Would democratic change in Russia transform its foreign policy?


The incompatibility of an anachronistic and arbitrary regime with the modern world is leading many to consider that democratic change is possible — likely even — in Russia. But those expecting that a new ‘democratic’ government would somehow take a softer line on foreign policy should think again, says Ivan Krastev. 

Ivan Krastev
7 February 2013

If Russia undergoes democratic change, what would its foreign policy look like? Would it be greatly different from what it is now? Would it be much more in tune with American foreign policy? Would it share European values? Or would there still remain important differences between Russia and the West? 

These questions, all posed recently by American analyst Mark Katz, are important ones, particularly so given that relations between Putin’s Russia and the West seem to have reached a dead end. Obama’s ‘reset’ with Moscow is over, and in the near future we can expect only banality, frustration, noise and growing mutual mistrust. Viewed from Washington, Russia has become both more annoying and less needed. The shale gas revolution has made Americans uninterested in Russia’s energy resources. The UN has proven ineffective in dealing with global crisis, so Russia’s seat on the Security Council is of diminishing value. American troops are on their way out of Afghanistan, so there is less need for Moscow’s assistance there either. Washington has outsourced the task of changing Moscow’s position on Syria to the Turks. And the American Senate has lost patience with Kremlin’s symbolic politics, most recently over legislation banning American citizens from adopting Russian children. (Americans were of course expecting retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, but they were shocked by the cruelness of the response. Does the Kremlin really believe that it punishes America by punishing its own orphans?) 

Pause is the new reset

In short, Russia has lost much of its strategic importance to the US, and business relations are decidedly unimpressive too. Obama fears, quite rightly, that his policy of ‘reset’ makes him vulnerable to the attacks of his Republican critics. We are not surprised, therefore, when the New York Times tells us that Washington has resolved to do ‘as little as possible’ and wait for political climate change in Moscow. In other words, the post-reset mood in the White House seems to have something in common with the position taken by America’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt, who advised his President almost 80 years ago ‘we should neither expect too much, nor despair of getting anything at all’. 

‘Obama’s ‘reset’ with Moscow is over, and in the near future we can expect only banality, frustration, noise and growing mutual mistrust. Viewed from Washington, Russia has become both more annoying and less needed.’

The EU is also in a waiting mood, but Russia does not look as strategically unimportant to Europe as it now does to the US. Europeans know that Moscow still matters both in security and economic terms. Yet there are several factors that tame any desire for more active engagement. First, the EU is much too preoccupied with implementing the institutional reforms needed to save the eurozone to be ready for any ambitious foreign policy initiatives. Second, Brussels is politically unable to deliver what Russia really wants most: a free visa regime for its citizens. Europe is also determined to put an end to Gazprom’s politics of manipulating EU’s energy market, and it is generally sceptical about the chances of Russia’s modernisation under the current conditions. 


Putin's second term has been marked by a unmistakenly anti-modern turn in the country's politics. Photo (c) Ria Novosti / Sergey Guneev

To top it all off, European public opinion has turned dramatically against Putin. The persecution of opposition activists, the Pussy Riot trial, the campaign against homosexuals - all this looks cruel and disgusting to Europeans. For them, the Russian regime has become more and more redolent of a 19th century autocracy, teleported into the contemporary world — a regime that is not only non-democratic and capricious, but also dull and old-fashioned. And if in the 19th century many of the other European states were also run by emperors who at least to some extent shared some of Russia’s sensitivities, this is no longer the case. Russia is lonely and out of fashion. If a century ago, it was perceived as a dynamic rising power, it is not now; if 19th century Europe was mesmerised by the power of Russia’s high culture (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc.), this is not the case now. Today, it is the oligarchs and not the artists that symbolise Putin’s Russia. They can buy almost anything but they hardly have anything to sell. 

‘Russia is lonely and out of fashion. If a century ago, it was perceived as a dynamic rising power, it is not now;  if 19th century Europe was mesmerised by the power of Russia’s high culture, this is not the case now. Today it is the oligarchs and not the artists that symbolise Putin’s Russia. They can buy almost anything... but they hardly have anything to sell.’

While Europeans know that they have many common interests with Russia, they are losing confidence in Russia ever becoming a genuine part of Europe. Polling data indicates that a great majority of Germans, French and Swedes have over the last year changed their perception of Russia from favourable to negative, just at the very moment that public opinion has begun to play a more important factor in European foreign policy. And looking at the dynamics of the political perceptions of Russia in the West, and the politics of the Russian government, it is unlikely that the relations between them will improve while Putin remains in office. 

Unfortunately, the Kremlin finds it much easier to play the anti-Western card than it does to embrace the advantages of closer alignment with the West. Putin is not simply playing games when he accuses the West of instigating the anti-government protests last winter, he truly believes it. And he also takes comfort in his reading of global financial crisis. This can be summarised in two simple points: first, the West is not as powerful as Moscow used to believe and second, globalisation is not as irreversible as it looked some years ago. We can expect that these two points will inform much of Russia’s foreign policy thinking over the coming decade. We should assume the continued emphasis on the preservation of Russia’s financial independence (taking care of the financial reserves) and political stability (no space for opposition); an effort to secure Russia’s own economic region by making the Eurasian Union a reality; attempts to build national identity by establishing closer alliance with the Orthodox Church; and moves to nationalise the elites by forcing them to repatriate both their money and their families. 

We have reached a point where is probably more realistic to wait for political change in Russia, than it is to wait for a closer cooperation within the current status quo — to press not the ‘reset’ but a ‘pause’ button in dealings with Russia. While the West has many reasons to fear instability or further authoritarian mutation as a result of political change in Moscow, the explosion of civic energy after the 2011 parliamentary elections do give grounds to hope that a more democratic Russia will emerge.  It is assumed by some that a post-Putin Russia would be accompanied by a radical shift in Moscow’s foreign policy. 

