— Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept: what is it? What is its function and objective? For whom is it meant?
— The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation is a document addressed primarily to other countries. It outlines for the benefit of other states the major elements of Russia’s foreign policy. It is a tool Russia uses to communicate messages. It falls within the same category as some other key statements delivered by Putin. A classic illustration would be the 2007 Munich speech that gives a certain understanding of the international landscape as well as of Russia’s interests and provides some indications of how Russia intends to act in the near future.
The Concept has another function. As far as public officials are concerned, it serves them more as a source of ready-made formulas than as an instruction for action. Should they come across a situation in which they would need to describe Russia’s foreign policy stance, any bureaucrat can take up the Concept and borrow the terms and expressions most suitable for each particular case.
“One might say Russia has never been able to escape a Eurocentric approach and still wants Europe’s recognition and acceptance”
As for Russia’s foreign policy itself, the Concept plays the least important role in determining what it will actually look like since decision-making, especially in the field of foreign policy, is highly centralized. Every decision at the level described by the Foreign Policy Concept falls within the remit of the Russian President. Given that it would be fair to presently call the President an absolute sovereign, it is entirely within his power to set the strategic foreign policy course. Rather than setting this course, the Concept merely expounds on it. It would be used to explain the President’s decisions. At the same time, the President himself would turn to the Concept when drafting his decisions. Apart from the President, his subordinates too would resort to the Concept in order to present their views on world developments to their counterparts.
— Has the Foreign Policy Concept always had this function or has there been a change?
— Russia’s first Foreign Policy Concept was adopted back in 1993. At that point it performed the role of a classic strategic document that set the course and served as a guidance for diplomats. The 1993 Concept was pro-Western and clearly Eurocentric: it proclaimed Russia’s cooperation with the West’s leading, most developed countries, whereas the world periphery (the Global South) was regarded as a conflict zone as well as a potential source of threats.
We should keep in mind that in the 1990s Russia’s policies were chaotic, swiftly swinging from a naive pro-Western stance to the policy of self-sufficiency under Primakov. Although the Concept originally set a strategic foreign policy course, subsequently this course changed very rapidly.
Once Vladimir Putin arrived in power, the Foreign Policy Concept started to morph into a document that was meant first and foremost to send messages to the West. As early as 2000 the Concept was updated, but in its ideas it followed in the footsteps of the previous version. 2008 saw the publication of a new Foreign Policy Concept and in the wake of the Munich speech its content was starkly different. It revealed Russia’s pivot towards anti-Western policies. The role of the Concept shifted. From then on it became a document used to send Western countries signals about Russia’s foreign policy. From this moment onwards, the functions of Foreign Policy Concepts underwent profound changes.
— The anti-Western course of the Foreign Policy Concept is still very much the same yet what we are currently witnessing is a greater share of aggressive rhetoric in it. The Concept starts to include terms and expressions Russia is beginning to use to describe its attitude towards the West. While in the past the use of such expressions was confined to Russian propaganda, never making it to the official documents, at present this rhetoric of the TV propaganda has been incorporated into the state’s official documents. How do we explain this?
— The ongoing war is the only explanation for that. This shift in rhetoric is due to the fact that Russia has been claiming it has to defend itself because there have been preparations to launch an attack against it. The Concept itself sets it all out when it states that there’s an ongoing hybrid war of a new kind and that in the course of this war the United States is using Ukraine as a tool in its aggression against Russia. Basically, it’s a shift towards a belligerent rhetoric built around such concepts as “civilization-state,” “the Russian world,” and “a multipolar world.” This rhetoric shows us the stance of a state believing it’s been treated unfairly for a long time after which this unfairness finally degenerated into an aggression which it has to fend off.
“The world is seen by the authors of the Concept as a place that leaves no space for cooperation because everyone is in constant competition with everyone and in the end the weak submit to the strong”
It’s important to note that the level of aggressive rhetoric has been growing gradually since 2008. The 2008 and 2013 Concepts were still fairly restrained in their tone, the 2016 Concept represented an important shift already, while the 2023 Concept sets aside any restraints in the language it uses and states clearly the nature of the West’s aggressive designs, as well as what exactly Russia is going to do to protect itself.
— Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept identifies the need to act on the basis of the UN Charter while dismissing the notion of a rules-based order. Does this only appear to be a contradiction? What does this mean?
