Volume 1, Number 3; 23 October 12


Eurasia Analyst

Volume 1, Number 3; 23 October 12

The Bases of Russian Foreign Policy, Part One: Where?

By Susan J. Cavan

At a ruling party conference in September 2011, then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin once again would be president of Russia (when “confirmed” by elections the following March), and in so doing answered a number of questions about the leadership “tandem” that had brought Medvedev to the presidency in the first place.  This announcement, coupled with parliamentary elections held later in the year animated an opposition movement in Russia that repeatedly brought thousands onto the streets in an outpouring of outrage over both the conduct of elections and the patronizing attitude of the Medvedev/Putin regime, which crafted the choreography between the president and prime minister with nary a nod to democratic input.


The slight shift in the tandem, moving Batman back to the presidency and Robin to the White House, thus provoked a more significant turn in a citizenry that previously had accepted the heavy-handed authoritarianism of Putin’s first terms in office under the slogan of “Order from Chaos” and prompted the realization that what had been traded for order in society was not only a larger slice of freedom and liberty than anticipated, but rather the respect of the leadership for its nominal electorate.  Following the presidential elections in March, the opposition protests have cooled perhaps under the weight of acceptance of the political status quo and a determined insistence by the authorities that opposition will have an escalating cost — from legislation that obstructs protests to searches and arrests of activists to grand trials of blasphemers.  Nonetheless, Putin and his government would be remiss not to recognize that the political farce played out over the last year has had a heavy cost and subsequently, there is little appetite in society for indulging this regime.  With the experience of protest so near and the faith in government so broken, Putin’s room for maneuver in the domestic, social sphere is curtailed, if only by concerns of reanimating the protests.  Conversely, foreign policy presents ample opportunities for action.  The regime needs successes and the international arena may provide the most likely venue in which to claim them.


For those formulating an approach to negotiating with President Putin’s administration over trade issues, missile defense, or joint action, such as sanctions against Syria, it is vital not only to understand that Putin needs foreign policy victories, but how Russia now defines them.  In what often seems a cacophony of voices from and about Russia, it is also critical to determine who helps define Russian foreign policy and where it is hashed out.


There was a telling moment earlier this year that brought a key Russian presidential body to the forefront.  In early 2012, before election confirmed Putin as Russia’s next president, then Prime Minister Putin published a series of articles on policy as part of his presidential campaign.  His statement on foreign policy priorities appeared in Moscow News in late February. (1)  The timing was interesting:  Events in Syria had reached a boiling point and decisions were required that potentially could a) reinforce a precedent of NATO intervention cobbled together over Libya; b) produce United Nations sanction of intervention; or c) staunch the rush to intervene in Syria while a more “principled” approach to resolution was negotiated under the joint auspices of the UN and Arab League.  If Russia’s leadership dawdled while its presidential transition played out its foregone conclusions, the “Libyan precedent” might attain, denying Russia a significant role in the determination of events in Syria.  (2)


During this period, Russia’s Security Council, in its smaller, executive composition of “permanent members,” met frequently.  As set out by the Kremlin, strategic planning is a key element of the Security Council’s purview:  “The need for constant analysis and strategic planning regarding all security issues, as well as the drafting of presidential decisions, necessitates the existence of a special constitutional advisory body accountable to the President. This body is the Security Council.” (3)  In its current incarnation, the Security Council has thirty-one members, of which thirteen are “permanent” members.  The permanent members of the Security Council, as ordered by Putin upon his inauguration in May, include the prime minister; Directors of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Services (SVR); Ministers of the Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Defense; legislative representatives; and notably, the Kremlin Chief of Staff (Sergei Ivanov). (4)


While the Security Council routinely holds an “operational meeting” on a monthly, and occasionally bimonthly basis, from the period of January 27, 2012 through February 24, 2012, the Security Council held four operational sessions. (5)  Putin’s statement on Foreign Policy was published three days after the fourth of these sessions, and it seems likely to have been influenced by discussions and “strategic planning” among the Security Council’s permanent members.


