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Russian Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era

Foreign Policy Doctrine of Early Independent Russia

Initially, post-Soviet foreign policy followed a pro-Western orientation. Leon Aron claims that in "unfolded within the framework inherited from the Mikhail Gorbachëv-Eduard Shevardnadze "new political thinking" (Mandelbaum, 23). The utopian view, held by the immediate post-independence Russian establishment (and much of the rest of the world) that the collapse of Communism meant that a Fukayamaesque new world order was on the cards in which capitalist democracies would share common interests and in which democracy and prosperity would eradicate ethnic tensions. The eruption of ethnic violence and chauvinistic ethnic laws in 1992 throughout various parts of the post-Communist world shattered this naïve view. A debate ensued within the Russian élite between the internationalists and dzhevaniks around issues such as intervention in the other Newly Independent States, attitudes to the US and Russian military strength in the post-Soviet world. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 24) By late 1993 a consensus was reached and implemented by Kozyrev, in which outright imperialism was abandoned by the dzhevaniks, while the internationalists took a more hawkish stance towards the West and intervention in the other post-Soviet states. Aron claims that this marked "the first step in the construction of a broad, post-Cold War doctrinal consensus within the Russian foreign policy establishment." (Mandelbaum, 25)

Contemporary Foreign Policy Doctrine

After 1993, Russian foreign policy became, not hostile to the West, but colder towards it. There are a number of possible reasons for this shift. Firstly, the success of nationalists on the left and right in the 1993 parliamentary elections undermined the credibility of pro-Western forces within the Yeltsin régime. However, it is possible that the strong performance itself was a reaction against a pro-Western foreign policy, however, I am inclined to agree with Mandelbaum that few beyond Moscow were terribly worried about what happened beyond its borders. (Mandelbaum, 7) Indeed, a 1996 poll showed that less than ½% of Russians saw military threat as the greatest threat to Russia’s national security, while a separate poll in October of the same year found barely 40% of Russians who even expressed an opinion on NATO expansion, the then hot political topic of the day. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 34-5)

Among the élite, however, Aron (Mandelbaum, 27) argues that a tripartite vision informed Russian foreign policy – "Russia as regional superpower, Russia as a world’s great power and Russia as the nuclear power." He also notes that the degree of consensus varies depending on the stand of policy – "Steadiest in the arenas of nuclear superpowership and behaviour on the world scene, this consensus grows considerably weaker where the maintenance of regional superpowership is concerned." (Aron in Mandelbaum, 51) Moreover, he (loc. cit.) argues that this strategy – that domestic problems have primacy over foreign ones, and while there is suspicion of the West, and a desire not to be seen as too weak, there is also a desire for co-operation and an aversion to the idea of military conflict, even in the domestic arena.

It is, in my view, important not to exaggerate the extent to which the 1993 consensus returned to old values. Indeed it formalised a number of the liberalising changes which had occurred during the period 1987-93. Unlike the Communist régime, even this more conservative foreign policy doctrine contained a number of important liberal strands. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 25) Firstly, the old primacy of the security complex had been destroyed. Domestic economic and social considerations would be of greater importance than the old preoccupations with military and foreign policy. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 25) Indeed the former would shape the latter in the new Russia. Secondly, foreign policy became pragmatic rather than ideological or messianic as it had been for almost all of Russian and Soviet history. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 25) As Aron notes (Mandelbaum, 26) "For the first time since 1914, Russia was not at war – real, Cold or ‘class’ – with anyone." However, perhaps most importantly, the shattered Russian industrial sector, and indeed economy in general, meant that Russia lacked the money and firepower to remain a dominant military power.

Despite being a much less aggressive power than the Soviet Union, Russia’s nuclear capacity is still a vital part of its defence – and foreign – policy strategy, providing Russia with influence beyond its economic and structural weight. Initially Russia, while at no time indicating a desire to totally disarm, did engage in significant decommissioning of its nuclear arsenal as well as de-targeting all missiles. It also acceded to a no first strike policy. Kazakstan, Ukraine and Belarus all agreed to surrender their nuclear arsenal to Russia.

However, the Moscow military establishment, concerned at the increasingly obvious weakness of Russian conventional forces, moved towards a more hawkish nuclear use policy during 1997. Russia re-affirmed its right to first use in the event of a conventional attack. Aron clams that, "given the virtual absence of domestic challenges to …[the] benefits of nuclear superpowership…[Russia] will continue to exempt at least its key structures from the debilitating penury that engulfed its defense sector." (Aron in Mandelbaum, 29)