Para.22, Chapter IV: “The mechanism for shaping universal international legal standards should be based on the free will of sovereign states, and the UN should remain the main venue for progressive development and codification of international law. Further promotion of the concept of a rules-based world order is fraught with the destruction of the international legal system and other dangerous consequences for humanity.”
— It isn’t a contradiction, neither within the framework of the Concept, nor in terms of Russia’s rhetoric. The notion of a rules-based world order has only recently been introduced into Russian foreign policy language as a direct borrowing from English. Its definition is given in paragraph 9 of the Concept where it mentions the UN and goes on to point out that “the international legal system is put to the test: a small group of states is trying to replace it with the concept of a rules-based world order (imposition of rules, standards and norms that have been developed without equitable participation of all interested states).” It is a notion borrowed from the political vocabulary of the West where it plays a similar role, albeit to a lesser extent, meaning the extant world order, largely beneficial to the West, but postulated to serve the interests of all states and help them thrive anyway.
What does the Russian Foreign Concept do, however? It claims that the notion of a “rules-based world order” is but empty rhetoric of the West that’s imposing on the whole world an order that only benefits the US and its satellites, essentially that it’s a system of imperialism (there’s no use of the term itself although the Concept is teeming with criticism of neocolonialism). In essence, the notion of “a rules-based world order” describes U.S. attempts at unilateral domination. The Concept mentions, however, that the United States is no longer capable of maintaining the “rules-based world order” because the world has grown multipolar. That said, the United States is still holding onto its hegemony. Incidentally, hegemony is yet another new term that has made it into the 2023 Concept.
“What we see is an attempt at constructing a new identity upon an imperial basis. Such an identity implies a certain hierarchy of various groups and cultures with the Russian culture at the very top”
The Kremlin thinks that the “rules-based world order,” if we were to use plain Marxist terms, is false consciousness that the United States is imposing on everyone to make them accept its domination. Russia doesn’t accept this domination and for this reason it advocates a genuine world order in which all states are truly equal as stipulated by the UN Charter. Given that Russia is a UN Security Council permanent member with veto power, this order in the first place benefits Russia itself.
— The UN Charter enshrines certain normative provisions that the UN Members shouldn’t violate (like invading the territory of another sovereign state). This normativity and the deterrent role of the Security Council have been in crisis since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet, the UN structure clearly presupposes the “great powers” domination and the balance of their interests. Can we say that Russia favors one of these principles over the other?
— Yes, Russia is choosing one of the principles the UN is built upon. International law per se is characterized by a high level of uncertainty since it represents a compromise between the principle of sovereignty and the need for international cooperation, including restrictions on sovereignty in the interests of international peace and security. The permanent members of the Security Council, however, enjoy a special status as they have veto power. This rule stems from the concept of a concert of great powers, or a world order that is founded upon a consensus of great powers (great power management). Hedley Bull in his The Anarchical Society cites the concert of great powers as one of the key international institutions, alongside international law, diplomacy, war, and balance of power. This idea can be traced back to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and was laid down in the UN Charter in the wake of the Second World War when the victorious powers codified their dominance in world affairs.
Russia is most happy with the concept of a concert of great powers as it implies that each great power is responsible for maintaining order in its sphere of influence, and all the great powers coordinate at the global level trying not to interfere in each other’s areas of influence. Since this appears to be the ideal political setup for Russia, it supports the UN Charter. It might seem that Article 51 of the Charter, guaranteeing to each state the right to self-defense, would be contrary to Russian interests, given its “special military operation in Ukraine.” However, the Concept flips reality. Without explicitly accusing Ukraine of aggression against Russia, the Concept quite clearly implies that it is Russia not Ukraine that has the right to invoke self-defense since a new type of hybrid war has been unleashed against Russia, which therefore has to defend itself against the West attacking it via a proxy country.
There are other principles enshrined in the UN Charter, like the sovereign equality of states, non-interference, and the prohibition against aggression. Russia is in violation of all of the above which puts its own position in jeopardy. It’s clear to everyone, but few outside the Western countries are willing to spoil their ties with Russia. Moreover, any UN reform project is bound to fail owing to the irreconcilable positions of the leading countries that are all seeking to secure the most advantageous position for themselves. Hence, the constant use of the veto. That said, Russia’s actions enjoy little support, which is clear from the votes at the UN General Assembly.
