ON DECEMBER 8, 1991, the heads of three Union republics – Boris Yeltsin (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic), Leonid Kravchuk (Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), and Stanislav Shushkevich (Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic) – signed the Belavezha Accords, dissolving the Soviet Union.1 That document was unprecedented in terms of international practice and its socioeconomic consequences for the once union state. It was followed two weeks later by the Alma-Ata Declaration, which eight other republics joined, and then by the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Many experts consider that truly epochal event the final act of the drama that Russian President Vladimir Putin described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”2 – i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union and a new reference point in the history of modern Russia, which, despite its turbulent centuries-old history, found itself overnight in a drastically altered political and economic reality. This December, many will recall those seemingly distant events in order to consider the main results of the three decades of Russia’s foreign policy development as an independent state, which, like any person, goes through stages of development: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and maturity.
IN 1993, after holding a referendum, forcefully dispersing the Supreme Soviet, and adopting a new Constitution, Boris Yeltsin set out to strengthen the presidency – a step that many today see as a forced response to the pluralization of the once centralized political system, a protracted socioeconomic crisis, and growing centrifugal tendencies (in particular, the situation in Chechnya). The country’s foreign policy, which was entrusted to Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev (1991-1996), had the following set of distinguishing features:
1. The desire to overcome the consequences of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. For example, after it secured the status of successor to the USSR, which enabled Moscow to retain its place in all international organizations (in particular, the UN Security Council), Russia began to develop the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as an international organization that had emerged in the former Soviet space, promoting not only the adoption of its Charter in 1993, but also the formation and development of its institutional structure.3 In addition, Russia was instrumental in promoting the Collective Security Treaty, which practically all countries in the region except for Ukraine, Moldova, and Turkmenistan signed on May 15, 1992.4
Thirty years is a significant and instrumental landmark in understanding the transformation that our country has undergone in a relatively short but eventful historical period.
Other important events with regard to overcoming the antagonisms of the past included the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) on July 31, 1991, which limited the number of delivery vehicles of the nuclear triad to 1,600 and the number of warheads to 6,000; the Lisbon Protocol to the START I Treaty of May 23, 1992, between the US, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, whereby the former Union republics undertook to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as nonnuclear states and to withdraw Soviet nuclear weapon arsenals to Russia for their further destruction; and the START II Treaty in 1993, which never entered into force.5
Finally, a major component of abandoning the Cold War legacy was the general desire to build a new European security architecture, including not only the withdrawal of Soviet military contingents from East European and Baltic countries and the transformation of the CSCE into the OSCE in 1995, but also the development of full-fledged cooperation with NATO. Russia joined the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) (1991) and NATO’s Partnership for Peace program (1994) and acquiesced to NATO’s strengthening in Central and East European countries.
2. Democratic solidarity – i.e., forging allied relations with Western countries. The new formula of Russia’s postbipolar relations with its former Cold War rivals was best formulated by then Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, who said that the new democratic Russia should be and would become an ally of the West just as the totalitarian USSR had been its natural opponent.6 As a result, Moscow moved to establish significant rapprochement with the US by signing a number of documents – namely, the Camp David Declaration of February 1, 1992, the Charter for American-Russian Partnership and Friendship of June 17, 1992, and the Vancouver Declaration of April 4, 1993.
Relations with European countries also developed productively. In 1994, Moscow and Brussels signed the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), and bilateral agreements on the basic principles of relations were signed with France, Great Britain, Italy, and other countries, one of their most important aspects being the provision of financial and economic assistance to overcome the domestic crisis in Russia. Such assistance was provided by international institutions (the Paris and London Clubs of creditors, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), among others) and individual countries (for example, the US, Germany, and France).
3. The need to integrate the newly independent Russian state into the postbipolar order of international relations and the global economy. To that end, Russia attended Group of Seven (G7) meetings as a guest country starting in 1991; in 1993, it started negotiations to join the GATT/WTO; in 1994, it began negotiations to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); in 1995, Russia applied for APEC membership; and in 1996, it finally joined the Council of Europe (CoE).
4. Creating a favorable external environment for implementing democratic reforms. This would have been impossible without involvement in resolving conflicts that affected the country’s domestic political situation, hence Russia’s special role in stabilizing the situation in the post-Soviet space. The 201st Motorized Rifle Division and Russian border forces played a decisive role in ending the civil war in Tajikistan, and General Alexander Lebed’s 14th Army helped end the armed phase of the conflict in Transnistria in 1992. In addition, Russia was highly instrumental in sending CIS peacekeeping forces to stop the bloodshed in Abkhazia (1992-1994) and signing the so-called Dagomys Agreements of June 24, 1992, whereby trilateral Russian-South Ossetian-Georgian peacekeeping forces were deployed to South Ossetia and the CSCE Minsk Group was established with Moscow as a cochair.
