Understanding Russia’s Foreign Policy

June 11, 2015
Understanding Russia’s Foreign Policy
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

TRENDS Research and Advisory recently brought together four international experts on Russian foreign policy to discuss and debate how Russia’s foreign policy impacts the GCC.  A key objective of this event was to explore key issues and factors influencing Russian foreign policy in the region and how the states of the GCC can react and respond.  The focus of the discussions was identifying the aims and intentions of Russian foreign policy for the region; evaluating the extent to which the GCC was a foreign policy priority for Russia; and exploring the future of Russian foreign policy for the GCC.  To understand Russian foreign policy in connection to the GCC it is essential to consider and examine Russia’s actions in the wider Middle East, and even further afield in relation to Europe and the United States.  The discussions highlighted how Russia’s foreign policy in relation to the region is, or at least appears to be, highly inconsistent.  At the same time, what may appear to be inconsistency can often be explained as principled decision making, or the taking of a pragmatic approach in response to particular circumstances.  It must be remembered that Russia is a significant global power and its foreign policy decisions and activities will have global dimensions alongside the local/regional concerns, and its actions will be heavily influenced by the positions and influences of other global actors.

In order to understand Russia’s foreign policy in general, it is necessary to understand how Russia is approaching its global position.  There is a great deal of talk about how weak Russia has been or still is, and wide ranging commentaries assert that it is no longer a major influence on the direction of international politics.  However, a quick glance to the daily news shows that Russia is becoming, once again, a major global actor.  A central feature to this reassertion of its global identity is Russia’s attempts to forge alternative approaches to world order.  The diversification or fragmentation of the international system is a prominent feature of global affairs as various states and groups of states assert identities and understandings that may or may not coalesce with the dominant discourse.  The dominant discourse of international relations is based on Western/Euro-centric/Altanticist versions of the world and global institutions.  Russia’s view of the world is that new ways of thinking are needed in response to this dominant discourse.  This means Russia is taking a pro-active approach to much of it foreign relations whereby existing international institutions and practices are broadly accepted, but new assertions on the principles and practices underlying these systems are being put forth.  In attempting to articulate a new understanding of international relations Russia is seeking new and diverse allies in support of its global ambitions which will further contribute to feelings of inconsistency when looking at the particular actions the country takes.

Russia’s desire to assert new principles and practices in international relations is most clear with the current situation in Ukraine, but is equally evident in its activities involving the Middle East.  From the GCC perspective it is clear that Russia is supporting the Assad regime in Syria and has become an obstacle to removing Assad from power.  Furthermore, Russia’s positioning with Iran seems to the GCC states as an indication of closer and friendly relations with a threatening regional power.  And in turn it is believed that Russia is supporting the Houthi cause in Yemen through its links with Iran and its indifference to the current conflict there.  None of these actions bode well for friendly relations between Russia and the GCC states as each situation appears to be Russia acting contrary to the interests of the GCC.  However, from Russia’s view, direct support for Syria, limited support for Iran and what can only called a position of indifference in relation to Yemen, can be explained through principled and pragmatic approaches to its foreign policy.

The Russian position on Syria is problematic from both a regional and global perspective.  The international community has clearly indicated that President Assad can no longer be seen as a legitimate authority of the nation and something needs to be done.  Russia continues to block any efforts by the UN Security Council to take decisive action and it does not appear Russia is actively attempting to resolve the matter.  There have been some efforts at diplomatic dialogue between the warring factions but with very little results.  Russia does have historical ties with Syria and the existence of an out of date naval facility in the port of Tartus may help to explain its position. But this is only part of the picture.  Russia, it appears, is rejecting the popular uprising in Syria as a legitimate means for changing the government and as none of the other members of the UN Security Council stepped up to take a leading role in resolving the conflict, Russia took advantage and stepped up as the key player in the situation.  It is becoming apparent that Russia’s position in the Syria conflict, which runs contrary to the position of the GCC, is not about the Gulf region, rather it is more about Russia’s ability to confront the USA and EU on an important global matter.

