Putin’s Foreign Policy Game

Putin’s Foreign Policy Game

The foreign policy of the Russian Federation, like any other country, is based on a number of international and national legal acts. However, the real Russian foreign policy differs significantly from the provisions declared in treaties, laws and concepts. The question is what guides the foreign policy activities of the Russian leadership, especially the Russian President Vladimir Putin as the conductor of these activities. Obviously, he conducts a hybrid international game that is different from the foreign policy concept, in particular with regard to Ukraine.

Legal masking of the real foreign policy of the Russian Federation

Conceptually Russia's foreign policy is determined by a number of documents, which include the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the Concept of the Foreign Policy, the State program of Russia “'Foreign policy activities”, National Security Strategy, Military Doctrine, the MFA Action Plan till 2018 and other acts. Without regard to real actions of the Russian Federation, analysis of these documents demonstrates that Russia is a peaceful country, which respects international law and agreements and interests of other states. However, analysis of the same provisions with regard to the real external policy of Russia shows drastic differences[1].

Thus, the Article 15 of the Russian Constitution says that principles and norms of international law and international treaties prevail over national laws[2]. In practice, for example, on March 20-21, 2014 the Russian parliament approved the law on the accession of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia, which was signed by President Putin. So, Moscow violated a number of international acts, starting with the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, and the bilateral agreements between Ukraine and Russia, including the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, which even now specifies that parties "respect the territorial integrity of each other and affirm the inviolability of existing borders between them"[3].  

The Russian Concept of the Foreign Policy of 2013 defines strengthening international peace and the impartial and democratic international system as one of its main purposes[4]. It condemns the use of military force in circumvention of the UN Charter. But in reality Russia used force in Crimea and Donbas by organizing "uncontrolled traffic of weapons and militants" and creating "new criminal centers of power". By those actions Russia neglected its declared affirmation that "Russia's foreign policy was open, predictable and pragmatic", and instead of "joint actions to support security at the global and regional levels" it supported zones of instability in the Caucasus, Moldova and Ukraine.

By its aggressive policy against Ukraine Russia has actually violated the Presidential Decree of 2012 "On measures to implement the foreign policy of the Russian Federation"[5], which fixed the principles of supremacy of international law in the international relations, respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the MFA Action Plan till 2018[6] and the State program of Russia “'Foreign policy activities”[7], which defined non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and principles of political settlement of conflicts.

Even the documents on security issues such as the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation[8] contain provisions on unacceptability of “unilateral use of force in international relations”, which were violated by Russia many times. They did not contain provisions on possible threats from the Ukrainian side. The last appeared in the Russian Military Doctrine adopted in 2015[9], one year after the beginning of the aggression.

However, not all provisions of the Russian legal acts differ from its real actions. For example, Russia actively implements such tasks as becoming an influential world power, counteracting to NATO expansion, promoting Ukraine's integration into its Eurasian structures, strengthening positions of the Russian media in the global information space. However, in the majority of cases inconsistency of the Russian foreign policy is obvious. Why does not the Russian leadership comply with its own regulations? What is it guided by?

Great Game as a substitution for Russia’s foreign policy

It should be noticed that the Russian leadership uses those postulates, which are favorable to it, but it mostly neglects and violates them while conducting the foreign policy based on its own new rules and not on principles of international law.

This leads to unpredictable actions of Russia in the world. By resorting to attempts to impose its own rules on the international community, the Kremlin leads the foreign policy outside the international legal framework to the field where rules can be changed, violated or replaced by new ones. The attempt of the Russian leadership to replace the foreign policy by a Global Game is obvious. However, in this game the Kremlin has a clear goal - to transform Russia, in the image of Putin, into the world leader in the multi-polar world.

To achieve the goal, Putin imposes its own rules and constantly changes them, expanding the field of the game. For example, after annexation of the Crimea Putin resorted to invasion in Donbas expanding Russian military actions against Ukraine and diverting attention from the Crimea. By the beginning of the military operation in Syria in autumn 2015 Putin again expanded the field of the game trying to impose on the West the image of Russia as a partner in countering terrorism and not as an aggressor. Before the G20 Summit he tried again to change the rules by his statements to leave the "Normandy format", but he failed, because the West sharply rejected those rules[10].

