Russian foreign policy: Focusing on Asia
Valdaiclub.com interview with Alexei Fenenko, Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.
How will Russian foreign policy change following the presidential elections? In his article, Vladimir Putin excoriates the foreign policy pursued by the West, and the United States in particular. Do you not think that this is blatantly inconsistent with the declared U.S.-Russia reset policy, which was among geopolitical priorities pursued by Dmitry Medvedev?
I wouldn’t agree with the way the question is framed, which implies that “Putin’s trend” is at variance with “Medvedev’s trend.” The first mention of the U.S.-Russia reset policy crisis dates back to mid-2010, during the height of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency. The first year and a half of the reset policy can be loosely considered a success. Moscow and Washington decreased tensions around Georgia, expanded cooperation in Afghanistan and signed the START-III Treaty. However, the situation turned around after the Obama-Medvedev summit on June 24, 2010. The presidents failed to reach an agreement on key issues, such as anti-missile defense, reforming the European security system and repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment. The points of contradiction continued to increase in 2011.
The reset policy was designed to address two issues: first, to mitigate the risk of a military conflict between Russia and the U.S., which became very likely during the five-day war in South Ossetia in 2008; and second, to work out new rules for strategic armaments oversight at a time when the START-I Treaty (1991) was nearing expiration and SORT (2002) expiring in 2012. Both issues were resolved in the middle of 2010.
The article by Vladimir Putin in Moskovskiye Novosti (Moscow News) sums up the 2011 results. The Russian prime minister stated that the reset project was completed. U.S.-Russia relations are back to square one.
What does ‘square one’ mean for the U.S.-Russian relations? Does it consist of confrontation and tough rhetoric? What will relations between Russia and the United States be like?
U.S.-Russian relations are doomed to remain in the conflict zone in the foreseeable future. The issue concerns whether or not Moscow and Washington are able to manage this conflict.
First, similar to relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, U.S.-Russian relations are based on mutual nuclear deterrence.
Second, the United States sees Russia as an obstacle on the path toward American leadership. Russia is the only country in the world that is technologically capable of destroying the United States or waging war against it using comparable weaponry – hence Washington’s desire to diminish Russia’s resources. Back in 1994, Bill Clinton’s administration formulated priorities of the U.S. policy regarding Russia, including, first, reducing Russia’s strategic capability and, second, providing access to privatization of the Russian fuel-and-energy complex for U.S. companies. These priorities haven’t changed since then.
Third, Russia is unreceptive to the idea of American leadership. Russia denies U.S. concepts of “expanding democracy,” “humanitarian intervention,” or “regime change.” However, they form the ideological basis for the U.S. leadership. Russia and China stand for the inviolability of sovereignty, whereas the United States, conversely, insists on the acceptability of foreign intervention in other countries’ affairs.
Fourth, Russia and the United States see the future of international institutions differently. The Americans believe that the UN, as a legacy of the Yalta-Potsdam system, should be reformed or replaced with another institution, such as a League of Democracies. Russia is an advocate of the institutions established after WWII.
Fifth, the threshold for the use of force in U.S.-Russian relations is becoming lower. A war between Russia and the United States was technologically impracticable during the Cold War, with the exception of an irrational scenario involving an exchange of nuclear strikes. Today’s U.S. strategic concepts postulate new types or war, such as (1) punishing an unwelcome regime; (2) disarming a “dangerous” state; and (3) forced democratization of a failed state. The Russian elite fears that Washington may apply these concepts to Russia provided certain circumstances are in place.
Next year will be a more challenging year than the previous one for Russian foreign policy. The United States, and possibly EU countries, will attempt to probe into the positions of the newly-elected president to see whether he’s ready to yield ground. The best way to do so is to create several manageable crises and watch the reaction of Russian leaders.
The situation is further complicated by a psychological element. After September 24, the U.S. media and, in some cases, the Obama administration, said too many unflattering words about the Russian government, the United Russia party and Vladimir Putin personally. This earlier rhetoric will leave a bitter aftertaste in future relations between Russia’s newly elected president and the current U.S. administration.
The situation may change after the presidential elections in the U.S. If a Republican candidate is elected, the White House is very likely to open a dialogue with the Kremlin on issues related to arms control and the war on terrorism. Vladimir Putin is better suited to working with Republicans than Democrats. A Republican candidate would not carry any of this negative psychological baggage in his relations with Vladimir Putin. Still, fundamental contradictions between Russia and the U.S. will persist.
In 2010, many experts and politicians hoped to see START III expand to include other nuclear club members. Does this treaty have the potential to expand geographically and toughen requirements with regard to its members?