Russia also played an important role in events in Yugoslavia, refusing to support the central government in Belgrade; recognizing the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia in 1992; delegating Russian troops to a UN peacekeeping force; supporting UN Security Council Resolution 808 on the creation of an international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and taking part in drafting the Dayton Accords of November 21, 1995, that ended the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995).
5. Scaling back the political and diplomatic presence in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, which consequently envisioned establishing or developing ties with former Cold War antagonists and, conversely, reviewing relations with former allies. As a result, on the one hand, Russia withdrew its unconditional support for countries such as North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Benin, and Cuba. On the other, Moscow moved toward closer rapprochement with countries with which friendly relations would have been simply unthinkable in previous years.
For example, in an effort to overcome the difficult legacy of the border dispute on Damansky Island in 1969, Russia and China signed a number of key bilateral documents that laid the groundwork for a partnership that continues still today: an agreement on the eastern section of the Soviet-Chinese border (1991) that ensured the demarcation of the border almost throughout the entire disputed area except for three disputed islands; an agreement on the western section of the Russian-Chinese border (1994) that established the border between the two countries from Kazakhstan to Mongolia; and a joint declaration on the basic principles of relations (1992) that established Moscow’s recognition of Taiwan as part of the PRC even as Taipei-Moscow and Moscow-Taipei economic and cultural cooperation commissions were being set up (1993-1996). In addition, a breakthrough was achieved in relations with Japan, based on the Tokyo Declaration of 1993, and with South Korea, dialogue with which improved following the signing of a treaty on the basic principles of relations (1992).
Finally, Russia established full-fledged diplomatic relations with once hostile countries such as Saudi Arabia (1991), South Africa (1992), and Israel (1991), and also secured observer status at the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1992.7
PROGRESSING illnesses and deteriorating general health caused a sporadic decline in Boris Yeltsin’s activity in addressing nationwide problems during his second presidential term (1996-2000), which inevitably directly shaped Yevgeny Primakov’s independent role in implementing the country’s foreign policy in his capacity as foreign minister (1996-1998) and in implementing socioeconomic reforms aimed at overcoming the financial crisis of August 1998 as prime minister (1998-1999). Furthermore, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, first as prime minister (1999-2000) and then as president (2000-2008), who retained Primakov’s associates at the head of Russia’s diplomatic service – Igor Ivanov (1998-2004) and Sergey Lavrov (2004 to the present) – continued the course adopted in the second half of the 1990s that was characterized by the following set of guidelines:
1. The multipolar world concept developed as a response to US attempts to establish a unipolar world order. While criticizing the flaws and downsides of the unipolar world order that manifested themselves in the form of unlawful military interventions by NATO in Yugoslavia (1999) and by the US in Iraq (2003), the Russian Federation sought to implement initiatives aimed at building a multipolar world order, including the formation of the RIC (Russia-India-China) strategic triangle, which should be viewed as a kind of forerunner to BRICS, and the signing of several joint Russian-Chinese declarations – in particular, on a multipolar world (1997) and on the world order in the 21st century (2005).8
2. Selective partnership in relations with the West. This envisioned not only ongoing cooperation on issues of mutual interest, but also the need for Russia to uphold its national interests in dealing with problems where the parties’ positions differed. This duality, which involved the coexistence and reciprocal influence of cooperation and conflict elements, was observed at all levels of Russia’s dialogue with the West. For example, after consolidating its position in the G7 (1997-2002), Russia retained its status as a candidate for WTO and OECD membership. Overall, cooperation on various regional issues at the UN (the Middle East quartet, the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear program, and the P5+1 format on Iran’s nuclear program) was overshadowed by the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003 in circumvention of the UN Security Council that Russia, Germany, and France strongly condemned.
The signing of the Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in 1999 at the OSCE summit in Istanbul was effectively nullified by the reluctance of Western countries not only to ratify it but also to discuss the Russian version of OSCE reform in general, which led Moscow to impose a moratorium in 2007 on the implementation of the agreement and resulted in a general decline in activity on that multilateral platform. The signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997 and the Rome Declaration in 2002, which called for the creation of the NATO-Russia Council, failed to prevent two waves of NATO eastward expansion (in 1999 and in 2004) and the suspension of the Council’s activities following the August 2008 events in Georgia.