Views of Putin and his team on the foreign policy game are well described in the book "The Image of Victory" by the recently appointed Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation Anton Vaino, written in collaboration with Presidential Adviser Anton Kobyakov and scientist Victor Sarayev[11]. Vaino is a "man of Putin" and the head of his "shadow cabinet" in Russia. The work was published in 2012, after election of Putin for the third presidential term. Putin signed personally the epigraph to the book.

The publication defines the foreign policy of the Kremlin as a Great Game. This allows understanding the behavior of Russia in the international arena: "Diplomacy means a game by using threats and intimidation, tricks and persuasion, trade and negotiations, methods and techniques of expansion of power". This is the key definition of the Russian foreign policy at the present stage determined by the current Head of Administration of the Russian President.

The Russian leadership sees achieving its foreign policy goals as a victory, which could be reached through "transferring the game into an asymmetrical state". In other words, it seeks to create a situation, to which other parties of international relations are not ready. One of examples is the massive arrival of illegal migrants from the Middle East to Europe. In 2015, those migrants were more than 1 million, and since the beginning of 2016 - almost 315 thousand[12]. That became the main threat to the security of Europe, to which European countries were not ready.

Being unable to act within international norms, to reach the victory Russia resorts to changing the rules of the game that is defined in the book "The Image of Victory" as one of fundamentals of success: "The game of world politics is aimed at changing the rules of the old world politics"[13]. In this way the Russian leadership creates new situations and erodes the world order like corrosion that has been well evident from Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the Crimea, Donbas and Syria.

The main beneficiary of the Russian foreign policy game is the "super-class" - the Russian elite. The Russians did not gain improvement of life conditions or stability in the state neither from the war with Georgia, nor from annexation of the Crimea, nor from occupation of Donbass. Instead, the Russian elite strengthened its authoritarian positions and tried to reach the highest level of influence in international relations.

In the work "The Image of Victory" the Russian society is described as a "viewer" or a passive participant of the Great Game of the Kremlin, because the "Game is for it". The Russian foreign policy is recognized to be aimed at gaining support of the society. In fact, the annexation of the Crimea was accompanied by euphoria in the Russian society when Putin's rating has jumped to almost 90%[14]. The Kremlin drew the Russian society into Putin's foreign policy game by means of propaganda and satisfaction of "Russian great" ambitions. However, it is forced to follow public moods or to correct them by using propaganda and methods of force.

The Russian leadership tries to impose its foreign policy game on other countries, making their nations “viewers” and participants, especially where the Kremlin cannot influence directly. For example, to influence the German leadership Moscow used the German society’s discontent of influx of migrants. It is worth to mention attacks on women in Cologne in January 2016, protests in Dresden and other cities, and misinformation about kidnapping of the girl Lisa[15] actively spread by the Russian media. However, the key state in Putin’s foreign policy game is Ukraine.

Ukraine in the Great Game of Putin

Ukraine is considered by the Russian leadership as a part of the Great Game aimed at achieving global leadership. Russia is trying to expel Ukraine from the system of international relations, transforming it from a subject into an object in its field of influence and not allowing Ukraine’s approaching to the EU. Deputy Director of the CIS States Institute I.Shyshkin gives the following explanation of this position: "In the case of Ukraine joining the European Union, the EU will be able to become equal the US center of power in future"[16]. The Kremlin does not need a strong contender on the international scene that was the reason for the aggression of Russia against Ukraine. Senior scientist of the Institute of USA and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences O.Pryhodko called "underestimating of importance of Ukraine for Russia by the West"[17]as one of the causes of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, the Kremlin tries to go beyond the Russian-Ukrainian conflict showing it as a part of the confrontation between Russia and the West. Thus, the official position of the Russian Foreign Ministry on the situation in Ukraine[18] rejects completely the involvement of Russia into the conflict, because "a great power", from the Kremlin’s point of view, must be an arbitrator and not a party.

