Troops march during military parade marking 71st anniversary of the end of World War II.
Troops march in military parade celebrating the 71st anniversary of Soviet victory in World War II.

It's Time to Rethink Russia's Foreign Policy Strategy

April 25, 2019
Dmitri Trenin

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.

A broad public discussion on Moscow’s foreign policy goals and objectives is long overdue. International issues are affecting the interests of Russian society as a whole more and more, making it necessary for private citizens to take a greater interest in their country’s conduct abroad, especially in the single continental space that is Greater Eurasia.

It has been just over five years since the Ukraine crisis began, drastically reorienting Russia’s foreign policy and destroying the two main pillars of Russia’s post-Soviet course in just a few months:1 Moscow’s integration into Western structures on terms acceptable to Russia (plan A)2 and the reintegration of the post-Soviet space with an eye to creating a Russian-led power bloc (plan B).3 Soon thereafter, the hope of forming a close alliance with China (plan C) faded, too.4 Today, Russia’s relations with the West are characterized by alienation and confrontation. Post-Soviet states regard Russia as at worst a hostile power and at best a pragmatic partner, accepting at most elements of integration. Relations with China, for their part, are increasingly close, mostly to Beijing’s benefit.5 

All of this has forced Russia to pivot—not to the East, but to itself. Such a step is entirely logical. Post-Soviet developments have made clear that Russia will not accept U.S. global leadership, a stance that necessarily closes the door to its integration into Western-led structures. It has also become clear that the United States does not intend to tolerate an independent Russian foreign policy, while the EU does not intend to tolerate Russia’s domestic political order. This has not only put the issue of Russia’s integration into the expanded West to rest but also created conditions for the return of great-power rivalry and a clash of values.

The first quarter-century after the Soviet collapse saw the former Soviet republics pass through the first stage of building new independent states. The Ukrainian revolution of 2013–2014 resulted from the desire of the Ukrainian elite, supported by the West, to finally break the ties binding Kiev to Moscow. Moscow’s forceful response to events in Ukraine, in turn, forced its two closest partners, Belarus and Kazakhstan, to accelerate their movement away from Russia and head down a path already taken by the rest of the former Soviet states.

Russia has thus lost strategic partners in not only the West but also its own neighborhood. Geopolitically, it is isolated yet free. Modern Russia has many weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Russian economy is trailing behind a dozen others. Russia’s scientific and technical capabilities, once among the world’s most powerful, lag far behind those of current leaders in scientific and technical innovation. Yet Russia remains able to think and act globally. If Russia’s internal contradictions are resolved in a constructive way—and this is a big if, given the scale and complexity of the tasks ahead—the country can still play an important and positive role in the world in the late twenty-first century.

The geopolitical goals Russia has set for itself explain its current predicament. The foreign policy of post-Soviet Russia has long been characterized by a mismatch of means and ends. As a result, Moscow has in practice found itself constantly reacting to the actions of opponents and focusing on tactical moves. This approach has enabled some victories, but it is also a major cause of the present crisis in relations between Russia and both the West and other post-Soviet states in general and the geopolitical catastrophe of 2014 in particular. Russia’s leaders—its future ones, if not its current ones—will have to reevaluate its geopolitical situation and take inventory of Moscow’s foreign policy goals and the strategies by which it will achieve them.

Russia’s leadership is often blamed for the country’s lack of a coherent foreign policy strategy. That is not entirely fair. Reestablishing Russia as a great power, of course, is a major strategic goal, which has just been achieved. Other stated objectives, such as creating a full-fledged Eurasian Union or, just before it, working with the EU to build a Greater Europe, are unrealistic and exceed Russia’s capabilities. With international issues affecting the interests of Russian society as a whole more and more, it is time for a broad public discussion about what Russia’s main foreign policy goals and objectives should be and how they should be implemented, a national conversation the present article seeks to jump-start.6

Countries, unlike people, do not migrate. But they can change their borders and foreign policy orientation. Politically, today’s Russia belongs to neither Europe nor Asia. The former borderlands of the Soviet Union and, before it, the Russian Empire have gained independence and statehood; today, they vary in terms of friendliness toward Russia. Russia does not belong to any regional political and economic communities and lacks the capacity to build its own bloc. It does not belong to any geopolitical or ideological “family” and, on a political map of the world, it stands apart. The “Russian world,” much spoken of at the time of the Ukraine crisis, is essentially a cultural, linguistic, and partly religious phenomenon, not a geographical entity. This is the core of Russia’s soft power, but thinking of it in hard-power terms only destroys it.

