Event ReportsPublished on Apr 22, 2016
Russia looking to define itself as a player in Eurasian system

Russia is now looking to define itself as a player in the Eurasian system, distinct from the European model, according to Dr. Dmitri Trenin, Director at Carnegie Moscow Center.

Delivering a talk on “What drives Russia’s Foreign Policy” at Observer Research Foundation on April 5, Dr Trenin noted that Russia remains equidistant to all major powers around the world and as close to Asia as it is to Europe. This, he said, is based on the notion that the geopolitical game is global, and Russia is a globalised member of the game.

The talk, chaired by ORF Director Sunjoy Joshi, was meant to understand the domestic and international compulsions that drive Russia’s foreign policy and its relations with major powers. Mr. Joshi observed that Russia surprised the world by intervening in Syria at a time when it was weighed down by Ukraine related sanctions and plunging oil prices. Equally surprising, he added, was the sudden withdrawal that the country announced last month. In light of these developments, Russia’s proactive foreign policy has naturally generated considerable interest and curiosity, making the discussion very timely.

Dr. Trenin began by observing that 2014 was a crucial year in altering the dynamics among great powers as it saw the culmination of relatively peaceful relations in place since the end of Cold War. After the romanticism of early 1990s, when Russia was drawing closer to the West, the Russians gradually realised that the prime condition for their integration was one they could not accept: “the recognition of US leadership”. This inevitably resulted in the end of the era of the “European Choice” too.

That Moscow no longer wished to appease the West was clear when in 2014, Russia broke out of the post–Cold–War system established by the US, first via its actions in Ukraine, soon followed by its overtures in Syria. However, comparing the present situation to the Cold War phrase, he cautioned, is a misleading analogy.

Explaining Sino–Russian relations, Dr. Trenin said that post Russia’s rupture with the West, it was realized in the corridors of power that more time needs to be devoted into building relations with non–West nations.  He opined that the Sino–Russian integration is more than just rapprochement as it has been elevated to the levels of entente with high degree of mutual understanding and coincidence of interest. However, “it certainly falls short of alliance as neither wants one”.

On queries whether Russia has post–imperialist ambitions on former Soviet territories, Dr. Trenin remarked that such an assumption is founded on a biased paranoia of Moscow. This reflects the problem with objectivity that major media outlets seem to retain whilst dealing with Russia. According to him, Russia has no interest in annexing the Commonwealth of Independent (CIS) states. Explaining the Russian motives in Ukraine and Syria, he pointed that Russian foreign policy is striving to accomplish the dual objectives of coercing the West to consider Russia as a major strategic power (through Syria) and preserving its national integrity (through Ukraine).

Bringing the discussion to a close, Dr. Trenin explained that the Russian foreign policy could best be understood through a closer analysis of the political structure in Russia. The country’s historical context, which includes the Tsarist and Soviet periods, is also crucial for understanding its current foreign policy. He emphasised that Russia is still a monarchy in the way it functions (most evident in foreign and security policy). Comparing President Putin to a “Tsar”, he elucidated that the president “takes advice primarily from his aides in the security services and takes decisions based on his experience as the oldest serving leader”. The running theme in Putin’s close advisory circle, he reiterated, is a sense of classic Realpolitik, and a shared animosity against US. Thus, in a quasi ideology built around the concept of state, which is the highest civic value, Russian patriotism provides context to analyse which decision to take when undertaking policy course corrections.

Domestically, Putin’s foreign policy ambitions and measures to accomplish the same have generally received support from his people. However, there are several challenges that grip Russia at present. Elaborating on the same, Dr. Trenin remarked that President Putin has a tough task ahead of him given the economic downturn that the country now faces in parallel with its confrontation with the West. Challenges like low energy prices, Islamic radicalism, decline of intellectual and technological capabilities have placed two alternatives in front of Putin: scaling back foreign policy or accelerating economic policy. This is a choice Moscow has been struggling to come to terms with.

Finally, the stakes are very high and how Russia chooses to see itself through this period will make a major impact; both to its national security and global geopolitics as a whole.

This report is prepared by Mikhil Rialch, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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