What to Expect of President Putin’s Foreign Policy in His New Term
What to Expect of President Putin’s Foreign Policy in His New Term
Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin visits his campaign headquarters, on March 18, 2018. Michael Klimentyev / Sputnik
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 10 minutes

What to Expect of President Putin’s Foreign Policy in His New Term

Many wonder what the world should expect now that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been re-elected for what is supposed to be his final term. Understanding what motivates the Kremlin could help Western policymakers build an approach toward Russia that combines pressure with opportunities for engagement.

A particular solemnity cloaked the opening ceremony of Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term on 7 May as central Moscow was cordoned off for his motorcade’s procession to the Kremlin. Silence enveloped not only the capital’s streets but also airwaves across the country. Officials were warned to abstain from radio and television appearances on inauguration day to ensure that one man only set the information agenda.

In principle, the degree of control over proceedings might seem strange after what appeared to be a decisive election win. President Putin won 76 per cent of the vote in March, with an overall turnout of 67 per cent. The figures appear to have been higher than even Putin’s top officials anticipated.  

But these numbers, while they reflect genuine support for the president, are also the result of his government’s relentless propaganda, closure of space for any opposition, squeezing out of any alternative, and centralisation of assets and decision-making in the hands of a few. Among elites, but also among ordinary Russians, many lack confidence in the rule of law, including as it pertains to elections. Many believe the process is massaged to generate a clear endorsement for the government. Despite President Putin’s convincing performance at the ballot box, anxiety persists, even in the Kremlin, about the leadership’s legitimacy.

This anxiety plays out in the government’s policies in Russia and abroad. At home, it uses displays of force to repress dissent, even when protesters pose little real threat to the state. Witness the crackdowns on the 5 May demonstrations staged by opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, which officials portrayed as part of a Western plot to overthrow the government. Witness Putin’s deep aversion to colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space.

Despite President Putin’s convincing performance at the ballot box, anxiety persists, even in the Kremlin, about the leadership’s legitimacy.

Abroad, President Putin needs to project strength as much as he does at home. Indeed, his foreign policy has long been entwined with domestic politics. Support for the president is rooted in part in Russians’ perceptions of the country’s influence on the world stage. It rests on his ability to restore Russia’s great power status, to show that Russia matters, particularly at a time when suspicion between Moscow and the West is deeper than at any point since the end of the Cold War.

As a result, there is little reason to expect any major change of tack in Russia’s foreign policy during Putin’s forthcoming term.

Showing Russia Matters

That Russia’s domestic and foreign policy are particularly closely interlinked is a common refrain among Kremlin-connected experts and foreign diplomats in Moscow. Another theme, still more striking, is a sense of deepening dread that the world is closing in on Russia. “The issue isn’t that Russia and the West have different narratives on events”, remarked one expert who is involved in the dialogue on Ukraine. “It’s that the West has lost any sense of morals and is bent on harming us”.

The preoccupation with Western determination to “harm” Russia is not limited to Kremlin hawks. Even members of the pro-Western elite, as one well-connected expert remarked recently, are “drinking and depressed”. Having opposed confrontation with the West since the end of Soviet era, they now feel the West has let them down. Some are themselves starting to buy into the besieged fortress narrative. Moreover, seen from Moscow, the threats look real, as Western powers encroach on areas Russia perceives as within its own sphere of influence.

The preoccupation with Western determination to “harm” Russia is not limited to Kremlin hawks.

In this light, two principal objectives of President Putin’s actions abroad stand out. First, he aims to deter former Soviet republics and states to Russia’s west and south from joining NATO and the EU, whose expansion in the Baltics he considers a genuine security challenge to Moscow. Second, in a grander sense, he seeks to reinforce Russia’s status as a major power and ensure that Russia matters. In practice, whether Russia’s global significance is proven negatively – by sowing discord or fuelling conflict – or positively, by playing a peacemaking role, does not appear to make much difference in Moscow. What counts is the attention, and the perception that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.

