Russia’s role on the world stage: a Soviet foreign policy without the USSR?

Many might be proud of Russia’s resurgence on the world stage, but how will it end? Русский

Кирилл Кобрин
23 November 2016

The rhetoric of "fight for peace" and the reality of the arms race — this was the basis of Soviet foreign policy. (c) AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

This is the final part of Kirill Kobrin’s series on the death of the post-Soviet project. Read the first part here.

A country that most of the world wished well, a country that became fashionable for a time, a country that received humanitarian aid — and a country that was assumed to have a glorious future before it — has turned, if not into a pariah state, at least into a global “scarecrow”.

Many people Russia are proud of their country’s newfound role and status, but we mustn’t forget what this word means. It conjures up a hastily cobbled together puppet, dressed up in old rags, its scary face designed to see birds off from crops, fields, gardens and vegetable patches. A scarecrow can be seen from a distance, and does its job well, but nobody is going to use it to build a house or to protect that house from robbers. It’s just a straw doll wrapped in hand-me-downs to terrify the short sighted, and that’s all it is.

So how could a promising new state, proud of the fact that it had voluntarily abandoned its role as a monster, shaken off the yoke of an authoritarian regime and announced a new era in its existence and that of its neighbours, have come to this?

Back to Brezhnev?

We cannot, of course, believe everything that was said about Russia in the 1990s, or indeed what is said today, but those claiming that the bombing of Grozny in 1994 (or in the early 2000s) and the bombing of Aleppo today are basically the same thing, are mistaken.

The obvious difference is that Aleppo lies outside the borders of the Russian Federation and that, strictly speaking, Russia has no business meddling in Syria’s affairs. Basically, the west took its eye off the ball, and here we are. It is reminiscent of the logic of the Cold War, when the two sides were quick to exploit any conflict in the “third” (and not only the “third”) world as an excuse to open yet another front.


Grozny. CC Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.As a result, the entire world was a field of action, in any part of which one could find particles “charged” by the west and particles “charged” by the east. This was, indeed, the source of most of the catastrophic international problems that have arisen since the collapse of the USSR — the fact that both sides recruited allies on the single basis of their potential use in the game against their archenemies.

It’s the same principle as “this guy is a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard!” However, when the Cold War ended, all these various “bastards” stopped being, supposedly, “ours” and began their own game — Bin Laden, the Taliban and so on. Some, however, preferred to remain (for want of any remaining backers) in their own splendid isolation — Cuba led this type of existence until recently; North Korea still does.

The old principle of “our bastard” is being imitated today by Russia’s leaders, who have refused to understand what’s going on and what goal this or that client of Moscow may be pursuing — the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Venezuela’s Chavez and so on. They are important as figures in a game with the strategic enemy, but Russia has no interest in what they are made of. It reminds one of the blessed “Soviet era” when Khrushchev banged his shoe on a table at the UN and prepared to turn our planet into a cloud of radioactive dust — and all because of a newly converted friend of the USSR, a “bastard” from Cuba whose services the USA had stupidly declined not long before.

It seemed odd even then: to blow the world to bits in order to build a better future for it. But it was all done in the name of, at the very least, “a better world” and “a glorious future”. Whereas today all Russia has to offer the world is an ugly present. And it persistently tries to make this present even more ugly, unpleasant and dangerous.

A new state for a new world

But let’s cast our minds back to the early 1990s. When a new state comes into being, it starts to seek out a place for itself in the existing world.

The Russian Federation had to go through this process, but the conditions for it were eminently favourable. It’s true that the Soviet economy had collapsed; the USSR’s armed forces were almost disintegrating. But the advantages were much greater, and in particular the sympathetic international support that Russia enjoyed in the early Yeltsin years. The question was how to use that window of opportunity — that combination of circumstances couldn’t last long, as many in Russia realised. But that required an answer to the question with which we began: what was Russia’s place and role to be in the modern world?

It was not an easy question to answer — especially since that role was evolving out of many different levels of international relations. The highest level, the closest relationship, was with republics of the former USSR, although only some of them (Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan). The second level was with the Transcaucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the third with the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. After that, in fourth place, came former Warsaw pact countries of Eastern Europe, with Yugoslavia and Albania occupying a slightly separate place, followed by the rest of Europe, basically the EU.


