For many American commentators, analyzing Russian foreign policy can be a fairly contentious topic. Some see Russia as a continuation of the Soviet Union and are therefore concerned about the future possibility of a revived Russia once again posing a threat to the United States and the rest of the democratic world. Others believe that while Russia is certainly not a Western democracy, it does not bear any aggressive intent toward the West. In this issue, we look at what Russian experts see as the goals of Russian foreign policy.
The issue begins with two lectures by Dmitry Trenin. The first, “Modernizing Russian Foreign Policy,” examines the current goals of Russian foreign policy and makes some recommendations for its future trajectory. Trenin argues that for the last decade, Russian foreign policy has been aimed primarily at maintaining the country’s status in the world. He argues that since the start of Vladimir Putin’s second term as president in 2004, Russia has been focused on cementing its status as an independent power in a multipolar world. Its primary emphasis has been on maintaining its preeminent status in the former Soviet republics. A second goal has been to ensure that it has a say on all the critical issues facing the international system. And the final goal is for the Russian economy to realize a profit from the country’s foreign policy.
Trenin criticizes these goals as inadequate for the twenty-first century. He argues that to be a superpower it is no longer sufficient to be able to destroy the rest of the world or even to be able to export rare natural resources at a premium. The greatness of a state in the modern world, according to the author, lies not in what it can offer the world but in how attractive it is to others. He finds that Russia has little to brag about in this department.
To change this dynamic, Trenin proposes that Russia focus on wide-scale international cooperation in all possible areas. Economic cooperation would be greatly enhanced if Russia were to join the World Trade Organization. He then takes on the question of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, arguing that although he is not a proponent of further expansion, he finds it difficult to see how the admission of states such as Ukraine or Georgia to NATO could be seen as a threat to Russia. The old Soviet mentality of maintaining a buffer zone around its border does not correspond to present realities, in which Russia and NATO are developing a partnership in dealing with the real security challenges. In this environment, the best strategy for Russian foreign policy is to let these states make their own foreign policy decisions while using its cultural influence to ensure that its neighbors are positively disposed toward Russia.
Having addressed the general outlines of Russian foreign policy in the first lecture, in “Russia and the New Eastern Europe,” Trenin focuses more specifically on Russia’s relations with Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. His first point is quite simple: these three countries now constitute a distinct and durable geopolitical reality that he calls the New Eastern Europe. Given the history of Russia’s interactions with this region, it is not at all surprising that these states’ political elites have devoted a great deal of effort to ensuring that their countries develop distinct political identities that are separate from Russia. Trenin’s second point is that the existence of this region is not a transitory phenomenon. Russian efforts to integrate the states that formerly constituted the Soviet Union are unlikely to succeed, in part because of opposition within these states but in part because of Russia’s unwillingness to subsidize these states in the way that the Soviet Union used to subsidize its satellites. At the same time, this region is unlikely to be incorporated into the European Union (EU) either, both because the EU is suffering from enlargement fatigue and because the states that make up the New Eastern Europe are not yet politically or economically ready for such incorporation.
Given this geopolitical reality, Russian foreign policy will have to address its relationship with this region. When Russians travel to this region, they do not feel like they are in a foreign state. This affects their country’s policies toward the region, including the use of terms such as the “near abroad” that attempt to portray the region as less foreign than the rest of the world. But because of this feeling of cultural similarity, Russian policy toward the region is governed by emotion rather than pragmatic considerations. This is the context through which Trenin views such potentially counterproductive policies as Russia’s reaction to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and its visceral opposition to NATO enlargement. At the same time, there have been gradual improvements in Russian attitudes, as shown in the country’s relative equanimity in advance of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential elections and its efforts to restore cooperation with NATO soon after the 2008 Georgian war. A shift from a foreign policy focused on status maintenance to one aimed at domestic modernization would further help Russia develop normal relations with the New Eastern Europe, which in turn would only enhance Russian security on its western borders.
The last two articles in this issue focus on Russia’s relations with China. In “Russia–China: Time for a Course Correction,” Evgenii Verlin and Vladislav Inozemtsev focus on examining alternative scenarios for the evolution of this relationship, with an emphasis on the potential threats posed to Russia by China’s growing economic and demographic power. They argue that given its economic and political development, China is already a new superpower, although it is not yet sure about its place in the international system. The authors see the likeliest configuration of future power centers as involving a big three of the United States, the European Union, and China, with other regional powers such as Russia and Brazil allied with one of these centers on relatively unequal terms. They believe that Russia should respond to China’s emergence as a superpower by focusing on establishing a balanced relationship with China. Russians must end their long history of looking down on the Chinese, as this attitude has long provoked Chinese hostility. Although such views may have been acceptable when the Soviet Union was clearly more powerful than China, they are no longer permissible in the current geopolitical environment. The authors are concerned that the Russian–Chinese relationship is currently built on situational factors that are unlikely to last. This presents a danger to Russia, which faces a choice between becoming “an industrial appendage of Europe for a time or a raw-materials appendage of China forever.”
Vasilii Mikheev focuses on the role the Russian–Chinese relationship plays in overall Russian foreign policy. In “Russia–China: ‘Reloading’ the Relationship,” he argues that using the Chinese card in Russian relations with the United States is a potentially dangerous course that is unlikely to yield many benefits for Russia. Whereas the previous article focuses on the dangers that China’s growth presents for Russia, this article focuses on the potential opportunities. Mikheev argues that Russia should seek to develop a closer military and political partnership with China, including interactions on areas of potential common concern such as political stability in Central Asia and nuclear security. A dialogue on security in the Asia–Pacific region and the situation in North Korea are also necessary. In focusing on the Russia–China–United States triangle, Mikheev hopes that Russia will be able to avoid focusing on one or another of these states. To this end, he advocates for a trilateral dialogue that enhances international security. The strategic goal for Russia is to ensure that its relationship with China is closer than China’s relationship with the United States.
Although these four articles by no means offer a complete assessment of Russian foreign policy, they do show some of the key issues Russia is facing as it begins its third decade of independent statehood. After an initial effort to try to fit into the West and a subsequent period of attempting to regain the international status held by the Soviet Union, Russia is at a point where it is beginning to come to terms with its status as a regional power that still maintains a significant amount of freedom of action in its own neighborhood but needs to develop alliances with other powers to influence events on a global stage. I imagine that this process will continue over the next decade as Russia gradually cements its place in the international system.