What foreign policy do Russians want?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Only a year ago, few people outside of Russia’s expert community heard of Mikhail Dmitriev, the president of the Center for Strategic Research, an economics and social studies think tank. Today, Dmitriev, 51, is one of the country’s most recognized and respected opinion-makers.

Dmitriev’s rise to prominence began after March 2011, when his center published a report entitled “Political crisis in Russia and possible mechanisms of its development.” Based on analysis of public polls and focus group data, Dmitriev and his co-author Sergei Belanovsky argued that Russia was in the middle of a full-blown political crisis that was characterized, among other things, by a sharp drop in public trust in the country’s political leadership. Many analysts, critical of the center’s methodology – its use of the focus group approach in particular – attempted to dismiss the report as a self-promoting exercise in political alarmism. However, the mass public protests that erupted after the December State Duma elections and then followed the presidential election in March were widely considered a justification of Dmitriev’s point of view. All of sudden, Dmitriev found himself in high demand: he became a frequent guest on political TV shows; his articles now are regularly published in both Russian and international print media.

The center’s latest report released in May went a step further: it claimed that the political crisis in Russia has become irreversible, and that regardless of possible future scenarios, the return to the pre-crisis status quo is not anymore possible. In particular, Dmitriev and his colleagues argued that the post-election spike in approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was no more than a transient uptick and that further decline would inevitably follow, a prediction lately proven by published public poll data.

The center’s May report is a must-read piece of analysis for everyone interested in Russian domestic politics. Yet, somewhat unexpectedly, it provides some interesting insights into possible directions of Russia’s foreign policy as well.  The report’s data show that a solid majority of Russians – regardless of age, geography and level of education – believe that their country is surrounded by enemies who seek to forcefully take over Russia’s resources and territory. Among these “enemies,” the United States in particular is considered the major strategic threat. Not surprisingly, the respondents overwhelmingly support Russia’s assertive foreign policy and the need for a strong army; they approve of an increase in military spending, even if this would limit state funding for health care, education and pensions.

Curiously, the external threat to Russia’s sovereignty was one of the major themes invoked by Vladimir Putin during his winter presidential campaign. Back then, many observers argued that the anti-American sentiments articulated by Putin the candidate represented no more than a tactical approach aimed at winning the “patriotic” vote.  Once back in the Kremlin, the thinking went, Putin would return to the more pragmatic foreign policy characteristic of his first two presidential terms.

The report’s findings, however, suggest differently. Far from being a transient trend, a foreign policy based on exploiting external threats and anti-western rhetoric may become a central piece of the regime’s whole political agenda, an “anchor” that would prevent further sliding of political support of the authorities by the citizens. The more disillusioned ordinary Russians become with the regime’s domestic policies, the more tempted the Kremlin would be to compensate for this disillusionment with conducting a muscular foreign policy.

Russia’s position on Syria may represent the most obvious manifestation of this approach. Last week, for the third time in the past nine months, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria – proposed by the UK and backed by other Western countries – calling for international intervention to stop the escalating violence in the country.

There is no shortage of explanations of Russia’s support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Some analysts remind us that Syria is a trusted buyer of Russian military equipment and also the host of a naval base in Tartus, Russia’s last military base outside the former Soviet Union. Others point to Russia’s ideological aversion to “humanitarian interventions,” which Moscow views as slightly veiled pretexts for toppling Western-unfriendly regimes. And there are also those who claim that Russia simply wants to “avenge” the West for the last year’s U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya, the resolution that Russia chose not to veto and then watched helplessly as the United States and its allies used it as an excuse to overthrowing the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Obviously, all of the above is at play. And yet, Moscow’s behavior may be driven by far simpler and pragmatic consideration: at times when the productive cooperation with the West looks all but impossible, the best that Russia can do is to consistently confront the West. Given the domestic situation, the Kremlin would be foolish not to explore something that it still shares with its constituents: the image of the enemy knocking at the country’s door.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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27 Responses to What foreign policy do Russians want?

