Russia’s Global Ambitions in Perspective

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.

Current Russian foreign policy reflects three centuries-old drivers of Moscow’s posture on the world stage.

Strategic Depth

Russian security policy has developed in the absence of natural geographic barriers and met the challenge of defending a vast territory through further expansion. Twice in the twentieth century—after the 1917 revolution and the 1991 breakup of the USSR—the Russian state lost large territories and the strategic depth that served as a buffer between it and Europe. Regaining strategic depth has been a major preoccupation of Russian security policy.
Russia in Europe in 1914
Source: The Map Archive
Russia in Europe According to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (March 1918)
Source: The Map Archive
Russian Federation in 1991
Source: The Map Archive

Recognition as a Great Power

In the eyes of its leaders, Russia’s geographic expanse justifies its claim to great power status. Russia’s vast territory, legacy as an empire and a great power, and history of military conquests are important building blocks of its national identity. Russia’s leaders have been particularly sensitive to any suggestion that Russia does not belong among the major powers.

Uneasy Relationship With the West

Moscow and the West have had complicated relations for centuries. Since the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), Russia has defined itself as an integral part of Europe’s political and security fabric, yet has struggled for acceptance as truly European. The theme “in Europe, but not of Europe” has characterized Moscow’s relations with the Continent.

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.

Ideology as an Instrument of Policy

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.

Comintern and Cominform

In 1919, in the midst of a civil war, the Bolshevik government established the Communist International (Comintern) to project its political and ideological influence abroad, control foreign Communist parties, and promote revolutionary unrest in capitalist countries. The Comintern (and its successor organization, the Cominform, from Communist Information Bureau) spread propaganda and disinformation, sowed ideological subversion, cultivated political influence, and gathered intelligence abroad.
Lenin addresses members of the Third International (Comintern) in July 1920 in Petrograd

Eliminating political opponents

The young revolutionary state did not shy away from assassinations and executions. In 1924, Soviet intelligence came up with an elaborate plot to lure Boris Savinkov, the leader of an anti-Soviet organization of Russian exiles in France, back to Russia, where he was convicted in a show trial and apparently murdered. Assassination became a hallmark of Soviet intelligence’s handling of defectors and political opponents of the state. The most infamous examples include Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in West Germany in 1959 and Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.
A de-classified 1964 CIA Memorandum prepared for the Warren Commission outlines the Soviet use of assassination and kidnapping.

Organizations of influence

The Soviet Union also relied on a range of front organizations to target hostile émigré groups, penetrate Western governments and societies, and mobilize support for Soviet policies. In addition to the International Department of the Central Committee and the Committee for State Security (KGB), these efforts included various academic, cultural, and commercial organizations, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Stanislav Levchenko, a former KGB major, explains the purpose of agents of influence

Exploiting anticolonialism and leftist movements

The demise of colonial empires and the rise of leftist movements in postcolonial Africa created a favorable environment for Moscow to extend its influence. Soviet efforts included providing security, military, and civilian technical assistance; educational opportunities; intelligence training; and ideological indoctrination.
Soviet advisors in Mozambique (image from Voyennoye Obozreniye, from the photo archive of V. Zavadsky)

Information and Subversion

From the beginning, the Soviet state weaponized information and ideology in its struggle for survival at home and influence abroad.

Domestic political consolidation

Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin viewed ideas as key instruments for motivating people and controlling the masses. The Bolsheviks employed then-novel tools, such as print media, mass rallies, news manipulation, and a co-opted creative class (writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and so on). Combined with traditional tools of oppression, these instruments enabled the Bolsheviks to impose their vision on the population.
Trains carry agitprop literature to the Russian provinces, captured in a silent newsreel by Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov

Undermining U.S. foreign relations

The Kremlin employed disinformation and forgeries to undermine Western policies. Soviet bloc forgeries helped weaken the U.S.-led Middle East peace process in the 1970s. Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a former Czech intelligence officer, recounted: “I have to admit that I am an author of a number of forgeries. . . . The Czechoslovak intelligence service produced at the time a number of forgeries, leaked, for example, to the Egyptian government proving that the American government was planning an assassination against the Egyptian president.”
Former Czech intelligence officer Lawrence Martin-Bittman discusses the effectiveness of forgeries in promoting narratives of American conspiracy.

Shaping public opinion in the West

In the early 1980s, the Kremlin launched a multiyear campaign to turn European public opinion against NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles. The effort relied on disinformation, fear mongering, and exploiting genuine public concerns about nuclear war.
In June 1981, 15,000 people demonstrate in Bonn against NATO’s decision to station medium-range missiles in West Germany

Economic Influence

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.

Development assistance

For decades, the Soviet Union extended billions in aid throughout the developing world. A declassified CIA assessment recognized that Moscow often “succeeded in maximizing the political impact of its comparatively small [aid] effort,” because Soviet assistance emphasized high-visibility, public sector industrial projects. Soviet aid programs also included humanitarian aid, training for military and security forces, and arms transfers.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev mark the end of the first phase of construction of the Aswan Dam in 1964

Military Support

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.

Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939

The Soviets sent regular military personnel under aliases to advise and fight alongside Republican forces.
Soviet pilots who participated in air combat in Spain in November 1936

Korean War, 1950s

The Soviets frequently sent personnel and equipment to crisis zones in Asia and the Middle East. Soviet military pilots secretly flew missions during the Korean War and manned North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries.
Soviet instructors and North Vietnamese crewmen at an anti-aircraft training center in Vietnam in 1965

Egypt-Israel War of Attrition, 1970

Moscow secretly deployed Soviet fighter jets and air defense units to Egypt during the so-called War of Attrition with Israel.
A contemporaneous CIA report from May 1970 assesses Soviet deployments in Egypt and its involvement in the Egypt-Israeli conflict

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.

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