Russian foreign policy: disruption and reflection of domestic policies

Jun 18 2018

On Thursday, June 14, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank, organized a panel discussion with Russian opposition leaders to explore U.S.-Russia relations in Vladimir Putin’s fourth term as president. The panelists argued that Russian foreign policy is largely a reflection of domestic developments, that there is a distinction between the Kremlin regime and Russia itself, and that thoughtful engagement and cooperation is needed between Russia and the West.

The panel included:

Andrei Kozyrev, a Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1990-1996)
Natalia Arno, President, Free Russia Foundation
Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman of Open Russia; Former Deputy Leader of the People’s Freedom Party
Vitali Shkliarov, Russian Political Strategist; Former Senior Campaign Adviser to Ksenia Sobchak

Russian foreign policy: a disruptive approach intertwined with domestic politics

Natalia Arno said that there are many voices in the West that call for forgetting past disputes and starting a dialogue with Russia to tackle global challenges, but it is important to remember “how Putin acts and why he started to act like he does.” “The phenomenon of disruption,” said Arno, “is the main choice for his foreign policy.” The West’s failure to take serious steps after the war in Georgia in 2008, she said, contributed to the expansion of disruptive strategies in Ukraine, Syria and Western elections, and it is unlikely that Putin will stop there. “While we are trying to understand his policies, we should always remember it is very beneficial for him to act in a disruptive way on the international arena.”

Vitali Shkliarov said that Russia’s course in turning away from an “open-minded” foreign policy during 18 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule has partly been a consequence of a “sense of betrayal by the West,” such as the expansion of NATO. The “betrayal” rationale is how Putin explains the shift in foreign policy to himself and to the people of Russia, “selling” a story of “us against them” that helps Putin “unite people” backing him. The escalation of tensions and Western sanctions have only helped Putin entrench this message, supported by a perfected propaganda machine. “Over the years that has become his [Putin’s] mantra,” said Shkliarov, adding that the West’s actions to push Russia into isolation are only contributing to this.

“When we talk about Putin’s foreign policy,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, “it is very important to keep in mind that his foreign policy is a reflection and a function of a continuation of his domestic politics.”  He refuted the concept of an “early, middle and late Putin,” saying that the authoritarian trends of his rule, which have now “reached extremes,” have been present since the beginning. Western leaders have largely preferred to ignore domestic repressions within Russia, in an effort to preserve the “modus operandi” of international cooperation, thus pursuing their own interests over values, yet this strategy has turned out to be shortsighted. “Mr. Putin has shown it is just a matter of time before domestic repression translates into external aggression,” said Kara-Murza.  He said Russian foreign policy has always been determined by the domestic situation.  The world will see a completely different foreign policy take effect with a democratic change in Russia, as was the case prior to Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, he said.

Andrei Kozyrev said it is essential to “distinguish between Russian national interest and the regime’s interests,” and the current foreign policy is completely contrary to the Russian national interest. Portraying the West as an enemy has helped justify the seizure of power by the security services, “rather than a democratically elected government.” Russian involvement in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts is contrary to the national interest, said Kozyrev, and Russia needs cooperation and partnerships with “most developed countries in the world” in order to become a modern country. In fact, said Kozyrev, he does not see real conflicting interests in U.S. and Russian foreign policy that make cooperation impossible. “Russia and the U.S. cooperate in outer space, so it only takes one step to descend from outer space to the earth, and it depends on domestic development in Russia,” said Kozyrev.

Engaging with Russia

Vitali Shkliarov said that Russians and Americans have to try to find a way for dialogue. The current U.S. president, he said, “is building a bridge with the most aggressive dictator” of North Korea, so why wouldn’t engagement between the U.S. and Russia work? Communication is very important in building dialogue and there is scope for cooperation in the fight against terrorism and in other global challenges, said Shkliarov. “I believe where there is a will, there is a way,” said Shkliarov, but noted that at the moment it feels like “there is no will on either side.” 

Natalia Arno said a policy of deterrence, containment and engagement should be applied towards Russia. Russian civil society, independent media and pro-democratic forces could be engaged in dialogue, said Arno, adding that behind the headlines there is actually a growing grassroots movement in Russia. Arno said there are more and more young people demanding change in Russia, and more people are participating in local politics – the only level of government left where democratically minded people can act. An example of this, she said, is last year’s successful municipal elections in Moscow, where the democratic opposition candidates became the second largest political power in the capital after the ruling party. These “new institutionalized sprouts of pro-democracy forces” are examples of who needs to be engaged in the dialogue, said Arno. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza said contact with civil society is important, but there is also the question of engagement with the regime, and the quality of engagement. Even during the most difficult periods of the Cold War, said Kara-Murza, Western leaders were able to successfully negotiate arms control agreements and often secure the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union. He said that with more than 150 political prisoners in Russia today, and the hunger strike of Oleg Sentsov – the jailed Ukrainian filmmaker who demands the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia – there are not a lot of Western leaders who prominently raise this issue. “It is not about engaging or not engaging, it is not a question of talking or not talking with Putin’s regime – it is a question of what you talk about, […] it is about engaging with principles and engaging smartly.”

Andrei Kozyrev said that for any engagement to be successful, diplomatic efforts and thoughtful, prepared agreements are necessary, rather than just “engagement which ends with hugs and kisses.” Authoritarian leaders, said Kozyrev, dislike democracy, but “they also like to be seen as accepted by Western leaders because it plays to their domestic image of tough but respected,” said Kozyrev. Yet engagement is important and possible, said Kozyrev – “it is important to see where you can cooperate and where not.”

By Valeria Jegisman

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