To understand the results of Russia’s foreign policy this year, Russia Direct sat down with Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University and a specialist on Russian security affairs.


From right: Russian President Vladimir Putin, his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, Russian Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the G20 summit in Turkey. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia’s foreign policy in 2015 has been a big surprise for foreign experts and politicians, who discussed this topic rigorously during the recent ASEEES (the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies) Slavic convention in Philadelphia. While some argue that Russia engaged in a great deal of dangerous improvisation this year, others argue that the Kremlin has a big foreign policy strategy, with its core goal to reinvigorate its geopolitical positions and regain its lost influence in the global arena. The recent Syrian campaign is a good example of this.

However, relying on improvisation alone may only bring short-term benefits such as boosting the government’s popularity within the country, rather than long-term ones. Moreover, such an approach makes it difficult for the Kremlin to find common ground with the West.    

In order to understand the results of Russia’s foreign policy improvisation in 2015 and its implications, Russia Direct sat down at the ASEEES convention with Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University and a specialist on Russian security affairs.

Russia Direct: What were the major drivers of Russia’s foreign policy in 2015, from your point of view?

Mark Galeotti: In many ways, 2015 is actually the extension of 2014. It demonstrates that Moscow is not constrained by international rule: If it feels it needs to take Crimea it will; if it feels it needs to intervene in [Eastern] Ukraine it will. This year has seen Russia have to cope with the consequences of such policy: the sanctions and the isolation [from the West]. So, the Donbas adventure has not worked.

And therefore we’ve seen several attempts to respond. Firstly, [Russia] tried to isolate Kiev through political means — this hasn’t worked. Secondly, it tried to persuade the West that it was better in general terms to deal with Moscow and that also hasn’t worked.

Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University. Photo: Russia Direct

And then came the Syrian adventure to force the West to realize that it needs to deal with Russia and give Moscow the opportunity to extricate itself from the Donbas. In other words, this is a kind of a deal: We will be nice to you in the Middle East, you have to be nice to us to a certain extent in Kiev and allow us to pull ourselves from that mistake.

RD: Do you think such an approach will work?

M.G.: Actually, I think it will. In Europe, there is an appetite for the de-escalation of the conflict.  Secondly, there is a philosophical belief that peace is what is important, that peace for Ukraine is the precondition for everything else. And then you can help Ukraine build itself as a proper sovereign state. After all, we are not taking about granting Russia sovereignty and suzerainty over Ukraine, we are really talking about allowing Moscow to withdraw with a degree of pride and tact.

Although Washington is less comfortable with that, I think in this respect the European view will prevail. We are not there yet, but I think that’s the direction we are heading for.

RD: What are the achievements and failures of Russia’s foreign policy in 2015?

M.G.: There are tactical and strategic achievements. The tactical ones include the Syrian move: Although there are still many, many risks, associated with it, it was brilliant by the way it was executed.

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But more generally, the strategic virtue is two-fold: One is actually managing to mitigate some of the worst impacts of the post-Ukrainian adventure, isolation and so forth. And secondly, Russia seems to have proved that to a certain extent it is a regional and global player: not a strong one, not by any means like the United States or China.

Because Putin has demonstrated a capacity to play his weak hand very well, because Putin has demonstrated a capacity to be a spoiler, he has, at least, made a case that you cannot ignore Moscow. And this is a key priority of this year.            

But the failures are also in essence extensions of the failures of 2014. Attempts to induce Kiev to accept Moscow’s hegemony have proven unsuccessful — if the attempt to build a new, democratic and West-looking Ukrainian state comes to nothing again, it will as usual be because of the Ukrainians.

Attempts to persuade the West to lift its sanctions regime have failed. Attempts to turn economic relations with China into some broader alliance that would allow Moscow to minimize the impact of Western isolation have failed.

There is a chance that thanks to Syria and, ironically, ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria], Moscow may be able to make some progress on this, but for all the talk of Putin as a master strategist, actually Russian foreign policy so far this year has not accomplished any of its main goals.

RD: This year Russian and American presidents met on the sidelines of the G20 summit and discussed Syria, which brought about optimism among some experts that Russia and the U.S. can find common ground regardless of their differences and forget about Ukraine, at least, for a certain period of time.

M.G.: I don’t think there are any questions about forgetting Ukraine. Nations are always able to be allies. Nations are always able to say: “We see common interest here, we see divergence there.” So, I think there is clearly going to be some kind of purely tactical battlefield alliance in Syria.

Of course, for lasting success against ISIS, you actually need to have some kind of political shift in Syria, because you need soldiers on the ground: The Syrian army itself is not enough for this, even with its Iranian proxies and militias. One of the things that Moscow can bring to the table after all is precisely to negotiate [Syrian President Bashar] Assad out of office.

Perversely, although everyone thought that Russia went to Syria to save Assad, what they are actually doing is going there so that Assad can be negotiated out rather than just losing power or facing a coup or whatever. So, in this respect, there are actually all kind of good reasons for America, Europe and Russia to cooperate against Islamic State, but this is not going to mean some re-reset, this is not going to mean they forget the very real conflicts that exist.

RD: Some pundits in the United States believe that Putin is a great strategist, especially in his foreign policy. Do you think so?

M.G.: No, I don’t think that he is a good strategist at all. In any case, we have to realize that foreign policy is very, very rarely driven by strategy, even if you think he is a strategist. There are so many variables and so many different actors involved.

