Following his election to a third term, Russian President Vladimir Putin readjusted a number of governing norms and principles of his country’s foreign policy philosophy to bring it into line with Russian interests in light of sweeping global changes. The resultant “Concept of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation,” which defined itself as a “systemic description of basic principles, priorities, goals and objectives”, fleshed out the core ideas many of which have their roots in Putin’s address to the European Security Conference in Munich in February 2007, which marked a turning point in Putin’s foreign policy positions and Russian foreign relations during the past two decades.
Since the Munich address, Putin has been an outspoken critic of the monopolar world order and a leading advocate of the creation of a “polycentric system of international relations” in which no particular state or states would hold a monopoly on global decision making or sideline the UN and legitimate international decision-making mechanisms. It was this goal, above all, that shaped the new foreign policy concept and that informed “a new vision of priorities in Russia’s foreign policy that takes into account Russia’s increased responsibility for setting the international agenda and shaping the system of international relations”.
“The Concept,” as the document is called, proceeds from the premise that Russia must resume its rightful place in a world in which the “ability of the West to dominate world economy and politics continues to diminish”. Towards this end, it will pursue such goals as promoting and safeguarding relations with “adjoining states”, by which it refers to countries that fell within the orbit of the former Soviet Union, and promote and increase participation in such formats as the G20, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and the Republic of South Africa), the G8, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the RIC (Russia, India and China) and similar organisations and platforms for dialogue.
Putin explained many aspects of the outlook in several articles that effectively became part of his platform in his campaign to return to the presidency in 2012. He spoke of the importance of building a new world order based on contemporary geopolitical realities, but of the need to do this gradually without causing “unnecessary shocks”. International relations continue to increase in complexity while it is becoming more and more difficult to predict how they will evolve, he said, noting that international relations were “in the process of transition, the essence of which is the creation of a polycentric system of international relations”. This process was not easy to discern as it was unfolding against a backdrop of mounting economic and political turbulence at the global and regional levels. The nature of this turbulence was such that traditional military and political alliances could longer offer sufficient safeguards against the many new and unconventional transnational challenges and threats. New modes of collective action were required and the Russian Foreign Ministry advocated one: “Network diplomacy based on flexible participation in multilateral mechanisms has become more effective at finding peaceful solutions and promoting collaboration to overcome international crises safely.”
Russian documents indicate how Moscow, after having overcome the economic straits of the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which derailed the country from its path to progress and threatened to reduce it to a Western dependency, has become more acutely aware than ever that it will never resume a place commensurate to its legacy and economic and human potentials unless it is secure, stable and strong enough to pursue an independent policy. It is equally certain that international peace and security cannot be achieved without Russia, or by weakening its defence capacities and undermining it geo-strategically.
In a February 2012 article called, “Russia and the Changing World,” Putin writes: “Our foreign policy objectives are strategic in nature and do not proceed from opportunistic considerations. They reflect Russia’s unique role on the world political map as well as its role in history and in the development of civilisation.” The Foreign Ministry’s “Concept” reaffirmed this stance and observed: “Global challenges and threats require an adequate response and joint efforts on the part of the international community based on the central coordinating role of the UN… [in the framework of] a polycentric model of the world that reflects the world’s diversity and variety… and that takes into consideration a clear correlation between the questions of security, sustainable development and human rights.” The document added that Russia continues to work actively to promote world peace and security and to fight such threats to peace and security as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, regional disputes and crises, the spread of terrorism and illegal arms and drug trafficking.
In the abovementioned article, Putin reflected on how unsteady relations between Moscow and Washington have hampered the realisation of Russia’s polycentric foreign policy outlook. “We have not managed to fundamentally change the matrix of our relations, which continue to ebb and flow,” he wrote, and attributed this unstable relationship “in part to the tenacity of some well-known stereotypes and phobias”. More recently, the US has delivered further blows to this relationship by imposing political and economic sanctions on Russia, backing out of START and other arms reduction treaties, and pushing NATO to expand eastward and deploy a missile shield along Russia’s borders. These are worrisome developments at a time of conflicting speculations regarding the two sides’ willingness to cease their undeclared arms race which, according to Moscow, Washington started when former president George Bush Jr announced his intent to withdraw from arms limitation treaties.
