Understanding Russia’s Foreign Policy

By Thomas Armbruster:

An analysis of contemporary Russian foreign policy often starts with the Mongol invasion of 1237, almost 800 years ago.  The fact that the Mongols, French, and Germans all invaded Russia, weighs heavily in accounting for Russia’s xenophobia and unwillingness to trust powerful countries.  But it is also helpful to look at the other side of the coin.  How many countries have experienced Russia’s warm embrace and what lasting experience have those conflicts had on Russia’s contemporary foreign policy?

Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia, Japan, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Afghanistan, China, the Baltics, Turkey, and Czechoslovakia, have all had had run-ins with Russia.  In Putin’s latest trip to India, Russian officials touted Russia as India’s friend who stood by India in its “darkest hour.”  Which leads to the question, does Russia actually know how to make friends?

Realpolitik has always been Russia’s go to game in foreign policy.  Relationships are built on strength and strength alone.  The idea that “soft power,” trade and cultural ties could advance Russia’s interests never seems to be fully embraced or considered as a path forward.

Russia has worked hard to make America its adversary.  It has largely created a fictional foe in a contest that is devoid of reality and that most American officials would just as soon ignore.  No one in the United States is looking to reinvigorate the Cold War, but just as Bin Laden had to work to bring about U.S. fury, Russia seems to be operating under the same calculus.  Bin Laden believed that if the U.S. could be drawn into a long, costly conflict, it would drain the U.S. of power and influence.  In Putin’s world, a U.S. bogged down with trouble is similarly in Russia’s long term interest, although the alternate course, cooperation with the U.S., could have been a profitable arrangement for Russia.

The U.S. has a pretty thick skin.  While Russia warns of “dire consequences” if the U.S. continues to “criticize Russia,” the U.S. is so wrapped up in its own political season that Russian rhetoric is like water on a duck’s back.  It would take really bad behavior, beyond Russia’s heavy handedness in Syria, to get our attention.   It could come to that.  After the U.S. bombed Yugoslavia, Russia complained that the U.S. wanted the “freedom to attack and freedom from attack.”  In its weakness, that U.S. show of strength shook Russia, as Russians wondered whether they could be next if they did not adhere to international norms.  Perhaps that is why they seek membership in clubs like the BRICs rather than Western institutions.

Back to friends.  A visit to the Russian borderland is usually a pretty quiet trip.  On the Russia-China border, while I was Consul General in 2007-2010, there was very little activity on the Russian side, despite the supposed shared Russian and Chinese view that we should live in a “multi-polar” world.  A dig then at the “unipolar” world supposedly created by the U.S.  On the more business minded Chinese side of the border there is a mall, Hilton hotel, and entrepreneurs looking to make a buck.  The same empty border can be found in the Baltics, in Georgia and Ukraine, at various times, where every little political dust up can stop trade in its tracks.

Maybe that is why India and Russia get along so well.  India is far enough away to be safe from Russia’s expansionist impulses and both countries political elites enjoy fairly wide latitude in terms of corruption and accountability.  India has also bought some serious hardware from Russia, including submarines. Again, that is more of a strategic consideration for Russia, rather than simply a business driven decision.  And that is a waste.  Every country on Russia’s border is a potential economic engine for Russia.  Russia remains at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and the culture, intellectual talent, and resources that could create a zone as vibrant as the Euro zone.  The trouble is Russia doesn’t trust trade as a foreign policy tool and it doesn’t trust any country to be its partner. And to be fair, most of the countries on Russia’s periphery have at one time or another been at least a little beaten up by Russia.  The U.S.-Mexican border, even in the midst of politically charged rhetoric, is as vibrant as ever, with hundreds of trucks heading north and south every day.  We’ve had our dustups too, but we let business prevail with politics the background noise.  In Russia, it is the reverse.

The U.S. is actually far enough removed from Russia’s “near abroad” interests that we could be an ally, as we were if you go far enough back in history, to about the time of the American Civil War.  Maybe they are still miffed at us about Alaska.  All foreign policy is based on the national interests of the country in question.  It’s true to an extent that countries don’t have “friends” they have enduring interests.  But a fundamental difference between the U.S. and Russia today is that the U.S. knows you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  The Russian proverb is “Friendship is friendship, but keep tobacco apart.”

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.



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