— The new Concept makes frequent mention of a “multipolar world.” Why was this term absent from previous Concepts? The notion of a multipolar world always goes hand in hand with the term “civilization-state.” What is that exactly?
— The notion of a multipolar world made its original appearance in the 2000 Concept but only as a strategic goal whereas the 2008 Concept mentions “the emerging multipolarity.” Later on the term was replaced with the word “polycentric” that was used in all the Concepts until 2023. The meaning of the term is constantly shifting and in 2016 the Concept stated the existence of a polycentric world as a fact. The United States and its allies are unhappy because the world has turned polycentric: their influence is waning, they start to cling to their former power, which leads to destabilization. Thus, from Russia’s standpoint, this notion demonstrates the essence of world politics: the West opposes the emergence of a multipolar world whereas together with China and other countries Russia is establishing multipolarity to secure equal rights for all countries in the international arena. The switch from multipolar to polycentric might have been due to the fact that in the early 2000s multipolarity used to be associated with Primakov and Russia’s pivot towards anti-Western rhetoric. Presently Russia’s policy has grown more aggressive, its rhetoric more blunt, hence the decision to switch back to the term multipolarity.
“The Concept is also distinct in that it uses the term ‘the near abroad…’ At this point it’s taken on an imperial aspect and serves to assert Russia’s superiority”
The notion of “civilization-state” is related to multipolarity. A civilization-state is how Russia sees itself as a union of different nations brought together by a common civilizational identity. On the one hand, the civilizational narrative in the Concept indicates that the current Russian leadership isn’t favorably disposed towards ethnic nationalism. Putin’s latest statements show he’s trying to avoid nationalist rhetoric and constantly talking about different peoples as part of Russia. When he deigns to speak about the Ukrainian people, he always does that with respect, though only as part of the afore-mentioned civilizational unity. So the concept of “the Russian world” in the document is used as a civilizational term: the Russian world encompasses everyone with ties to Russia, so not necessarily ethnic Russians.
Thus, basically, what we see is an attempt at constructing a new identity upon an imperial basis. Such an identity implies a certain hierarchy of various groups and cultures with the Russian culture at the very top. At the same time, just like any other imperial identity, this one is open to and ready to incorporate other peoples and cultures provided they recognise the primacy of the Russian culture and the Russian people as the backbone of the state. This concept clashes with the idea of national sovereignty for “small peoples” to use a term that is not “politically correct.” The Ukrainian people don’t fit the description of a small people at all, yet from the standpoint of Russian imperialism it is certainly one of them. Russia’s position is that the Ukrainian people can only exist together with the Russians as one civilization. Were Ukrainians to leave Russia, they’d turn into nothing but an appendix of the West that no one needs, losing their own identity. And it isn’t just Ukraine, the same goes for Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Central Asia in general as well as the peoples living in Russia’s territory. It’s being made clear to them that their history, identity, and memory are linked to Russia and its civilization whereas outside Russia these peoples are going to lose both their civilizational and national identity, will be colonized and cease to exist.
The Concept is also distinct in that it uses the term “the near abroad,” which for a time period was excluded from official political language. While back in the 1990s this term did to an extent reflect realities of that time describing the legacy of the Soviet Union, at this point it’s taken on an imperial aspect and serves to assert Russia’s superiority.
In other words, it’s the imperial principle that seems to be pushing the national principle aside. Putin’s declaration that “Russia’s borders are endless” is the epitome of the former principle.
— Would it be fair to say that the empire Russia is up against is the United States and that it’s the United States to which the Foreign Policy Concept is primarily addressed?
— Certainly. Looking at the document’s structure we see that the list of regional priorities starts with the near abroad at the very top, followed by different countries with varying levels of friendly relations, while the European countries are only mentioned at the very end and merely as U.S. satellites (the EU, meanwhile, doesn’t get a single mention). Europe is credited with some potential agency, which will only become a reality once it breaks free from the U.S. grip and recognizes that Russia is in the right. The Concept goes on to mention the Anglo-Saxon countries, i.e. the United States and its allies, such as the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
As far as the Global South is concerned, it’s the subject of anticolonial and emancipatory rhetoric. This change in the official narrative occurred in Putin’s speech on the 30th of September when he employed the word “hegemony” five times at the very least, spoke at length on colonialism, and tried to tie together Russia’s combat against Western dominance in Ukraine on the one hand and the anti-colonial fight in the Global South on the other. According to the Foreign Policy Concept, Russia purports to be in the vanguard of the global anticolonial movement, thereby laying a claim to a part of the Soviet legacy. It’s worth noting that the Concept paints the Soviet Union that supported decolonization as the epitome of an eternal immutable Russia, while setting aside the USSR’s official internationalism and leftist ideology.
