I have argued that the main principles of Russian foreign policy have been fairly consistent since the early 1990s. These principles help to explain the periodic clashes with Western states, particularly over issues or in areas that Russian policymakers perceive to be important to Russian interests. In broader terms, a Russia seeking to re-establish its great power status, which depends particularly on key strategic areas, is coming up against a West that regards Russia as an irritant in its promulgation of norms and approaches to resolving international crises. This is exacerbated by the tendency of Western policymakers to ignore Russian objections to their policies and not to engage seriously with the principles their Russian counterparts espouse. Until recently, crises tended to be followed by rapprochements, but the circumstances of Russian domestic developments, and developments in the former Soviet Union and Middle East involving Western states, have created a more permanent freezing of relations.
How can we interpret post-communist Russian foreign policy and its relations with the West? Firstly, I would argue that it is misleading to frame the tensions in terms of a new “Cold War”. Russia is not the Soviet Union, in borders or in politico-economic system, and does not present an alternative system to liberal democratic capitalism. Although Russia wants to be recognised as a great power, it does not have the global pretensions or global capability of its predecessor, nor the ideological drive to compete globally with the United States. The prime area of attention is the “near abroad”, the former Soviet space, which is both an area of primary Russian interests and a means for Russia to assert its great power status. The dominant realist thinking in foreign policy sees Russia as a regional hegemon and as a major power because of its dominant sphere.
A second, alternative interpretation is that Russia is a rising power, challenging Western hegemony. The idea of the BRICS suits this interpretation, moving beyond the Cold War paradigm. Russia, along with the other rising powers, is a revisionist power, seeking to challenge the dominant Western-led order. While there is some truth in this account, it is problematic to view such a diverse range of countries as a coherent group, regardless of attempts by policymakers to make it into one. Regarding Russia, although foreign policy over the past 20 years has been geared towards re-establishing Russia’s status after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, its former status and its level of development place it in a different position to other members of the group.
We can see then that Russia is a revisionist state in terms ofpower - it wants to be acknowledged as a great power, to be heard and to be one of the major powers making key decisions in the international arena. But this desire in fact manifests itselfas a defence ofthe existing order ofinternational politics based on the United Nations and especially the Security Council in which, as a permanent veto-wielding member, Russia can be an equal participant with other major powers. Similarly, defence of the idea of non-intervention and sovereignty suits the Putin regime’s interests but is also presented as a defence of fundamental principles of the world order under threat from Western interventionism and hegemony in the widest sense. So, Russia is more of a status quo power than a revisionist power regarding the principles of the international order. Nevertheless, when it comes to the immediate neighbourhood, Russian policymakers have increasingly contravened such principles in pursuing specific Russian and regime interests, in line with the realist idea of great power regional hegemony. Such actions only serve to undermine the principled stance promulgated in other contexts.
This makes it harder for Western policymakers as the normative gap between Russia and the West widens. Yet, Russia has become more assertive partly because it has been ignored in the past. Western policymakers have too often disregarded Russian opinions on international matters, and have then been surprised by Russian assertiveness. This is partly a matter ofignorance (House ofLords European Union Committee 2015), but also a habit developed during the Yeltsin period of assuming that Russian objections to Western policy are mere bluster for a domestic audience. Too often, also, Western policymakers are convinced of the rectitude of their own policies and disregard legitimate concerns from Russia. In this regard, Russia is not alone in demanding more equal consideration in international affairs and challenging Western hegemony in the post-Cold War era.