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#10 - JRL 2006-31 - JRL Home
Date: Thu, 02 Feb 2006
From: "Mikhail Troitskiy" <Mikhail.Troitskiy@wilsoncenter.org>
Subject: A Peculiar Country: Russia’s Drift from International to Domestic Factors in Foreign Policymaking

Mikhail Troitskiy is a Visiting Fulbright-Kennan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

Amid all discussion of where Russia is heading domestically and in its arguably more assertive foreign policy, an important shift in Russia’s policymaking is often overlooked by observers. The sources of Russian foreign policy are becoming more domestic than they used to be in the 1990s and earlier this decade. To the greatest extent ever, Russian foreign policy now begins at home. Not only tactical, but also strategic choices the Russian leadership is making on the international arena are motivated by its vision of Russia’s domestic development opportunities and challenges.

The sources of evolution

There are several reasons why the influence of external factors on Russian foreign policymaking was significant in the 1990s and even during the early years of President Putin. First, until mid-1990s, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Russia was enthusiastic about the possibility to become part of the West. It was then natural for Russia at that time to want to have good relations with the West upon which it was trying to model itself. Second, during his early years as president, Boris Yeltsin expected that the West could help Russian reforms out of good will, just as it helped post-Second World War Western Europe to rebound economically. This made Russia receptive to influence from the West in the first half of 1990s. Even later in that decade, Russia continued to need foreign financial aid and therefore to listen carefully to Western advice and, sometimes, lecturing. Third, over the 1990s, Russia sought to join international institutions and regimes, such as G7 or the Council of Europe, and was concerned with living up to their membership criteria. Finally, the conduct of Russia’s foreign policy in the 1990s was shaped by the goals of staving off NATO enlargement and trying to cater to China which was thought to be pursuing a policy of quiet penetration into Russia’s Far East.

While Russia remained sensitive to external impulses for about a decade since independence, important changes were transpiring, both in the external environment and in the thinking of Russian political elites, that significantly reduced the salience of international factors in Russian foreign policymaking. Country’s leadership and most of the general public came to realize that Russia would not be able to build a Western-style model of governance in the foreseeable future. The West was anyway not accepting Russia as “one of us” under any conditions. The European Union and the United States remained preoccupied with their own agendas which did not harm Russia’s interests at best, and used Russia as a bugbear at worst. At the same time, the need in external financial aid disappeared as oil profits started to descend on Russia early in this decade.

By the late 1990s, Russia had joined G7 and the Council of Europe. Yet there was no prospect for Russia to get significantly closer to core Western institutions, such as the EU and NATO. In the mid-2000s, the EU found itself engrossed in overcoming the constitutional and budgetary stalemate. For NATO, relations with Russia also remain on the sidelines of Alliance’s strategy. There is a lack of strategic thinking about what and how NATO and Russia could do together. The Alliance is much more concerned with preserving its own cohesion and finding ways to be useful in conflict management in Afghanistan, certain parts the post-Soviet space and, possibly, Iraq.

In sum, an understanding has crystallized in Russia that foreign relations per se would not help solve Russia’s development problems. In addition to that, Russian leadership has become firm in the belief in the peculiar nature of Russia as a state in the world arena. Admittedly, just like the United States, Russia can hardly be compared to any other country given its geopolitical and socio-economic characteristics and security challenges. As an implication, an internal development strategy appropriate for Russia is not likely to resemble the path followed by any other country.

It should be acknowledged, however, that the conclusion about Russia’s “own way” was drawn not from ideological constructs, such as the notorious Eurasianism, or generalizations about the “uniqueness” of the Russian culture and soul, but rather from a number of material factors. These include Russia’s abundant natural resources, vast territory and “compartmentalized” ethnic diversity. Russia is also peculiar for its mixed socio-economic characteristics: relatively high average educational level and self-organization skills among Russians combined with the alarming trends of impending epidemics of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, low life expectancy and high infant mortality. Finally, Russia’s security challenges are also understood as “specific” compared to what any other developed country may be facing. Russia has been wrestling with a very special kind of centuries-old separatism in the Caucasus, based on a mix of economic, tribal and religious factors. This challenge is understood as uniquely Russian notwithstanding all the rhetoric trying to link Russia’s terrorist problem with international terrorism.

As a result of both international trends and internal shifts in thinking, Russia has departed from the stark “strategic choice”: are we with the West, with the East, or “in the middle”? Good or bad, foreign policy choices are now governed mostly by internal considerations.