Such ambivalence was most clearly manifested in relations between Moscow and Washington. For example, even though Russia closed its military bases in Vietnam and Cuba, supported the idea of creating a global antiterrorist coalition after 9/11, and helped open the Karshi-Khanabad (Uzbekistan) and Manas (Kyrgyzstan) bases for NATO forces in Afghanistan, the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty (2002), did not repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, strengthened the regimes of Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine who had come to power following so-called color revolutions, recognized the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo, and supported Tbilisi’s aggression against South Ossetia in 2008.
Russia’s relations with European countries also followed different paths. On the one hand, our country managed to maintain intensive bilateral contacts with several countries on the continent (Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy, among others), and relations with Berlin developed not only through regular summits and high-level meetings, but also via interaction between civil societies in formats such as the St. Petersburg Dialogue (2001) and the Potsdam Meetings (1999).
In addition, the multitier architecture of Russia-EU cooperation that had evolved by the late 20th century, including summits (at least twice a year), ministerial dialogue within the framework of the Cooperation Council and numerous sectoral dialogues, among other things, enabled Moscow and Brussels in 2005 to sign road maps on four common spaces (on economic cooperation; external security; freedom, security, and justice; and research, education, and culture).
But on the other hand, Russia and the EU failed to reach a so-called basic agreement and to introduce visa-free travel, largely due to the negative impact of exogenous factors, a case in point being the “gas wars” during the implementation of the Nord Stream [natural gas pipeline] project.
Finally, despite Russia’s attempts to bridge the “civilizational gap” with countries on the continent by joining the Council of Europe in 1996, which necessitated the introduction of numerous changes and amendments to Russian legislation (for example, a moratorium on the death penalty), Russia was subjected to constant criticism over various aspects of its foreign policy course (from general matters related to the status of democracy and human rights to specific issues, including high-profile ones, such as the Chechen campaigns, the Yukos case, and the Alexander Litvinenko case, among others).9
3. Consolidation of heterogeneous integration processes in the post-Soviet space around Russia. Aware of the futility of its attempts to create joint armed forces and a single ruble zone in the CIS space, as well as in the context of a number of post-Soviet states objectively distancing themselves from the integration core, Moscow moved ahead with integration projects with countries that expressed interest in forging closer relations. In particular, between 1996 and 1999, Russia and Belarus reached a series of agreements leading to the creation of the Union State, which remains the most comprehensive integration association in the region.
Russia also played an important role in creating the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2000 with the aim of establishing a Customs Union and then a Single Economic Space, as well as transforming the 1992 Tashkent Treaty into the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with the participation of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.10
4. Diversification of the country’s foreign policy, which envisioned not only maintaining ties with the near abroad and the collective West, but also developing relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. The expansion of Russia’s presence in various parts of the world at that time had a diverse and multivector character, including macroregional and purely bilateral initiatives. For example, the implementation of a number of initiatives to deescalate tensions and intensify cross-border interaction between Russia, China, and Central Asian countries enabled countries in the region to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. Its charter was adopted a year later.
Even though territorial disputes remained a significant factor in Russia’s relations with countries in the region, by the beginning of the 21st century, Moscow and Beijing had resolved mutual territorial claims and signed the so-called Basic Treaty [of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation], which laid the groundwork for bilateral foreign policy and economic cooperation. Russian-Japanese dialogue stood in stark contrast to that: Bilateral political interaction (based on the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, the 1998 Moscow Declaration, and the 2003 Action Plan) and economic cooperation (for example, in accordance with the 1997 Yeltsin-Hashimoto plan) were stymied by the problems of a [World War II] peace treaty and the territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands.
