Norms and Interests in Russian Foreign Policy

What can we conclude from this briefsurvey ofinternational crises involving Russia? I have suggested that we can see a fairly consistent defence of a set of norms of non-intervention, sovereignty and territorial integrity (I will discuss below problems in the Russian position in practice from 2008). These are traditional state-centric norms, reflecting scepticism about ideas of humanitarian intervention, but still couched in principled terms.2 For example, the 2013 Russian Foreign Policy Concept states (31[b]) under the heading “Rule of Law in International Relations”:

Arbitrary and politically motivated interpretation of fundamental international legal norms and principles such as non-use of force or threat of force, peaceful settlement of international disputes, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, right of peoples to self-determination, in favour of certain countries pose particular danger to international peace, law and order. Likewise, attempts to represent violations of international law as its “creative” application are dangerous. It is unacceptable that military interventions and other forms of interference from without which undermine the foundations of international law based on the principle of sovereign equality of states, be carried out on the pretext of implementing the concept of “responsibility to protect”. (Russian MFA 2013c)

Russia claimed not to object in principle to action on the basis of humanitarian concerns, but believed that it should not undermine the general basis of international relations, and also should be decided through due process (the UNSC). For example, in the context of the debate over Syria and the Libya events preceding it, Lavrov answered the question, “do you think there are any situations in which humanitarian intervention is justified?” as follows:

Well, you know this issue has been discussed a lot, including at the United Nations. It is a generally accepted rule and norm of international law that sovereignty cannot be used as a pretext for gross violations of human rights, ethnic cleansing, genocide, military crimes. And all this has been clearly spelled out in 2005 when the United Nations General Assembly was convened at the summit level and adopted a declaration where this “responsibility to protect” concept was described. That declaration clearly stated, that the priorities given to the efforts of the states themselves who have the obligation - the primary obligation - to protect their population, that the priority must be given to political means. And that only in case when a state exhausts all its possibilities and is not able to protect the population, it is only then that the international community can interfere, but only when the Security Council so decides. So this issue is closed. The rules have been agreed. (Glasser 2013)

In practice, throughout the period, Russia has held the bar very high in terms of what is required for the use of force, even to uphold resolutions it has supported, especially where policymakers believe Russia’s interests to be at stake. For example, in early 1994, in his capacity of Deputy Foreign Minister, Lavrov explained to the Duma the Russian position on air strikes in Bosnia: existing resolutions allowed force only in the event of an attack on a convoy delivering humanitarian aid, a violation of the no-fly zone or “direct obstruction of the UN peace-keeping forces in carrying out their mandate” for the maintenance of the “safe areas”. And a special procedure was required for force then to be used:

In all the enumerated decisions the question is only about a threat of the use of force against a violator. Its actual use requires a special additional procedure - consultations between the secretary general and the members of the Security Council. Our position in the course of such consultations, if they begin, will be negative. (Headley 2003, p. 215)

This would seem to indicate a predetermined rejection of the use of air strikes in any circumstances. Similarly, in 2013, Russia opposed the use of force in Syria by outside powers even to enforce the weak UNSC resolutions 2042/3. As suggested above, this was partly the consequence of what had happened in Libya, and also genuine concerns about the security vacuum that might be created if Syrian government forces withdrew (as with Kosovo in 1999).

It is easy to see, however, that Russia had interests in preventing Western action in each of the situations discussed. In former Yugoslavia, Russian policymakers perceived those interests to include restricting NATO’s role and, increasingly, to nurture Serbia as a potential ally in the Balkans (there was an increasing trend towards supporting the Serb side which, while not an explicitly pro-Orthodox/Slav policy, did reflect such sympathies among the elite and was a consequence also of domestic pressure). In Iraq, Russia resisted being pushed out of a Middle Eastern country with which it had strong ties, including lucrative contracts for oil extraction. In addition, as I explore below, opposing the idea of “regime change” became paramount under Putin. In the case of Syria, the standard account of Russia’s position was that Russia was supporting an authoritarian ally, and protecting arms sales and its naval base at Tartus (its only one in the Mediterranean) (Charap 2013, p. 35). All of this is in line with the dominant realist outlook in Russian foreign policy which stresses the pursuit and defence of Russian interests even when they may conflict with those of the West, and attributes Western foreign policy to a corresponding pursuit of self-interest.

