For much of the post–Cold War era, Russia’s ability to project its influence on a global scale was constrained by internal challenges and limited resources. But since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Moscow has engaged in a broad campaign to expand its international reach.
Putin has launched a Russian-style charm offensive in far-flung locales where the Kremlin’s influence had been all but written off. Russia’s presence is increasingly visible throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. At the same time, Moscow has found numerous openings and is busily exploiting divisions within Western societies.
Russia’s agenda is straightforward: to assert its influence at the expense of Washington and the rules-based international system. The Kremlin’s toolkit includes: leveraging economic and business ties, exerting political influence, harnessing the information space, and forging or deepening military ties with key countries. Where the United States and its allies have pulled back or failed to deliver, Russia has eagerly stepped in.
Since Russia’s economy recovered from its post–Cold War collapse, its foreign policy and security apparatus has commanded ever greater resources. The resulting toolkit that the Kremlin employs was first honed and perfected in Russia’s immediate neighborhood.
Moscow’s global toolkit can be broken down into four broad sets of overlapping tools:
Moscow has employed economic tools such as preferential trade arrangements, discounts on oil and gas exports, debt relief, and financial bailouts to increase its global influence. All three components of the Russian energy sector (oil, gas, and nuclear power) often play leading roles in Russian diplomatic and commercial outreach. Links between government entities and criminal/corrupt activities are a standard feature of such efforts.
The Kremlin is now a key player in the dramatic events unfolding in Venezuela. Amid an increasingly desperate economic and humanitarian situation and sharpening tensions between Caracas and Washington, Moscow is helping prop up the beleaguered government of President Nicolás Maduro. In exchange, Russia is acquiring valuable assets at knockdown prices.
Russia’s activities in Venezuela are just one example of how Moscow is leveraging its economic power to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere. Rosneft’s growing role in Venezuela’s energy sector illustrates how Russian political and business leaders often blend commercial opportunities with important foreign policy objectives.
Russia has long taken advantage of corrupt networks across Europe and Eurasia to reward businesses close to the Kremlin and build leverage with local political leaders. Moscow routinely promotes the interests of Russia-friendly politicians, bureaucrats, and business figures in neighboring states and uses Soviet-era ties with intelligence and military officials to further Russian political goals.
Hungary’s slide into illiberalism under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stoked tensions between Budapest and the European Union (EU). Hungary’s estrangement from the European mainstream has created opportunities for Russia to expand its economic and political influence in the country.
The Orbán government’s business dealings with Moscow have exacerbated frictions with the EU and key European countries such as Germany and France. Russian intelligence and security service operations in Hungary have also caused concern among its EU and NATO partners. Orbán is an important standard-bearer for anti-EU populist sentiment in Europe. His pro-Russian, anti-EU stance does face some resistance at home, however, as most Hungarians hold a positive view of the EU.
The Kremlin frequently exploits new opportunities in the digital domain to promote narratives conducive to Russian interests and to undermine liberal Western governments. Moscow pushes these narratives via a variety of platforms, including traditional and social media; educational, cultural, and entertainment programs; and cyber-enabled information operations. In countries with Russian-speaking populations, Moscow-backed Russian-language media, including pop culture and entertainment programming, are powerful tools.
Throughout Europe, Moscow is using social media, state-controlled news outlets, and cyber operations to disrupt decisionmaking and promote societal divisions.
Moscow repeatedly has used new technologies and information as key elements of its foreign policy arsenal. These efforts have played on preexisting tensions and the vulnerability of open societies to foreign manipulation in an era of popular anger, fake news, and widespread dependence on social media.
24/7 news channel providing a “Russian viewpoint on major global events”
Produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s paper of record, with content in thirteen languages
24/7 news channel in Arabic broadcasting from Moscow
24/7 Spanish-language news channel broadcasting from Moscow with correspondents in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Madrid, Mexico City, Miami, and Washington, DC
24/7 news channel broadcasting from Washington, DC
RT-affiliated video news agency based in Berlin
Led by pro-Kremlin media personality Dmitry Kiselyov, the state-run media conglomerate united RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia radio to increase Russia’s global media presence
Sputnik News replaces RIA Novosti as Russia’s international news agency with content in over thirty languages (including Abkhaz, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Chinese, Czech, Dari, English, Estonian, French, Georgian, German, Italian, Japanese, Kazakh, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldovan, Ossetian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Tajik, Turkish, Uzbek, and Vietnamese)
24/7 news channel broadcasting from London
RT’s German-language online platform
RT’s French-language online platform
24/7 news channel broadcasting from Paris
News channel planned as early as 2018
Russia has taken advantage of instability throughout the Middle East and U.S. retrenchment to rebuild ties with governments and regimes across the region. These efforts include: arms sales, military training and cooperation, and technology transfers.
Moscow has capitalized on vacuums created by U.S. policy mistakes in the Middle East and Washington’s retreat from global leadership. Russia has expanded military relationships with a variety of counterparts in the region.
Russia’s military power is most visible in the Middle East, where it has established its ability to deploy an expeditionary force and serve as a party to conflict resolution efforts. As the world’s second largest arms exporter, Russia has aggressively pursued weapons sales around the world for financial gain and to project its political, economic, and military clout.
Are the Kremlin’s attempts to project influence around the world a fundamentally new element of Russian foreign policy? Yes and no. The Putin regime’s ambitions have deep roots: Russian foreign policy since 2012 fits comfortably in the long-standing historical and intellectual traditions of Soviet and imperial Russian foreign policy. Indeed, continuity with the Soviet era and earlier periods of Russian history is a hallmark of the Kremlin’s current foreign policy. Alluding to this history, the Kremlin legitimizes its pursuits by presenting them as an integral part of Russian identity.
Along with this legacy, Russian foreign policy also inherited a rich toolkit to advance the country’s goals.
Key elements of this toolkit have been perfected and refined over many decades.
They have performed reliably for the Russian state at home and abroad.
Since the Russian Revolution, the Kremlin has used its ideology of the moment to expand its global reach. In the pre-1991 period, this effort entailed both overt Marxist-Leninist propaganda as well as ideological subversion.
From the beginning, the Soviet state weaponized information and ideology in its struggle for survival at home and influence abroad.
The Soviet Union also leveraged economic assistance to leftist and other friendly governments to expand its web of influence and promote an alternative to the capitalist system. Soviet economic assistance relied on a range of instruments, from economic and technical advisors to loans and sponsorship of industrial development projects.
Military assistance, as well as the use of proxy agents and covert military operations, have been a mainstay of Moscow’s foreign policy—well before the appearance of “little green men” in Ukraine.
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia largely retreated from the world stage. Once Russia recovered a measure of its economic strength, political stability, and military muscle a decade later, it did not take long for it to reclaim a significant part of its foreign policy legacy. Russian foreign policy today lacks the rigid ideological guidelines and vast resources of the Soviet period, but it reflects greater flexibility, adaptability, and opportunism. There is every indication that both Moscow’s ambitions and its toolkit will endure, even in a post-Putin era.Go deeperRead the report
For largely geopolitical reasons, Moscow is expanding its presence in Latin America at Washington’s expense despite Russia’s lack of geographic proximity and limited resources.
The Kremlin is taking advantage of the deteriorating relationships between the United States and many of its southern neighbors. Russia supports anti-American populist candidates in elections throughout Latin America and is trying to expand trade and investment opportunities with the region.
The Kremlin likely calculates that closer relations with Latin America—whether built on arms sales, trade, energy deals, or political congruity—will complicate U.S. foreign policy. If these overtures help Russian military and security actors gain access to the United States’ backyard, so much the better.