Finally, the increasingly constructive role that Russia began to play in global politics manifested itself in promoting cooperation with various international organizations and integration associations (in 1996, a dialogue partnership was established with ASEAN; in 1998, Russia joined APEC, and in the mid-2000s, it acquired observer status at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League) and consolidating bilateral relations with traditional and new partners (during that period, very close relations were established with Venezuela, and dialogue with North Korea was normalized).11
Young Adulthood: 2008-2012
DMITRY Medvedev’s election as president and Vladimir Putin’s appointment as prime minister marked the emergence of a unique phenomenon in the domestic political system – namely, the so-called “tandem,” where the head of state was largely involved in foreign policy matters and the head of government, while preserving his influence in the international arena, handled matters of state development. Both lines of activity were focused on overcoming the 2008-2009 financial crisis and implementing modernization priorities, whose foreign policy aspects included the following initiatives:
1. Promoting network diplomacy. This envisioned the creation of flexible multilateral governance institutions. Network diplomacy institutions became an increasingly popular format of multilateral cooperation due to their considerable political and diplomatic flexibility stemming from the fact that they were created to address a specific task; were open to all interested parties; and did not require a cumber some bureaucratic apparatus, the adoption of mutually binding documents (in particular, a charter), etc. This applied not only to the Group of 20 (G20), which thanks to its regular annual summits since 2008 has turned into an effective mechanism for consolidating the efforts of the world’s leading economies to overcome financial crises, and the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), whose statutory documents were signed in 2008 in Moscow to coordinate natural gas prices, but also to BRICS, an association established in 2011 to reform the world’s political and economic architecture that had evolved since the end of the Cold War.12
2. Resetting relations with the US and the West – intensifying cooperation to resolve all disputes through compromise on certain issues and high-profile, wide-ranging initiatives. Formulating and building such a constructive and proactive foreign policy course had a two-pronged effect.
On one hand, many of the high-profile initiatives that Moscow proposed at that time were never implemented, including the signing of the 2008 European Security Treaty (which called for creating a common structure in the space of NATO, the EU, the OSCE, the CIS, and the CSTO in the interest of asserting the principle of undivided and equal security from Vancouver to Vladivostok); the joint development with NATO countries of the European segment of a missile defense system;
the promotion of the Corfu Process to reform the OSCE; the advancement of the Partnership for Modernization program with the EU, based on promoting cooperation through various sectoral dialogues; the declaration of the creation of an economic community from Lisbon to Vladivostok with the prospect of establishing a free trade zone; and the signing of the Meseberg Memorandum that envisioned the creation of a ministerial level Russia-EU foreign policy and security commission.
On the other hand, the constructive character of Russia’s foreign policy made it possible to achieve concrete results in relations with the West in general and with the US in particular. For example, in 2010, Moscow and Washington signed the New START treaty, and in 2012, the US backed Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). After a more than decade-long hiatus, an OSCE summit was held in Astana; and in relations with NATO, Russia managed not only to restore the cooperation mechanisms that were frozen in 2008, but also to sign agreements on the transit of nonmilitary and subsequently military cargo to Afghanistan across Russian territory (the Ulyanovsk transit hub).
Finally, in this period, Russia joined sanctions against Iran in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1929, abandoning planned deliveries of S-300 [surface-to-air missile] systems, and also did not use its veto power in voting on Resolution 1973 that imposed sanctions against the Qaddafi regime in Libya ahead of the US and NATO military operation, which caused public disagreement between then President Dmitry Medvedev and then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the only such disagreement during the tandem period.13
3. Promoting the concept of a multipolar world and a multivector foreign policy. For example, in the post-Soviet space, an agreement was signed on establishing a free trade zone in the CIS (2011); a Customs Union was formed in the EAEU (2008) and then a Single Economic Space was created with the participation of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan (2012); territorial disputes were settled with Azerbaijan and Norway (2011); and the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan was adopted, which helped make significant progress in overcoming the consequences of Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In addition, mediation efforts on the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh were promoted through the organization of direct negotiations in Russia between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. In the Asia-Pacific region, Russia began the so-called “pivot to the East,” including the APEC summit in Vladivostok (2012), and consolidated the practice of participation in East-Asian summits (the ASEAN+8 mechanism). At the same time, in Latin America, Russia maintained active military-technical contacts with countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, and successfully cooperated with Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, and other countries.14
Maturity: 2012 to the Present
VLADIMIR Putin again became president of Russia amid increasing confrontation with the West. This confrontation was the result of several objective trends – in particular, Russia’s support for the Bashar Assad regime in Syria since 2012, the deepening crisis in Russian-US relations against the backdrop of the Magnitsky Act adopted in Washington in 2012 and the Edward Snowden affair (2013), the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 and subsequent economic sanctions, and the freezing of political dialogue channels with the West (transformation of the G8 into the G7, the abandonment of many Russia-EU cooperation mechanisms, etc.).15 As a result, the foreign policy pursued by the president during his third constitutional term in office (2012-2018) and his fourth term (2018 to the present) has been marked by the following imperatives:
1. Developing the concept of a polycentric world order based on collective governance within the framework of traditional institutions (primarily the UN) and flexible institutions (the G20 and BRICS). Thus, Russia strove to maintain the UN’s central coordinating role in international affairs as a platform that has unique legitimacy, and continued to hold the presidency of the G20 (2013) and BRICS (2020).
