President Putin’s determination to restore Russia to a place of status and influence in the international system has been well documented in recent years. Analysis most often  points to his speech in Munich in 2007 as a turning point, in which he signaled that Russia would conduct a foreign policy that was not merely more assertive but downright aggressive.

The Hot War with Georgia in 2008 and Russia’s role in instigating and sustaining conflict in Ukraine from 2014 onwards served up the evidence that Putin should be taken at his word. During this time, attention was heavily focused on Russia in Europe and on Russia’s relations with the former soviet states. Russia’s military assistance to Syria from late 2015 onward was a catalyst for a recalibration of analysis. Russia would no longer allow itself to be seen as a mere regional player, let alone one playing second fiddle to EU influence in the so-called shared neighbourhood; no, it was back on the international scene and prepared to play spoiler to US ambitions at the top of the international security architecture to prove that.

Events since then have been revealing of a Russia not only with ambitions to extend its influence over a larger geography but a willingness to commit resources in respect of those ambitions, hence its activities in Syria, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, most notably Venezuela. Will it prove to be the case, however, that within this attempt to extend its influence are carried the seeds of its own failure?

Alliances – Present and Potential

Russia would not be the first state to over-extend itself in the foreign policy domain, but it faces a particularly uphill battle given that it has chosen to turn its back on the EU and many potential friends in Europe – and instead forged a partnership with China. The highly questionable nature of this choice has not gone unnoticed but the coming decade may well reveal more clearly the flaws of this strategic move. The history of Sino-Russia relations is a volatile one and it is entirely possible that the two states will clash intensely  over the Central Asian space as China continues to offer the economic assistance that Russia cannot. Such a clash is not inevitable, but avoidance of it will depend on careful management of Russian sensitivities and a pragmatic focus. Equally, analysis that argues China’s move into the Western Balkans is a boon to Russia’s desire to keep the EU out may prove to be overly optimistic in the longer term. It should be remembered that Russia was not overly concerned about, let alone hostile to, the EU in the 1990s; that changed dramatically with the launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2004 and the Eastern Partnership in 2009, both of which brought the EU very firmly into those states that Russia considered its sphere of influence. China’s move into spaces that Russia equally considers its own do not come with the same demands as the EU for political and societal change but they will, inevitably, relegate Russia and its capacity for influence further down the queue. That scenario does not chime well with Russia’s desire for great power status and is likely to make Russia harder to contain rather than easier.

That analysis is borne out by Russia’s activities on the African continent (see for example Russia’s role in North Africa) where it is engaging in its own China-hedging strategy (i.e. seeking to reduce the risk of China extending even further its gains), doubly attractive for its capacity to act as EU-hedging too. Whether Russia has the resources to extend this far is highly questionable. The agency of those African states with which it is engaging should also not be forgotten. Russia is currently active in, among other states, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, South Africa and Sudan, all of them with extensive troubles and an interest in playing off wealthier states to fit their own agendas. In its activities in such delicate political spaces, the Kremlin also risks cementing its reputation as a force for destabilisation rather than stabilisation, as promoting conflict and not peace. It is all too easy to find evidence of Russia criticising attempts to solve intractable problems, Responsibility to Protect, for instance. It is all too rare to find evidence of it suggesting solutions of its own. In this sense, Russia looks like a spent force which can no longer make credible claim to a Messianistic tradition in its foreign policy, except insofar as that tradition is a conservative and repressive one.

Russia has also been consistent in calling for a multipolar international system, for denouncing US hegemony, without necessarily calling it that, and for mounting challenges to the liberal world order. None of these is likely to change as long as Putin is in power. However, the nuance in Putin’s position is not always well reported. In a controversial and exclusive interview with the Financial Times in June 2019, President Putin spoke of how “the liberal idea” has “outlived its purpose”, citing the public’s turning against multiculturalism and immigration. Headlines spoke of how Putin had called liberalism obsolete, missing the additional, crucial points he made that the, “liberal idea cannot be destroyed either”, of him defending its right to exist and speaking of the need to support it – just to not let it be the dominant idea. To dismiss this as mere rhetoric would be to miss the point that Russia benefits from the liberal world order in many ways, that it benefits from and sometimes defends international law, albeit in highly selective fashion. Nevertheless, at a time when the common ground between Russia and the West is visibly shrinking, the success of future relations may be contingent upon the West’s ability to remind Russia of how and where it gains.

