological, and military center from the North Atlantic  back to the continent of Eurasia. As a result, the world’s power center’s journey, a half  millennium later, will have come full circle. Russia is not a bystander, but part of the action, pushing for change. 

(Modified version of an article written earlier by the same author for use by NatStrat)

 

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