September 12, 2008
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Is Russia Turning Unilateralist?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Russia Profile

In the newly delineated Five Principles of Russia’s Foreign Policy, President Dmitry Medvedev proclaimed Russia’s readiness to act as it sees fit, to safeguard its vital national interests, as well as to create a world governed by multi-polar powers. This declaration on behalf of Russia will necessarily beckon a response from the international community, notably from the West. At this point, will this announcement by Medvedev actually initiate a new, forceful, unilateralist foreign policy by Russia? How do other powers relate to the proposals laid down by the Russian president?

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, James Jatras, Eugene Kolesnikov, Andrei Tsygankov

In the wake of the South Ossetia conflict between Russia and Georgia, and in reaction to the West’s more or less unconditional support for Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime, president Medvedev formulated new principles of Russia’s foreign policy that reflect the country’s new willingness to disregard Western criticism and act unilaterally to defend its citizens and interests.

Medvedev outlined five principles of Russian foreign policy which, for the first time, officially affirmed Russia’s “privileged interests” in regions “that are home to countries with which we share special historical relations and are bound together as friends and good neighbors.”

In a further demonstration of Russia’s assertiveness, Medvedev’s “five principles” underlined the following stipulations: “The world should be multi-polar. A single-pole world is unacceptable. Domination is something we cannot allow. We cannot accept a world order in which one country makes all the decisions, even as serious and influential a country as the United States of America. Such a world is unstable and threatened by conflict.” 

Medvedev also asserted Russia’s right to protect “the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be,” as well as the “the interests of our business community abroad.” In addition, Medvedev made it clear that Russia will “respond to any aggressive acts committed against us” irrespective of Western opinion, if necessary.

Claiming that the world has irreversibly changed after August 8, when Georgia launched a war on South Ossetia, Medvedev strongly criticized the United States for double standards.

“We haven't heard words of support and understanding from those who, in the same circumstances, pontificate about free elections and national dignity and the need to use force to punish an aggressor. Unfortunately, the situation is such that following these events these forces continue arming the Georgian regime, including under the banner of humanitarian aid. A whole navy was sent to provide humanitarian assistance. They are trying to put political pressure on us. We, of course, will simply not accept this situation. But they will not be able to do anything,” he said.

Evidently, the Kremlin concluded that efforts in justifying its actions taken against Georgia should be abandoned and that Russia should pursue its interests as it sees fit. “Our position on South Ossetia is highly moral, and we are right,” First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov told the Russian business daily Vedomosti. “We only want one thing: to be secure within our borders and to have the conditions for development… We accept your values, but will do everything our way.” This is in stark contrast to the foreign policy doctrine that Medvedev signed just a couple of months ago, which emphasized the importance of working through the UN Security Council and within the framework of international law.
Is Russia signaling its readiness to go it alone? Is it becoming unilateralist? What kind of practical consequences would this have for Russia’s foreign policy? What does it mean for Russia’s neighbors in the CIS? What would such a shift in Russia’s foreign policy mean for its relations with the West?

Andrei Tsygankov, Associate Professor of International Relations, San Francisco State University, San Francisco:

Those accusing Russia of unilateralism and challenging the West’s vital interests in the world oversimplify the complex process of Russia’s transformation and its relations with Western nations. The Kremlin’s recent policies, including greater control over the former Soviet region, as well as the recent intervention in Georgia, are best understood as resistance to U.S. unilateralism and a desperate attempt to be heard by those who have ignored Russia and others on the Balkans, Iraq, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, NATO expansion and a number of other security issues.

Until very recently, Russia sought to expand its participation in Western institutions, but instead it had to swallow arrogant remarks about imperialism and 19th century geopolitical thinking. Now the Kremlin says that it will only consult the West if the West begins to see Russia as an equal. Through the recent war in the Caucasus and the years of being dismissed by the Western nations, Russia is currently arriving at its own set of values that are different from those of the United States. Such values include democracy (and to this extent are compatible with American ones) but also incorporate political stability, cross-cultural unity and protection of those who have historically gravitated toward Russia. The Kremlin signals that to the extent possible these values will be defended by peaceful means (soft power), but that Russia may also resort to force against those who disregard these values by relying on force rather than negotiations.
To negotiate, which the Kremlin insists, is the only way to build multilateral arrangements in Europe, Asia or elsewhere.

The multilateralism Russia defends is one that respects the interests and opinions of other international players, especially large and significant ones. Russia’s foreign policy assertiveness, including in the Caucasus, is condemned in the West, but is not criticized by non-Western powers, such as China, Iran, India and Brazil. In addition, recent summits of the SCO and CSTO, openly or tacitly, supported Russia’s actions in the Caucasus. This hardly qualifies as unilateralism and is viewed as such only by those who don’t like policies different from their own. The process of NATO expansion in its current form is also not welcomed by many non-Western nations. Indeed, the process is only advocated from within the alliance, mostly by the United States and its client states in Eastern Europe.