Evasion and (Im)Plausible Deniability

One of the ways in which Russia sometimes gains is by utilising so-called “whataboutism” – reminding others of their obligations to the tenets of liberal democracy as a way of circumventing criticism made of its own actions. The investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 offered clear opportunities here; the comment by the Information and Press Department of the Russian Embassy to the UK on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the downing typifies this. In this whataboutism, Russia has been a consistent actor and will undoubtedly continue to be so. That stance is a barrier to optimistic thinking.

The killing of three Russian journalists, Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko and Alexander Rastorguyev, in the Central African Republic (CAR) in January of 2019 is a case in point. The journalists were reportedly conducting an investigation into the Wagner Group, military contractors under the patronage of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin’s. Both Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have been targets of US sanctions for involvement in electoral interference in the USA and actions in Ukraine respectively. This particular situation was concerning for three reasons.

First, it drew attention to Russia’s under-the-radar activities in sub-Saharan Africa. These activities suggest, not least, that Russia is engaging in the China and EU-hedging strategies already mentioned and therefore that this geography will function as an increasingly crowded arena for a potentially troublesome geopolitical struggle in the future. Second, while of course the use of private military companies (PMCs) is not restricted to Russia, the Wagner Group offers further cover for the Kremlin to deny its involvement in controversial situations and continue on its now familiar tack of a rhetoric of plausible deniability. By using this type of language, Russia treads the line of both claiming and eschewing responsibility in a manner that both supporters and opponents of Putin can claim evidences their perspectives, muddying the waters of credibility in a manner that has become increasingly familiar.

The close relationship between the Kremlin and the Wagner Group should therefore focus more analytical attention in the future but also untangle the agency of the Group rather than fall into the trap of seeing its every action as ordered or even sanctioned by President Putin himself. Indeed, with few believing Putin will remain as president past 2024, questions should be asked about the Wagner Group and whether it should be regarded as a reliable and loyal arm of the state or an asset that the next incumbent of the Kremlin will have to win to his (most likely) cause. Third, the journalists’ killings, though reported on in many international media sources, have not gained the level of political traction that the killing of Jamal Khashoggi did or, indeed, that of Daphne Caruana Galizia. This is despite – or perhaps because of – Russia’s less than impressive record on journalist safety at home. Thus, the killings have functioned as further evidence where none was needed that such actions will be met with impunity. This will inevitably impact the Kremlin’s future foreign policy decision-making.

Seats and Tables

At the present time, the Russian Federation is subject to much justifiable criticism for its foreign policy activities. It continues to breach the sovereignty of another state, Ukraine, and is accused of at least indirect responsibility for the downing of a passenger jet (MH17) over Ukraine in 2014. It is also accused of actions designed to normalise the use of chemical weapons. See, for instance, chemical weapon usage in the Syrian conflict; the attempted killing of a former intelligence officer (Sergei Skripal) (and the actual killing of a British citizen) on the territory of another sovereign state in 2018; or an attempted cyber-attack on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague in 2018.

Nevertheless, Russia continues to occupy seats at many tables, affording it countless opportunities to promote its foreign policy agenda, whether in the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, G20, BRICS, Arctic Council, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or Eurasian Economic Union, to name just some of those tables. At a time when Russia is under the sanctions regime imposed on it by the EU and USA, the very public meetings President Putin has nevertheless had on the sidelines of these meetings have functioned as important symbols of Russia’s central position in global affairs. At the June 2019 G20 summit, Putin was also given valuable column inches and video space in an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, in which, evidently, he was able to control the agenda. It is to be hoped that the narrow line between maintaining dialogue without legitimating illegal and/or illegitimate activities will be walked better in the coming years. However, it would seem that leaders of certain states are no less prone to the temptations of clickbait than are media outlets, to which the meeting between President Trump and President Putin in Helsinki in 2018 testifies.