It would be a mistake to consider this a temporary situation and expect an eventual return to pre-crisis conditions and, with it, reconciliation with the West and/or the successful reintegration of the post-Soviet space. Take U.S.–Russia relations, which have since 2014 deteriorated to the point of active confrontation. There is no reason to believe that this will change with the election of a new U.S. president in 2020 (or 2024) or even regime change in Russia. The question is one of principle: either Moscow admits defeat and agrees to resume playing by the rules set by the United States, or Washington recognizes Moscow’s right to promote and protect its interests in the world, however the Kremlin defines them. A compromise is theoretically possible, but one thing is clear: there will be no return to the 1990s or early 2010s in U.S.–Russia relations. 

Likewise, there will be no return to “business as usual” with Europe, whose relations with Russia began to deteriorate years before the Ukraine crisis as a result of seemingly incompatible values. Today, Russia mistakenly dismisses European countries as little more than U.S. satellite states and as such considers problems in EU–Russia relations merely an outgrowth of Russia’s troubled relations with the United States. Its attempts to build a “Greater Europe” from Lisbon to Vladivostok on the basis of common interests have failed, while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s concept of a “common European home,” introduced in a speech before the Council of Europe in 1989, has long since lost all relevance.7 

Indeed, the divide between Russia and Europe is deeper than you think. For three centuries, beginning with the rule of Peter the Great, Europe played the role of Russia’s mentor, model, and sole source of modernization. But by the beginning of the twenty-first century, there had emerged new sources of investment and technology, including Asia, while Europe’s social model increasingly highlighted not only the continent’s achievements but also its problems. Russia grew tired of European mentorship, and political cooperation with the EU lost its value in light of the bloc’s inability to act as an independent strategic player on the world stage.

At the same time, a process of disintegration—of not only the empire but also the historical core of the Russian state—has become irreversible. Ukraine’s break with Russia in political, economic, cultural, and even spiritual terms precludes any possibility of their integration.8 Under different circumstances and at a different pace, Belarus is moving in the same direction, a post-Soviet republic that is slowly transforming into a full-fledged East European state. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), for all of its usefulness, has not become the center of power in Eurasia that Moscow had hoped would emerge.9 It is an interest-based association with limited goals and limited capabilities to pursue them. It appears that the “Little Eurasia” of the Russian Empire—and later the USSR—has been lost to history.

Russia stands alone, but it is not an island. The country’s former borderlands have established their independence, but they have remained neighbors of the former metropolitan power. The Russian Federation is located in Northern Eurasia, a single continent extending from Portugal to Chukotka. The Ural Mountains have never posed an insurmountable physical barrier for Russians, and China’s political and geoeconomic advance westward via the One Belt, One Road project since 2013 has broken down any remaining walls between Asia and Europe. Eurasia has long been understood by historians to comprise those territories that belonged first to the Mongol and then to the Russian empires and, finally, to the Soviet Union. Now, thanks to the development of economic and cultural ties, as well as modern communications, a single continental space is being formed within its natural limits. This space, which serves as Russia’s geopolitical neighborhood, can be dubbed Greater Eurasia.

To be sure, the main routes linking the East and West of this vast continent have historically run south of Russia. Still, Russia is not on its periphery. Geopolitically, it neighbors numerous countries, from EU member states in the west to China and Japan in the east and Turkey and Iran in the south. For a country that touches three oceans and borders Norway and North Korea alike, such a high degree of physical contact with the outside world opens up exceptional opportunities, even if Russia is neither the center of Greater Eurasia nor a “bridge” between civilizations.

Although it has distanced itself politically from modern Europe, Russia should not turn away from it or from the global West as a whole; it should not seek to become Asian or try to form an anti-American alliance with China. Far from Scythians or Asians, Russians have their own face; far from the “West of the East” or the “East of the West,” Russia stands apart. It is absolutely contrary to Russia’s interests for Moscow to retreat into itself and embark on a quest for autarky—the path of the USSR, but from a worse starting point.