It is not too late to begin a dialogue with Russia over its values and interests. Rather than lecturing Russia on how not to be unilateral, the West should move the security agenda beyond NATO with new proposals for joint security. The world is pregnant with devising a new concert of powers to develop a constructive international agenda. The alternative to this is continuous disregard for Russia that is likely to result in greater violence.

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:

Russia crossed the geopolitical Rubicon in August. It successfully challenged the United States in a proxy war that was preconditioned by the latter’s creeping containment policies against it. If Russia were to retreat now from asserting its vital security interests in response to U.S.-devised threats and measures, the United States would be encouraged to complete the containment as soon as possible.

Russia's actions are not a change in policy or foreign relations doctrine. Russia has followed the principle positions stated in Vladimir Putin's Munich speech and any other official foreign policy document of the recent past. It simply acted in line with these policies, which the West did not really expect.

The good news is that Russia, unlike the United States, is not pursuing global dominance and is not blinded by ideology. Therefore, it will continue in trying to work through multilateral institutions, but it will no longer tolerate the hypocrisy and double standards that destroy the effectiveness of these institutions. So the dynamics of the function of these multilateral institutions will change. For example, we can expect no more acquiescence from Russia on the OSCE serving U.S. interests as an anti-Russian democratization tool in the former Soviet Union, no more empty talk in the NATO-Russia Council, no more humiliating circles around WTO accession, etc.

For better or worse, the world is in for a long tumultuous ride due to the rise of China, the revival of Russia, the reemergence of social nationalism in South America, the refusal of the world underdogs to accept discriminatory trade rules of the Doha Development Round and due to many other factors of the unfolding geopolitical realignment. My worry is that in recent history, only one empire, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist in a relatively peaceful way. I am not confident enough that the U.S. empire can repeat that feat.

James George Jatras, Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington, D.C. :

Neither the five principles enunciated by President Dmitry Medvedev nor Russia’s behavior in the Georgian crisis should be taken as forsaking international law or institutions in favor of unilateralism. Nor should they, I hope, signify the end of Russia’s efforts to make a moral and legal case for its policies in the Caucasus and in other parts of the near abroad. The line between (on the one hand) international law and a multi-polar global order and (on the other) unilateralism is not a hard and fast one. In fact, president Medvedev’s five points illustrate the reality that any state of consequence, including Russia, must have a mix of options. That mix is inherent in the international order itself.

For example, even in a multi-polar world it should be understood that every significant power has, in president Medvedev’s phrase, “privileged interests” in its immediate neighborhood. Even in its infancy, the United States asserted such a right in the entire Western Hemisphere.  One of the main problems of a world characterized by unipolar dominance by the United States or any other country is that it violates that very understanding, as Washington has shown in the Balkans, in the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet regions, and elsewhere. It is no exaggeration to say that without mutual deference to privileged regional spheres, there can be no multi-polar order.

Likewise, any respectable – and self-respecting – power must be prepared to act unilaterally when its vital national security interests or the safety of its citizens is at stake. On many occasions, citizens of the United States, Britain, France, and other countries have been extricated from zones of conflict by their own military forces without a buy-your-leave to the government from whose territory they were being rescued. Ronald Reagan did not ask anyone’s permission to liberate American medical students from Grenada (and removing a pro-Soviet regime in the process), though he did round up a fig-leaf of a coalition of Caribbean statelets. After September 11th, Washington properly did not seek anyone’s approval to remove the Taliban from power, however unwise subsequent U.S. and NATO activities in Afghanistan have been.

The “Medvedev Doctrine,” as well as its application in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is fully consistent with these realities, while adhering to the principle that all powers must be accorded the same respect as Russia demands. Such an understanding appeals to the successful model of the Concert of Powers between the Congress of Vienna and its unfortunate demise in 1914, which in turn led to the physical demise of almost a whole generation of Europe’s young men. Even in the midst of the Cold War, and despite the existence of two powers that far outstripped the others, the UN Security Council roughly approximated the Concert of Powers in a way that helped avoid a major “hot” war, as well as a direct confrontation of American and Soviet military forces. The Medvedev Doctrine affirms, not rejects, this concept and assumes that the Security Council plays that same role, though with the rise of new centers of influence, such as India, Brazil, and maybe the EU itself, its membership needs to be updated.

It is not the Medvedev Doctrine that exhibits inconsistency between multi-polar principles and unilateral actions, where justified but contemporary Washington demands that every and all regions of the world are a “privileged” American sphere of vital national security interests.  For example, on March 19 of this year, President George Bush issued an assessment that providing U.S. military assistance to the gaggle of terrorists and Albanian mafia kingpins in charge of the separatist administration in Kosovo would “strengthen the security of the United States and promote world peace.” No less Orwellian, on June 16, 2006, he found that alleged electoral and human rights in Belarus “constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” When official language has strayed so far from ordinary reality, we indeed have entered the Twilight Zone.

