Series: Looking for the Real Russia—Insights from Japan-Russia Experts (2)
An Outlook for Russia's Foreign Policy in Vladimir Putin's Next Term
An Outlook for Russia's Foreign Policy in Vladimir Putin's Next Term
Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
Russia's foreign policy in the next five years will continue to be guided by the need to assert the country's great-power status. Relations with the U.S. will be adversarial; with Europe, stagnant. Increasingly, Greater Eurasia, from Japan to Turkey, will be the main focus. In that setting, managing relations with China will be Moscow's principal medium- and longer-term challenge.
There is virtually near-absolute certainty that Vladimir Putin, in power in Russia since New Year's Day 2000, will win the presidential election scheduled for March 18, 2018. If so, he will continue to hold power for another six years. Over the past 18 years, Putin has been the architect of Moscow's foreign policy, and there is little likelihood that its fundamentals will change. However, the strategy and tactics will have to be geared to the international environment that emerged as a result of the simultaneous collapse in the 2014 Ukraine crisis of the two pillars of Moscow's post-Soviet foreign policy: Russia's own integration with the West (a “greater Europe” and a “Euro-Atlantic security space”) and a Russia-led integration of the former Soviet borderlands (a full-fledged “Eurasian Union” including Ukraine).
Since then, Russia has been repositioning itself on the global map. Rather than pivoting to Asia, or China, it has assumed the position of a power in the very middle of the macro-continent of Eurasia. No longer seeking admission into Europe or re-integration of the former empire, Moscow is adopting a 360-degrees vision, which views Russia as an independent large unit in a vast neighborhood. The Kremlin does not particularly prioritize any region, but seeks to promote its interests where it sees opportunities, without, however, taking up burdensome obligations. Managing this posture in the face of the growing might of China, the rise of India, sharpening antagonisms in the Middle East, and the breakdown of relations with the West will not be easy. But this is precisely the framework in which Russia will be acting in the foreseeable future.
In 2018, Russia finds itself in a confrontation with the United States; in a state of mutual alienation with Europe; and, right on its border, faces a hostile Ukraine. The Russian-U.S. confrontation is essentially about the world order, and Russia's status and role in it. This conflict can be described for short as a Hybrid War. It features intense geopolitical adversity; economic warfare in the form of sanctions and other restrictions; and a virtually no holds-barred information war. Compared to the Cold War, the new conflict is much more dynamic. It is fought in a globalized economic and information environment, without physical barriers, and often on the opponent's home turf.
The conflict with Russia resonates with the domestic political situation in the United States, which makes any stabilization of relations unlikely until the internal U.S. controversy between President Donald Trump and his opponents is resolved, one way or another. Even after that happens, U.S. political attitudes toward Russia are unlikely to soften. For many in the U.S. political class, relations with Russia cannot be normal as long as Vladimir Putin is President. For Moscow, this means that little positive can be realistically expected from Washington. On the contrary: the expectation is that the U.S. pressure against Russia will grow in both the short and medium term.
The Kremlin's main goal is to stand firm in the face of that pressure, giving the U.S. no chance to undermine the Russian political regime - e.g., through targeted economic and personal sanctions. Moscow will not make major concessions on Ukraine, Crimea or Syria. At the same time, Russia will be open to collaborating with the United States, on mutually acceptable terms, in the Middle East, Afghanistan, the nuclear issues of North Korea and Iran, and the fight against terrorism. Strategic stability will be a salient issue: the fate of the INF and New START treaties will be decided in the next few years. While still hoping for a resolution of the existing differences, Russia is bracing for a world without arms control.
Although Europeans are political and military allies of the United States, Moscow does not see it as an adversary like America. Moscow's objectives in relations with the European Union focus on gradual reduction of tensions and eventually lifting of economic sanctions. Unfortunately for Moscow, the leaders of the EU's leading nations, Germany and France, take a skeptical attitude toward Russian policies and the drivers of those policies. In these circumstances, Russia's hopes will be linked to several countries that are more “understanding” of the Kremlin's foreign policy rationale, such as Italy, Austria, Greece, and a few others, as well as business circles across Europe. Moscow, of course, faces very strong opposition from a number of countries, like Poland, the Baltic States, Sweden, Great Britain - and of course the United States. Any progress in Russia's relations with Europe will be uneven and uncertain.
