Was 2014 a Turning Point in Russian Foreign Policy?

Beginning in the early months of 2014, Russian foreign policy has become increasingly assertive and reinvigorated. This has been marked by a growing willingness to use force as well as direct involvement abroad. When viewed purely on the basis of conduct it might be perceived as a fundamental shift, a historical approach reveals that the change in methods is nonetheless rooted in the same underlying worldview that was held in the years leading up to 2014. Rather than assessing the ideological framework that’s perceived to be held by Russian foreign policymakers, this article will identify individual actions that are themselves immediate responses to spontaneous changes in the geopolitical landscape.

The year 2014 can be singled out for its significance due to the timing of the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. However, this momentous event is itself simply a response to an earlier, though unwavering, Russian foreign policy. That is to say that Moscow’s desire to maintain close ties and heavy economic integration with Kyiv is due to two fundamental objectives of the Kremlin. The first is the establishment of a viable Eurasian Economic Union and the second is the implementation of a multipolar world order. While these two goals are to a great extent inseparable, it is vital to first acknowledge that each is rooted in several years of consistent policy.

The Eurasian Economic Union, a supranational organization that serves as a common market for several former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, emerged out of the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. In 2007, Russia’s GDP grew by an astounding 8.5% yet in 2009 it contracted by 7.8%. The establishment of an economic union would serve Russian interests by preserving existing markets and making it more immune from foreign encroachment. While the idea had been around since 2008, concrete policy proposals began taking form as early as 2012 following then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he would be campaigning in the next Russian presidential election. When viewed through a historical lens, it becomes clear this idea did not merely incidentally come about shortly before 2014 but rather has a deep running history. The historian Serhii Plokhy, for example, points to the fact that not only did Boris Yeltsin’s foreign minister and prime minister Yevgeny Primakov hold similar aspirations for the Commonwealth of Independent States in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union but that the Eurasianist sentiments were held as early as the 1920s by Russian emigreés only for them to be revived in the post-Soviet era by neo-Eurasianists such as Aleksandr Dugin.

The Eurasian Economic Union also serves Russian foreign policy as a counterweight to the augmenting influence of the European Union in former Soviet republics. In order to understand Russia’s exertion of its will in 2014, it is imperative to note that in 2013 the European Union was increasingly forcing some of Russia’s neighboring states to essentially choose between Moscow and Brussels. However, even some of this dates back even earlier. For example, in 2009, the European Union had proposed “Eastern Partnership” to six former Soviet republics while Putin, copying Mikhail Gorbachev’s idea of a “Common European Home,” had counterproposed with a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” The radical shift in 2014 in Russia’s relationship with Ukraine can be partially attributed to the European Union’s rejection of Russia’s earlier efforts of preserving its involvement in future EU-Ukraine negotiations as well as having Ukraine be associated with both Unions with Putin later noting ‘They just slammed the door in our face telling us to mind our own business.”

Notions of transnational bonds, though manifested most clearly in Crimea, is by absolutely no means unique. What changed, rather, was the ability to implement policies to such an effect. In September 2013, Putin famously declared that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” claiming this “because we have the same Kyivan baptismal font in the Dnieper; we certainly have common historical roots and common fates; we have a common religion, a common faith; we have a very similar culture, languages, traditions, and mentality.” Though this can be interpreted as an opportunistically timed statement, it does reflect long-held attitudes among the Russian populace. While in 2015 only a mere 18% of Russian citizens supported the revision of the nation’s borders and the absorption of contiguous territories, which can be primarily attributed to the high cost both in lives and finances of the war in the Donbas, in 1998 this figure stood at 75%.

As such, when analyzing pre-2014, Crimean annexation, and post-2014 attitudes, there is a consistent ideological underpinning to Russian foreign policy that is altered by practical circumstances, whether it be the economic decline of the 1990s or war-weariness. The year 2014, in a sense, represents a culmination of capacity building, which explains why by the end of March 2014 (after Crimean annexation), Putin’s approval ratings increased by 19 points and reached 80%, the single largest jump for him ever. This growing capability, which was largely non-existent during Putin’s first two terms as president, can be ascribed to a changing economic landscape in the aftermath of 2008. According to professor of economics Steven Rosefielde, this is largely due to the growing dependency on the state by big business following the economic collapse. As such, military procurement strategy pursued over the course of several years became applicable abroad in 2014 and 2015.

Russian foreign policy post-2014 needs to be placed in a context of relative power disparity between Moscow and the West. This can be subdivided into two spheres: Europe and the rest of the world. NATO’s eastward expansion and gradual encroachment during the 1990s and throughout the 2000s was carried out largely unimpeded but without Russian support. To some degree, this growing hostility due to NATO’s policy of incorporating former Warsaw Pact members into its military alliance was anticipated. George F. Kennan, former American ambassador to the Soviet Union, even lamented it in an interview with a New York Times columnist as early as 1998 when he said that “I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else.”