As I have mentioned before, Russia’s principled and straightforward story on these matters needs to be told here in the United States in a candid, uncompromising, and factual American voice. That is not happening now. Far from suggesting that Russia should give up on justifying its positions, the Medvedev Doctrine makes such advocacy more important than ever, not only in support of Russian policy but also as a model for other powers, and even for the United States should Washington ever outgrow its hegemonic delusions. 

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C. :

In the abstract, “Russia's Five Principles of Foreign Policy” provides a legitimate statement of its willingness to advance its national interest, while rejecting the concept of “American Exceptionalism.” In theory, it is not particularly objectionable or threatening, at first glance. In practice, the situation appears to be quite different; in fact, the manner in which some Russian officials interpret it seems quite belligerent indeed (such as reserving the right to act unilaterally within its sphere of influence). If it seeks to provide a basis for such an application, it is likely to set in motion forces that will work against Russia’s global aims.

A country seldom has a single foreign policy. There can be numerous explanations for when what a state declares its foreign policy to be is not consistent with its actions. It could be evidence that:

1. One or more state bodies are engaging in actions that are unauthorized, do not understand what constitutes official policy, or are unable to comply with policy overall or within the announced time-frame. Throughout history, armed forces have undertaken actions that were seemingly inconsistent with official policy (such as halting operations). This may be the result of breakdowns in communication, limited insubordination, or connivance between the military leadership and the civilians to whom they report;

2. Those persons or institutions legally empowered to establish policy in fact lack the ability to do so -- i.e. there is a difference between de jure and de facto authority. Usually, this situation does not exist for a long time as one of the competing power centers (e.g. the president and prime minister) eventually prevails -- sometimes this requires the replacement of one of the competitors, or the acquiescence of the weaker to the stronger;

3. The official statement was issued for propagandistic reasons or to possibly influence governmental deliberations.

At present, in many areas Russia is politically isolated. Its friends and allies are not major players on the world stage economically, militarily or politically. Without a doubt, Russia would prefer to act in concert with other countries when possible (even if only symbolically) or under the auspices of an international organization to give its actions some legitimacy in the international legal context, the Russian political leadership will act according to the best course of action to further its national interests (i.e. as interpreted by it).

What Russia seems to be lacking at present is a political leadership with a full appreciation of the myriad of consequences of its actions. This can be the result of numerous factors, such as impatience, a failure to appreciate the potential long-term consequences of its actions (economic and/or political isolation) -- governments that can accurately gauge a situation (due to quality information from its intelligence services, diplomatic corps, NGOs, and the media), and the inability of Russian interest groups (or segments of the population) to articulate effectively their views and for the political leadership to take them into account.

It is neither a unique nor particularly insightful observation to note the numerous problems Russia has domestically. These problems are too numerous and complex to discuss here.  Russia needs to address its demographic and health situation, build a social safety net for its population, deal with social/sociological issues and strengthen and diversify its economy. Policies that harm Russian business interests (e.g. that might scare away foreign investment or encourage the flight of capital) ultimately provide a negative impact on Russia’s national interests. A greater penchant for grandiosity will be far more risky for Russia than working to become a leader of those states promoting international law.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Russia is formally avowing the unilateralism that had long since been a hallmark of its policy and rhetoric. But it does so out of defiance at the resistance to its policies. It is noteworthy that Medvedev made his remarks only after returning from an unsuccessful foray to the SCO which refused to support his efforts to truncate Georgian sovereignty and recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the doctrine that Russia has the right to intervene abroad on behalf of its “citizens.” This turn toward unilateralism was also to be found in the foreign policy concept of July, though nowhere stated it as boldly. Thus, Moscow is isolating itself from the world and proclaiming its sovereign right to act within its chosen sphere of influence as it sees fit to do. In other words, we see here an effort to replicate aboard what Putin has at home, namely an autocracy that answers to nobody and does as it pleases, “samoderzhavie” in its classical conception.

Moscow might think that it is only getting back its due and acting as America does, but that is just a pretext and Russia cannot afford this policy as its efforts to shore up the ruble. This is a policy based on resentment, revanchist and overweening arrogance, dizziness from success to use Joseph Stalin's phrase, but Russia cannot afford it and will pay more for its escapade in Georgia than it was worth. It would have been better advised to profit from America's misadventure in Iraq by realizing that unilateral use of force, while emotionally satisfying, in reality pays increasingly diminished returns in today's world, at least in a war of choice.

Instead Russia acted as it has done and when resistance begins to manifest itself, as is now happening, it redoubles its bet on unilateralism and proclaims its defiance to those whose support it most needs. This is not rational policymaking but as the French say, a policy of “va banque,” i.e. going for broke. And it will not work. Moreover, autocracy at home is an inherently sub-optimal economic policy; shall we soon see the costs of the last several years in domestic politics? Russia’s economy shows that it is no longer immune to global shocks, another lesson Putin and Co. should have pondered before invading Georgia.