Russia’s National Interests and Foreign Policy Preferences

Givi Gigitashvili is an intern at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs

We have no eternal allies and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests

 are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.”

Lord Palmerston

Vladimir Putin’s conservative turn, coupled with imposition of Western sanctions on Russia during Crimean crisis, has aggravated country’s international isolation that resulted in diminished enthusiasm on both sides to go back to “business as usual.” Seemingly, the current turmoil is the consequence of prevalent misperceptions and abiding unsettled issues in the West-Russia relations. In an effort to undercut its isolation, Russia turned to the East with an aim to forge its ties with China. This article examines the major limitations and opportunities of Russia’s cooperation with the West and China from the perspective of its national interests. By doing so, the main text outlines the three fundamental national interests of Russia and seeks to elucidate, how these interests are incompatible with the West’s vision and why it can impede healing relations between Russia and the West in a near future. Along with identifying Russia’s national interests, first part of article sets out to discuss the deep-seated discrepancies between Russia’s expectations and the West’s actual response to them. The second part of article highlights the main tenets of Russia-China “win-win” relations and explains why businesslike cooperation with China seems more compatible with Russia’s national interests in a short-term perspective.

Russia’s national interests and the West

To begin with, Russia’s current assertiveness can be quite telling to single out at least three key national interests of Russia. It could be argued that number one national interest is preservation of current political regime and minimizing chances of Western interference in Russia’s domestic affairs. Allegedly, this preoccupation is nurtured by Russia’s exaggerated misperception, as if the West deliberately prepares ‘color revolutions’ to cause the downfall of Putin’s regime. This misperception derives from a robust psychological impact on Russia’s political elite, inflicted by ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. As Krastev and Leonard put it, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was Putin’s 9/11, which exposed remote-controlled street protests as the primary threat for his regime. On these grounds, “Russia has been searching for a new European order for over ten years, one that can secure the regime’s survival even after Putin.” [1] Furthermore, the latest conservative surge also serves to the purpose of keeping Putin’s regime in place, since the explicit advantages of moral conservatism is that it respects social hierarchies, does not call the legitimacy of the Kremlin into question, lacks destabilizing potential and contradicts liberal values.[2] Nonetheless, the West cannot assure that it will prevent revolution in Russia, because in most cases, revolutionary upheavals start inside the country. By contrast, many Russian politicians go as far as to suggest that the Western political institutions are planning a revolution in Russia, or that the Russia-based Western NGOs are managed by the White House and European Commission, which sounds merely far-fetched. Moreover, if cooperation with the West entails at least, partial or formal acceptance of its values by Russia, the latter considers that it can significantly undermine the foundations of its authoritarian regime. Therefore, the Kremlin’s acute fear of the regime change by dint of ‘color revolutions’, coupled with the possible consequences of the EU’s enhancing normative power in post-Soviet space exacerbates Russia’s suspicions toward the West that leads to widening the gap between Russia and the West.

The second national interest of Russia lies in its relentless quest for respect, which in Andrei Kortunov words, is a unique feature of Russia’s culture.[3]  Russia considers itself as an eternal great power and traditional understanding of great power status involves dominance in one’s neighborhood/region. However, political leadership is convinced that the Western great powers are reluctant to recognize Russia as a great power and this fact is an explicit expression of disrespect. Ward notes that encroachment to the sphere of Russia’s “privileged interests” by the West was “the most important manifestation of Russian demotion from the ranks of the major powers.”[4] Thus, respect to Russia is measured by the extent of Western acceptance of Moscow’s “special” interests in the post-Soviet space.[5] In a similar vein, Stephen Kotkin notes that recognition of the Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space is the price for reaching accommodation with Putin and currently the West is reluctant to grant any privileges on this space to Moscow.[6] The point being that a number of post-Soviet countries aim to integrate into the EU institutions based on their free choice and diminishing the West’s support to their aspirations can be unequivocally deemed as going against the EU principles. What is more, allowing Russia to freely exert control over its sphere of influence will only increase Moscow’s appetite to demand for more deliveries.

On the other hand, there is a growing support to the claim that the West underestimates Russia’s post-imperial trauma and Moscow’s readiness to relinquish its ingrained imperial legacy, which steers the Kremlin’s ambitions in the post-Soviet space. Judging by this argument, declaration of Russia’s all interests in its neighborhood (especially non-offensive ones) as illegitimate was viewed in Moscow as entirely inflammatory. Moreover, an actual look at experiences of former European empires shows that it took decades for the former empires to give up their imperial legacy.[7] Likewise, Russia probably needs more time to follow the suit. However, until Russia gets rid of its imperial legacy, deep-seated sense of special mission and exceptionalism, its interests are likely to remain irreconcilable with those of the West.

