ROBERT VASS: "MOSCOW LACKS A ´GRAND STRATEGY´ IN THEIR FOREIGN POLICY!"
However, there were some exceptions during Medvedev’s presidency, Russia tried to show its more affable face to the world. Putin´s comeback to the Kremlin “promises” that Russia will be more stubborn and it is necessary to be prepared that various surprises can emerge. Russkii vopros discussed some aspects of Putins future foreign and security policy with Robert Vass, Secretary General and the Member of the Executive Board of Slovak Atlantic Commission (Bratislava).
After Putin’s coming to the power Russia has been trying to play more active role in the world. Particularly Russian neighbours have felt such an effort. Kremlin stood against Orange revolution, Georgia was attacked by Russian army, etc. Russian attempts to restore its dominancy in so called "near abroad" are evident. There is also evident the effort to play more important role in multi-polar world. How could we describe Russian current defence policy? On which principles is it based?
The current Russian defence policy is to a great extent driven by Cold War sentiments; Russians still see themselves as a superpower and they would like to be treated as such. While realities have changed, the Cold War instinct often remains. However, in my opinion, Moscow lacks a “grand strategy” in their foreign policy; instead their policy is realistic, pragmatic, even, often, reactive, and while its goals seem to be set by the great power desire, their pursuit is not driven by any overarching strategy.
While the Western approach to defence has shifted from a geographical to a functional approach, Russians still attach their security thinking to geographical definitions such as “near abroad” or spheres of influence that also have territorial connotations. The Russian near abroad is of course of prime importance, and it is the recipient of most of Russia’s foreign and also defence policy attention. Since the nature of the security environment has become more complex, globalised, asymmetrical, and multi-dimensioned, and since enemies are rarely where one expects them, I consider their approach a relict of the past and unsustainable in the long-run.
Putin’s foreign policy is very strongly oriented on internal use. Putin has managed to convince Russians that their country is a superpower again; however, reality is not so unambiguous. Maybe, due to worsening situation at home he will need new confrontations. Where could we expect problems with Russia in the future?
I do not expect any open and direct confrontation with Russia; in general I expect that in the long-term the question of Russia (on a strategic and political level) will decrease in importance for the countries of Europe. However, on the European and transatlantic level I expect that the role of Russia as a divisive factor in an already significantly divided Europe will remain and grow stronger.
As a consequence of the Euro-crisis, Europe is entering a very turbulent period economically and politically, that will be defining for the future of European stability and security. Russia will, to my mind, play an interesting role in the background of this process; strengthening bilateral relations with big countries, neglecting smaller ones, supporting divisive projects through the use of energy, business and intelligence as a political tool, which will further increase distrust toward common European institutions.
Russia has always been more successful in dealing with European countries bilaterally, and has never benefited from strong European institutions. Its aim may be therefore to support the erosion of existing common structures, particularly those disadvantageous to Russian interests. Simply put, a politically strong and unified Europe is not in Russia’s best interest when it comes to business, energy and (therefore also) politics. In this period of relative European weakness, Russia may be in the position to benefit from it and to gain new positions in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The biggest potential for success might be in Belarus, and Ukraine, but also in other countries of Central Europe.
On the question of whether Putin has succeeded in creating the “superpower image”; he has been successful to a point. The sentiment, and thus Putin’s domestic position, can change, and is perhaps already changing. I expect that the question of internal cohesion and stability in Russia will gain in importance, since there is an increased potential for several threats and conflicts inside of Russia, for example in Chechnya.
Putin’s Russia very often supports regimes that face a very strong critique from international community. How to explain it? Is it only showing of muscles or there is something more substantial?
The answer is in line with what I said in my first response, regarding the principles on which Russian defence and foreign policy rests. The support for illiberal regimes is to great extent driven by the great-power ambition and Cold War ideological relicts that imply the (to my mind misleading) need of a balance of power in specific regions. Consequently, Russia is building non-durable, instable and pragmatic friendships, and is often looking for enemies where there are none.
On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, the Russian approach lacks an overwhelming strategy; it is not clear what they want to achieve apart from satisfying their great power desire and partial interest. In some cases there might be specific pragmatic business reasons. Russians see politics in these regions as a zero sum game. An increase in the influence of the international community may be viewed as a decrease in Russia’s relative power.
Lastly, Russia may often view an undemocratic regime in that region as a sort of Trojan horse to Russia’s interests. It is relatively easy for Russians to befriend these regimes and use them for their interests, since authoritarians often search for any kind of support and pragmatic “alliances”. Russian foreign policy is based on pragmatism, rather than values, which enables them to make these deals.
EU and NATO policy towards Russia in the long term suffers from incapability to define a clear unanimous position. Is it possible, on the whole, to change the situation and to reach a common position which would prevent Russia from playing with various interests of individual players inside EU and NATO?
The nature of the decision-making process within the EU and NATO makes it next to impossible to reach a consensus on Russia in any issue. The specific business interests of member states and a diverse perception of security threats and security realities compounds the problem. Russia would need to make an openly hostile move against a member state in order to unify EU member states in opposition to it. This is, however, unlikely to happen as per the above. In any case, NATO would be much more flexible and operative in forming a common position than EU. First, there is the presence of the United States as a clear leader that the Europeans can rely on and rally around. Second, because NATO is limited in scope to security and defence, instead of a broad range of additional non-security issues, it is better able to find common ground.
If Russia is to do politics behind the scenes and use various bilateral business projects, energy and other low-key tactics as means of gaining influence and dividing Europe, there is a little chance that the Union will unite around a common political position on any issue. Our answer to this tendency will have to come not from the political level, but from the technical and regulatory level, where we should encourage intra-European alliances to lobby for specific common European regulation, to strengthen our common institutions and to raise the credibility of our system.
There is not any doubt that Russia tries to strengthen its influence in Central Europe. How should V4 countries deal with this Kremlin’s intentions?
My answer is perhaps relatively simple in nature but complex in execution. The transatlantic dimension of Central European countries’ foreign policy remains crucial; we need to do everything to keep the US present and interested in the region in any form. Therefore we must come up with strategic transatlantic projects in business, energy, education, defence, security that will deepen ties with the United States.
This is better possible when we come with a greater regional, CE-US projects that can attract greater attention. Therefore we need to enhance and support the Visegrad cooperation wherever possible, not only in defence and security, where it is necessary in order to maintain our capabilities, but also in intelligence-sharing, in our common approach to energy security and by identifying issues of common interest on the European level.
We must also strengthen the credibility and stability of common European institutions, as they are able to better withstand external pressure than individual countries. The V4 should become a cornerstone for a broader alliance that will push through a common EU energy policy and encourage common European policies and regulations on a wide range of issues.
On the home front, so to speak, Central European countries must do everything in their power to create stable and transparent political environments. This can be achieved by consolidating and strengthening the trust in, and the credibility of, their own democratic political systems by countering corruption and raising transparency.