Domestic sentiments that Russia was being treated as a second-rate power can also be credited to a series of western unilateral actions that took place over several years long before 2014. Among these include the recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008 as well as the United States’ cancellation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Putin’s February 2007 speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy can be seen as an early indicator of the Russian rejection of an American unipolar world when he pronounced that “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’” Similarly, Putin penned a New York Times op-ed in 2012, which warned that a US military strike against Syria would “unleash a new wave of terrorism” and “could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

Developments outside of Europe did also play a role in forming Russian foreign policy and can aid in analyzing why a particular path was chosen. One example is the Kremlin’s policy towards Libya, which might suggest an inconsistent approach but illuminates the larger arc that describes the state’s worldview. Then-President Dmitri Medvedev’s decision in March 2011 to abstain from the United Nations Security Council’s vote on Resolution 1973, which authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, itself represents an aberration and deviation from Russia’s general position of opposing western involvement in a country’s internal affair. However, when we viewed together with Prime Minister Putin’s public rebuke of Medvedev and comparing the intervention to “a medieval summons to a crusade when someone would call someone to go to a particular place and liberate something” suggests that a Putin-led foreign policy has generally been consistent on the role of western military involvement long before 2014. Additionally, the lessons of Libya from 2011, i.e. the effects of regime change in the Arab world, is like to have played a role in informing the Kremlin’s attitude towards its policy in Syria.

Though it might be alluring to view Russian foreign policy through a single framework with a preset formula with the benefit of hindsight, which would make analyzing it easier, neither policymakers nor historians ought to overlook the role of short-term tactical moves. Paul J. Saunders, then-executive director of the Washington Post, put the blame of the August 2008 war on Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili and that Russia was simply reacting to escalating violence following Saakashivili’s provocations. Similar political-realist arguments were made following Crimea, such as John Mearsheimer’s Foreign Affairs essay “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” These claims are also subject to criticism, however, with Gerard Toal crucially highlighting “Why fear of NATO encroachment in 2008 or EU encroachment in 2014 triggered wars, but did not result in wars in 2004—when NATO expansion incorporated the former Soviet Baltic Republics—needs explanation.” However, when coupled with ongoing capacity building, one can more clearly see why there was an apparent shift in 2014 while the same attitudes and policy goals were held both before and after.

Short-termism in Russian foreign policy is particularly visible in cases where sustained positions are augmented by new tactics. A striking example is that of Syria. The year 2015, or even the years leading up to it, saw no discernable difference in the Kremlin’s desire to maintain the territorial integrity and structural security of the Syrian state. However, that year saw a noticeable change in methodology, namely through direct military intervention in the war in Syria. At its root, it was a response to the rebel advances in the first half of 2015, such as rebels capturing Idlib on 28 March 2015, Iraqi Shia militiamen leaving the country in 2014, Turkish-Saudi rapprochement, the fall of Palmyra to ISIS in May 2015, as well as the creation of Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) with seven armed groups including al-Nusra.

Though the decision was largely unexpected, the underlying motives were by no means new and is reflected in wider Russian foreign and domestic policy that has been active throughout the Putin era. One of the earliest challenges that faces Putin upon becoming president was the danger of jihadi movements in the Caucasus, which had become increasingly internationalized. Fears of Islamic radicalization in Russia in case of a jihadi victory in Syria, with 14% of the population of Russia being Muslim, and the fact that Russian speaking foreign fighters were among the most effective jihadis in Syria illustrates that from a wider historical viewpoint, the seemingly new action fit coherently within a longer policy development cycle.

The hybrid nature of Russian foreign policy thinking, consisting of both long term attitudes alongside with short term reactions, can be seen in the case of alleged electoral interference abroad. This can be seen particularly clearly when zooming in on Russo-American relations on this issue. The KGB’s Department for Active Measures was set in 1958 with it being at its most active internationally during the time when Putin was working for them. To a certain extent, Putin was a product of the Andropov KGB. Additionally, for a historian to analyze foreign policy effectively, it is necessary to contextualize this in a bilateral setting, which includes American involvement in the form of advisors in the Russian presidential election of 1996 in which President Boris Yeltsin was reelected.