1997: Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin meet in Denver. (c) AP Photo/ Alexander Zemliachenko. All rights reserved.The sixth level of relations was with the former USSR’s client states around the world, from Cuba to Vietnam, and the seventh with the countries of the “third world”, with China and India considered a separate category. And on the eighth level were major economies outside the EU (although not the USA) — Canada, Australia and Japan (the last also with a slightly separate relationship).  And finally, the ninth, lowest level was occupied by Russia’s former archenemy, the United States. I have omitted another half dozen sub-levels, leaving them to specialists in international politics to complete the tally.

Moscow’s relations with each of these levels required specific tuning or retuning, entailing long, painstaking and meticulous work, like any real diplomatic process. But even the best results of this tuning would have been unthinkable, had they not emerged out of the total, general “tone” of the external politics of this new Russia, which needed to be newly considered and defined.

A new problem

This was where a difficulty arose: a difficulty that lay behind the first post-Soviet stage of the Russian Federation’s international course.

What has been the basis of any country’s external politics over the last two centuries? What considerations — apart from the personal qualities of its leaders and diplomatic corps — have defined these policies? There are a number of these, all of them clear. Economic interests, however they may be understood, from those of the ruling classes to those of the masses. Ideology, of both the sacred and secular kinds. Another very important factor is tradition: the centuries-old customs and manners of one country or another that still count for a lot, however old fashioned and unnecessary they may appear. And last but not least, internal politics: the interests of the current system of government and so on.

All these factors, apart, perhaps from ideology, are only very rarely actually thought about. It’s more a question of a vague set of perceptions of how to conduct oneself on the international stage, a kind of energy field of the possible and the acceptable through which the people who lay down their country’s international direction mostly feel their way, reacting to outside events as they go.

This, indeed, was the crux of the post-Soviet Russian international relations project — to end up being untouchable

In other words, what we see here is a fluid pragmatism that is nonetheless bound by certain objective factors. As for the declared aims of international politics, these declarations are usually imposed from above and made post factum. Each individual case is a matter of balancing objective reality with accident, awareness of long-term factors with the needs of the moment.

This is how Russian external politics worked between 1992 until quite recently — 2008, or even 2014. This stage may be known, if only post factum, as part of the post-Soviet project. This was a time when Russia’s international relations, as opposed to its internal politics and nationbuilding, looked pretty logical, sophisticated, well-considered and even based in part on common sense.

Its main thrust was as follows: realising that the west was not going to accept the New Russia as either an equal partner or, even less likely, an ally, and that the neoliberals in charge in the west at the time had lost all touch with reality to the extent of attempting to “export democracy” to regions that had absolutely no desire for such a gift, Russia (and here I refer to the later Yeltsin years and the first 10 or so years of Putin’s rule) instinctively distanced itself from what was happening and adopted the position most advantageous to itself.


Prior to Putin's "Munich speech" in 2007, little changed in Russia's foreign policy. (c) Misha Japaridze / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.This position was that of a critically inclined observer, always happy to remind unlucky global players “Don’t say we didn’t warn you”, while otherwise minding its own business. It was a pragmatic course of action that reflected its own economic vulnerability, its technological backwardness and dependency and its totally rational certainty that nothing would come out of “exporting democracy” to Serbia and Croatia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Kremlin was right: the world had become a much more dangerous place than it had been before these schemes. They did, however, provide cover for Russia beginning to strengthen its links with some former Soviet republics, increase its influence — both political and financial — in some other countries and develop new economic partnerships and revive old ones (with Brazil, China, India) and, most importantly, to do this in such a way as to prevent other countries interfering in its own affairs.

This, indeed, was the crux of the post-Soviet Russian international relations project — to end up being untouchable. In that sense, Russia very sensibly followed the example of India and, especially, China.

