The latest edition of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation only mentions Ukraine in passing and gives little or no emphasis to potential cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to Greece, November 2, 2016. Photo: AP
At the beginning of December, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept. In such an unpredictable world, the previous version from 2013 appears to have lost its relevance, partly due to global changes that occurred shortly after its adoption. (Most notably, the crisis in Ukraine.)
The current doctrine has been based on the victory of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election and her relatively predictable stance on Russia. However, Republican candidate Donald Trump's surprising success and his promises to improve relations with Russia and withstand Islamic extremists in the Middle East could again make Russia's foreign policy concept outdated.
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Three earlier Concepts were adopted in 2000, 2008 and 2013. It may seem ironic, but they all grew partly obsolete within a year of their adoption. The Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 brought the terrorist threat to the fore and resulted in the NATO operation in Afghanistan and the deterioration of the situation in the Middle East.
Even though the 2000 Concept did not perceive world terrorism as a major threat, the doctrine still remained in effect until 2008, when its substitute was approved during a period of relative global stability. But just a month later, the 2008 Concept lost its relevance due to the Russian-Georgian War that resulted in strong Western pressure on Russia.
Nevertheless, no one opted for immediate reconsideration of the Concept, which was revised only in 2013 after Putin returned to the Kremlin. However, geopolitical changes rendered it obsolete within a year. Crimea became a part of Russia, Ukraine was engulfed in a civil war, and, consequently, Moscow entered the sanctions standoff with the West. Soon, another stumbling block emerged when Russia went against the will of the West by supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Actually, the 2013 Concept proved the most short-lived, lasting only about three years. In April 2016, Putin ordered to come up with a new version of the doctrine.
What does the Foreign Policy Concept mean for the Kremlin? Essentially, it serves as Moscow’s declaration of its foreign policy approaches and priorities. In fact, it is a sort of a guide for diplomats and the authorities.
The development of each new Concept is not a quick process because the document needs to be approved by Russia's Foreign Ministry, Presidential Administration, Security Council, etc. Since the new Concept is drastically different from previous versions and actually changes many vectors of Russian foreign policy, clearly, a lot of efforts went into it.
The analysis of the last three Concepts indicates that the Kremlin's regional foreign policy priorities changed dramatically in the wake of the situation in Syria and Ukraine. For example, the previous Concept referred to Russia as an "integral, organic part of European civilization." The new version contains no such statement. It also does not mention any sanctions. Russia is still considering the implementation of visa-free travel with the European Union and believes in a joint push against global terrorism.
Following in the footsteps of the previous Concept, the new document lists the EU countries with which Russia intends to develop bilateral relations: Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Great Britain, the Netherlands and Finland have been off the list since 2008. Oddly enough, the latter is not mentioned, even in the context of maintaining stability in Northern Europe.
As for Ukraine, it is just mentioned in one clause that stipulates the need for the resolution of the "internal Ukrainian conflict" (which should be reached through "interaction between all interested countries and international institutions"). It also reveals Moscow's interest in developing a wide range of political, economic, cultural and spiritual ties with KIev.
By contrast, in the 2013 Concept, Ukraine was seen a "priority partner" in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Moreover, it sought to foster profound integration processes between Kiev and Moscow.
The new document pays a lot of attention to the shift of Russia's interests towards the Far East. The new Concept emphasizes the need for cooperation within regional structures and openly labels the strengthening of the Kremlin's positions in the Asia-Pacific region as a strategic direction of Russian foreign policy.
Moreover, the current doctrine directly states that Moscow and Beijing share the same "fundamental approaches" to key global processes. Essentially, the new Concept sees China as Russia's main partner. To be fair, previous analogous Concepts paid a lot of attention to cooperation between Russia and China as well.
In line with three previous versions, the new doctrine notably provides the Kremlin with a lot of leeway and carefully steers away from some controversial points, such as the war in Ukraine and the Syrian conflict. At the same time, Moscow confirms its adherence to non-proliferation, human rights protection and the need to boost the role of the UN in the resolution of contested problems. In these areas, Russia's priorities have not changed over the years.
Unlike its Russian counterpart, the European foreign policy concept presented in June 2016 by Federica Mogherini, head of the E.U. Foreign Affairs, is somewhat more straightforward on certain matters.
For example, Brussels clearly states the need for further European integration of the Western Balkans and continued cooperation with Turkey. As for Russia, Mogherini's office keeps pushing for a "consistent unified policy," since building a relationship with the Kremlin remains a "key strategic challenge" for Brussels. At the same time, the concept fails to address such prospective areas for EU-Russia cooperation as fighting terrorism and illegal migration, which are mentioned in the Russian foreign policy doctrine.
Washington's foreign policy concept follows a more intransigent line than its Russian counterpart. For example, one of its core documents, the new National Defense Strategy approved in February 2015, sees Russia's policy in Ukraine as aggression, points to the need to counter the Kremlin propaganda and states the need to contain Russia, for example, by increasing combat efficiency of NATO troops and Eastern European countries that border with Russia.
In general, Western analysts should find the Russian foreign policy concept useful since it provides a detailed account of Russia's interests and priorities worldwide. It is crucial for building rapport and finding solutions to many international challenges.
At the same time, it is important to understand the U.S. and EU foreign policy priorities. However, here the difficulty comes from the fact that Trump as the new U.S. President might bring about major changes, and then the Kremlin's painstakingly developed foreign policy concept would become outdated yet again.
One reason to be positive is that the document in its current edition stipulates the search for international cooperation and, to a certain extent, accounts for the possibility of radical changes. Maybe that is exactly why its tone is reserved.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.