The years immediately leading up to 2014 suggest a change in method but not necessarily of policy. Traditionally, the Kremlin had focused its efforts on traditional media, such as television and newspaper, but the Medvedev presidency was arguably the first to take a major interest in the internet. This included visits by him to Silicon Valley, where he met Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt among others, as well as created his own official Facebook page. The use of the internet as a tool for foreign policy, like other actions, was to some degree a mirroring and retaliatory step. As early as May 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started a “21st-century diplomacy” initiative at the State Department, which was intended to assist civil society groups who were trying to change politics through the internet. This manifested itself in a practical sense in different ways, such as when in April 2009 the State Department requested that Twitter delay its maintenance work in order to enable protestors in Iran to continue using the service while subsequently increasing grant funding groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. Putin’s belief that anti-government demonstrations in December 2011 were instigated by Secretary Clinton suggests that there was a clear and direct line in terms of his thinking for years between his second premiership and the American presidential election of 2016.

One way to understand Russian foreign policy since 2014 is to analyze intensity and scale as opposed to policy objectives themselves. That is to say that in many areas recent years have borne witness to greater efforts while not fundamentally changing the policies themselves. Russo-Saudi relations, for example, emerges as a clear case of this. While the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia did not have formal diplomatic ties, the 2000s saw early efforts at establishing better relations. In 2007, Putin became the first Russian leader to visit the kingdom, which did result in the signing of several commercial agreements. To a considerable degree, what might be perceived as improving Russian-Saudi ties following the Arab Spring of 2011 is a by-product of worsening US-Saudi ties. Disappointment in President Barack Obama abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and allowing for the Muslim Brotherhood (viewed as a terrorist organization by Saudis) to take the presidency, perceived American weakness in trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, along with growing suspicions over negotiations between Washington and Tehran over nuclear deal all contributed to an environment in which Russian-Saudi relations could improve.

One manner to analyze developments would be to take a chronological approach, which understands changes as being informed by a chain reaction even if not directly related to its cause in the first place. Growing isolation in the West following the annexation of Crimea produced a cascading effect in which Russian foreign policy became increasingly defined by its efforts to become more engaged elsewhere. This could explain improving Sino-Russian ties, which stand in contrast to the notably cold ties relations during the Cold War. Following the implementation of western sanctions, Russia has become increasingly supportive of Chinese conduct in the South China Sea, which has been reciprocated by Chinese approval of Russian involvement in the war in Syria. This latter policy has been reinforced by Chinese fears of the participation of Chinese nationals, particular Uyghurs, among Islamist ranks. As such, it is necessary to also incorporate driving factors in the foreign policy decisions of other nations, to which Russia is often seizing the opportunity rather than defining.

Viewing foreign policy as an extension, if not a by-product, of domestic politics is one manner in which to understand the Kremlin’s international behavior. Similar to the sudden growth in support for Putin after annexing Crimea, other actions have likewise seen the integration of the domestic and the international. At times, this can be identified in certain demographics or sectors of society. While the war in Syria has largely been centered on the notion of preserving the Syrian state as well as combatting jihadism, it has increasingly drawn in the Russian Orthodox Church. Not only has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called Putin “the sole defender of Christian civilization one can rely on” but it has been reinforced within Russia by senior clergymen who have described the conflict as a “holy war.” The attempt to use external matters as a distraction for domestic issues has limitations, however. The announcement of raising the retirement age during the 2018 FIFA World Cup was not only unpopular but also widely viewed as a cynical bid to use Russia’s international spotlight as an obscurant. The limited effectiveness of such a strategy, reflected in declining trust in Putin as well as the government as a whole, ought to caution one from using this as a comprehensive explanation, especially the further away one moves away from 2014 as a perceived turning point.

Russian domestic economic policies are intricately interwoven with international developments. As such, some of the post-2014 changes in Russian foreign policy ought to be analyzed in context of wider trends to which the Kremlin is simply responding to. Declining oil prices on the international market are the guiding factor behind Russia’s increasing willingness to negotiate with Saudi Arabia as well as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as a whole. The fact that the fall in prices came roughly at the same as the imposition of western sanctions and the declining value of the ruble illustrate that the December 2016 decision by OPEC and non-OPEC countries, including Russia, to limit oil production in order to raise prices was the by-product of external pressures and not an inevitable and predetermined path for Russian engagement with the global oil market.

Like all historical developments, finding a clean dividing point in a chronology is a difficult and oftentimes unhelpful endeavor. Rather than analyzing Russian foreign policy as consisting of pre- and post-2014 strands, it is more beneficial for us to take a more holistic approach whereby a longer period of time is examined. By doing so, it becomes increasingly clear that all-encompassing themes and explanations for changes are absent and that foreign policy consists of continuous and non-continuous threads caused by both strategic and tactical decision-making processes while still being responsive to external events. Additionally, taking a regional approach could aid us. By acknowledging that objectives and motives vary greatly from region to region, one avoids the risk of being lured by grand narratives while simultaneously being able to elicit unique attributes that may lack parallels elsewhere.

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Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom

Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom is the Senior Vice President of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is currently pursuing postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge where he is researching Swedish nuclear weapons policy.

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