What I think Putin has are actually two things: One is a general vision of what he wants and this vision is really driven primarily by his notion of Russian sovereignty and Russia’s place in the world. He feels Russia deserves to have a voice, to be listened to, he feels Russia deserves to be able basically to veto the impact of international norms and organizations inside its own borders. His sense of Russian sovereignty is that the Kremlin should be able to control everything that happens within Russia’s frontiers and have influence over what happens beyond it.

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But that’s the vision, not the strategy. The other thing, though, is that he is much more an opportunist: He responds to situations that arise and sometimes takes advantage of them. And in many ways it is sometimes far more effective, yet it carries risks because you might, as we saw in the Donbas, take a gamble and it fails.

RD: To what extent will Putin be able to find common ground with the West or, at least, to minimize the differences in 2016?

M.G.: He basically burned his bridges in terms of friendship [with the West]: No one is going to be a friend of Russia in the West under the current regime.

They will find all kind of reasons to cooperate, because it is pragmatically useful, because conflict can be a problem, but I don’t think anyone is going to forget Crimea, no one is going to forget MH17 [the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet shot down over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014 — editor’s note], no one is going to forget the fact that this regime [in Russia] is committed to essentially undermining many of the institutions through which Western values are communicated and expressed. The best you can hope for is a functioning, grudging modus vivendi with the West. That’s all.

RD: What should the West keep in mind to deal with Putin in 2016?

M.G.: What the West needs to do is to identify what he [Putin] wants and I think this is the problem. There is a constant uncertainty within the West: There are some who say that we cannot deal with Putin, with Putin’s Kremlin. If that’s the case, I would say that is a dangerous view. But many hold it, especially, in Washington, when actually you are making the case for regime change (I don’t mean hard regime change like Libya, but precisely sponsoring civil society movements that, the Kremlin thinks, will undermine the regime).

Others in a way are much more relaxed and say: “History is ultimately on our side.” This is just a phase that Russia has to get through and they are concerned about containing and constraining the worst impact of it.

The other key thing the West has to decide is what it actually wants from the situation: Does it simply want to stop Russia being a problem or does it have some grand notion of reshaping Russia? Hopefully, it will focus just simply on a much more narrowly constrained vision of what to do and allow Russians themselves to build their future.

RD: One of the arguments in the Kremlin’s hand is the negligence of the West, which is reluctant to see Russia as an equal partner. Following this logic, how is it possible to see eye-to-eye in this case, if there is no equal partnership?

M.G.: There are two points here. First of all, if we think about equality in the way Putin looks at it, this is clearly not a moral calculation. Putin does not, for example, feel that he should have the same rights as Ukraine has. He clearly feels that Russia has substantially more. He is much more motivated by the 19th-century view of politics.

On the other hand, actually, Russia is no way equal to the West. Yes, it has a thermonuclear arsenal, fair enough. But its economy is somewhere between Italy’s and Brazil’s. It is not a great power in a meaningful sense, except it is willing to present itself as such. So, when Putin talks about equality, in some ways he is actually harkening back to the position that the Soviet Union had, when it was one of two great superpowers.

RD: Why do you think Moscow regards the NATO expansion as a threat?

M.G.: There is a genuinely held but wrong belief that somehow NATO does harbor hostile intent, especially, within the Russian security and intelligence community, which is after all where Putin gets most of the information from these days now he has shrunk his circle of advisors. And, again, they genuinely believe that they are in effect in a war — a cultural war, rather than a military one — but a war with NATO, because of Putin’s professional background and mindset.

But also, let’s be honest, we have American generals speaking to Congress and the press and calling Russia an existential threat, the greatest individual threat to the United States! I think this is incredibly irresponsible. And the trouble is because when soldiers talk about a threat, they mean a real possibility, intent.

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Britain has an independent nuclear deterrent and in theory could launch a nuclear strike on America. But no one calls Britain an existential threat to America. It’s all about intent. So what happens is that we have this vicious circle that the Russians talk about NATO as a threat and believe it to be so. And meanwhile, American generals talk about Russia as a threat and presumably mean it. And it is actually very difficult to break out of that, particularly, when it comes down to the people to whom Putin is listening these days. All come from the same very, very narrow intellectual world.

RD: What do Obama and Putin get wrong about each other?

M.G.: Neither of them understands each other at all. They come from such radically different worlds. Both of them have demonstrated a failure of imagination: The problem is that Obama has continued to try to understand Russia by imagining that Putin is like him, so that there is an Obama in the Kremlin.

And likewise, Putin is assuming there is a Putin in the White House. This is such a tragic problem, because it means both sides get each other wrong so consistently. This is a problem of perception and intellectual empathy.

RD: What are the implications of the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey for Russia-NATO relations and what response should we expect from the Kremlin? 

M.G.: I don't think that the shoot-down of the Russian bomber will have a long-term effect on Russia-NATO relations — but Russia-Turkey relations are likely to be another story. It is striking that Ankara's Western allies, while making the necessary pro forma statements in support of its actions, have shown little real enthusiasm.

Likewise, while Moscow has expressed its anger at the Turkish action (and, after all, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was probably right to characterize it as an ambush), it does not seem to be trying to expand the issue.

There is still scope for NATO-Russia cooperation, but I think relations between Ankara and Moscow (and presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin) will remain antagonistic for some time to come.