When it comes to exerting influence in its Near Abroad, Moscow needs to start thinking in terms of economic, not strategic, spheres of interest.


Transformational Trends 2014, a conference co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department in Washington. Photo: Dominic Basulto

At Transformational Trends 2014, a conference co-hosted by Foreign Policy and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department in Washington, the world's top global thinkers agreed on one major transformational trend for the year ahead: States should stop thinking in terms of strategic spheres of interest and start thinking in terms of economic spheres of interest.

And that has huge consequences for Russia, which has historically relied on "hard power" – nuclear and conventional forces to project power around the globe rather than its ability to broker new trade relationships or create new investment opportunities.

Take, for example, the current situation in Ukraine. At a panel discussion dedicated to “The Changing Nature of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance,” the panelists led off with remarks about Ukraine and reflections on why the protestors on Kiev have turned their back on Moscow. These young protestors are fighting to join Europe because they want the fruits that an expanded economic relationship with the EU promises – jobs, rising incomes and a stable future. In comparison, Russia appears to be offering goods of only second-degree freshness. So when initial overtures didn’t work as planned, Russia was forced to resort to other forms of leverage – like not so subtle threats about turning off Ukraine’s gas.

But that isn't the way the world works anymore. Now, it's all about free trade and robust economic relationships, like the new landmark Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal that the U.S. is brokering with the EU or the vast new Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal for Asia-Pacific. In the words of Hillary Clinton, TTIP is about to create “an economic NATO” and revitalize an alliance that has been at the center of global affairs since the Great Patriotic War. Soon, there will no longer be a clear division between EU and NATO, something that Russia unfortunately realized too late as it saw its traditional allies in the Near Abroad pulled into Europe’s orbit.

Other sessions at the Transformational Trends event that in previous years might have turned on traditional notions of foreign policy and diplomacy really came back to key economic issues and the transformative power of trade. A panel on “Rethinking the Greater Middle East,” for example, focused on the new types of economic choices that can be presented to a young, social media-savvy generation. In the Arab world, how do you offer the young generation a chance at a good job and bright future so that they don't turn to extremism?

That being said, there are signs that Russia an still turn things around, as trade deals like the Eurasian Union and the Customs Union continue to percolate - although it's unclear why any state would prefer to trade with Belarus rather than Germany or Kazakhstan rather than France. Ambassador Miriam Sapiro, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, applauded Russia for joining WTO even if took 18 years.

Russia now offers greater trade and investment potential to its partners in the U.S. and Europe. It’s up to Russia, though, to figure out what it can offer the U.S. or Europe if it wants to be treated in the same way as China, viewed by just about everyone as a fast-growing economic juggernaut worthy of respect.

Russia’s leadership seems to recognize that things need to change if the U.S. is ever going to give Russia a central role in its foreign policy calculus. In its list of the Top 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2013, Foreign Policy magazine specifically tagged Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as two of the leading global thinkers in the world right now. Their inclusion in the list of Top 100 global thinkers was a way of recognizing both of them for searching out new ways to make Russia a leader in global affairs. Russia can no longer rely on energy – and captive energy markets in Europe - if it expects to remain relevant in the world in 2014.

Russia should be asking itself some tough questions as it explores ways to expand its relationship with the U.S. and Europe and Asia. How does Russia make itself more relevant to the world’s largest economies? As Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf noted at the event, “This is not your father’s foreign policy.” He could have just as easily said, “This is not your Cold War-era foreign policy.” The new paradigm is economic, not military.

Viewed from this perspective, it’s not so much that the U.S. doesn’t value its relationship with Russia, it’s that Russia is no longer perceived as bringing as much to the table as other partners or allies, whether they are in Europe or Asia. To transform the way the world views it, that means that Russia is also going to have to transform the way its own leaders view the world.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.