Even after its messy divorce from Russia, Ukraine remains an important neighbor with which Russia will have to rebuild its relations, one way or another. Moreover, Moscow must take into account the mistakes it made in navigating Russo-Ukrainian relations in its relations with Minsk, whose break with its eastern neighbor does not necessarily have to result in a hostile relationship. Foregoing abrupt pivots, Moscow should stabilize the country’s foreign policy by striking a balance between East and West on the one hand and the developed North and the developing South on the other. In the future, Russian strategists will need a 360-degree vision consistent with Russia’s new place in the world.

Russia’s society and its political elite have traditionally perceived their country to be a great power, an assumption that must be reconsidered—not in the sense of dropping the notion altogether, but in terms of what it has come to mean today. First, Russia is no longer the country it used to be in terms of both its size and its capabilities. Second, it cannot be forgotten that in terms of population and gross domestic product, Russia ranks ninth and thirteenth in the world, according to the World Bank. Third, Russia is no longer the role model in international affairs it once was, with its “sphere of influence” now limited to the de facto states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, and, with caveats, Transnistria. Fourth, tellingly, none of Russia’s EEU partners or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies officially recognize Moscow’s claim to Crimea, and, in the UN, Russian initiatives enjoy less support than anti-Russian measures. Finally, Russian culture and language have ceased to be the soft-power assets they were in the Soviet era.

Also, in qualitative terms, Russia’s twenty-first century role in international affairs is a shadow of its twentieth- or even nineteenth-century self. Russians will have to proceed from this reality, not fond memories of the past. Great-power status is less the whim of Russian rulers and more a necessity for a traditionally lonely country and a critical condition for its survival. Today, Russia can still claim the status of a great power, but in a different sense than before, with Russia no longer a hegemon or a world leader. Nevertheless, Russia is one of the few countries in the world that instinctively refuses to submit to others’ hegemony, dominance, or leadership. Both Russian political elites and Russian society as a whole value Russia’s sovereignty above the benefits, economic and otherwise, of ceding sovereignty and are able to defend Russia’s sovereignty by political and military means—a rare thing in international affairs. Indeed, few other states are prepared to stake out such a position to preserve their freedom of action.

However, autonomy in international affairs and the moral authority that comes with it are insufficient for Russia. It is obvious that Russia will succeed in winning respect around the world only if it is able to fully realize its human potential in all areas: economy, science, and technology, and the social and cultural spheres. It is equally important to adhere to proclaimed values, especially legal ones, both at home and on the world stage. In the meantime, the domestic basis of Russian foreign policy must be substantially updated and bolstered.

Great-power status, more than just an end in itself, is inextricable from the role that one seeks to play on the world stage and the ambitions of a country’s leadership. The principal foreign policy objective of any respectable government is to ensure one’s security and create an external environment conducive to economic growth at home. But that is not enough. A great power must have some kind of mission. Russia’s mission could be to maintain the world’s geopolitical balance and strengthen security in various parts of Greater Eurasia and the continent as a whole in a way that is consistent with international law and involves the combination of skillful diplomacy and the proportionate use of military force.

The overarching goal of Moscow’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future should be turning Russia into a modern, developed country while avoiding excessive dependence on leading players in Greater Eurasia, such as China, the EU, and the United States. At the same time, it should strive to slowly but steadily normalize its economic and other ties to the West and actively pursue cooperation with Asian and Middle Eastern nations.

Russia’s leadership has significant, though not unlimited, resources at its disposal in making foreign policy. These include Russia’s permanent seats on the UN Security Council and other international organizations; a strategic nuclear deterrent and modernized conventional armed forces; energy and other natural resources; transportation infrastructure; scientific, technological, and intellectual capital; an extensive and experienced diplomatic and intelligence apparatus; and some capacity to project soft power.

None of this matters, however, if Russia’s economic and political system does not fundamentally change in such a way that man-made obstacles to economic and technological development are removed. Today, Russia’s political elite almost exclusively serves the narrow interests of the administrative and moneyed elite, hindering the emergence of a functioning state that is observant of legal and ethical norms. In such conditions, Russia will continue to grow and develop more slowly than its immediate neighbors in Greater Eurasia, making the road ahead harder—and longer. If and when Russia’s internal situation changes, the Russian people must be prepared to seize the opportunity. Yet Russians should not wait to begin discussing the principles on which their country’s foreign policy should be based.