The situation in Ukraine will weigh heavily on the Russian-European relations. It is unlikely, however, that the conflict in Donbass will be resolved within the next five or six years. Ukraine's recognition of Crimea's Russian status is decades, even generations away. Meanwhile, Moscow will need to deal with the risks of conflict escalation in Donbass, and with a Ukraine which, despite its volatile domestic politics, will remain a permanent security concern for Russia, even if it does not join NATO or become a formal U.S. ally in the medium or even longer term.
In other parts of Greater Eurasia, the environment for Russia is far less negative. Moscow has performed a break-through in the Middle East where, with the successful end of the main military phase of its intervention in Syria, Russia is again a major outside player. The Kremlin will use this newly-acquired status to further its geopolitical, strategic, commercial, and other interests. In the medium term, Russia will seek to convert its military success in Syria into a political settlement in that country or, failing that, into a lasting de facto ceasefire which will leave Russia as an arbiter. Moscow will also try to facilitate post-conflict settlement in Libya. Russia will seek to solidify its relations with the principal powers in the region: Turkey and Iran; Saudi Arabia and Egypt; Israel and Iraq; Jordan and the smaller Gulf States.
Russia's relations with India have recently stagnated, but Moscow still views Delhi as an important partner, particularly since India and Pakistan became members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2017. Ties with India will be strong, but no longer exclusive, given Russia's interest in Pakistan - necessitated in large part by the developments in Afghanistan. Russia will also seek to build bridges to South-East Asia, where the Soviet Union's ally Vietnam serves as a gateway to the region.
No country is more of a challenge to Russia's foreign policy in the next five years than China. The current Sino-Russian relationship is good, and can be described as an entente - mutual empathy and close policy coordination. Moscow's policy toward Beijing, however, requires a long-term strategy, which is presently lacking. For the time being, the formula that postulates that Russia and China will never be against each other, but may not always be with each other, works. It combines reassurance and flexibility, allowing each power to have confidence in its partner, without feeling being entangled.
Going forward, this will not suffice. Russia will have to deal with China's rise in a way that eschews Beijing's dominance over it, but benefits from its growing engagement. Embedding China into a web of continent-size arrangements where Beijing enjoys pre-eminence but renounces hegemony, could be the answer. This, however, would require cooperation of other leading continental powers, including China-wary India, and of China itself. This would also require exceptionally high diplomatic skills and expertise of Russia's own foreign policy. Elements of this were recently on show in the Middle East, but translating them on the Greater Eurasian plane will be a challenge.
China will be central to Russia's foreign policy in the late 2010s-early 2020s, but not to the exclusion of other Asian players. India has been mentioned, but it will be relations with Japan which will face a major challenge in the next few years. In 2018-2020, Moscow and Tokyo will have a window of opportunity for solving the outstanding issues between them - the border and the peace treaty - and putting their relationship on a much more solid foundation of all-round cooperation. Thus, the next few years will test President Putin's and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's resolve; their diplomatic skills and political influence; as well as the resilience of Moscow's relations with Beijing and Tokyo's with Washington. It is impossible to predict the outcome of those efforts, but should they fail, it will be some time before the next time the window opens.
Putin's new presidential term is also likely to be his last. He is likely to stay a towering figure in Russian politics even beyond 2024, perhaps in some exalted capacity. However, Putin's era is slowly drawing to a close. Vladimir Putin himself is already preparing people who will eventually take over, first under his oversight, and later on their own, but, of course, the future is unpredictable, and other processes are running in Russia quite independently of Putin's will or designs. Over time, some aspects of Putin's foreign policy legacy will be reassessed, revised and potentially even reversed. However, Russia will probably stay where Putin has led it - in its natural place in the middle of Greater Eurasia: a lone, and global power.
About the Author
Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
Dmitri Trenin is a founding member of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and has been its director since 2008. Prior to joining Carnegie in 1994, he had a career in the Soviet/Russian military, and retired as a colonel. Trenin is an author of a dozen books on Russia's foreign policy, including Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story, that was translated into Japanese. His most recent book, What Is Russia Up to in the Middle East has just been published by Polity Press in the UK. Trenin is a frequent international affairs commentator for the global media. He was born and lives in Moscow.