Both objectives – the sphere of influence and great power status – resonate at home; both are critical for Putin’s legitimacy in many Russians’ eyes. Looking at how both were on display during the president’s 2012-2018 term gives a sense of where his foreign policy is likely to go amid the current standoff with the West.

Playing Abroad to a Russian Audience

When Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, his election was greeted by street protests that dwarfed those taking place today. The shadow those demonstrations cast over his legitimacy underpinned his pivot that year toward nationalism and aggressive anti-Western rhetoric in Russia. It also influenced his policies abroad.

In 2014, the fall of Viktor Yanukovich’s government in Ukraine and Kyiv’s shift away from Russia’s sphere of influence posed both a threat and an opportunity for the Kremlin. Moscow justified its subsequent seizure of Crimea with appeals to Crimeans’ right to self-determination. In reality the annexation served strategic interests along with domestic politics. It was largely driven by fears that Russia would lose another post-Soviet neighbor and its own Black Sea Fleet, positioned off Crimea, to NATO – by taking Crimea, Russia at least protected the latter. The annexation also placated Russian nationalists, for whom seizing Crimea had been a decades-long dream, and thus bolstered the Kremlin’s domestic legitimacy.  

Buoyed by its success in Crimea, Moscow then backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine – or Donbas – arguing that it was protecting the identity of ethnic Russians from an increasingly nationalistic, pro-Western Kyiv. But Moscow also was taking advantage of a revival of pro-Russian sentiment in Donbas to destabilise Ukraine and its new government, and, once again, bolster its own domestic legitimacy by playing to nationalist sentiment about a resurgent Russia.

In the fall of 2015, the deployment of Russian forces to back Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was intended in good part to shore up an ally and prevent Western powers, fresh from helping topple Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi, from ousting another ruler. Moscow also may well have had genuine fears about the instability it perceived could follow Assad’s demise and about the increasing prominence of Caucasus jihadists. But its Syria intervention also bolstered Russia’s world power status. Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – which it denies – served a similar purpose. Whether it aimed to disrupt the vote, undermine the legitimacy of what Moscow assumed would be Hillary Clinton’s mandate or actually affect the outcome is unclear. What is clear is that the meddling propelled Russia into Western headlines and policy debates.

Russia’s role in Ukraine, Syria and the U.S. elections all strengthened the Kremlin’s position at home by creating the sense that Russia is taken seriously on the world stage.

The consequences of making Russia “matter” in this negative way proved corrosive for Russia’s relations with the West. But Russia’s role in Ukraine, Syria and the U.S. elections all strengthened the Kremlin’s position at home by creating the sense that Russia is taken seriously on the world stage. Moscow’s attempts to expand its international influence feed into and are in turn fed by domestic nationalist sentiment. Moreover, every negative Western response to Moscow’s own inflammatory behaviour outside its borders – whether the U.S. elections hacking or the trolling, political meddling and support of nationalist groups in eastern Europe – has been seen through the prism of Western hostility toward Russia. State television, which interprets Western policy to millions of Russians, revels in showcasing stories of Russia dominating Western headlines. Facing international opprobrium, sanctions and isolation, the Kremlin has exploited rising anti-Russian sentiment in the West to propagate its own vision of itself: that Russia, and especially the Kremlin, matter.

Informal Policymaking

The conflation of foreign and domestic policy is due in part to the way foreign policy is made by the Kremlin. Russia’s main foreign policy decisions are not taken in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “In the MFA, there are interlocutors, but no decision-makers”, a Western diplomat remarked. Instead, policies originate from the presidential administration or from the assortment of domestic and foreign security services. Sometimes they also emanate from other policy peddlers: from oligarchs to think tanks. The seeds of both the Crimea and Donbas adventures, according to some reports, appear to have been sown in such think tanks’ policy papers or discussions. In lieu of set strategy and centralised coordination, a panoply of “visions” loosely promoting Russia’s greatness compete for Putin’s eyes and ears. And then the president, as chief arbiter, signs off – often verbally – on the final decision, according to Kremlin insiders.

