Russia: Foreign Policy of a Country In-Between

Russia: Foreign Policy of a Country In-Between
As Finnish-Russian scholar Sergei Prozorov puts it, Russia belongs to Europe but is not included in Europe.

by Viatcheslav Morozov

University of Tartu, Estonia

How much do we know about the driving forces behind Russia’s foreign policy? Despite our repeated failures to predict the Kremlin’s actions, we actually do understand a lot. Probably the most important thing we recognize is Russia’s in-between position in Europe: it is neither fully in nor fully out, or, as Finnish-Russian scholar Sergei Prozorov puts it, it belongs to Europe but is not included.

Russia’s national identity is certainly European and even Eurocentric. It constantly oscillates between embracing West European values and rejecting them, between attempts at pro-European modernization and going “the Russian way.” However, even during the most conservative and isolationist moments in its history, like now, Russia continues to look in the European mirror: it defines its Sonderweg (“special path”) not on its own terms, but in opposition to Europe. The result is not a non-European Russia, but rather a Russia that pretends to be a better, “truer” Europe.

This in-between-ness is not limited to identity issues, however. Economically and socially, Russia is also half-way in Europe: it has an educated population, a relatively modern infrastructure, and a welfare system. Some sectors of its economy, such as defense, are internationally competitive. Alas, much remains of the legacy of Soviet authoritarian modernization, though not terribly well maintained. Russia is a rent economy, which implies not just dependence on the export of hydrocarbons and other low-value-added goods, but also the crucial impact on domestic institutions. Redistribution of rents, originating in the resource sector but then converted into political and bureaucratic dividends, becomes the priority, which negatively impacts institutional performance.

All of this plays out against a backdrop of imperial legacy, which makes Russia the lead actor in the post-Soviet space but does not allow it to overcome normative and economic dependency on Europe. Add to this the fact that the Russian educated class has been thoroughly Europeanized as far back as the 18th century, and that the masses were — sometimes forcefully — integrated into this westward-looking culture as late as the 1970s. The result is an explosive mix of identity and difference: Russia is a European country but, at the same time, visibly different from the standard of civilization it established for itself. Both its residents and its visitors feel themselves perfectly in Europe as they go about their daily business in Moscow or St. Petersburg — until, that is, they end up face to face with a corrupt police officer, or a doctor so swamped with paperwork there’s no time left for patients, or until they leave the city and venture into the exceedingly beautiful but often ruined and decaying countryside.

The foreign policy impact of this incomplete European-ness is easy to observe. Russian foreign policy demonstrates the full range of insecurities that stem from its ambivalent identity and the set of dependencies on the global core. Russia should have no reason to fear NATO — and yet it does. There is a painful awareness of the fact that Russia is destined to remain an outsider, facing a formidable military alliance which, at least until 2014, was willing to include Ukraine and other countries from Russia’s neighbourhood.

Modernization must be an urgent priority — and yet the country’s leadership is ready to accept the risks of isolation under ever-more intrusive sanctions. Status, recognition, and geopolitical influence remain paramount foreign policy concerns, to the extent of driving the Kremlin into a number of military adventures, from Georgia to Crimea and the Donbas to Syria. “Frozen conflicts” are created and maintained both in the west and in the south, even as the government struggles to make ends meet and even as Russia faces a range of domestic and external challenges including economic instability, separatism, and radical Islam.

We understand why these seemingly contradictory political developments take place. However, we are still powerless to predict the future, even in the medium term. For that, we know too little about what is going on inside Russia. How is Russian society changing in response to the series of recent crises? Does the conservative turn of the official ideology affect everyday practices in such areas as family, religion, and material and cultural consumption? Are the masses ready to support President Putin no matter what, or could a protest movement emerge? Can the transition to a new president be managed after Putin’s term expires in 2024, or is a change to the constitution in the cards?

These are all crucial questions that will affect Russia’s relations with the EU, the US, and the rest of the world in the immediate future. We understand the underlying economic, political, and cultural structures, but our knowledge of their translation into specific societal and policy phenomena remains fragmented at best. It is very likely that domestic transformations, probably originating at the grassroots level, will have decisive significance for the country’s immediate future. But we really need to understand Russia better.

Please join us at CIPS for Viatcheslav Morozov’s talk —“Hegemonic Orders and Entangled Modernities: How to Make Sense of Russia’s Difference?” — on 30 January 2017. More info here.

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