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Laura Vansina: “Kremlin’s ability to deal with the vulnerabilities of its foreign policy will determine whether the Russian ‘Phoenix’ will continue to fly”
The multitude and diversity of the new military conflicts that have captured the international scene in recent years have produced strong reverberations over the way Russia foreign policy has been built. In an unstable geopolitical context, with increasingly strong and visible tensions in the international arena, Vladimir Putin’s election as President of the Russian Federation was a turning point, offering new meanings to security and defence concepts.

Laura VANSINA

03/04/2021 Region: Russia Topic: Geopolitics

Laura Vansina, a PhD Candidate at the Brussels School of Governance (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and the University of Warwick, has offered her views on Identity formation and foreign policy in Russia in the interview offered to Vladimir Adrian Costea for the Geostrategic Pulse Magazine.

Laura Vansina / photo ies.be

Geostrategic Pulse: A genuine Homo Sovieticus, Vladimir Putin embodies the recurrent ambitions of an empire shaping the depth of the Tsarist and Soviet history. A promoter of limited sovereignty, the leader in Kremlin has transformed the Russian Federation once more into a major player on the international stage. Following the annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the Syrian conflict, has Russia managed to "rise like a Phoenix"?

Laura Vansina: Before delving into Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, let us first say a few words about Putin himself. Contrary to popular belief, Putin is not a mastermind chess player planning ten steps ahead of his rivals to revive a Tsarist or Soviet Russia. Rather, he is a power-hungry opportunist. His big strength lies with his eye for situations he can exploit in favour of his own seat of power and the return of Russia as a great power. This on-the-spot advantage-seeking explains why Russian actions sometimes seem strange, even contradictory. In that sense, I agree with Mark Galeotti, who rather describes him as a judoka.

Back to the question: has Russia managed to ‘rise like a Phoenix?’ Yes and no. One cannot deny that Putin, in the past two decades, has played a relatively weak hand very well. He has succeeded in making the Russian Federation a necessary partner in a number of global challenges, ranging from the Middle East to energy supply. However, its assertive foreign policy has also left Russia isolated. Western sanctions hamper economic integration. Military innovation programs and the annexation of Crimea have increased pressure on Russian resources. Its increasingly authoritarian regime and economic downturn make it unattractive to foreign investments and accelerates a brain drain.

The question thus remains whether the phoenix will continue its flight or turn back to ashes. Today, Russia is generally seen as a country in decline. The Covid-19 crisis has put even further pressure on an economic downturn that has been going on for almost a decade. At a certain point, Russia’s domestic situation will make it hard to convey credible international assertiveness. However, Russia remains a country with huge potential. A more pragmatist and cooperative foreign policy linked with economic modernization could boost its strength both internationally and domestically. Russia’s economic resources remain valuable for international economy. If the regime would steer towards economic deregulation and privatization, a competitive market could thrive. Russia has, for example, huge human potential in engineering and mathematics, valuable sectors in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology. Other untapped potential is Russian diaspora abroad: part of the brain drain, and currently pursuing successful careers in the West. Economic modernization could bring these brains back to Russia, or help with the further integration of the Russian economy in the international network.

Naturally, this all depends on the governmental will for change. On the one hand, Putin is an opportunists and pragmatist, not an ideologist. If this is ‘the price to pay’ for power and domestic stability, he might not hesitate too long. On the other hand, of course, his circle of loyal cronies, who help keep him in power, have built their fortune thanks to the current political and economic constellation. Losing their backing might not be the smartest move if Putin wants to remain president.

To what extent is Putin's Russia being rebuilt on the myths of the former Soviet Empire? In other words, how was Russia's foreign policy designed in relation to its identity and its connection to the imperialistic memory?

Putin’s reference to the dissolution of the Soviet Union being ‘the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century’ is indeed quoted often. The same is true for his remark that ‘he who does not wish for a return to the Soviet Union has no heart’. However, people often disregard the context of these quotes. In the first case, for example, Putin is talking about the economic and internal instability that followed the breakup of the USSR, and the fact that ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation. In the second case, he follows up his assertion with ‘he who wants to return to it has no brain’. Medvedev said in his 2009 ‘Go Russia’ article that ‘nostalgia should not guide [Russia’s] foreign policy’.

We should thus never think that Putin’s upbringing and KGB past has somehow led him to wanting a return to Soviet times strictu sensu. Always be careful with parallels. Putin does not wish a return to communism, nor a reunification of the former post-Soviet republics. However, this does not mean that (imperialistic) memory plays no role in Russian foreign policy. Putin does want Russia to be a great power once again, as it was during his formative years in the USSR. His great power conception is rooted in 19th century tsarist Russia, where a great power has a sphere of influence and a guaranteed seat at the negotiation table. This comes forward very clearly in his foreign policy.