Imagining a post-Putin Russia

But how different would the foreign policy of post-Putin Russia be? Can we suppose that even if political change brings a relatively effective democratic government to power in Moscow, Russia will become a natural ally of the West in preserving the liberal international order? Can a change of regime be enough to change Russia’s view of the world order, so shaped by its geography and history? Could such a change temper the deep-seated fears and concerns of both elites and the public? 

These questions are simply impossible to answer. It is always easy to have dreams or nightmares about a post-Putin Russia; it is more difficult to have credible predictions. We do not know if, how and when democratic change will take place, or what its driving forces will be. We do not know if democratic change will bring back new fears of territorial disintegration. And we can only speculate who the political leaders of new democratic Russia will be. 

Some analysts have insisted that Russia’s foreign policy will not change significantly, since it represents Russia’s national interests. I would argue the one thing we can be sure of is that democratic transformation will bring public opinion to the fore in shaping Russia’s foreign policy. New democratic leaders, if and when they arrive, will not be able to cast aside public sentiment. Foreign policy will likely be a major source of legitimacy for any post-Putin regime. 

When it comes to Russia, there is a widespread belief that in order to understand what is going on there, you need to do two things: read the great Russian novels of the last two centuries and follow the oil prices closely. In Russia it is the soul and oil that matters. But looking at opinion polls in addition to that offers useful insights. 

When it comes to Russia, there is a widespread belief you need to do two things: read the great Russian novels and follow the oil prices. But looking at opinion polls also offers insights.’

What will Russians think?

We cannot possibly predict what Russians will think if and when democratic change comes. But we do already have a gauge on today’s foreign policy views, in particular, the 2012 Transatlantic Trends Survey, a piece of work that was sponsored by the German Marshall fund of the US. 

The survey shows that when it comes to foreign policy, a large majority of Russians (71 percent) are inclined to approve the work of the government. Russians generally want their country to assume a strong leadership role in the world, as they are also unenthusiastic about global leadership by either Europe or America. Russians are sceptical about value-driven foreign policy and favour state sovereignty at the expense of human rights. In addition, the majority of Russians broadly support their country’s position on Syria.  

These results should not surprise anybody. For years, the Russian worldview has been shaped by Putin’s propaganda machine, and it is also a common enough phenomenon that people tend to trust their governments on matters of foreign policy. What is surprising given the extent of anti-Western propaganda over the last year is that a majority of Russians have a fairly benign view of the West. What are also interesting are the foreign policy preferences of those who have lost trust in the Putin system. 

On foreign policy matters, ‘Disaffected Russia’ and ‘Anti-Putin Russia’ not only subscribe to Kremlin’s current agenda, but are less likely to support Western priorities’

The Transatlantic Trends Survey data makes it possible to identify these preferences easily enough. Almost half of the Russians surveyed expressed doubt about the fairness of the last elections and the way the institutions work: we can define this group of Russians as ‘Disaffected Russia’. Almost a third of the Russians are openly critical of Putin’s performance, thus representing a more radical element of the ‘Disaffected Russia’ group: we can define them as ‘Anti-Putin Russia’. 


Even Putin's greatest detractors are unlikely to disagree about Russia taking a hardline position in world politics, or on the undesirability of either American or European dominance.

Here is the surprising bit: on foreign policy matters, ‘Disaffected Russia’ and ‘Anti-Putin Russia’ not only subscribe to Kremlin’s current agenda, but are less likely to support Western priorities than other groups. So opposition-minded Russians might not like how Russia is ruled today, but they are largely in agreement with her foreign policy. Of course, most analysts realise that the Russian opposition is a strange mixture of pro-western liberals and anti-Western nationalists. Normally, however, we tend to forget about the second group, and this can be very misleading.

So when it comes to foreign policy, we should expect that a democratic Russia will also be a nationalistic Russia, not unlike other regional powers like Turkey. The analysis of the foreign policy opinions of opposition-minded Russian citizens makes us believe that democratic Russia will insist on its role as independent regional power with special interests in the post-Soviet space, and that it is unlikely that she will share the EU’s post-modern view of the world. The survey data also indicate that the Russian public generally does not see China as a military threat, so it is unrealistic to expect that today’s Russian democratic opposition would in government support a coalition between Russia and the West aimed at containing China. 

It would of course be a mistake to make far-reaching conclusions based on a single opinion poll or even on all opinion polls. Foreign policy is very rarely shaped by the preferences of the people only, as indeed are such preferences prone to change quickly. Instead, the foreign policy of the post-Putin’s Russia will be determined by many factors that are now impossible to predict: the state of Russia’s economy (and in particular the size of its foreign debt); the political beliefs of its next leaders; the state of global affairs in general; and the policy initiatives of the West. But reading Russian opinion polls today is a healthy antidote to the naive expectations that a democratic change in Russia is an answer to all questions in the bilateral relations. You do not need to be George Kennan to realise that the de-legitimation of the current regime in Russia cannot be reversed. Vladimir Putin’s return to Kremlin blocked the institutional possibility for the evolutionary development of the regime. Democratic change is possible and even likely in Russia. What is unlikely is that a democratic government in Russia will have foreign policy that does not emphasise Russia’s role as independent regional power, and with the ambition to have an economic region of its own.  

And while I do personally believe that democratic change in Russia will benefit both Russia and the world, praying for democratic Russia should not be confused with a foreign policy strategy for dealing with Russia. 


The author is grateful to Josh Raisher, Program Assistant on Transatlantic Trends Surveys, GMF and Kaat Smets from the Centre for the Study of Political Change (CIRCaP), University of Siena for their help in presenting the survey data 


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