Russia’s Foreign Policy: Strategic Genius or Grand Delusions?

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

Recently, Russia has wrong-footed the West with foreign policy initiatives that seem to give it success to the detriment of Western power and influence, whilst the West appears impotent to stop it. From the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and army support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, to the military intervention in Syria begun on the 30th of September, Russia seems to be able to outmanoeuvre its rivals and achieve many of its goals at the expense of the West.

But what are the foreign and domestic policy motivations behind such initiatives? And is Putin really a master strategist always one step ahead of his geopolitical rivals, or is he simply opportunistically grabbing at situations without thought for the long-term consequences?

Although Russia’s foreign policy can seem antagonistic and expansionary from a Western perspective, within Russia there is a strong feeling of having been hemmed in by the West over the last 25 years and forced on the defensive. For example, NATO expansion since 1990 and EU initiatives to court states in Eastern Europe – traditionally seen by Russia as within her sphere of influence – seem very threatening when viewed from Russia. Likewise, the steady removal of Russia’s Middle Eastern allies – Saddam Hussein in 2003, Gaddafi in 2011, and now the beginnings of a potential embrace of Iran by the West – would be for any country a development of great concern. Thus, one must be mindful to see Russian foreign policy through Russian eyes. It is a debate for another time the extent to which there is justification in this view of Western foreign policy, but the Russian point of view must be understood in order to accurately assess the intentions and motivations of the Russian leadership.

Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has caused much concern in the West – MARIAJONA, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has caused much concern in the West – MARIAJONA, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

One primary foreign policy motivation for Russia’s actions in both Ukraine and Syria has been to preserve Russian influence in these countries. By early 2014, Ukraine – previously under a pro-Russian president – looked to be pivoting towards the EU. Likewise, by autumn 2015, the pro-Russian Assad was seriously losing ground in the Syrian civil war. Already imbued with a mindset of being hemmed in by the West, it is not surprising that Russia desired to intervene in order to retain the political and economic benefits of influence and friendly leaders in these countries. Furthermore, the Russian leadership would have feared for Russia’s important naval bases in both countries – Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine, and Tartus in Syria.

A wider foreign policy motivation for Russian actions, outside of Ukraine and Syria specifically, is the desire to regain the influence associated with being seen as a great power. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a vastly diminished international voice. By inserting Russia into crises, creating calculated escalations, or acting in a seemingly unpredictable manner, Putin will hope to demonstrate that Russia is a genuine power whose interests must be taken into account in any crisis – not just those in which there is extant Russian involvement. Again, Putin and most of Russia’s elite perceive the last 25 years as a series of steady setbacks to Russia’s power and strategic situation. Attempting to secure a place at international negotiating tables in order to prevent this from continuing is not in itself surprising.

In addition to foreign policy motivations, there are domestic policy considerations behind Russia’s recent behaviour. A combination of low oil price and sanctions has badly damaged the Russian economy, meaning the population is facing worsening economic conditions and far higher prices for imports, including many foodstuffs. Putin’s social contract with the Russian population – their toleration of authoritarianism in return for economic prosperity – is endangered. Therefore, much of Putin’s foreign policy – especially post-Ukraine, since it was at this time that the Russian economy started to severely worsen – is for his domestic audience, and aimed at keeping his hold on power. His means of achieving this are to try and present Russia as an indispensable great power, and in doing so rewrite the social contract into one of toleration of Putin’s authoritarianism in return for his resurrection of Russian dignity and great power status.

To what extent is Putin’s foreign policy achieving these goals? In the short term, Putin seems to have accomplished a lot in the foreign policy sphere. Crimea has been annexed and the naval base at Sevastopol secured, although a wider prevention of Ukraine pivoting towards Europe looks to have failed. Russia is now an indispensable party in any negotiated settlement over Syria’s future. There have been a score of moments of Russia ‘one-upping’ the West, and Russia is appearing a ‘mover and shaker’ of the world again.

 A Russian Su-24 attack aircraft, laden with bombs, takes off on a combat mission over Syria –, licensed under CC BY 4.0

A Russian Su-24 attack aircraft, carrying four bombs, takes off on a combat mission somewhere in Syria –, licensed under CC BY 4.0

However, to focus on short-term tactical successes misses the wider strategic situation. Russia is now diplomatically isolated from the West, and facing more economic hardship. The Western powers are playing a long-term game with their sanctions, and it is not clear that Russia has the economic and political power to emerge unscathed. Although appearing as a great power right now, Russia does not have the economic capacity to keep up this impression indefinitely in the face of a hostile international environment. Russia may have achieved limited goals in Ukraine and ensured a seat at the negotiating table over Syria’s future, but it has sacrificed a lot of diplomatic capital and international goodwill. With such a loss of diplomatic capital, Russia’s ability to affect future international crises in its favour is diminished, and military intervention of the kind in Syria and Ukraine is expensive and not always possible as an alternative. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the current intervention in Syria will not simply drag Russia into a costly and drawn-out conflict (which to some extent is now the situation in Eastern Ukraine).

In terms of domestic policy goals, more seems to have been achieved (for now at least). Putin seems currently highly secure, with a record 89% public approval rating recorded in June. The annexation of Crimea was hugely popular, and television images of the war in Eastern Ukraine, and now air strikes in Syria, are playing well with the Russian public. The sanctions have united the public behind Putin as they feel persecuted by the West, and have had the added effect of providing a scapegoat for the economic consequences of the falling oil price. However, the worst of Russia’s economic situation is only just beginning to reach the population, so it remains to be seen whether the Russian media machine is able to keep the blame on the West, rather than on Russian policy and Putin himself. Likewise, if the Syrian intervention proves indecisive, as the Eastern Ukraine conflict currently seems to be, then Putin may require more posturing or foreign adventure to keep domestic support high.

Russian foreign policy is by no means irrational. It follows clear foreign policy goals, and has the additional clear domestic goal of Putin aiming to bolster his public support. However, Putin appears to be acting highly opportunistically, and is either valuing his own domestic support above Russia’s goals in general (not at all an uncommon scenario for an autocratic leader) or has failed to consider the long term implications of his actions before taking them – or, most likely, a bit of both. The result is that a multitude of Russian tactical successes can dazzle the West, and us as observers, but the long-term prognosis for Russia is decidedly less rosy. However, between now and the long-term a lot can happen, and Putin has proven himself highly capable of opportunistic tactical successes. With parliamentary elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2018, and the Russian economic situation set to worsen, one should not be surprised by more foreign policy initiatives to come – initiatives that may obscure Russia’s worsening strategic outlook for some time.


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