Apart from the influence memory has on Russian foreign policy, it is also an instrument used to legitimate domestic and foreign policy behaviour. Drawing upon glorious episodes from the past, Putin cherry-picks from history to his heart’s content. Ranging from the baptism of Prince Vladimir in the 10th century over Tsarist Russia’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars to the Great Patriotic War, the Kremlin has constructed a highly selective historical narrative that frames the Russian Federation’s great power status as a historical continuity. This narrative is used to propagate unity, patriotism and strength. It depicts Russia as a country constantly under siege but strong when it’s united. Rather than saying that tsarist and Soviet times are the main inspiration, it is thus a certain type of past, rather than a period, that is instrumentalized.

"If we have Putin, we have Russia. If Putin is gone, so is Russia." The description the Russian politician Vyacheslav Volodin, a close friend of Putin's, made in the Russian Parliament in 2014 reflects the nature of the Kremlin regime even today. With regard to Putin's vision and ambitions, how much has Russia's foreign policy changed in the past 22 years?

If we want to understand Russian foreign policy, we need to understand Russia’s foreign policy goals. These have not changed since 1992: international recognition as a great power. What has changed, however, are the means. Throughout the 90s, the focus lay with internal reforms to achieve domestic stability, and consequently a great power status. Think about liberalist reforms in the economy, moves towards a democratic structure and the Chechen wars to ensure political and territorial unity. Since Putin came to power, however, the means changed. It is not domestic instability standing between Russia and its great power status, but the West. We need to see Russia’s assertive foreign policy behaviour of political and military provocation against this paradigm shift.

Since Putin assumed office, the goal has thus not changed. However, the means have fluctuated. Starting in 2000, Putin already wielded a nationalist discourse emphasizing Russian interests, but he was also very pragmatic. Although not necessarily wanting to join the Western democratic framework, he nevertheless showed interest in developing a working relationship with the West. The 2007 Munich speech was a turning point - although earlier signs were visible in earlier years, instigated by Western criticism on the Chechen War and NATO’s eastward enlargement. The 2009 relations reset by the Obama administration failed to consolidate a more fruitful relationship between Russia and the West. This was proven made pretty clear by the annexation of Crimea five years later. Today’s allegations of the West meddling in Russian internal affairs regarding Navalny’s conviction show that better relations are…well…not quite there yet.

As a sidenote: we should be careful in equating Russia with Putin. Voices are starting to whisper that he is getting tired of being president and wants to step down. However, the scenario he wants to avoid at all costs is that he would somehow be prosecuted once he leaves office. When Yeltsin stepped down, for example, the first thing Putin did was sign a decree that Yeltsin was granted lifelong immunity from prosecution. The Duma has recently legislated legal immunity of former presidents and granted them the status of senator for life. Putin thus seems to have started preparing a life post-presidency. The billion-dollar question, of course, remains who would take his place… (Shamelessly deviating from the question: I do not think this will be Navalny, especially in the short term. His domestic support is very exaggerated by Western media. Since Navalny started down the political path, people rallying behind him are not necessarily pro-Navalny. Many are rather anti-Putin, driven by reasons ranging from LGBT rights to corruption.)

In 2005, Vladimir Putin described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the largest catastrophe of the past century. Educated under the influence of Brejnev's doctrine, Vladimir Putin’s main objective has been the preservation of the Russian Federation’s influence in its neighbourhoods, buffer zones against China and the EU. Supporting authoritarian regimes on the eastern flank and destabilizing countries on Russia's western flank were the main strategies adopted by the leader in Kremlin. From this point of view, has Russia's foreign policy become the main instrument to preserving peace, unity and security on a domestic level?

I find the debate on Russia’s search for domestic unity and security through its foreign policy very interesting. Is Russia’s meddling in the post-Soviet space and beyond expansionist or security inspired? The way I see it, Russia has always depended on its size as the first line of defence against foreign powers. Think about the Napoleonic wars and the Second World War, where Russian/Soviet troops could retreat until the dreaded Russian winter finished the invaders. The expansion of NATO and constant innovations in military and cyber domains have put pressure on this advantage of geographical depth. Putin’s Russia thus searched for an alternative, which it found in a combination of geographical and psychological buffers.  Russia’s asymmetrical warfare, which to a large part boils down to grey zone operations flirting with the blurry boundary between war and peace (disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, frozen conflicts, military snap exercises…), serves as a way to secure a geographical buffer. The active promotion of the Russkiy Mir, in combination with conservatist and orthodox values, support psychological depth.