In his address to the European Security Conference in Munich in 2007, Putin warned that his country would be forced to upgrade its arsenals. And so it did — as can be seen from the plethora of weapons acquisitions that it unveiled two years ago and that include hypersonic missiles and other missile systems that have sparked controversy in international military circles. Although Moscow hopes that forthcoming developments will ultimately work towards a more harmonious climate, many observers predict the opposite. They believe that US President-elect Joe Biden will be more focused on questions related to human rights and NGO freedoms, issues that have stirred tensions between the two sides before. In addition, the US is likely to focus on ongoing disputes over issues related to former Soviet countries, such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. Moscow, for its part, is concerned with the resolution of the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, subjects on which Moscow and Washington’s views have frequently diverged as they have on other questions related to the Middle East and the repercussions of the Arab Spring upheavals.
Russia’s relations with the EU have experienced renewed tensions as well in recent years. Some analysts have attributed this to controversy surrounding the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But Europe is also at odds with Russia over the questions of Ukraine, Belarus and other issues related to former Soviet republics. On the other hand, Europe and Russia are more closely bound by economic and energy related issues, such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and other areas of cooperation in energy and economic investment. Putin has complained that the current level of cooperation between Russia and the EU is not of a level commensurate with current global challenges and, above all, “the need for making our shared continent more competitive”. He therefore proposed that Russians and Europeans work together to create “a harmonious community of economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok which, in the future, will evolve into a free trade zone and even more advanced forms of economic integration”. He also proposed more extensive Russian-EU cooperation in energy, “up to and including the formation of a common European energy complex”.
Naturally, the Asia and Pacific region also occupies a significant amount of space on the Russian foreign policy map. Putin as frequently acknowledged the growing roles of China and India in the global economy and international affairs. He has been particularly keen to dispel the anxieties that some quarters have voiced over the increasingly influential “Chinese factor”. “I am convinced that China’s economic growth is by no means a threat, but a challenge that carries colossal potential for economic and commercial cooperation,” he wrote. He urged a more active pursuit of new cooperative ties that would tap the potential of China’s technological and productive capacities in order to develop the economies of Siberia and the Russian Far East, especially in areas near the borders with China. Relations with India, which Putin described as a “privileged strategic partnership,” were also on track in their development. Their bilateral cooperation and coordination meshed with the interests of the other members of such international blocs as BRICS and the G20.
The foreign policy “Concept” also underscores the importance of strengthening Russia’s residual bonds with the collection of post-Soviet republics in Eurasia known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and envisions boosting these relations further through the creation of new regional bodies such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Such structures will enable Moscow to sustain a vital and active role in political and diplomatic dispute settlement processes in the CIS space. Indeed, the Russian brokered ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh and its ongoing efforts to settle the decades long dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this territory testify to this role.
In recent years, Russia has shown a growing interest in the Latin American-Caribbean region. Putin has made numerous high-profile visits to many of these countries as part of a drive to strengthen Russian influence in that region. Moscow is equally determined to revive the once strong and influential position it had in Africa. A major landmark in this direction was the first ever Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia, in October 2019. The event, which brought together heads of state and representatives of 53 African nations, was co-hosted by President Putin and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in his capacity as chair of the African Union that year. The resolutions and recommendations adopted by the summit reflected the participants’ shared desire to increase cooperation in economic, cultural and humanitarian affairs as well as in military fields. South Africa will be hosting the second Russia-Africa summit next year in order to follow through on the resolutions that align with many of the tenets and orientations of Russia’s foreign policy concept.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly