Three Fronts of Russian Foreign Policy

The past month in foreign policy was an eventful one and highlighted three crises that are emerging as constants or main fronts in Russian foreign policy, namely, the American, the Syrian and the Ukrainian.

The frenzy surrounding the latest round of sanctions somewhat subsided in the United States when it became clear that Congress will not have enough time to enact them before the congressional election due in November. The Russia-Israel crisis caused by a dangerous maneuver of Israeli forces near the fated Russian Il-20 aircraft underscored the fragility of the international framework for ending the conflict in Syria and forced Russia to close Syrian airspace to the Israeli Air Force. Finally, the presidential election in Ukraine is fast approaching, and the campaign is entering a critical phase, which means even more instability lies ahead.

That the encouraging agreements reached during the Helsinki summit did not lead to sustainable momentum is a failure for Russia-US relations. By all accounts, President Trump’s healthy instincts have been sabotaged by the US establishment of mid-level officials and even some members of the administration. In fact, we are dealing with the most massively disorganized period in the foreign policy process in Washington. The United States has ceased to speak in a coherent voice. The fact that an agreement has been reached with Trump does not mean that it will be accepted by the establishment. Meanwhile, individual members of the administration are exhibiting a kind of teenage maximalism. The most recent symptom includes US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments about blocking the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. However, the Americans are not seeking a protracted crisis, let alone a military conflict. The US has no strategy for Russia. It has only sanctions. And yet many are saying that in the future the United States will need Russia to confront China, even though no one knows how to talk Russia into doing so. But overall, by becoming an issue in the US domestic political debate, Russia is sure to have a harder time normalizing bilateral relations. Disputes of a strategic nature between Russia and the United States, even outside the context of the current political crisis, remain insurmountable. However, rule-based competition between them is quite possible.

Compounding the difficulties are the countries’ asymmetrical perceptions of each other. Russia underestimates the extent to which United States is still reeling from the shock of Russia’s alleged election "meddling." Many believe it constitutes an act of war. For its part, the United States underestimates the ramifications of the sanctions. Moscow increasingly believes that sanctions are not just an impulsive attempt to send a message to knock off the interference, but the continuation of the classical American policy of seeking to contain and crush Russia.

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What is happening in Russia-US relations is not a new Cold War. Nonetheless, the exchange of political and military signals between the parties is heating up. Provocations, sabotage and compromising information campaigns are gaining momentum, as demonstrated by the developments around Aleppo and Idlib, the chemical attacks in Syria, the Skripal provocation, sabotage of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline and the situation in Ukraine.

The presidential campaign in Ukraine could once again become an international problem. Key international actors in the Ukraine crisis cannot come up with a common plan, though there is no threat of a full-scale clash between them, either. The main dynamics and potential surprises in the Ukraine crisis are going to be determined by domestic politics in Ukraine. The local elites have learned to manipulate the American factor and encourage the US to take symbolic steps for their own benefit even as they try to curry favor with US and seek its approval. However, the US is not ready to underwrite Ukraine’s security, limiting itself to the bare minimum of politically required steps, such as transferring two decommissioned Coast Guard boats or limited supplies of anti-tank guided missiles already available in Ukraine.

The situation in Ukraine is deteriorating. President Poroshenko is gradually losing power. He has turned several groups of oligarchs against him and is fanning ethnic and religious tensions, all of which is aggravated by the turbulent economy and increasing social pessimism. A win by Yulia Tymoshenko in the upcoming presidential election is possible but not guaranteed, even though current presidents in some CIS countries have managed to win with even lower ratings. At the same time, should elections produce radical change, tensions in Russia-Ukraine relations may subside.

The civil war in Syria is gradually drawing to an end and the search for political and international balance is underway. Unlike Ukraine, where consensus among external powers is non-existent, here the external framework is close to completion. This international construct is based on cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran; Russia and Israel; and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The agenda includes a program for rebuilding Syria with the participation of the West and the Gulf monarchies. Clearly, Germany has reconciled itself to the prospect of Bashar al-Assad staying in power and is willing to discuss its role in the reconstruction of Syria to prevent a new wave of migration. Berlin is relying here on its experience of migration cooperation with Turkey which makes it possible to put ideology aside. The Arab front remains the most complicated. Saudi Arabia continues to sabotage the Syrian peace process and, in conjunction with the United States, is trying to strengthen its bargaining positions by continuing to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition.

In the face of these three fronts, Russia still needs to stay the course on strategic autonomy and retain its freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. However, Russia has managed to dodge the most damaging blows of the powerful information campaigns it confronts. Clearly, information has become a key theater of the international confrontation given that kinetic means are not available. The fight for the hearts and minds of the skeptical international public requires a special skill set, including finely honed communication skills. This is quite possibly the most difficult challenge facing Russia today.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.