Russia’s relation with Iran needs to be looked at historically and pragmatically.  Russia and Iran do not have a history of amicable relations and much of the recent history of their engagement has been based on conflicting ideas, approaches and even outright conflict.  The two states share a significant border and there have never been strong, harmonious relations between the two. However, Russia’s attempts to sell arms and defence equipment to Iran, along with its support in the building nuclear reactors have been viewed with great suspicion from the GCC states.  But these limited examples are only a small part of the relationship between Russia and Iran.  Russia’s support for Iran’s development of nuclear capacity through an international regime is driven by national interests and ensuring that a neighbour is kept under control in the development of its nuclear programme.  The arms deals were again about national interests and not an ideological position as the arms sales would greatly support a struggling domestic economy.  Russia appears to be happy to sell arms to any state in the region and the GCC cannot expect that if Russia sells to Sunni dominated states, it will not sell arms to Shia dominated states.

The situation in Yemen brings this to light as the conflict there is too often described as a simple Sunni (Sauid GCC)/Shia (Iran) conflict.  It is far from that mainly due to the nature of Yemeni society where all studies and report make clear that loyalty is not about religion but about clan and power.  We cannot apply the adage – a friend of my enemy is my enemy as well to this situation.  Russia, for the most part, is taking a disconnected view of Yemen, not directly supporting either side but calling for substantive negotiations to resolve the situation through dialogue.  While Russia may be showing some alliance with Iran in limited areas, this does not automatically translate into Russia directly supporting the Houthi cause in Yemen.  Again the historical context helps us to better understand what is driving the formulation of policy positions.  The southern part of Yemen, where the majority of Sunnis reside, was once a USSR satellite state, with many individuals and leaders, including the current President Hadi were educated.  Of course other states in the region may interpret Russia’s lack of overwhelming support for Operation Decisive Storm as evidence of supporting the Houthi cause.  However the position is best explained as “Russia is not invested enough in the Yemeni crisis to provide meaningful support to any of the sides”.  Therefore it is talking to all sides in the hope it can have some influence over resolving the matter.  However, one of the key principles in Russia’s foreign policy is its rejection of regime change through unconstitutional means.  If this principle is respected by Russia, its efforts at diplomacy should definitively reject the Houthi claims.  But so far Russia has not clearly expressed such a position, right giving the GCC states some cause for concern regarding Russia’s position in this situation.

GCC states may expect Russia to have a clear foreign policy for the region where there is a clear position as to which side they are on.  However, this is not an appropriate view to take.  Russia does not share the ideological dimensions of the region held by the GCC.  Russia support for Syria, and Iran at the moment is more about it posture and positioning on the global scale.  What links the seemingly inconsistent Russian position in Yemen, Syria, and to an extent Iran, is that Russia clearly will not support regime change through any form of popular uprising. The principle appears to trump all other considerations.  On the basis of this principle Russia is attempting to take on the role as an impartial mediator where the overall goal is the maintenance of the status quo.  It has good reason to take this principled stance as it clearly does not want to see emulations of the popular uprisings that have been experienced around the Middle East occurring in Russia.  This needs to be considered further for Russia appears to be on side with states in conflict with the GCC, but the principle upon which Russia’s position is based is one it holds in common with GCC states.

As with any other state, it is Russia’s national interest, however understood at any given time, which is the key driver to its foreign relations.  The national interest factor will contribute to inconsistencies in the conduct of foreign policy generally and is further influenced by the diverse views and voices from within Russia.  Typically Russia’s national interest position is simplistically equated to President Putin’s latest public statement, but the matter is more complex.  In a large and diverse state such as Russia there will be multiple poles of influence and engagement which will push and pull the direction of domestic and foreign policy.  Tied to national interest considerations is Russia’s pursuit of credibility in the international system.  Russia is seeking to challenge the current dominant structures, processes and ideas in the international system.   The recent G7 summit of the world’s leading economies, which has denied Russia participation in the meetings, has made clear that Russia is once again on the wrong side of history and may even be considered an illegitimate actor in many respects.  In some respects the GCC states have a common stake in fostering diverse perspectives in the conduct of global politics and for furthering a polycentric approach to international relations.  Russia is certainly seeking like minded allies in this regard and as a result is willing to team up with most any state will to cooperate.  In doing so, Russia will invest time, effort and support in capricious ways as it seeks to keep the allies it has, (such as Syria), and work to attract new ones.  This will result, as we see with Iran, in relationships of strategic convenience that will appear as inconsistent or even unacceptable to outside observers.