All sorts of ideas, mostly centred on keeping the government in power, thus seep into the Kremlin’s decision-making. They are fed by nationalist sentiment and genuine anger at what are perceived as Western double standards. Contradictions within the international order, real or perceived slights of Russia’s interests abroad – all are transformed from mere challenge into existential threat.

To rationalise its behaviour, the Kremlin projects itself at home and abroad as a wise elder, years ahead of a decadent liberal order about to succumb to its own naiveté about how cynical and dangerous the world really is. A veteran Kremlin adviser reflected this worldview: “In the past, the U.S. would take control of a country and it would flourish: Germany, Japan. But now take Iraq, take Ukraine. The situation has changed, but [U.S. elites] don’t even know it. Russia is reacting to the new reality, not to the fantasy about the old one”.

Toward Containment and Engagement

The further deterioration of Russia-West relations over the past few months appears likely to reinforce the trends evident in Russian foreign policy during President Putin’s last term. The diplomatic fallout of the Sergei Skripal incident (Skripal, a former Russia intelligence officer was poisoned with a nerve agent in an attack Western powers pinned on Russia); the new round of sanctions adopted by the U.S. in response; and the Western strikes on Syria in reaction to Assad’s chemical weapons attack have sent tensions spiralling.

“I am less optimistic than a month ago”, said a leading expert with Kremlin ties in mid-April. “Putin was more relaxed about the domestic situation, so why bother [escalating]? But then Skripal happened”. Another expert put it this way: “Vladimir Putin sees the campaign against Russia as a bid to undermine the beginning of his term, to undermine his legitimacy”.

Given the current escalation, Russia, while for now perhaps lacking the appetite or resources for further military entanglements abroad, appears certain to respond with intensifying anti-Western rhetoric and continued support for nationalist parties or Kremlin allies and potentially cyberattacks elsewhere. Domestically, the Kremlin will exploit Western pressure and criticism of Russian actions to fuel its “besieged fortress” narrative and thus bolster its own authority. This could have a particularly corrosive effect on both domestic efforts to reform and any potential for constructive dialogue with the West.

Rather than changing Russian policy, Washington’s new penalties have led elites to rally around Putin

U.S. sanctions on 6 April, targeting seven oligarchs, twelve companies and seventeen senior Russian officials, should be seen in this light. Those sanctions sought to punish, in the Treasury Department’s words, Russia’s “malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material [sic] and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies and malicious cyber activities”. But rather than changing Russian policy, Washington’s new penalties have led elites to rally around Putin. According to some Russian officials, the Western response to the Skripal poisoning galvanised Russian voters, partly explaining the high turnout in March. Most Russians simply did not believe that Moscow was responsible and saw the Western reaction as anti-Kremlin posturing.  

That the West should resort to punitive action to contain Moscow’s aggressive behaviour, its threats to Western nations’ security, and its seizure of Crimea and meddling in Donbas is not in question. But the recent round of sanctions, by lumping together different Russian actions as “malign activity”, strikes at the heart of Kremlin insecurity. Rather than creating incentives for changes in Russian policy or behaviour, such sanctions instead serve to reinforce the Kremlin’s narrative that the West will besiege Russia whatever it does. To work more effectively, any fresh Western sanctions should target specific actions – if necessary piece by piece – rather than conflating all of the Kremlin’s aggressive activities abroad. Western powers should lay out clearly what would need to happen for those sanctions to be lifted.  

Sanctions also should be coupled with avenues for dialogue and cooperation. Even within the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which blasts Western governments for their hypocrisy and insults to Russian dignity, many diplomats want to work with the West on issues from fighting terrorism and drug trafficking to energy policy. Such dialogue might help channel Russia’s global power impulse toward less aggressive and more productive objectives.

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