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Analysis & Opinion
25.07.08 Medvedev Unveils His Foreign Policy Strategy
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Last week President Dmitry Medvedev addressed the annual gathering of Russia’s ambassadors and signed a new Russia’s Foreign Policy Strategy. Although the primary rationale for the new Strategy was to provide a policy document that would reflect the change in the international environment and account for Russia’s rise as an emerging great power with serious economic and financial muscle, the document released last week shows little innovative thinking by Russia in crafting a workable solution to the global challenges of the day.

The new strategy strongly resembles one approved by then-President Vladimir Putin in January 2000, reiterating Russia's interest in reasserting itself as an international player in a multipolar world where UN and international law reign supreme and unilateral actions by countries like the United States are unwelcome.

Moscow sees the world as being in transition from a unipolar world to a “polarless world” characterized by global competition between civilizations on values and models of development. It views the United States and Europe as being on the declining end of their trajectory, and countries like China, India, Russia, and Brazil as new dynamic centers of global economic and military power.

The new Strategy decries unilateral military action bypassing the UN Security Council (a clear reference to the U.S. operation in Iraq in 2003) and reasserts Russia’s preference for multilateral collective action under the UNSC authorization. It describes the UN as the sole legitimate governor and arbiter of “a just and democratic world order, based on collective action.”

However, it fails to provide a guideline for action in case the UNSC consensus proves unreachable (except for more consultations), as was the case over Ahtissaari’s plan for Kosovo, or more recently over the UNSC resolution on sanctions against Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime in Zimbabwe (which Russia and China vetoed).

The document calls for a robust collective leadership by major powers which is necessary for a self-governing and self-organizing international system, but fails to specify how it intends to accomplish that, other than to say that this “collective leadership” should be “civilizationally and geographically diverse” (an indication of attaching greater importance to drawing India, China and Brazil into global decision-making).

The Strategy also decries “traditional political-military alliances” (NATO) as obsolete and inadequate to meet the entire spectrum of transnational security challenges and puts too much faith in ensuring strict compliance with international law, while failing to specify how Russia intends to do that in a situation of a flagrant non-compliance and a failure of the UN to reach agreement on enforcement measures (Iran’s nuclear program could be a case in point).

The strategy also calls for a new comprehensive security pact to be developed and adopted by European countries. It also reiterates Moscow's idea to transform the U.S.-Russian Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The new strategy no longer asserts that the Commonwealth of Independent States is a vehicle for the integration of former Soviet republics. Rather, it speaks of the importance of developing ties with individual CIS members while giving priority to integration with select neighbors, such as those in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth.

Overall, the strategy reflects a continued evolution of Russia’s foreign policy toward greater pragmatism and primacy of national interests over any global ambitions. It does not even refer to Russia as a “great power”. Its primary emphasis is on securing a more predictable law-based international environment where the power and ambition of major states and military alliances would be held in check. It fails, however, to provide a vision of how Russia intends to secure that laudable goal.

Does Medvedev’s Foreign Policy Strategy indicate any conceptual break with Putin’s foreign policy? Does the document unveiled last week reflect any personal input by Medvedev or his new style in international affairs? Does it position Russia as an assertive or a status-quo international power? Does it provide any serious challenges to the West? Does it signal the end of Russian primacy in the former Soviet republics?


Sergei Shishkarev, Chairman, Committee on Transport, the Russian State Duma (United Russia), Moscow:

President Medvedev sees an opportunity to strengthen Russia’s international position by emphasizing Russia’s defense of international law.
Medvedev, a talented lawyer, is extremely comfortable in engaging in a discussion that revolves around international legal norms. There are many countries in the world that are very worried about the erosion of some basic norms of international law like sovereignty, territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders.

Moscow is seeking to pit Russia’s strong support for a strict adherence to international law against the United States’ preference for bypassing international law and resort to unilateral force if agreement in the UN Security Council proved untenable. Time will tell whose approach is likely to garner more international support.

The case with the Russian veto over the UNSC resolution on Zimbabwe should be viewed exactly through the lens of adherence to the norms of international law. It is not within the UN Security Council’s mandate to judge elections in sovereign nations if the situation in those nations did not present a threat to international peace and security. The situation in Zimbabwe does not qualify on those criteria. It would be another matter were the UN General Assembly to rule that that should be the mandate for the Security Council.

Vlad Sobell, Daiwa Institute of Research, London:

The demise of Soviet totalitarianism and the end of the Cold War have produced an environment in which the United States remains the only superpower and the pre-eminent global power. This state of affairs is not only undemocratic (and thus fundamentally out of sync with the spirit of the new age). It is also inherently unstable: instead of power and responsibility being diffused throughout the system, we have a unipolar, lop-sided structure.

