The Gilded Age of Russia’s Foreign Policy

Vladimir Vladimirovich celebrated his [Orthodox] Christmas holidays in his newly gilded city, Sochi, a gentle irony for the legions of Olympic workers for whom he cancelled the Christmas holidays a few weeks before. One wonders whether the Forbes Most Powerful Man of 2013 gave in to the sentimentality of reflecting on the year past, and if he did, what did he think? Did he see 2013 as evidence that Russia has entered into a new Golden Age of foreign policy, or did he scratch the golden surface to wonder what lies beneath?

Image courtesy of Amanda Graham, © 2006, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Amanda Graham, © 2006, some rights reserved.

At the end of the year, one couldn’t open an internationally themed paper or magazine without reading about the domination of Russian foreign policy and how the year was full of victories for President Putin. The highlights included outmanoeuvring the Obama administration on Syrian chemical weapons and the European Union over Ukraine.  His string of victories doesn’t seem to be letting up, as the world’s attention prepares to turn to the Sochi Olympics, the single greatest demonstration of Russian soft power since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

At a tactical level, the Russian “victories” in Syria and Ukraine should certainly lead to some self-reflection in the West. The EU’s diplomacy, encumbered by the need to build internal consensus first and seemingly unable to play hardball in the East, where hardball remains the lingua franca of both business and politics, was left red-faced by the last minute Ukrainian defection to Russia. American diplomacy on the other hand, free of the institutional disadvantages of the EU and with unmatched resources at its disposal has few excuses for letting the Russians dictate the course of events in Syria. At this surface level, Russia’s underdog victories against the West’s two superpowers do indeed appear golden.

But if we concede that Putin has won the two major geopolitical battles of the year, let us also ask: what is it that he’s won? When the race is finished and the medals awarded, the two gilded medals around President Putin’s neck bear the likenesses of Viktor Yanukovych and Bashar al-Assad. If that’s what passes for winning these days, I’m not sure what losing looks like.

Russian foreign policy spent over a decade in the wilderness following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t until Putin’s presidency that it regained some of its previous confidence. Under Putin’s third term, emphasis seems to be on appearance over substance when it comes to international political battles, and picking and winning fights seems more important than the prudence of the confrontation.  This wasn’t always so. In the past, Russia’s finest moments in foreign policy relied on its ability to divide and paralyse the EU and dictate the terms of its engagement with the bloc, on issues ranging from protecting their energy interests to larger political questions.  Under the first Obama administration, Russia capitalised on the poorly disguised need of the new team in DC to be liked, and extracted a range of concessions, which in retrospect came with very little quid pro quo (just ask the Poles and Czechs how that missile defense system is working out for them).  Those days seem to be over now. Instead of dividing the Europeans, Russia’s strong-arm tactics in the Ukraine have united the 28 in humiliation and resentment (that the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot can hardly appease).  Russia’s treatment of the United States (including at the petty micro-level of hosting Edward Snowden) has also by now convinced even the most naïve members of the American administration that the “reset” is dead and the less said about it the better.

But never mind all that, the Olympian-in-Chief of international relations won two Golds in 2013, so let’s take a closer look at those awards. The complexities of the Syrian civil war aside (be sure to read up on them in the January print edition of The Review), Putin’s diplomatic intervention last summer, which saved Assad from military intervention, gives Russia more ownership over the Syrian quagmire than anyone else outside of Syria. By doubling down on its support for Assad, Russia draws closer to Iran, already a steady ally in the region, but pulls away from the anti-Assad states of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and certainly wins no goodwill from Jordan (which has been one of the main third-party victims of the Syrian civil war, hosting the largest Syrian refugee camps), Lebanon (a country deeply divided between Syrian clients and those who resent Syria’s often nefarious influence over its smaller neighbour), Egypt or Israel.  Whether Assad stands or falls, Russia has interjected itself spectacularly into an issue that divides the region into two camps – the large anti-Assad one, and, well…Iran. [1] Its victory over the United States has won it no regional friends, and while intervention would have won no one any goodwill with the Arab “street”, propping up the legitimacy-starved Assad regime is certainly not a boost for Russia either.  However the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons program goes, Russia stands little else to gain and much to lose, and its moves have likely won it generations of ill-will across the region and outside Damascus especially.

Putin’s second Gold Medal hangs from the yellow and blue straps of the Ukrainian flag. In the bidding war over Ukraine, Putin had the advantage. While the Europeans offered an Association Agreement that would have tied Ukraine to the EU’s agenda for modernising, reforming, liberalising and generally cleaning up the corrupt and inefficient Ukrainian public and private sectors, Putin offered a much simpler and for Yanukovych apparently more attractive deal:  15 billion dollars and Yanukovych’s absolute, unquestioning loyalty. It’s just as well that Putin offered some money, because if you look at Ukraine today, the words “you break it, you buy it” certainly come to mind. Putin has gotten credit for Ukraine’s pivot to the East, but if the besieged Yanukovych doesn’t survive the winter, that credit will rapidly turn to blame. It is hard to say whether Putin is still happy with his investment, and whether Yanukovych is. As traumatic and pivotal as the current struggle no doubt is for the Ukrainian people, a cynically realistic observer might say that things turned out pretty well for the EU. Ukraine was not worth the price being asked (extorted). Putin’s “purchase” has wholly discredited Yanukovych and energised the pro-Western, pro-democratic opposition in a way that nothing else could, and it seems that nothing makes the EU more attractive to another country than being told by Russia that you can’t embrace it.

It is still early days, and hard to see how long Yanukovych and Assad will cling to power before they join other strongmen who are happy to serve as Moscow’s straw men on the trash heap of history. What seems easier to predict, however, is that Russia’s current foreign policy path, at least on the big political and strategic points, is about mortgaging the future to gild the present. Defeating the United States over Syria and the EU over Ukraine gives Putin the veneer of success, but it comes at a high price. In the end, when the costs of alienating pro-democratic movements and a host of neighbouring states, as well as the lasting moral burden of owning Assad and Yanukovych get tallied up, future generations of Russian foreign policy makers may find that the 15 billion Putin spent on Ukraine was the least of his blunders. But hey, what’s 15 billion dollars for Ukraine or 50 billion for the Olympics, in this Gilded Age of Russian foreign policy?

IPF Reposted

[1] Given the length restrictions, this is a necessary simplification. Lebanon could be considered a Syrian ally, and the positions of Iraq, Israel and Egypt are fluid and complicated. The divide between the clearly allied and clearly opposed states is, however, stark.

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