The East’s Rise and the New Russian Foreign Policy

Russia is bracing to turn from its centuries-old foreign policy model (dating back to the Moscow Principality) to maintain direct control over its immediate periphery as a way to provide for its security. How new self-defense methods get integrated into the nation’s strategic culture can play a crucial role in the future.

The 21st century will see Russia choosing between the two options, one of which is to become a “new Byzantium” – a decrepit superpower on its way out – and the other is to assume a new international quality while remaining within its present geopolitical shell. If the second option prevails, the demise of the tradition that originated during the reign of Ivan III (in the late 1940s, George Kennan pointed to its persistence and continuity regardless of the political regime) will create many opportunities for improvement, including, what categories we analyze and how aware we are of the world around us.

Scheduled for early October, the upcoming annual conference of the Valdai Club will be dedicated to the countries of Asia and Eurasia (or the East in Russia’s broad interpretation) and the role they play in current world politics and the economy. Modern Asia, the fastest-growing region of the world, is gradually, if irreversibly, emerging as a center of global politics. This is so if only because the main geographical focal point of the fight for world preeminence has shifted to Asia. The breakdown of the 40-year-old US-China axis is inevitably involving both economic superpowers in a confrontation regardless of their respective strategic goals.

Against this background, Russian foreign policy is being modified as well as a response to changes in the global situation and Russia’s status in the modern world. The new Russian foreign policy reflects both its historical traditions and a successful adjustment to newly emerging needs. No wonder, therefore, that it is Asia and Eurasia that have become a “test ground” for its policy. The important thing in this context is to consolidate the newly acquired skills for use in the future. The pivotal question is to what extent fledgling habits and methods will become an organic part of national strategic culture.

This transformation is a consequence of both objective and subjective circumstances. The most important objective fact is that Russia, by new geostrategic standards, is a middle, if not small, power, no matter how provocative this assertion may sound. There is no denying that Russia is the largest power in Europe with a population twice as big as Germany, the largest EU country. It would inevitably become a dominant force in Europe, something that makes its full integration in the European institutional and legal systems impossible.

But this relationship of scales was of decisive importance during the “long European era” of world politics that lasted from the 16th to the early 21st century. Today, this era is over as are its related advantages. The new, truly global politics is a system where only countries with a population of 200 million plus can qualify for a fully independent definition of tools to defend their interests.

Today, Russia is one of the ten most populous countries of the world, although its population-to-territory ratio makes this indicator less than convincing. But it is clear that Russia will sooner or later lose its global standing as a number of countries in Asia, Africa and even Latin America continue to develop. It is time to think about Russia’s prospective foreign policy from the perspective of a middle-sized country. This reflection is already under way in both intellectual and practical dimensions as exemplified by the modalities of Moscow’s actions in Asia and Eurasia. In the former case, it relies on a step-by-step integration in existing multilateral cooperation mechanisms and makes no attempts to offer any convincing vision of the future. In the latter, it is engaged in a revolutionary effort to form a stable co-development system in central Eurasia sustained by a group of states that preserve their sovereignty.

But there are subjective factors as well. The consistent democratization of world politics and an improved quality of information exchanges and transport/logistics connectivity enable the majority of world states to diversify their cooperation formats in an unprecedented manner. Russia is facing a situation where its security interests in relations with its close neighbors and allies require that the calculus include the interests of a third power, China, and can be implemented with the help of tools derived from these interests.

It is for this reason that Moscow welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2015. According to calculations, this initiative, if it advances successfully, can visibly enhance the socioeconomic stability levels in Central Asia, a crucially important region bordering on both Russia and China. In any event, greater transparency of the B&R effort in Central Asia will remove problems that are inevitable in projects of this scale. But it is up to the countries in the region to make a conscious and rational choice. After all, it is their capabilities that dictate a new modality in Russian foreign policy. They are opening new prospects while making it possible for critical territories to provide for their security without losing independence, as was the case in previous centuries.

This is why it is of fundamental importance for Russia to ensure the success of the Eurasian economic integration project, something that cannot fail to displease its traditional ill-wishers in the US and Europe as well as in their client countries. It will be recalled in this context that Russia, by virtue of its economic model and abundant natural resources, has far less need to view the resource-rich adjacent territories as targets for expansion.

The transformation of Russia’s foreign policy, as exemplified by its moves in Asia and Eurasia, bespeaks the persistence of traditional factors. There is little doubt that Russia will remain a predominantly military power in keeping with the pattern formed by its history. This runs in the blood and is part of its bedrock national tradition. Besides, the projection of Russian military capabilities in the Middle East has demonstrated the need for and efficiency of “hard power” for successful diplomatic manipulation. And, of course, Russia will continue to rely on military force in international affairs.

But in the future, like today, military force is a foreign policy control tool rather than a suppression expedient. It is intended for therapy, not surgery. Despite Russia’s tradition to seek “permanent solutions,” historical practice shows that they are never “permanent.” Russian military power, which exceeds that of any other country or alliance with the exception of the United States, is increasingly a tool for interference restricted by clearly realized political aims that are achieved through diplomatic dialogue with both friends and powers whose state ideology contains grains of threat to Russia’s territorial integrity.

China is clearly to remain its most important partner. But both powers will have to arrange their relations with consideration for global consequences and the influence that these relations will have on the behavior of third countries. In the near future, therefore, China and Russia will probably have to think about how to avoid concluding a military and political alliance rather than what features it will potentially take on. In so doing, they must not become vehicles of policies devised by a third power that has generated enough proof indicating that it is a friend neither to Russia nor to China. At the same time, they should protect the small and medium countries in Eurasia from having to choose between opposing alliances in an increasingly rigid international system.

Europe will hold a place apart in Russia’s Asian and Eurasian policies. But the role and importance of European states will change as well. Until recently, Europe or rather the EU, its institutional and political incarnation, could only be seen as one of the less constructive players to the south and the east of the Russian borders. And this was not surprising because any positive processes that unfolded without European involvement and leadership imposed natural restraints on Europe’s international influence. But Europe is changing. The EU powers made a big mistake in getting involved in a conflict with Russia over Ukraine. But America’s new foreign policy devised as a response to its failed attempts to achieve world leadership is helping Europe correct this mistake and bring relations in the East back to a normal diplomatic process.

The current Russian strategy of enhancing global security and predictability can dispense with the grotesque demagoguery in the style of the late USSR or the US before Donald Trump and create multilateral cooperation mechanisms in a situation where the “old” leading powers on both sides of the Atlantic are calling into question this principle per se. Moreover, this strategy will not stand in the way of Russia’s efforts to implement its own national interests. In this context, its renunciation of geostrategic ambitions in Asia that underlies the “pivot to the East” is in full conformity with the aims of the long-term development of the Russian Far East through its integration in this advanced region.

The uniqueness of Russian foreign policy in Asia and Eurasia may become a normalcy and a shining alternative to the inevitable marginalization predicted for Russia in the 1990s, when it saw the failure of its policy to integrate into the Western community. The profound transforming effect of practices that arise in the East will later define its role and place in world affairs. It would be ill-considered to deny that any former empire covers its own path in an effort to adapt to the changing external conditions and measure these against its own resources. For Russia, by reason of its history, original potential and dramatic geopolitical situation, this stage came later than for other European powers. But the signs that it can become successful right now deserve analytical attention. 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.