  1. Dear Eugene,

    I have as you know already explained on my own blog why I think the Russian government is taking the stand on Syria that it is. I doubt that it has anything to do with domestic concerns if only because I very much doubt that the great majority of people in Russia give Syria a second thought. For the rest my own impression is that whilst there is a certain amount of popular suspicion of the US in Russia (which is not difficult to understand given some US actions like the support given to Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetia war) the great majority of Russians have no specially strong hostile feelings towards the US and would on the contrary like good relations with the US. Certainly I have never come across the sort of anti Americanism amongst Russians that I routinely encounter amongst French. If Putin really is looking to bolster his domestic support by playing up anti Americanism (which I doubt) then in my opinion he’s on a hiding to nothing.

    As to Dmitriev’s analysis of a structural crisis, you will not be surprised when I tell you that I do not see it and that I think he is letting his own desires run ahead of him and of what the data says. To my mind the odd dips and rises in Putin’s support mean little. Anyway time will tell.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      Unfortunately, I didn’t read your article on Syria, but heard a lot of excellent reviews.

      We all know that many governments struggle to conduct foreign policies that aren’t popular with their citizens. The point of my piece was that dissimilar to these governments, the Kremlin conducts foreign policy that, by and large, is in line with the expectations of ordinary Russians. Moreover, this “unity” on the foreign policy helps the Kremlin to solidify its vanishing domestic support. That was it.

      In contrast to many other “analysts,” Dmitriev isn’t an ideologue; nor is he a “columnist.” He presents his conclusions based on data he collects by methods he finds appropriate. You may dislike his methods or argue with his conclusions, but what Dmitriev does is interesting, provoking and quite often predictive. There are but a few other pundits in Russia that I value as much as Dmitriev.

      No matter what you think about Putin, you’d agree that he’s past the pick of his popularity and it’s likely unlikely that his ratings will ever come back where they were just a couple years ago. Crisis or not, there are all the signs the regime has exhausted the well of its popular support. Dmitriev was simply the first who said that (or was brave enough to say).

      Best,
      Eugene

      • Dear Eugene,

        Of course Putin is not as popular as he was at the peak of his popularity. No political leader can sustain that level of popularity indefinitely. It would be very sinister and very worrying if he did. However it does seem to me rather odd to say that his “regime has exhausted the well of its popular support” just a few months after Putin was re elected in a landslide victory.

        • Eugene says:

          Dear Alexander,

          I agree that no political leader can sustain high level of popularity indefinitely. The problem is that Putin is going to stay in office indefinitely, politically speaking of course.

          As for Putin’s “landslide victory,” let me say that when you shadow boxing, you can’t win by knockdown.

          Best,
          Eugene

      • Can’t disagree — I personally thought (and still do) that Putin’s return was a mistake (everybody runs out of his possibilities eventually, a missed chance to do a George Washington and say two is enough for mortals, eventually the fart-catchers figure out how to manipulate your obessions) but here he is. But he still has some future.

        As to the “West’s” popularity and level of trust in the Russian boondocks, after NATOX, Kosovo et al, Ossetia war, all the anti-Russia crap in the Western MSM, and so on and on, the Russians would be utter fools not to be skeptical. Who would think that Russians would be so stupid as to trust the West?
        http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2011/12/natos-word-of-honour-and-arms-races.html

        • Eugene says:

          Hi Patrick,

          Nice to hear from you. Let me pose a more general question: do Russians want to work/deal/cooperate with the West in the first place? If not, no reason for “trusting” the West: they can proceed with shooting the PussyRiots to death, if they so wish. But if they do, then some amount of “trust” is inevitable.

          And now, a question for you: under Medvedev, Russia was arguably more “trustful” of the West than under Putin. Were any Russia’s key national interests negatively affected by that? Conversely, is Russia better off by taking more confrontational stance against the West? Medvedev at least formulated Russia’s foreign policy as a tool to facilitate the country’s “modernization.” And what is Putin’s overachieving foreign policy objective? What exactly is he trying to accomplish, except fucking the West?

