What are Moscow’s foreign policy priorities?

Moscow’s foreign policy priorities are linked to the government’s central policy priority, which is its modernization agenda. Russia has started looking more at foreign policy as a resource for this effort. Since modernization is largely about technology and innovation at this point, Russia is seeking closer relations with the countries that can provide that—the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which basically means the West.

The United States is at the top of the list in regards to its technological prowess. At this point, the Russian leadership is reaching out to the United States and Europe primarily to help with its modernization projects back home. But this is a new addition to the more traditional foreign policy priority set. Modernization is basically a tool to reassert Russia’s position and role in the world as a major power. Russia’s leaders recognize that without new technologies and without essentially a new economy, the country has very little chance of staying in the top.


What is the status of Russia-U.S. relations? How will the recent spy scandal impact relations between the Cold War foes?

U.S.–Russia relations are at a pretty advanced stage in terms of the “reset” announced in 2009. The relationship is moving in a positive direction and has a few accomplishments under its belt, including the New START Treaty—although it is yet to be ratified. There’s far less friction between the United States and Russia in a number of other areas. There’s a measure of collaboration on issues such as Iran and Afghanistan and there is talk about collaboration on an issue as sensitive as missile defense. So there is a lot that has gone right for the relationship in the last eighteen months.

However, there are other areas that bode ill for the relationship unless they are dealt with properly, and the spy scandal points to a couple of these. On the Russian side it points to the persistent culture in the intelligence community—and more broadly in the Russian government—of gathering intelligence information that could be researched and assessed through open channels. In other words, many people at the top of the Russian government, given their former backgrounds, only trust what comes to their desks in a folder marked “Top Secret.” They would not reach out for the New York Times instinctively nor would they surf the Internet for news and analyses. Rather they would trust the more traditional, Cold War-style channels of communication. So that’s a problem on the Russian side, and overall a major cultural problem that Russia needs to deal with.

It also points to a number of issues in the United States, including concerns among some experts in Washington who believe that the reset has gone wrong and that the United States has given too much to Russia. They believe that Russia has not properly thanked the United States and that these agreements disadvantage Washington. These experts believe it is the right time to slow down this reset. That’s something Washington will need to address.

How are Russia’s relations with Europe?

Europe falls into the same category as the United States as a technologically advanced area, but Europe is much closer geographically and historically to Russia than the United States is. So in some ways, Europe is the principal engine for Russia’s modernization, and if Russia really wants to put modernization at the top of its agenda, Europe is its most strategic partner.

The problem with Europe is that it’s not united on many issues—including on Russia. Russia has excellent relations with quite a few European countries, such as Germany, France and Italy. But its relations with other countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are marred by the experience of the Cold War and the Soviet domination that preceded it. The Russians have realized that unless they improve relations with Poland--above all countries--they will not have normal relations with the European Union as a whole. This idea is driving Moscow toward a better relationship with Poland.

Is Russia gaining influence over its neighbors? How is Moscow going ahead with policies in its near abroad?

Russia’s neighbors comprise a very diverse group of nations that see themselves as independent states—not a single one wants to be seen as part of someone else’s zone of influence.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the refusal of Russia’s neighbors to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This decision has nothing to do with Georgia, nor is it about Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it has everything to do with how these countries want to be seen by the outside world and how they see themselves. So discussion of a “zone of influence” or a “zone of privileged interests” is largely talk. Not a single country would fall into that zone.

But Moscow has been trying to increase its influence and promote its interests in these countries, and in some cases it has succeeded. However, this does not put these countries in the category of satellites or countries with limited sovereignty.

Ukraine is a case in point. Under the previous leadership of President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine was moving its foreign policy firmly toward the West, but is now rebalancing its approach. Joining the European Union is still a goal for Ukraine, but its leaders—unlike their predecessors—see the importance of a good relationship with Russia. Ukraine is now engaging in a kind of a balancing act--a far more complex policy than the previous one, but an approach that addresses Ukraine’s key interests.             

Are there opportunities for Russia to work with the United States and Europe on missile defense? How does Moscow view missile defense?

Missile defense will have a major impact on U.S.–Russian relations and could be a critical point of contention by 2020, when the United States will have advanced its missile defenses and Russia’s aging nuclear weapons arsenal leaves it in a weaker strategic position.

Some Russians are saying that U.S. missile defense advances actually put Russia’s strategic independence at risk because a first strike would wipe out the Russian nuclear arsenal. This is one way—and a negative one—in which missile defense could impact the relationship.

The other option, now being discussed, is collaboration between the United States and Russia on missile defense, whether it is at the regional level, at the theater level in Europe (which would include Europe and NATO), or at the global level.

This option could really be a game-changer in the strategic relationship between the United States and Russia, even more so than the START agreements. From a strict, technological standpoint, cooperation on missile defense makes it impossible to regard the other party as a potential military adversary. Linking defenses simply does away with the threat of a nuclear attack. If the two counties managed to collaborate on missile defense, it would make arms control irrelevant. Arms control only regulates enmity or residual enmity but strategic collaboration offers a new approach.

Cooperation would be the functional equivalent of NATO membership for Russia. It’s a positive sign that the current NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has been vocal in his support for Russia-NATO collaboration on a joint missile defense program.