Without the participation of other nuclear powers in the negotiation process, Russia and the United States are unlikely to make further reductions in their strategic offensive arms.
The British problem remains a priority for Russia. Since 1962, the British nuclear capability has been a part of the U.S. nuclear planning system. Washington is able to bypass the limits imposed by START III by launching strategic nuclear forces programs in conjunction with London. Great Britain and France did not participate in the U.S.-Russian INF Treaty of 1987. Both Britain and France are able to resume the manufacture of medium-range missiles and land-based cruise missiles by launching their respective programs in collaboration with the United States. Therefore, Russia needs, first, guarantees that the strategic nuclear forces of Britain will not be increased, and second, that London and Paris will not resume the manufacture of medium-range missiles.
The United States is focused on tactical nuclear weapons reduction in Europe. Currently, Russia enjoys a quantitative supremacy in this class of weapons in Europe. However, a tactical nuclear weapons reduction is the only way for Moscow to offset NATO’s supremacy in conventional weapons. Therefore, Russia is not prepared to cut its tactical nuclear weapons in the near future.
The “German issue” revives the discussion about tactical nuclear weapons cuts. In 2009, Berlin started to feel out the issue of the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Germany. In response, the United States pressured the NATO Tallinn summit (April 2010) to adopt a formula whereby issues related to the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would become the prerogative right of the entire alliance. This was no accident. Up until now, the victorious powers have not signed a peaceful treaty with Germany. How will Germany's loss of U.S. nuclear guarantees affect its military policy?
The odds that China will join the negotiation process are slim. Chinese strategic nuclear forces are small in number and have a limited counterforce capability. The situation is aggravated by the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defense system in the Pacific and the establishment by Japan of its own anti-missile defense system with the help of the United States. Beijing is trying to keep its hands untied.
Are any changes in the format of NATO-Russia relations expected to take place since the breakthrough ideas proposed by Russia at the NATO Lisbon summit, with an eye toward shaping a new European security architecture, have been met with a fair amount of indifference by politicians in Europe?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the NATO Lisbon summit was a “breakthrough” event. It was an attempt on behalf of Russia and the United States to save START III. By late 2010, Moscow and Washington had their differences with regard to the preamble of this document. Russia insisted that START III imposed limits on the deployment of the anti-missile defense system, while the United States maintained that such limitations didn’t exist, which threatened the ratification of the treaty. Therefore, the two sides worked out a formula in Lisbon whereby the anti-missile defense issue would be addressed by Russia and NATO under the European missile defense arrangements.
The situation involving European security is more complicated. As can be seen from official statements, Moscow is disillusioned with OSCE, which has become excessively bureaucratized and does not discuss strategically important issues. Russia calls for the establishment of a new forum for negotiations that will be capable of bringing about solutions to real problems. Launching the Euro-Atlantic security initiative is a step toward finding an alternative solution.
Nevertheless, Russian initiatives in the sphere of European security are met with suspicion in the United States. The White House fears that Moscow is trying to undermine the U.S. security guarantees system with regard to its NATO allies. Putin’s return to the Kremlin with his traditionally strong contacts in Germany would increase concerns in Washington.
Is it possible that discussions around Europe’s missile defense system will become even more intense? Can we expect the dialogue about this issue to receive a new impetus? What stance will Russia adopt and will it toughen the measures announced by President Medvedev in November 2011?
The odds are slim that the parties will agree on the missile defense system. A powerful lobby of politicians, members of the military and government officials has formed in the U.S. and their careers depend on the missile defense system being deployed. Major contracts for the development of anti-missile systems have been awarded to leading U.S. corporations. The infrastructure for a future missile defense system is being developed. The Americans don’t see the concession that they could get from Russia for agreeing to put limits on the missile defense system.
The irony is that neither Russia nor the United States needs a new missile defense system agreement, since the enactment of previous agreements would be quite sufficient. Back in 1992, Moscow and the U.S. launched the RAMOS program. In 1997, presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton signed the Helsinki Joint Statement Concerning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty/TMD. Also in 1997, the parties signed a New York Protocol to START II on the demarcation of strategic and tactical missile defense systems. The Memorandum of Agreement between the United States and Russia on the Establishment of a Joint Center for the Exchange of Data from Early Warning Systems and Notifications of Missile Launches was signed in 2000. The Moscow Declaration of May 24, 2002 introduced a mechanism for mandatory consultations between Russia and the United States on issues related to the missile defense system deployment. If all these documents come into effect, then Russia and the U.S. will have “insurance mechanisms.” However, over the course of the past twenty years, Moscow and Washington have failed to reach a working missile defense agreement.