          Thanks,
          Eugene

  2. AK says:

    …a prediction lately proven by published public poll data.

    Apologies for my impertinence, but I have this gnawing feeling that you have a selective approach to poll results. Isn’t FOM a state-owned pollster that constructs its figures to the wishes of its Kremlin masters? (At least, that’s my impression of what you argued when the “regime’s” approval rating was trending upwards…)

    There is no shortage of explanations of Russia’s support for the regime of Syrian president.

    The naval “base” (it’s really a glorified refueling center) is almost a non-entity and the value of Russian arms sales to Syria are fairly modest in the big picture. Have you read Patrick Armstrong’s recent article at RPOV? I highly recommend it. This also ignores of course the fact that Russia is hardly alone in supporting Syria, with China fully aboard too (what are its reasons then?) and many other countries like India and Pakistan skeptical (as Mercouris points out in his blog).

    • Eugene says:

      Anatoly,

      I’m afraid that your “gnawing feeling” has betrayed you this time around:) If you’re so attentive to my poll data preferences, you should have noticed that FOM is the only of the Major Three I have some trust in. BTW, on this particular subject — post-election uptick followed by decline — Levada published similar data.

      I’m not sure that I follow you Syria objections — if of course they meant to be such. Arms sales to Syria and the Tartus base are often invoked as reasons for Russia’s support. I didn’t invent these explanations, didn’t say I preferred them to others, I just mentioned them. Am I missing something?

      Yes, I know that Russia isn’t alone in supporting the current regime in Damask. But my piece was about Russia. What is your point then?

      Best,
      Eugene

      • marknesop says:

        Well, Putin’s approval rating is up to 67% from 64% last month.

        http://www.kyivpost.com/content/russia-and-former-soviet-union/poll-president-putins-popularity-rating-up.html

        That’s from Levada Centre, which I realize is probably a tool of the Kremlin, although they say not and noted Putin-hater Tara Kuzio

        http://www.taraskuzio.net/media24_files/107.pdf

        appears to believe it’s accurate, since he reported it without any sarcastic asides about Putin and Levada cooking the results. We could play this game all year, with Dmitriev being right one week and me being right the next. Would that suggest I am as courageous and academic as Dmitriev? I hope so, because I can’t do the job I do forever, and in a few years I will be looking for a nice little retirement sideline.

        • Eugene says:

          Mark,

          I take it as a rule not to discuss changes in ratings (from 64 to 67%) that don’t exceed the stated error margin of the study, which in Levada case is always 3.4%. Let’s discuss Putin’s increased popularity next month.

          Best Regards,
          Eugene

          • marknesop says:

            Fair enough, but I’m already looking for a name for my new Polling Agency. I’m leaning toward “Tool of the Kremlin”, because that’s what everyone who finds the results not to their liking would call it anyway.

            Warmest regards,
            Mark

            • Eugene says:

              Mark,

              You can also consider “The Liberal Voice.” The “liberal” is how you, Anatoly and some others usually describe people whose political view you disagree with:)

              Good luck with the agency!

              Eugene

              • marknesop says:

                “The “liberal” is how you, Anatoly and some others usually describe people whose political view you disagree with:) ”

                Only in Russia. “Liberal” and “Conservative” mean very different things in different parts of the world, and for my part I have only twice ever voted conservative since I was old enough to vote; I am consistently liberal in my personal views. Similarly, U.S. conservatives are among the loudest champions of Russian liberals, while they would not walk across the street to spit on an American liberal if he were on fire. Those who would be identified as liberals in Canada are more or less the same who would be identified as liberals or Democrats in the USA (often synonymous), whereas “liberals” in Russia are something completely different – the sole similarity, in my view, is their claim to being the intellectuals.

