Understanding Russian Foreign Policy Today

U.S.-Russia relations are in disarray, with talk of a new Cold War pervasive. Fortunately, framing the conflict in terms of national interests points to a way forward.


View of the Moscow Kremlin from the Moscow River, February 2016.
Arthur Bondar

I assume we would all agree that each country has its own national interests, which sometimes conflict with the national interests of other countries. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Satisfactorily resolved conflicts can improve relations, create expectations about how future conflicts will be resolved and decrease the likelihood that countries will consider resorting to violence. A diplomat’s primary responsibility is to advance his or her own country’s interests. In doing that, they are in a unique position to contribute to the satisfactory resolution of conflicts by helping their leaders understand how the other country sees its interests.

Russia’s view of its interests has changed in fundamental ways in the quarter-century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much of that change would, in my view, have been likely whether Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin or not. The Russia that emerged from the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union was intent on becoming part of the Western world and wildly optimistic about what that would mean.

Boris Yeltsin, its president, had staked his political future on destroying both the Communist Party and the Soviet system in which it was embedded. His foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was as intellectually pro-West as anyone in his position had been throughout Russian history. They inherited from Mikhail Gorbachev a foreign policy outlook—the Common European Home—that they intended to implement and extend.

The Russian people, giddy from the collapse of the corrupt, oppressive regime under which they had labored for generations, hungered for a normal relationship with the rest of the world and believed that the result would be quick and dramatic improvement in their lives.

In 1992 I wrote that these expectations could not be met, and that a period of disillusionment would inevitably follow. The policy challenge for both the West and Russia was to manage that period of disillusionment so that it would lead to a more mature and well-grounded relationship, and limit the likelihood of a Russian turn toward autarky and hostility. A quartercentury later it is clear that the relationship has not been managed well. The West—and particularly the United States—bears at least as much responsibility for that as does Russia.

Time of Troubles

The 1990s were a chaotic decade in Russia’s economic and social history, a new “Time of Troubles.” Where the West saw an emerging democratic, market-oriented society in the Yeltsin years, Russians saw criminality, disorder, poverty and the emergence of a new, corrupt and astronomically wealthy class of oligarchs. If this is what was meant by capitalism and democracy, they did not like it. Internationally, the Russian leadership saw the expansion of NATO eastward as a betrayal and a potential threat. Well before 1998, Yeltsin was discredited and Kozyrev was gone, replaced by a foreign minister with far more traditional views of Russian interests.

By 1998, when Putin replaced Yeltsin, the U.S.-Russian relationship had already deteriorated, driven by the NATO expansion, as well as by differences over the civil wars that stemmed from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Russians saw in these and other developments an attempt to establish a U.S.-dominated international system in which Russia would have no meaningful role. The Common European Home would be common to every European state except Russia. Any state might seek membership in NATO, unless that state was Russia. The United States kept telling Russia that none of this harmed Russian interests; Russia kept replying that, yes, it does harm our interests.

Trying to tell other countries what their fundamental interests are is generally a futile exercise.

At the turn of the century, what were those interests? Russia’s international behavior and the statements of its leadership suggest to me the following: first, not to have a potentially hostile military alliance on its borders; second, not to be isolated politically and economically from the most important European institutions; and, third, to have a meaningful say on developments in the region, and particularly on the orientation of the newly independent countries that had been part of its empire.

If the United States, Britain or France espoused such interests, it is not likely that they would be viewed as inherently predatory. Are we to conclude, then, that in Russian hands such interests are predatory because Russia itself is inherently predatory? A claim like that cannot withstand scrutiny. It is phobic. It is also not very smart. Historically, treating regimes as inherently predatory (e.g., the regimes of Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini) has been more likely to produce stability than treating countries as inherently predatory (e.g., Germany after World War I).

Interpreting Interests

So, is it appropriate, then, to consider the Putin regime inherently predatory? A number of foreign policy analysts who are not Russophobes, or do not want to be seen as such, do trace the problem not to the country but to the regime governing it. Proponents of the predatory Putin regime thesis point to the Russian invasions of Georgia and Crimea, its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine and its support of the Assad regime in Syria as evidence of an intent to recreate, insofar as possible, the geography and international influence of the Soviet Union. Their policy prescription for the United States is to contain this expansionism by replacing the Russian influence or presence with a U.S. influence or presence.

In my view, there are serious problems with this interpretation of Russian intentions and the policy approach that flows from it. First, it does not stand up well to critical examination. Second, its zero-sum view of the U.S.-Russian relationship assumes that a mutually beneficial resolution of conflicting interests is all but impossible.

The policy challenge for both the West and Russia was to manage that period of disillusionment so that it would lead to a more mature and well-grounded relationship.

The Putin regime has been more assertive, particularly during the past several years, in advancing Russia’s interests than was the Yeltsin regime throughout the 1990s, but it inherited a relationship with the West that its predecessors also considered deeply flawed. Despite continuing differences over issues such as NATO expansion, the new regime’s relationship with the United States reached a high point after 9/11, when Putin appeared to believe that a Russian-American alliance against international terrorism could be forged. The two countries shared an interest. They were then and remain today the two developed, non-Islamic states that have suffered the greatest losses from terrorism.

This embryonic alliance was useful to Washington when it invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime. It began to fray when the United States invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. When the United States moved to place anti-ballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe and NATO, and the European Union moved to develop closer relationships with Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian regime fundamentally reassessed the prospects for relationships with the West that would respect its concerns and interests.