The third national interest of Russia is to gain an equal status vis-à-vis other major international players. Interestingly, although the West accommodated Russia in all major institutions, Moscow still feels humiliated. Therefore, Kadri Liik suggests that equality for Russia means something more, such as advancing its own interests with its common set of rules and having geopolitical veto rights.[8] However, as Kortunov puts it, “neither the Council of Europe, G7, nor even the WTO could qualify as the backbone of the emerging international order, while NATO and the EU remain institutional pillars of the new Euro-Atlantic system, where Russia’s influence remains trivial.”[9] Given that Russia does not participate in decision-making of these two institutions, Moscow considers that its role in European affairs has been marginalized by Western countries, whereas throughout the history, Moscow has played the crucial role in European security. Moreover, while Moscow points the finger at the West, arguing that the latter did not attach sufficient importance to the NATO-Russia Council as a coordination mechanism, Russia refused to join the Eastern Partnership program, because it was regarded by Moscow as an inferior partnership and Russia aspired to “equal status”. Against this backdrop, it is unclear, what kind of partnership format would grant the feeling of equality to Russia. It seems impossible that Russia will receive any legitimate tool from the West, thereby Moscow can influence on the NATO or the EU decision.

Russia’s incumbent leaders have described the country as a branch of the European civilization on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, perception of Russia as an outsider has its long tradition in Europe and in the course of annexation of Crimea, it has unequivocally gained momentum among the Western political elites and academic circles. Understandably, an acute perception of Russia in the West as a backward and peripheral country casts doubts that it will be accepted as an equal player any time soon. What is more, speaking from the superior standpoint, many Western politicians and commentators cannot resist temptation to lecture it on how to become a better country. That irritates the Russian political establishment and to some extent, this annoyance lies at the heart of its current isolationism.

Russia’s national interests and pivot to China

In the face of current economic difficulties in Russia, observers increasingly argue that if the Western sanctions remain in place for a long period of time and aggravate mounting economic shortcomings, it can dramatically impinge on already fragile social contract in Russia. Based on it, beefing up the economic relationships with China is of a paramount importance for Russian government in order to overhaul the unsettled economic conditions for Putin’s regime to survive. Secondly, Russia and China display an unequivocal normative convergence on the need to resist Western-led regime change. Moscow and Beijing have already tried to craft a joint strategy to counter the ‘color revolutions’. Moreover, keeping Putin’s regime in place is also in China’s interests, because as Gabuev argues, “it can provide cover for Beijing’s growing confrontation with the US and its allies.”[10]

When it comes to the quest for respect, Moscow perceives China engagement in Russia’s neighborhood less dangerous than that of the EU’s engagement. Noticeably, the Kremlin was extremely irked by the EU’s relatively humble effort in the Eastern Partnership space, while China’s sizeable penetration in Central Asia did not provoke any harsh reaction from Moscow. As Kortunov explains, “China always shows respect to Moscow. The Russians always had all of the facts about what China was planning to do in the region. Wherever possible, the Chinese tried to ensure that their bilateral projects with select Central Asian states were wrapped up in larger multilateral arrangements (SCO) that would include Russia.”[11] Thus, unlike the EU, Russia and China successfully manage their rivalry in Central Asia. Russia remains the main security provider in Central Asia, while China emerged as a strong economic power there.[12] What’s more, in 2014, China and Russia signed an agreement on the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union and ‘One Belt One Road’ projects, while the West still views this integration project as Moscow’s endeavor to reinstate the Soviet Union. Close cooperation with China will assists Russia to further limit the West engagement in Central Asia.

Thirdly, China as an emerging great power challenges the American unilateralism and, similar to Russia, it strives to have its respectful place in the international arena. In this regard, Russia views China as a partner, which can help Moscow to strengthen its international positions. Moreover, both countries are disgruntled with the current international political and financial order, since it disallows them to participate in setting the agenda and determining the institutional rules on equal terms.[13] Considerably, the relationship between Russia and China also has an important multilateral dimension, embodied in the effective cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, United Nations Security Council and BRICS. Thus, China stands along with Russia in a struggle for equal status in the Western dominated world and in the meantime, Beijing tacitly supports Russia’s revisionism in Europe.

