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.
The past week in Russian foreign policy was marked by a search for ways to resolve the Syrian crisis. Complicating matters, of course, was the tragic crash of the Russian passenger jet in Egypt. Whether there is any connection between these two events is still uncertain. World leaders have been cautious when it comes to talking about a possibility of a terrorist attack and apparently are ready to cooperate with the Russian side in finding out the answer.
The Ukraine crisis is not a “thing unto itself,” but a reflection of the general post-Cold War crisis in European security and the affirmation of unipolarity, which Moscow rejects. Hence, a Donbass settlement cannot be limited to the withdrawal of heavy equipment and weapons. It needs to be part of the overall transformation of security in Europe.
The causes of this division lie deep in history. Independent Ukraine has existed within its present borders only for the past 22 years. The state was formed by the Bolsheviks from different cultural parts. Some had been ruled previously by Russia and others, mostly in the West, had been part of Poland for centuries. The people of these regions have completely different perceptions of national identity and history.
It seems to me that George Friedman’s geopolitical doctrine simplifies both the international reality and the liberal ideas of the American mainstream. Acceptance of the reality of the existing balance of powers, aspiration for preserving stability and guidance by the international law – these are the key ingredients in the realist policies recipe that the US still fail to manage.