It is clear that as Russia seeks to forge its own direction in international relations, peripheral states such as the GCC countries will be a concern but not a direct and immediate concern.  Russia is focussing its efforts on the larger geo-political scene.  It is seeking allies and friendly relations with other states as part of these efforts, but it is not being selective in this aspect.  In looking to the future, the inconsistency of Russian foreign policy should not be seen as wholly negative.  Rather the GCC should take a strategic position to take advantage of the situation and help to foster and mould Russia’s interests in the region in line with its own foreign policy perspectives.  The global economic scene provides a clear opportunity for this as the issue of oil prices and energy is a priority for both parties.  Equally there is substantive space for market growth in both directions.  The economic advantages to be had from arms sales, which in Russia are a monopoly of the state, are clear. As the Gulf states continue to evolve as economic and financial power centres, Russia will have a strong interest in being part of these developments.  The GCC states, typically allied with the USA, are themselves seeking diverse and alternative partners in their global economic relations, something that they share with Russia.

How the relationship between Russia and the GCC evolves over the next few years is unpredictable as each side has a different set of key priorities.  But the next few years will be telling for Russia more generally in its pursuit of reasserting its global position.  Essentially Russia needs to step up and start putting its ideas and principles into concrete action.  The conflict in Syria cannot be dragged out forever, the situation in Iran will soon see definite measures being taken in terms of lifting sanctions or the implementation of monitoring regimes.  Perhaps most telling, is Russia’s position in Yemen.  If a principle of Russia’s foreign policy is not support unconstitutional regime change, then it should clearly side with the GCC and reject the Houthi’s claims as a legitimate authority in Yemen.  Russia needs to shift form a reactive foreign policy in relation to the GCC and Middle East to one that is more about active engagement.  Russia has long claimed that is occupies a unique position for negotiations on Syria, Iran, and now in relation to Yemen.  But the record on this is less promising and Russia does need to step up and start playing this role if it wishes to consolidate its relationships with other states in the region.  The GCC, for its part, cannot take a simplistic view and marginalise Russia for supporting some of its opponents.  The GCC, as with Russia, needs to take a pragmatic approach to its foreign relations and seek competitive advantage wherever possible.

For both parties, much more work needs to be done in how positions are understood and how action can be formulated.  The lack of in-depth and strong information between the two parties is a key factor.  Equally this is not too much of a surprise as formal diplomatic relations between Russia and the Gulf states is relatively new.  The Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan ensured there was little engagement between the two.  The establishment of formal USSR/Russia diplomatic missions to the Gulf only came about in the late 1980s.  While Russia has a much longer history of engagement in various ways with the region, much more needs to be done in studying Russian behaviour and the region, both historically and present.  Russia needs to know more about the GCC itself.  Even though many of its leaders may have a strong grounding in Arab affairs, there is scope for improvement.  One way the GCC can develop a more constructive engagement with Russia is through inter-regional cooperation.  Russia is leading on a number of regional arrangements, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Council, arrangements that have relevance for the GCC.  Cooperation at the regional level between these organisations and the GCC would be an effective means for furthering engagement without compromising any core national interests for either side.

The TRENDS event showed that beyond doubt there is significant space for further development of relations between Russia and the GCC.  The experts made clear that for understanding any of the major powers in the conduct of their foreign policy we cannot simply ask – Who do you like more?  Or, whose side are you on?  As we are dealing with global powers with global perspectives, there will be competing priorities that on a localised level appear unacceptable, but at the global level represent a coherent approach to foreign policy.  Russia is attempting to demonstrate to the world that it is once again a major international figure and these efforts will be driven by its national interests and its own views of its standing in the world.  The may result in inconsistencies, but these inconsistencies can be understood and utilised by the GCC to support its own interests.

The views expressed in this work are solely the responsibility of the author and do not represent any comments or positions made by the participants at the TRENDS event.