Just how much of a success was Syria for Russia? Has Russia’s opening to the Asia-Pacific region signed a new era in its foreign policy? Experts discuss Russia’s recent moves in the global arena.

Russia's foreign policy is surrounded by controversies as never before. Photo: Reuters

2013 has arguably been a victorious year for Russia and Vladimir Putin in foreign policy.

The Kremlin has been quick to react to Edward Snowden’s defection from the NSA and made significant political gains in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s actions in the international arena have been a blessing for the media. Commentators inside the country have tended to read the incumbent's policy in a favourable light. Meanwhile, foreign media outlets have been more inclined to severe criticism, while yet granting him Forbes' title for world’s most influential man.

Equally, Russia’s bold geopolitical moves caused mixed reactions among the expert community: some call it the return of the leader and some go as far as defining the country’s foreign policy “attention seeking.”

Russia Direct talked to various political experts who offered their assessment of Russia’s record in foreign policy.

Stephen Sestanovich, Columbia professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was U.S. ambassador-at-large for policy toward the former Soviet Union, 1997-2001. His book “Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama” will be published in February

Recently Russia seized the world’s attention with its proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control. But this very real diplomatic coup obscured the poor results of Russian foreign policy overall.

Mediocre performance is obvious in key areas. In Europe, the policy formula of the past decade – avoid conflict in relations with the EU by staying on good terms with Germany – has broken down. Russian trade tactics make enemies across the continent. Belligerence has also led to its antagonization of former Soviet neighbors too – most recently Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Lithuania.

Russia’s influence in the Middle East is declining. The country is now on worse terms with most of the region’s key states than it used to. Its backing of the Syrian regime evokes special anger. 

Finally, relations with the US have clearly deteriorated. President Barack Obama cancelled his planned visit to Moscow because it promised very few results.

Yes, Russia has better ties with China. But having good relations with China alone leave you nowhere to turn, if those relations sour. Furthermore, Russians are uneasy about China’s rise, and they are facing it largely alone.

Putin perhaps expects others to yield to pressure. But the response of most governments has been to resist.  Many believe Moscow’s leverage is declining because of changes in global energy markets and its own lower economic growth.  Many of Russia’s neighbors have already redirected their exports to the EU.

Some of Putin’s diplomatic tools are also weaker. With Washington and Tehran in direct contact, Russia’s influence with both will likely decline.

This record should be a problem for Putin. Yet it is rarely criticized. The public perhaps likes his bristly nationalism. Russian officials portray their Syria moves as a huge success.  Disputing this claim invites retribution.

Yet, Russia cannot long be satisfied with this strategy. Current policy produces too little benefit. A more fundamental course correction seems inevitable.

How can the rest of us encourage a Russian reassessment? Anti-Putin crusading will not help much, nor will too-eager conciliation.  Both can suggest he is getting results. But Russian policy makers  and experts alike should hear from Europeans and Americans that we think their foreign policy has gone way off-track.

Until it rights itself, Russia will have less global influence.  Our policies need to drive that message home.

Long after the Soviet collapse, Russia has not found a successful new role.  It has to think this problem through for itself.  So far, Putin has put the answer further out of reach.

Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics

I strongly disagree with the opinion that Russian foreign policy is close to failure. Of course, there are problems in Russia's domestic, economic and foreign policies, and they are big.

Yes, the country is sinking into economic stagnation, which has a negative impact on foreign policy resources, and it is increasingly obvious that its political system is “stiffening” and becoming rather an obstacle than an incentive for development.

Yes, Russian foreign policy and its diplomacy have a conservative, even traditionalist character, being accusomed to tools such as “hard power,” pressure and compulsion. They cannot keep up with the changing nature of competition in a world where the main tools are “soft power”, ability to form an attractive model of development and to create ideas and images that can lead the way.

Ukraine is a good indicatorof how Russia lags behind in diplomacy – Moscow has failed to convince Kiev to abandon its EU association and to begin to fully participate in the Eurasian integration project, not because it bribed and threatened badly, but because it is not an attractive model for Ukraine and the Ukrainians to follow. However, this is a problem related to Russia's domestic, rather than foreign, policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yuanukovich discussing Ukraine's accession to the Customs Union. Source: RIA Novosti

Despite these issues, Russian foreign policy has remained relatively successful until recent times. First, Russia has preserved its strategic independence and the status of an independent pole of power in the world. At a time when the world is changing rapidly, and the future configuration is not yet defined, it is a great asset for the future.

Second, Russia has stopped that centrifugal tendency that dominated its last two decades in the post-Soviet space. Despite all the external resistance and numerous internal problems, the integration of the former Soviet Union is underway on a qualitatively new basis and is proving to be beneficial to all parties involved.

The Customs Union, which seemed a utopia for most external observers a few years ago, is a reality now. Without a doubt, this is the main success of Russia's foreign policy over the past few years. At the same time, the Eurasian economic integration is not only deepening, but also expanding. This project is really attractive to many countries of the former Soviet Union.

The story with Ukraine is not over yet. If the EU Association Agreement is signed at the Vilnius Summit, this will be just the start of a new round of Kiev’s “thrashing around”, and a new start to the competition between Russia and the EU for this country, rather than the end.

Third, in 2008 Russia stopped the expansion of NATO into post-Soviet countries. Today, this issue has been virtually removed from the agenda. Moreover, the war with Georgia did not inhibit the integration of other countries of the former Soviet Union with Russia, as many observers claimed would happen.

The problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were recognized by Russia as independent states, does not determine the agenda of Russia's relations with the U.S. and the EU, and has assumed a purely marginal role. As a result, the country has lived in the absence of a “large” military threat from the outside for nearly five years.

U.S. missile defense plans in Europe, which many people saw as a threat, are not a threat in reality. The biggest external threat Russia is facing now is the one associated with the destabilization of Afghanistan and Central Asia after 2014. By comparison, the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine is a pale concern.

Fourth, Russia seems to have finally started implementing its long-overdue policy of “turning” towards the Asia-Pacific region, which fully corresponds to the main trends in international relations. Moreover, as it is shown by the current visits of Vladimir Putin to Vietnam and South Korea, and the negotiations with Japan in the “2-plus-2” format (ministers of foreign affairs and defense from both sides), Russia is seeking to balance its strategic partnership with China by close relationships with other countries in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, including allies and close partners of the U.S.

This is the only correct strategy possible, which, in case of favorable developments, may provide Moscow with the position of a third independent center of power in the Asia-Pacific, and give a strong impetus to economic development in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Fifth, as the propaganda and ideology smoke disperses, it is becoming clear that the Russian approach to transformations in the Middle East - a cautious approach, with a certain detachment, skepticism and a sober analysis of the challenges and threats - is the most in touch with reality. This is especially true when we compare it with the position of the U.S. and the EU, who have only recently begun to gradually adjust themselves to a more realistic direction.

In this case, it is wrong to say that Russia has “lost” the Arab world. This is nothing more than propaganda and pressure from those regional powers (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) that are implementing their own geopolitical and economic interests through the spreading of radical Sunni Islam in the region.

The success of the Russian initiative in establishing international control over Syrian chemical weapons and coordinating its elimination is not some kind of misunderstanding and random luck, but a bright indication that Russia is still able to set the agenda in international relations.

This is also proved by the whole history with the Libyan and Syrian crises. Over the past two years, in spite of all efforts, the supporters of a change of regime in Syria have not been able to achieve their goal and change Moscow’s position. This shows the inability of the West and its allies in the region to control events. Thanks to the West's inability to implement a new military intervention, illegal from the point of view of international law, Russia's position remains decisive.

Sixth, Russia supports partnerships and at least non-confrontational relationships with all the “great powers” and centers of power in the modern world (USA, China, EU, India, Brazil, Iran, South Africa, etc.) and takes part in a leading position in key international institutions and forums of global governance, at times even chairing them.

It is the only country in the world that participates in the BRICS and the G8 simultaneously, and this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, there are growing problems in Russian foreign policy that have become particularly relevant with the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency. Alienation is growing in the country’s relations with the EU and the United States. This is resulting in stagnation in the former, and emasculation of the whole agenda in the latter, with relations acquiring an artificially negative and confrontational tone as a result.

At the very least, Moscow is losing the opportunity to protect its primary economic and foreign policy interests through cooperation with these Western players. For example, intensifying the entry of Russia into the Asia-Pacific region, thus fostering the development of Siberia and the Far East, is being done at the expense of constructing an appropriate partnership with the Unites States.

The reason for this is the internal policy of Russia. In addition, the internal problems weaken Moscow's position in a new round of competition for the determination of the future “post post-bipolar” world order, where the primary role is played not by military force and diplomatic skills, but by the quality of human capital and the attractiveness of the development model.

If Russia does not come to its senses and does not change its internal composition, its position in the world will really weaken. This may happen within a decade. However, to talk about the collapse of Russian foreign policy in the near future is, at the very least, untimely. 

Andrei Tsygankov, Professor at the Departments of Political Science and International Relations at San Francisco State University, the author of “Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity” and “Whose World Order? Russia 's Perception of American Ideas after the Cold War”

Although Russia’s record is not a spectacular success, it is solid especially when one takes under consideration the highly turbulent nature of global politics and Russia’s domestic vulnerabilities.

It all depends on the criteria that one applies to Russia’s foreign policy. Some experts tend to define Russia’s success by the country’s close ties with the United States regardless of the costs. In the 1990s, they defended the disastrous record of Russia’s first foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev. That record included abandoned ties with Asia, Middle East, and former Soviet states, as well as failure at integrating with Western nations.

Yet, these experts saw Russia’s course as promising and meeting the country’s national interests, because Russia was following the United States’ priorities in global and even – to some extent – domestic politics.

Today they fault Putin for not doing what was done under Yeltsin – for not being supportive of the U.S. objectives in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia Pacific, as well as not meeting the U.S. demands on Snowden.

Photo: Reuters

Foreign policy success must incorporate a complex set of criteria, among which the establishment of stable working ties with the United States is important, but not the only significant accomplishment. A better conceptual approach must proceed from the need to improve the conditions for Russia’s defense of its own values and interests.

Today, Russia must work with both Western and non-Western nations (especially China) on improving such conditions. While doing this, Russia can have only a limited influence on these conditions.

For example, Russia cannot fully control the course of civil war in Syria, the attitudes of some Western leaders, and the desire of some states in Eurasia to develop stronger ties with the European Union. Although Russia is trying to influence these developments, the country’s inability to ultimately control them should not be viewed as indicative of foreign policy failure.

Politics is the art of possible, and Russia can only do the best it can under existing limiting conditions. Its foreign policy is not without problems, but there are good reasons why the Russian public and elites continue to support it.

Russia’s foreign policy has generally provided the country with a relative internal peace and stability and even seized some new opportunity for improving its global status and reputation. Can the same be said about domestic (and international) support for the United States’ foreign policy?

Liked this article? Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required