What Shapes Russia’s Foreign Policy?

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Mustapha Shehu

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Tufts University

Medford, MA


“Prestige, rather than power, is the everyday currency of international relations, much as authority is the central ordering feature of domestic politics… prestige is enormously important because if your strength is recognized, you can generally achieve your aims without having to use it.”

The purpose of this paper is to show the extent to which calculations regarding prestige and international status shape the foreign policies of states other than the current hegemon (the United States) and its rising challenger (China). The paper looks at Russia as case study and the strategies it pursues to enhance (or preserve) its prestige and international status comparative to those of the current hegemon or the challenger. The paper first reviews the historical and geopolitical perspectives that shape Russia’s systemic behavior. It then defines the concepts of the two contending fields in international relations – realism and liberalism – and relate them to the extent to which Russia’s calculations regarding prestige and international status shape its foreign policy around the world.

Russia after the End of the Cold War

In 1939, Sir Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.”  That key, Churchill observed, is “Russian national interest.” He might as well be referring to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin, though authoritarian, is wrapped in the cloak of democracy.  The “national interest’ that Churchill alluded to as key to unwrapping the Russian mystery has continued to be the driving force behind Russia’s systemic engagements from the end of the cold war to date, particularly under Putin’s leadership. Part of the reason is geopolitical.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself surrounded by former Warsaw Pact members who had joined NATO. These were Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, and Albania. The Pact was established as a balance of power to NATO and as these countries joined NATO, Russia watched anxiously as NATO crept closer. A century ago, no one could have guessed that American armed forces would be stationed a few hundred miles from Moscow in Poland and the Baltic States.  But, by 2004, just 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, every former Warsaw Pact State apart from Russia was in NATO or EU.  This may explain why there are Russian troops or pro-Russian militia stationed in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, the geographically closest countries to Russia who are neither in NATO nor the EU.

With Russia defeated and vanquished in the cold war, and with the emergence of the U.S. as the sole hegemon, China began to compete with the United States. Yuen Foong Khon argues in his treatise, Power as Prestige in World Politics, that the “current geopolitical competition between the United States and China is best viewed as a competition over the hierarchy of prestige, with China seeking to replace the US as the most prestigious state in the international system within the next 30 years. Although the competition is a global one, with China having made significant economic and political inroads into Africa, Latin America and even Europe, Asia is where China must establish its ‘reputation for power’ in the first instance. China seeks the top seat in the hierarchy of prestige, and the United States will do everything in its power to avoid yielding that seat, because the state with the greatest reputation for power is the one that will govern the region: it will attract more followers, regional powers will defer to and accommodate it, and it will play a decisive role in shaping the rules and institutions of international relations. In a word, the state at the top of the prestige hierarchy is able to translate its power into the political outcomes it desires with minimal resistance and maximum flexibility.  Given the longstanding adversarial relationship between Russia and the U.S., it is no surprise that Russia will align with China against the U.S., in line with balance of power concept, in the competition for the top of the prestige hierarchy.

Realist or Liberal?

Is Russian foreign policy realist or liberal? According to Prof. J. W. Taliaferro, the neoclassical realism scholar, realists and liberals have very different views about the international order. For realists, relative distribution of power matters, while for liberals, institutions are the key variable.

On paper, Russia’s foreign policy is liberal. It fully enunciates the importance of international institutions in the pursuit of its foreign policy. Article 20 of ‘The Foreign Policy Concept of The Russian Federation’ approved by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin on November 30, 2016 states that “As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a participant in a number of influential international organizations, regional frameworks, inter-State dialogue and cooperation mechanisms, the Russian Federation contributes to the development of a positive, well-balanced and unifying international agenda by relying on substantial resources in all areas of human activity and pursuing a foreign policy that actively seeks to develop relations with the leading States, international organizations and associations in various parts of the world.” The foreign policy concept even went further to state in Article 72 that “The Russian Federation is interested in building mutually beneficial relations with the United States of America, taking into consideration that the two States bear special responsibility for global strategic stability and international security in general, as well as vast potential in trade and investment, scientific and technical and other types of cooperation.”

However, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and administering it as two Russian federal subjects – the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol, portrays its realist disposition. In effect, Russia’s foreign policy could best be described in the realm of realpolitik in which it does whatever it believes will place it at the top of the prestige hierarchy.

Russia’s Realpolitik

As noted earlier, the ideological inconsistencies of Russia’s foreign policy, i.e. sometimes realist and other times liberal (at least on paper), all in the pursuit of what Churchill termed “Russian national interest,” give the picture of its realpolitik.  For a country that boasts of “pursuing a foreign policy that actively seeks to develop relations with the leading States, international organizations and associations in various parts of the world,” its attempt at revisionism of post-2014 international legal order, following its annexation of Crimea, is an affirmation of its stated foreign policy objective of “to consolidate the Russian Federation’s position as a center of influence in today’s world.” Roy Allison describes this revisionism as Moscow having justified the “basic breach of what might be termed the ‘macrolegal’ order by reference to claims which lie outside the conceptual domain of international law as it has been understood in recent decades. In the wider frame Russia appears increasingly ready to reject outright the western-led international human rights project which has gradually qualified post-Cold War exclusivist approaches to state sovereignty.”  

Russo-Chinese Alliance

Having lost its bipolar-world prestige to the U.S., Russia established a quasi-alliance with China (signifying the extent to which calculations regarding prestige and international status shape its foreign policies) to counteract the hegemonic influence of the U.S., despite the conflicting unit-level impetuses towards the two countries’ (Russia and China) respective foreign policies. As explained further by Korolev and Portyakov, “contemporary China–Russia relations are shaped by countervailing forces that come from different – system and unit – levels and generate counteractive impacts. While the systemic pressure coming from the US-led unipolarity pushes China and Russia toward each other, at the unit-level two major hurdles – domestic economic models and historical memories – complicate the relationship and disincentivize alliance formation.”

Korolev and Portyakov ‘s ‘state agency-centered model,’ which highlights the influence of state leaders on unit-level variables, is another persuasive neoclassical realist argument that explains the conflicting unit-level impetuses that hinder a full-fledged alliance directed against the US hegemon. Leaders of the two countries, explains the state agency-centered model, address ‘underbalancing’ against US-led unipolarity through a “compromise resulting from intersecting systemic and unit-level forces.” These leaders, faced with an increasing US hegemonic powers, have begun “to implement policies aimed at transforming the hurdles that generate hindering impact into factors that could have positive impact on the bilateral relations.”

It is expected that with efforts shown by the Russian and Chinese leaders in dousing the fire from their respective unit-level hitches, the two countries will become more interdependent and their cooperation more comprehensive, as submitted by Korolev and Portyakov. This would give hope for a future era of counterbalanced power against the US hegemon.

Russia in Iran and Syria

Russia and Iran have had a long history of relationship. Commercial and diplomatic contact between Iran and modern Russia developed gradually from the second half of the fifteenth century, paralleling the reemergence of a Russian state under Muscovite hegemony. The first major increase in trade occurred during the sixteenth century, following Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Tatar-ruled Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556), which opened the Volga-Caspian route between Muscovy and Iran. From that time until the latter half of the seventeenth century, Muscovy was a commercial magnet for Western merchants seeking Russian products (especially lumber, flax, and furs) and luxuries from Iran (notably silk and Indian goods).  Notwithstanding this history, today’s Russo-Iranian relationship is resultant from Russia’s positioning to counterbalance the U.S. in the Middle East.

Omelicheva (2012) observed that Russia’s foreign policy stance on nuclear Iran has oscillated between resistance to sanctions and support for punitive measures against Iran in the meantime supplying Tehran with new arms technologies, despite the protestations from the US. She argues that the conventional approaches linking Russia’s foreign policy to either geostrategic calculations or considerations of economic efficiency are insufficient because they do not take into consideration the changing conceptions of geopolitics held by Russia. I hold that Russia’s action in Iran is to counteract the hegemonic influence of the U.S.

