Russian diplomats were tasked by President Putin with developing better relationships with Europe despite U.S. attempts to destabilize that relationship.
At a meeting with ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions, Putin compared Ukraine to Syria and Iraq. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a meeting with ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions on July 1, clarified his concept of Moscow’s foreign policy. The Ukrainian crisis is not the game-changer it was thought to be, and Putin’s bets are still on Europe rather than Asia.
The priorities of Russian foreign policy over the coming two years
Traditionally held every two years, the Russian president’s meeting with ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions plays an important role in determining the priorities of Russia’s diplomatic corps and its entire foreign policy community.
Unlike other larger doctrinal documents, such as the Foreign Policy Concept or the Address to the Federal Assembly, the president’s speech to diplomats is less formal in nature and contains a number of instructions on where the focus of foreign policy should be.
The session materials usually also give an insight into the international development trends that the Russian president considers the most important, and how he views the hierarchy of regional areas of Russian foreign policy.
This year, Putin’s address to the ambassadors was the first comprehensive overview of the Kremlin’s foreign policy strategy and tactics since the Ukrainian crisis entered the “hot phase,” which, of course, made the president’s words all the more relevant.
The speech did indeed give serious food for thought.
Idea #1: Russia and Europe need each other, but the US is destabilizing their relationship
First of all, it is important to state that the president’s address debunked the popularly held myth that, if the president’s words are to be taken literally, the events in Crimea allegedly caused Russia to “turn its back on the West and face the East.”
Unlike Putin’s previous such address in 2012, when relations with Europe and the U.S. were placed last among regional priorities (with China taking second position after the Customs Union), in 2014 it was not China, but Europe that made a remarkable leap upwards, described as “a priority and vitally important partner,” second in importance only to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union.
China was mentioned only after Europe, and in the relevant section Putin reflected not so much on China, but on the fact that Moscow’s friendship with Beijing should not threaten Russia's relations with other Asia-Pacific countries – Vietnam, India, Japan – which are known to be increasingly disconcerted about China’s assertive foreign policy.
Putin devoted almost half the time to various aspects of relations with Europe, with no negative connotations whatsoever. Respectfully referring to Russia’s “colleagues from Europe,” Putin tried to convey to his audience the essential idea that is likely to become a key component of the Kremlin's foreign policy efforts in the very near future.
The essence of this idea is that Russia is part of Europe; Russia and Europe need each other to achieve stability and prosperity, but normal relations between the two are being destabilized by U.S. policy. The task of Russian diplomacy is to help Europe free itself of this external pressure and open up new prospects for cooperation.
Idea #2: There is no imminent warming of relations between Russia and the US
Very regrettably for those who still cling to the hope of a speedy normalization of Russian-U.S. relations, it seems that Putin is finally and firmly convinced that the root of all ills in the present international system – from Iraq to Ukraine – lies in Washington’s foreign policy.
Even an often quoted phrase from Putin’s speech (“We are not going to close the door on relations with the United States”) gives optimists little hope. From his address, it is clear that Putin places the blame for the crisis in relations squarely on the U.S. There will be no reciprocal steps from Moscow until Washington radically reframes its policy.
Idea #3: Russia is preparing for a major foreign policy offensive
So what did the Russian president propose to bring the situation in Ukraine, Europe, and wider (“from Lisbon to Vladivostok”) back into the realm of normalcy?
Here is a direct quote: “We must persevere to rid Europe of anti-constitutional coups, interventions in the internal affairs of sovereign states, blackmail and threats in international relations, and the inducement of radical and neo-Nazi forces. All of us in Europe need some kind of safety net to prevent the Iraqi, Libyan, Syrian, and, I am sorry to say in this context, Ukrainian precedents from becoming contagious.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) took part in the conference on July 1. Photo: E.Pesov, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
As a mechanism for implementing this classic conservative program (which harks back to the ideas of the “Holy Alliance” of Christian monarchs in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas), Putin cited the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which helped stabilize the situation in Europe in the concluding stage of the Cold War.
In this regard, the Russian Foreign Ministry was instructed to “prepare a comprehensive package of proposals.”
If one recalls that two years ago the president’s key instruction to the diplomatic corps was to “build up Russia’s soft power resources,” and that much has been done in this respect, it can be assumed that Putin’s latest directive will be given the attention it demands.
It seems that Russian diplomats are ready to tackle these issues with singular zeal and industry, which should doubtless be facilitated by the president’s announcement of a raise in salaries and pensions for staff of the Foreign Ministry and diplomatic missions abroad.
The size of the increase (1.5 times for central office employees, 4 times for staff of missions abroad – their U.S. counterparts cannot even dream of such attention from their government) indicates that Russia really is embarking on a major foreign policy offensive.
Idea #4: Wager on European anti-Americanism
The ideas voiced by Putin on July 1 significantly clarified his stance on foreign policy.
Importantly, the Ukrainian crisis did not turn these concepts on their head, as the inexperienced observer might be prone to think, but merely underscored the long-emerging areas of focus.
And the most important conclusion is that Putin, despite everything, has no intention of breaking with his pro-Western orientation; the first bet is still on Europe, not Asia.
The current political situation and the widely held view in Russia of the implacably “hostile West” should, on the face of it, push the Kremlin inexorably into the embrace of China. However, the Russian president, without abandoning closer ties with Beijing and other East Asian players, is simultaneously seeking to preserve the European vector of foreign policy and considers this task to be a top priority.
In the context of what it perceives as the creation of a broad international anti-Russian front, which includes a number of European countries, Russia’s chosen strategy is to split the ranks of the “enemy,” which the Kremlin hopes to achieve by separating the “good” Europe from the “bad” U.S.
In his speech, Putin expressed particular outrage at U.S. sanctions against French banks, playing on France’s renowned anti-Americanism.
Idea #5: Moral superiority as the basis of Russian foreign policy
But what, other than sympathy, can Russia utilize to entice Europe into a new “Holy Alliance”?
After Crimea, slogans about respect for international law (which the U.S. is so fond of flouting) are hardly going to win over European leaders.
Putin voiced a few formulas that certainly have tremendous persuasive power – but, once again, mainly in Russia, not beyond.
To begin with, the Russian president spoke of “non-compliance with standards of decency” by some international players, clearly hinting at the U.S. The phrase “standards of decency” stands out as something more substantial and primary than international law.
In the concluding part of his speech, Putin appealed to “truth, justice, and the power of moral superiority,” describing them as the real basis of Russian foreign policy.
One can agree that the success or failure of Putin’s foreign policy program, as proclaimed on July 1, will be determined by the extent to which the categories of truth and justice, well understood and close to the Russian public, are communicated to foreign audiences by Russian diplomats, politicians, and journalists.
However, that is not all that is required for a favorable outcome. The next round of events will demonstrate how effective it is to wager on European anti-Americanism at a time when the U.S. is not sitting with arms folded, but developing its own projects to strengthen ties with Europe.