by Yuliya Brel
The foreign policy of Russia in the near abroad is the continuation of its domestic policy, which includes the consolidation of the population around a leader by means of creating an image of an enemy, especially at times when the economic situation in the country is deteriorating. The key to understanding Russia’s foreign policy might be rooted in the imperial syndrome associated with the country’s history. At present, Russia’s desire to restore its status as a world power, as in the past, requires it to develop a foreign policy secured by control of its nearest neighbors. For centuries, it purchased their loyalty with natural resources. When this routine was disrupted, for example, with a drop in the market prices of raw materials, another practice developed where, in order to maintain its hegemony, Russia used aggression against its nearest neighbors. Today, this approach is sustained by endorsement from the general public that seems oblivious to conditions of unparalleled income inequality in Russia. For them there is nostalgia for the restoration of a super power status for the country.
Russia is believed to have an intermediate position between liberal and traditional civilizations (Akhiezer, 1995, p. 4). This means that in its historic development the country stepped over the bounds of a traditional civilization characterized by static reproduction, i.e. the type of reproduction under which quantitative changes in society and culture are possible only at the expense of attracting additional resources. However, Russia did not manage to move beyond this “traditional” approach; it did not become a full-fledged part of Western liberal civilization, characterized by intensive reproduction fueled by liberal ideals and innovation. Russia’s position as an intermediary civilization forced the country to go through cycles of reforms and counter-reforms in the course of its history (Lapkin & Pantin, 2007; Bagdasaryan, 2010). The periods of reforms drew Russia nearer to the “liberal model,” i.e. to the Western European liberal social, economic and political culture, whereas the periods of counter-reforms incited in the population the ideas of Russia’s uniqueness and aspirations for the country’s messianic role in the world, less in common with evolving Western European liberalism.
In general, the ruling stratum in many states had two major ways to establish its legitimacy. It could do it by successfully protecting its subjects from external threats, and by annexing new territories (Akhiezer et al, 2013, p. 44). For the Russian ruling elite, victories in wars also became an opportunity to legitimize itself. Thus the notion of establishing and supporting “imperial might” became central to the legitimacy of the ruling elite and identity of the nation. Wars could also help overshadow various internal problems, seemingly intractable and insolvable under peace, and distract the population from them (Akhiezer et al, 2013, p. 45).
Before the end of 2011, when protests against the outcomes of the election to the State Duma ensued, the Russian authorities sought to ensure support of their constituents by improving their well-being. As a result of the protests, Putin’s rating went down, and the Duma began to hype up the anti-West propaganda creating an image of an external enemy, which became the main focus of the country’s domestic policy. According to the Levada Center, an independent, non-governmental, Russian polling and sociological research organization, by 2016, 72% of Russians considered the USA the most hostile to Russia country, 48% said it was Ukraine, and 29% believed it was Turkey. This helped politicians to distract the masses from recognizing that Russia had been unable to create a competitive economy. By involving the population in foreign policy endeavors, elites were trying to divert the people’s attention from the fact that the Russian economy was currently suffering from an ongoing crisis.
In December 2014, Putin approved Foundations of the State Cultural Policy (FSCP) decree. The main conclusion one can draw from the document is that Russia has civilizational differences with the West, and in its further development it is going to follow a non-European path. In FSCP the cultural peculiarity of Russia is considered the guarantor of the Russian statehood stability and competitiveness. Official economic statistics, on the contrary, do not confirm the presence of such competitiveness. Modern Russia, suffers from what Larry Diamond (2008) called “the exceptional curse of oil” (p. 74), with over 80% of its federal budget being accounted for by the return on extraction and export of raw commodities (Movchan, 2017, p. 7).
Russia’s rejection of a planned economy and the shift to the market were supposed to promote the development of knowledge intensive branches of industry. However, due to its inability to introduce quantitative changes into the economy by means of innovation, the country failed to achieve the goal. The absence of a competitive industrial sphere and the non-competitiveness of the Russian economy were not aided by government policies either, since those were counter-productive policies, such as the failed federal program National Technological Base adopted in 2006.
Isolating itself from the world community, Russia is simultaneously trying to consolidate the periphery – the former Soviet republics – around the imperial core. It is doing it using its natural resources to purchase the loyalty of the periphery. If at times purchasing the loyalty of its nearest neighbors is not feasible, Russia resorts to such pressuring means as direct threats and military interventions. Russia has to employ either of the options because it simply does not possess soft power.
The diverse relations between Russia and its nearest neighbors are examples of different degrees of success and failure of this “purchasing practice.” Russia, for example, was not able to hold the Baltic States in its sphere of influence. In the cases of Ukraine and Georgia, the practice of purchasing their loyalty proved to be not so easy-to-follow. That is why Russia had to resort to the military power to keep the former Soviet republics within its circle of influence. Though the jury is still out, the Union State of Belarus and Russia, forged in 1996, may be an example of efficiency of this practice, where the fair distribution of oil and gas serves as the purchasing agent of loyalty.
Thus, in its domestic policy Russia puts a premium on the struggle for retaining traditional values, which is an unmistakable sign of the loss of the historical dynamics, i.e. change. But culture is not static. Russia’s foreign policy, on the other hand, is anchored in seeking control of its nearest neighbors. Having gone through the disintegration of the empire, the former imperial nation suffers from the wounded grandeur complex, which makes it an easy prey for politicians willing to draw the people in dangerous foreign policy enterprises.
The idea of a super power has indeed proved to be much-in-demand for the masses.Therefore, one of the country’s prospects is the continuation of the self-isolation policy, coupled with hybrid wars. Although such efforts may help prolong the life of an imagined empire, in reality they do not contribute to Russia’s greatness. Rather they limit Russia’s potential for development by stifling the ingenuity of citizens’ entrepreneurial spirit. Another choice for Russia could be the transformation into a liberal civilization, which will most probably demand a change in its concept of identity, as well as the acceptance of universal values such as respect for human rights and dignity, and so on. Time will show whether Russia will choose innovation over tradition, or vice versa; and whether it will attempt to join the Western European liberal civilization yet again, or will continue to lead a wretched existence on the historic sidelines.