A report titled “Russia’s Foreign Policy: Outlook in 2018”, authored by the renowned Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), was published on 25 December 2017. One statement merits attention, which says that in a new stage of political development (namely a supposed new term for President Vladimir Putin), international partners as well as opponents are keen to hear new ideas, new thoughts, and new reflections on foreign policy from Russia, and expect Russia to review its experiences. The RIAC was founded in 2011 under the instruction of President Putin, with former foreign Minister Igor Ivanov as President, and esteemed scholar Andrey Kortunov as Director General. Backed by strong financial commitment from the government and a deep talent pool, the RIAC has been growing fast and sees its influence surpassing that of more established think tanks such as the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, founded way back in 1992. Hence, the RIAC report should be taken seriously as a bellwether in Russian foreign policy.
I believe President Putin, when reelected, will make a point of pursuing adjustments to Russia’s foreign policy, primarily based on the following observations: first, nationalism is a double-edged sword. In the case of Russia, the Crimean crisis kindled nationalism among Russian people and bolstered support for President Putin, but the same sentiment also constrained policy leeway on the issue. When the election has come and gone, President Putin and his cabinet in their last term will be free from any constraint stemming from the need to feed nationalism sentiments before the election. Second, Russia is no longer in a position to confront the United States and other Western powers head-on. Due to sweeping and prolonged economic sanctions, Russia’s domestic economy is struggling, and social stability remains shaky. Another apparent reason is that President Putin would need to shape his political legacy and standing in history, it is simply not an option to leave behind a country embattled and weak. Third, though the Russian economy was back in positive territory in 2017, it is still devoid of sustained and viable domestic drivers. Industrial and technological developments increasingly lag behind world leaders, and with the exception of energy and raw materials, Russia has few competitive products to offer. This has led to declining international standing and influence, and undermined the prospect of a Eurasian economic union. Furthermore, CIS countries have increasingly moved away from Russia, leaving it isolated. As things stand now, domestic reforms in Russia are not likely to offset restrictions posed by sanctions, especially in terms of import of technology and financing conditions in global capital markets.
Policy towards Ukraine and Crimea will most likely undergo adjustments, as it is the point of contention with Western powers, and a major reason for the sanctions. On issues like Syria and North Korea, even a compromising and cooperative Russia may not release itself from Western countries’ sanctions. Russia may pursue the following measures to get the United States and the EU lift the sanctions.
First, seek to sign a quartet agreement with the United States, the EU, and Ukraine. Considering Germany and France opposed Ukraine ‘s NATO membership in the 2008 NATO summit in order to avoid military confrontation with Russia, a quartet agreement solution may well be accepted.
Second, terminate support to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, withdraw heavy weapons and military personnel, and bring the separatist leaders to the negotiating table and negotiate peaceful solutions with the central government. The Ukraine government in return grants some degree of autonomy to the ethnic Russian population in Eastern Ukraine under the condition that Ukraine’s Constitution and territorial integrity remain intact. But of course, for it to happen, Russia must be ready to make considerable concessions.
Third, the Crimean peninsula is at the center of contention. Now the Russian Black Sea fleet is stationed in the area, and for Russia there is no room for compromise and it is unlikely to return the territory to Ukraine. Neither is it inclined to use Crimea as a military port on lease. A likely scenario is that Russia buys the area, as Ukraine owes Russia about $3 billion in energy debt along with other unfulfilled raw material and energy agreements, so Russia could purchase Crimea as a collateral against these debts and obligations owned to it. Whether it could happen depends on how much both sides are willing to compromise.
If sanctions against Russia are lifted, détente in Russia-US relations will follow, which will have a bearing on China-US relations.
First, détente in Russia-US relations will allay concerns of a China-Russia challenge to the existing global system, and diminish concerns and misgivings against them in the United States.
That said, the détente will not have much impact on China-US relations. On the one hand, the United States does not commit substantial resources to Syria or Ukraine. That means Russia-related issues does not occupy much American resources. So a détente in Russia-US relations will not free up US capacity which can be turned against China. A more likely scenario is that the China-US relationship continues to run its due course.
Finally, a détente in Russia-US relations will reduce tensions in the global political system and facilitate cooperation between China, Russia, and the US in non-conventional security. Nevertheless, tripartite cooperation as such will not diminish tensions between China and the US regarding trade and bilateral economic ties, or military confrontation between them over South China Sea issues, including passage rights in international waterways and China’s claim of sovereignty over its territorial sea.