By Katherine Baughman
On January 18th, the Center for Strategic and International Studies together with Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies hosted a panel discussion on Russian foreign policy following the launch of a special issue of Strategic Analysis entitled “Russia in Global Affairs.” Six of the authors who contributed to this issue were in attendance: Maxim Bratersky, Leonid Grigoriev and Andrei Skryba, professors at the Higher School of Economics; Alexander Lukin, head of the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Economics; Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics; and Ambassador Mark Entin, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Alexander Lukin began by outlining the nature of the journal in which this special issue was published as well as the particular topics of focus of each article within the issue. He spoke to the significance of Strategic Analysis as an English language publication operating in India, rather than a Western journal published in a country with more strained diplomatic relations with Russia. He then described his school of thought and that of his colleagues at the Higher School of Economics and Russia in Global Affairs as generally centrist —in other worlds, neither inordinately pro-Western, nor pro-Putin in its outlook.
After this brief introduction, Lukin immediately opened up the discussion to questions from those in attendance concerning the wide range of topics addressed in this special issue of Strategic Analysis. The first question regarding how Russia justifies its support of minority rule in Syria was addressed with an explanation of the Russian perception of terrorism as being rooted not in authoritarianism, but rather in the chaos that arises in the absence of a strong state. The panel defined Russia’s goal in Syria as preventing regime change in order to allow for a self-initiated, unimposed political reconciliation, and assured the audience that Russian military involvement would be scaled back once a non-military solution became feasible. The assertion that the situation in Syria could be described as “minority rule” was a point of contention for the panelists.
In discussing the Russian Federation’s involvement in Latin America since the fall of the Soviet Union, the panelists emphasized a transition to economic considerations and cooperation in the region. BRICS summits and Rosneft’s recent cooperation with Venezuela were cited as evidence of this trend, and educational exchange was mentioned as another area of successful Russian-Latin American interaction.
In regard to the question of how this recent pivot to Asia differs from similar cycles and pivots observed throughout Russian history, the panel identified five key points: 1) that China and Russia now operate on the basis of shared values and a common multipolar geopolitical vision; 2) the West is now strengthening these ties in its alienation of Russia and China; 3) the Asia Pacific is now a universally-acknowledged global center of power; 4) China, Russia’s largest trading partner, now is the largest economy in the world; and 5) Russian policy toward China no longer depends on Russia-West relations. According to the panel, these factors make this pivot more likely to be successful than those that came before.
The next round of questions brought an inquiry as to Russia’s goals in the global context: whether and how, in an era where world power status is decided by economic rather than military might, Russia aims to be considered as a first-tier power, and whether it is possible for Russia to become a part of a “global civilization.” Most of the panelists came to a consensus on the fact that though Russia aims to be an independent center in a multipolar world, it cannot be considered a great economic power due to its resource-driven and crisis-stricken economy. However, the contention was made that military power is not in fact irrelevant today, and that current world conflicts necessitate its importance in determining global influence. Whether or not Russia could become part of a global civilization, the panelists claimed, depended on one’s understanding of that term: while Russia is part of a global market and a globalized culture, it is not a part of Western global political civilization, nor does it strive to be.
Next, in answer to a question posed by an attendee on the topic, one panelist asserted that Russia must halt any violation of Finnish, Swedish and other Scandinavian countries’ airspace: though Russia has little leeway for maneuver in its foreign policy, he said, this is an area where it must alter its approach. However, he suggested that calling attention to a perceived security threat serves as a useful pretext for Scandinavian NATO member states to be granted the elevated NATO military presence they have long sought.
On an entirely different subject, Russia’s presence at the recent Paris Peace Conference was characterized by the panelists as a natural result of diplomatic inertia. They posited that a political resolution of the Syrian conflict and U.S.-Russian agreement on the containment of Iran must necessarily preclude Russia’s active involvement in resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis, in which it currently plays a passive role.
Lastly, the panelists addressed a query as to the extent to which domestic policy — and, specifically, President Vladimir Putin’s personal role in policy formulation — should inform our understanding of Russian foreign policy. They put forth the contention that neither the idea of “hostile encirclement” nor the personal worldview of President Putin serve as the source of policy in Russia. Russian policy as they view it is rather rooted in the desires, values and feelings of the Russians themselves. In the panelists’ estimation, the popularity of Putin’s policies — including that of the current anti-Western bent— stems from their correspondence to the mood of the people outside of the major Western Russian cities who make up the majority of the population. In other words, the will of the people, not domestic politics, determine Russian foreign policy.
In its wide scope and in the involved debate that it engendered, this panel discussion provided a unique and important perspective on the issues affecting Russian foreign policy.
Katherine Baughman is a first-year student in the MAERES program. She completed her BA at Middlebury College and interned with CSIS before beginning the MAERES program. She is currently a Graduate Fellow at CERES and is participating in the Center for Global Interests’ Rising Experts Program.