In all likelihood, Russia will move to a limited demonstration of force while keeping the door open for continued negotiations with Washington. Withdrawal from START III or the INF Treaty is a measure of last resort. Russia’s withdrawal from CTBT and a revival of the program of natural nuclear tests is more likely. Moscow could also revise its 1992 commitment not to keep its tactical nuclear weapons operationally deployed near its western borders. The Russian elite has the increasingly strong sense that the U.S. missile defense system is a necessary evil and that Russia needs to make itself safe through a military response.
How will Russia’s relations with Middle Eastern countries change? What will Russia’s strategy be in the Arab world, and will there be any changes in its relations with Iran and Turkey?
American experts often assert that Russia is interested in a big war in the Middle East in order to maintain high oil prices. However, aside from these dubious advantages, this conflict would give rise to long-term negative consequences. Russia would face exports of radical jihadism to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Therefore, Moscow is more interested in maintaining the status quo in the Arab world.
The U.S. project for democratization of the Greater Middle East is a cause for concern for Russia. The project provides for toppling authoritarian, but secular regimes. Moscow still recalls the Iranian Revolution of 1979, where the pro-Western shah and liberal governments of Bakhtiar and Bazargan were replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini – hence Russia’s concerns about the Western stance regarding the Arab Spring that unseated secular regimes. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and even Saudi Arabia clearly show the increasing influence of radical Salafi groups.
The situation is further aggravated by the intervention of great powers. The war in Libya was the first since the 1956 military operation, with the leading role played by Great Britain and France rather than the United States. Now, London and Paris are trying to follow up their success with a similar operation in Syria. The United States supports their aspirations, since the European Union, led by France and Britain, meets Washington’s interests better than the one led by France and Germany. However, Russia is concerned by such prospects, because they are in opposition to the concept of the “regime change,” and it fears that Syria may become a “Big Lebanon” or even another Afghanistan. Russia’s stance with regard to Syria is unlikely to change after the presidential elections.
Since 2005, experts have been talking about the emerging Russian-Turkish partnership, ranging from rapidly-growing economic ties to the protection of the Bosporus and Dardanelles status. This status was called into question by Romania’s and Bulgaria’s accession to NATO. But relations between Russia and Turkey may be put to the test. After the Armenian-Turkish relations failed to normalize in the fall of 2009, Ankara resumed its unilateral support of Azerbaijan in the controversial issue of Karabakh. Conversely, Armenia is Russia’s CSTO ally. The aggravation of the Karabakh crisis may harm Russia's relationship with Turkey. Steps jointly taken by Moscow and Ankara to resolve the Karabakh problem could help them avoid a split.
The Iranian issue is of global rather than regional importance for Russia. Moscow sees it as the formation on the part of the United States of a strategy for the forced disarmament of dangerous (from the perspective of Washington) regimes. This includes a military operation against Iraq allegedly conducted to remove WMD from Saddam Hussein; demanding that Iran scrap its uranium enrichment programs; projects to denuclearize North Korea under the supervision of the IEAE or the five-power commission; admission of U.S. experts to control the Pakistani nuclear arsenal; and the dubious U.S.-Indian agreements for the peaceful use of atomic energy. Will the United States try to apply the same approaches to Russia? These concerns prompt Russia to do all it can to prevent the precedent of the forcible disarmament of Iran.
What model will be used in building relations between Russia, China and other Asian states? Will Russia be able to enter the Asian Pacific Region as a full-fledged partner and decision maker?
Russian experts are becoming increasingly supportive of the idea of Russia focusing on Asia. More and more often, political scientists can be heard in informal conversations saying: “What is Europe? Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia? Or Germany with its incompletely restored sovereignty? What about Asia? Asia is all about China, India, Japan and ASEAN.” These are extreme points of view. However, Asia, which contains two-thirds of Russia’s territory, is a strong point of attraction.
Russia’s policy in the Pacific region is based on its relations with China. This policy is based on a set of agreements, of which the most important are the Moscow Declaration on a Multipolar World (1997) and the Russian-Chinese “big treaty” of 2001. The latter provides for (1) the formation of a common political course; (2) commitments close to those of allies; and (3) maintaining regular political consultations on key international issues. These treaties had two functions: to provide final settlement to border disputes between Russia and China and to develop common steps to restrain American leadership. Now, relations between Russia and China are bolstered by an economic foundation ranging from building the ESPO pipeline to consultations about Chinese business policies in the Russian Far East.
