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Russia’s Updated Foreign Policy Concept – Analysis

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Russia's Updated Foreign Policy Concept - Analysis

Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront

The recent changes in Russia’s official Foreign Policy Concept document, the first “post-Maidan” rendition of the document as the most recent previous one dated back to 2013, are illustrative of the ongoing changes in world politics, Russia’s greater confidence in the ability to play a constructive role in international politics, but also concern for the stability of international system whose institutions may not be able to cope with the challenges of maintaining order or prosperity.


As before, the main tasks of Russia’s foreign policy include preserving and strengthening the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions, improving the international competitiveness of its economy. However, in a reflection of both the changing international power balance and Russia’s demonstrated power, the priorities also include “strengthening Russia’s role as one of the world’s influential power centers”, with the ultimate aim of ensuring collective security in a more just international system based on rule of law within the framework of the UN Charter.

The Concept furthermore reaffirms Russia’s commitment to international law and norms reflected in the UN Charter, the 1970 UN Declaration on the Principles of International Law, and the 1975 OSCE Concluding Document, all of which, it should be noted, place considerably more importance on observing state sovereignty than is currently fashionable in the West.

Russia's Updated Foreign Policy Concept - Analysis

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When it comes to exercising international influence, the Concept places high value on the use of “soft power”, which implies reliance on civil society institutions, humanitarian actions, and other means of supplementing traditional diplomacy. To this end, the Concept articulates the need to inform international audiences of the true aims of Russian politics and provide them with accurate information on the current state of the Russian Federation by increasing the presence of Russian media beyond its borders and ensuring Russia’s point of view on political developments is widely known among international audiences.


The current edition of the Concept makes no pretense that achieving the above-mentioned aims will be easy, considering the level of international turbulence, and it places the blame for this state of affairs squarely at the feet of the West. It views the international instability not so much as the product of the emerging “polycentric”, or multipolar, international system, in which the West can no longer dominate politically or economically, but rather in the West’s unwillingness to part with its dominant role.  Western efforts to avert the decline are a major factor behind military force becoming more prominent in settling international disputes. The Concept attributes the widespread radicalization of societies to Western efforts to impose its own value systems on unwilling countries, leading to a wholly predictable backlash. In a veiled criticism of US and NATO efforts to ensure own security through unilateral and arbitrary military interventions, the Concept calls for universalizing the principle of “indivisible” security, with equal applicability toward every region of the world. While the Concept assesses the danger of war between major powers as low, it warns major powers may find themselves draw into local wars which might in turn escalate to the point of a great power clash, as we have seen, for example, in Ukraine and Syria, where even today the danger of a Russia-NATO military clash remains.

Information security also receives considerable attention in the current edition of the Concept, in recognition of information warfare and  including placing the Internet under a more equitable international management.

The West is also indirectly to blame for the current global crisis due to its promotion of neoliberal economic policies that have only exacerbated the national and international developmental inequalities. The inequities of international development means that the struggle for markets and resources will only intensify, to the point of acquiring civilizational character. To the extent that such conflicts along ethnic, religious, and civilizational lines threaten the integrity of the vast and diverse Russian state, the Concept places high priority on defusing such conflicts and comes out strongly against the so-called “Right to Protect”, or R2P, that has gained currency in the West as justification for “humanitarian interventions”, usually in oil-rich countries with overly independent governments, interventions that have led to civil wars and greater radicalization of societies. The document expresses fear the ensuing wave of xenophobia, extremism, and fundamentalism, so far contained, may yet swamp the fragile international institutions resulting in chaos.

The West’s fading power, and the vacuum of power it creates, also poses a problem for the international system, inasmuch that vacuum may be filled to extremist groups such as the Islamic State, which is explicitly mentioned in the Concept for the first time as a terrorist group which represents a higher order of threat than the Al-Qaeda franchise due to its cruelty, the widespread presence across the Islamic world, and an extremely ambitious political agenda which is not confined to toppling individual governments. The West’s weakness is particularly visible in places like Afghanistan, where the NATO failure to bring about the end to hostilities poses a threat to the security of the entire Central Asia as well as Russia itself.

The Way Forward

According to the Concept, the weakening of the West also poses a number of opportunities as, far from seeing the “end of history”, defined in strictly Western terms, the international community is experiencing the re-emergence of several different models of development, even as the struggle over who will obtain the right to formulate the new founding principles of international order is intensifying. To cope with both the challenges and opportunities, the Concept argues in favor of “networked” alliances, which appear to be a variation on US own conception of “coalition of the willing”, or an ad-hoc grouping of states to deal with a specific problem, as has been demonstrated during the war in Syria where even NATO member state like Turkey has aligned itself with Russia and against the US on a number of issues.

