Skip to main content
Vladimir Putin in Hanover, meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the beginning of a tour of Europe, April 8, 2013

‘Russia is attempting something that nobody but America has tried in 30 years’ Why is Moscow’s foreign policy what it is? Meduza asks the experts

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin in Hanover, meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the beginning of a tour of Europe, April 8, 2013
Vladimir Putin in Hanover, meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the beginning of a tour of Europe, April 8, 2013
Alexey Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

In recent years — thanks to the annexation of Crimea, the intervention in eastern Ukraine, and the war in Syria — foreign policy has come to influence the everyday lives of ordinary Russians both directly and indirectly. At the same time, however, state officials have often failed to explain the full logic behind these momentous decisions. To learn more about how Moscow makes it foreign policy, Meduza special correspondent Konstantin Benyumov talked to Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and interviewed several experts who have studied Russia’s global behavior for decades.

Putin decides everything

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center: “All [foreign-policy] decisions in Russia — on Syria, Ukraine, and Crimea — come down to a single person. It’s another matter, however, that he gets his information from different sources. What’s important is who these sources are. Mainly, they’re the intelligence services. I think they can offer different options, but any state system is built around the executive. No government analyst is going to write a report that contradicts the executive, or he risks losing his job. I’m sure [Putin] also gets reports that differ from his point of view, but there’s nonetheless an echo-chamber effect in the decision-making. The liberal position is also considered, but its weight [in foreign policy] isn’t as significant as it is, for example, in economic-policy-making. Liberal economic experts wield important realities that no serious politician can ignore. The position of liberal political experts, on the other hand, is just the position of liberal political experts.”

Andrey Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council: “The president already explained how he made the decision to reabsorb Crimea. There was no finance minister in the room who could have said, ‘Let’s run the numbers.’ And there was no foreign affairs minister who could have asked, ‘But how will it affect this and that?’ Apparently, none of these people were there to take part in the discussion.”

Maria Zakharova, official representative for Russia’s Foreign Ministry: “The president determines the fundamental direction of foreign policies and directs their overall implementation. This means that virtually all state agencies involved in setting and implementing foreign policy (with the exception of the Federation Council) are subordinate to the head of state. The Foreign Ministry is part of the executive branch. Its main tasks are the practical implementation of foreign-policy objectives and enabling the president to exercise his foreign-policy powers. This includes developing proposals on matters of state policy in their sphere of international relations.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the magazine “Russia in Global Affairs”: “As in bureaucracy, there’s a complex system of mutual influences [when it comes to foreign policy]. Some issues are more within the expertise of the Foreign Ministry. For example, the Middle East school here has always been very strong, and Russia’s Syria file was mainly the Foreign Ministry’s work from 2011 to 2015. The president, of course, is still in charge of everything, but this [Moscow’s intervention in Syria] was generally the result of the Foreign Ministry’s policies. Ukraine, on the other hand, was decidedly not the Foreign Ministry’s doing. And the Foreign Ministry ultimately isn’t the institution that determines Russia’s foreign policy. It’s incapable of this in the highly centralized system of the president, who is very talented when it comes to foreign policy and enjoys it considerably.”

Dmitri Trenin: “State companies and major private companies, like Lukoil, also have lobbying opportunities. They can influence policy and push through certain things. Sometimes, the interests of a ‘Lukoil‘ or even one of the state companies don’t coincide with the government’s policy interests, and so it’s necessary to reach an agreement by examining what matters most and to what degree.”

A former Foreign Ministry official: “If Igor Ivanovich Sechin thinks it would benefit Russia to sign a contract somewhere in Venezuela or Kurdistan, he doesn’t need to consult with anyone but the president. Vladimir Putin has built up a lot based on personal relationships, and sometimes his friendships with different world leaders — Schroeder, Berlusconi, or Netanyahu — can be decisive to his decision-making.”

Authoritarianism has its advantages

Fyodor Lukyanov: “Thanks to the structure of its political system and society, Russia is capable of making quick decisions without extended domestic discussions. The British Parliament might deliberate for a long time and then refuse to authorize a military operation proposed by the prime minister. It’s a different story in Russia. If permission is needed, the Federation Council grants it. When it’s no longer necessary, it revokes it. It’s a tactical advantage.”

