Political drivers in Russia

The Soviet Union, The USSR, finally disintegrated and ended on 21st December 1991, when former Union republics declared its dissolution and acted on their own independence.

The simultaneous meltdown of communist power and the Soviet empire led to mixed reactions within Russia, which in turn led to an identity crisis and increasing internal disruption in Russia in the 90’s. This in turn made the democratization process more difficult and hence increased the possibilities of hardliners coming back to power in Russia.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the presidents of Russian Federation:

Boris Yeltsin         1991-1999,

Vladimir Putin       1999-2008,

Dmitri Medvedev 2008-2012,

Vladimir Putin       2012-2018, 2018-2024

In order to understand Russia and its foreign policy, sometimes named as Russia’s enigma, the key issue seems to be understanding its national interest. On the other hand, there are some distinguishable turning points, via which is possible to navigate the whole post-Cold War era.

First turning point 1990, the fall down to the basis, period 1990-1996

The whole decennium (1990s) was turbulent time inside Russia, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999). An urgent question after the disintegration was the Russian nationalities which were disseminated around the whole Soviet empire. The struggle for political power in most of the new states, not the least in Russia, caused unstable situation for many years in the 90’s. However, the former republics established quite soon the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with the aim to make the transition process into a new structure easier.

Military might has always played an important role in Russia, not only as a status of great power achieved by the Soviet Union after WWII but already by Imperial Russia since the beginning of the 18th century. Military power and wars were important factors in shaping Russia’s society and politics of the Empire. Russia has adopted a system of government and administration suitable for large and expanding purposes especially in the central area of military affairs. The national imperialistic heritage has been and is extensive and exceptionally strong dating back for hundreds of years.

Gorbachev introduced a new military doctrine in the last years of Soviet Union. By the concept of “reasonable sufficiency” it was accentuated the shift from traditional Soviet emphasis on offensive operations to “non-offensive defense”. Under Yeltsin regime, there were numerous attempts to create and renew the armed forces of Russian Federation, partly they succeeded, partly failed. In the framework of CIS-countries, the military affairs were managed to reorganize and coordinate via numerous treaties like Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

 In May 1996, the Russian government officially announced the document “National security policy of the Russian Federation for the period 1996-2000”, which designed the guidelines for the structure of the armed forces and state security matters. An important element in Russian military policy was the principle of strategic parity with the US, as it had been before. Russia also adhered to the principle of “reasonable sufficiency” and assured a pragmatic attitude to the West.

Russia initiated economic reform program in 1991 but nearly the whole decennium was dramatically worse and volatile compared with the starting year 1991, e.g. the industrial production fell nearly 50% by the beginning of 1994 and the standard of living of Russian people drastically declined. However, some stabilization took place in the Russian economy in mid- 90’s.

The essential cause of economic difficulties was the fundamental issue of transition from a centralized state system to a capitalist market economy. The privatization of the industrial and trade enterprises as well as the agriculture sector was a historical process creating a small, new elite group, the oligarchs, who were capable to utilize and exploit this opening chance. Small amounts of foreign investments and the flight of capital abroad from Russia were key problems in the Russian economy.

Internal economic problems appeared to be the reason why Russia was devoting most of its attention to domestic affairs rather than the foreign policy. This would explain the silent but reluctant acceptance by Russia to the most of the American initiatives related to the expansion of NATO in Europe in the 90’s. Russia’s strategic and political international position began steadily deteriorating. Its standing was for a long time based on the parity of nuke missiles with the US and this parity Russia strived to preserve.

In the foreign policy of the 90’s, President Yeltsin and his first foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev defined the national interest as that of integration with Western economic and security institutions. Until approximately mid-1993, the Russian leadership also supported the West’s international security agenda. In Europe, Russia was working toward gaining a membership in all European security institutions, including NATO.

In many international conflicts, the US pushed Russia aside to look after those solutions which were orchestrated by the US and its allies. From the Russian point of view, it was the complete ignorance and denigration of Russia’s importance in the world affairs that finally provoked the Russian counter-reactions to the American global domination.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia was seen from the US point of view as a weak regional power in need of Western assistance. When the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990-91, the position of NATO remained more or less static. The Bush Administration supported free Europe with a continued role for NATO and the US, even enlarging NATO’s geographical scope eastward utilizing a historical momentum available. The Eastern Europe should be integrated into the Western system of nations, both in the framework of EU and NATO.

