Russia’s New Foreign Policy Concept: We Need Friends, Not Enemies

“Unlike some of our colleagues abroad, who consider Russia an adversary, we do not seek and never have sought enemies. We need friends. But we will not allow our interests to be infringed upon or ignored,” President Vladimir Putin said on December 1 during his annual Address to the Federal Assembly. A few hours later, the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation was published, which included the main points of the Address. Valdai Club experts comment on the importance of the new concept, although they see it less as of a concrete plan of action than a foreign policy philosophy.

Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board, Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai International Discussion Club

“The aim of our foreign policy is to support domestic development and promote Russian interests abroad. In this big world of ours, foreign policies help governments to make life easier and more prosperous for people at home.

The Concept puts forward an idea that was recently expressed at the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi: the role of force in international relations will grow rather than decline.

It is clear that the threats like Daesh and international terrorism more broadly can be dealt with only by force. Force is a necessity. But it should be force that promotes stability, order and development, including internal development, not subdues or occupies. The implication is that the evil must not be allowed to grow. No one needs a large-scale war and therefore it is unlikely. Major conflicts hamper internal development and stable global governance. Force is important but it should be rationally understood.

What is being proposed is a rational model of the world, where no one is the boss. All countries should communicate as equals and engage others in rational dialogue. This refers to both NATO and Ukraine: Let’s negotiate! Eastern Ukraine can be debated, but in essence the Russian position is fairly consistent and rational.

The Concept demonstrates the logic of equality and the more or less stable constructs underpinned by international law. There are no unexpected twists or turns. It is about what has been repeatedly stated and consistently promoted. The latest iteration was presented to the Valdai Club meeting in October.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, Research Director, Valdai International Discussion Club

The new Concept, as I see it, is more focused and, in a sense, restrained. But this restraint speaks to the complexity and ambiguity of the situation in the world. It outlines in a sufficiently clear, if terse, manner the main world development trends. And this is its most important trait.

Since the publication of the previous Concept (2013), radical changes have occurred not only in Russia’s relations with the West but also in the international relations system as a whole. The change has been building up for a long time and now the lid is off. The Concept is needed to record the new state of affairs. Its predecessor is certainly irrelevant.

But generally I haven’t noticed any revolutionary innovations, nor do documents of this sort normally introduce any. Rather, they offer an outline of the main trends.

The Concept correctly points out – not for the first time, of course, but in a very high-profile way  – that the world is growing much more complicated and that rigid forms of relations, such as alliances, can no longer cope with this complexity. The Concept mentions flexibility and a network structure of relations. But this flexibility is only possible and necessary if there is firm resolve to preserve sovereignty and a certain cultural and civilizational identity. That is, we firmly defend a certain core and are flexible with regard to the rest.” 

Andrei Kortunov, Director General, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Valdai International Discussion Club expert  

“I’d compare this Concept to the light of a distant star, which reaches us on a delay. Although the document does record changes in international relations over the last three years, it has possibly failed to take stock of the latest shifts we are observing right now.

There is a certain stylistic discrepancy between the Concept’s text and President Putin’s latest speeches, including the Address to the Federal Assembly. One has the impression – at least insofar as the US is concerned – that the Concept reflects our understanding of and our disappointment with the Obama administration. But on the other hand, there is clearly very little it can say about the incoming Trump administration.

It’s not just the United States. This applies to other things as well. Generally, the Concept is more harshly worded than the 2013 document. Unlike its predecessor, it contains paragraphs dealing with Syria and is much more reserved on our relations with the EU. Ukraine has been dropped as a priority foreign policy target.

In general, the Concept reflects the overall dynamics we have observed during the last three years and the positions of the main agencies. To a lesser extent, it reflects the latest changes in the United States, Europe and other regions. And we can understand that, because, as I said, these documents are not unlike the light of a distant star.”

Timofei Bordachev, Program Director, Valdai International Discussion Club 

“The current foreign policy concept is precisely that – a concept rather than a strategy. It is more like a foreign policy philosophy than a concrete action plan.

Like any other foreign policy concept, it keeps all doors open. Like Russian diplomacy as a whole, it is undogmatic in outlining priorities or characterizing our partners and their status. Russia’s priorities are unchanged. This country always offers its partners openings for cooperation. It is another matter that the partners’ interests don’t always tally with Russian interests, and this either restricts cooperation or causes conflicts.

Thus, the Concept is a natural continuation of the Russian diplomatic tradition. In the 1990s, when the policy was to integrate with the Western community, there was a slight departure from this tradition. But both the 2103 Concept and the present document are traditional from the point of view of Russian diplomacy.

If we look at what the presidential Address to the Federal Assembly said about international affairs, we’ll see that it records a certain result and contains no foreign policy demands or grievances. This is simultaneously a point of arrival and a point of departure. A substantial part of the foreign policy struggles are either over – and fairly successfully for Russian diplomacy – or in a terminal state. This is why both the presidential address and the foreign policy concept are what they are.”

Oleg Barabanov, Program Director, Valdai International Discussion Club

“The new foreign policy concept is necessary because its predecessor was approved in 2013 before the Ukrainian crisis, which was followed by a series of changes in the world balance.

On this point, the Concept’s second section is of particular importance. This section reflects Russia’s position in the world today and is largely based on a new conceptual vision of global politics, which President Vladimir Putin unveiled at the Valdai Club meeting in October 2016.

The idea is that the main dynamics in the world will be determined by the contradiction between what globalization means for the select few elites and what it means for everyone else. This will inevitably lead to a serious internal transformation of the West.

This point has been expanded in the new concept. Specifically, it has stated for the first time ever that the historical West’s ability to dominate in world politics and economics has been in decline. 

More than that, the Concept makes it clear, also for the first time, that the West’s attempts to impose its own values on other countries and contain alternative power centers are the key cause of global instability and a source of conflicts and wars. It also notes Russia’s role as a counterbalancing factor in world affairs and in the development of world civilization.” 

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