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Russian Foreign Policy: Shifting Gears

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Not long ago, a popular Russian joke went: “Those who do not want to listen to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will have to deal with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.” Now it is official.

President Vladimir Putin often makes statements on foreign policy. Just last month, he spent several hours discussing world affairs at the annual Valdai Club meeting; more recently, he gave a wide-ranging interview to Russian TV, in which he discussed Ukraine, Belarus, NATO, and the United States. His appearance on November 18 at a gathering of Russian Foreign Ministry senior officials resulted in a public speech and more private discussions, which of course remain confidential. The speech was fairly short, but made several important new points. The most interesting and intriguing passage concerned Russia’s adversaries: the United States, its NATO allies, and clients such as Ukraine.

“Our recent warnings have had a certain effect: tensions have arisen there anyway,” Putin told the assembled officials. “It is important for them to remain in this state for as long as possible, so that it does not occur to them to stage some kind of conflict… we do not need a new conflict,” the Russian president added.

Putin did not mean diplomatic warnings. Diplomacy is de facto paralyzed in Russia’s relations with Ukraine, NATO, the European Union’s leading powers such as Germany and France, and with the United States as far as Ukraine is concerned. The Kremlin has at this point completely written off Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a negotiating partner. In exasperation with the Europeans de facto siding with Kyiv against Moscow on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, the Foreign Ministry published diplomatic correspondence between its head Sergey Lavrov and his counterparts in Paris and Berlin; according to Sergei Ryabkov, Lavrov’s deputy, recent exchanges on Ukraine with visiting U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland produced zero results and zero understanding in Washington of Moscow’s arguments. The Kremlin also responded to NATO’s expulsion of Russian officers attached to Moscow’s mission to Brussels by severing all ties with the alliance.

Instead, the warnings the Russian president was likely referring to are the activities of the Russian military. At the beginning of the year, the Russian Defense Ministry held a major exercise that included a concentration of significant forces along the entire length of the border with Ukraine: to its north, east, and south. Russian troop movements were made clearly visible, and carried the chilling message that it might not be a drill. Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin point man on Donbas and relations with Kyiv, repeated Putin’s earlier warning that a Ukrainian attempt to retake the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions—à la then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s doomed adventure in South Ossetia in 2008—would mean the end of the present Ukrainian state. Indeed, the exercises were taken seriously by the Americans. General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, engaged in direct consultations with General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff. Finally, U.S. President Joe Biden invited Vladimir Putin to a meeting in Geneva which resulted in a resumption of U.S.-Russian strategic stability talks.

Yet there was no de-escalation with regard to Ukraine, the Black Sea region, and, more broadly, Eastern Europe. During the summer, a British Navy destroyer challenged Russia by sailing through territorial waters off Crimea, and Ukraine passed legislation that denied ethnic Russians the status of an indigenous community and prepared to adopt another law that, in Moscow’s view, would be tantamount to Kyiv formally leaving the Minsk accords. In Donbas, the Ukrainians used a Turkish-made drone to strike pro-Russian forces; NATO significantly increased its presence and activity in the Black Sea; and U.S. strategic bombers flew missions as close as 20 kilometers from the Russian border, according to Putin. The gas price crunch in Europe provoked bitter accusations that Russia had caused it. Even the migrant crisis on Poland’s border, part of a plan by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to punish the EU and coerce its leaders into a dialogue with him, was blamed directly on the Kremlin. What some in Moscow had prematurely called the “spirit of Geneva” all but evaporated.

Not that Russia was doing nothing to respond to and even get ahead of its adversaries. Russia allowed half a million of its newly acquired citizens in Donbas to vote in the September elections to the State Duma; made the produce of Donbas enterprises eligible for Russian government purchases; and stopped coal deliveries to Ukraine. Both President Putin and former president Dmitry Medvedev, now serving as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, published long articles that were scathingly critical of the policies of the Ukrainian authorities and essentially concluded that there was no use talking to Kyiv anymore. Against that background, reports appeared in the United States suggesting that Russia was again massing its forces on the border, and possibly preparing to invade Ukraine sooner rather than later.

Right now, fears of a war in Ukraine are widespread. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned the Kremlin not to try to repeat what it did in 2014, lest it regret it. In fact, the stakes are much higher today than they were seven-plus years ago. In 2014, Putin, having received a mandate from the Russian parliament to use military force “in Ukraine,” limited its factual use to Crimea, plus, in a covert form, Donbas. Next time, as Putin’s own words suggest, the geographic scope of Russian military action, should the Russian commander-in-chief order it, is likely to be much broader. Those speculating what form it might take need not look at the ancient precedents of Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. It makes more sense to look at Syria, except that a war in Ukraine may not be contained.

Will President Putin make the fateful decision? Is Ukraine that “unfinished business” that he will seek to complete before the end of his reign? Or is Putin just bluffing? A few things are clear. NATO membership or not, seeing Ukraine turn into a U.S.-controlled unsinkable aircraft carrier parked on Russia’s border just a few hundred miles from Moscow—an apt comparison by my Carnegie colleagues in Washington—is no more acceptable to the Kremlin than that other unsinkable aircraft carrier, Cuba, was to the White House almost sixty years ago. Any Russian leader would seek to prevent such anchorage, using whatever means they have at their disposal.

Another contingency would be massive military action by Ukrainian forces in Donbas, however unlikely that may seem in the West. What Saakashvili did in trying to retake South Ossetia by force back in 2008 never looked too clever to begin with, and yet he was not stopped by Georgia’s senior ally. In his speech to diplomats on Thursday, Putin called Western countries unreliable. In particular, he accused them of only “superficially” acknowledging Russia’s red lines and warnings—whatever he may have meant by that “superficiality.”

Putin has called on Lavrov to provide Russia with “serious long-term guarantees” in the Euro-Atlantic region. That sounds puzzling. There is little that Russian diplomats can do to procure for Putin what he wants. More likely, the head of state may be exhorting his diplomats to exploit the fruits of military deterrence that Putin is busy organizing around Ukraine, in the Black Sea region, and elsewhere in Europe’s east. The Russian president is not, of course, leaving that task entirely to his subordinates. Even as he was delivering his hardline speech, his Security Council secretary was in talks with the U.S. National Security Adviser about another possible meeting between Putin and Biden. As always with deterrence, it can only work if the threat is believed to be credible, while any attempt to test whether the other side is bluffing may end in disaster.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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