Historically, Russia’s goal of gaining operational space in foreign policy was largely linked with its efforts to overcome geographical restrictions, increase the number of allies and overcome the vulnerability to external threats, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Yaroslav Lissovolik. In the current context, the strategy of gaining operational space is no longer about accessing straits and not even so much about the turn to the East as an opportunity to promote foreign policy initiatives in the largest possible expanse and with the involvement of the maximum number of countries and regions. In foreign policy, expanding the operational space is crucial for enhancing sovereignty and for a more flexible response to sharp changes in the world arena.
In a foreign policy context, operational space can be defined as an effort to gain access to new regions and new international cooperation platforms, as well as a growing opportunity to pursue initiatives in various regions of the world. In today’s trend toward globalization and tougher competition in world markets, the goal of gaining operational space is becoming an imperative that makes it possible to use the “economies of scale” in foreign policy by promoting initiatives on the broadest possible platform of alliances rather than just in one region.
Foreign policy operational space can have several dimensions. First, it is regional or geographical space that allows a country to overcome narrow geographical restrictions in foreign policy and conduct its policies at the interregional and global levels.
Another dimension is a value component that implies a departure from ideological dogmas in favor of pragmatism and economic cooperation. This dimension is distinguished by greater orientation to future cooperation and lesser dependence on past political differences.
The third policy factor related to operational space is decreased economic, technological or political dependence on the outer world, which allows a country to express its values and priorities more proactively in the world arena.
In the economic domain, operational space strategy can be defined as the diversification of trade and economic alliances as well as sectoral and structural diversification, which are achieved with tougher competition, good conditions for small- and medium-sized business and a variety of options/optionality for transport and logistics development (north-south and east-west mainland corridors). The expansion of the geography of alliances makes it easier for a country to further increase the number of allies while sectoral diversification reduces its vulnerability to external shocks and enhances the array of options for sectoral development. Promoting small- and medium-sized business expands the range of potential foreign trade partners at the micro level of individual companies, which, in turn, increases the opportunities to establish economic alliances with a broader range of countries.
The value of gaining operational space in foreign policy is determined by the opportunity to use the best possible response to increasingly unpredictable and often negative external conditions. The flexibility of foreign policy also allows it to respond to changes in domestic preferences and priorities in different strata of the population. The most important point is that the existence of options in foreign policy allows for space in attenuating the acuteness of confrontations, reducing the aggressiveness of enemies and the appetites of supporters. As a result, dynamics in international relations are becoming multi-optional and more manageable at the same time.
Importantly, more countries are demonstrating a desire to receive a certain freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. It is possible to say today that a departure from the rules-based framework toward greater opportunism is becoming a global trend. The transformation of the world economy, including the departures from economic rules and the resulting crisis phenomena may have taken place in part because of the global community’s “economic rules fatigue” was exhausted by the narrow framework of economic rules and standards and ideological concepts.
The observance of rules and standards requires a certain mobilization and strain that is becoming all the more unbearable if the rules being endorsed are radically different from the realities of the historical development of the majority of economies. This results in a growing divergence of development models in different countries that are increasingly opting for opportunism. As a growing number of countries (primarily large states) are giving up rules in favor of greater flexibility in their policy, the renunciation of self-imposed restrictions in favor of the freedom to maneuver is becoming a dominant strategy more broadly across the world.
China offers a successful example of gaining operations space through diplomacy. In only a few decades China has reshaped not only its foreign policy but also areas of global economic development. The growth of China’s presence in different parts of the world was accompanied by its transformation into the biggest lender in the world arena (including for the advanced countries) and the reduction of the ideological component in foreign policy where it accorded greater priority to pragmatic trade and economic cooperation. The spread of China’s influence in the global economy was also partially based on the optionality in combining continental integration via its Belt and Road Initiative and its transformation into one of the leading sea powers due partly to the development of port and maritime transport infrastructure.
As for Russia, the imperative of gaining operational space over the past few centuries was linked with attempts to overcome geographical restrictions, gaining an outlet to the sea, building a powerful fleet and active foreign policy maneuvering in Europe. It is worth mentioning Peter the Great and Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov (abrogation of the Treaty of Paris) among many Russian diplomats and rulers that overcame restrictions and expanded foreign policy space.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign policy was searching for operational space within narrow mazes. In the first years after the USSR, Russia tried to build relations with the West, primarily Western Europe, which greatly restricted the flexibility of its foreign policy against the backdrop of a sharp reduction in its presence in the developing countries. In the economic area Russia placed its bets on IMF loans and the WTO entry ticket, which required implementation of a long list of commitments.
Later on, a turn to the East followed the turn to the West, but Russia has not made a radical breakthrough in gaining operational space because relations with the largest players in East Asia, such as Japan and South Korea and partially ASEAN are being contained by the confrontation with the West. In fact, most of the progress has been made in Russia-China relations. At the same time, in the past few years there have appeared signs that this somewhat impulsive dynamics of building alliances is being replaced with a more even-handed continuum of multi-vectored policy with access to greater geopolitical/geo-economic operational space.
These positive changes in Russia’s foreign policy are reflected in the settlement of conflicts in the Middle East and growing activity of economic diplomacy not only in East Asia but also in Africa (as was borne out by the successful Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019) and Latin America. The turn to the south, the Global South, became a veritable breakthrough for Russian foreign policy, which considerably broadened the range of potential alliances and diversified the geography of Russia’s participation in resolving political and economic difficulties on the world scene.
Ultimately, for Russia a greater foreign policy maneuverability allows for the possibility of a more optimal implementation of the “Gorchakov principle” (formulated by the Russian foreign minister Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov in the 19th century) about the subordination of Russian foreign policy to Russia’s domestic policy. A more effective foreign policy creates the conditions for reducing the intensity of external shocks and provides more scope for focusing on the modernization agenda through large-scale economic reforms.
In the end, it is possible to say that with the onset of post-Soviet “soul-searching” in foreign policy, Russia has walked around the world in search for partnerships and “true allies.” After disillusionment and turns to the West and then to the East, Russia is finally acquiring a more realistic and at the same time more flexible position in the world arena. It is also coming to realize that non-inclusive external integration platforms will have a limited effect in promoting Russia’s integration into the world economy. Russia needs to build these integration platforms in cooperation with its regional and global partners while expanding operational space for its diplomacy.