Putin’s Policies Are Not New

By October 30, 2019

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,329, October 30, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: It has become fashionable to link Russian foreign policy moves of the past 20 years solely to President Vladimir Putin and his close associates. But what is viewed as innovative is in fact an intensification of much older policies that long preceded Putin’s rise to power.  

The multipolar world, the pivot to China, the freeing of Russia from a Eurocentric foreign policy, the building of a liberal empire – these are the major foreign policy developments that characterize Vladimir Putin’s two decades of rule. But contrary to the views of many observers and analysts, these grand geopolitical scenarios did not originate solely with him or even with the group of people currently at the helm of the Russian state.

Rather, each of these geopolitical notions was in preparation well before Putin’s rise to power. They were the product of the collapse of the Soviet order and the ensuing chaos, the rise of China, and an inherent resentment – one that has always existed within the Russian political classes – toward the Western world order.

Let’s start with multipolarism, which is often cited by the Russian political elite as a solution to the problems the world inherited as a result of the US’s absolute domination over the oceans and the Eurasian landmass since the end of the Cold War. The Russian world of the 1990s was shaken to its foundations and submerged in chaos. Borders diminished, so did Moscow’s geopolitical influence across Eurasia. NATO/EU and the US were expanding their military, economic, and technological power across Eastern Europe and were gradually moving into Ukraine and the South Caucasus.

In many ways, Russia’s first foreign policy initiatives on behalf of a multipolar world – an order in which several powers act simultaneously as major decision makers – evolved as a natural reaction to serious threats to Russia’s national interests that existed at the time.

Instrumental to the development of the multipolar world concept was a man often disregarded by geopolitical books and articles on modern Russia: Evgeny Primakov, Russia’s minister of foreign affairs under Boris Yeltsin in the years when NATO bombed Yugoslavia and was intent on expanding further into eastern Europe.

Primakov’s reaction to Russia’s inability to hold off the western expansion was to look for powers to balance the West. Thus was born the phrase “strategic triangle”, which consisted of Russia, China, and India. There was no formal agreement coordinating the triangle’s respective strategic views on Eurasia or anything else, but its creation was nevertheless an indicator of a coalescence around different, mostly angry views about western domination. It was only a matter of time (perhaps even decades) until Moscow would have pressed to further deepen cooperation with the Asian states to counter US influence across Eurasia.

That is the background to Putin’s response to Russia’s more recent crisis with the West. Partly out of necessity and partly out of inevitability, Moscow once again looked east. Putin’s pivot to China is essentially an intensification of what was in place in the 1990s.

The pivot to Asia is inextricably woven into another myth of recent Russian diplomacy – Moscow’s attempts to shake off its Eurocentric approach to foreign affairs. Though this too has been attributed to Putin, it has been evolving at least since the 1990s, when signs of resentment toward successful and wealthy westerners were visible among the increasingly disillusioned Russian political class.

In fact, one can see Russian attempts to “de-Europeanize” their foreign policy even further back than that. The Soviets, with all their ideological approaches to the world, tried to do exactly that. The Romanovs tried to do the same, particularly after the Crimean War of 1853-56, but did not have enough resources and strong Asian countries with which to partner. Putin’s “de-Europeanization” of foreign policy should thus be seen as a recurrence of a grand historical cycle of Russian thought.

All these foreign policy moves, old or (as some think) new, are contingent upon the way Russia wants to position itself in Eurasia. A clear decision on the creation of a territorial empire has not been taken, but it is evident that the Russian political elite has not abandoned the idea of empire. There was a growing push in Russian foreign policy from the late 2000s through the early 2010s to try to build an economic empire that preferably would not involve the military takeover of territory.

While the creation of the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) in 2015 was indeed Putin’s brainchild, the idea behind the project can be traced back to the 1990s, when the Russian political elites, angry at their poor position vis-à-vis westerners and fearing the loss of neighboring states to NATO/EU, discussed ways to reassemble the lost empire. Building a liberal (i.e., non-military) order in the former Soviet space, but one that was nevertheless strongly attached to the Russian heartland, could only happen through economic means: buying up railways, pipelines, gas, water, and electricity distribution systems in Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, and becoming a primary investor in and trade partner of those states.

In a way, Putin’s EEU project is a product of those discussions – a golden mean between a military solution and the complete abandonment of the idea of empire. Putin’s envisioned liberal empire would be much looser than the Soviet Union was, but would nevertheless be tightly controlled insofar as Moscow would not allow neighboring states to decide on their own which military or economic bloc to choose.

While many still think that under Putin, fundamentally new developments have taken shape in Russia’s foreign policy, there are strong indications that “multipolarism”, the pivot to Asia, the building of a liberal empire, and the end of Russia’s Eurocentric foreign policy can be traced back at least as far as the 1990s. Putin was the facilitator of geopolitical developments that were in process for decades.

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Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles on military and political developments across the former Soviet space.

Emil Avdaliani
Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia). He has worked for various international consulting companies and regularly publishes various works with BESA on military and political developments across Eurasia. He can be reached at [email protected]