RD Interview: Alexander Sergunin, a professor of International Relations and the author of a new book on Russian foreign policy, outlines the key factors that influence the Kremlin’s actions on the global stage.

Pictured (left-right): Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin during the meeting with Russian ambassadors in foreign countries. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia continues to struggle with the definition of its national identity. This affects its foreign policy behavior and makes it more difficult for policymakers in Washington, D.C., Brussels and elsewhere to make sense of Russia's actions on the global scene. “Explaining Russian Foreign Policy Behavior: Theory and Practice,” a new book by Alexander Sergunin, a professor of International Relations at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg State University, is an attempt to clarify Russia’s foreign policy goals.

Sergunin’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding Moscow’s behavior on the international scene and Russian foreign policymakers’ perceptions of their strategic environment. Not only does Sergunin identify the ideas and conceps that have competed within the Russian foreign policy establishment during the past 25 years, he also analyzes how and through which channels those ideas circulate, impact each other, converge towards a consensus or conversely diverge towards plurality, affect policies and are perceived by foreign observers.

To foreign readers, Sergunin’s book demystifies the Kremlin’s foreign policymaking processes and gives them the tools to understand and engage in a dialogue with Russian decision-makers and influencers.

Russia Direct recently met with the author to discuss the much-debated questions of Russia’s identity struggles, its foreign policy and the role of the expert community in shaping decision-making and engaging with the public. Sergunin is critical about the structural flaws of Russian foreign policy, but he offers some optimistic perspectives for the future.

Alexander Sergunin, a professor of International Relations at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg State University. Photo: Arctic Frontiers 2015

Russia Direct: You write that part of what makes Russia appear ‘unpredictable’ to foreign observers is the fact that it is still looking for a national identity. This is a frequently heard argument - but this is the case elsewhere. The EU, too, is going through an identity crisis - and so are many of its member countries. One might say that the U.S. is searching for its identity as well, as illustrated by the Trump phenomenon. What makes Russia’s national identity problem so special - why is it such a central narrative in Russian foreign policy analysis?

Alexander Sergunin: We should distinguish between identity-searching and identity-adjustment. All nations or supra-national institutions like the EU are permanently adjusting and adapting their identities but core identities remain intact.

The story is different with Russia. Russia has lost its former (Soviet) identity with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. It found itself in a completely new geographical, geopolitical, economic, demographic and spiritual situation. The first generation of Russia’s post-Soviet leaders and elites neither wanted nor were able to manage the formation of a new identity, being preoccupied with establishing their control over the country and privatizing its economy and national wealth.

Only by the late 1990s did Russia’s political class realized the need to consolidate the nation and start the process of national identity and the formation of “super ideas.” This process is not yet completed. The pendulum of the national debate on identity-related issues still oscillates between liberalism and conservatism, Westernizers and Slavophiles/Eurasianists. Naturally, these debates affect foreign policymaking and provide Moscow’s international course with some elements of unpredictability and inconsistency.

Recommended: Russia Direct Report "National Identity: The 25-year search for a new Russia"

RD: You interpret Russia’s defiance towards the West as the result of a history of aggression. Looking back at the past centuries, there has also been aggression from or conflict with the East and the South - did that leave any trace in Moscow’s current threat perceptions?

A.S.: First, one reservation or caveat. The perception of the West as a source of aggression or threat is typical for the Russian elites over the last centuries. However, at the same time, Russian leaders preferred to have good relations and tried to cooperate with the West or parts of it when it was possible: Peter the Great’s reforms, the anti-Napoleonic coalition, the “concert of powers” in the Vienna international system, the Entente Cordiale, the anti-Hitler coalition, Gorbachev’s New Political Thinking, Yeltsin’s early era, Putin’s first administration, etc.

As far as other regional sources of security threats are concerned, of course, there were and are dangers from the East (e.g. Tatar-Mongol invasion; a war with Japan in the first half of the 20th century; and the China threat in the foreseeable future) and South (e.g. Ottoman Empire and Crimean Tatars in the past and various forms of Islamic extremism at present). The threats emanating from local conflicts and extremism and international terrorism are, of course, reflected in Russia’s doctrinal documents. You can read about that in my chapter on Russia’s threat perceptions and national security doctrines.

