From strengthening Eurasian integration to entering new hydrocarbon markets, here are the top three foreign policy priorities for Moscow this year.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L), holds up a pair of Idaho potatoes as a gift for Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) before their meeting at the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Paris on Jan. 13, 2014. Photo: AP
Officials can look back on the recently departed 2013 as nothing less than a year of triumph for Russian diplomacy. Following Moscow's framing of a deal in September to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control, and its participation in the successful "5+1" talks with Iran, the Russian Foreign Ministry has reason to feel proud.
And after Ukraine's rejection of a free trade agreement with the EU in December in favor of putting pen to paper in an agreement with Russia, Moscow is celebrating yet another diplomatic triumph.
However, despite the adroitness of Russia's diplomats from Europe to the Middle East, some key questions of foreign policy were left unanswered in 2013. Here are the top three challenges Russia will face in 2014.
Task #1: Strengthen Eurasian integration
This year will be a crucial one for the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which has been declared a major project of Russian foreign policy (as outlined in the new edition of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation), and is one of the main priorities of Vladimir Putin's third presidential term.
The text of the union contract for Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is due to be drafted by March 2014, and then signed by the leaders of the three countries in summer. The fall is expected to see the treaty ratified by the respective national parliaments, and by January 1, 2015, the EEU should be up and running.
However, last year uncovered numerous problems in the integration process, chief among them the failure by Moscow and Astana to see eye to eye on how the union will take shape.
According to sources close to the negotiations, Russia wants to maximize EEU integration and established a fully coordinated structure. Member states must not only form a single market with free movement of goods, services, capital, and people, but also a space with a single migration, education, and even information policy.
But Kazakhstan and, more recently, Belarus consider this approach to be an encroachment on their sovereignty. "Russia's negotiators keep talking about the need to accelerate and deepen integration, using the bicycle metaphor — pedal fast or fall off," says a negotiator for Kazakhstan. "It now seems like we're all wobbling together. No consensus means no union in 2015, or later for that matter."
Most of the wrangling in 2013 went on behind the scenes. Only towards the end of the year did the antagonisms become so acute that Kazakhstan and Belarus started to voice them openly.
Against this backdrop, Moscow will need all its diplomatic finesse.
Task #2: Enter new hydrocarbon markets
Of all the long-term challenges facing Russia, it was the search for new markets to sell hydrocarbons that perhaps saw the most progress in 2013. The thanks go to one man: Igor Sechin, the president of Russia's largest oil producer, Rosneft. He signed agreements with Chinese oil companies for advance payments of up to $60 billion for future oil supplies. The money will be mainly used to purchase assets inside Russia.
The deals will increase the amount of crude oil Russia delivers to China. Sechin first reached an agreement with the head of Transneft to expand the capacity of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, and then with Kazakhstan on the use of the Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline to pump Russian oil to China.
However, large contracts have only been signed for oil. Gazprom's negotiations with the Chinese for gas have yet to bear fruit.
However, the problem of finding new markets is creating a new set of challenges for Russia, namely the country's overdependence on a single consumer. Rosneft encountered this problem back in 2011, when it had to make concessions to the Chinese over a disagreement on the price formula for pumping oil through the Angarsk-Daqing oil pipeline (built on Chinese credit).
Now Beijing is turning into a near monopoly in the procurement of Russian oil in East Asia. Therefore, one of the most urgent tasks in 2014 will be to diversify contacts in the region: China will certainly retain its position as the largest buyer of Russian natural resources, but Moscow desperately needs a counterweight to balance Chinese influence.
Yet there are no obvious contenders: Putin's visit to South Korea in 2013 failed to secure a breakthrough, while relations with Japan remain strained due to the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands.
Russia's other Asian partners, such as India and Vietnam, are mainly markets for the sale of hardware and machinery, and are not yet ready to become investors.
Task #3: Restore contacts with Europe
The raw materials re-orientation towards China will require not only a diversification of contacts in Asia to hedge the risks, but also the resumption of closer ties with Europe. Despite outward appearances to the contrary, the past two years have seen Moscow's relations with the EU deteriorate sharply.
The most striking symbol last year of the backlog of contradictions was the holding of just one Russia-EU summit (in Yekaterinburg in June), despite its having been a biannual event for many years: one in Russia, one in Europe.
According to sources in the European Commission, this was because the Yekaterinburg summit delivered no results, and the December summit was destined to be a second failure in succession. The quarrel over Ukraine, in which European officials accused Russia of interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state, raised the temperature even further. Russia's response was restrained, yet critical of those Europeans who went to Kiev in support of the Euromaidan protests.
The most painful blow for Russia was the deterioration of contacts with Germany. According to sources in Berlin, the cooling off was caused by the opposition rally of May 6, 2012, which ended with clashes with police, and the arrest of punk band Pussy Riot. Another reason is the gradual reduction of Germany's dependence on Russian raw materials and the Russian market.
"With China's economy growing at 7 percent per year, everyone turns a blind eye to human rights there. But when it comes to Russia — with its weak economic growth and uncertain prospects — there is less enthusiasm," said an official.
Informally, Russian diplomats also recognize that relations have soured, and that without German support dealings with other EU countries are infinitely trickier.
Therefore, the reestablishment of contacts with Europe - above all, with Berlin - is another vital area of Russian foreign policy. Cooperation in the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in which Germany was no bit player, may be the catalyst that is needed for improved Russian-German relations in 2014.
The article was abridged and first published in Russian in Kommersan-Vlast magazine.