Second turning point 1996, Yeltsin-Primakov tandem, period 1996-1999

Important events in the transition period of 1996-99 indicating fundamental changes in Russian political life were:

  • Primakov replaces Kozyrev as foreign minister in December 1995
  • Yeltsin was re-elected as president in July 1996
  • Russia and China sign the “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Formation of a New International Order” to the UN1997
  • Russia adopts new National Security Concept in December 1997
  • Confronting NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia in March 1999
  • Yeltsin resigns and Putin becomes acting president of Russia, December 1999
  • Putin was officially elected as President of Russia, March 2000

Russia’s Foreign Minister Primakov stated that after the end of the Cold War there emerged a trend toward a transition from a bipolar system to a multipolar order but the US adopting the role of world police, exploited its economic and military power to attain the primacy status and hegemony. It still is the major part of Russia’s foreign policy to create a multipolar world order.

Primakov, as the second foreign minister of Yeltsin,saw the need to revise the concept of national interest to restore Russia’s great power status and balance hegemonic aspirations of the United States. The national interest could be called as Great Power Balancing.

Primakov’s pragmatic and realistic nationalism comprehends of reviving the CIS as a vehicle of the post-Soviet integration, resisting the eastern expansion of NATO, developing military cooperation with Iran and trying to build the Russia-China-India security axis. His strategy for dealing with the West included the upholding the power of the UN as the key international agency and developing close ties with influential states outside the Western Hemisphere, such as China and India.

Russia saw its rapprochement with China as a response to the expansion of NATO. The new cornerstones of deepening mutual relations with China and Iran were laid down by Primakov in the late 90’s. In general, he was a firm believer in special relations with Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

Until the Western military intervention in Yugoslavia, Primakov had followed involuntary the policy of pragmatic cooperation with NATO, initiated by Yeltsin.

NATO’s decision to begin air strikes against Belgrade in March 1999 changed this framework irrevocably.

He became a loud and bitter opponent of NATO and Western Hemisphere. From this on, Primakov’s active foreign policy meant the development of geostrategic and economic ties outside the West, especially China, Iran and India as well as many Middle East countries, in order to balance the power of the US.

The government’s official Foreign Policy Concept of 2000 refers to the Russian Federation as “a great power with a responsibility for maintaining security in the world” and warned of a new threat of a unipolar structure of the world under the economic and military domination if the United States”.

Primakov’s foreign policy emphasizing on both power and institutions (like the UN), was closer to the English school rather than neorealism. In this context it was difficult to apply realism as an international relations theory for explaining Russia’s return to great power balancing. Realism presupposes that policy change follows strengthening in the state’s material capabilities but it did not happen so with Russia. On the contrary, the country’s economic decline continued till the end of 90s and there was hardly material basis for developing a more assertive foreign policy.

Third turning point 1999-2000 – new millennium and Putin, period 2000-2006

Yeltsin’s resign in December 1999 and Putin’s first election in March 2000 as the President of the Russian Federation in the turn of the new millennium were in many ways symbolic.

With the arrival of Vladimir Putin and especially after the terrorist attack in New York in September 2001 (9/11 chock), Russia’s foreign policy took yet another turn.

During the first Putin presidency a distinct concept of national interest was adopted: Great Power Pragmatism. Russia’s great power status was essential but not at the expense of special relationships with the West in general and the US in particular. Putin emphasized patriotism, a strong state and social solidarity as his country’s key values. He saw his country as a modern great power capable of adapting to a changing world under strong state leadership. Putin also spoke of the Eurasian dimension of Russian identity and he visited, in 1999-2000, all the key states of Central Asia, China, India, Mongolia, North Korea and Brunei.

Putin did not hide his preference for the state-dominant model of economic development and made known his lack of respect for the oligarchs: “They can keep what they have already stolen but now they have to play clean, pay taxes, make investments and stay out of politics”. The president had more respect for security elites, especially the army, which had been much humiliated under Yeltsin.