RD: You mention “Russia’s traditions of interethnic and interreligious tolerance and multiculturalism.” Although experts of Russia are familiar with this narrative, this is not what Russia is known for among the broader public abroad. Why has Russia hitherto failed to promote itself on the basis of this multiculturalism narrative?

A.S.: Should Russia necessarily promote itself as a country with rich traditions of multi-faith and multiculturalism for the broader Western public? Russia develops these strategies first and foremost for domestic consumption, not for foreign audiences. However, since the late 2000s, Moscow has tried to improve its international image in the framework of the soft power strategy, including Russia’s representation as a model for multiculturalism that can compete with the European and American ones. There is a section on Moscow’s soft power strategies where the reader can find my analysis of the strong and weak aspects of such strategies.

RD: In your book you focus not only on traditional and official (central) policymaking structures and channels, but also on the ‘unwritten rules of the game’ and the involvement of non-state actors. You mention the fine line between a vibrant civil society and policymaking led by parochial interests. What is Russia’s situation in this regard?

A.S.: Russia’s problem is that it is still a social organism in transition. The processes of the social structure’s stratification and formation of civil society institutions are not completed. Our society is not mature enough; it has no clear structure; interest groups and party system are still fluid and not properly established. The Russian model of federalism is in its formative phase too. In this situation, it is very difficult to harmonize different interests and distinguish between parochialism and healthy group, regional, and local interests. It is just a question of time before Russia is able to develop its own recipes how to balance various types of interests in the policymaking process.

RD: During times of geopolitical tensions, a dialogue between civil societies can be the solution to counterbalance confrontational elite discourses. Can there be such a dialogue between Russia and the EU, even as civil society organizations that display some proximity with the West are increasingly berated as internal foes (and vice versa)?

A.S.: I still believe that cooperation between Western and Russian civil society institutions could be helpful for developing a dialogue between our countries in these difficult times. However, both sides should refrain from any activities that could be interpreted by the other side as interference in the other’s internal affairs. For example, the EU and U.S. should not fund Russian NGOs that are politically active and try to affect Russia’s policymaking.

Even “problematic” (from the Russian authorities’ point of view) international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, or Human Rights Watch could be helpful in encouraging Russia to defend and promote human rights in the country. They can do that by not only criticizing the Russian government but also offering their expertise and mediation services in conflict situations.

These services could include: sharing with the above governments and local NGOs data on human rights violations; explaining to them the methodology and indicators used for observing the human rights situation (possibly even developing joint methodology and indicator systems); organizing training sessions, workshops and seminars for governmental officials and NGO activists (not only from the political opposition but for all parties involved or those that potentially might be involved or interested); networking between local, national and international NGOs; mediating conflicts between local NGOs and the government and between NGOs themselves; reviving existing multilateral institutions, such as, for example the EU-Russia civil society forum with the aim to make them more active in defending and promoting human rights in the region.

RD: Recently Russia Direct interviewed Carnegie Moscow Center's Director Dmitri Trenin, who wrote a book about Russia’s foreign policy and identity projections in the 21st century. One of his wishes was that the Russian public should be more aware of their elites’ foreign policy activity. Do you think that the public is not involved enough? If not, how could it be more involved? What role is there for the academic or expert community in raising public awareness and critical thinking about foreign policymaking and international relations?

A.S.: Yes, but the society's lack of interest in international affairs is not only Russia’s problem. For example, the American public is quite indifferent to what is going on in the international arena. In the case of Russia, the lack of common people’s interest in world politics is explained by their preoccupation with their numerous basic problems which, of course, are much more important for these people than international events.

Of course, the role of the academic or expert community in raising public awareness and critical thinking about foreign policymaking and world politics is very important and this community should be more active in this field than now. However, it would be naïve to believe that intelligentsia could be the only or crucial factor that could radically change the Russian public’s attitude to international affairs.

First, people’s basic problems should be solved in order to create favorable conditions for stimulating their interest in foreign policymaking and international relations.

RD: But people's basic problems are interconnected with international events – especially now as geopolitical tensions have translated into economic difficulties for Russia. Can that facilitate a healthy involvement of the public in foreign affairs, or does that risk making people even less critical and more focused on their daily concerns?