The replacement of Kozyrev by Primakov crowned the new consensus. Although concern was expressed in the West, there has been little real hostility although "suspicion of the United States…is one of the keystones of the new consensus." (Aron in Mandelbaum, 30) Again Aron sees this as evidence of Russian foreign policy belonging to Gaullist paradigm - "The imperatives of today’s world, as they appear to Russia, inevitably lead it to challenge the United States." (Aron in Mandelbaum, 31) However, while Russia may oppose the US as a matter of tactics, it does not do so as a matter of ideology. Russia will not oppose the US when the strategic interests are of such importance to the US that opposition may jeopardise US-Russian relations. The Russian military has been clear that it has little strategic interest in matters which do not affect the situation within the old USSR boundary. Indeed much of the indignance of the Russian élite regarding NATO expansion was because that they perceived that Russia, now non-irredentist and non-militarist, was still seen as a threat by an aggressive West. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 32)

However, it is within the boundaries of the CIS that Russia is at its most hawkish – in what Aron sees as its self-declared rôle as a regional superpower. Security in the ‘Near Abroad’ has consistently been articulated as Russia’s number 1 foreign policy priority. Moreover, in 1996, the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy published a Theses which refined the 1993 Consensus. It specifically sanctioned the use of any means – including force – to secure Russia’s interests in the near abroad. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 33-4) Aron argues that in contrast to other areas, policy with regard to the ‘Near Abroad’ is seen as relevant by the Russian masses – almost more of a domestic than a foreign policy matter, as evidenced by the successful use of the situation of Russians in the near abroad by politicians, notably Lëbed and Zhironovski. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 35) However, I would argue – particularly given the lack of public support for the war in Chechnya – that while many Russians are deeply concerned about the position of ethnic Russians left outside current borders, this does not amount to a desire to recapture old territories; most Russians seem to feel that what non-ethnic Russians do in their own countries is a matter for themselves.

Although integration of the CIS is seen as desirable by almost all among the élite, Aron notes a divergence of views between the postcolonial and imperialist tendencies. The postcolonial tendency, similar to France in post-imperial Africa, sees itself as retaining a vital economic, military and strategic interest in its former colonies, but does recognise their right to independent action and does not see a re-establishment of the empire as being worth any significant cost - socially, politically or economically – to Russia. The imperialist tendency, on the other hand sees the other NIS’ independence as somehow illegitimate, and would tolerate significant damage economically, or even perhaps militarily, to secure Reunion. The battle cry of one imperialists in 1996, when Yeltsin was, for economic reasons cold shouldering Lukashenko’s entreaties of reunion, was "No price, or almost no price is too high for the Russian élite pay to…unite with Belarus." (cited by Aron in Mandelbaum, 37)

However, in view of the war in Chechnya, and the much more doveish rôle played by Russia in Tajikistan, Georgia and Nagorny-Karabach in recent years, it is equally obvious that there are clear limits to just what sort of intervention the Russian public will permit in the ‘near abroad’. Military intervention seems to be increasingly taboo, and élite policy making in the near abroad has begun to follow public opinion. Moreover, even where military confrontation was not an issue such as in relations with Ukraine and the Baltic states, the period since 1997 has seen a more conciliatory approach, and significant concessions, by Russia. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 40-2) Effect of Daghestan and bombings?

The extent to which Russia has become a relatively benign power in the geopolitical system is demonstrated by the comparative ease with which it withdrew from its ‘colonies’ after 1991. However, it is beyond dispute that Russia’s foreign policy did make a lurch to the right in 1993, and a number of theories have been advanced to explain this.

Theories of the causes of the 1993 Rightward Lurch

Imperial Hangover and neo-Imperialism: – the theory of imperial collapse is one of the most persuasive of those advanced for the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In a sense the hangover theory of the gradual anti-Western direction of Russian foreign policy is the logical continuation of this.

I am somewhat sceptical of the relevance to past precedents of Imperial Collapse to the current situation in Russia. Britain already had a stable well-established democracy at home before it began serious decolonialisation. France decolonised against the backdrop of the post-War economic boom, not against a backdrop of economic collapse. Post-Habsburg Austria was only a shadow of its former empire, while Turkey, which seems to be the most tempting comparison for commentators, fought a bloody war with Greece and engaged in bloody ethnic cleansing against ethnic Armenians before settling down. This mercifully has not been the case with Russia.

However, I am somewhat attracted by Aron’s thesis of post-1993 Russian foreign policy as being analogous to Gaullism. (Mandelbaum, 7) At both élite and mass levels, there is a profound sense of loss at the end of the Soviet Union. Even among the most profound democrats, this was the only country which most people knew. Few people in Russia, even after the failed coup, wished to see the Soviet Union sundered as it was. Russians experienced the transition from living in a world superpower to living in a second-rate state in an indecently short space of time. As in 1960s France, the élite did not want to lose face in front of the world’s dominant superpower, the USA. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 7) Further, as with the French in Algeria, there was a sense of not wanting to let the ethnic Russians in the other NIS down, though again with less bloody consequences. This, it can be argued, explains the Russian desire to see the Balkans as part of its sphere of influence, and to see the Serbs as ‘little brothers’ in need of protection. The Russians see the position of the Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo as the worst case scenario for their brethren in the Ukraine, the Baltic or Kazakstan. Moreover, Russia unease at the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO highlights continued Russian belief in its ‘special rôle’ in Eastern Europe.

