Russia’s Foreign Policy in 2021: Fourteen Practical Tasks


You don’t need to be a prophet to predict that the coming year will be a hard one for every country in the world. It probably won’t be as dramatic as 2020, but it still will be challenging. Experts are already trying to outdo each other with the lists of the numerous dangers and challenges that humanity as a whole and individual states, in particular, will have to face. Russia is certainly no exception—the idea of the country as an “island of stability” in the “raging ocean of change” is hopelessly outdated. Challenges and dangers will not bypass Moscow and will require adequate responses from the country’s leadership.

Naturally, the authorities will have to look to the country’s social and economic development at home for these answers, even if there is no particular desire to do so. However, foreign policy will face its share of trials and tribulations as well.

Let us attempt to formulate Russia’s main foreign political tasks moving forward—tasks which, if addressed appropriately, will mean success for the country’s foreign policy in the coming year. In doing this, we will try to remain firmly grounded in reality and not set patently unrealistic foreign policy goals (a new “reset” in relations with the West, resolving the territorial issue with Japan, or gaining Ukraine access to the Eurasian Economic Union).

Note that we are talking about foreign policy as a whole and not just diplomacy, which means that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not assume sole responsibility for everything listed below. The Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Industry and Trade, not to mention the Executive Office of the President of Russia, will also have something to do. Some of these tasks will mean getting the private sector, civil society institutions and the expert community involved. In other words, we will attempt to formulate several priorities that are national, and not agency-based.

1. Prolonging the New START. Without this treaty, bilateral U.S.-Russia strategic weapons control will collapse. President-elect Joe Biden has already said he is willing to prolong the treaty without additional provisions (it is not yet clear for how long, though). However, there is very little time to do so: the New START expires in early February, and the parties will have to agree on its prolongation within two weeks of the Democratic Administration assuming power.

2. A moratorium on deploying intermediate-range and short-range missiles in Europe. Although the INF Treaty can no longer be revived, it is quite realistic to aim for de facto compliance with its terms and conditions on the part of Russia and the West. Especially considering Moscow’s willingness to extend the Treaty to Russia’s disputed 9М729 systems, on the condition that the West takes into account Russia’s concerns about the Aegis Ashore systems with their Mark 14 Vertical Launching Systems deployed at U.S. and NATO bases in Europe.

3. P5 Summit. Back in early 2020, Russia proposed that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council hold a meeting. For various reasons, this summit has not yet taken place, but the proposal remains highly relevant. Discussions at the meeting could cover new principles of strategic stability, as well as regional conflicts that require the Security Council’s intervention. A successful outcome could give a significant impetus to further efforts to improve global governance.

4. Restoring the military dimension of the activities of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) . In April 2014, NATO suspended military cooperation with Russia, which entailed, among other things, freezing the dialogue between their militaries via the NRC. However, many critics of this decision rightly pointed out that suspending cooperation does not necessarily have to involve severing contacts completely. It would appear that conditions for gradually relaunching regular communications between the militaries of the two sides through the NRC have emerged in the West, which would be a major contribution to security in Europe.

5. Involving Russia in implementing the EU’s “green deal.” The coming year could mark a breakthrough in cooperation between Moscow and Brussels on a broad range of issues related to climate change and environmental protection. In most instances, joint projects in energy conservation, the development of alternative energy sources and waste recycling are not covered by the existing EU sanctions against Moscow. Projects within the “green deal” could serve as new drivers of Russia-Europe interaction.

6. Political transit in Belarus. Any change of political regime in Belarus is, of course, a matter for the Belarusian people. However, Russia’s stance could slow down or accelerate the long-overdue political change. It would be in Moscow’s interests to consistently promote controlled change so that 2021 would become a watershed year in the development of Belarusian statehood. Continuing to support the status quo is fraught with grave political risks for Russia.

7. Preventing escalation in the Donbass. Regretfully, little progress was made in settling the conflict in the East of Ukraine in 2020. And it is doubtful that the situation will change in the coming year. This makes it all the more important to preserve what has been achieved—stability on the contact line between the forces of the DPR/LPR and the Ukrainian military, compliance with the ceasefire agreement, the continuation of exchanges of POWs and detained persons.

8. Preventing new armed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia can take credit for putting an end to the military hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020. However, conflict potential in the region remains high, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has not been defined, and the parties to the conflict may voice their dissatisfaction with Moscow. In 2021, the first steps towards a political settlement of the crisis should be taken, and Russia should spearhead the process and act as its external facilitator.

9. Expanding the Arctic Council’s Agenda. In the spring of 2021, Russia will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council for two years. This is a good opportunity to, first of all, prevent the organization from being pulled into the global political confrontation between the East and the West and, secondly, to expand the Council’s agenda in terms of the socioeconomic development of the Arctic region and quality of life of the people living there.

10. Completing Nord Stream 2. Implementing the long-suffering gas project in 2021 would mean a major foreign political victory for Russia and demonstrate the European Union’s ability to counteract the threat of U.S. sanctions successfully. It would also open up new opportunities for developing economic cooperation between Russia and the European Union.

11. Preserving the OPEC+ mechanism. With the support of Donald Trump, the OPEC+ mechanism helped the international markets overcome the collapse in global oil prices in the spring of 2020. Continued cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia in the coming year is critical for keeping the oil market relatively stable at around USD 50 per barrel, which would be optimal for the Russian energy sector.

12. Diversifying economic cooperation with China. In 2020, Russia succeeded in avoiding a sharp drop in its trade with China. However, the trade structure is still largely archaic and needs to be further diversified. Additionally, 2021 should include the important objective of establishing new technological chains and implementing large investment projects.

13. Launching economic and political reforms in Syria. Presidential elections are set to be held in Syria in 2021. They will provide a picture of the country’s development over the past seven years. After the elections, Russia will have the opportunity to more actively influence Damascus with a view to improving the efficiency of the Syrian economy, shaping a more inclusive political system, stepping up the activities of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, etc.

14. Preventing a crisis in Russia-Turkey relations. Ankara remains an important partner for Moscow. However, the stances of the two parties diverge significantly on many important issues, including Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea and others. Success for Moscow in this area would entail preventing its relations with Turkey from worsening while simultaneously avoiding excessive concessions to the Turkish leadership.

Clearly, this list does not feature tasks related to possible “black swans” sailing into Russia’s foreign political horizons—unforeseen changes in the international situation to which Moscow will somehow have to respond. It is also clear that not all items on the list will be implemented, and the list itself may be seen as subjective and incomplete. However, we may assume that if at least half of these tasks are fulfilled, then the next 12 months can be rightfully deemed a success for Russia’s foreign policy.

From our partner RIAC

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.