I propose the following such principles. Russia must act abroad pragmatically, primarily to promote or protect its interests; it should not attempt to impose a given political system or international order on other countries or regions of the world. It should have no permanent allies or enemies, save (in the latter sense) extremist and terrorist groups. It should maintain working relations with all major players, whatever their ideology or political system and however mixed their history of relations with Russia.

It should not impose its values on others or engage in nation-building abroad, and it must respect others’ established values and customs and tolerate all religions. It should respect the legitimate security interests of others and be prepared to take them into account. Finally, it should renounce any claim—which is at the same time a burden—to domination, be it of individual states or regions or of the world as a whole. These principles should underlie Russia’s future conduct in Greater Eurasia; what Moscow’s strategy could (and should) look like in relation to Greater Eurasia’s individual states and regions is explored below.

For Russia, the most important country in Greater Eurasia is China. Considering the circumstances—confrontation with the United States and alienation from Europe—it is critical for Russia to avoid becoming China’s sidekick. It would be a bitter irony if, having rejected the role of a junior partner to the United States, Russia accepted the role of a Chinese tributary state. With this goal in mind, Moscow’s strategic tack with respect to Beijing could be the facilitation of further Chinese involvement in multilateral institutions.

In the political sphere, one such institution is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is in Russia’s interest to turn the SCO into the world’s primary deliberative body on security issues in continental Asia. Russia, which boasts more military, diplomatic, and intelligence expertise than any other SCO member state, can play a key role in this process. In the economic sphere, a permanent forum for EEU-China dialogue could be created to link the One Belt, One Road project to Russia’s Eurasian integration efforts. Meanwhile, security issues and economic cooperation can be discussed, and action taken, within the framework of the Russia-India-China (RIC) group, which brings together three leading continental powers.

In its bilateral relations with China, Russia should continue to adhere to the following formula: Russia and China must never act against each other, but they do not necessarily always have to act as one, thereby guaranteeing that neither power will stab the other in the back while refraining from imposing constraints on how the two states interact with the rest of the world. Russia and China are both major powers, even if their economic, political, and military resources and advantages differ. They must maintain a certain distance from each other; otherwise, friction becomes inevitable. Moscow and Beijing have many reasons to enhance their collaboration in numerous fields, even if it is premature to talk of forming a military alliance. Such an alliance, even if its formation were possible, would not be in the interest of either country. Neither power would feel stronger; instead, both would resent being constrained and clash over questions of leadership.

Although Russia will continue to cede ground to China economically, it is still possible for Moscow to maintain and even expand its advantages and in doing so make the Sino-Russian relationship more balanced. This applies to not only energy and other natural resources but also agriculture and, at least for the time being, certain technologies, civilian and military alike. Russia also has the potential to develop transport infrastructure linking China and East Asia to Europe by air, land, and sea, that is, the Northern Sea Route.

Moscow, and its relations with Beijing, can only benefit from Russia’s development of business ties to other leading countries, such as Japan and South Korea in East Asia; India and the ASEAN countries in South and Southeast Asia; Germany and the EU as a whole; and, of course, the United States. In the escalating rivalry between the United States and China, Russia should pursue its own interests instead of becoming a pawn in China’s game. Indeed, such is the approach taken by Beijing, whose appetite for risk dwindles whenever it is thrust into Moscow’s confrontation with Washington.10 

Relations with Europe must be reimagined. Russia will no longer attempt to embrace, let alone emulate, its neighbors to the west. For their part, some EU member states will oppose the achievement of good-neighborly relations with Russia, being historically hostile to Moscow and of the view that it is a permanent threat to their independence. Absent changes in this respect, Russia and Europe will remain economic and technological, but not political, partners. In the future, Russia should focus its diplomatic efforts on those European states it has alienated over the years, an endeavor presupposing, among other things, mutual recognition of differences, mutual pledges not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and mutual respect.

Such goals cannot be achieved without at best the resolution and at worst the de-escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine. There is no change in leadership in Kiev favorable to Russia, “grand bargain” with Washington, or political settlement on the basis of the Minsk agreements coming. Instead, Moscow must accept that Donetsk and Luhansk belong to Ukraine and will inevitably be reintegrated into that country. Those in eastern Ukraine who have a special bond with Russia or fear persecution by the Ukrainian authorities should be given the opportunity—and materially supported in their efforts—to move to Russia and obtain Russian citizenship, an arrangement that is preferable to Russia’s covert support for quasi-state entities like Donetsk, Luhansk, and Transnistria; beneficial to Russia demographically; and conducive to the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the creation of an atmosphere favorable to the improvement of relations with Europe.