The problems between the USA and Russia are deep and significant, of course. Backward developments in relation to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement (INF) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) mean that attention will inevitably have to be redirected to nuclear arms controls solutions in the immediate years, especially given START (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is due to expire in 2021. Putin himself has not ruled out the possibility of another arms race. Such bluster is typical in Russian foreign policy discourse but events in recent years have also shown the wisdom of taking Putin at his word when it comes to his more threatening rhetoric. But, again, attention focused here is attention focused on Russia, which again feeds its ambitions to hold a central position on the world stage.

The US will hold presidential elections in late 2020 and Russia in 2024. At the mid-term point, few were betting against Trump’s election with any certainty, which suggests a further four years of unpredictability in US foreign policy. Assuming Putin completes his term of office in 2024 and then steps away, his successor will likely be dealing with a lame duck president in the White House. Who that successor will be and what their attitude towards the US or any other actor will be is an entirely unknown quantity at the present time. It is therefore very difficult to make any credible forecasts when it comes to those affairs where leadership matters most, especially in respect of a state where institutional structures are entirely insufficient constraints.

Caution Moving Forward

Nothing in its recent behaviour suggests reasons to be optimistic that Russia’s foreign policy will become more accommodating, less defensive or less aggressive in the next decade or so. Nothing suggests either that any single actor, whether a state or organisation, is in a position to be regarded and heard by the Kremlin as a critical friend and so to sway Russia’s foreign policy. Foreign policy is, however, as often a reflection of what states cannot control or have failed to control as what they have. Currently, it is in the domestic environment that hope for a less active and therefore less disruptive Russian foreign policy lies. Russia itself argues that its foreign policy should achieve “favourable external conditions for the country’s internal development”, “sustainable economic growth” and “a higher quality of life for Russian citizens”.

The 2018 protests by pensioners, the July 2019 demonstrations demanding free elections and Putin’s declining approval ratings are therefore all signs of an unsuccessful foreign policy and suggest that the quiescence of the Russian people cannot be taken for granted. Russia’s many foreign policy adventures have come at a price for its people and signs are that Putin and whoever replaces him in the Kremlin will have to divert attention and other resources to domestic challenges if they are to avoid destabilisation at home.

The external actor to watch most closely for its capacity to narrow the scope for Russian foreign policy gains is now and is likely to remain China; Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa the geographical spaces on which to fix attention. No less an important space is that of information. A good deal of attention has been paid to Russian disinformation, electoral interference, hacking and the cyber-security space more widely and that will no doubt continue for some time to come. Little focus, however, has been directed to Russia’s activities in respect of internet governance, including how it serves to pressure liberal democratic states to privilege security over privacy and protection of free speech.

Despite much talk about Russia’s challenge to the liberal world order, Russia will continue to gain more from that world order than it loses. Whether understanding of that will tip into a more cooperative and less conflictual relationship with western actors is unclear. The rational decision-making model has suffered enormous blows to its credibility in recent years – evidenced by the many references to Putin’s and Trump’s unpredictability and lack of strategy, to say nothing of the perception of acts of self-harm by other states, for example the UK and Brexit. Looking forward we would do well to remember that those who people the Kremlin are no less susceptible to the Kruger-Dunning effect than any other political elites.

Photo: Sergey Lavrov’s annual Press Conference” by МИД России / MFA Russia is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lecturer in European Studies at

Dr Maxine David is a Lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and Research Fellow at the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent, UK. She is a Foreign Policy analyst, specialising in Russian and EU foreign policy.

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