                The liberals in Russia attempt to link themselves with those described in Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murat”, while simultaneously portraying Putin as Tsar Nicholas: dissipated, self-centred and delusional. Here, Nicholas describes his distaste for them (this is a translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) – “Elena Pavlovna was for him the personification of those empty people who talked not only about science and poetry, but also about governing people, imagining that they could govern themselves better than he, Nicholas, governed them. He knew that, however much he quashed these people, they surfaced again and again.”

                There is nothing in Putin’s actual speech or actions which reveals a clear contempt for either learning or liberal values. Instead, the impression is a construct based on liberal interpretations of Putin’s speech and actions laced with innuendo, such as those who try to provoke a schoolyard fight by suggesting the one is mocking the other.

                • Alex says:

                  Finally, Eugene – we know who you are -you are a full-blown Russian Liberal! Like Navalnyi. Or Nemtsov. Or Ksyusha. Maybe worse – like B. Akunin, (“worse” because the latter is more honest & intelligent). Soon you will be on the board of the Directors of RosNano, will sign a contract with Georgian TV, there will be millions in euro in the drawers of your desk, your explicit-language e-mails & phone calls will be leaked to the public and your next blog post will be an open letter to US Congress to expand the Magnitsky list to include all Russian public servants.

  3. Alexlex says:

    Hi, Eugene

    I agree that having an enemy at the door is a good distraction from the local political troubles. I doubt that eg. the Russian “Syria policy” was intentionally employed to dissipate the build up of growing social instability – there were many other factors – some of which you mentioned, But it certainly, worked (-s) the way you described too. At least to some extend. (I would say that when a policy “works” for several “purposes” – some of which were not anticipated, it is a sign that the policy is approximately correct. Although, in this Syria case it will be important not to overdo it).

    Cheers

    • Eugene says:

      Hi Alex,

      For anyone familiar with how developed bureaucracies work it’s clear that no state “policy” can be created to intentionally fit another one. Sure, Russia’s stand on Syria has its own deep roots. However, public support of any policy, including international, still matters, even in Russia. The fact that the Kremlin doesn’t have to spend any political capital on explaining its foreign policy — and there were different times: remember Afghanistan? — is important, because there is not much such a capital left.

      Cheers,
      Eugene

    • Eugene says:

      Alex,

      Just saw your comment on the RBTH site. Thanks: editors like comments! And I articulate my response here: 100% agreed.

      Cheers,
      Eugene

  4. Giuseppe Flavio says:

    Dear Eugene,
    this supposed “enemy at the gate” Kremlin’s new policy of confronting the west to prevent a supposed structural crisis of consent is at odds with reality. How do you explain that the Kremlin has not closed the northern route to Afghanistan and is preparing a transit hub in Ulyanovsk? The latter seems to have a much larger negative impact on Russia’s public opinion than the Syrian crisis. I know that the northern route is there because it is also in the interest of Russia (although from Western analysts wording it looks like it is there only in the interest of Russia, as if the US went to Afghanistan to help poor Russia), but I know as well that the absence of the northern route would not change the US policy in Afghanistan, it just will make it more expensive (for the US).
    Re. Syria, I find it hard to see Russia’s stance as “the most obvious manifestation of this approach” because I don’t think that whenever the West wants something other countries are under any obligation to deliver. In other words, why should Russia gift Syria to the West and its Islamic allies? Why refusing a gift is “confrontational”?

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Giuseppe,

      I find one problem with your line of reasoning: timing. All the decisions with regards to Afghanistan were made long time ago – certainly when Medvedev was still president and Russia was still experimenting with less confrontational approach vis-a-vis the West. Also compare Russia’s stance on Libya vs. Syria. On Libya (under Medvedev), Russia approved one UNSC resolution and abstained from another, whereas It vetoed three on Syria, of which two fell on Putin’s still young presidency. And why is that? Because under Medvedev, there was still a hope to strike a deal on missiles defense. Now, it’s clear that there won’t be any deal. That’s what I meant to say by the key line “at times when the productive cooperation with the West looks all but impossible.” Having nothing else to lose, the Kremlin decided at least to consolidate the whatever remaining domestic support.

