What’s next for Russian foreign policy?

Mikhail Troitskiy

By Mikhail Troitskiy

Associate Professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Senior Associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and IMARES Program Professor at the European University at St. Petersburg.

Monday 31 October 2016

As of late autumn 2016, Russian foreign policy continues to be focused on enhancing Russia's status as a great power. Moscow is looking for opportunities to convert its growing military capabilities and still considerable economic resources into concessions to Russia by its international counterparts on the range of issues that Moscow considers of key importance for its security and economic prosperity. Russia continues to seek ways to boost its authority—that is, recognition of its right to exercise power when and where it deems necessary—and a positive assessment by Western counterparts of Moscow's contribution to addressing international security challenges.

The Kremlin is convinced that the source of authority in today's world is predominantly located in Washington. From such a perspective, only the United States can satisfy or deny Russia's security, economic, institutional, and other aspirations. Interestingly however, China is not perceived by Russia as a source of validation for Russia's claims, although Moscow is clearly expecting China to evolve into a major balance to US power across the globe.

So far, Russia has not been satisfied with the extent of authority and legitimacy bestowed on Russia by the United States and its allies. As a result, Russia has embarked on risky maneuvering across the board in order to demonstrate its resolve to bring Russia's status into accordance with its material resources. Over the last three years, this has resulted in a worsening confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine and Syria.

Russia's calculus

Three main schools of thought popular among Russian and international analysts address the outlook for Russia's relationship with the outside world, and, in particular, the West.

According to the first school, Moscow will never seriously escalate conflicts with the United States and its allies because of a significant economic interdependence that supposedly exists between Russia and the West and—even more importantly—because many members of the Russian political and business elite have property, bank accounts, and close relatives in the West. Indeed, according to some reports, attempts by President Vladimir Putin to “nationalize” the Russian elite have had limited success. According to the Russian media, a new informal instruction was recently circulated by the Kremlin requiring Russian public officials to sever their remaining personal and financial ties with the West. However, the language of that instruction appears to be quite mild, with no serious threat of reprisals against those who dare not to implement it.

Contrary to the predictions of this school of thought, the controversy between Russia and the West has intensified dramatically in recent months and weeks, while the Russian government  has remained unfazed about the impact of Western economic sanctions on Russia. As Russia's readiness to escalate the siege of Aleppo at the moment when an easing of the sanctions regime was becoming a possibility has shown, Moscow does not consider the annulment of the sanctions its main priority.

The second and probably most influential school of thought on the sources of and prospects for the current crisis claims that Russia is willing to escalate confrontation out of the belief that the United States and its allies have weaker resolve and, in some cases, even a weaker military option. Many in Moscow perceived as a sign of weakness the statement by US President Barack Obama to the effect that Washington would be reluctant to engage in disputes where its opponent has considerably higher stakes.

This school of thought warns that at a certain high point escalation of tensions can spin out of control and possibly even lead to an outbreak of open conflict against the wishes of political leaders. This dynamic is called the action-reaction model of inadvertent escalation whereby testing your opponent's resolve may ultimately limit options to such a degree that conflict becomes more likely. 

However, this theory of inadvertency does not necessarily take into account the powerful institutional constraints that exist within the governmental apparatuses of the two nuclear superpowers. They both inherited their nuclear policy and contingency institutions and procedures from the Cold War era. These institutions do not allow for tampering with nuclear weapons, while launch authorization requires consent by many officials aside from the president. These constraints prevent runaway escalation as a result of tragic accidents, such as mid-air collisions of military aircraft. It is therefore unlikely that Russia may find itself involved in an inadvertent armed confrontation with the United States or other NATO nations.

A third school of thought proceeds from the assumption that Russia and the United States are not fearful of a military confrontation with each other and may even be bracing for such confrontation. For example, this line goes, if Moscow is able to choose a comfortable regional theater, such as Ukraine or—under certain circumstances—Syria, Moscow may not shy away from a limited (or even all-out) shooting war with rival powers, including the US. The argument to support this school's assumption is that Moscow may be desperate to break out of the significant pressure to which the United States and its allies are subjecting Russia by means of economic sanctions. These sanctions are considered by some pundits in Russia as evidence that war is already being waged by the West against Russia. In such circumstances, according to this line of reasoning, Moscow has the moral right to a military response.