As for Ukraine itself, Moscow should dial down its domestic propaganda, abandon the mistaken notion that Russia and Ukraine are fraternal nations, and treat Ukraine as just another neighboring state. The stabilization of relations with Ukraine should be made a long-term strategic goal of Russian foreign policy, one that can be achieved by letting Donbas return to Kiev’s control and, following negotiations, securing Ukrainian recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, at which point Russia’s European borders will once again be fully recognized by the whole of the international community.

At the same time, Russia should not go out of its way to erode the EU’s (and NATO’s) anti-Russian consensus by appealing to individual member states or their leaders. Such efforts have backfired spectacularly, and Russia should refrain from interfering in Europe’s internal affairs, even if the United States does not do the same. Indeed, it is of fundamental importance that Moscow avoid shooting itself in the foot by fueling European fears of Russia. Moscow’s vehement opposition to NATO expansion has damaged Russia’s national interests no less than NATO expansion itself, while its practice of threatening those European countries that host U.S. troops and military assets has led Europeans to seek U.S. security guarantees rather than break with the United States. EU enlargement, for its part, poses a challenge to but does not threaten Russia.

Japan, a U.S. ally, is more autonomous in international affairs than Europe. As such, it has joined the West in imposing sanctions on Russia since 2014 yet has continued to push for the resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute and sought to prevent a Sino-Russian axis. Although Moscow does not need Tokyo to serve as a counterweight to Beijing, the development of Russia in general and its Far East in particular would benefit from improved relations with Japan thanks to the island nation’s scientific and technological prowess and, of course, Japanese investment in Russia.

That said, the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan and the resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute is a precondition for the enhancement of Russo-Japanese cooperation and the transformation of Russo-Japanese relations from those between “distant neighbors” to those between good ones.11 Such a solution, if and when it is reached through diplomacy, will have to be “ratified” by the Russian and Japanese publics.12 

Russia and India have had a nearly trouble-free partnership for seventy years. Today, India is rapidly increasing its economic weight, building up its military strength, and becoming more active in international affairs. Along with China and Europe, it is becoming one of Greater Eurasia’s principal centers of power. Russia should strive to deepen its already privileged relationship with India in every way possible and pursue cooperation in cutting-edge fields, where India has made great progress.

Russia’s practical goal should be to transform the RIC group, which remains a purely ceremonial body, into a permanent policy coordination mechanism on key issues of security, stability, and development in continental Asia. A functioning RIC would give Russia the opportunity to soften the rivalry between its two most important Asian partners and strengthen its own position as an experienced (and benevolent) mediator. The RIC, having become the core of the SCO, can act as a leader in stabilizing the region and preventing and resolving its armed conflicts, such as the war in Afghanistan.

Moscow, however, must accept India’s pursuit of a multi-vector foreign policy that is not centered on Russia. For economic and geopolitical reasons, New Delhi will continue to deepen relations with Washington—ties that are no cause for panic in Moscow, which should focus on developing its own foreign relationships, not undermining those of the United States.

The countries of Northeast and Southeast Asia, especially the highly developed South Korea, interest Russia primarily as economic partners. On the Korean Peninsula, Russia seeks increased contacts and especially economic cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang, anticipating that a thaw will create economic opportunities for Russia. It accepts North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a reality and understands it as serving the purpose of deterring the United States.

When it comes to the denuclearization of North Korea, it makes sense for Russia to continue to let the United States, North Korea, China, and South Korea lead the way. This, of course, does not preclude Russia from interacting and cooperating with all relevant parties, including Japan, as it should do, with an eye to preventing war from breaking out in the immediate vicinity of the Russian Far East.

Moscow has always recognized Taiwan as part of China and favored China’s gradual and voluntary unification along the lines of the handover of Hong Kong while considering the matter an internal Chinese one. An armed conflict between Beijing and Taipei, especially one in which the United States is militarily involved, is clearly not in Russia’s interest, but Moscow would have no reason to, and should not, intervene should one break out. Indeed, its main goal should be to avoid being drawn into such a war and remain unbiased whatever the issue of contention in East or Southeast Asia.