“The Concept paints the Soviet Union that supported decolonization as the epitome of an eternal immutable Russia, while setting aside the USSR’s official internationalism and leftist ideology”
The outcome is a picture of struggle between the empire of the United States and freedom-loving nations. That, however, is where the ideological shift comes in. The Concept goes on to claim that it’s their own civilizational identity for which these nations are fighting rather than for their autonomy, self-government, or democracy. At first glance, the criticism of American imperialism appears to be of an anticolonial nature but it is formulated in the language of rightwing conservatism and ornamented with civilizational motives as well as cultural and religious elements, such as traditional family, homophobia, and other “values” that the Russian state is seeking to impose on others as well as on its own people. This is supposed to be the foundation for some kind of global solidarity. While undoubtedly a rhetorical action, I wouldn’t say it’s just empty rhetoric. It is rather a reasonable step for Russia’s current leadership. The ideas I just described can garner support, in particular among the leaders of the Global South; they resonate with those who have a critical view of liberalism, the United States, NATO, the EU, and so on. That said, the anticolonial rhetoric is but a disguise for the imperialist policies of Russia, which has a direct interest in a neocolonial system. The Russian elites are direct beneficiaries of such a system and they want to go back to a world in which world affairs are handled by tough guys and each can do as they please in their own periphery. It’s all about colonial and ideological control as well as economic exploitation of natural and human resources.
— What are the neoliberal attitudes mentioned in the Concept and why is Putin inveighing against them?
For example: “A wide-spread form of interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states has become the imposition of destructive neoliberal ideological attitudes that run counter to traditional spiritual and moral values.”
— Let me start by saying that my impression is that the 2023 Foreign Policy Concept was authored by new people who hadn’t played such a prominent role in its preparation before. As compared to the previous versions, it’s somewhat less bureaucratic in style and more coherent in its logic. Most importantly, the Concept takes certain deliberate steps that can’t be a coincidence. I mean such things as the use of anticolonial rhetoric and the terms “hegemony” and “neoliberalism.”
I suppose the authors of the Concept are well-read enough to have a notion of how wide-spread the criticism of neoliberalism is, especially among the left. They might, however, have a somewhat vague understanding of what neoliberalism is or pretend they don’t understand what it is. And yet, they have decided they can use the criticism of neoliberalism against the West to Russia’s benefit because this criticism in and of itself is often directed against Western imperialism, or neoliberal globalization that only serves to exacerbate global inequalities. Having said that, the authors of the Concept are happy to ignore the fact that Russia is a typical example of a local hegemon integrated into the global neoliberal system. When criticizing neoliberalism they concentrate solely on the West and in doing so they redefine what neoliberalism represents. Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept defines neoliberalism as the much talked about Western values allegedly imposed on Russia from outside (including all the talk about “parent 1 and parent 2,” “propaganda of homosexuality,” feminism, etc.). Neoliberalism is presented as the new edition of liberalism exclusively centred around Western cultural values and reflecting cultural conflicts with regard to gender, queer identities, racial inequality, cultural Marxism and its legacy, as well as post-colonialism. In the eyes of the authors of the Concept, any values from the West, be they human rights, women’s rights, or the rights of minorities, become neoliberalism.
“The anticolonial rhetoric is but a disguise for the imperialist policies of Russia, which has a direct interest in a neocolonial system”
Interestingly, Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept itself is neoliberal in spirit. It combines both neoconservative and neoliberal elements, but that’s no news at all, suffice to remember Ronald Reagan.
The centerpiece of the Concept is “fair competition,” which is used to criticize the West considered to be competing unfairly in this regard. It’s a key neoliberal concept that posits that everyone is supposed to compete with one another. Individuals, states, and nations should invest in their own development, build capital, and get ahead of the others. The Kremlin, however, believes that the West hampers normal competition among states, civilizations, and corporations, e.g. by introducing sanctions or preventing Russian corporations from entering world markets.