Post-totalitarian Russia has emerged as the most powerful agent in the evolution of a more stable, multi-polar system, not because it is anti-American and aggressive but inevitably, as it were by default. It is unconstrained by the need to act as a U.S. ally and it is the only power that would be able to match the United States in a nuclear arms race.

Thus Washington’s perception of Russia as aggressive and resurgent is entirely and exclusively the product of the United States’ failure to come to terms with the new global realities. Russia is “resurgent” and Putin’s speeches are “aggressive” simply because Russia happens to stand in the path of Washington’s strategy to maintain a unipolar system.

Against this broad background, the differences in Medvedev’s (2008) and Putin’s (2000) foreign-policy strategy appear to be insignificant. The emphasis is on continuity, with sensible modernizing changes, such as the omission of Russia being characterized as a “great power” – a decidedly 19th century concept.

A look at this decade shows that Russia became the object of de facto U.S. aggression precisely at the time when Putin asserted his country’s independence in the unipolar environment, which, by definition, precludes such a phenomenon. At defense and geopolitical levels, this aggression has been prosecuted by the enlargement of NATO and by the alliance’s drive to encircle Russia and at the ideological level by the persistent demonizing of Russia’s emerging democracy as “authoritarian autocracy.” (I would invite the proponents of this seriously flawed diagnosis, including those participating in this Experts’ Panel, to explain its meaning: “autocracy” normally means the rule by a despot accountable to no one but God. Is this a genuine claim in accurately capturing the essence of Russia’s post-totalitarian politics?)

Thus, those looking for evidence of a more “liberal” and more pro-Western Medvedev are destined to be disappointed. A “liberal” Medvedev in practice means a compliant Medvedev and a conquered Russia, accepting the catechism of the dysfunctional, U.S.-led unipolar system. Medvedev cannot be expected to embark on such a path, as surrendering his country to an aggressor definitely is not part of his job description. By rolling back U.S. expansionism, the “illiberal” Medvedev – the so called “puppet” of the “supreme authoritarian” Putin – is also doing a good turn for the globe.

Incidentally, herein also lie the roots of Putin’s “controlled democracy”: a country besieged by powerful external enemies will of necessity find it difficult to fully open up its political system. Call off the NATO “dogs” and the system will liberalize of its own accord. Unfortunately, the U.S. democrats are unlikely to do Russia such a favor in the foreseeable future, with both Ukraine and Georgia likely to be offered MAPs when the alliance sees fit.

Finally, it is difficult not to take a swipe at Washington’s staggering failure to grasp the nature of change in Russia and the globe at large. I have always considered it a given that democracy, and especially the United States, was ideally equipped to adapt to change and hence that it would respond in an optimum, rational manner to a changing world. It is therefore disturbing to witness a democratic leader acting as a sclerotic Brezhnev-era fossil who cannot grasp what has hit him. At the same time, it is heartening to witness Moscow becoming the source of truly innovative political thought.

Ethan Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:

It has been my experience that "Strategy" documents, like pre-election political platforms, constitutions in "developing" countries, and most U.N. General Assembly Resolutions are valuable only as a preference barometer or public relations declarations, and seldom have lasting significance ("Military Doctrine" documents may be an exception given the need to have a long-term planning horizon for the manufacture of equipment and training of personnel).

At present, it is difficult to discern any significant Russian foreign policy changes since Vladimir Putin assumed the position of Prime Minister and Dmitry Medvedev the Russian President. In the foreign policy area there appears to be continuity with only a modicum of change, little new thinking nor major personnel turnover.

Indeed, there is a need for better adapting for a multipolar world with countries such as Brazil, China, India, Japan and, possibly, South Africa being permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (without a veto in the near-term). I would think both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain would agree. The global financial crisis has heightened awareness of economic interdependency – it raises the question whether existing international institutions need to be replaced or have their missions changed to reflect current realities, rather than those at the time of their creation.

By and large, strategic and foreign policy primarily involves crisis management and mundane day-to-day relations. While the risks inherent in today's world might be reduced through better communication among governments, the world's dynamism generally defies planning – with the notable exceptions of energy, food, global warming, population-related issues and water management (if a consensus of sorts can be reached).

Having greater immediate consequence with Russian foreign policy in mind, I find it difficult to justify, on principle, Russia’s policy in neighboring countries such as Georgia (i.e. Abkhazia) while it espouses the importance of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of countries – a concept that allegedly justifies its policies toward Zimbabwe. Discussion about the possible basing of strategic aircraft in Cuba (supposedly in response to a small number of defensive missiles in certain former Warsaw Pact countries) is bad public relations at best, at a minimum – provocative. It is also potentially destabilizing. Despite its energy "superpower" status, Russia’s domestic problems remain to be addressed, as Putin and Medvedev have both pointed out in the last six months. National security and international prestige begins at home. Aggressive foreign policies are usually attempts to compensate for notable (and noticeable) weaknesses.
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