Citing Russia’s character as an age-old yet highly diverse country of many religions, nationalities, and ethnicities, the Concept argues that the Russian Federation is quite capable of acting as an intermediary in resolving internal conflicts by applying its own internal experience in defusing threats posed by extremism and fundamentalism. This argument appears to be undergoing testing both in Syria and apparently also in Libya, where Russian mediation seems to have considerably more potential than US, EU, or even UN diplomacy. The deployment of a military police unit consisting of ethnic Chechens certainly gives Russia credibility in that respect.

Russia’s success in that area is in no small part due to another statement contained in the Concept which strongly argues against using humanitarian or civil rights arguments to justify political and even military pressure on governments. The tragic experience of the last decade fully validates this view, and it seems unlikely the world will be able to return to a state of order unless the Western insistence on universal human rights standards which has long been revealed as hypocritical is not replaced by greater deference to regional customs.

Recent years have shown that Russia’s approach has considerable advantages in the realm of diplomacy, since the US framing international disputes in human rights terms in effect forecloses the possibility of any future cooperation. To cite but one example, once Obama said that “Assad must go”, there was no possibility of a change in course for as long as Obama was in office. Russia’s far more guarded and treatment of what is after all a very hostile regime in Kiev, by contrast, still holds out a possibility of a thaw in Russia-Ukraine relations.

The Concept also favors continued efforts on arms control treaties, including both bilateral START and multilateral Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that is yet to be ratified by the United States, as well as limits on trade in conventional weapons and, last but not least, preventing a space arms race.

Russia as a Power Center

Russia's Updated Foreign Policy Concept - Analysis

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It would be a mistake, however, that just because the Concept elucidates Russia’s willingness to align itself with any country sharing its goals of promoting stability and prosperity that it has adopted a policy of being “equidistant” to the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The Concept exudes a strong sense of an “Asia pivot”, one that is very different from what is being pursued by the US. While the US is concerned with containing China’s power, Russia not only acknowledges that the center of global power has shifted eastward, toward Asia, it explicitly names China as its closest partner in promoting international outcomes due to a fundamental agreement concerning principles governing international interactions, first and foremost being the respect for internal political arrangements. There is also considerable emphasis on the use of Eurasian institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union, Shanghai Organization, ASEAN, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The West, on the other hand, is getting a short shrift if not an outright cold shoulder, as Russia asserts the right to pursue political, economic, and spiritual ties with Ukraine, promote the interests of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, safeguard the Syrian Arab Republic’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and pluralism, and help integrate the Islamic Republic of Iran into the international community. Listing the support for the Russian diasporas outside Russian Federation’s borders to ensure fair treatment and political influence commensurate with their numbers also cannot sit well wit the EU which tacitly supports the discrimination of ethnic Russians in EU member states such as the Baltics. The passages describing relations with the EU unequivocally place the blame for the deterioration of results on the geopolitical expansionism pursued by the Union, and the EU is made to understand that a future improvement of relations is possible only after a new legal framework governing EU-Russia relations is put in place, accompanied by EU’s gestures of good will toward the Russian Federation such as the granting of visa-free travel to Russian citizens. While Russia does recognize the usefulness of OSCE and the Council of Europe, it is far cooler toward NATO, and the text contains little optimism concerning the prospects of economic integration between the EEU and the EU.

Concerning the US, the document contains an explicit rejection of the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” which is described as an attempt to place the US above any and all international laws and norms, and similarly explicitly names US efforts to deploy strategic missile defenses as a direct threat to Russia’s national security. Even the Monroe Doctrine gets no respect, with Russia desiring more active relations with the countries of Latin America. The message is clear: those, like China, who respect our values and interests will have theirs respected in return. Russia’s good will cannot be taken for granted, especially by those who would do it harm, but is open to changing its policies in response to welcome changes in Western policies.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Time will tell whether the world is ready to step away from a messianic, globalist, world integration project that tramples on national cultures and identities and embrace a global “open architecture” in which every country can participate to the extent, and only to the extent, it desires, without having to worry about NATO or some other self-appointed “global policeman.” The resistance to Donald Trump from the US “deep state” suggests the globalist messianism faction remains enormously influential, and the most recent scandal involving the CIA use of information technology, which was seen as the exclusive province of the NSA, indicates that there is little sympathy in Washington for Moscow’s ideas on information security because information warfare, from propaganda to cyber-warfare, is one of the most important weapons in the US hybrid war arsenal.

Nevertheless, it is also obvious that the seemingly impressive Western hybrid war tools have real limits when it comes to delivering positive outcomes on the ground or even furthering US foreign policy goals.  It is not love for Russia but Trump’s officials’ awareness of these limitations that is behind the still-tentative moves to improve US-Russia relations. A lot depends on the outcome of the upcoming elections in Europe and the outcome of Brexit which, ironically enough, is an expression of principles very similar to ones expressed in the Concept. In the end, Western societies’ exhaustion with the decades of war and fear of geopolitical instability that is now arriving at Europe’s shores may persuade its leaders to emulate Russia’s approaches to re-establishing a stable international order.

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