Liberal experts criticize Russia’s policy in Asia for being excessively pro-China. However, all Russia’s attempts to diversify its policy in the Asian Pacific Region have failed so far. Japan is reluctant to maintain a dialogue because of the Northern Territories problem. The Republic of Korea is too dependent on the United States in the military sphere. In 2004, Russia signed a set of cooperation documents with ASEAN. However, Russia has not signed any agreements on free trade with any ASEAN country and is not a member of the East Asia Summit. Russia is conducting negotiations on the establishment of a free trade regime with New Zealand, but the latter’s policy is a cause of concern to ASEAN members, which breeds suspicions with regard to Russia.
The Obama administration was hypothetically supportive of integration projects in the Pacific, ranging from the development of investment projects in the Far East to the resumption of the energy dialogue. The concept of a Northern alternative to ASEAN, including the United States, Canada, the Republic of Korea and possibly Japan, developed by Brooking University, was used as a theoretical basis for such projects. While very appealing, this project causes concern in Moscow. First, it’s not clear what Beijing will say about this project. Second, the United States wants to establish direct contacts with the Far East. Moscow is well aware of the nostalgia surrounding the Far Eastern Republic of the early 1920s, nurtured by some U.S. experts…
This is where dual attitude toward APEC comes from, as the only organization representing Russia in the Asian Pacific Region. However, the importance of APEC is dwindling. The Bogor goals of 1994 have not been attained so far. Russia is also concerned about excessive acceleration of integration processes in APEC for fear of losing control over migration flows from China and the dubious position adopted by Washington with regard to Russia’s Far East. Hypothetically, Russia would seek to gain from the establishment of a powerful economic center in its Asian part, which would integrate with APEC. Practically, this may weaken Moscow’s control over Russia’s Far East.
The new Russian president will be confronted with complex tasks in the Asian Pacific Region. Moscow will need to preserve good relations with China, find an economic counterbalance to influential Chinese businesses in the Far East and expand its trade relations with ASEAN. The main thing is to avoid having to choose between the US and China amid mounting U.S.-China contradictions.
Is Russia prepared to join the Asia Pacific Region as part of the Eurasian Union announced by Vladimir Putin in his October 2011 article in Izvestia? Many observers mentioned that the Eurasian Union may become Russia’s foreign policy priority, but in his February article on foreign policy Putin mentioned neither the Eurasian Union, nor the existing Common Economic Space.
I don’t think that this was an accident. The Eurasian Union at the moment is no more than an ephemeral integration project, without any specific details. Russian leaders remember failed talks about the plan for the Common Economic Space and the difficulties involved in establishing the Customs Union. If Russia discloses details involved in building the Eurasian Union now, it risks complicating future talks. First, Moscow will hold consultations with its EurAsEC partners.
Ukraine’s stance may become genuine intrigue during the negotiations. Kiev has been the one to block integration processes in the CIS over the course of the past twenty years. After signing the Kharkov agreements in 2010, Moscow rekindled its hope for linking Ukraine, albeit in a limited manner, to integration with former Soviet republics. Perhaps talks on a Eurasian Union will become a trial balloon for Russia’s attempts to revive the Ukrainian elite’s interest in the CIS.
Central Asia represents another issue among growing U.S. foreign policy activities. After establishing military bases in 2001, the G.W. Bush administration asked for observer status at the SCO, which resulted in major frictions between Uzbekistan and other SCO members. The breach of relations between the United States and Uzbekistan in 2005 objectively led to the strengthening of SCO and CSTO. However, the Obama administration increased its foreign policy activities in Central Asia, which reached a climax when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the region in October 2011. As in 2002, Washington is requesting SCO partner status. The dialogue between Washington and Tashkent and possibly Astana behind Moscow’s back may hinder the implementation of the Eurasian Union project.
Will Russia be ready to reset its relations with Georgia?
Russian-Georgian relations have long since ceased to be bilateral relations, becoming instead part of Russian-American relations given a high level of reliance of the Georgian elite on the U.S. For the Americans, Georgia is an ideal spot for creating a manageable crisis for the Kremlin. The goals pursued by staging such a crisis include testing Russia’s readiness to use force outside of Russia and watching the Russian president act under the pressure of a conflict. For Russia, Georgia is a prospective base for a U.S. military presence on the former territory of the USSR. Russian leaders are also concerned that Washington and Brussels may use Georgia to destabilize the Northern Caucasus.
One should not rule out the scenario in which contradictions around Georgia will be used by the Obama administration within the next few months to test the strength of the new Russian leaders.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.