The countries of Central Asia, including Mongolia, and the South Caucasus are direct or close neighbors of Russia. Some are EEU and CSTO member states. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan cooperate with Russia in countering terrorism and extremism through the CSTO, whereas Uzbekistan works with Russia in these areas bilaterally. Russia has a vital interest in the stability of the countries of Central Asia—especially Kazakhstan, which, thanks to its location, size, and EEU and CSTO membership, deserves to be treated by Moscow as its main regional partner in these organizations.

The South Caucasus, like Central Asia, interests Russia primarily from the point of view of security. Moscow’s security interests, however, have changed considerably over time: nowadays, Russia is preoccupied with terrorism and extremism, not international rivalry, be it with major regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, or with the United States. Still, Russia cannot leave unresolved the protracted armed conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Abkhazia, and Georgia and South Ossetia.

In the first case, Russia has long managed to maintain relations with both belligerents; with the help of other world powers, it has prevented the fighting from resuming and escalating. In the case of Georgia, with which Russia went to war in 2008, Moscow has openly sided with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Moscow cannot neglect its relations with Tbilisi, and it should take steps to improve them, such as by offering visa liberalization (or, even better, visa-free travel); jointly ensuring stability on the border; and promoting dialogue between Georgians, Abkhazians, and Ossetians. Stable relations between the three belligerents would open the door to a joint search for a mutually acceptable solution on territorial and border disagreements.

Iran and Turkey are among the Middle East’s main players. It makes sense for Russia to maintain close working relations and, in some areas, enter into partnerships with them. However, since their strategic interests differ dramatically, Russia should expect nothing more than situational alliances with Tehran and Ankara, even as it does its best to keep them at peace with one another. For its part, Israel—a technologically advanced country in which a significant segment of the population has Russian roots—has legitimate security interests to which Russia is sympathetic and interests that overlap with Russia’s.

Russia would gain from Iran’s accession to the SCO, whose status as continental Asia’s leading security organization would be reinforced as a result. Turkey, an SCO observer state as well as a U.S. ally and a NATO member state, should be included in SCO efforts as much as possible. More generally, the maintenance of a friendly relationship with Turkey will continue to be of strategic importance to Russia given Ankara’s role in the Caucasus and its control of the Black Sea straits.

Russia is right to consider Iran a major Middle Eastern power and a potentially important economic partner. To be sure, Iran’s geopolitical ambitions in the region divide it from Russia, but Moscow’s commitment to preserving the Iran nuclear deal is a matter of principle, as it opposes nuclear proliferation, especially in the Middle East. Russia should do what it can to bring about the normalization of relations between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors and the formation of a security system in the Gulf region. In the event of military conflict between Iran and its foes—chief among them the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—Russia should remain neutral and seek a quick end to the war.

As the heart of the Muslim world—a community to which Russia’s millions of Muslims belong—the Arab states have an interest in the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims, especially Orthodox Christians, in Russia. However, it must be kept in mind that the Arab world has in recent years been the source of instability and terrorist and extremist threats, the kind against which Russia has acted by militarily intervening in Syria.

Russia’s strategic objectives with respect to the Arab states should include joint efforts to ensure Russia’s security, assisting the strengthening of regional security by acting as both mediator and defense partner, coordinating steps in energy policy with major oil and gas exporters, and attracting Arab investment in the Russian economy. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will remain Russia’s principal geopolitical and geoeconomic partners, respectively, in the Arab world, while Syria will remain its main military outpost in the region.

The Arctic, in the context of global warming, is for the first time becoming another geopolitical facade for Russia. The Northern Sea Route linking Asia and Europe is becoming more and more active and, in the Arctic, Russia directly interacts with other littoral states: the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. Despite the fact that most of them are NATO member states, Russia must minimize its militarization of the Arctic and leverage regional cooperation as a platform for improving its broader relations with said countries.

Asian countries—China, Japan, South Korea, and even India—are also increasingly interested in the Arctic, a development serving Russia’s interests. After all, Moscow’s strategic goal should be to turn the Northern Sea Route into one of the world’s most important trade routes and use this waterway for the development of Russia’s northern regions and the Far East insofar as its security and sovereignty are not jeopardized. In the Arctic, as in the Far East and Siberia, the more international partners Russia attracts, the better positioned it will be—in this case, on its northern and eastern flanks.