The world is seen by the authors of the Concept as a place that leaves no space for cooperation because everyone is in constant competition with everyone and in the end the weak submit to the strong. The document essentially assumes a very disinterested attitude towards values: they’re only good to pull civilizational agglomerates together. Hence, the neoliberalism of the Concept turns into an empty signifier. We see that the Russian political language uses the term the very same way it used to deal with the concept of “democracy.” During Vladislav Surkov’s times, Russia denounced the West for imposing its own version of democracy. Presently it’s no longer convenient to talk about any democracy, even the “sovereign” one, so the West can be castigated for its liberalism. As ridiculous as it sounds, the criticism of “neoliberalism” is based upon purely neoliberal precepts.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is the Eurocentrism of all of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concepts. True, just as was the case of all the previous versions of the Concept except for the very first one adopted in 1993, this is a document of an anti-Western nature. That notwithstanding, Russia still views the West as its primary interlocutor. Try as Russia might to develop a dialogue with the Global South, it still basically boils down to criticism of the West and its policies, in other words, the main message is still very much addressed to the West. The message says that should the West come to its senses and pursue a constructive policy with regards to Russia, the latter will be ready to cooperate with Europe and rebuild good-neighborly relations. One might say Russia has never been able to escape a Eurocentric approach and still wants Europe’s recognition and acceptance.
“As ridiculous as it sounds, the criticism of ‘neoliberalism‘ is based upon purely neoliberal precepts”
— How would you interpret the absence of the need for arms control and all discussion of the disarmament agenda from the new Concept?
— This isn’t exactly true. The 2023 Concept does mention arms control, but the issue is framed in a specific manner: the West is the only one to blame, we had nothing to do with it because we haven’t pulled out of any treaties and are willing to resume all the agreements. Historically, that’s partially true since the dismantling of the arms control regime did start with the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty under George W. Bush and subsequently this issue never made it to Washington’s priority list. Amid the current tensions it’s hardly going to be possible to rebuild the previous system but the Concept does send a message indicating that Russia is willing to engage in arms control. If at a certain stage the military situation is either resolved or stabilized and Russia and the West embark on a dialogue, the issue of disarmament will probably be very high on the agenda. As of now, however, the war takes up all space on the foreground and until Ukraine’s security has been ensured, serious talks between Russia and the West are impossible.
— How much does this uncompromising, ultimatum-based form of communication with the West help Russia in securing its goals?
— The Russian leadership must be thinking it to be efficient. They did test it back in December 2021 when they put an ultimatum before the United States and NATO. It’s precisely the refusal of Washington and NATO to talk on Russian terms that turned out to be the main pretext for unleashing the war. They’re still continuing along the same lines. Certainly, this form of communication is unlikely to help them achieve their declared goals, especially now when they are at war. When the Russian ultimatum was being discussed in late 2021 and early 2022 there were those who spoke in favor of listening to it and trying to talk to Russia. Back then everyone was afraid, but now it’s become clear to everyone that Russia is not as frightening as it seemed at the beginning of 2022.
Everyone understands Russia is incapable of winning this war. It can’t win against a Ukraine that enjoys Western support. Nor is it going to win in a big war against the United States. Russia might conquer some territories but it won’t be able to secure an overwhelming victory. Therefore, it’s completely counterproductive for Russia to speak in ultimatums: just a fraction of the expert community treats its statements seriously. The prevalent attitude sees Russia’s statements as mere propaganda or simply as irrational. In truth, as I mentioned earlier, the Russian rhetoric does have a point and that’s reflected in the Foreign Policy Concept too. Its content is not possible to agree with, but you’ve got to work with it when formulating a policy with regard to a state that everyone has to deal with for now. Russia’s aggressive rhetoric certainly doesn’t help us to understand it better. But experts should be able to pierce through aggressive rhetoric to get at the content. We are all hopeful that in the foreseeable future Russia will see changes for the better, but the formulation of policy on Russia can’t be pushed till that happens. Far be it from me to call for adopting a “constructive position” right now, to borrow a term from the document we’re discussing. But at the very least we should understand that there’s a certain logic to the Kremlin’s actions, which allows it to secure some local diplomatic victories. There’s no need to accept this logic, but without understanding it even the policy of containment would be impossible, let alone more ambitious plans.