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Russian Foreign Policy: Where Now?

Putin has recently published long articles in national newspapers that were meant to reveal his answer to the problems and questions that face Russia. His seventh and most recent piece was published in Moskovskie novosti in February, and was focused on Russian foreign policy. In the aftermath of his re-election this week, it is worth pausing to reflect on this document. What does it tell us about the future direction of Russian foreign policy? What can we expect from the new-old President’s approach?

During the Medvedev era, Russian foreign policy had a different tone than under Putin. Medvedev’s policies appeared softer and were perhaps more straightforward. Medvedev, for example, had stated that Russia’s short war with Georgia in 2008 had much to do with making sure that NATO was not expanding further into the territory of the former Soviet Union. He had also said that Russia wants more respect and, if she felt respected, would be an easier partner in world affairs. Medvedev also indicated on at least two occasions (in 2008 relating to the G8 joint declaration on Zimbabwe and in 2011 on events in Libya) that, in his view, multilateral interventions in the internal affairs of other countries should be decided on a case-by-case basis. This approach contrasted sharply with what might be called the ‘Lavrov view’, represented by Kremlin hawks (including Putin), that tries to fit every such case into the same framework of international law. As a lawyer, Medvedev seemed to have understood that international law is subject to different interpretations and there is not one single truth. And last but not least, for Medvedev relations with the United States were generally not problematic. In fact, it looked as though he actually enjoyed these interactions.

Having said this, a tougher Medvedev also exists. Medvedev’s guiding principle in foreign relations was the same one that is accepted by most Russians, whether the political elite or the man on the street. This view goes something like this: Russia was, is and always will be a Great Power and so she is entitled to make her own rules and influence world affairs.

Now, Putin is taking back foreign policy. His previous foreign policy lines were rather popular in Russia. Anti-Americanism, blaming outside forces for attempting to weaken Russia, images of Putin on the world stage and talk about the unique features of Russia all went down well. Four years later, things have changed. Yet, judging by Putin’s most recent article, his thinking has not.

Putin uses strong words like ‘missile-and-bomb democracy’, accuses the US and NATO of undermining international stability and views the Libya intervention as a mistake that should not be repeated in Syria. His article is full of almost conspiracy-theory speculations (with admittedly a few facts backing his arguments). Putin sees in the development of the Arab Spring an element that is targeted against Russia. In Putin’s view, Russian economic interests in Arab spring countries are being pushed aside. The soft power concept, in his words, is used as a pretext to ‘develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries’. Putin also points out that among NGOs there are, what he calls, ‘pseudo-NGOs’ that are trying to destabilise countries with the help of external forces. You can almost taste the hostile tone of the article. One can only wonder why and for what purpose Putin has chosen to adopt a tone like that.

Russia 2012, however, is different from Russia 2007, when we last heard and read similar ideas in Putin’s speeches. Many of us remember the Munich security conference speech in 2007 that sent a shock wave through the Western international community. In fact, some openly asked whether the ‘Cold War’ was back. Today, Russia has a middle class that is no longer afraid to speak out, and the level of public criticism of ‘Putinism’ is unprecedented. Russia is well positioned to be an influential player in world affairs, but only as long as the political elite accepts that some form of ‘soft power’ is needed to earn respect. Many aspects in Putin’s article are relevant and identify correct problems, but the tone of the article kills off all of its constructive elements. Putin’s way of blaming others, of exploiting the ressentiment approach of seeing foreign forces behind everything that goes wrong, is no longer popular among the Russian educated classes.

In short, it will be harder for him to rely on this line in modern Russia.


Hanna Smith, Researcher and expert in Russian foreign and security policy at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland

Published inElectionsInternational PoliticsRussiaRussia 2012

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