As it was already mentioned in introduction, China-Russia rapprochement based on pragmatic calculations seems to be viable in a short-term perspective. Nevertheless, their partnership in a long-term perspective bears certain limitations. Firstly, specific interests, rather than a broader like-mindedness drive Sino-Russia relationship. In other words, due to ad hoc convergence on many international issues, Moscow and Beijing experience a marriage of convenience, thus their relationship remains instrumental. Against this backdrop, change of priorities and interests of these two actors can adversely affect this relationship in the long-term perspective.[14] Secondly, similar to the Western elites, Asian elites can hardly conceive Russia as an Asian country and because of the lack of this explicit identity, Russia might face difficulties to find its respectful place in this club. Furthermore, the Russian political elite and society largely considers the Russian identity as a European, not Asian, thus China remains a completely alien civilization. Last but not least, economic and political overreliance on China can turn Russia into inferior partner and prospective asymmetric relationship might have the detrimental effects on Moscow’s national interests.

Conclusion

This article sought to demonstrate that in the short-term perspective, Russia should maintain pragmatic partnership with China on the basis of shared interests. The Kremlin’s enduring fear of the ‘color revolutions’ will remain as the key impediment in the West-Russia relations. Although scenario of ‘color revolution’ perils to the chief national interest – preservation of Putin’s regime, the West cannot appease Moscow’s worries, since public unrests are mostly triggered by the bad behavior of the government. Nevertheless, Moscow is convinced that the West will support to the opposition, if protests take place in Russia. By contrast, China represents the staunch supporter of Russia in struggle against the Western orchestrated regime change policy that constitutes quite fertile ground for further rapprochement of Moscow and Beijing.  Secondly, Russia has failed to relinquish its imperial legacy so far and the Ukraine crisis has clearly illustrated that Moscow can employ force to maintain its dominance in post-Soviet region, as part of struggle for equality vis-à-vis the Western great powers. The harsh criticism of Moscow’s behavior and long-lasting sanction regime, imposed on Russia has shown that the West is not going to recognize any ‘privileged’, great power interests of Russia in post-Soviet space and this rivalry will not disappear overnight. In contrast to the West, China’s penetration in Russia’s neighborhood is perceived in Moscow as not threatening that much and in addition, Beijing is more willing to show respect to Russia than the West does it. Apart from peaceful management of their rivalry in Central Asia, Beijing and Moscow also engage in a partnership of convenience by opposing the U.S. unilateralism, since both states share interest of status enhancement on the international stage. Nevertheless, relations between Russia and China can also become volatile in the long-term perspective due to ostensible limitations, such as lack of identity proximity, prevalence of ad hoc cooperation and absence of sustainable, long-term common agenda for cooperation and Russia’s anxiety related to the possibility of becoming inferior and unequal partner of China.

[1]Krastev & Leonard. 2014. The new European disorder. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR117_TheNewEuropeanDisorder_ESSAY.pdf

[2]Laruelle M. 2013. Putin’s turn to traditionalism/nationalism. Russian analytical digest. No. 138. Available at: http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/RAD-138.pdf

[3]Kortunov. 2016. How not to talk with Russia. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_not_to_talk_with_russia_6053

[4] Ward S. 2016. How Putin’s desire to restore Russia to great power status matters. The Washington post. March 6. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/03/06/how-putins-desire-to-restore-russia-to-great-power-status-matters/ 

[5] Lo B. 2015. Russia and the new world disorder. Royal institute of international affairs.

[6]Kotkin. 2016. Putin’s perpetual geopolitics. Foreign affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2016-04-18/russias-perpetual-geopolitics

[7] Ibid.

[8]Liik. 2015. How to talk with Russia. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_to_talk_to_russia5055

[9]Kortunov. 2016. How not to talk with Russia. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_not_to_talk_with_russia_6053

[10]Gabuev. 2015. A “soft alliance”? Russia-China relations after the Ukraine crisis. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/page/-/ECFR126_-_A_Soft_Alliance_Russia-China_Relations_After_the_Ukraine_Crisis.pdf

[11]Kortunov. 2016. How not to talk with Russia. European council of foreign relations. Available at: http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_how_not_to_talk_with_russia_6053

[12] Stent. 2015. Russia, China and the West after Crimea. Transatlantic academy. Available at: http://www.gmfus.org/publications/russia-china-and-west-after-crimea

[13] Ibid

[14]Lo B. 2015. Russia and the new world disorder. Royal institute of international affairs.

Published 10 November 2016

Author Givi Gigitashvili