Top 10 Events Shaping Russia’s Foreign Policy

The political season from fall 2009 to summer 2010 was rich in landmark events. I have listed my top 10 events that shaped Russia’s foreign policy during that time and will have a strong impact on further developments.

1. The coup in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan was the first post-Soviet republic to be almost officially described as a “failed state.” Russia’s restraint and the indifference of other major powers surprised observers, who had expected to see another geopolitical battle. The post-Soviet region has ceased to be a subject of universal interest. Washington, Beijing and Brussels have actually recognized Moscow’s political supremacy in this part of the world. But Russia’s “imperial instincts” are waning. At present, Moscow understands that it does not have the political, military or legal instruments required for acting in such situations.

2. The Kharkiv agreement between Russia and Ukraine. The victory of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s presidential election has rid Moscow and Kiev of two problems — gas wars and the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — that could have led to serious crises. Russia pins much hope on closer ties with Ukraine. Further relations between the two countries depend on their negotiating skills. Yanukovych feels confident inside his own country, but Kiev’s traditional room for maneuvering between Russia and Europe is now limited. The European Union is bogged down in internal problems and displays no interest.

3. The modernization campaign. “Modernization alliances” was the recurring theme in President Dmitry Medvedev’s foreign policy statements. But he has never given any clear explanation as to what “modernization alliances” mean. Analysts have interpreted this as a turn toward the West, although the modernization model discussed in Russia calls for only selective engagement. The logic behind an improved relationship with the West is that once political obstacles are removed,  Russia will experience an increase in investment and technology transfers.

4. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to deploy elements of a strategic missile defense system in Eastern Europe and sanctions against Iran. These two moves should be considered in tandem. The White House’s decision not to deploy a radar and missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland were the real beginning of the “resetting” of U.S.-Russian relations. The administration of George W. Bush had sought to press Moscow on any issue and not to retreat a single step. Russia appreciated the change that took place under Obama — above all, a willingness to discuss rather than present Moscow with a fait accompli — and felt it necessary to respond in a constructive manner.  This is a fragile foundation, yet the model for cooperation has been found.

5. The New START treaty. Although this agreement will not produce a revolution in U.S.-Russian relations, the two sides have closed the main dossier left over from the Cold War. Further negotiations on this issue will no longer be in the spotlight of everyone’s attention, and, second, they would make almost no sense without other nuclear countries being involved. At the same time, the process is not over yet. If the U.S. Senate does not ratify the treaty, the “reset” will be on the verge of collapse, which could easily lead to setbacks in other areas of bilateral relations.

6. The customs union. Thanks to Moscow’s Herculean efforts, the customs union has been initiated between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Further prospects are dim, as tensions between Russia and Belarus continue to sour relations. Moscow can be proud of its political success — its first initiative that can evolve into a real, not imitation, integration project. But the downside, of course, is that the customs union will hurt Russia’s chances of joining the World Trade Organization. Attempts to pursue both global and regional integration at the same time show an absence of clear, long-term strategic thinking.

7. The turn toward Asia. The Russian leadership has for the first time made it a real priority to formulate an Asian policy and integrate into the processes taking place in the Asia-Pacific region. One motivation was a gradual realization that, as China grows, Russia may finally lose its independence in Asia. This shift may mean that Moscow is looking for ways to get away from its reliance on the West, but at the same time use Western connections to  achieve a stronger position in Asia.

8. The Treaty of Lisbon and the crisis in the EU. The threat of a default in Greece was only a particular manifestation of the conceptual crisis of European integration. The monetary union has come into sharp conflict with the political jumble. The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into effect in late 2009, has not turned the EU into a single actor. On the contrary, it has already reduced the EU’s influence in the world and caused the most active member countries to set their foreign policy priorities independently. In this context, Moscow has stepped up bilateral ties with Berlin, Paris and others.

9. The Katyn commemorations. These marked a breakthrough in relations not only between Russia and Poland. By all indications, Russia’s leadership has decided to give up attempts to use Stalinism as a political instrument. Inside the country, this instrument divides rather than consolidates society. In foreign policy, it provokes tensions, especially with Russia’s neighbors. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to Gdansk to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, the ceremony at Katyn, and the Russian authorities’ appropriate reaction to the crash of the Polish presidential aircraft have opened up new opportunities for Russia in Europe.

10. Increased tensions with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Minsk, which used to be viewed as Russia’s closest ally, has turned out to be its most stubborn opponent. The economic and political conflict has evolved into a principled confrontation over who will define the rules of the game in integration projects in the post-Soviet space. In the end, Lukashenko is barking up the wrong tree, since Belarus’ economy is highly dependent on Russia. Moreover, the West will not take Lukashenko’s side against Russia.

Over the past year, Russian foreign policy has been more reactive than proactive. At the same time, Moscow understands that it needs to adopt new approaches.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

See also:

Russia Considers Secondary Offering of Eurobonds

Top EU Politicians Say Russia Sanctions Will Likely Be Extended

Russian Foreign Ministry Accuses Euronews of 'Discrediting Itself'

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