2. Continuing efforts to preserve the arms control system. Despite the “strategic stability” crisis (between Russia and the US) related to the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF), the Open Skies Treaty (OST), and other agreements, as well as the deployment of a global missile defense system, Moscow continued to look for points of convergence to extend existing treaties (in particular, the New START treaty, which was extended in 2021) and to draft new agreements. Striving to avert a multilateral nuclear arms race, our country advocated for the universalization of the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), continuing efforts to resolve the situation around the North Korean nuclear problem, preserving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the Group of Six (aka the P5+1), creating a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East, abandoning the practice of NATO’s joint nuclear missions, and so on.
3. Working jointly on problems related to new challenges and threats. One considerable difficulty in this context was the fact that the West and Russia did not see eye to eye on many matters concerning ways to address transnational problems. That was why Vladimir Putin’s call to “form a broad antiterrorist front based on the generally accepted principles of international law, with the UN’s central role,” largely fell on deaf ears.16
4. The post-Soviet space: the need to consolidate integration associations (the Union State of Russia and Belarus, the CSTO, the EAEU, and the CIS), develop bilateral relations with countries in the region, and resolve frozen conflicts (Ukraine – the [self-proclaimed] Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics (DPR/LPR); Moldova – Transnistria; Azerbaijan – Nagorno-Karabakh; Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia). This accounts for all the actions that Russia has been taking in the region – e.g., signing 28 road maps for integration with Belarus in 2021, participating in the Normandy format to get Kiev to implement the 2015 Minsk Agreements, and sending peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh following the November 9, 2020, trilateral statement by the Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani heads of state.
5. The Euro-Atlantic region: efforts to overcome the confrontation in relations with the US and NATO; a visible cooling in relations with the EU; constraints in bilateral relations with Germany, France, and other countries; and the crisis of European organizations (the OSCE, the CoE). In this context, it is hoped that the 2021 Geneva Summit, the completion of the Nord Stream project, the change of government in Germany, and other events of recent months will help gradually improve the stalemate in relations between Russia and the West that are constantly accompanied by harsh rhetoric on both sides, sanctions, and even the expulsion of diplomats.
6. The Asia-Pacific region: continuing the pivot to the East through the Greater Eurasian Partnership. This concept, which President Putin proposed in 2015,17 envisioning the integration of the EAEU and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the involvement of the SCO and ASEAN countries in transportation, logistics, energy, and other projects in compliance with WTO rules, remains Moscow’s main macroregional initiative in this geographical area. However, full-fledged implementation of this global project is impossible without resolving the region’s various political problems, especially a peace treaty and territorial demarcation between Russia and Japan, the situation around North Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Indo-Pakistani conflicts, and even the rapid coming to power in Afghanistan of the Taliban (a movement banned in Russia) amid the US withdrawal from that country.
7. The Middle East: preserving the leverage gained in the region through involvement in resolving the conflict in Syria; building equidistant relations with Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, as well as other regional centers of power; and participating in settling the Palestinian-Israeli, Libyan, and Yemeni conflicts. As a result, Russia has emerged as an active participant in Middle East political processes, launching the Astana format for a Syrian settlement; organizing the Syrian People’s Congress, which laid the groundwork for the activity of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva; offering Moscow as a venue for direct negotiations between the Israeli prime minister and the president of the Palestinian National Authority in addition to mediators’ efforts as part of the Middle East Quartet (the EU, the UN, Russia, and the US); supporting decisions made within the framework of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission; etc.
8. Latin America and Africa: increasing the regions’ untapped geopolitical and economic potential. To that end, the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit was held in Sochi in 2019 with the goal of creating a permanent mechanism for enhancing Russia’s political and economic cooperation with African countries.18
In Place of an Epilogue
THIRTY years is a significant and instrumental landmark in understanding the transformation that our country has undergone in a relatively short but eventful historical period. Furthermore, the adoption of a new Constitution in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, the September 2021 State Duma elections, etc., clearly testify to the fact that we are seeing history in the making. This means that we are yet to witness epochal, fateful events that will determine the course and pace of our country’s development for decades to come.
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