Russia at home and abroad: past successes, future challenges


2013 produced several foreign policy successes for President Putin, increasing Russia’s prominence on the international stage. At home, the Volgograd suicide attacks brought the year to a sad and worrying conclusion. Margot Light reflects on 2013 and wonders about Russia’s 2014, including the G8 presidency and the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Margot Light
5 January 2014

President Vladimir Putin had the slightly smug look of a man who has had a good year when he was photographed at his annual press conference on19 December. Forbes had recently listed him the most powerful man of 2013.

President Vladimir Putin had the slightly smug look of a man who has had a good year when he was photographed at his annual press conference on19 December. Forbes had recently listed him the most powerful man of 2013. The performance of the Russian economy has been mediocre, so it was clearly Putin’s foreign policy that impressed Forbes.  Russian foreign policy was, indeed, very successful in 2013.  What was particularly striking was that in a number of foreign policy encounters, Russia seemed to occupy the moral high ground, compared with the positions taken by most Western leaders. It was also remarkable that Russia’s public relations machine which, in the past, has so often undermined Putin’s foreign policy, seemed far more skilful in 2013.

Russian foreign policy was very successful in 2013.

In an interview with Interfax News Agency on 21 December, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, listed Syria and Iran, and advances in Eurasian integration as exceptionally important achievements of Russia’s foreign policy in 2013. But he also mentioned Russia’s presidency of the G20 in 2013 as worthy of note. 


Vladimir Putin had the slightly smug look of a man who has had a good year at his annual press conference on 19 December. Photo Kremlin.ru

Russia’s G20 agenda concentrated on igniting a new cycle of economic growth in the world economy by fostering jobs and investment; improving regulation; and increasing ‘trust and transparency.’ Perhaps the most interesting development was Russia’s expansion of the traditional G20 dialogue with civil society: as well as the usual G20 meetings of working groups, Sherpas and ministers throughout the year, Russia also convened a G20 Civil Summit which took place in Moscow in June. The climax of Russia’s presidency was the G20 summit in St Petersburg in September. However, a slight pall was cast by the US administration’s cancellation in August of a bilateral meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin, which had been planned to take place in Moscow ahead of the summit. 

Syria and Iran

In retrospect, it turned out that Obama and Putin did meet, not in Moscow but on the sidelines of the St Petersburg summit. Their discussion about placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control led to Russia’s most significant foreign policy achievement of the year. For two and a half years Russia and the United States – and Russia and most of Europe – had been at loggerheads over what to do about the civil war in Syria. Now there was a breakthrough. The Russians persuaded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to avert a US military strike by handing over his chemical weapons to be destroyed, while Obama postponed a vote by the US Congress on military action.

On 14 September the US and Russia agreed a Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons in Geneva. On the same day Assad announced that Syria was acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This committed Syria not to use chemical weapons, to destroy its chemical weapons within ten years, and to convert or destroy all its chemical weapons production facilities. Within a week, Syria had handed over a complete inventory of its chemical arsenal. On 1 October a disarmament team arrived in Damascus to start work on destroying the weapons and production facilities. The weapons are scheduled to have been completely destroyed by the middle of 2014.

Putin was adamant that Russia’s stance on Syria was right, but the impasse affected all his other foreign policy initiatives.

There is general agreement that Putin got Obama off the hook over Syria.  The British House of Commons had already voted against military action; Obama felt constrained to act on a declaration he had made a year before that there would be military consequences if chemical weapons were used. However, there was little US public support for military action and, in any case, it was unlikely that a US military strike would end the war. So Putin did help Obama. It is equally true, however, that Assad’s agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons let Putin off the hook – although he was adamant that Russia’s stance on Syria was right, the impasse affected all his other foreign policy initiatives.

Of course, despite the agreement on chemical weapons, the Syrian civil war has continued. A peace conference, Geneva II,  is scheduled to begin on 22January, but there is no guarantee that it will produce a political solution, or even end the bloodshed. Nor will it reduce the number of displaced Syrians living in poverty and hardship.

