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President Vladimir Putin, following negotiations with representatives of Turkey and Iran on a settlement in Syria. Sochi, February 14, 2019

Russia is winning, but here’s the catch Five explanations for the Kremlin’s recent foreign-policy dominance (and why it’s not such a rosy picture after all)

Source: Meduza
President Vladimir Putin, following negotiations with representatives of Turkey and Iran on a settlement in Syria. Sochi, February 14, 2019
President Vladimir Putin, following negotiations with representatives of Turkey and Iran on a settlement in Syria. Sochi, February 14, 2019
Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Last week, Vladimir Putin shook hands with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who agreed to withdraw Turkish troops from Syria, clearing the way for Syrian government forces and Russian military police to occupy most of the territory now purged of Kurdish militias. Russian foreign policy, it seems, has gotten the better of everyone, once again. This development came hot on the heels of news that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky now endorses the so-called Steinmeier Formula in the Donbas, which Moscow has advocated for years over objections from Kyiv — another apparent victory for the Kremlin. Western sanctions against Russia have clearly failed to weaken Moscow’s foreign policy, and U.S. President Donald Trump is even hinting that Russia might be invited to return to a reconstituted G8. At Meduza’s request, Russian International Affairs Council director general Andrey Kortunov reviews the factors that have facilitated Moscow’s recent international successes, and the foreign-policy obstacles that persist.

The first factor: Russia’s political system

How does this help?

Syria and the Middle East more broadly are rightfully thought to be among Vladimir Putin’s most successful “political startups.” Russia averted a bloodbath in Idlib that many considered to be inevitable, preventing direct clashes between Damascus and Ankara in northern Syria, while maintaining a fragile balance in southwestern Syria and avoiding a conflict with Tehran, all as Moscow promoted dialogue with the monarchies in the Persian Gulf.

Recent months have shown that Russia — unlike, say, the United States — is able to act as a legitimate mediator acceptable to almost all players in the region: the Sunnis and the Shiites, the Iranians and the Saudis, the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Turks and the Kurds. It’s proved more difficult to engage external players like the Americans and Europeans, but even they recognize, albeit reluctantly, Moscow’s leading role in Syria. With relatively small initial investments, Russia has become perhaps the most influential player in the Middle East. 

Key features of Russia’s political system have obviously given Moscow a comparative advantage in the region:

  • a centralized decision-making system;
  • the ability to build trust through personal relationships at the highest levels of government;
  • readiness for unexpected shifts in the political and strategic environment;
  • predominantly reliant on “hard” not “soft” power;
  • the ability to account for both the formal and informal personal and institutional interests of players in the region; and
  • the ability, when necessary, to turn a blind eye to questionable or unsavory actions by partners.

What’s the catch?

Common sense dictates that Moscow should have more success in Europe than in the Middle East. After all, Russia is an inseparable part of European, not Middle Eastern, civilization. Historically, the Russian state has incomparably deeper, more diverse experience communicating with its partners in the West than in the Middle East. Accordingly, Moscow should be capable of far more creative, sophisticated, and flexible actions in Europe.

But the political realities refute these theoretical conclusions. While Russia manages to surprise its partners in the Middle East with unexpected and unconventional initiatives, it’s found itself fiercely on the defensive in Europe for the past several years. In the Middle East, even sworn enemies have shared respect for Russia’s foreign policy, while the Kremlin’s traditional allies in Europe have been forced to distance themselves from Moscow. 

The likeliest explanation seems to be in the systemic differences between Europe’s liberal democracies and the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes. The constants of Western political systems — institutional “checks and balances,” the frequent rotation of leadership, the independent media, and shifting public sentiments — all make European countries less convenient partners for the Russian authorities than the autocrats in the Middle East (as well as the autocrats in other parts of the world). 

Another of Europe’s special features is its defense network of multilateral organizations and regimes. Interaction with Europe’s multilateral structures remains a problem for Russian diplomacy. The Middle East, meanwhile, has nothing that even remotely resembles NATO, the European Union, or even the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and it’s doubtful that anything like these groups will emerge in the region in the foreseeable future. The Middle East’s only multilateral organizations — the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council — remain extremely weak and plagued by infighting. 

The clear exception to this general rule is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, though this isn’t strictly a regional group. Many experts project, however, and not without reason, that OPEC’s role in the global energy market will inevitably decline, as conflicts between its members only grow. 

The second factor: Ukraine’s problems with the West

How does this help?

In Syria, Russia is surrounded by partners, but it’s caught between adversaries in Ukraine. The European Union, United States, and NATO all stood by Kyiv in 2014 and stayed there. Ukraine’s leadership has more problems with the West today, however, than it did five years ago. There’s Donald Trump’s unpredictability, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s less-than-ideal comments about the leaders of France and Germany, and the West’s general fatigue with Ukraine altogether. It’s hard to credit the Kremlin with all these external factors, but they undeniably help strengthen Russia’s position. 