As for peace and unity, it is indeed true that Russian assertive action abroad has served as a lightning rod for domestic troubles in the past. After the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s approval rates soared to +80%, which was the highest since the 2008 Georgian Five Day War. But this tide seems to be turning. Russian domestic stability has in part been secured by an ‘unspoken social contract’ between the Russian population and the government. As long as the latter ensured economic and social stability, the former would tolerate the state’s authoritarian character. However, the continuing economic decline, a number of unpopular economic and social reforms and laws further curtailing freedom of speech have put pressure on the domestic kettle. Public discontent over the constitutional changes that allow Putin to stay in office until 2036 has been worsened by the Covid-19 crisis. Navalny’s trial made a mockery of the Russian rule of law. This begs the question if an assertive foreign policy will continue to suffice to maintain domestic peace.

Taking into account the prospective revival of the Transatlantic Partnership, once Biden returned to the White House, Putin's moves seem to remain predictable. For instance, this February Vladimir Putin met with Alexander Lukashenko and had a phone conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he reasserted his foreign policy guidelines: Belarus remains Russia’s main strategic partner, while Turkey is an important regional partner. Under the current circumstances, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin's Russia has made the Sputnik vaccine the main instrument of Russian diplomacy. Consequently, could Russia strengthen and extend its influence in Europe and Asia?

A lot of countries are currently pursuing a ‘vaccine diplomacy’. Russia actively uses the Sputnik V vaccine, which has not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency, as a means to ‘divide and conquer’. By late March 2021, the country had offered more than 50 million doses to Europe. The EU has been slow in its rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, despite its intention to use the joint vaccine procurement plan to showcase strength after the initial uncertain collective response last year. This has caused frustration with member states hit especially hard by the pandemic. In an attempt to score domestically by accelerating the vaccination process, some of these countries have reached out to Russia (or China, for that matter) to discuss the import of their vaccine. Hungary, for example, will receive a supply of at least two million doses of Sputnik V by the summer. Countries such as Austria, Slovakia and the Czech have equally had talks with Russia on buying the Russian vaccine. Generally speaking, and in line with what I said earlier about opportunity exploitation, Russia has been successful in using Covid to bolster its public relations with the EU. Remember for example the ‘From Russia with love’ operation, when the Russian Federation sent medical supplies and military medics to Italy at the beginning of the pandemic. Apart from Europe, Russia has also sent vaccines to Latin-America and Asia, to 20+ countries in total. Interestingly, its active vaccine diplomacy has led to a shortage of vaccines for the Russian population…

Vaccine diplomacy will definitely aid Russia in expanding its influence in Europe and Asia. However, it is just one more new instrument in Russia’s soft power toolbox and is dwarfed by, for example, Russian arms sales (South and Southeast Asia account for over 60% of Russia’s total arms exports). In this sense, the pandemic and the opportunities it brings for authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China mainly provide new ways of extending influence and accelerate ongoing evolutions.

The EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s humiliation during his visit to Moscow highlighted the irreconcilable policy of the Kremlin leader. What are Russia's limitations/vulnerabilities with concern to its foreign policy?

The largest vulnerability of Russia’s foreign policy is its economy. In this sense, we may to some extent draw a parallel with the Cold War, when the economic costs of the arms race accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. This comes back to what I said earlier: the Kremlin’s economy, domestic stability and foreign policy are all heavily intertwined. To back its assertive foreign policy, the Kremlin needs a healthy economy and domestic stability. If the it wants to maintain domestic stability, it needs the Russian economy to work. And for the economy to work, it needs at least one of the following two things: integration into the international economy and modernisation. The West offers a market for Russian gas and oil, as well as for technology and investments for modernisations. But sanctions are isolating Russia. Years of gas and oil revenues have quelled the need for economic modernisations. But falling oil prices and climate action will continue to diminish Russia’s revenues from this sector. China provides an alternative. But Russia does not like to play second violin. And competition with China in Asia might not turn out the way the Kremlin would like it to. To turn its economic situation around, the Kremlin needs to shift its domestic and foreign policy stances – and even if it does, the question remains if that might not be too late for Putin. The Kremlin’s ability to deal with the vulnerabilities of its foreign policy will determine whether the Russian ‘phoenix’ will continue to fly. And with that, I think we have come full circle in this interview.