However, the aggression of Russia against Ukraine showed the lack of Russia’s capabilities for global strategic game. It could not even achieve the primary goal - fragmentation of Ukraine by creating a "Novorossiya" and occupying the Crimea. That is why the Kremlin changed the rules, focused on preventing restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and started imposing a "Trojan horse" in the form of "L/DNR". In recent months, Russia has moved from hard opposition to demonstration of small steps. It resorted to the small concessions in the form of demonstrative cease-fire, but in fact limitation of fire, since September 1 and September 15, release of three of more than a hundred Ukrainian hostages and the agreement on disengagement of forces and hardware. They enabled Russia to demand increased pressure on Ukraine as, during his recent visit to Ukraine, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault insisted that Kyiv had to implement the Minsk agreements on special status and local elections in Donbas[19]. Preconditions on security guarantees and restoring control over theUkrainian-Russian border, and Ukraine's initiative to strengthen international presence in Donbas became temporarily less relevant.

Views and mechanisms of the Russian foreign policy game encourage Ukraine to adequate response. First, despite actual and possible new Russia’s attempts to transform international relations into its own game based on its rules, Ukraine should consistently and insistently remind of the existing international legal framework, because neglecting it leads to destruction of the system of international relations. At the same time, Ukraine should continue to attract attention of other countries to a danger of aggressive actions of Russia, first of all - annexation of territory of a sovereign state, interference into internal affairs, uncontrolled supply of arms to illegal armed formations, unilateral violation of international treaties.

Second, on the international arena Russia introduces its own rules, which are then used as international precedents. For example, peacekeeping missions in conflict zones in the post-Soviet space consist partially or completely of representatives of Russia regardless of its involvement into these conflicts. This concerns Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia transfers this precedent to Ukraine, where about 40 Russian citizens are monitors of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. Therefore, there is a danger that a proposed by Ukraine new OSCE police mission, if it is approved, will include Russian policemen, which will restore peace in Donbas, but this is unacceptable.

Third, the Russian leadership, the "super-class" as the main foreign participant of the game of Russia, has usurped power in its hands for longtime, and the gap between the leadership and the Russian society is steadily deepening. A vivid example is low turnout on parliamentary elections in Russia (officially - 47.88%) on September 18, 2016. Thus Ukraine should continue the work on de-legitimization of the new elected Russian institutions and to focus on distrust of the Russian society to the leadership of the country and its criminal policy toward the world and the Russian people.

Fourth, Ukraine can use involvement of the Russian society into the foreign policy game as a "viewer" and a participant. To do this, it is necessary to analyze attentively the actual mood of the Russian population to develop steps to minimize the people’s support to aggressive policy of the Russian leadership against Ukraine. This is difficult to do on the basis of data of the Russian research institutions like the Levada Centre, but alternative sources like the Russian regional media and educational and research institutions are less involved into propaganda. At the same time, Ukraine should prevent realization of the Kremlin’s attempts to transform the Ukrainian society into a "viewer" and a passive participant of its game, which is the main objective of countering information aggression of Russia.

Finally, Putin's foreign policy game is a set of case decisions and short-term actions without strategic visions and long-term planned activities. Therefore, the game is doomed to failure and cannot withstand the test of time, as we have seen this since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Vitalii Martyniuk

UCIPR, Research Update, Vol. 23, №4 (757), 2016


[1]Note. The analysis concerns only the provisions in the contest of the article.






[7] http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/698403







[14] http://www.rbc.ru/politics/28/10/2014/544e386ccbb20f033baa0ed8

[15] http://ru.tsn.ua/svit/v-germanii-zayavili-o-raskrytii-dela-iznasilovannoy-russkoyazychnoy-devochki-lizy-570255.html

[16] http://materik.ru/upload/iblock/aff/aff290de584eabeb06329cda988d96f7.pdf

[17] http://materik.ru/upload/iblock/35b/35bb5e1312f4fcc759c17d87f4b1f858.pdf


[19] http://interfax.com.ua/news/political/370135.html

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