This assumption is difficult to verify, and it looks far-fetched as of late autumn 2016, given the slow pace of actual escalation over the last three years. If Moscow wanted to spark a major confrontation or seriously test the resolve of the US and NATO, it would at the very least have intervened much more forcefully in Ukraine. The pressure on President Putin to do so was significant in 2014 and early 2015, while there was more than one occasion and pretext to do so. Nevertheless Moscow held back.

Transitory tensions?

This overview of the major schools of thought explaining Russia’s motivation in the ongoing conflict with the West suggests that the risk of open hostilities breaking out in Ukraine or Syria will be low over the next several months. A popular view in Moscow, expressed by Foreign Ministry officials is that the bulk of resentment against Russia's policies by the United States results from the ongoing US election campaign and the corresponding need for the Obama administration to look resolute and assertive in the face of Russian revisionism. Once a new US administration is in place, this logic suggests, the harsh rhetoric will subside, and Washington will become amenable to discussing with Moscow those security issues of mutual concern.

In addition, one can note that some of the most dangerous moments in Russia-West relations over the last three years wound down quite rapidly without unreasonable escalation—witness, for example, the heated dipute around the alleged incursions by the Ukrainian military into Crimea in August 2016. Many thought at the time that it would become a casus belli for Russia to invade Ukraine. But who remembers that now? In a similar vein, however horrific, the tragedy of Aleppo is also likely to fall from the limelight before too long.

And yet, there is definitely more to the Russia-West conflict than the fallout from election campaigns. Top Russian officials have called the US long-term approach to relations with Russia aggressive, pointing out, for example, the open-door policy adhered to by NATO, Washington's commitment to expand missile defense systems in Europe and its alleged attempts to orchestrate regime change in Ukraine, Russia, and worldwide. In their turn, the United States and the European Union display no intention to lift or ease their Russia sanctions in the months to come—given the lack of progress in resolving the confilct in eastern Ukraine. These contradictions long predate the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States and will certainly outlive it.

Dire outlook and glimmers of hope

What we are seeing now is the longest ever continuous period of escalation in the post-1991 history of the Russia-West relationship. Adversaries are demonized among the policy communities in respective countries (primarily Russia and the United States), with distrust and commitment not to back down running as deep as ever among policymakers on both sides. For example, on more than one occassion Russia has been labelled an “aggressor” by the likely winner of the US presidential race.

Yet another alarming factor is the asymmetry of media coverage and the respective goals of the sides in the Russia-West conflict. Although Russia has surprisingly been grabbing headlines in the Western media and mentions in the US presidential debates, the US media have generally been much less preoccupied with US's relations with Russia than Russian media—with Russia's relations with the United States.

Even more importantly, the issues currently raising Russia's strongest concerns and aspirations in relations with the West are largely of long-term nature. Moscow wants to discuss and see the West backtrack on the strategic policy issues of NATO enlargement or missile defense deployments in Europe. At the same time, the issues requiring immediate attention as potential triggers of escalation between Washington and Moscow are notably tactical and short-term. These include instability in Ukraine, sanctions, war in Syria, confidence-building measures in the air and on the sea, etc. There is thus a dangerous mismatch between the negotiation topics prioritized respectively by Russia and the West.

It is difficult to see, for example, how bombing targets in Syria could help to trigger negotiations on Ukraine's prospects of joining NATO. From the Western perspective, the conflict in Syria needs to be resolved before NATO enlargement, missile defense or regime change become the subject of substantive discussion between Russia and the West. This disconnect creates clear incentives for Russia to up the ante in the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and for the West to continue refusing to talk about the issues that Russia considers to be of fundamental concern.

As a result, over the months to come, we shall likely see Russia continue testing Western resolve to maintain sanctions and at the same time exploring opportunities for bargains and even blank-slate solutions that would leave behind much of the controversial legacy of the last three years. It would be logical for Russia to make use of the new US administration factor and attempt to close the Syria and Donbas chapters—if that would allow to refocus Washington's attention on the long-standing controversies of NATO's “open door” and arms control.

Moscow may decide to bid for a partitioned Syria in which Russia's military basing rights would be respected by an Assad (Alawite) government controlling the west of the country. While not agreeing formally to take an off-ramp in Donbas, Moscow will likely be looking for a set of new leaders who would not be viewed as Russia's proxies (and therefore be acceptable negotiation counterparts to Kiev), but at the same time would not fully endorse the Ukrainian government's plans for an immediate reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine's political space. This approach could open up new opportunities for a mediated settlement, beginning of an economic reconstruction in the region, and an eventual easing of the Russia sanctions.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN's aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe's capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.

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