Foreign Policy Blogs

From Russia With (No) Love: A Hard Heart Works Best For Russia


Vladimir Putin at a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The incoming U.S. administration and its new foreign policy approach will impact Russia on multiple fronts. Indirectly, both Russia’s relations with China towards its east and Europe towards its west will be affected by the U.S.’ own economic and foreign relations with these regions, respectively.

However, the lion’s share of world attention will be directed towards the Middle East and whether Russia and the U.S. can forge a productive relationship going forward. Contrary to any softening of hearts due to the alleged “bromance” between the two countries’ leaders, a more hard-hearted, transactional approach based on shared interests will be critical to productive U.S.-Russia relations in the Middle East and globally.

Major Powers Heighten Russian Insecurity (Again)

With the TPP on life support and apparently finding no favor with the next U.S. administration, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is the only game in town as far as Asian mega trade agreements go. Although RCEP was formally started by ASEAN, all parties recognize China as the true economic power underwriting the scheme. As such, Russia will have to decide whether and under what terms it might like to join the concept if it’s indeed serious about pivoting east. However, doing so would almost certainly give China even more leverage within their “strategic partnership”, especially coming on the heels of the announced agreement to eventually merge Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union with China’s Silk Economic Road initiative.

With respect to Europe, the incoming U.S. administration has the potential to affect U.S.-Russia relations in two key hotspots: the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. With respect to newfound Russian assertiveness in Europe, Poland and the Baltic states have been the most vocal in requesting U.S. military reassurance. However, Russian militarization of its Kaliningrad enclave and the strengthened U.S. demand that NATO allies increase their own military spending only makes this situation more volatile. The only bright spot in this situation is that increased European defense spending overall may help to ameliorate Europe’s own sense of insecurity with respect to Russia. In fairness, this sense of insecurity has been attributed to Russia as well.

Ukraine comprises the second European front in the current U.S.-Russian standoff. Of course, it is different from the Baltics in that the Ukraine Crisis was the genesis of current U.S.-Russian hostilities. It’s important to remember, however, that the current hostilities are only a symptom of many unresolved issues since the end of the Cold War, namely Russia’s desire for inclusion in a new overall European security architecture. While Ukraine’s importance to Russia is currently mostly attributed to its geographic position as a barrier to the rest of Europe and home to many Russian gas pipelines, this is not the whole story.

Briefly, when Russia saw the West’s old Cold War paradigm, NATO, making overtures towards Ukraine, with Crimea both being considered the cradle of Russian civilization and Orthodoxy to some, and home to untold Russian sacrifices during the Crimean War, the stage was set for the current act of U.S.-Russian hostilities. Underlying Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia is Russia’s “bomber diplomacy”, where Tu-22M3 “Backfire” strategic bombers have been used again for signalling purposes. The placement of these bombers in Crimea comes on the heels of their deployment, both in circumnavigating Japan, as well as in patrols near U.S. Pacific Ocean military bases.

The New Holy Alliance

Sergej Karaganov, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, was recently asked what Russia hopes to accomplish through its Syrian intervention. Above even restoring Russia’s reputation as a great power both regionally and globally, Karaganov stated, “…to kill as many terrorists as far away from our borders as possible.” This statement was similar to that of a previous U.S. administration which stated that, “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Immediately following this objective, Karaganov noted the importance of local regime stability.

In contrast to Western perceptions of either a Trump-Putin “bromance”, or even a dictatorial Putin-Assad “bromance”, Russia’s foreign policy is based on interests, not values. From the Russian standpoint, stable regimes in countries such as Syria, Iran, and Egypt are more effectively able to combat terrorism within their own borders, thereby contributing to Russia’s overriding anti-terrorism interests in the process. Simply put, Russia doesn’t “love” Syria or Assad, personally. Rather, Russia, again, appreciates the benefits that a stable Syrian government can bring to the table with respect to serving overall Russian interests.

Though a rough analogy, a comparison can be made to the formation of the Holy Alliance at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. At that time, Russia formed an alliance with both Austria and Prussia to uphold monarchical values in the face of possible expansion of republican ideas from France. Such was the power of these revolutionary ideas, that Russia still considered them a threat to its own existence even after Napoleon was defeated militarily and sent into his second and final exile. Countering this threat, Russia found useful allies in Austria and Prussia, both of whom shared its interests. Even though the three powers happened to share similar values, these were clearly superceded by their shared interests.

Fast forward to today, and we can clearly see that today’s Russia views terrorism as an existential threat due to its soft, Central Asian underbelly and the Caucasus region. Again, it has found useful, local partners whom share its interests to help combat this threat, namely Syria and Iran. ISIS forms a threat to these two powers as well, and as such forms a focal point for shared interests between Russia, Syria, and Iran. Yet again, Russia’s Tu-22M3 “Backfire” strategic bombers have made their presence felt here, signifying the strategic importance Russia places on this front.

While striving for peace in the Middle East is admirable, doing so from a values-based approach, favoring certain regimes over others based on shared values will indefinitely put the U.S. in a quixotic position in the region. To more effectively combat ISIS regionally, as well as diffuse tensions in other hotspots globally, a more transactional, pragmatic U.S. approach towards Russia is most welcome and offers the opportunity for improved U.S.-Russian relations overall.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.