What’s new about Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept?

Russia has recently published it’s Foreign Policy Concept for Vladimir Putin’s third term. In light of this event, Paolo Sorbello looks at change and continuity in Russia’s foreign relations.

Vladimir Putin, courtesy of

Vladimir Putin, courtesy of

When Vladimir Putin approved the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation in February 2013, he was following a precedent for incoming Russian Presidents to set forth their foreign policy objectives at the beginning of their term. Yeltsin did so in 1993, Putin in 2000 and Medvedev in 2008. The process has become streamlined and professionalised, leading to the suspicion that Putin has little new to reveal to the world.

Indeed, Fyodor Lukyanov wrote in Global Affairs that this new “concept” does not mark a watershed in Russian foreign policy ideas. In terms of the bigger picture, Lukyanov is right in emphasising the switch from Cold War language to greater efforts at diplomacy. The analyst Dmitri Trenin in a Twitter Q&A with the public, including Vostok Cable, said that the new Foreign Policy Concept is “defensive in principle”, along the same line as the Military Strategy, and is principally concerned with the strategic independence of the Russian Federation.

Pragmatism continues to be the guiding principle, and apprehension for Russia’s sovereignty the main goal. Russia is opposed to any interference in its own conduct in and sees the UN (and the Security Council in particular) purely as forums for resolving conflicts and disputes in accordance with international law.

The document also shows signs of continuity in its structure and its understanding of the world as a multipolar environment, where the West has lost the monopoly on economics and politics and the Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regions are surging as new powers that contribute to the building of stable, rather than competitive, international relations. Moreover, the explicit reference to Russia’s understanding of human rights and economic cooperation has been a constant since 2000.

The same goes for the Russian “concentric circles” in which post-Soviet countries are viewed as crucial allies and NATO a necessary interlocutor, albeit still an expansionist threat. Some of the sentences used in the 2008 Concept are kept to the letter. Notably, the lack of improvement in Russia-UK relations continues to be emphasised: “Russia would like the potential for interaction with Great Britain to be used along the same lines.” (Art. 60)

However, the new Concept introduced two main “revolutions” that have not been detected by most analysts so far: emphasis on the use of “soft power” and a peculiar interpretation of world economics. The term “soft power”, мягкая сила, is directly borrowed from the English language definition and describes its boundaries according to shared diplomatic customs (Art. 20).

As for global economic relations, the Russian leadership views them in a different light than its Western counterparts, given the connection of market economy to a distinct “[Russian] civilisational development” (Art. 13). According to the Concept, instead of having capitalism clash with the “universal principles of democracy”, Russian foreign policy will work toward the creation of an “equitable and democratic” space for global trade (Art. 33). State-owned enterprises will therefore play a bigger role in Russia’s efforts to contribute to economic recovery than elsewhere. Amongst these companies, the increased importance of the energy sphere is noticeable. The Concept highlights the double-edged dimension of energy security, which for Russia means “stability of energy demand and reliable transit” (Art. 34f).

Disappointingly, China occupies a lower position among the “Regional Priorities” than Canada or the Asia-Pacific region, perhaps reflecting disappointment at the slow growth in energy sales and the fear of competitive trade (Art. 79-80). The role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, however, is climbing the ladder and suggests that China is too big a player to ignore (Art. 30).

There is therefore plenty of interesting material to work with in the new Foreign Policy Concept, but whether the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be able to apply it effectively remains to be seen.


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