Andrey Kortunov: “Any monopoly is dangerous, including a monopoly on foreign policy. Not one of our foreign-policy decisions is preceded by a serious public debate. If you exclude the radical opposition, our entire foreign-policy discourse is reduced to seeking justifications for decisions that have already been made. We try to prove why we did the right thing and why the Americans are bad, why we needed to go into Syria, and that we needed to do what we did in eastern Ukraine. Russian politics is seen as nothing more than reacting to things, and the only correct reaction is that we never allow or acknowledge any mistakes. When there’s no discussion, the likelihood of mistakes goes up, of course. In the 1990s, there was a discussion, but then it gradually disappeared. Closed decision-making can affect the quality of your decisions.”

Maria Zakharova: “Our foreign policy isn’t imbued with any ideological messianism. Russia’s course is pragmatic and dictated by its national interests. We don’t impose our attitudes on anyone, and we respect civilizational diversity. At the same time, we have cherished principles and traditions that form the basis of our relationship with the surrounding world.”

A Russian soldier in Crimea, March 19, 2014
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia considers itself an agent of stability in the world

Maria Zakharova: “Our country’s foreign policy sometimes gets some ‘fine tuning’ because the world around us changes, and the country, its capabilities, and its needs change, too. But there’s a continuity to our basic principles: respect for international law, state sovereignty, and the right of peoples to choose their own traditions and way of life. We have a multi-vector outlook and we’re ready for constructive work with all interested partners.”

Andrey Kortunov: “I’d say that Russia is more a status-quo nation than a revisionist power, but the methods it uses to maintain the status quo sometimes look revisionist. I’m not talking about the interests Russia tries to defend, but about how it tries to do this. If we’re talking about the destruction of the modern world order, there are a lot of fingers in this pie, and it would be unfair to say that Russia is the only or even the main destroyer. Our American friends and the European populists, not to mention the international terrorists, have done their share of work.

Dmitri Trenin: “‘Stability for the sake of stability’ is good for speeches at the UN, but every international player seeks to realize or protect their interests. If defending their interests demands stability in a certain region, then we’ll support stability. But Russia didn’t need global stability where the United States ruled alone. And it didn’t need the expansion of NATO, even when the new member states fully consented to joining. When Russia didn’t have the means to push back against this, there were [verbal] protests. When the capability to resist finally emerged, we saw the operations to pacify Georgia, to seize control of Crimea, and to send secret but quite effective help to eastern Ukraine.”

Andrey Kortunov: “It’s like Mark Twain said [sic]: if your only tool is a hammer, then all your problems will seem like nails. If we have these wonderful armed forces, then we’re sure to focus involuntarily on the problems and situations where this tool could be useful. It seems to me that Russia’s problem is that it might want to maintain the status quo, but it simply doesn’t know how to do this without going beyond the usual methods used for this.”

Great-power status is more important than well-being, and it always has been

Dmitri Trenin: “What does Russia need? What kind of world order does Russia consider ideal? I have just one answer: the kind of world where Russia has great-power status and not a single major decision can be made against its interests. That’s it. That’s the whole sum of Russia’s international position today. You’ve got to play the cards that you’re dealt. Status is important for the sake of status. Russia doesn’t have many economic cards, and I doubt its hand here will improve any in the foreseeable future. God forbid it should get any worse. So Russia aspires to a role internationally that far eclipses its available economic capabilities. This is it’s only way to stay in the game. If Russia were to act like other economic powers at its level, its role in the world would shrink exponentially.”

Fyodor Lukyanov: “The dissolution of the Soviet Union signified an absolutely unprecedented collapse of status. However we assess its ideology and everything else, the USSR was one of the world order’s two pillars. In November 1991, when the Soviet regime was in its death throes, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush Sr. presided over a conference in Madrid on a Middle East settlement that, by the way, is still considered a milestone. And by the end of December, that same year, Russia — still not even the USSR’s legal successor state — was holding out its hand to those against whom it had only recently waged a global competition.”

