The text was originally published in Russian
Were there diplomacy championships in the world, our country would invariably be among prize winners. For despite the hardships of the last two decades and resource shortages, Russian foreign policy remains successful in achieving its strategic objectives.
It is not only about the present generation of Russian diplomats being especially different from their predecessors – there is quite a number of bright figures, though. Essentially, the modern Russian diplomacy is the fruit of experience of conflicts, negotiations and transitions between them, gained in the last several centuries. This experience, diverse as it is, is spread in the Russian multicomponent and complex society, but its blob can be found in the center of decision-making – in the Foreign Ministry, the Old Square, where the President Administration is situated, and in the Kremlin. As a rule, whoever it is in these offices, the general Russian strategy stays unchanged.
It has been three hundred years since the late 17th century, when Russia was shaped in its present borders (excluding the North Caucasus and Khabarovsk krai in the Far East). During this time, the Russian elites have formed an understanding of the country’s territorial depth and its historic place of the Eurasian dynamic kernel and a stabilizer.
The Russian model of assessing basic national interests developed into the concept of strategic depth.
Thus, historically, Britain’s main objective, for instance, was to prevent any counter-power from gaining control over the continental English Channel ports, whereas Russia’s objective consisted in creating buffer zones to ensure distance from its key opponents.
Unlike Britain, Russia still keeps to the buffer zone doctrine in its foreign policy. The fact is that Russia is not an ordinary European country. To quote an explicit remark by former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso: “Russia is a continent that pretends to be a country”. It is different from most of Western states by a number of objective characteristics.
Firstly, Russia is surrounded by fragile and weak states disposed to instability. Norway and Finland form the most secure part of the Russian national borders, meanwhile all the rest demand constant attention and control. The latter implies that bilateral relations with all the neighbours are under thorough analysis. This is why Russian tradition of international relations theory focuses on regional studies and developing empathy towards partners. Russian national schools of Oriental, Arab, Indian, Caucasus, American and European studies are advancing, and the Foreign Ministry leading university – MGIMO (Moscow State University of International Relations) – provides courses on 54 foreign languages, which is a world record.
Secondly, Russia’s international environment is poorly institutionalized and may be characterized as anarchic and archaic. With political and military tensions strongly affecting Russian border zone, hard security is far more important for Russia, than it is for the West. That makes it hard to imagine Russian membership in the EU or NATO, for Brussels would hardly compel itself to settle the Caucasus conflicts, or solve problems at the Russian-North Korean border, or curb Islamism and drug-trafficking coming from Afghanistan. No one will solve Russia’s security problem for it. Moreover, China is sure to be the first to ask what for and against whom Russia is joining NATO.
At the same time, ties between Russia and Western norms and institutions are rather unstable and vulnerable. And since the West is not the only neighbor to it, Russia cannot recognize it is an exclusively European state, although remaining a European power culturally.
Thirdly, Russia itself is not a typical Western state. The population density in Russia is considerably lower (8.6 per sq. km against 255 – in Britain and 130 – in Italy), distances are significantly longer, the climate is more severe and harvests are poorer. And the single social standard is to be kept from Maghadan to Kaliningrad across 11 time-zones. This makes the country fragile – management and marginal products manufacturing are difficult, and social changes happen at a low pace.
Hence, the continuous tensions between Russia and the West, which blames Moscow for not being European enough.
Indeed, Russia is not completely a European country and cannot surmount its un-European living conditions for the objective reasons. The West has difficulty understanding this, though – strangely enough. More importantly, the Russian historic experience is unique – it may not be transposed to other countries, because there are no other countries like Russia.
It is not only a drawback, but also an advantage. The country has everything it needs for further development. Which is why since the time of Petr Stolypin and Vladimir Lenin creating favourable external conditions for the country’s internal development has been the key objective of Russian foreign policy.
This maxim, which is still true, today means no intervention in conflicts that do not demand intervening. It worked for the past several years. Russia only intervenes in cases of emergency and only after all the other methods to ensure its interests and secure stability has proved inefficient (the post-Soviet conflicts in the early 1990s, the Georgian conflict 2008 and the Ukrainian conflict 2014). The range of conflicts with Russian participation could be much wider – Yugoslavia, later – Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Syria. Moscow’s policies in each of the cases demonstrate that the leadership correctly assesses the priorities of national interests away from the Russian borders.
Russian geography is unchanged, so are its external threats. Moscow has to keep a watchful eye on its borders’ stability in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Ukraine. At the same time, maintaining strategic parity with the US – which enables Russia to secure its full independence on the international stage – will continue to demand highest attention and require resources.
Finally, a vital objective is to replace the infrastructure left from the Soviet period with a new Russian one, with components alternative to the Baltic ports, Ukrainian pipelines and Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in Kazakhstan. Russia has been gradually reducing its dependence on the Soviet infrastructure objects on the territories of unfriendly states, and is interested to keep the ties until the moment it is ready to break them. In case of Ukraine, Russia has moved the Black Sea base to Novorossiysk, built pipelines through the Baltic and Black Seas, transferred the state military order to national plants and encouraged Russian migration. After Crimea joined Russia, there is only one external significant interest for Russia, which in case of violation will make Moscow intervene – it is a threat to Russian communities in the post-Soviet space.
The present international conditions create new obstacles for Russian foreign policy. The strategic depth concept does not work as well as it used to, when control over buffer-states did not require much attention to its home politics.
This was the fault of the Russian strategy in Ukraine – Moscow had not treated the internal political dynamic in the country with due attention and had focused exclusively on relations with the authorities in office. The space of the modern Europe is clotting, strategic depth is fading away and partners-opponents are at the front door.
To escape confrontation and revive its role of the Eurasian dynamic kernel peacefully, it is important that Russia follows the motives and logic in policies of both its rivals and buffer states on its periphery.
My observations in Washington prove that this is not an immediate objective for the US yet. However, it does not mean, that the Americans will refrain from an opportunity to speed up the fall of the Russian regime if the internal problems cause a social upheaval. Having met with the White House, National Security Council and Pentagon officials, as well as experts on Russia in Washington, I may conclude that the US has certain difficulties formulating a single consistent policy towards Moscow and is, therefore, incapable of conspiring against it.
Although coping with sanctions, plummeting oil prices and a devalued ruble is challenging, it is paramount that Russian leaders continue to spend time and energy to address the economy’s structural problems and give it a new focus. That is the path to creating an economy that is stronger, more efficient and more flexible in the years to come.
The key question for Russia is whether the Operation Atlantic Resolve will become the start of permanent stationing of American and NATO forces in the countries of former Warsaw Pact and the post-Soviet space. Moscow insists that its security needs be taken into account, whereas the American leadership believes that the motives of Russia stem from “misinterpretations and outdated thinking”.
This appointment has almost no implications for the US military strategy like all the previous appointments in the last 20 years. Irrespective of who holds the position of the Defence Secretary, the US remains a naval power, whose continental territories will remain immune to opponents at least till 2050.