Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud: Russia’s New Vision for Taking on the West
Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud: Russia’s New Vision for Taking on the West
Russian President Vladimir Putin poses as he delivers a New Year's address to the nation at the headquarters of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don on December 31, 2022. SPUTNIK / AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 12 minutes

Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud: Russia’s New Vision for Taking on the West

In its latest foreign policy blueprint, published at the end of March, the Kremlin outlines ambitious but vague plans for countering the United States and Washington’s allies around the globe

On 31 March, the Kremlin spelled out its vision for a new “foreign policy concept” – in the first such strategy document Russia has released since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The document is a radical departure from the previous foreign policy concept, which was published in November 2016. The 2023 text confirms what many analysts have long thought to be the underlying ambition in Moscow’s worldview, setting forth sweeping goals for its role as a Eurasian power. While these do not appear to be supported by anything more than vague plans at this stage, Russia’s efforts to make its vision reality could bring disruption and conflict.

Caging U.S. Power

Several elements stand out in Russia’s new foreign policy blueprint, but perhaps chief among them is the nakedly adversarial posture it takes with respect to the United States. For the first time since the Cold War, the Kremlin has formally made clear that it sees Washington as its main adversary and the U.S.-led global order as a target for countermeasures. The Kremlin asserts that it faces an existential conflict with the U.S., which it describes as bent on destroying Russia’s territorial integrity”. In particular, it charges the U.S. and its allies with unleashing a “hybrid war” on Russia, involving methods such as economic sanctions and interference in Russian domestic politics.

This offensive demands pushback, the document holds. It says: “In response to the unfriendly actions of the West, Russia intends to defend its right to exist and to develop freely by all available means”. This phrasing suggests that Moscow intends either to bring about a change in U.S. policy or prevent the U.S. from achieving its purported aims by blocking them. The concept appears to put its bets on the second option, setting as its priority “the elimination of the vestiges of U.S. and other unfriendly states’ dominance in world affairs”. That is, it contemplates that Russia will aim to deprive the West of the ability to pursue its objectives by shifting the balance of power in the world against the U.S. and its allies.

 This stance is a break from the past. Previous Russian policy documents spoke of building a common security space with European countries. For Westerners who have long argued that Russia is set on undermining the Western-led global order, this concept’s new language offers fresh, compelling evidence of Moscow’s intentions.

A Regional Roadmap: Europe and Eurasia

According to the concept, Russia’s plans for attaining its goals differ from region to region.  

In Europe, the Kremlin intends to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies. While it is unclear how it plans to achieve this aim, the concept suggests that Moscow will extend the carrot of eventual normalised relations to European powers that divorce themselves from Washington and pursue an “independent” (ie, Russia-friendly) foreign policy. While the document is vague about the benefits of normalisation, presumably greater regional stability would be at the top of the list.

While the concept does not state that Russia seeks an end to either NATO or the European Union, it describes both as threatening the “security, territorial integrity, sovereignty, traditional values and socio-economic development of Russia”. It says the same of the Council of Europe – the continent’s leading human rights organisation, which expelled Russia following its all-out invasion of Ukraine. By contrast, it describes the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to which Russia still belongs, as a platform for possible dialogue with Europe. The passage about the OSCE is nonetheless considerably frostier than the corresponding one in the 2016 concept, which described the institution as a forum for settling conflicts and “building an equal and indivisible pan-European security system”.  

The concept also lays out a separate strategy for “Eurasia”, which is distinct from its plans for “Europe”, although the latter is geographically included in the former. The Eurasia discussion reflects some conceptual shifts. The 2016 concept distinguished between a Eurasian region (referring, roughly, to the space once occupied by the Soviet Union except for the Baltic countries) and an Asia-Pacific region. But the new concept talks about the Eurasian continent in the aggregate. References to Eurasia thus incorporate all of Europe, India, China, the Asia Pacific and what the concept refers to as the “Islamic world” (ie, the Middle East plus Türkiye and perhaps other countries as well).

[Eurasia] appears to be central to Moscow's global ambitions.

This sprawling region appears to be central to Moscow’s global ambitions. These designs, as reflected in the concept, appear to draw inspiration from the writings of the Eurasianists of the 1920s, a group of intellectuals admired by Putin who believed that Russia’s geographical footprint in both Europe and Asia helped make the country a unique power. In 2012, Putin called Eurasianism “a tradition of our political thought” that now has new resonance. Consistent with that vision, the document describes Russia as a “distinctive state-civilisation”, a “Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power”, the centre of “the Russian world” and the sole “sovereign centre of global development” in the part of the Eurasian land mass once occupied by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

The concept suggests that with these self-assigned roles come prerogatives and responsibilities. It envisages that other states in the territory of the former Soviet Union are and shall remain dependent on Moscow. (The Baltic states are not mentioned in the paper, and so presumably are not part of this Moscow-dependent territory.) The document also asserts that Russia plays the key role in Eurasia’s security; in that role, it must fight off what the Kremlin describes as efforts by unfriendly states to provoke “disintegration” in the region. In other words, the concept says Moscow will oppose foreign governments’ efforts to work or partner with former Soviet countries in ways that might preclude Russian plans for them.

