Just a few days after the approval of the new Concept, it is still too early to talk about how effectively and comprehensively it will determine Russia’s real foreign policy line. Today it seems more appropriate to consider it primarily from a structural and semantic point of view, and to compare it in this respect with the previous, 2016 version of the document, as well as with the 2013 Concept that was in force before it, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
On March 31, 2023, a new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation was approved. It replaced the previous version of the Concept, which had been in force since 2016. Naturally, the current geopolitical developments have radically changed both the entire balance of power in international relations and Russia’s stance in global politics. Therefore, the previous conceptual document, adopted in a completely different era, had ceased to reflect modern realities and, obviously, needed to be replaced. Although it is worth noting that the 2016 Concept was also adopted after the Crimean reunification, when relations between Russia and the West ceased to be rosy.
Naturally, now, just a few days after the approval of the new Concept, it is still too early to talk about how effectively and comprehensively it will determine Russia’s real foreign policy line. This, of course, takes time. Therefore, today it seems more appropriate to consider it primarily from a structural and semantic point of view, and to compare it in this respect with the previous, 2016 version of the document, as well as with the 2013 Concept that was in force before it. Let us recall that the Valdai Discussion Club has referred to the semantic analysis of foreign policy in its expert work.
First of all, from this point of view, it should be noted that now the introductory section of the Concept appears to be much more detailed and elaborate. In the 2016 version, it highlighted only the main tasks for the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. Incidentally, in the previous iteration, the Concept of 2013, main goals are highlighted instead of main tasks, despite the fact that the wording of many goals in the 2013 version is identical or similar to the wording of the tasks in the 2016 version. It may seem that the word “goals” was simply replaced with the word “tasks”, and that the content was left approximately the same. In the new version for 2023, the situation is different: first, the national interests of Russia are defined, then, on their basis, the strategic goals of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation are formulated. Only then are the main tasks stated. Thus, in the current version of the Concept, the structure receives a tripartite hierarchical system: interests-goals-tasks. Naturally, this looks more correct both from a theoretical and a logical point of view.
Further, the next large section in the 2023 Concept is titled “Priority Directions for the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation”. This heading is similar to the 2016 version: “The Russian Federation’s Priorities in Solving Global Problems” (and similar wording in the 2013 version). As for the priorities themselves, for all the substantive difference in their description, due to the various realities of 2013, 2016 and 2023, the listing of their wordings is structurally and semantically quite similar. In the 2013 and 2016 versions, they are practically the same. The current, 2023 version defines the main priorities either using the same wording as before: “the formation of a just and sustainable world order”, “the rule of law in international relations”, “information support for the foreign policy activities of the Russian Federation”, or in similar terms: “strengthening international peace and security” now instead of “strengthening international security” before, and “international humanitarian cooperation” now instead of “international humanitarian cooperation and human rights” before. Some of the 2016 priorities are now divided into several ones. Thus, in the 2016 version, “international economic and environmental cooperation of the Russian Federation” is indicated as a single priority. Now, the economy and the environment are separate priorities: “international economic cooperation and international development assistance” and “environmental protection and global healthcare”. After Covid-19, of course, healthcare was also among the priorities, in this case being structurally integrated with environmental protection.
There are only two fundamentally new priorities listed as topics in the current, 2023 version which were not previously singled out separately: “ensuring the interests of the Russian Federation in the oceans, outer space and airspace” and, which is most interesting in the current situation, “protecting Russian citizens and organisations from illegal foreign encroachments, support for compatriots living abroad, and international cooperation in the field of human rights”. As one can see, in the current version, human rights were combined into one priority with the protection of citizens from encroachment.
More indicative are the structural and semantic differences between the current Concept and the previous ones in the section on regional priorities of the Russian foreign policy. First of all, the listed order of priority regions has changed. As part of the symbolic interpretation of conceptual texts, one can see the opinion that the higher a particular region is in this enumeration, the more significant it is in real politics. It is clear that a counterargument can also be used: that all this is reminiscent of the Western Cold War-era “Kremlinology”, with an analysis of which of the members of the Politburo stood on the podium of Lenin’s Mausoleum. It’s understandable, but still exists in any way.
First of all, it should be noted that in the Concepts of 2013 and 2016, the regional priorities were not singled out as separate subsections; they were in continuous text in the enumeration of paragraphs one after another. Their order in these concepts was also similar: CIS, Euro-Atlantic region, Arctic, Antarctic, Asia-Pacific, Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa. As we can see, Crimea, the Donbass and the first sanctions did not lower the Euro-Atlantic area in its placement of regional priorities. Now the situation is different. First of all, individual regions of the world are structurally highlighted as subheadings in this section. Their order and wording look like this: “Near Abroad”, “Arctic”, “Eurasian Continent. People’s Republic of China, Republic of India”, “Asia-Pacific”, “Islamic World”, “Africa”, “Latin America and the Caribbean”, “European Region”, “USA and other Anglo-Saxon States”, “Antarctic”.
Thus, we see, first, two new terms that were absent in the Concepts of 2013 and 2016. One, however, is an old-new term: “Near Abroad”. It was actively used in Russia in the 1990s, but then it largely fell into disuse, at least from official circulation. To a certain extent, this was also due to the fact that this term sometimes met with a negative and irritated perception on the part of Russia’s partners in the CIS, since, from their point of view, semantically, one could see in it a certain emphasis on their inferiority as sovereign states. In Russia, this term most often did not entail such deep semantic connotations. In general, from the start, this term was used less and less, partly in order to avoid irritating partners. We repeat, it was not mentioned in the Concepts of 2013 and 2016. Now it has returned to the official concept document. By default, in such documents nothing changes by chance. This means that the return to this term was deliberate and can be semantically read as a kind of signal or hint for other countries in the region and in the world.
Another new term is “Anglo-Saxon states”. In the post-February 2022 reality, we saw how the term increasingly ceased to be used exclusively by informal patriotic groups and began to be used in the statements of official representatives of the Russian Federation. Now this term has been introduced into the basic concept document. This again, by default, implies its use in all other foreign policy documents of the Russian Federation.
As for the order in which the regions are listed, the current geopolitics has also made its own adjustments. Europe and the Anglo-Saxon states have sunk almost to the very bottom of the list. Africa has risen and is now ahead of Latin America. Separately from the Asia-Pacific, the Eurasian continent with China and India is singled out and placed ahead of it. The Middle East is reformulated as the Islamic world, but is still placed behind the Asia-Pacific region. Antarctica, which used to follow the Arctic at the top of the list, is now the last one.
Another aspect that is sometimes imbued with symbolic meaning in the text of such Concepts is which countries are specifically mentioned. It is clear that in this, one can also see a shadow of the methods of “Kremlinology”, but more often the semantic interpretation was such that if a particular state was mentioned specifically, it means that it is really of paramount importance for the policy of the Russian Federation. If it disappeared, or a new one appeared, then this could also be perceived as a kind of semantic signal.
In the 2013 Concept, in the section of regional priorities, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were mentioned separately (“as a priority partner in the CIS”). It also mentioned Moldova (with a mention of the special status of Transnistria), Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Georgia (in the context of interest in normalising relations), Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, China, India, North Korea, Republic of Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Palestine (in the context of establishing an independent state), Israel (in the context of peaceful coexistence with Palestine), Iran (in the context of the nuclear programme), Afghanistan, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua (a total of 33 countries).
In the 2016 Concept, additional states were mentioned: Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Spain, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Syria. Several were not mentioned in the 2016 document: the Netherlands, UK, Palestine, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua. Israel is only mentioned in the 2016 iteration in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran is registered in a much broader context of cooperation. Ukraine is retained, but the wording is changed from “a priority partner in the CIS”. Instead it’s stated that Russia is “interested in developing a whole variety of political, economic, cultural and spiritual ties with Ukraine.” A total of 32 countries.
This list of separately mentioned countries has undergone significant changes in the 2023 Concept. All European and “other Anglo-Saxon” countries, Japan and South Korea have been removed from it. Together with South Korea, the DPRK, which had always been mentioned in the same paragraph as the first, was also removed. Separate references to all ASEAN countries have been removed. What is most striking is that of the CIS countries, only Belarus is mentioned separately. Ukraine was removed, as well as Georgia and Moldova and several members of the EAEU: Kazakhstan, Armenia and the Kyrgyz Republic. On the other hand, a number of Latin American countries, which were in the 2013 version, but disappeared from the 2016 version, are mentioned again (these are Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela). Two other countries in the region, Argentina and Mexico, which were mentioned in 2013, are not currently singled out separately. For the first time, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are separately mentioned in the subsection on the Islamic world. Here, too, it may be evident that the UAE is not mentioned separately. As in the two previous versions, the current Concept does not separately mention any country in the subsection “Africa” (with the exception of Egypt, which is now mentioned in another subsection, “Islamic world”).
As a result, this list looks like this: Belarus, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, China, India, Mongolia (only in the context of the Russia-Mongolia-China economic corridor, which has a much narrower wording than before), Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel (mentioned in the context of Russia’s interest in normalising its relations with its neighbours, including with respect to the Palestinian issue; the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which was in the 2013 version and disappeared in the 2016 version, is also absent in the current Concept), Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the USA. There are 18 countries in total. As you can see, this number is significantly less than in the two previous versions of the Concept.
Also, in general, if we count the numbered paragraphs of the text, then their total number in the current Concept is also less than before: 76 points now instead of 108 points in 2016 and 104 points in 2013.
These, in our opinion, are the structural and semantic features of the newly adopted Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation which differ with previous versions. Of course, their importance in itself should not be exaggerated. Naturally, the practical implementation of the provisions of the Concept will be deeply interconnected with the dynamics of the existing geopolitical realities. Only time will tell how these will evolve.