These rather general observations do not detail a full-fledged alternative to Moscow’s current foreign policy. The contours outlined above are geographically confined to the perimeter of the Eurasian macro-continent. They almost entirely leave out the Americas, as well as Africa and Oceania. The main purpose of the present paper has been to emphasize the need for a broad strategic design in Russian foreign policy making, which in practice often resembles a decidedly tactical and operational art.

Russia’s geopolitical situation has changed fundamentally in recent years, necessitating serious reflection and a broad public discussion. The ensuing debate should reexamine Russia’s role in the world, its relations with global and regional players as well as its nearest neighbors, what exactly Russia’s main foreign policy goals and objectives should be, and, finally, Russia’s global prospects in the twenty-first century.

Today, foreign policy—not just in Russia but throughout the world—is designed by narrow circles of decisionmakers. Ultimately, the choices they make affect everyone, which is reason enough for private citizens to take a greater interest in their country’s conduct abroad.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Zeit-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius Foundation.


1 The Ukraine crisis worked as a catalyst, rather than the cause, of these changes. Russia’s relations with the West had been progressively strained since 2011; attempts at deep politico-economic and military integration with the former Soviet republics had been receiving a pushback, not least from Ukraine itself, well before 2014. In both cases, integration failed due to the rejection by Russia of U.S. leadership over it, and the rejection by the ex-republics of Russia’s would-be dominance.

2 Iterations of plan A included Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1989 vision of a “common European home”; then Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s proposals in the 1990s for a comprehensive partnership with the United States and European countries; President Vladimir Putin’s 2001 speech on Russia’s “European choice” and subsequent talk as prime minister of “Greater Europe,” a space of economic cooperation from Lisbon to Vladivostok; and then president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2010 proposals for a Euro-Atlantic security space and a common Russia–NATO missile defense system. In practical terms, Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996; concluded partnership agreements with the EU in 1997 and NATO in 1997 and 2002; and became a member of the Group of 8, or G8, in 1998.

3 Putin has made serious attempts to reintegrate the post-Soviet space. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (1999) and the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus (2009) were established for this purpose, with the latter institution eventually transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union (2015). A manifesto on Eurasian integration was unveiled in a 2012 Izvestiyaarticle by Putin: Vladimir Putin, “Rossiya sosredotachivayetsya—vyzovy, na kotorye my dolzhny otvetit” [Russia focuses: Challenges that we must respond to], Izvestiya, January 16, 2012,

4 See the following remark by a famous Chinese political scientist, Yan Xuetong, to a Kommersant journalist: “I do not understand why Russia does not insist on forming an alliance with China.” Quoted in Mikhail Korostikov, “‘Ne ponimayu, pochemu Rossiya ne nastaivayet na formirovanii alyansa s Kitayem’” [“I do not understand why Russia does not insist on forming an alliance with China”], Kommersant, March 17, 2017,

5 China, whose economic, financial, and technological power are much superior to Russia’s, has managed, since 2014, to gain access to Russia’s energy resources and more sophisticated military technology. Given the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, it is also poised to exercise more influence on Russia’s financial system and its choice of technological platforms.

6 See the following Levada Center findings for evidence to this effect: Levada Center, “Rossiya-Zapad” [Russia–the West], May 14, 2018,

7 Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Putin: Plädoyer für Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft,” [Putin: Plea for Economic Community], November 25, 2010,

8 A landmark event in this respect was the founding of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in December 2018 and the granting of autocephaly by a tomos (decree) the following month.

9]Vladimir Putin, “Novyi integratsionnyi proekt dlya Evrazii—budushcheye, kotoroye rozhdayetsya segodnya” [New integration project for Eurasia—the future that is born today], Izvestiya, October 3, 2011,

10 For example, Russian companies are denied loans if there is a risk that Chinese commercial interests in the United States may be damaged as a result. See Mikhail Korostikov, Anatoly Dzhumailo, Ksenia Dementyeva, Oleg Trutnev, and Anatoly Kostyrev, “Novoye kitayskoye predubezhdenie” [New Chinese prejudice], Kommersant, October 24, 2018,

11 Hiroshi Kimura, Rossiya i Yaponiya: dalekiye sosedi [Russia and Japan: Distant Neighbors] (2002).

12 Dmitri Trenin, “Kurilskii obshchestvennyi dogovor” [The Kuril Social Contract], Vedomosti, January 22, 2019,

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Dmitri Trenin

Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and former senior research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome.

Photo by shard under a C.C. BY 4.0 license.