But Russia is no China

The only problem is that Russia is not China. Despite the ubiquitous corruption in that country and the lack of transparency in its political, social and economic life, the People's Republic of China has long since consciously embodied an image of a “great power”, consisting of a blend of old Imperial concepts, Maoist ideas of a Third Global Power and the rigid pragmatism of the technocrats. Inside the country there is an unspoken consensus that this is the only possible and right road, the one best aligned with its “national interest”.

The Kremlin apparatchiks think they are behaving like Brezhnev during the Cold War

This is the image of a country that is dynamically developing today, but whose high point is yet to come. And this is what drives Chinese foreign politics, which are very cautious in matters that do not affect it directly, but very forceful in everything else. And the line between the two is dictated by the selfsame “national interest”.

Russia’s leaders, on the other hand, have not succeeded in creating any rational concept of “national interest” that would be shared by its people.


For several years now, Soviet nostalgia has been used as an ideological instrument in Russia. CC BY-NC Tim Bounds / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This is related to its specific nature: it is not a failed state, but a fake state that masks a group of half a dozen or so clans, now already hereditary, which exploit their own country as though it were a colony. On the other hand, it is also linked to the extreme atomisation of post-Soviet society that we discussed in a previous article. This kind of society is incapable of consensus on any issue, let alone something as abstract as “national interest”.

Russia’s “national interests” have been much discussed, but each time the list of interests have been different, as have the issues surrounding them; this strange, fluid, changeable national interest is one of the main characteristics of the post-Soviet stage of Russia’s history.

Another new reality

It was all going to end sooner or later — and most people who followed Russia’s role and place in international politics more or less knew how and why it would come to an end.

Several factors came into play. The first was that the “export of democracy”, which angered the Russian government (not known for its democratic tendencies) from the start, reached Russia’s close neighbours (the so-called “colour revolutions”). This was a very “soft export”, more a case of western political and media campaigns in support of the various “colour revolutions”, but in the Kremlin it was seen in the context of what had happened or was happening in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and so on. Then in 2011-2012 a wave of mass protest began in Moscow, and the Russian government’s suspicions turned into certainty, even paranoia. The “Chinese model” of external politics was abandoned, along with common sense, and the “Soviet model” was revived.

A Soviet foreign policy without the USSR, the Soviet bloc, Soviet ideology or any chance of Soviet economics or technology — this is what has turned Russia into an international bogeyman

Only in the Russia of 2012 there was no longer any “Warsaw Pact” or military parity with the west, let alone “bastards” (with the odd exception) around the world, military bases, money or — most importantly — anything that could be offered as encouragement to potential allies. The USSR educated specialists of all kinds from countries with a “socialist orientation”; sent its own specialists to these same countries; installed the latest technology; invested enormous sums in their economies and, finally, promised them a bright future without neo-colonialists and capitalists. What can Russia offer today? The best it can do is slip some local dictator a bribe and send an aging aircraft carrier to help him murder his own population.   

A Soviet foreign policy without the USSR, the Soviet bloc, Soviet ideology or any chance of Soviet economics or technology — this is what has turned Russia into an international bogeyman. It is also what has ended the post-Soviet period of its existence on the world stage. Russia is feared, not surprisingly, as it has a large army and nuclear weapons, but everyone, especially in the west, is well aware that it has not much in the way of options.


Soviet cartoon character of "Old Woman Shapolyak" was the embodiment of irrational evil for several generations of Soviet children — and is the prototype of Russia's international policy today. Soyuzmultfilm / Wikipedia. Public DomainSo it can be used as a disgusting, aggressive figure in any number of internal and external political and media games, from the USA presidential campaign to intricate plots in the Near and Middle East. Russia’s leaders have no alternative but to follow the road recommended by stronger powers — to become even scarier and even more disgusting; to make friends with bastards like Assad; to give money to right extremists in Europe and to play dirty tricks on the west whenever they possibly can.

The Kremlin apparatchiks think they are behaving like Brezhnev during the Cold War, but they don’t realise that they are more like old woman Shapoklyak, the evil character from a 1970s Soviet animated series who sings: “Helping someone is a waste of time/ You won’t get famous doing good deeds.”    

If you replace “get famous” with “build”, you have the crux of a wonderful new era in the history of Russia that is replacing the post-Soviet project in front of our very eyes.  


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