Similarly, Russia enjoys a historically strong, stable, and friendly relationship with Syria, as it did until the Arab Spring with most of the Arab countries. Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet is located in the Syrian port of Tartus.  Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, pundits argue, embodied the Kremlin’s goal to project the effects of Russia’s Syria campaign beyond the Middle East. The conflict was always perceived as a tool to showcase ambitions that assert Russia as a global power. Moscow perceives U.S. President Donald Trump’s abandonment of Syria as a victory that adds greatly to its political capital. It could also allow Moscow to reach out to European leaders in France and Germany, as well as the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, by persuading them to embrace their own version of a political settlement.

Russia in Africa

Russia hasn’t had much to do with Africa after the cold war until the surge of China on the continent and the election of President Trump. Africa has historically been a prominent field of influence for the United States and then the Soviet Union (USSR). Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia has been trying to establish its place by setting formative policies to reassert itself on the world stage as a major international power. Bilateral relations between the USSR and African nations were frozen at the end of the Soviet period.

However Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have new aspirations in Africa to restore his country to strong power status, spurred on by concerns that China, India and Brazil, are intensifying their involvement in Africa. The past relations and partnerships between African countries and Russia put an emphasis on political ideology, but now, this has shifted. Today, Moscow wants to deepen its understanding of the business climate and explore trade and partnership opportunities in the African continent.  The week after U.S. troops withdrew, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan effectively carved up northeastern Syria between themselves, and the Russian leader solidified the position of his ally, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, thereafter, replacing Washington as the key player in the Syrian conflict and cementing its status as a power broker in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin was working on another geopolitical front the same week: Africa. Specifically, by hosting African leaders at a two-day Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, the Russian president was trying to resurrect old bonds forged by the Soviet Union, as Putin seeks to re-create Russian influence around the world and achieve his goal of expanding Moscow’s geopolitical clout.  At the summit, President Putin welcomed 43 heads of state or government, along with dozens of business and community leaders. Trump has hosted a much smaller set of African leaders, including official visits from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.  The summit’s declaration document contained a thinly veiled jibe at the U.S., with participants agreeing to “counteract political dictatorship and currency blackmail in the course of international trade and economic cooperation.”

Russia has defense orders worth $14bn from African countries, its state-run arms export agency said at the summit. Sales to the continent account for about a third of Moscow’s military exports. President Putin said Russia had agreed “military technical co-operation agreements” with more than 30 African states, to supply weapons. “Some of these deliveries are free of charge.” On the eve of the summit, Moscow also wrote off more than $20 billion in debt accumulated by African countries during the Soviet era. President Putin announced that “It was not only an act of generosity, but also a manifestation of pragmatism, because many of the African states were not able to pay interest on these loans.”

Conclusion

I have tried to show the extent to which calculations regarding prestige and international status shape the foreign policies of states [other than the current hegemon (the United States) and its rising challenger (China)], using Russia as case study and the strategies it pursues to enhance (or preserve) its prestige and international status comparative to those of the current hegemon or the challenger. The paper shows the inconsistencies in Russia’s foreign policy which, within the limits of the inconsistencies, is realpolitik. In this vein, Russia’s foreign policy is aimed at achieving prestige and is in line with Gilpin’s oft-quoted passage from his 1981 that “Prestige, rather than power, is the everyday currency of international relations, much as authority is the central ordering feature of domestic politics… prestige is enormously important because if your strength is recognized, you can generally achieve your aims without having to use it.”

Mustapha Shehu wrote this as a term paper in International Politics in the Global Master of Arts Program at The Fletcher School in Tufts University, Medford, MA. All sources properly cited in the original work but omitted here to avoid clutter.

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