Foreign Minister Lavrov claimed credit for the improvement in US-Iranian relations and the landmark interim nuclear agreement with Iran reached in Geneva on 24 November. While Russia certainly welcomed and encouraged the deal (and is a member of the P5 +1 group that negotiated it), the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 and a change of policy authorised by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had rather more responsibility for the success than Russia.


The reason for the cancellation of the Obama-Putin September summit was the offence caused by Russia’s offer of temporary asylum to Edward Snowden. Snowden had arrived in Moscow on 23 June, apparently on the way to Ecuador. While he was en route, the US revoked his passport (a strategy the Soviet Union frequently used, but rare in the post-Cold War world), thereby stranding him in the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo international airport. On 1 July, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, in Moscow for a conference, suggested that he might consider a request from Snowden for asylum. The following day, Morales' return flight to Bolivia was re-routed to Austria and apparently searched, in case Snowden was on board. Morales blamed the US for this extraordinary diplomatic incident. The US successfully persuaded a number of European countries to reject Snowden’s application for asylum, enabling Russia to assume the gallant role of whistleblowers’ defender by offering Snowden temporary asylum, on condition that he agreed he would not further harm US interests.


 US treatment of Edward Snowden allowed Russia to assume the gallant role of whistleblowers’ defender. Photo via YouTube.


Russia’s policy towards Ukraine in 2013 was rather less heroic. To discourage President Viktor Yanukovych from signing a Partnership agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on 28-29 November, Moscow first used economic sanctions, and then offered Ukraine a massive bribe. In July, following a series of trade restrictions imposed on Ukrainian goods ranging from steel pipes to cheese, Russia banned imports of confectionery produced by Roshen, allegedly because they contained carcinogens. Russian customs officials then blocked other Ukrainian exports by introducing time-consuming and expensive inspections, ostensibly necessary because Ukraine has not joined the Russian-Belarusian-Kazakh Customs Union.

On 21 November Yanukovych succumbed to the pressure. To the consternation of Europeans and pro-EU Ukrainians, Kyiv announced that it was suspending its trade and association talks with the EU. At the Vilnius summit, Moldova and Georgia signed up to EU Association Agreements, while Yanukovych defended his refusal to sign on the grounds that the EU was not offering adequate financial aid. Russia immediately offered to buy US$15bn-worth of Ukrainian government bonds and to cut the cost of gas supplied to Ukraine from more than US$400 per 1,000 cubic metres to US$268.5. 

Russia’s 2013 Ukrainian triumph might turn out to be an extremely expensive Pyrrhic victory.

It is not at all clear, however, that this will persuade Yanukovych to join the Customs Union, or the Eurasian Union, which is officially programmed to emerge by January 2015. Kyiv has a long history of playing Russia and the EU off against each other and public opinion in Ukraine is so divided that there is every reason for Yanukovych to attempt to continue this policy. Russia’s 2013 Ukrainian triumph might turn out to be an extremely expensive Pyrrhic victory.

What does the future hold in store?

So what awaits Russia in 2014? Putin hopes to expand the new working relationship between the Russians and Americans produced by cooperation over Syria and Iran. According to Lavrov, Russia also intends to develop interaction in the BRICS format in 2014, building on the 2013 Concept of the Participation of the Russian Federation in the BRICS and preparing for its chairmanship of the association in 2015. Lavrov also wants Russia to improve its use of soft power as an instrument of foreign policy. 

More specifically, it is clear that Putin sets great store by the success of the Winter Olympics which will open in Sochi on 7 February. The December amnesty for more than 20,000 prisoners, including Pussy Riot, Greenpeace activists, and more surprisingly, the pardon for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, means that Western leaders will not be able to cite human rights as a reason for not attending the opening.  

But the suicide attacks in Volgograd last week remind us that terrorism is still rife in Russia, and the success of the games is not entirely within Putin’s control. Moreover, Sochi is the venue not just for the Winter Olympics. The G8 summit (Russia assumed the chairmanship on 1 January) is scheduled to take place in Sochi in June.  Putin must hope that Russia’s G8 agenda – which focuses on fighting terrorism (as well as drug trafficking, and managing conflicts and disasters) – will produce a rapid and fail-safe solution to keeping the Winter Olympics and the G8 summit safe from terrorism.  

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