Domestic drivers of Russian foreign policy

The most powerful motive force of Russian foreign policy at the time being appears to be the use of Russia’s endowment in natural resources. Here foreign policymaking is affected by two major concerns of the country’s leadership. The first is the question about how to make the inflow of profits from hydrocarbons’ supplies to foreign markets reliable in the long run. This concern largely motivates Russia’s inclination towards “multi-vector” diplomacy. Over the second half of 2005, President Putin traveled south-west to Turkey, Italy and Germany and then headed east for Japan, China and Korea. On the western vector, Russia has launched the construction of the Baltic Sea gas pipeline to Germany and conducted talks with the United States on liquefied natural gas and, possibly, oil supplies to the US through the port of Murmansk. At the same time, states on Russia’s western and southern borders are increasingly viewed as competitors or even obstacles to the Russian “energy outreach” effort.

The second concern, related to Russia’s natural resources, is finding ways to integrate Russia into the Western economic system during the window of opportunity provided by the oil windfall. Locking Russia in firmly with the West seems to remain one of President Putin’s major strategic goals. Yet the country’s leadership has become convinced that the “front door” to the developed world is closed to Russia who had to face great pains even during negotiations on accession to the World Trade Organization. Therefore, ideas have become popular about finding a “backdoor” to the Western economic system ­ for example, by hiring well-connected Western managers or politicians to run Russia’s flagship businesses.

Apart from natural resources, Russian foreign policy is driven by the country’s unaccomplished nation-building agenda. Although Russia is less ethnically and culturally diverse than the Soviet Union, it continues wrestling with nation-building tasks. And this struggle for self-identity has clear foreign policy implications. First, Russia seeks to position itself as the most successful country in the post-Soviet space, attractive to the citizens of other post-Soviet states. This helps to boost the feeling of Russia’s self-identity as a center of gravity for the surrounding countries.

Second, as a multi-ethnic and multi-religion country, Russia is not a “melting pot”, but rather a “consociational” system. It has opaque mechanisms of building consensus among regional elites, including the Islamic republics on the Volga and in the North Caucasus. Exposing these mechanisms to light will most likely result in their disruption. A fully liberal model of federal governance can hardly work with regional elites espousing clannish loyalties and in the presence of economic bottlenecks in places, such as the North Caucasus. For Russian foreign policy, it means a constant debate if not a clash with the West about the lack of liberal democracy in Russia and the ensuing unbeatable argument by Western scholars and politicians that Russia’s prospects of partnership with the West will remain strongly limited until the country becomes a robust democracy.

The third internal factor affecting Russian foreign policy is Russia’s demographic problems and fear of the “Paris scenario”. One implication of these problems has been the easing of migration rules to let in labor force. In December 2005, amendments to the citizenship law were adopted whereby Russian citizenship benefits were extended to those who arrived to Russia after 2002. One may predict that Russia will be doing its best to attract Ukrainians to jobs in Russia.

Demographic constraints will soon start to visibly affect Russia’s defense policy. This will occur primarily due to the shrinking number of available draftees. It can be expected that Russia will be compelled to downsize the draft while increasing the number of professional servicemen. In a way, demography may boost the long-needed defense reform in Russia.


What does the transition to domestic foreign policy drivers portend for Russia? First, putting foreign policy choices on the pragmatic basis of internal development strategy looks to be a positive trend. Yet this strategy may need to be modified according to unexpected circumstances which can render all prior choices useless or even harmful. For example, if a major destabilization occurs in the North Caucasus, Russia will need to review the main guidelines of its use of natural resources strategy. Failure of the opaque “consociational” system of governance in the Russian Caucasus may trigger a chain reaction in other parts of the state and lead to a complete review of the nation-building strategy with direct implications for foreign policy.

And, second, Russia is taking the risk of “isolation from pragmatism” if no proximity is established with any major power center on the basis of values. In this situation, nothing will help Russia to hold on if its resource base shrinks. The consensus about Russia’s “peculiarity” hinders progress in bridging the “value gap” between Russia and the West. For all its distinctiveness, Russia cannot afford isolation in the face of mounting internal challenges. It is therefore crucial for the Russian leadership to develop a strategy which will not employ Russia’s “peculiarity” as an argument for continued detachment from the West, but rather will incrementally bring Russia closer to the West.