Economic stabilization and even strong growth since the autumn 1998 and Kremlin’s consolidation of political power were the preconditions for competition and confrontation with the West, a stage which Russia entered in the mid-2000s. From the early 2000s Russia began to rise from its knees and Russian foreign policy can be seen more multidimensional than just promote the principle of multipolarity.

For Putin, the most important national interest was in Russia’s modernization and economic growth, not just balancing American influences worldwide. Geo-economics gained the upper hand over geopolitics.

Soon after his re-election in March 2004, Putin was confronted with the series of new challenges. Second Chechen war (1999-2009) and terrorist activities in the northern Caucasus, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and destabilization of Central Asia and Georgia became important tests for the Putin’s great power pragmatism. After the invasion of Iraq, it became apparent that the US strategy of regime changes and expanding “political liberty ideology” was not limited to the Middle East and formed a threat to Russia’s own influence in the region.

The overall evaluation of Putin’s great power pragmatism gives generally positive results. During the period of 1999-2007, the country’s relative economic and social standing improved considerably. Capitalizing on new economic opportunities, Putin managed to improve relations with the US, Europe and with the former Soviet states.

Fourth turning point, Putin’s prophetic speech in Munich in 2007, period 2007-2013

Important events in this transition period were:

  • Putin’s prophetic speech in Munich in 2007
  • Medvedev was elected as president for 2008-2012, Putin as prime minister
  • Ceorgian War/ Abkhazia, South Ossetia, 2008
  • the global finance crisis 2008-2009
  • National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020, May 2009
  • Putin was elected as president 2012, Medvedev as prime minister
  • Russia’s pivot to East, Putin’s Edicts, May 2012

On February 10, 2007, Vladimir Putin delivered his keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference, challenging the post-Cold War, Western establishment.

  • The speech criticized the world in which the US makes unilateral decisions on most important global issues with little regards to the interests of other nations, especially those not allied with Washington.
  • Putin called such a system inherently unfair and posing various risks to the world, compared to an alternative in which the US has to live by the same laws as the rest of the world and negotiate on conflict issues rather than use military force to resolve them. 
  • Putin accused the United States of provoking a new nuclear arms race, expanding NATO in Europe and making the Middle East more unstable.
  • He also said that Washington ignored the United Nations and relied on the unilateral use of force.  
  • Putin continued “I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. 
  • He emphasized that the only international mechanism that can make decisions about using military force as a last resort is the Charter of the United Nations. Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems.

Putin’s statement: “Russia as a country with the history of more than a thousand years has always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy. We are not going to change this tradition today”, may illustrate aptly the Russian general attitude to the situation. Strong back support to his position was provided by the robust economic development since 1999 for ten years period in Russia. The overall size of the economy increased about six times and per capita GDP quadrupled during that period.

In respect of Putin’s second term, two events in 2008 are of great importance: the global finance and economic crisis as well as Georgian war. The whole picture of national interest became again under reformation, because they changed the international context in which Russia is defending its interests.

The global financial meltdown 2008-2009 revealed in concrete way the economic vulnerability of Western countries and in general the weaknesses of prevailing global economic and finance system. This became a kind of chock to the leadership of Russia and led to numerous procedures and ramifications from which Putin’s Edicts in May 2012 may be the most prominent reflecting Russia’s pivot to East.

Georgian War was in a sense a historical event as it ended the West’s monopoly for unilateral use of force on the European scene after the Cold War. It was also the first time when the present Russia was using force or projecting power outside its borders since the days of the Soviet Union. This also implied a serious warning to Western powers both regarding NATO’s expansion in Europe and regarding military operations else were.

At the end of Medvedev’s presidency, the essential content of the Russian national interest began reforming close to “Great Power Assertiveness”, where Russia’s role as one of great powers, besides the US and China, was emphasized. This tendency strengthened when Putin was elected again as president in 2012. Putin’s Munich speech became a first high point in Russia’s new assertiveness.

The new Foreign Ministry Report “A Review of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy” in 2007 further elaborated features like non-interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, sovereignty and strong national defense. The report again emphasized the multipolarity in the world system, where Russia can actively shape international relations by challenging the actions of the US. These renewed features of Primakov’s former multipolarism and great power balancing have been the incentives for many researchers noting “Primakov Redux”.

