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Michael Kofman

Analyst at CNA Corporation

Heading into 2016, Russian foreign policy is arguably more unpredictable than at any time in the post-Cold War period. There are several key factors, though, that continue to influence the future trajectory of Russian diplomacy. One challenge is separating the old from the truly new, and the signal from the noise. That is, Russia's foreign policy today comes with an assortment of information packaging, symbolism, and features that make the actual decision-making process opaque.

After October’s Valdai Discussion in Sochi, Ivan Timofeev wrote a succinct assessment of the latest trends in Russian foreign policy. Indeed, after the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine, a downward spiral of sanctions, and Russia's latest intervention in Syria, it is no simple task to identify clear patterns of behavior.

One challenge is separating the old from the truly new, and the signal from the noise. That is, Russia's foreign policy today comes with an assortment of information packaging, symbolism, and features that make the actual decision-making process opaque. This, in and of itself, is a new trend, the challenge of separating actual vectors of Russian foreign policy from those promoting the brand of leadership, and understanding their relative importance. Below is a reflection and addition to Timofeev's noteworthy list.

#1: Military power

Russia will continue using military power as the most trusted means of achieving political ends. Unlike the West, which walked away from the past "decade of war," learning that military power translates poorly into desired political ends states abroad, Moscow has learned the opposite lessons from recent history.

From the Second Chechen War, to the Russia-Georgia War, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Moscow has relied heavily the use of military force to secure political objectives. This is a reflection of the limited repertoire of Russia's national power toolkit, that is, its economic, diplomatic, and informational capabilities are quite weak, and if anything, even weaker since the confrontation with the West.

Wanting in allies, economic leverage, and position in the international system, Russia will grow only more dependent on the use of force to change facts on the ground in its favor, with Syria being the latest example.

#2: Zero-sum game

Timofeev identifies Russia's approach to its periphery as now a zero-sum game. However, this was already the case, precisely why Russia reacted with force in Ukraine. The notion that Russia has privileged or special interests in its periphery is a historical vector of Russian foreign policy. The question is, what does this mean in practical terms today?

If the line in the sand was around Ukraine, it is now across it. Both sides will settle into the mid- to long term game for Ukraine's future, where they have equal chances of success. Meanwhile, Russia will eye nervously its influence in the rest of the post-Soviet space.

Here, Moscow will spend far less time fighting Western intrusion, and far more dealing with instability, political transitions, terrorism and economic failure.  Ultimately, Russia is likely to become far more nervous and even rash in response to any perceived deterioration of position.

#3: The new normal?

With the previous framework of engagement with the West now gone, Russia will no doubt try to float several ideas to find new rules of interaction with Western "partners," or a new normal. Such proposals, which were previously made after the Russia-Georgia War, will be dead on arrival.

However, Russia will try to pull itself out of political isolation by the West through gambits such as Syria, and look for other areas to force recognition and cooperation from the U.S. in particular. Afghanistan could represent the next point of conflict, less out of a desire for stability and more out of a need to find another plane of interaction with the U.S.

Moscow will search for the answers to the consequences of its rift with the West outside of Europe, but always with an eye to what troubles it most, sanctions, and the absence of any stable normal in relations.

REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti
Ivan Timofeev:
7 Trends for Russian Foreign Policy
You Need to Know

#4: Europe first

The U.S. no longer sees Moscow as a potential partner under Russian President Vladimir Putin, but does evaluate it as a greater threat, meriting a firmer hand. This adversarial relationship may be more familiar for Moscow, but Russia is not the U.S.S.R., and the consequences will prove far less manageable. There will be no “new normal" with the U.S., because Russia will not be forgiven for its transgressions in Ukraine, while as a power, it is still far too weak to make America want to compromise.

That is, the U.S. will not agree to cease democratization (arguably it can't help itself) or settle for a new detente in Europe. Moscow will have to find a way to turn German leadership to its favor, thereby blunting any future U.S. policy of containment and more active pressure. Russia will seek to ameliorate Germany, and repair that relationship. The way back into German graces lies through Ukraine, hence Russia has worked hard over the summer to restore its credibility in seeing the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement implemented.  

#5: The China factor

Russia's relationship with China will ironically mirror its previous interaction with the West, cycles of engagement and disappointment. On the one hand, there is far more substance and economic basis for cooperation there; on the other, as American diplomat and political scientist Henry Kissinger has pointed out, it is not in the two countries' "nature" to be allies.

Hence, Russia will consistently seek more from the relationship than China is willing to confer. Without a real ally in Beijing, and shunned by the West where possible in international institutions, Moscow will turn to new partners from South Korea, Indonesia and Japan, or to others in the Middle East. Perhaps being co-belligerents in Syria will rehabilitate Russian-Iranian relations, while at the same time firmly entrenching Moscow on the Shia side of the sectarian divisions in the region.

#6: Economic considerations

Russia's efforts at economic reform and import substitution will fail, and are already failing. While much depends on the price of oil, which Russia cannot affect, there can be no hope for growth even with strong prices unless financial sanctions are lifted. Russia's political system is simply not configured to leverage an economic crisis into positive transformation, the evidence of this is being presented daily.

Instead of being considerate of or hostage to the dire economic situation, Russia's foreign policy has completely ignored economic costs as necessary and manageable - an unsustainable approach. This was fine as long as the gains in the public perception of the personal brand of Vladimir Putin's leadership were made faster than the accumulation of economic costs at home.

In the near future, Russia's foreign and domestic policy will finally meet each other for the first time in many years. The decision-making style of political decisions first, economic consequences second, will rebalance with domestic considerations becoming much stronger factors in foreign policy.

First published in Russia Direct

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