There is clearly tension between the principled rhetoric and the realist outlook on foreign affairs. I cannot explore this contradiction in further detail here, but would suggest, first, that it is not uncommon for self-interest and defence of norms to be intertwined, and in terms of international theory we should not consider them to be in contradiction or mutually exclusive. In the Russian case, policymakers believed that Russia is better off with traditional state-centric principles in international affairs, but also that these principles are best for the world as a whole. Second, the Russian realist-based claim that all states are equally pursuing their self-interest has been a rhetorical strategy that masks the fact that Russia often is making principled arguments (Averre 2009; Casier 2013; DeBardeleben 2012). It seems to have convinced many analysts who take it at face value and contrast it with the West’s normative approach. For example, in response to the Wikileaks, Farrell and Finnemore (2013) wrote:

Indeed, the United States could take a page out of China’s and Russia’s playbooks: instead of framing their behaviour in terms of the common good, those countries decry anything that they see as infringing on their national sovereignty and assert their prerogative to pursue their interests at will. Washington could do the same, while continuing to punish leakers with harsh prison sentences and threatening countries that might give them refuge.

My analysis challenges the claim that Russia does not frame its behaviour in terms ofthe common good, but it is an empirical matter whether, in the case of Russia and Western states, such rhetoric merely masks self-interest.

Third, and connected to the previous point, Western refusal to acknowledge Russia as an equal interlocutor in developing international norms and in deciding international policies has fed into Russian resentment and increased assertiveness over the past two decades. Russian policymakers have shown growing frustration over Western claims to a special knowledge of the moral truth based on various forms of exceptionalism. We get a hint of Russian frustration in Lavrov’s interview in 2013:

And speaking of the Syrian situation in general and about the American position and the Russian position, we have been listening for a couple of years during the previous administration of President Obama. We have been hearing appeals to us to change our position. All the time the official representatives of the State Department or the White House will be saying, “We call on Russia and China to change their position”, which meant the conviction of Washington that their position was right. (Glasser 2013)

The Russian rejection of US exceptionalism was later well summed up by Putin (2013) in response to President Obama’s address to the US nation over Syria:

I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional”. It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Russian policymakers, then, have been sceptical about the concept of a “responsibility to protect”, but also about the way Western powers assume the sole moral authority to judge its applicability in specific cases. In order to undercut this presumption, Russian policymakers have increasingly accused their Western counterparts of displaying double standards in their policies across a range of areas - for example, in recognition of Kosovo, in upholding minority rights and in supporting authoritarian allies in some countries, but seeking regime change in others (Headley 2015a). For example, Lavrov (2013) complained:

If we talk about the Middle East and North Africa, there was what we call a “double standard”, as well as personal attitude i.e. personal animosity to a single authoritarian leader results in the agreement that he must be toppled by all means, and authoritarian leaders who do not cause such dislike and who are allies of our Western partners and assist them, are not taken into consideration at all.

Finally, my analysis challenges the common tendency among commentators to argue that Russia’s assertive approach occurred only under President Putin. For example, many analysts point to Putin’s speech at the Munich security conference in 2007 as evidence of a turning point towards an aggressively assertive Russian policy. Yet, the essentials of that speech have formed the basis of foreign policy since around 1993/ 1994: pursuit of multipolarity, opposition to NATO enlargement, resistance to Western interventionism and the undermining of sovereignty, especially when carried out unilaterally and without regard for the UNSC, and so on. There was little new here that had not been heard in complaints throughout most of the post-Cold War era, and can be seen in successive versions of the Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine, for example. It was merely stated more directly than usual, but Putin (2007) explained why:

This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. This conference’s format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems. And if my comments seem unduly polemical, pointed or inexact to our colleagues, then I would ask you not to get angry with me. After all, this is only a conference.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the changes that have occurred during Putin’s rule, especially as they connect to his domestic consolidation of power; and we also need to explain the dramatic developments in relation to Syria and Ukraine since 2013. I will turn now to a more detailed analysis of the Putin period, before focusing on those recent developments.

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