But there are immense difficulties in proceeding down this road. Technological details are perhaps the least difficult issue; more pressing are the psychological and political issues, notably the distrust between the U.S. and Russian establishments. It’s very much an uphill battle and would require courageous leadership from both countries.

No amount of strategic nuclear arms reduction will transform the relationship. Only collaboration on strategically important issues can do that.

Why did Moscow agree to additional sanctions on Iran?

Russia has changed its position on Iran as a result of two things—Russia’s attitude toward the policies of the Iranian leadership and Russia’s attitude toward the policies of the Obama administration.

As far as the Iranian leadership is concerned, the Russians were irritated by the fact that Tehran refused to cooperate with the international community on the best possible deal Tehran could have received. The deal, proposed last October, was supported by Russia and actively promoted by the United States. So if Iran was looking for a deal, last fall was the time to grab it.

Under the Bush administration, a very powerful argument was made that a compromise between Iran and the international community was impossible under Washington’s hardline policies. But now those policies have changed, the Iranian people wanted to see a deal.

Since Iran failed to take the deal, the Russians believed Tehran had something else up its sleeve. Russia is unhappy about the possibility that Iran will likely become a nuclear weapons state armed with long-range missiles—it is not in Russia’s long-term national interests.
Second, there has been a change in Russia’s assessment of the U.S. leadership. Previously, when George W. Bush was president of the United States, the Kremlin thought that sanction resolutions were nothing but a pretext for an eventual attack against Iran by the United States—or by the United States and Israel. It also believed that all of the documents churned out by the United Nations Security Council would only serve as justification for a military strike. Now they see a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate actually interested in a compromise deal with Iran and not looking to initiate a strike. Thus President Barack Obama is seen much more as a bona fide partner at the UN than his predecessor was.

Because of those two reassessments—of the Iranian position and the U.S. position—the Russians have changed their stance somewhat on sanctions.

How strong are Russia’s relations with China?

Russia’s relationship with China is second only to Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe. It's an immensely important relationship. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said his biggest foreign policy achievement as president was fixing every inch of the Sino–Russian border. That speaks volumes about the importance of the relationship and the way Moscow views it.

Today the relationship is perhaps the best it has ever been—friendly, with a high degree of economic cooperation, and with the Chinese and Russians traveling across the border with minimal formalities. Outwardly, it is a coequal relationship.

But the problem for Russia is that it has yet to adjust to a strong China. During the previous 300 years of contact, Russia had always been in the ascendancy and was almost always the senior partner. At times Russia even dominated parts of China.

As recently as 1990, Chinese and Russian GDPs were equal. Now China’s GDP is four times that of Russia’s. This dramatic change happened in less than a decade. Twenty years ago, if you traveled across the Sino-Russian border, you would see modern, if dilapidated structures, on the Russian side and essentially traditional villages on the Chinese side. Now, you see glitzy skyscrapers on the Chinese side and decrepit buildings on the Russian side. It’s one of the most striking and dramatic changes between any two major countries in modern history.

As China grows, the Russians are questioning how China will behave and what it means for Russia, particularly for the Russian provinces in the Far East and Siberia. Will Russians in these territories gravitate to China or will the Chinese send more people to settle in those territories? Some of the other reoccurring questions are naive and unfounded, but there are new concerns: How can Russia deal with a strong China? How can Russia rebalance that relationship?

China is going to be one of the bigger challenges of the 21st century for Russia.

Will Moscow actively push for membership in the World Trade Organization?

Unfortunately, Moscow has been mercurial on the WTO issue. While Putin was president, he wanted to close the deal, but the harsh conditions the outside world placed on Russia denied him that opportunity—unfairly in his mind. When Putin stepped down as president he felt very bitter about the WTO.

But then came the financial crisis, which bolstered the protectionist trends in all countries, including Russia. The crisis placed the WTO on the back burner; the Kremlin believed it would have contributed to the problems Russia faced as a result of the crisis. The Kremlin decided to propose the customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus instead.

With the new modernization agenda, Russia has reassessed its position and now sees the WTO as an instrument of modernization. But, it should really be at the top of agenda as the principle driver for Russia’s economic modernization. It has not been prioritized appropriately.

The Russians, along with the Americans and Europeans, do not see the WTO in the right light. While Russia views it as a trade agreement, they should see it as a vehicle for modernization. The West should see the WTO as a vehicle for integrating Russia into the global economic system. The political importance of the WTO is clearly being downgraded by both sides. That is a pity. I hope that at the end of the day—and sooner rather than later—Russia becomes part of the WTO and lets the WTO support modernization inside Russia.

How is Russia pursuing its global economic interests?

There are many differences between Russia and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union acted abroad, it normally spent its money, treasure—and sometimes lives—in pursuit of its global political and ideological interests. When Russia is acting beyond its borders, it is primarily looking for profit. In this respect, Russia is ultra-pragmatic in carrying out its global economic policies and has even stopped being a donor for some of its neighboring countries.

One of the reasons—perhaps the primary reason—why Russia isn’t the center of some economic confederation of former Soviet states is that the Russian government doesn’t want to pay for it. In Europe, the European Union was actually built with German money and German subsidies—Germany was at the center of it. Russia doesn't want to be at the center.

Russia wants influence and assets in other countries, but it doesn't want to pay for that. And sometimes Russia’s foreign economic adventures are questionable. Some dealings with Venezuela are vulnerable on economic grounds, which mean they have a political connotation that distorts the economic game.