It bears repeating that the situation in Syria, and specifically attempts to coalesce a full-throated UN approach to the Assad regime, was reaching a crescendo in February 2012: Russia and China had vetoed a draft UN resolution on ending the violence in Syria, while the US, among others, continued pressure to craft a strong, international response to events.  On February 7, a Russian delegation, consisting of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and SVR Director Mikhail Fradkov, two key members of the Security Council, arrived in Syria for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The decision to send Russia’s foreign intelligence chief to Syria was an intriguing choice that suggests the delegation had a multi-layered mission.  After the meeting, Lavrov noted:  “There is every reason to believe that the signal we brought here to move more actively in all directions has been heard”. (6)  There is also every reason to believe that the signal relayed to the Syrian president was discussed and agreed during a meeting of the Security Council.


In line with its role during the transitional period leading up to Putin’s inauguration, the Security Council continues to hold operational sessions of permanent members, including recent sessions devoted to Syria.   After one such July meeting (ostensibly to discuss social and economic issues), Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitri Peskov announced:  “Members of the Russian Security Council emphasized that attempts to link growing tensions in Syria to the stance held by the Russian Federation were irrelevant and unacceptable.” (7)  More than simply a “talking shop,” the Security Council provides a closed forum for Russia’s political and security services elite (military leaders, such as the Chief of the General Staff are not included among  the current “permanent membership”) to resolve crisis management issues and set broad policy initiatives, as well.


The Security Council has played many roles over the twenty years since President Boris Yel’tsin instituted the body.  At times, it has had executive implementation authority for presidential decrees and responsibility for vetting Soviet military officers as the Russian Federation created its own armed forces and Ministry of Defense.  It also has seemed a way station for former members of Kremlin inner circles on their way to quiet retirement.  For President Putin’s third term, it seems to serve as a brain trust, where the closest members of his team gather to discuss both crises and long-range planning.


During the first six months of his third term, President Putin has devoted significant attention to foreign policy, e.g. issuing a decree on foreign policy implementation, outlining policy priorities in an address to ambassadors, international representatives and Foreign Ministry staff, and calling for the preparation of a new foreign policy doctrine to be completed by December 2012.  (8)  Preparation of the doctrine likely will begin and end in the Security Council with the details hammered out by the Foreign Ministry.  To know where policy is formulated is to know by whom and lays the foundation for understanding the essential elements of the policy itself.



End Notes:

1) “Russia and the Changing World,” by Vladimir Putin, 27 Feb 12, Moskovskiye Novosti, (available in English from RIA-Novosti via http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20120227/171547818.html).

2) For a discussion on the Russian abstention during the UN debate over Libya, as well as the state of Russian-Syrian relations, see “Why Russia Won’t Yield on Syria,” Council on Foreign Relations Interview.

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org;
Interviewee: Dimitri Simes, President and CEO, Center for the National Interest

via http://www.cfr.org/russian-fed/why-russia-wont-yield-syria/p28712.

3) “About the Security Council,” the official Kremlin website via http://eng.state.kremlin.ru/security_council/about_sec.

4) For a complete list of appointments, including Staff and non-permanent members, see “Staff appointments in the Security Council,” 26 May 12; Official kremlin Website via http://eng.state.kremlin.ru/security_council/3910.

5) Deyatel’nost, Soviet Bezopastni Rossiyskoy Federatsii (Official site of the Security Council of the Russian Federation) via http://www.scrf.gov.ru/news/19/index2.html, accessed 23 Oct 12.

6) “Syrian leaders hear signal from Moscow – Lavrov,” 7 Feb 12; Russia & CIS Diplomatic Panorama via Lexis-Nexis Academic.

7) “Putin holds emergency meeting of Russian Security Council,” 20 July 12, 09:24PM GMT+4; ITAR-TASS via Lexis-Nexis Academic.

8) In his address to the ambassadors and other representatives, Putin announced that he had signed an executive order to the effect that a flag should be created for the Foreign Ministry, in addition to promising financial reforms. “Meeting with Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives in international organizations,” 9 July 12, Official Site of the President of Russia via www.kremlin.ru.


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