Dmitri Trenin: “In my view, Russia had two main foreign-policy priorities after the end of the Cold War. One was to integrate into the Western system on terms acceptable to Moscow, that is, as a ‘secondary power.’ The other was to unite the post-Soviet space under the Russian flag and create a Eurasian power center. Despite the fact that this second task partly contradicted the first, it was believed for a long time that both were possible. That ended in 2014. Now we have neither.”

Andrey Kortunov: “Signing any international agreement or joining any organization means surrendering a part of your sovereignty. But countries do this consciously, realizing that they can get something more valuable in return. The whole question is how we judge sovereignty. Is it something to be worshipped, or is it a kind of capital that we put into circulation?”

Vladimir Putin speaks to Russian soldiers at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria, December 11, 2017
Mikhail Klimentiev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Dmitri Trenin: “The Russian political elite don’t consider themselves accountable to anyone. The Swiss elite or even the German elite understand their place well, but the Russian elite can’t. At one time, the back of the German elite was broken and the whole class was remolded completely. After 1991, this didn’t happen with the Russian elite, despite the Soviet Union’s loss in the Cold War. Maybe the Russian elite would have lived better [if it had surrendered some of its sovereignty, following the EU’s example], but maybe not. Either way, things now are what they are.”

Maria Zakharova: “As before, Russia still opposes efforts to establish a world order on the basis of unilateral hegemony, as well as any attempts to spread neocolonialism.”

Andrey Kortunov: “I think [the rhetoric about an anti-Russian conspiracy] reflects the mentality of a significant part of the country’s leadership. Foreign policy is always a balance between security interests and development interests. The former calls for certain restrictions, in order to focus on sovereignty. The latter usually warrants more integration and interdependence. For quite some time, we’ve seen how the idea of sovereignty dominates as one of Russian foreign policy’s principal concerns. But imagine the world slipping deeper into instability, uncontrolled migration, ecological crisis, and more conflicts — the worst scenario, as they say, would be the perfect storm. In these circumstances, any reasonable leader would tell you that now is the time to address survival and security, not development or prosperity.”

Dmitri Trenin: “I don’t think there was any real threat to Russian sovereignty. But the threat existed in people’s minds, and that’s part of the reality that becomes a political tool: You need to unite society and retain your hold on power, and you use different methods to do this. Does an American tank in the Baltics pose a threat to Russian security? In my view, it doesn’t. But does the U.S. pose a threat to Russia? Of course it does, if only for the simple fact that it has the enormous means to destroy the Russian Federation. The same is true of Russia’s capacity to destroy the United States. This is also a threat. And it varies depending on the political environment. Sometimes it seems more serious and sometimes less serious. But even in the Yeltsin era, when the threat was almost at zero, the missiles were still on full alert.”

The post-Soviet world ended in 2014

Fyodor Lukyanov: “There was no break or gap between the presidencies of Yeltsin and Putin with what happened in the 1990s and later. [Russia’s leadership pursued] the wish to return the state to the group of countries on which things depend internationally. That was the goal, and the means used to achieve it were subject to change. At first, the approach was ‘integration’ — we would attain a worthy position in the Western system or negotiate one. In the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, we didn’t contest that the world had become Western-centric. The only question was on what conditions we would integrate. As the state acquired greater capacities, however, its demands grew, as well. At the same time, Russia was only offered a place in the new European order, not in the new world order. Even as geopolitically crippled as it was in the early 1990s, Russia couldn’t become just another part of a larger Europe. That simply wasn’t enough. And this was the problem: we agreed to integrate into Europe as a regional power, but we were in fact more than this, and back home we knew it.

Conceptually, the idea that we would become part of something greater wasn’t questioned for a long time — even under Putin. But then we started shifting to a different worldview: Nobody plans to include us in anything. Most people consider the turning point to have been the ‘Munich speech,’ but take two of Putin’s speeches in Germany — in Berlin in 2001 and in Munich in 2007. Yes, they’re very different in tone, but they’re virtually identical in substance. He raises the same problems in both speeches — it’s just that, in 2001, Putin wanted to solve them together.

