Recent developments in Russia’s foreign policy reflect the country’s struggle to preserve its status as a “great power” through modernization. Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Center discussed how the economic crisis, China’s rising power, and Moscow’s relations with its neighbors have affected its foreign and security policy. Carnegie’s Martha Brill Olcott moderated.

“Modernization alliances”

In a departure from previous policy, Russia now seeks to maintain its global status by focusing on economic as opposed to military power, Trenin said. The centerpiece of its foreign policy is forging so-called “modernization alliances” with other countries, including the United States, to secure the resources it requires for modernization.  

Domestic Situation

Russia’s domestic situation will affect its foreign policy.

  • 2012 election. The 2012 presidential election will be more interesting than previously anticipated, Trenin said. Vladimir Putin will have the final say in determining who will run for president, but what that decision will be remains unknown. The key questions will be whether new policies will favor stability or modernization, and in what ratio. Ultimately, Moscow realizes that the regime in its current model is not sustainable, Trenin asserted, and this understanding will be reflected in policy changes following the upcoming election.
  • Military reform. Military reform is proceeding well, and has not encountered serious resistance domestically. Moscow has made the unprecedented decision to stop the intake of officer cadets, resulting in no incoming cadets this year or next year. Russia sees no need to prepare for a major war, either in the east or in the west, Trenin said.
  • Military-industrial collaboration. Russia is lagging behind its peers in terms of conventional military industrial capabilities. This has led it to look to foreign producers, as it did in a recent deal to purchase Mistral helicopter carriers from France.

Foreign policy

  • United States: The Russian political establishment is not inherently anti-Western, Trenin argued. Russia understands that the United States is its biggest “modernization resource,” and Russian foreign policy is evolving accordingly.  The economic “modernization alliance” has lately been backed up by increasing collaboration on non-economic issues, including New START, missile defense, Iran, security, North Korea, and Kyrgyzstan. However, Trenin warned that failure by the U.S. Senate to ratify New START would set bilateral relations back.
  • European Union: Trenin cited two chief concerns for Russia’s relations with Europe.  Russia has already made progress on its strained relations with Poland, thanks to Russia’s response following the death of the Polish president and other high-level government officials in an airplane crash near Katyn.  The second concern Trenin raised was the current visa system for traveling between Russia and Europe, which is inefficient and ineffective. A visa-free regime would facilitate travel and exchange between the two regions.
  • Georgia: Russian-Georgian relations will remain “on hold,” with no movement from the Russian side on any serious issues as long as Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power in Georgia, Trenin predicted.
  • Ukraine: There has been a rapprochement with Ukraine following the election of Viktor Yanukovych. However, while the Ukrainians want good relations with Russia, they demand to be treated as an equal partner. Trenin warned of potential future trouble, if the issue of Ukraine’s Black Sea Fleet agreement with Russia-- which currently allows Russia to maintain a fleet in the Crimea until 2042--returns to the fore.
  • Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan is a real partner for Russia in the region, Trenin said. The customs union among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan is in reality more of a union between Russia and Kazakhstan.  Trenin also cautioned against expecting significant breakthroughs at the upcoming OSCE summit in Astana, adding that the OSCE does not have much influence in the eyes of the Russian leadership.
  • Kyrgyzstan: Russia is concerned that Kyrgyzstan may unravel and cease to be a functioning state, Trenin said. Moscow worries that if Kyrgyzstan moves to a parliamentary system, a strong central authority will be more difficult to establish and the country could fall into chaos.  He also discussed Russia’s interest in the U.S. Manas air base. Moscow is no longer as interested in forcing the United States to leave the Manas air base as it is in convincing Washington to work through Moscow when negotiating U.S. presence in the region.
  • China: Russia is committed to a peaceful, stable relationship with China, and recognizes China’s growing influence and potential. Trenin explained that these relations have stayed positive in part because China has acted cautiously in Central Asia to avoid infringing on Russian influence in the region. Moscow is cognizant of Russia’s long border with China, which Prime Minister Putin traversed in recent weeks and which will remain a focus of continued vigilance.
  • Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Trenin asserted that Russia’s position toward these two breakaway nations was different. He believes that an independent Abkhazia is viable, and argues that Abkhazia will not return to Georgia, but the Gali district, which has a large Georgian population, could. South Ossetia, however, is not viable in its present form. It will not revert to Georgia, nor will it become part of Russia, he predicted. Instead, Trenin proposed an Andorra-like model, in which South Ossetia would be a separate unit, demilitarized, and under shared control of both Tbilisi and Moscow.


Trenin suggested two positive steps for transforming the relationship among Russia, Europe, and the United States:

  • Cooperation on missile defense. In the absence of serious collaboration, Russia will eventually feel threatened by the West, which could lead to serious conflict, Trenin warned. The United States should take the lead on facilitating U.S.-Russia cooperation on this issue.
  •  “Peaceful neighborhood.” Russia should take the lead in creating a “peaceful neighborhood” with its neighbors, including both Georgia and the Baltic states. Recent improvements in Russian-Polish relations are a step in the right direction. To succeed, Russia must make more effective use of its soft power.