After Putin not much will change in Russia's foreign policy

This fall Dmitry Trenin, director of Moscow Carnegie Center, publishes his new book Russia, an ultra-concise overview of 120 years of Russia's recent history. On the site of Carnegie he published this summary.

2018 inauguration of vladimir putin 48Inauguration of Putin in 2018 (picture

by Dmitry Trenin

1. Russia's character is remarkably concistent, despite its potential to change rapidly

In the course of its millennium-long history, Russia has been a succession of states – the tsardom of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation – each of which repudiated its predecessor, only to continue along the main axis of its path.

Russia can also be a phoenix: periodically, it burns itself down virtually completely, as in the early 17th century, in 1917 or 1991, before making a stunning comeback.

2. In Russia, the state – in whatever guise - is dominant; everything else revolves around it

The State is organized around a ruler exercising undivided power – a tsar, a party leader, a president – who is invested with ultimate responsibility for the country’s well-being. Politics usually trumps economics, and – when it does not fully control it – forms a tilted nexus with it in a mixed economic system.

The worst crime of a Russian leader, in the minds of the subjects, is to lose control of the state, which then can cease to exist: this misfortune happened as a result of misrule by Nicholas II (for failure to reform) and Mikhail Gorbachev (for losing control of the reform effort). The worst calamities in Russian history have been domestic anarchy and foreign invasion, with the former believed to be worse.

Russia is ill at ease at best and exceedingly vulnerable at worst when the spiritual bonds that hold the country together – traditional monarchy, Orthodox religion, communist ideology – are loosened or broken: the fate of the State depends, ultimately, on the confidence the ordinary people place in the system in which they live.

3. Geopolitically, Russia is an insecure and lonely power

Geopolitically, Russia feels insecure, as it has had to stand up to far stronger and more advanced adversaries: Napoleon’s France; Kaiser/Hitler Germany, and their European allies; the United States and its NATO partners.

Russia is also a lonely power, whose survival depends on its capacity to fend for itself. Thus, it needs to be a great power simply to keep going. Russia looks upon its smaller neighbours as either its own buffers or its major adversaries’ advance positions.

These conclusions offer some insights into Russia's post-Putin future

  • Post-Putin Russia will be different from what it is now, but hardly too different; it will be ruled by a new monarchical president, whose real authority will depend on how much confidence ordinary Russians will have in him;
  • Russia’s political economy will have a corporate socio-political structure, with the Kremlin continuing to play the role of an arbiter among the principal vested interests;
  • Russia’s society will gradually mature, but focus on the immediate issues at hand, from local corruption to health and education to urban development;
  • Russia will continue to develop civic nationalism and will not surrender to Western pressure; and
  • Russia will not be a superpower again, but it can be a key element of global equilibrium.

Further, I offer the following insights on how Russia’s foreign relations may evolve over time.

1. Russia's relations with the United States will be competitive, as is normal between major powers

The current confrontation is caused by Moscow rejecting Washington’s dominance and insisting on defining its own security interests and ways to defend/promote them itself.

gorbachev with yeltsin aug 1991Gorbachev and Yeltsin, here after the 1991 coup d'état, are both seen as failures in Russian politics

This confrontation may subside over time, as the global balance and the domestic political environment in both countries change. But rivalry moderated by a degree of cooperation will remain in place.

2. in contrast, Russia's relations with the European Union hold greater potential for rebuilding 

These relations, which are marked today more by mutual disillusionment and estrangement, may be rebuilt on a new foundation of neighbourliness – which recognizes fundamental differences between the parties, but lays emphasis on their mutual interests.

3. The future of Russia's entente with China will turn on Moscow's ability to keep the relationship on an even keel

Russia’s ties with China have grown thicker and stronger over the last three decades. Moscow and Beijing have managed to construct a stable relationship – even as China was rising faster, and Russia was going through its difficult post-communist, post-imperial transformation.

Currently, the motto of the relationship is: we will never be against each other, but we will not always have to be with each other.

The future of the relationship – entente, as I define it – will depend on whether Russia will manage to keep the relationship with its powerful neighbour on an even keel. Should it feel that Beijing is poised to gain the upper hand in the relationship, Russia’s attitudes toward its partner will grow sour.

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