Vladimir Putin gives his “Munich speech” at a security policy conference in Germany on February 10, 2007
Johannes Simon / Getty Images

But the truly decisive moment was the Georgian War, when Russia turned from speeches [to independent actions]. Yes, afterwards there was the “Reset” — the attempt to normalize relations somehow and get things back on track. But Russia by this time had already sensed the growing breakdown of order in the West, which naturally created both opportunities and temptations. And the main thing was that they told us everything they did was right, but they’d done unspeakable things in Iraq, and the whole Middle East was in chaos, and they had astronomically high debts, and their banks were crashing. But the apotheosis was Ukraine.”

Dmitri Trenin: “The Americans went too far with Ukraine, which has always been considered Russia’s last line [of defense]. If there’s ever a real clash, it’ll happen in Ukraine. Georgia is peripheral. It has little weight in Russia’s strategic planning. But Ukraine, reorienting to the West, becomes an absolutely unacceptable threat to Russia, from the point of view of traditional military-political thinking. It seems absurd to many people, but the military sees it like this: Ukraine becoming a NATO member paves the way to major American troop deployments and the rearmament of the Ukrainian military, which could become a serious armed force. [From the perspective of the Russian military], the Ukrainians are the same kind of fighters as we are. It would be like two Russian armies, except one would be equipped with what we can provide, and the other would have the latest American innovations. And American training. And that, you know, is scary.”

Fyodor Lukyanov: “[After Ukraine], everything that drove policy, both in Russia and in the West, simply ended. Psychologically, it’s very hard to accept this, but the situation has changed dramatically — for both Russia and the West. What’s happening in Syria, moreover, is fundamentally different. This is no longer the use of force near Russia’s own borders to realize immediate interests; it’s a bid for the role of global policeman. Russia has attempted something that nobody but America has tried in the past 30 years. And really this isn’t about the ambitions of global policing, but about demonstrating Russia’s capabilities. And it’s an important distinction. I don’t think we have such ambitions. We’ve taken the lessons of the Soviet Union to heart, after all. And the fact that we haven’t gotten bogged down in Syria like we did in Afghanistan, despite all the difficulties and costs, is a serious [achievement].”

Dmitri Trenin: “In many ways, Russia today is still searching for itself. In politics and economics, and in social and spiritual spheres. This is normal, and the answers aren’t going to materialize out of nowhere. Russia needs the experience of normal, steady development in order to work out certain fundamental basics for its policies. It needs them at home first, and then they can be put to use externally. Then everything it does around the world will be based on what it does domestically.”

Andrey Kortunov: “Many people think we [in the armed forces] are back on track. With this well-oiled mechanism in one sphere, now we think we’ll be able to handle others, too. I’d love it if that were true. But I have my doubts because, in a sense, our victories have the same sources as our defeats. Let’s look at what percentage of our budget goes to military spending and compare it to education spending, which is many times lower, although monetarily and in terms of volume, the arms market and the market for educational services are comparable.

At the end of the day, we probably shouldn’t dismiss the idea that our instruments need to be diversified over time. But this demands very strong leadership and vision, and the realization that something like blockchain will be more important than nuclear warheads in 20 years time. That means we need to head off this tendency now and adjust our priorities accordingly. The resistance will be great, because people have grown accustomed to living well, earning good money, and getting state subsidies. So there is a danger that the inertia of our current approaches will prevent us from making necessary changes. And the statistics, unfortunately, say this danger is real.”

Fyodor Lukyanov: “Given the extremely small role Russia plays in global economic processes... no military or political achievements can compensate for this. It’s clear that no miracle will transform Russia into China. But some economic buildup would allow Russia to change its image somewhat. Russia’s problem is that we’re depicted as a dying monster. This is exactly how many in the West see us. If you’re a real monster, sooner or later the others might want to start negotiating, simply to be left alone. But if they think you’re only a monster now, and in five years they anticipate the inevitable deterioration of your economy, your demography, and so on, then it’s simpler to wait it out, until the beast croaks on its own. So it would be good for us, of course, to dial down our apparent monstrousness, but it’s even more important to show that the monster isn’t dying.”

Interviews by Konstantin Benyumov, translation by Kevin Rothrock