On March 31, President Vladimir Putin signed a new decree on Russia’s “Foreign Policy Concept,” an odd document that attempts to combine the Kremlin’s distorted worldview with an inflated perception of Russia’s role in the world, with the goal of beguiling the states of the Global South.
The decree presents Russia as a particular “state-civilization” with a “unique mission in maintaining [the] global balance of forces” for the “majority of humankind,” who allegedly are interested in seeing Russia’s contribution to global security strengthened.
A new foreign policy concept
This claim is certain to be taken skeptically at best, as most countries prioritize economic development and dynamism over such messianic pretensions (Kremlin.ru, March 31).
Russia’s economic degradation inevitably weakens its international position, and no amount of lofty words about the “crisis of economic globalization,” the “fragmentation of world economy” and “abuse by some states of their domination in certain areas” can camouflage this decline (Kommersant, March 31).
The new foreign policy concept is a serious departure from the previous one, approved under very different circumstances in November 2016, when confrontation with the West — caused by the annexation of Crimea and the crude manipulation of violent conflict in Donbas — appeared manageable (Meduza.io, March 31).
Now the US (official discourse duly incorporates the preposterous term “Anglo-Saxon”) is described as “the main inspirator, organizer and executor of the aggressive anti-Russian policy of [the] collective West,” which along with its “satellites” try to “contain the natural course of history” (Izvestiya, March 31).
As jingoistic as the set of propositions on confronting the West certainly is, it still appears moderate in comparison with the rabid belligerence of Nikolai Patrushev. The long-serving secretary of Security Council, Patrushev asserts that the collapse of the European Union is imminent and that Russia will not help the US preserve its own statehood, which is apparently under threat (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 27; Svoboda.org, March 28).
Downplaying of Beijing’s importance
Invectives of Western hostility are so numerous in the document that it takes the parochial opinion of a mainstream Moscow expert to find positive content in it (TASS, March 31). An unbiased reader might expect to see a strong emphasis on the strategic partnership with China inside the decree, but in fact, this key foreign policy relationship is reduced to just one paragraph, the same as India (RBC.ru, March 31). The downplaying of Beijing’s importance may indicate that the results of President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit were disappointing in the Kremlin’s eyes, despite the meeting’s upbeat presentation in the mainstream media (The Insider, March 28; Riddle, March 27).
One of the strongest messages from Xi was the impermissibility of threats to use nuclear weapons, and the decree on foreign policy indeed argues for upholding global strategic stability and strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime — as if Russia hadn’t already tried to maximize the political usefulness of its nuclear arsenal (Russian International Affairs Council, March 30).
One of the more notable instances of Moscow using nuclear weapons as an instrument of state power is the recent announcement of the plan to move tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. This constitutes a clear breach of the proposition which had just days before been advanced jointly by Putin and Xi Jinping, which called for the non-deployment of nuclear weapons beyond a nation’s own territory (Moscow Times, March 28; Svoboda.org, March 27).
The absence of policy on Ukraine
What is particularly odd about the new foreign policy concept paper is the absence of any policy guidelines on Ukraine, except for one twisted sentence, in which the West is accused of unleashing a “hybrid war of a new type” against Russia in response to Moscow’s taking of measures to defend its vital interests in the “Ukrainian direction” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 31).
The cultivation of stable good-neighborly relations with the “near abroad” is defined as the top priority of Russian foreign policy — as if the war hasn’t already caused a distinct estrangement with Kazakhstan, which is gradually strengthening its compliance with sanctions against Russia (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, March 24). Even Armenia has been sanctioned by Russia for its declaration of intent to ratify the necessary statute to join the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for Putin in connection with the abduction of Ukrainian children (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 30). It is a striking coincidence that the Kremlin released the new concept decree on the first anniversary of the liberation of Bucha, where Ukrainian forces discovered horrible evidence of Russian war crimes (Svoboda.org, March 31).
The vicious anti-American thrust of the new Russian foreign policy concept document is in sharp contrast with the proceedings of the Summit for Democracy convened by President Joe Biden on March 28-30 (Izvestiya, March 29). Debates at the summit were intense and far-reaching, and more than a few among the 120 participants opted to abstain from condemning Russian aggression, but the spirit of common purpose exposed the fallacy of Moscow’s pretention to lead a willing world in eliminating the “rudiments of US domination” in global affairs (Kommersant, March 31).
Russia may try to exploit their position as chair of the UN Security Council — a role it will hold for the month of April — to push the ideas contained within the foreign policy decree. Even so, the Ukrainian scorn of Moscow’s temporary chairmanship is shared by many stake-holders in the world order, who are concerned about how Russia’s tenure may discredit the UN (RBC.ru, April 1).
The new concept decree lists countering the West’s “campaign of Russophobia” as a goal, and one example of how that might be operationalized is Moscow’s arrest of Evan Gershkovich, a journalist who worked on a story for The Wall Street Journal in Yekaterinburg (Current Time, March 30). The accusation of espionage in this case is blatantly false, and the real intention is most likely to capture a high-profile hostage to exchange with Russian “assets” under prosecution in the West (Novayagazeta.eu, March 30).
Shrinking foreign policy resource base
Behind multiple false pretenses and overblown ambitions, the new foreign policy concept decree remains blind to the profound damage inflicted upon Russia’s position on the world stage by its aggression against Ukraine, which has now continued its most recent form for over 400 days.
Even if one assumes that the current situation will devolve into a long war, (presently the working option for the Kremlin) Russia’s decline and degradation will continue and intensify as the resource base for its foreign policy continues to shrink. Ukraine, however, appears committed to cutting the long war short with a series of offensive operations, and the collective West is committed to delivering the hard and soft capabilities necessary for such a victory.
Russian near-term policy-planning still excludes the possibility of defeat, but this denial will only serve to aggravate the shock to come, when the unthinkable becomes inevitable.
- Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also pubished by Eurasia Daily Monitor