This posture is not entirely new. Moscow has long treated its fellow Soviet successor states as banded together in a zone of Russia’s “privileged interests”, a phrase then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev first deployed in 2008. In essence, the Kremlin reserved the right to exercise influence over the countries in Russia’s neighbourhood. The 2023 concept note, however, goes even further, explicitly stating that the Kremlin opposes the “deployment or strengthening of military infrastructure of unfriendly states and other threats to security” in these countries. While the Kremlin would not have welcomed such deployments in the past, either, its prior concept at least paid lip service to the idea of equality among Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – a regional intergovernmental organisation comprising twelve countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union. It also emphasised Russian respect for the right of its CIS partners to build relations with other international actors. Language to this effect is conspicuously absent in the present concept.

Also new in the present concept is the promise of “an integrated economic and political space in Eurasia” – referring specifically to that part of Eurasia that was once part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (again excluding the Baltic countries). The Kremlin hopes to forge stronger economic and political links in the region first by leveraging the wide range of international organisations that already tie together the countries in question. These include the CIS; the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an economic alliance comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia; and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance that includes all of those countries plus Tajikistan and the Union State of Russia and Belarus, a special integration of Russia and Belarus that has existed since 1999. Later, Moscow hopes to “develop additional multilateral formats”. Thus, it seems to envision not so much a single alliance covering this territorial expanse as a network of international organisations.

While assuring readers that Moscow will continue to prioritise conflict resolution and prevention ... the [foreign policy concept] offers no concrete vision for ending the fighting in Ukraine.

The new concept offers only glimpses of insight into Moscow’s plans to consolidate its influence in this region of “privileged interests”. Moldova and Georgia do not appear by name; nor do the regions of Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh, despite the presence of Russian troops in both. In 2016, Russia’s concept spoke of promoting the development of Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which Moscow recognised as independent in 2008. By contrast, the new concept says Moscow intends to promote “the realisation of … the voluntary choice of the peoples of these states in favour of deepening integration with Russia”. While this wording could be read as suggesting the possibility of annexation, the concept seems instead to emphasise prospects for the regions’ closer integration into Russia short of annexation. Finally, the concept uses broad, imprecise language to describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine, claiming that the Kremlin was forced to take measures there “to protect its vital interests”, leaving ambiguous whether it even regards Ukraine as a sovereign nation. While assuring readers that Moscow will continue to prioritise conflict resolution and prevention in the region, the document offers no concrete vision for ending the fighting in Ukraine, much less any plan for that country’s post-war reconstruction or thoughts about its place in the regional security architecture.

The concept does recognise other “sovereign global centres of power” in the larger Eurasian land mass: namely, China and India. It characterises Beijing as Moscow’s “comprehensive strategic partner” and New Delhi as a “privileged strategic partner”, signalling the importance the Kremlin places on warm relations with both. The Kremlin has used both formulations in the past, but the new concept hints that Russia expects those connections to become even stronger. The key existing international grouping in this part of the world, according to the concept, is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a political, economic and international security organisation whose member states include China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

The concept’s portrayal of Eurasia as a monolith to be dealt with under a single unified strategy is not easily reconciled with the complex realities of geopolitics across this huge span of territory. Still, it lays out a plan to knit the region’s countries together through the formation of what it refers to as the Greater Eurasian Partnership. According to the concept, the Partnership will combine “the potential of all states, regional organisations and associations of Eurasia, based on the EEU, the SCO and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the convergence of the EEU development plans and the Chinese initiative ‘One Belt, One Road’ while maintaining the possibility of participation in this partnership of all interested states and multilateral associations of the Eurasian continent”. The invitation to “all interested states and multilateral associations” includes European nations. In other words, the proposed partnership would be a mix of existing organisations and others that may someday be created, with the door left open for discontented NATO and EU members should they wish to abandon Euro-Atlanticism and join Russia’s Eurasian project. The specifics of how this very ambitious effort would be realised are not fleshed out.  