A.S.: I am not sure that the Western economic and financial sanctions have really aggravated the economic situation for the average person in Russia. What has really created problems for most Russians is the lack of structural economic, financial and administrative reforms coupled with a dramatic drop of oil, gas and other mineral resources prices. The current economic crisis and “resource curse” can be overcome and Russia’s sustainable socio-economic development can be ensured only if the country’s economy, financial, administrative and legal systems are radically reformed. Also, an innovative type of economy and knowledge-based society should be established.

None of the Western sanctions can generate a serious anti-Putin opposition and facilitate regime change. On the contrary, these sanctions entailed regime consolidation and provoked anti-Western sentiments in Russian society. Now the avergae Russian blames the West rather than the regime for economic hardships. Generally speaking, this situation is not conducive to a broader involvement of the Russian public in the foreign policymaking process.

RD: Your books feature policy recommendations. Do you hope to be heard by Russian (and also foreign) policymakers? What resources do Russian experts have to use to disseminate their ideas beyond academic circles and to influence decision-making processes?

A.S.: Actually, I’ve tried to refrain from policy recommendations in my books because I understand the difference between scholarly works and policy-oriented research. Perhaps some of my thoughts and conclusions are so explicit that readers could easily transform them into policy recommendations.

As far as the role that academics could play in foreign policymaking is concerned, I am quite realistic about this. Experts and academics can provide policymakers with some ideas and alternatives as well as with critical assessments of past and current foreign policies. However, it’s always up to policymakers whether to accept these ideas and criticism or not. Unfortunately, the relationship between the Russian policymaking, expert and academic communities is still far from harmonious and some gaps still do exist. There is no rotation [“revolving doors”] system between these communities as exists in some countries like the U.S. or Israel.

It should be noted, however, that some Russian think tanks, such as the Russian International Affairs Council, Valdai International Discussion Club, Russian Geographic Society and Gorchakov Foundation try to bridge the gap between policymaking, expert and academic communities. These kinds of efforts should be further supported and continued.

RD: You recently co-authored “Russia in the Arctic: Hard or Soft Power?” with Valery Konyshev, a book resulting from more than two decades of academic research about the Russian Arctic as a matter of domestic and foreign policy. How important is the Arctic in Russian foreign and security perceptions and why? Is Arctic policymaking in Russia linked to the ebb and flows of international relations, or is it primarily a matter of domestic policy?

A.S.: The Russian perceptions of the Arctic, including its national interests in the region, are described in Moscow’s doctrinal documents of 2008 and 2013. These include: developing the resources of the Arctic and making them part of Russia’s “strategic resource base”; turning the Northern Sea Route (NSR) into a unified national transport corridor and line of communication; and maintaining the region as a zone of international cooperation and peace. More recently, another priority was added: mitigation of climate change.

Similar to Canada and Norway, the Arctic region for Russia is primarily of domestic interest. All Russian strategic documents refer to the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) rather than to the Arctic region at large. International aspects are mentioned only with respect to security threats emanating from certain international actors (like NATO) or with reference to the need for international cooperation, which could facilitate development of the AZRF and NSR.

Recommended: Russia Direct Report "The Arctic: a New Geopolitical Pivot?"

RD: The Kremlin recognizes and promotes the importance of soft power in the Arctic. Is it PR posturing or an authentic commitment? How important does hard power remain in the Arctic?

A.S.: Moscow is quite sincere in its preference for soft power policy methods in the Arctic because it believes that most security threats and challenges in the Arctic are of a soft rather than hard nature. As for “hard” (military) power, the Kremlin believes that in contrast with the Cold War era when this power was the main instrument in the East-West confrontation, military power has now three major functions: first, to demonstrate and ascertain Russia's sovereignty over the AZRF - including the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf; second, to protect its economic interests in the North; and third, to demonstrate that Russia retains its great power status and has world-class military capabilities (i.e. a symbolic function).

RD: What does Russia see as the biggest threat to peace in the Arctic, a more assertive presence (including in military terms) of the NATO coastal states, or the increasing claim for internationalization of the Arctic by non-Arctic states?

A.S.: None of Russia’s serious experts see any real threat to peace in the Arctic. As mentioned above, all major threats and challenges emanate from the soft security domain. Again, none of Russia’s serious experts believe that NATO's activities in the region, military modernization programs of neighboring states or non-Arctic states’ ambitions in the High North can provoke a military conflict in the region. Russian military plans and strategies in the Arctic are of a purely defensive rather than offensive character. The cooperative rather than confrontational type of thinking prevails now among both policymakers and experts and academics.