Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept – changes and continuity in the Kremlin’s vision of the world
Author: Lukas Baake, Intern at Rondeli Foundation
On March 31, the Russian Presidential Administration published the new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, a comprehensive document outlining the basic assumptions, strategic goals, national interests, and regional priorities of Russia’s positioning in the world. The document is the sixth of its kind and replaces the previous version from 2016. It can be understood as the adoption of Russia’s broader strategic thinking in light of the changed international environment since 2016, most notably after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The shifting objectives and assumptions of Russia’s foreign policy over the past months and years were partly revealed by public statements, diplomatic initiatives, and concrete actions. However, the Foreign Policy Concept, together with its military and security counterparts in the form of the Military Doctrine (latest version 2014) and the National Security Strategy (latest version 2021), provide a more systematic and coherent display of how the Kremlin envisions the changing world order and Russia’s place in it. A thorough analysis of the document allows us to identify the main assumptions and objectives which will continue to steer Russia’s foreign policy: The idea of a shifting world order to multipolarity, a recalibration of the Kremlin’s engagement in different regions of the world, and the perpetuation of a conflictual stance towards the West. By placing these assumptions in the context of recent diplomatic initiatives and previous documents, it is possible to make sense of the Kremlin’s changing vision of the world.
Changing world order
The beginning of the Foreign Policy Concept is dedicated to “major trends and prospects for development”, outlining the view on the current changes and future development of the international order. The document uses a clear language, speaking of the revolutionary changes humanity is currently facing, which, it claims, will result in “a more equitable multipolar world order”. These changes are described as being inevitable and only opposed by Western countries, which would try to prevent the shift of power to new regional centres. This part already introduces the main themes of the vision outlined in the document: The crisis of the current world order, the inevitable rise of multipolarity (mnogopolyarnost'), and the perceived antagonism of the West.
A careful reading of the document allows us to understand the nature of these central themes in greater detail. The envisioned crisis has multiple dimensions, and is understood as the failure of existing structures of global governance and economic cooperation. As the current institutional framework of the United Nations is allegedly not able to accommodate the global dynamics, the document asserts a deepening “crisis of economic globalisation”. This assumption of a global crisis already entails the other two main themes. The established powers, which the document identifies with the West, would try to prevent a shift of power and only accelerate the emergence of a multipolar world order. Thus, “the fragmentation of the global economy” and creation of regional centres of cooperation would be intensified. As Nigel Gould-Davies observed, this view of a global crisis and shifting order also implies Russia’s ongoing attempts to evade sanctions by calling for the establishment of alternative “world trade and monetary financial systems”.
Although these main themes can be seen as a continuation of the views outlined in the 2016 Concept and, in the case of multipolarity, have dominated the Russian discourse for a longer time, the new Foreign Policy Concept reinforces the view of a global crisis and combines the notion of an inevitable shift of power with the hostility of the Western countries.
Pivot to Asia and control over the “near abroad”
One of the main chapters of the Foreign Policy Concept is dedicated to Russia’s positioning towards different regions in the world and gives more substance to the main theme of multipolarity, understood as the differentiation of global power along “sovereign global centres of power and development”.
The treatment of different regions in the world makes it clear that Asia receives an elevated role. Here, the document identifies likeminded countries “committed to approaches which coincide in principle with the Russian approaches to a future world order”. China and India are explicitly mentioned as Russia’s partners, a view that emerged over the previous years and was already visible in the 2021 National Security Strategy. The document not only speaks of different centres of power, but also envisions an active role for Russia to support the emergence of regional powers. Regardless of the limits of Russia’s influence and capabilities, the support of Africa and the rise of Iran as “an independent centre of world development” are explicitly mentioned. These regional priorities are reflected in recent high level meetings, such as Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow. Although Russia’s assertiveness in Africa has been in the making for several years, as Samuel Ramani showed in his recent study, the language found in the document reveals an increased importance given to the continent, a fact also reflected in Lavrov’s recent visit to several African countries.
Although neither Georgia nor other countries in the region are explicitly mentioned in the document, a prominent place is given to the “near abroad”. The term was first coined in the first Foreign Policy Concept of 1993 for the former republics of the Soviet Union, but was not employed in the previous two Concepts. In line with the aforementioned vision of a multipolar world with different regional power centres, the document identifies Russia’s neighbouring countries as essential for strengthening the country’s “position as one of the influential sovereign centres of the world”. Notwithstanding Russia’s vanishing regional influence, the document posits a privileged regional role for Russia. This purported role is contrasted with “unfriendly actions of foreign states and their alliances, which provoke disintegration processes”. The exact nature of these processes is illuminated by the additional warning of “colour revolutions”, a term used by various Russian institutions since the early 2000s to discredit popular movements and civic protests which would undermine Russian influence and its authoritarian state-model. Russia’s view of its neighbouring countries thus is mainly perceived through the prism of Russia’s place in the shifting international order and the perceived hostility of Western countries.
The future of Western-Russian relations
Although a large part of Russia’s military and economic resources is currently embroiled in its war against Ukraine, the conflict is only mentioned once in the document. Instead, the elaborations on Europe are mainly dedicated to the perceived hostility and anti-Russian policy of the Western countries and the U.S. The document thus corroborates Putin’s views of the unequivocal hostility of the Western countries and the framing of the war in Ukraine as a broader systemic conflict. This constitutes a notable departure from the 2016 document, which left more room for engagement with the EU and the U.S.
Despite this aggressive rhetoric, the treatment of Europe contains important nuances. The document explicitly mentions as a goal the creation of “conditions for the cessation of unfriendly actions by European states”, leading to “a new model of coexistence”. It might be difficult to take these statements at face value in light of Russia’s ongoing aggression, but this outlined aim echoes the demands made by Russia in December 2021 to draw back NATO’s borders and in this way to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence.
As the main obstacle to a reconciliation on the European continent, the document posits “the strategic course of the U.S. and their individual allies to draw and deepen dividing lines in the European region”. Leaving aside the factual validity of this claim, it is notable that Russia intends to draw a dividing line in the Western camp, identifying the U.S. as the “main inspirer, organizer and executor of the aggressive anti-Russian policy of the collective West”. This wording cements Russia’s adversarial position towards the U.S., again a notable shift from the less heavily worded document of 2016. However, the Concept maintains the persistent interest of the Russian Federation to maintain strategic parity with the U.S., thus theoretically leaving open a return to the New START treaty, which was suspended by the Russian side in February.
By identifying the Western countries, and especially the U.S., as hostile forces, the document reflects the strained state of Russian-Western relations and Russia’s antagonistic positioning. Although the possibility for an improvement in these relations is left open, the Concept makes it clear that such a thaw would only happen should it be accompanied by the redrawing of decades-old alignments on the European continent.
The analysis of the new Foreign Policy Concept revealed an array of guiding assumptions and ideas for Russia’s vision of the world. The rise of multipolarity, the regional shift to Asia with continued hegemonic ambitions in the immediate neighbourhood as well as the perceived hostility of the West could be identified as dominating and interrelated themes. Despite the continuity of these main elements, the new document presents a notable shift from the previous Foreign Policy Concept in important areas. This is especially the case for the explicit aim to work towards a global shift of power and the strong perception of the Western countries as hostile, thus slowly closing the door behind possible Western-Russian engagement and reinforcing Russia’s antagonistic positioning. While the concrete implementation and feasibility in light of Russia’s limited capabilities is left open, the new Foreign Policy Concept contains important lines of thought, which will continue to guide Russia’s discourse and actions on the international stage in the years to come.