Russian History


Foreign Policy Prospects

In the 1990s, a number of sometimes contradictory factors have driven Russian foreign policy. The most formidable and unchanging factor is the country's immense geographical span, which gives Russia natural interests in three vastly different regions--Europe, the Pacific, and the vast, largely Muslim stretch of the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia's recent history gives it particular geopolitical motivation to perpetuate relations with the fourteen nations that emerged along its periphery when the Soviet Union dissolved. Recent history also has motivated efforts to maintain an influence over some states of the Third World in which the Soviet Union had a substantial foothold.

The process of focusing priorities among a number of possibilities has proved to be unusually complex in an era when ideology and bilateral rivalry no longer dictate responses. The main recurring disagreement in post-Soviet foreign policy pits advocates of stronger ties with the capitalist world, especially Western Europe, against advocates of some form of reconstituted union in which Russia would be the dominant force, politically and economically. The first option truly could take Russia in a new direction. The second option offers the security of returning to a familiar role, but it also threatens to burden Russia with client states that it no longer can afford.

Between 1992 and mid-1996, the Yeltsin administration wavered from one side to the other, emitting contradictory signals as it tried to maintain as many options as possible. At the same time, however, Russia moved into Western organizations such as the Council of Europe, and treaty arrangements such as START I, which gave it stronger connections with, and obligations to, the West than it had ever had in the Soviet era. In this process, Russia showed consistently that it wished to be taken seriously as a diplomatic power upon which the world could rely, not merely as a plaintiff for its own national causes.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s, increasingly strong political forces in Russia have blocked further movement toward the West by arguing that Russia cannot recapture superpower status as a second-rate partner of rich capitalist states. The centerpiece of this position is opposition to NATO expansion eastward, which has been the pretext for nationalists to block other international commitments such as the START II disarmament agreement. At the same time, Russia has maintained substantial influence in parts of the former Soviet Union, taking advantage of destabilizing ethnic struggles in the new nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia to play a dual role as peace negotiator and military guarantor of security. Finally, Russia's closer ties with China, a country that still is the object of substantial suspicion in the West, have increasingly alarmed Western policy makers.

The replacement of Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev by Yevgeniy Primakov in January 1996 was an indication that Russia might be more concerned with restoring power than with conforming to international standards, although its Great Power infrastructure continued to crumble and Primakov proved to be more pragmatic than dogmatic in his initial policy statements. After Yeltsin's reelection in mid-1996, the president's illness obscured the locus of power in all areas of governance, including foreign policy. Western observers wondered whether a nation in acute economic distress, with a disastrously inefficient military and few dependable allies around the world, might still be willing to make the sort of pragmatic concessions that Yeltsin and Kozyrev practiced in the first years of Russia's post-Soviet existence.

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Because Russian foreign policy is in a period of formation and flux, most scholarly publications are articles or edited works, but some useful monographs have appeared. Noteworthy among the latter are Suzanne Crow's The Making of Foreign Policy in Russia under Yeltsin ; Gerard Holden's Russia after the Cold War: History and the Nation in Post-Soviet Security Politics ; and John George Stoessinger's Nations at Dawn--China, Russia, and America . Useful compilations of articles are Damage Limitation or Crisis?: Russia and the Outside World , edited by Robert D. Blackwill and Sergei A. Karaganov; The Making of Foreign Policy in Russia and the New States of Eurasia , edited by Adeed and Karen Dawisha; Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet Union: Domestic and International Dynamics and Russia and the Third World in the Post-Soviet Era , both edited by Mohiaddin Mesbahi; Rethinking Russia's National Interests , edited by Stephen Sestanovich; and Russian Foreign Policy since 1990 , edited by Peter Shearman. For more current coverage of foreign policy developments, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service's Daily Report: Central Eurasia digests and translates items from the Russian press, the Jamestown Foundation's Prism and Monitor publications offer short articles, and the Open Media Research Institute's biweekly Transition provide longer articles on domestic and foreign policy issues. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)