Perspectives on Russian Foreign Policy

  • Published

Perspectives on Russian Foreign Policy edited by Stephen Blank. Strategic Studies Institute, 2012, 226 pp.

The monograph Perspectives on Russian Foreign Policy is a compilation of three articles submitted for a Strategic Studies Institute‐hosted panel in September 2011. This panel focused on Russia’s current foreign policy actions and policy motivations and how the United States and its allies can adapt to those actions. The first article, “Defying That Sinking Feeling: Russia Seeks to Uphold Its Role in the Multicultural International System in Flux,” written by Pavel Baev, focuses on Russia’s foreign policy in the context of maintaining a perception of strength and being a dominant player on the world scene. For Baev that dominance manifests itself in Russia’s building up a previously deteriorating military deterrence (primarily nuclear). The goal of military strength dictates Russia’s philosophy at the cost of Russia’s ability to effectively integrate into the world economic system. While it has been admitted to the World Trade Organization and the G‐20, Russia has not made significant efforts like other nations to modify its economic and political focus to align with the current world structure.

The second article, also the longest, is Stephen Blank’s “The Sacred Monster: Russia as a Foreign Policy Actor.” This essay explores Russian foreign policy decisions through the lens of Russian history, noting that the actions and thoughts of Russia’s highest leaders have not varied much from their Soviet and Czarist predecessors. Much like Baev’s essay, Blank notes Russia’s view on military power and its use of natural resources to propagate that power as a key focus for Russia’s leaders and how that dictates their specific actions. In addition to discussing Russia’s attitude toward the United States, Blank also discusses how Russia views its European neighbors, especially its former Soviet/Warsaw Pact “vassal” states. Russia still wants to maintain a dominant position, especially in those areas it feels are vital to its interests and objectives. He starts and ends the essay by providing two perspectives on Russia’s foreign policy/history: one in which Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov states that Russia is far different from its past, and another in which novelist Vladimir Sorokin fears that Russia’s past is becoming its future. While he presents these viewpoints as a comparative balance throughout the essay, the evidence and writing indicate that Blank views Russia much like the novelist does.

The final essay is also the shortest. Ariel Cohen’s “Ideology and Soft Power in Contemporary Russia” takes a slightly different approach to Russian foreign policy, analyzing how Russia today—much like it did during the Soviet era—is using its propaganda machine and “soft power” influence to project its foreign policy goals and objectives. By playing up Russia’s strength and demonizing American leadership and its goal of subjugating Russia’s power, Russia can cause considerable issues for America. He calls for the United States, much like it did during the Cold War, to use its soft power capabilities to counter Russian aims and offer an alternative to the Russian narrative.

An interesting aspect in reviewing this monograph is reading the 2012 publication in 2015. The years following 2011–2012 saw a major increase in Russian foreign policy actions, especially in its direct involvement in various global theaters. In particular, Russia’s actions in Ukraine not only brought to mind the Russian invasions of Georgian territory in 2008 but also harkened back to the days of the Soviet Union. Russian covert and overt support of pro‐Russian opposition in Ukraine (Crimea, Donetsk, etc.) fall much in line with the analysis of these works, where Russia will do what it takes to maintain control over its traditional spheres of influence to demonstrate international strength. Russia’s increased military and political action in Syria only adds to the theory that Russia’s international actions relate to the primary goal of building up the perception of its strength. Russia’s concurrent use of propaganda and soft power to espouse its objectives also appears in its actions of the past three years. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of any US, NATO, or other counter‐Russian efforts.

Using three years of hindsight, current events seem to bear out the theories espoused in the monograph. A major difference from 2012 and now is that Vladimir Putin is back as Russia’s president. While the monograph discusses then president Dmitry Medvedev, most feel that Putin was always in charge and that Putin’s vison drives Russia’s foreign policy objectives—especially in the premises of the first two essays that discuss Russia’s desire to appear as a dominant force in world affairs does appear to provide a good perspective on their most recent actions on the world scene. Even the fact that Russia is emphasizing its international strength to deflect from economic struggles at home can fit nicely into the theories discussed here.

Overall, this work would be of interest to those studying or working with Russia in some capacity. The balance of these three essays seemed odd at first glance, with one essay nearly 100 pages while another essay barely reached 20 pages, but the themes of Russian foreign policy are relevant, especially to the military reader. The reader has to keep in mind what has changed since 2012, as Russia’s actions have gone beyond what the authors in 2011–2012 could have imagined, but it is a start for perspective and generating debate. The writing is somewhat dry and academic, but one should glean some worthy information and insights into what is once again becoming a major geopolitical rival to American interests.

Maj Scott Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."