New Focus Areas 

For the first time, the new concept devotes ample space to Russia’s role in the Islamic world, Africa and Latin America. The document states the Kremlin is ready to mediate conflicts, offering Moscow’s 2019 Concept of Collective Security in the Persian Gulf as a model. That proposal argued for forming a new anti-terrorist coalition to encompass all the region’s countries and called on external players – presumably the U.S. – to give up their permanent bases and gradually reduce their military presence in the Middle East. The most radical idea in the 2023 concept note is a promise to help Latin American countries that want to achieve more distance (it refers to “sovereignty” and “independence”) from the U.S. How Russia will help them do so is unclear, although the document positively cites Moscow’s existing relationships with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Brazil – the first three of which have either strained or no formal relations with Washington.

With regard to the Middle East, the Kremlin characterises “Islamic civilisation” as friendly to Russia. It states that Islamic civilisation has “wide prospects for establishing itself as an independent centre of global development”, which indicates that, from Russia’s point of view, Middle Eastern Islamic countries are too dependent on the U.S. and thus have not yet established themselves as fully sovereign states. The concept suggests that if these countries can shake off U.S. influence, they could form another Eurasian civilisation – with Russia’s help and guidance.

Traditional Values

Like many of Russia’s official statements before it, the 2023 foreign policy concept emphasises “traditional values”. This term recalls Moscow’s National Security Strategy of 2021 and the Fundamentals of State Policy to Preserve and Strengthen Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values of 2022. Such references reflect the Kremlin’s effort to brand its approach to both domestic and foreign policy as reflective of social conservatism and thus antithetical to what it presents as Western degeneracy, particularly when it comes to questions of gender identity, gender roles, religion and family relations.

The Russian government commits to promoting so-called traditional values not just at home, but also abroad.

In this vein, the Kremlin defines “strengthening traditional Russian spiritual and moral values and preserving the cultural and historical heritage of the multinational people of the Russian Federation” as a national interest. In other words, the Russian government commits to promoting so-called traditional values not just at home, but also abroad. This language contrasts with the 2016 concept’s insistence on Russia’s commitment to “universal democratic values, including ensuring human rights and freedoms” – phrasing that many Western states would feel comfortable adopting as their own. The concept also leans into support for the Russian Orthodox Church. Although Russia is a constitutionally multi-confessional and secular state, the new concept promises to “protect the Russian Orthodox Church from discrimination abroad, including in the interest of ensuring the unity of Christian Orthodoxy”. It offers no assurances of support for any other religion or denomination.

An Aspiration to Confrontation

In sum, Moscow’s new foreign policy concept is an aspirational document published at a transitional moment in Russian foreign policy. It is not terribly well organised (the section on Africa, for example, is nested under Eurasia) and it appears to reflect more than a little bit of wishful thinking. Those flaws may reflect the still inchoate nature of Russia’s evolving approach to international relations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Putin’s desire to project strength and confidence, the document ignores Russia’s real military and economic challenges, including the financial, political and military harm caused by its decision to invade Ukraine.

It also says nothing about Moscow’s corresponding loss of influence globally and locally. Indeed, in asserting privileged interests in countries near Russian borders and suggesting that Moscow intends to consolidate its influence among former Soviet countries, the document fails to acknowledge that these very neighbours seem to increasingly view the Kremlin as both dangerous and unreliable. The EU’s expanded role in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan and most Central Asian states’ careful balancing acts in the Russo-Ukrainian war indicate shifting perspectives. Moscow may be conflating countries’ avoidance of explicit condemnation of the Kremlin’s policies and/or continued trade with Russia with willingness to align with Moscow. Alternatively, Russia may not see the need to give great weight to these countries’ fears, feeling that its regional power gives it a whip hand.

What is perhaps most noteworthy about Moscow’s new foreign policy concept is the extent to which it, in effect, says all the quiet parts out loud. What was for many years the subtext in Russian statements and documents – growing enmity toward Washington and hope that countries not aligned with the West would join Russia in countering the U.S. – is now written out in black and white. Realistic or not, Russia’s new concept is meant to convey that Moscow expects to continue its confrontation with the West for the long term, and not just in Ukraine. Moreover, it is committed to pulling other countries into this contest, even if the details of how it will do so remain undefined. The lack of definition may augur ill for its plans. But while Russia’s approach may not allow Putin to achieve his goals, the concept is nevertheless worrying, not least because of the damage the Russian state could do as it seeks to put the Kremlin’s words into action. Both Moscow’s designated adversaries in the West and those whom it hopes to implicate in its designs should be prepared at the least for more disinformation, more covert activities, more efforts to leverage whatever opportunities present themselves to advance its agenda, and a long-term willingness to stoke conflict to achieve its ambitious aims.

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