Hardball International Politics

With regard to Georgia and Ukraine, the Putin regime has made no secret of its view that it is a fundamental Russian interest that these countries not become NATO members under any conditions, and that they become European Union members only under conditions acceptable to Russia. To assert that Russia has no right to such interests is beside the point. Trying to tell other countries what their fundamental interests are is generally a futile exercise. To argue that the assertion of such interests is prima facie evidence of predatory intent is historically dubious.

For a couple of centuries one of Britain’s two fundamental interests was preventing the emergence of a single dominant power on the European mainland. Britain used diplomacy, trade and military power on the mainland to pursue that objective. Its intentions were not predatory; it sought to maintain a balance of power. Was the Monroe Doctrine inherently predatory? Most Americans would presumably say no, although there are probably several Latin American states that would say, at a minimum, that the United States has used the doctrine at times to justify predatory behavior.

In Georgia and Ukraine, Russia used means that were appropriate to the achievement of limited objectives in support of its national interests. Since there are many who will find every element of that statement objectionable, some clarification is in order. First of all, to say that means are appropriate to an objective is not a moral judgment, but rather a statement that the means were right-sized to achieve the objective; they were necessary and sufficient, neither too large nor too small. In neither case was the objective to occupy the country or overthrow the regime in power.

The Putin regime will continue to be assertive in pursuit of its international interests, believing that the alternative is that its interests will be ignored.

Rather, the objective was to force a re-evaluation, both in the country concerned and among the Western powers, of the costs involved in pursuing NATO and E.U. membership. By recognizing Abkhaz and Ossetian independence and by annexing Crimea, Russia imposed an immediate cost on the countries concerned and also sent a message that there could be further costs if its interests were not taken into account.

This is hardball international politics, and we do not have to like it; but it falls well short of evidence that the Putin regime’s ambitions extend to the re-creation of the Soviet Union. In fact, our differences with Russia on Georgia and Ukraine are not fundamental. The Russian interest in not having those two countries in NATO should be shared by the United States.

It is not in the U.S. interest to provide Georgia and Ukraine the kind of security guarantees entailed in NATO membership, and it is difficult to understand why the idea even received consideration. Clearly disabusing them of the idea will provide an incentive for them to work out a mutually acceptable relationship with their much larger neighbor. The economic relationship among the E.U., Russia and the countries Russia calls the “near abroad” is not inherently zero-sum.

There is no fundamental reason why an arrangement beneficial to all sides cannot be found—which is not to say that finding it will be easy.

The Case of Syria

At the time of writing, the September ceasefire in the Syrian civil war has broken down, resulting in cruel attacks on aid convoys, civilians and medical facilities in Aleppo. These attacks occurred with, at a minimum, Russia’s acquiescence and assistance, and possibly with its direct participation. Is there any basis left for finding common ground on this civil war?

It appears to me that Russia’s Syrian intervention has served a number of its foreign policy objectives: 1) attacking Islamic terrorist groups where they live, rather than waiting for them to attack Russia; 2) avoiding the takeover of Syria by a terrorist group, which it believes would be the most likely outcome of the violent overthrow of the Assad regime; 3) supporting a regime that has allowed it a military presence; 4) supporting the principle that regimes in power should not be overthrown by outside forces; 5) expanding its role in the Middle East; and 6) challenging U.S. unilateralism in the international system.

We are in error if we see the war in Syria as a zero-sum U.S.-Russia contest.

We have common interests with Russia on the first two of those objectives; on the remainder our attitude may range from indifferent to opposed. Turning those shared interests into joint action has been extraordinarily difficult because we do not always agree on which groups are terrorists, and because terrorist and non-terrorist groups are often intermingled on the ground. Moreover, Russia’s client—the Assad regime—sees them all as threats to its rule and, thus, equally subject to attack. For our part, we have not been able to persuade the moderates (our clients, in Russia’s eyes) to separate themselves physically from the terrorists because the moderates, the weakest militarily of the combatants, fear that such a move would leave them more vulnerable to attack from both the Assad regime and Russia.

There is only one outcome of the Syrian civil war that would threaten vital U.S. national interests: the victory of a Taliban-style regime (or worse). On that, at least, the United States and Russia can agree. We are in error if we see the war there as a zerosum U.S.-Russia contest. Russia is not the Soviet Union. We will not always be in agreement on what should be done in Syria, or more broadly in the Middle East. But Russia’s support for the nuclear negotiations with Iran and its help in persuading the Assad regime to rid itself of chemical weapons demonstrate that we can cooperate there, and elsewhere, on some difficult issues.


Militarily, Russia is a significant regional power with a superpower nuclear capability. Economically, it is rich in raw materials and has vastly improved its agricultural sector, but continues to struggle to be competitive internationally in the industrial and information sectors. Politically, it is ruled by a semi-authoritarian regime that falls well within Russian historical traditions, is far milder than the Soviet-era norm and has a substantial level of popular support.

The Putin regime will continue to be assertive in pursuit of its international interests, believing that the alternative is that its interests will be ignored. Yet a normal relationship with Russia under the Putin regime is possible.

Unlike during the Soviet era, the two countries are not ideological opponents. There will be areas where our interests conflict. Resolving those conflicts constructively will require both countries to understand the limits of their interests.

Raymond Smith was an FSO from 1969 to 1993. He served in Moscow twice and while he was political counselor in Moscow drafted the 1990 cable “Looking into the Abyss: The Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should Be Doing About It.” He also served as director of the Office of the Former Soviet Union and Eastern European Affairs in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. A longtime international negotiations consultant, he is the author of Negotiating with the Soviets (1989) and The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats (2011).