Volume II, Number 1; 20 February 2013

Volume II, Number 1                                                                                                          20 February 2013

In this issue:

The Bases of Russian Foreign Policy, Part Three:  Why?

By Susan J. Cavan


The Bases of Russian Foreign Policy, Part Three:  Why?


By Susan J. Cavan

On February 15, President Putin presented Russia’s new foreign policy concept to the RF Security Council, noting: “Our basic foreign policy principles all remain unchanged. … In particular, [the Concept] reflects major developments such as the global financial and economic crisis, which continues to worry us all, the changing balance of power in the world and in world affairs, the growing turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, and the increasing significance of the cultural and civilisational [sic] dimensions in global competition today.”  (1)

While the new concept does not mark a radical departure from recent versions, it does make clear the theoretical underpinning of Russia’s foreign policy, coupled with the proposition that the global financial crisis of 2008 marked a watershed and created conditions for changes to relationships within the international community.

According to the new foreign policy concept, the ability of the West “to dominate in the world economy and politics” has been diminished since the crisis.  (2)  The world is experiencing a period of transition during which a new “polycentric international system” is forming.  This transitional period opens the possibilities for new economic and financial systems, new alignments in collective security and shifts in political development.  This period provides for the creation of “flexible forms of participation in many-sided structures with the goal of effectively attempting to resolve the errors of the West.” (3)

The concept suggests the realization of Russia’s previously touted goal of multipolarity.  It would seem that conditions in the international arena have ripened — after years of condemning as unstable an international system dominated by a sole superpower and resting on a single “pole” of western institutions dominated by that superpower, finally, Moscow sees a tilt toward the stability of a system underpinned by multiple poles…or perhaps just two poles.

The striving for multipolarity in world affairs reflects a theory of foreign policy credited to Yevgeni Primakov.   It developed as a counterpoint to interpretations of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that historical ideological evolution may have reached an end, as the principles of liberal democracy seemed to sweep away further political-ideological challenges.  After the Soviet Union collapsed, the 1990s demonstrated to Russians that re-orienting its governing system toward models of western political and economic development presented them with a chaotic and often tragic path.  In foreign policy, abandoning the ideological rationale of Cold War confrontation did not always produce agreement between the former super powers, especially as Russia struggled to resolve its manifold domestic issues.

As the U.S. became the indispensible world power, Russia’s leaders came to view their position in international affairs as diminished.  Multipolarity provides a vision of relevance for powers that are neither leaders nor followers.   Rather than attempting to align with western values and ideals, multipolarity makes it feasible to set a different course.  Decrying a “uni-polar” world (either U.S. led or led by western consensus) as unstable, Russia continues to propose that alternate beacons of development provide more stable support to the international system.

In fact, this thesis of multipolarity seems very much a rehash of Cold War superpower polarity with a less ideological base.  As the Soviet Union represented a different model of development and governance in contrast with the West, so Russia seems poised to present its response to the 2008 global financial crisis as a distinct approach meant to correct the “mistakes of the West.”

Recently, Yevgeni Primakov ventured into economic affairs both to defend the policies of the Putin administration domestically and to attack the wholesale application of western theories in the Russian context.  “Russia’s neoliberals…proceed on the basis of the universality of Western economic theories, ignore their evolution, and, most important, do not take into account the peculiarities and degree of development of market relations in our country.”  (4)

Primakov’s attack on Russian neo-liberals represents more than a domestic dispute; its significance in foreign policy is seen in the rejection of a western path of economic growth and the assertion of a “strong state” approach — an approach that might be far more seductive to authoritarian leaders as they strive both to maneuver through economic turbulence and maintain tight state control in their regimes.  “One of the fundamental principles of neoliberalism [sic] is that the free play of economic forces, and not state planning, ensures social justice.  However, this conclusion does not withstand collisions with reality, not only in Russia but in other countries, too.”  (5)

For Primakov, it is just a short hop from economics to politics:  “The identification of political freedom with the limitation of state power is categorically incompatible with the need to democratize our society.” (6)

This defense of the strong state consists in part of a reprise of Russia’s assertion of “sovereign democracy” with a twist that shrugs off western criticism:  Some states need strong central control in order to develop their full economic and political potentials.   It takes Putin’s curt dismissal of western interference in Russian domestic affairs and attempts to see it writ large as developmental critique.  This is not just a rejoinder to the critics of Russian justice as applied to Sergei Magnitsky or Pussy Riot; this is an attempt to provide a manifesto of sovereign development.

