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Foreign Policy

Where Is Russia Headed?

Sep 06, 2021
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

Russia became the center of the country’s heritage when the Soviet Union collapsed. Still, its global influence waned because its economic strength plummeted. For Russia, the priority was to maintain its strategic security, as well as its stature as a major power. On July 2 this year, Russia issued its National Security Strategy, stating that “the objectives of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation are the creation of favorable conditions for sustainable socioeconomic development of the country, strengthening national security and strengthening the position of the Russian Federation as one of the influential centers of the modern world.”

In a world in which the transformation of the international order has been accelerating, Russia has new judgment and analysis about the international security situation, and on that basis has adjusted the direction and priorities of its national strategy.

Russia has not missed the fact that today’s world is undergoing profound changes. The main features are the decline of the Western liberal international order, the rise of new powers, the increasingly prominent multipolar trends, the fierce strategic game among big powers and the emergence of uncertainty and instability; but the overall global trend of peace is here to stay. Russia’s new national security strategy stresses that “the modern world is undergoing a period of transformation. The increase in the number of centers of world economic and political development and the strengthening of the positions of countries new to global and regional leadership have led to changes in the structure of the world order — the formation of new architecture, rules and principles of the world order.”

First, the liberal international order is declining as state-centrism is gaining momentum. Multilateralism is facing setbacks, and an institutional crisis in the international community is growing. Russia believes that the Western-led international system is undergoing changes that are reflected in the weakening of Western dominance. This has also led to the weakening of the international system and its functions, further anarchy within the international community and the growing instability of the international order.

Further, the role of sovereign states in the international system has become more prominent, and the tendency toward state centrism has become more evident. This was particularly true in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the 2020 meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the game without rules is becoming increasingly horrifying, the role and importance of the state do matter and “a strong state is a basic condition for Russia’s development.”

Second, with competition among major powers becoming increasingly fierce, factors that might lead to international conflicts are rising, and security risks and challenges for the international community are growing. Russia has realized that strategic competition between major powers is rising sharply while cooperation is becoming more difficult, which has led to the emergence of a series of unstable situations.

The annual report from the 2020 Valdai meeting stated: “Strategic competition between the leading powers is on the rise; and in the pursuit of dominance, each of them is building up a military arsenal and potentially increasing the number of conflicts in the world.”

Third, the trend toward multipolarization has become more prominent, the checks and balances between international powers are gradually taking shape and the general international trend toward peace is clear. Russia believes that the United States, given its overall strength, is still leading in the world, but it’s an unquestionable fact that its strength is relatively on the wane. Furthermore, countries such as China and Germany are on the way to gaining the status of superpowers, and the influence of India, Brazil, South Africa and some big regional countries are also on the rise.

Under a polycentric international system, strategic competition between countries is intensifying and latent spots of conflict are increasing globally, but the probability of war is still very low. As the annual report issued by the 2020 meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club pointed out: Because no country will be capable of acquiring dominant status sufficient to manipulate the international system, a new era of global development is around the corner, and “multipolarity” will be one of its main features. The report also stressed that a system of checks and balances is taking shape, so the escalation of conflicts can be avoided.

In the face of changes in the international environment and the reality of Russian strength, Russia needs to clearly define its national strategic position, clarify the main direction and objectives of its diplomatic strategy and, against the strategic backdrop of big power competition, defend Russia’s national interests and international status. 

Shifting its strategic focus to Asia and jostling for position in key sectors of strategic competition.

Russia has been considering Europe a priority in its diplomatic and security strategy, but in the past few years has begun to emphasize its strategic input in Asia. On one hand, the choice was made on the basis of prominent strategic importance of Asia; on the other, it was made because of the suppression of Russian interests in Europe by the United States and the Europeans. In other words, the shift toward the East was made partly on its own initiative and partly from necessity. This was reflected in the content adjustments of the 2021 national security strategy. This edition of the strategy deleted content relating to establishing cooperation relations with the United States and carrying out mutually beneficial cooperation with Europe, explicitly referencing “developing a comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction with the People’s Republic of China and a particularly privileged strategic partnership with the Republic of India, including for the purpose of creating reliable mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure regional stability and security on a non-aligned basis.” 

Building a new type of tripartite relationship of China, the United States and Russia, while maintaining Russia’s strategic independence. 

The global paradigm today has undergone profound changes. While competition between the U.S. and China and between the U.S. and Russia is intense, the tripartite relationship is very much different from what it was during the Cold War. Russia will not take sides between China and the United States. On the contrary, China-U.S. competition to some extent has eased some of the strategic pressure on Russia and has given Russia greater space to maneuver strategically. Russia is able to adopt more flexible and advantageous measures to defend its interests.

The recent edition of the security strategy pointed out: “The Russian Federation pursues a consistent, independent, multisector, open, predictable and pragmatic foreign policy aimed at protecting its national interests and strengthening international security.” And it claims that Russia will be “maintaining an equitable and mutually beneficial dialogue with the aim of the project being the development of trade and economic cooperation among all interested states and strengthening international and regional stability.”

It might be predicted that Russia will approach the tripartite relationship with caution, and will maintain its own strategic independence so as to become an important force in safeguarding global strategic stability. 

Strengthening the role of international mechanisms and vigorously promoting multilateralism. 

In Russia’s view, a new international order will gradually replace the old. Gone is the era when a single superpower dominated in everything. The international order will be flexible as some countries may become allies based on common interests. But multilateral cooperation will be the mainstream, and the role of international organizations and international mechanisms should be underscored.

The new edition of the Russian national security strategy highlighted the roles of international and regional multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS dialogue mechanism. In particular, it called for “strengthening the central coordinating role of the United Nations and its Security Council in resolving global and regional problems.”

Of the regional mechanisms, Russia especially values multilateral cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States, which all share national security interests with Russia. For example, the new national security strategy stresses the need for “deepening cooperation with CIS member states, the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia on a bilateral basis and within a framework of integrated associations — primarily the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Union States” — and “ensuring the integration of economic systems and the development of multilateral cooperation within the framework of the Greater Eurasian Partnership.”

Therefore, Russia has insisted on maintaining and strengthening the development of a United Nations-centered multilateralism, while at the same time emphasizing the pertinence and effectiveness of multilateralism. It expressed its willingness to cooperate with all interested countries in addressing global challenges. 

Strengthening military forces, building up a nuclear deterrent and ensuring strategic stability. 

Russia has realized that the current military and security situation is extremely complicated, and strengthening military capacity is an important prerequisite for Russia to safeguard its national security and exercise global influence.

The 2021 edition of its national security strategy pointed out: “The military-political situation of the world is characterized by the formation of new global and regional centers of power and aggravated struggles between them for spheres of influence. The importance of military force as an instrument of achieving geopolitical goals by the subjects of international relations is increasing.”

In addition to conventional military forces, increasing its nuclear deterrent is also of particular strategic significance for Russia. The 2021 strategy underscored the necessity of maintaining an adequate nuclear deterrent. Therefore, Russia will vigorously expand its nuclear power to enhance its strategic deterrence and combat-readiness, seek to strike a strategic balance with the United States and safeguard its national interest in geopolitics and security.

In general, Russia has adjusted the priorities of its diplomatic strategy, shifted its focus to the East and sought to safeguard its national security through such measures as military power and its stance on multilateralism. At the same time, it has also sought to maintain its power and influence in international affairs.

There is no doubt that the Russian economy is relatively weak. In 2020, its gross domestic product was $1.48 trillion, accounting for just 1.75 percent of the world economy — ranking 11th globally — but its military force, experience and capability to participate in global affairs means that Russia will continue to be an important player in shaping the international landscape.

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