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Views of the Russian elite: Will Russia seek superpower status?

As Russia embarked on the path of sustained economic growth in the 2000s, the Russian government adopted an increasingly energetic, if not aggressive, foreign policy course aimed at reestablishing the country’s status as a world power, which it de facto lost following the collapse of the USSR. Will this course be sustained in the future?

As Russia embarked on the path of sustained economic growth in the 2000s, the Russian government adopted an increasingly energetic, if not aggressive, foreign policy course aimed at reestablishing the country’s status as a world power, which it de facto lost following the collapse of the USSR. Will this course be sustained in the future? Or is it just a “relapse”, a last attempt to revive the former empire launched by Soviet-indoctrinated politicians – an attempt that will peter out as key foreign policy decision-makers are replaced by members of the younger generations? The answer to this question will largely depend on the positions on “the great chessboard” favored by modern Russian elites and the methods of upholding their interests they regard as most effective. To put it differently, do the current leaders see Russia as a global power, or are they prepared to accept that Russia can only aspire to regional leadership? Are economic or military-based tools perceived as the best way to achieve foreign policy goals?

As shown by data from the six waves of William Zimmerman’s survey [1] of Russian elites, members of the elite increasingly believe that Russia’s national interests do not extend beyond its borders. In the 1990s, these views were shared by less than 20% of respondents, while in 2012 that figure was 56.5%. Interestingly, this trend is more pronounced among younger generations (See: Figure 1). At the same time, a growing number of elites share the view that military might is the decisive factor in foreign policy (12.6% in 1993 and 35.8% in 2012). In this respect, however, generational differences are not very pronounced (See: Figure 2).

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

What leaps to the eye is how views on these two closely related issues tend to diverge, with the Russian elite increasingly inclined to regard the Russian Federation as more of a local leader than a global power, while also increasingly viewing military might as the most effective tool for upholding national interests. By using perceptions of Russia’s sphere of national interest and the role of the armed forces in foreign policy as the basis for our typology, we can identify four distinct groups of respondents with differing views and trace how their numbers have changed over time. This will make it possible to draw a more detailed picture of shifts in the Russian elite’s foreign policy priorities and to understand what kind of trends might subsequently emerge in views on these matters.

These four groups can be tentatively described as “radical expansionists,” “moderate expansionists,” “isolationists,” and “aggressive isolationists”.

Figure 3

As Figure 3 shows, “isolationists” were the biggest group in 2012 (39% and trending upward). At the same time, this group is not dominant and the other groups do not lag far behind numerically. The “moderate expansionists” comprised the biggest group in previous years but declined dramatically by 2012 (from over 60% in 2004 to 25%). Clearly, there is no longer elite consensus on foreign policy priorities and tools.

What might be the practical political consequences of this state of affairs in the coming decades? Polarized views among elites may lead to the emergence of two or more competing factions that support different methods of addressing the challenges of world politics and, more importantly, set different trajectories for Russia’s development in the global space. This rivalry, in turn, means that the Kremlin’s foreign policy is likely to grow increasingly unpredictable in the coming decade.

Russia’s foreign policy strategy can evolve in various ways depending on how elites’ core attitudes to these issues change. With a growing number of people believing that military power is the decisive factor in international relations, there is a greater likelihood of military conflicts involving the Russian Federation in the next few decades. Of course, asserting that military capabilities are the main prerequisite for achieving foreign policy goals is not necessarily the same thing as being prepared to use military force to resolve international conflicts. At the same time, the growth of these beliefs can still have a significant influence on various aspects of domestic and foreign policy. First, this may lead to increased funding for military programs, including additional allocations on army and navy rearmament and other projects directly or indirectly linked to efforts to boost the country’s military power. Second, these attitudes may affect Russian diplomats’ behavior at talks on controversial issues. It can also encourage choosing tough methods – including military means – to advance Russia’s national interests (a case in point is the recent war in South Ossetia).

But as long as supporters of a militarized foreign policy are in the minority – currently they are outnumbered two to one by those who favor using economic power – the growing conviction that Russia is a regional power may contain manifestations of an aggressive policy. It cannot be denied, however, that the trend of declining geopolitical ambitions is at variance with Russia’s latest moves in the international arena. The Russian government has been energetically advancing the country’s national interests in various regions of the world. It is attempting to assume leadership in the post-Soviet space and increasingly opposes the EU and US on the most pressing global problems, like the Iranian nuclear program or Syria. Clearly, the current Russian leadership favors a very broad interpretation of the national interest. This contradiction can be explained by the age of the people currently holding key foreign policy positions in the Russian Federation. It is fair to assume that official foreign policy will be somewhat modified as the older generations in the upper echelons of power are replaced by their younger colleagues. This will result in greater emphasis on international cooperation and closer integration with the world community. Indeed, some elements of this are already in evidence: Russia’s WTO membership has imposed restrictions on its independence in a number of policy areas.

However, as we try to interpret the role of elite attitudes in foreign policy, it is important to remember that in international relations, like in any human interaction, the outcome of a cooperative undertaking is influenced by a number of factors other than the participants’ views, including the behavior of other actors, the institutional environment, precedent, and much more. We cannot, therefore, claim with certainty that the observed changes in elite views will transform Russian foreign policy, even if these trends persist over the next few years. In particular, the Russian government should not be expected to revise its positions on the majority of foreign policy areas where the interests of Russia and other countries clash. But considering the growing polarization among elites on foreign policy matters, there is a good chance for some thawing in relations, more constructive ties and better cooperation in certain areas, as well as closer integration with international organizations, both regional (EurAsEc; EU, NATO) and global.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program . 

[1] William Zimmerman polled representatives of executive and legislative bodies, leading businessmen, scientists and artists, as well as high-ranking members of the military. The survey includes five waves of polls held in 1993, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2012.
[2] The figure illustrates how the proportion of respondents in Zimmerman’s survey who agree with the statement that “Russia’s national interests for the most part extend beyond its present borders” (the green line) has changed over time. The other colored lines reflect changes in percentages of respondents preferring the “broad” definition in each of the five age cohorts: born in or before 1940, 1941-1945, 1951-1960, 1961-1970, and after 1970. It should be noted that the 2012 poll involved too few members of the two older cohorts to draw any representative conclusions; the data for them has been excluded.
[3] The figure shows how the proportion of respondents in Zimmerman’s survey who agree with the statement “Military power is ultimately the decisive factor in international relations” (the green line”) has changed over time. The other colored lines reflect changes in percentages of respondents agreeing with this statement in each of the five age cohorts.

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