For those states that observed the developments of the Arab Spring with alarm and see calls for democratic reforms and greater civil freedoms as western provocation, Russia hopes to serve as a guiding light to rebuff the arrogance of the West and to illuminate a separate path to economic, political, and perhaps even collective, security.

Putin’s new foreign policy concept highlights the potential that exists at this moment in world affairs for a shift from the domination of the west and its institutions.  As a result, the authors of the concept consider the possibilities of a “new and more balanced” global financial and currency system; stress the importance of regional alliances; and continue to assert the central role of the United Nations (specifically, the U.N. Security Council) in solving international disputes.

The priorities laid out in the concept seem designed to prepare Russia to take up a role in the creation of a new international architecture.  As he presented the concept to the RF Security Council, Putin outlined some of these measures:  “The concept puts the emphases on the use of modern forms and methods of foreign-policy efforts, including economic diplomacy, the introduction of so-called elements of soft power, and adept involvement in global information traffic.”  (7)

Russia’s embrace of “soft power” approaches, while not new to this iteration of the foreign policy concept, receives greater emphasis now, along with acknowledgment that there is serious work to be done.  As Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly observed:  “[W]e have to be Russia, to be the country which is attractive for our foreign associates. Attractive not just because of resource reserves – petroleum, gas, minerals, fresh water – but also because of our intellect, which is one of the best in the world. We have to be attractive by our culture, history, language, which has to be more actively supported in foreign countries. And, of course, we have to be attractive by our foreign policy.” (8)

Clearly, Russia has set out to embody a new model of development and present an alternative vision of international relations.  However, the efficacy of its plans to deploy a soft power barrage hinges not on its implementation but on the perception of its success.  Russia has a long row to hoe.  As Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor of Russia in Global Affairs and Chairman of Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy notes:  “The current dislike for the West in the developing world, exemplified by the Arab Spring, does not translate into greater affinity for Moscow. Russia, which continues to exude its traditional pathos amid the dramatic changes in the region, is still seen as a reactionary, rather than a progressive country. …  And until the Russian nation defines its goals and guidelines for itself, it will be unable to offer anything attractive to other countries. Therefore, soft power will be at best limited to a set of technical measures – not entirely useless, but ultimately ineffective.” (9)



1) Meeting with Security Council members, 15 Feb 2013, President of Russia Official Website via http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/5006.

2)КонцепциявнешнейполитикиРоссийскойФедерации, available on the Kremlin website via http://www.kremlin.ru/news/17520.  (Last accessed 19 Feb 2013.)  Translation by the author.

3) Ibid.

4) Article by Academician Yevgeniy Primakov: “Modern-Day Russia and Liberalism,” Rossiyskaya gazeta, 17 Dec 2012; BBC World Monitoring, 19 Dec 2012 via LexisNexis Academic.

5) Ibid.

6) Ibid.

7) Kira Latukhina report: “Efforts for Standing. Vladimir Putin Has Presented the Updated RF Foreign-Policy Concept”]; Rossiyskaya gazeta website, Moscow, in Russian 18 Feb 13; BBC Worldwide Monitoring via LexisNexis Academic.

8) Text of “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview in the “Sunday evening with Vladimir Solovyev” programme on “Russia” TV channel, Moscow, 10 February 2013″ published in English by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website on 16 February; Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, Moscow, in English 16 Feb 13; BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 16 Feb 2013 via LexisNexis Academic.

9) “How soft is too soft,” by Fyodor Lukyanov, The Moscow News, 13 Feb 2013 ; viahttp://themoscownews.com/russia/20130204/191204366/How-soft-is-too-soft.html.

By Susan J. Cavan


In the Next Issue:  The Bases of Russian Foreign Policy, Part 4

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