Although the Russian ‘decolonialisation’ of the other Newly Independent States proceeded comparatively smoothly, it is equally clear that Russia sees these states as part of its ‘sphere of influence’ in a much deeper sense – Russia will tolerate no interference from third powers in these states [the Baltics are generally excepted by Russia from its claimed sphere of influence]. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 26)

Sense of being let down – during the revolutionary period 1989-91, Western prom mass aid.

NATO expansion – Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary. Baltic States. Ewige Schlangenkraft.

Uncertainty of surrounding states – Some argue that a limited re-militarisation of Russian foreign policy was inevitable given Russia’s weak geostrategic position. As Mandelbaum notes, Russia was drawn into conflicts in its ‘Southern Near Abroad’ primarily "in order to keep political turbulence … from infecting Russia proper." (Mandelbaum, 10) Aron (Mandelbaum, 27) further asserts that the insecurity of the post-Communist political order worried many Russian liberals, who perceived the increasing instability as a threat to the transformation of the domestic political system, and even Russia’s survival. The independence of states that had previously been a secure part of Russia’s orbit had left Russia, in their view, isolated from the Western world. Increasing levels of institutional discrimination against Russians – although later reversed in most countries – fuelled fears of anti-Russian alliances in the Baltic or Central Asia, while Russia and the Ukraine endured something of a Cold War in this period. "Russia, in this analysis, had very few friends and no reliable allies – in the Near or Far abroad." (Aron in Mandelbaum, 27)

Public opinion, as in most democracies, seems much less concerned about foreign affairs than that of the Moscow élite. Moreover

I will enter some discussion of Kosovo?

Whither Russian Foreign Policy?

The contemporary Russian foreign policy doctrine was conceived in very unusual circumstances of a country emerging from a revolution which involved not only a 180 degree turn in terms of policy and ideology, but drastic reductions in economic strength, military might and territory. Politics and society in Russia continue to ne highly unstable and a number of influences may shift Russian foreign policy in a different direction.

Aron (in Mandelbaum, 43) cites four main categories of threats – institutional, ideological, populist and in a category all of its own the departure of Boris Yeltsin.

Insitiutional threats include those from the military and defence industry establishment in reaction to the continuing round of defence expenditure cuts, which amounted to a 45% cut in real terms military expenditure between 1992 and 1996, with a further round of emergency cuts, possibly amounting to 20% of the reduced budget coming in the summer of 1997. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 43) Aron concludes (loc. cit.) that short of a full scale military coup, the influence of the armed forces and defence industry establishment will inevitably decline as expenditure is cut further and other sectors assert themselves in an increasingly complex Russian policy making environment. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 44) The institutional sector which seems to be growing in proportion to the defence establishment’s precipitous decline is the export business sector. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 44) Increasingly their influence has been felt with a substantial relaxation of foreign investment laws in 1997, contemporaneous with a major Russian push for membership of the WTO. The October 1996 accession of Boris Berezovsky to the deputy secretaryship of the National Security Council which indicated a deepening of interest in security and foreign policy by the business establishment. (Aron in Mandelbaum, 45) While Moscow was opposed to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, it did not protest as vigorously as it might have done, and Viktor Chernomyrdin played a vital rôle in persuading Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo, and the importance of the relationship with the West for the economy doubtless helped damped pan-Slavist passion. Indeed, one theory is that Russian oil giant LUKoil successfully lobbied to have the war stopped as it was interrupting oil supplies from the Caspian! (Aron in Mandelbaum, 46)

Since the political demise of Zhironovsky, the major ideological threat to maintenance of the status-quo on foreign policy has come from Zyuganov’s reformed Communists, with their emphasis on ‘re-integrating’ the CIS and hostility to the West. Aron (in Mandelbaum, 47) dismisses the threat from that quarter as he sees them as a dying political force, sentenced to death in the long term through their extremely ageing demographics. However, this does not take into account the experience of Communist revival, most notably in eastern Germany and in Poland, after similar predictions of doom earlier in the decade.

I would, however, agree with Leon Aron (in Mandelbaum, 47) that populism presents a greater danger to a stable Russian foreign policy than Communism. However, the rapid demise of Vladimir Zhironovsky after his shock gains in the 1993 parliamentary elections indicates a sophistication in the Russian electorate which is rarely credited in the West. Much as is the case with the German or Belgian voters, the electorate may turn to the far right as an opportunity to express a protest vote in an election in which they feel little is at stake, but they are unlikely to repeat this at a major election.

The stability of the doctrine is however in Aron’s view (in Mandelbaum, 51) enhanced by its above-mentioned close correspondence to public opinion. This correlation between public and élite desires is likely, in his view, to ensure that the 1993 consensus survives the departure of Boris Yeltsin in 2000.