What’s the catch?

It’s unclear how much Moscow can actually use these circumstances to its advantage. Was the agreement to exchange prisoners some special victory for the Kremlin? And what about Kyiv’s new receptivity to the “Steinmeier Formula”? These developments certainly change the general political context around Ukraine, but so far they haven’t guaranteed any breakthroughs in resolving the crisis. Things could move forward, but there might be setbacks, too. 

Let’s assume there’s no consensus within the Kremlin about what can be considered a Russian success when it comes to Ukraine. For some, success would be handing the Donbas back to Kyiv without “losing face,” while maintaining some Russian influence in eastern Ukraine. To achieve this, Moscow could show more flexibility regarding Kyiv’s implementation of the Minsk agreements. For proponents of this approach, President Zelensky is Russia’s best shot at coming to terms with Ukraine. Miss this opportunity, and who knows when the next one will come along.

For other, quite influential forces within the Russian leadership, however, success means simply maintaining the status quo in eastern Ukraine for another few years. The calculus here is clearly that Ukraine’s political pendulum is still swinging more in Russia’s direction, which means it would be foolish to rush any agreements, and the Donbas shouldn’t be “sold out” to Zelensky in any event. 

My views are closer to the former perspective, but I am not confident that this point of view takes precedence in the Kremlin.

The third factor: The political crisis in the West

How does this help?

If you look back at the past five years, you can’t help but acknowledge that the West as a whole is weaker today than it was in 2014. In this time, Europe and the U.S. have faced the unprecedented Trump phenomenon, the mostly unexpected Brexit imbroglio, spikes in populism and separatism in Europe, a massive immigration crisis, and many other serious challenges. As a result, Western liberal elites’ confidence in their own strength and place in the history books has shrunk like Balzac’s “skin of sorrow.”

China has proved to be a powerful catalyst for this process, offering experience that shows no linear dependence between the effectiveness of economic modernization and political liberalization. Not yet, at least.

The West’s sanctions against Moscow have also proved to be relatively ineffective, assuming their initial goal was not to cause as much damage as possible to the Russian economy, but to change the Kremlin’s foreign policy. 

The biggest problems in most Western countries today are deep political and even social divides, the fragility of ruling coalitions, and leaders’ dependence on abrupt shifts in public sentiment. Western leaders — from Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, and Emmanuel Macron to Angela Merkel — all want to look strong and decisive, but in fact they remain weak and aren’t always able to act.

Add to this the many growing global issues and challenges, first and foremost those tied to the climate crisis. The West today is more afraid of plastic bottles than Russian missiles.

Is this good for the Kremlin? Tactically, it’s probably not bad. It creates potential opportunities for Russia to meddle, cultivate dependence, and force its own interests. I strongly suspect that Macron, for instance, began promoting the idea of dialogue with Moscow so enthusiastically in part because he’s started rapidly losing popularity within France, and he’s turned to foreign-policy activity to compensate for his clear failures to implement domestic reforms. 

What’s the catch?

At the end of the day, weak leaders make for unreliable partners. Leaders who are susceptible to manipulation by Moscow are just as liable to be taken hostage by forces hostile to Russia. Recall the sad fiasco that was last year’s Russian-American summit in Helsinki, which actually damaged relations between the two countries. In other words, the strategic risks here outweigh the tactical advantages. 

The fourth factor: Risk-minimization tactics

How does this help?

It’s widely believed in the West, and to some extent in Russia, that today’s Kremlin compensates for its lack of resources relative to the Soviet era by adopting riskier tactics. I disagree. Just consider Russia’s involvement in Syria, and remember the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan. Who took the greater risk, and which operation looks more like an ill-conceived gamble?

Kurdish militia abandon the territory near the Syrian-Turkish border under the supervision of Russian troops
Baderkhan Ahmad / AP / Scanpix / LETA

When assessing states’ willingness to take risks, there’s one thing we must take into account: leaders of relatively weak countries often try to exaggerate their capacity for risky, improvised action. They deliberately cultivate a sense of “strategic ambiguity” among adversaries, partly compensating for disparities in the real balance of power. This sometimes requires the misleading impression that a particular leader is ready to go all the way.

In a sense, this is the same strategy experienced poker players might use when holding weak cards and trying to force other players from the game. They win these hands thanks to a sober analysis of their options and a good grasp of their opponents’ psychology, not because they’re ready to risk it all.

Many will likely object to this notion, but I argue that Russian policy since 2014 has generally stood out because it seeks to minimize risks. There’s a persistent feeling that Moscow is concerned with carefully calculating the balance of possible gains and losses, in order to avoid dangerous escalations as much as possible. Recently, Moscow has been extra careful in international affairs, refraining from actions that might occasion new information-propagandistic campaigns against Russia (with the noteworthy exception of the Kremlin’s reaction to recent street protests in Moscow, which could not go unnoticed in the West).