Since Putin was elected again as president in 2012, Russia has activated its foreign policy efforts as manifold and expanded its international networking in many dimensions: trade, energy business, military cooperation and arms sales, political cooperation, EU-relations, massive cooperation with China, renewed Middle East contacts, EAEU-cooperation, SCO, ASEAN, India, Japan and other Asia-related issues etc.

National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation to 2020, which was published in May 2009, was a wide and multifaceted document. The main directions of the national security policy of the Russian Federation are: the strategic national priorities, the stable development of the country and the preservation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state.

Fifth turning point  2014-15, Ukraine-Crimea-Syria, return to the great power status, period 2014 –

Important events in this great power period have been:

  • Crimea annexation/reunification and Ukraine crisis 2014
  • Putin’s Valdai speech in October 2015
  • Renewed national and defense strategies
  • Russia’s involvement in Syrian war 2015, projecting military power far outside its own borders
  • Foreign Policy Concept of Russian Federation, December 1, 2016
  • Putin was elected as president 2018 -> 2024, Medvedev as prime minister
  • Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, March 1, 2018
  • Russia’s active foreign policy (hard balancing the US) and active global networking, expanding and intensifying China cooperation

A prolonged crisis in Ukraine began in late November 2013 and finally devolved into a regional war between the Ukrainian government and the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Meanwhile Russia took over the region of Crimea with bloodless military operation and organized a referendum there. The result was an annexation/reunification of Crimea to Russia in March 2014. Western and Russian judgments and interpretation on the matter deviate sharply from each other. The crisis led to sanction regiment by the EU and the US and deterioration of international relations.

Russia’s increasing assertiveness and willingness in hard balancing with the US has been striking since the return of Putin to the presidency in 2012.  The essential, even fundamental breakthrough took place about a year later when Putin informed the US President Obama in the sidelines of the UNGA meeting in September 2015 in New York that Russia has decided to start military operation in Syria in order to support Assad’s position in the Syrian civil war. It was clearly a chock to the US leadership.

In Syria case, it was the first time in the post-Cold War world history when some other country than the US & NATO allies was projecting power far outside its borders and territory, independently without support from other countries and operating on continuous base with fully organized logistics.  According to Monteiro’s theory of unipolar politics, this means that “a new pole” has emerged into unipolarity and the unipolar system has ended, which moment took place in late autumn 2015.

Putin’s Valdai speech in October 2015

Putin accused the US of endangering global security by imposing a “unilateral diktat” on the rest of the world and shifted blame for the Ukraine crisis onto the West.  In a 40-minute diatribe against the West that was reminiscent of the Cold War and underlined the depth of the rift between Moscow and the West, Putin also denied trying to rebuild the Soviet empire at the expense of Russia’s neighbors. Listing a series of conflicts in which he faulted US actions, including Libya, Syria and Iraq, Putin asked whether Washington’s policies had strengthened peace and democracy. “No,” he declared. Putin also increasingly sought to shift blame for the economic crisis onto global problems, Western sanctions and the falls of oil price.

Foreign Policy Concept of Russian Federation, Report of December 1, 2016

This Concept provides a systemic vision of the basic principles, priority areas, goals and objectives of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. The world is currently going through fundamental changes related to the emergence of a multipolar system. The structure of international relations is becoming increasingly complex, new centers of economic and political powers are emerging and shifting towards the Asia-Pacific Region, eroding the global dominance of the traditional western powers. Russia conducts an assertive and independent foreign policy guided by its national interests.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, March 1, 2018

On March 1, 2018, President Vladimir Putin, delivered his state of the nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly. While the first half of his speech dealt with Russian domestic issues, it was the second half of the presentation that drew attention worldwide.

Putin outlined developments in Russian strategic military capability disclosing some state-of- the-art new weapons. The majority of Western observers derided Putin’s speech as simple posturing, a manic effort to project Russian power, where none exists. The general Western judgment was that Putin’s new “wonder weapons” are just pipe dreams. However, the weapons Putin referred to were and are real as came out couple of months later.  

The first Western political military reactions were underrating but quite soon, when the US Senate organized the hearings of Commanders of Services, the situation changed significantly. The US Commanders had to acknowledge and confirm that the US Military at the moment has no means to intercept those new hypersonic weapons. President Trump provided $ 50 billion more money to Pentagon for development work rapidly in June 2018.