      Syria can’t be Russia’s “gift” to the West for one simple reason: it doesn’t owe it. Iran does. In fact, some U.S. analysts argue — and I share their opinion — that Russia’s position on Syria is a gift to President Obama who doesn’t want military intervention in Syria at least before the November election. Now, he has a perfect excuse and an ideal scapegoat: Russia. Eventually, Syria will follow the Libya scenario: Russia will lose it and in addition, it will lose — again! — a PR war over this loss.

      Best Regards,
      Eugene

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        Dear Eugene,
        the fact that the decisions with regards to Afghanistan were made long time ago doesn’t mean that they can’t be changed. Just like the approach to the Western “Right to Protect” has changed. If Putin was really so desperate about a dwindling domestic consent, he would close the northern route (and there is nothing the US could do reopen it), instead it’s been enlarged.
        Russia doesn’t owe Syria, and I don’t know if Iran owes her, but it is Russia that has a seat at the UNSC, not Iran. It is up to Russia to allow a UN-sanctioned intervention in Syria, so I’ll rephrase my previous question as:
        Why should Russia gift a Ch 7 resolution against Syria to the West?
        As for the “PR loss”, regardless of what happens in Syria the Western media will continue to bash Russia. These “PR loss”, “information warfare”, “hearths and minds”, etc. are just PC names for the good old propaganda, which goes on regardless of defeats of victories.

        • Eugene says:

          Dear Giuseppe,

          Closing the northern route is too strong of a medicine; it’s like using antibiotics against simple cold. Russian already hinted that this “measure” will be considered if something serious happens, like a total collapse of negotiations over missile defense. Plus, Russia is very proud of its record of sticking to its promises; plus, it gets money for the northern route, Ulyanovsk base, etc. Why choosing this road when you can go “free” and simply deny the West UNSC resolution on Syria?So that’s exactly what the Kremlin does: makes a show at the UMSC, and then all the media talks about that with Lavrov on TV every other way. On the contrast, when for the last last Russian media mentioned the Ulyanovsk base?

          To the extent anyone “owes” Syria, Iran does, and Russia’s seat at the UNSC can’t change the future course of the event: Assad will be gone sooner or later, and Russia will lose its position in the country — exactly how this happened in Libya. And don’t tell me that Russia doesn’t care about losing PR wars. Otherwise why Putin talked about that at the meeting with Russian ambassadors?

          Best Regards,
          Eugene

          • Giuseppe Flavio says:

            I’m not sure I understand your medical metaphor. It seems you mean that Putin’s consent crisis is a simple cold, but this is at odds with the content of your post and some of the answers you gave to some comments. Also, it is not clear to me what is the difference between “..on missiles defense. Now, it’s clear that there won’t be any deal” and “a total collapse of negotiations over missile defense”.
            Re. Ulyanovsk the KPRF tried to capitalise the popular dissent against the supposed “NATO base”, and will continue to do so.
            Re. Assad, everyone will be gone sooner or later, the point is what post-Assad Syria will look like. Unlike the Western media consent, I’m not so sure that an Islamic/pro-West goverment will replace him shortly. If the current insurgency fails (like in Algeria in the ’90 and Syria in 1982) it will be a Russian victory, followed by rabid propaganda by the media “a PR disaster”.

  5. “The Kremlin would be foolish not to explore…the image of the enemy” Well, I think the Kremlin is behind the US. Thus, Mitt Romney called Russia ‘our No. 1 geopolitical foe’ already 3 months ago.
    http://thehill.com/video/campaign/218201-romney-calls-russia-our-no-1-geopolitical-foe

    • Eugene says:

      I would respectfully disagree: Putin kicked off an anti-American campaign of sorts back in December 2011 when he accused HR Clinton in funding public protests in Russia.

  6. Pingback: Dear Russia: Please Stop Fighting Poverty, We Liked You Better When You Were Impoverished and Dying | The Kremlin Stooge

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