What’s the catch?

Russia has made obvious miscalculations, including the clear underestimation of the deafening political effects brought about by the issue of “Russian interference” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Regardless of how justified the Kremlin considers the allegations in Washington, it’s proved impossible to dismiss them lightly. I believe Russia should have demonstrated greater readiness to investigate the situation and showed a better understanding of the Americans’ concerns. In this case, the issue was miscalculation, not a conscious effort to exacerbate relations with the United States. 

In five years, with fits and starts, a certain new, relatively stable format of relations has taken shape. As our Western colleagues say, a “new normal” has emerged, but there’s not actually anything normal about this format. This “mini-reset” or “micro-relaxation” has clearly defined limits.

The problem here isn’t just differing perspectives about what to do in Syria or how to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. These disagreements are just reflections of the fundamental differences in the worldviews that dominate today in Moscow and in Western capitals. What is fair and what is unfair in modern world politics? What’s legitimate and what isn’t? In what direction is the world developing? What shape should the new world order take? And who will build it?

So long as these differences persist, we will at best be able to agree to reductions in the costs and risks associated with confrontation, but not to overcoming confrontation itself. Global unity has been thoroughly undermined for a long time, and the conflict between Russia and the West is just one of the many dimensions of a new global splintering. This is quite sad, in fact, because the time we’ve been given to save our common civilization isn’t infinite.

The fifth factor: A rich diplomatic tradition

How does this help?

You can debate whether it will be possible to maintain Russia’s Middle-East achievements in 2020, but the Kremlin’s feats in the region testify to the effectiveness of Vladimir Putin’s personal diplomacy, the high quality of expert and analytical support for Moscow’s foreign policy, and the professionalism of both Russia’s soldiers and diplomats. 

I graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and many of my classmates now hold senior positions in the Foreign Ministry’s central office and in Russia’s embassies abroad. Some of these people are born diplomats, as they say. Russia has always had reason, I think, to be proud of its school of diplomacy. Many of our foreign partners, by the way (even those who aren’t always well-disposed towards Russia), also acknowledge this.

What’s the catch?

First, in Russia, like in many other countries, the concepts of “diplomacy” and “foreign policy” are increasingly diverging, and diplomats’ role in foreign policy continues to decline. What used to be foreign ministries’ exclusive prerogative and area of responsibility is increasingly shifting to defense agencies, the intelligence community, finance and economics ministries, and the offices of presidents and prime ministers.

In Russia, this general trend is superimposed onto an extremely centralized foreign-policy decision-making process. Good diplomats, meanwhile (not just diplomats, but attachés, too), are more than foot soldiers. They need room to act independently, creatively, and proactively. Without this leeway, the profession, sadly, is virtually doomed to decline. 

Second, in the era of post-truth, information wars, and total publicity, you often encounter situations where a diplomat’s duties overlap or are completely blended with the role of a propagandist. But these are completely different endeavors! A propagandist’s job is to formulate a certain point of view elegantly and defend against propaganda attacks by opponents, drawing the attention of one or another target audience. A diplomat’s job is to try to find a solution to even the most complicated problem, to bring the negotiating parties’ divergent positions closer together, and ideally to turn adversaries into partners. When diplomats become propagandists, even if they’re brilliant propagandists, they cease to be diplomats to some extent.

I might seem old-fashioned, but I’m not confident that diplomats’ effectiveness can be measured by their activity on social networks or their readiness to “fire back” at any irresponsible remarks aired on last night’s evening news or printed in a local tabloid.

There’s an old legend about the great violinist Niccolo Paganini: Just before one of his concerts, somebody filed down each of the four strings on his instrument. In the course of Paganini’s performance, the strings began breaking one after the other, and the virtuoso was forced to conclude his sonata by playing on a single string. Nonetheless, he played so well that nobody in the audience even noticed that the other three strings on the maestro’s violin had snapped.

Russian foreign policy is somewhat analogous to that legend. For various reasons, many of its strings had broken well before 2019 began, but in some cases, even performances executed with a single string have proven to be indubitably brilliant. This year, Russia’s share in the global economy continued to shrink, its level of technological development fell even further behind that of the world’s leading powers, and the pressure of international sanctions by no means decreased. In other words, the material foundation of Russia’s foreign policy has not gotten any stronger, to say the least. Despite that fact, Moscow’s foreign policy activity has not decreased, and Russia’s performance has continued to attract the rapt attention of allies and adversaries alike.

You have to give our diplomats their due: If success is defined as the ability to remain at the center of the world’s attention, then Russia’s foreign policy in 2019 has undoubtedly been successful. However, continuing to play on a single string does have certain unavoidable limitations.

Text by Andrey Kortunov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock and Hilah Kohen

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