After this episode, several US military studies and intelligence reports began to pay serious attention to these “Putin’s wonder weapons”. It became clear to Western military experts that Russia of today can strike globally any targets, including within the US, conventionally or with nuclear warheads and there are no means to intercept those strikes. Cutting edge military power translates into geopolitical benefits extremely fast.

Grand Strategy Revisited

It seems that numerous Western assessments about the position and progress of Russia in the post-Cold War era have gone astray. Even the latest ones aim to understate and negate the geopolitical, geoeconomic or military progress of the present Russian Federation or refuse to realize the strategic magnitude and purport of China-Russia partnership. Many Western political analysts have been asking in recent years, how Russia has managed to accomplish the progress under the continuous and severe sanction regime.

The answer may be found in Russia’s revisited grand strategy. In this respect, there may be useful to look at Putin’s philosophical base, that spiritual background, where two prominent Russian characters can be found: Pjotr Stolypin and Ivan Ilyin.

The strategy seems to be basically formulated more than hundred years ago by a man, who played a crucial role in unleashing revolutionary processes in Russia, namely Tsar Nicholas II former prime-minister of Russia Pyotr Stolypin.

Stolypin’s strategic dictum was simple to grasp: “Give Russia 20 years of internal and external peace and quiet and it will change beyond recognition.”

Vladimir Putin and his team follow this dictum to the letter trying to achieve precisely Stolypin’s goal of 20 or even more years of internal and external peace and quiet, however knowing that the only way to provide these conditions is through strength and in the present geopolitical situation this means an exceptionally new quality of strength. Only in a world-class great power, the economy is capable of producing the state-of-the-art weaponry or, in general, military power. Great military power by definition is a continuation of a greatly developed, economically strong nation-state, which Russia is aiming at.

Putin’s favorite philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) was an influential nationalist political and Orthodox Christian philosopher active in the Russian Emigre movement in Europe after the revolution. He heavily influenced Solzhenitsyn. In this 1948 essay, he analyzed differing forms of rule, accounting for the history, culture, temperament and geographic setting of a given nation.

Ilyin advocates a position wholly unrecognized by the modern Western conception of universal liberal democracy: a diversity of peoples throughout the world merits diversity in forms of sovereignty.

Ilyin notes that sovereignty is not an “abstraction conception or political scheme” indifferent to the life of peoples but an order of life and the living organization of the people so that the form of sovereignty depends most of all on the level of popular sense of justice. Further, a sovereign form must reckon with the territorial size of the country and the numerical strength of its population, historically acquired political experience, the climate and nature of a land and the multinational composition of a population.

Ilyin’s conclusions: every people and every land are a living individuality with their special characteristics, their own unrepeatable history, soul, and nature. To every people is therefore due its own special individual form of sovereignty and a constitution corresponding to that people only. There are no identical peoples and there should not be identical forms of sovereignty and constitutions. Blind borrowing and imitation are absurd, dangerous, and can become ruinous.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies, history and politics at New York University and Princeton University. He is a contributing editor of The Nation and the author of numerous books, most recently, of War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate. In his recent articles of The Nation “How the Russiagate Investigation is Sovietizing American Politics” (February 20,2019) and “The End of Russia’s Democratic Illusions About America”, he vicariously confirms the notions both of Pjotr Stolypin and Ivan Ilyin.

He closes his text by saying that: “Some day Trump and Putin will leave office. But the consequences of Russiagate, both in America and in Russia, will not depart with them. What will be the subsequent, longer-term consequences for both countries and for relations between them is the unanswered question but from today’s perspective, nothing good is in sight.”

Russia’s involvement in wars and armed conflicts in the post-Cold War era (1990-2018)

The number and severity of armed conflicts with Russian involvement are not so numerous as those with the US but significantly more than in the case of China.

  • First Chechen War 1994 – 1996, ended                                                     
  • Second Chechen War 1999 – 2009, ended                           
  • Georgia war 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia disintegrated from Georgia
  • Crimea annexation/reunification, 2014
  • Ukraine crisis, 2014 continues as “frozen conflict”                
  • Syria crisis 2015, continues