Peeling away the layers of Russian foreign policy reveals a revolving door of coalition partners that cannot distract from Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine is fast approaching its two-year anniversary, with no end in sight. Russia continues to put a brave face on this military and economic quagmire, with Prime Minister Mishustin recently claiming that many countries still want to pursue business, trade, and investment in Russia.
Such bravado does not do justice to President Putin’s ambitious foreign policy. He is contemplating no less than a new global security architecture, downgrading the US and Europe while pursuing what he obliquely terms the new “multipolar world.” In the process, Putin has lost sight of Russia’s traditional allies and partnerships in the post-Soviet space, revealing major fault lines in current Russian foreign policy.
Mishustin’s sunny presentation of Russia’s international portfolio primarily relies upon Russia’s leading role in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) economic bloc. Not only does BRICS represent a major share of the world’s economy and population, but Mishustin also emphasized its recent expansion to 10 member countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates) as emblematic of Russia’s rising global stature. Russian diplomats now claim that the world is a step closer to ending Western dominance of international trade rules, and the US dollar as the primary exchange currency.
Russia views the BRICS as a potential rival to the West and uniter of the Global South. It even has proposed creating its own internet. Such grand plans, however, require the resolution of several structural obstacles, including determining what currency will unite the organization and creating an internal payment system.
Putin has lost sight of Russia’s traditional allies and partnerships in the post-Soviet space, revealing major fault lines in current Russian foreign policy.
What the new members bring to the table, aside from oil wealth from a few countries, is unclear. Iran was the most sanctioned country in the world until Russia surpassed it. Both countries unilaterally renounced the use of the dollar, which Russia views as a US weapon. The new president of Argentina, however, immediately deviated from the BRICS playbook by pledging to abandon the peso in favor of the dollar.
Russia has bet its global reputation and economic future on the BRICS. It recently assumed the leadership of the organization, although the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that a formal strategy will not be introduced until 2025. Perhaps the most notable sign of potential weakness with this tactic concerns restrictions on Putin’s international travel. Putin was unable to attend the 2023 summit in South Africa because of an outstanding warrant from the International Criminal Court. President Lulu of Brazil issued a similar warning if Putin decided to travel to Brazil for the upcoming G20 meeting.
Russia’s Cacophony of Partnerships
While the BRICS aspires to be a global player, most of Russia’s long-standing pacts and associations are more regional in focus. The oldest of these groups is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an improvised attempt to somehow keep the post-Soviet states aligned after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Not much has been heard from the CIS since the early days of its founding. Although its most recent gathering occurred on October 13, 2023, it seems that membership remains in a state of confusion, with three countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) disavowing membership. Putin still has great hopes for the CIS and wants the security services of each member state to collectively ensure the region’s social stability and cultural values.
One of the most promising post-Soviet initiatives (on paper) was the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This coupling of former Soviet states began its existence as a customs union and emerged in 2014 as a coalition to encourage free trade among its members (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia). Yet the EEU has never lived up to expectations, and the most recent meeting in August 2023 showed an organization adrift. The original incentive for joining the Union centered on providing its members with favorable access to the Russian market. But at this recent gathering, several members highlighted the need to become an economic bloc that deals with transfers of technology, pharmaceuticals, machine construction, and so forth. Other countries wanted to discuss the new economic reality of the region, most notably how the imposition of sanctions against Russia had affected the Union. Finally, members called for new institutions to be built, like a single system of credit ratings and regional financial regulations. But no concrete reforms emerged from this meeting; instead, members agreed to kick the can down the road and create a new strategy to be implemented between 2030 and 2045.
Like Russia’s BRICS partners South Africa and Brazil, Armenia is required to detain Putin if he enters Armenian territory. Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs acknowledged the negative consequences for bilateral relations.
The Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCA), a Eurasian security, economic, and defense organization, similarly has fallen short of expectations. Its membership includes Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and the nations of Central Asia (excluding Turkmenistan). The cohesion of this organization, however, remains in doubt. India has long considered Pakistan a sponsor of terrorism, while there is a growing rift between China and India because of the latter’s increased ties with the US. The group has not weighed in on Russia’s continuing aggression in Ukraine.
In many ways, Kazakhstan stands as the bellwether for all of Russia’s regional configurations. Over the long months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has emerged as one of the weakest links in the Western sanctions regime, primarily through soaring parallel imports entering Russia via Kazakhstan. Putin values Kazakhstan as a firm ally and assisted its government during recent unrest. But Kazakhstan has publicly agreed to observe Western sanctions. Other Central Asian countries have promised to follow suit. The most recent public meeting between Putin and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did not end well. Putin flubbed Tokayev’s name four times, prompting the Kazakh president to finish his speech in Kazakh, a clear diplomatic slight against President Putin.
Armenia Opts Out
If the EEU and the SCA are struggling, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is on life support. The CSTO’s members include Russia, Armenia, and several Central Asian states, and it serves as a counter to NATO, without the mutual Article 5-style security guarantees.
The main internal dispute within the CSTO concerns Armenia in the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s assault on and capture of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinian, accused Russian peacekeepers of not fulfilling their responsibility to prevent Azeri aggression. Armenia’s reaction was swift and decisive. It has offered humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, skipped the November 23 meeting of the CSTO in Minsk, and boycotted a meeting of the CIS. Even more egregiously, Armenia recently ratified the Rome statutes, thereby placing itself under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Thus, like Russia’s BRICS partners South Africa and Brazil, Armenia is required to detain Putin if he enters Armenian territory. Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs acknowledged the negative consequences for bilateral relations.
President Xi remained circumspect when talking about future bilateral relations with Russia. Putin’s trip to China also reinforced the impression of Russia’s junior partner status in this relationship.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan did not end with the defeat of Nagorno Karabakh. The Azeris are demanding the return of several international border crossings to an Azeri enclave that Armenia is currently blocking. Azerbaijan declares that this obstruction is damaging prospects for peace. So the possibility of Russia being further dragged into this dispute is real.
With Friends Like These…
Russia’s most important diplomatic relationship remains its partnership with China. Plenty of ink has been spilled analyzing both the threats and potential consequences their relationship represents. Both Russia and China consistently and confidently proclaim that a future multipolar world awaits global governance. They further have declared that there will be “no limits” to the Russia-China relationship, and Beijing has surreptitiously aided the Kremlin’s war effort.
Nevertheless, Putin’s recent trip to China did not go well for the Russian president. He procured no new trade deals on energy or agriculture. Oil and gas exports from Russia are up, although China is allegedly receiving these products at a sharp discount. Russia has grand designs for the relationship, including increasing trade in yuan while pursuing a global policy of de-dollarization.
President Xi remained circumspect when talking about future bilateral relations with Russia. Putin’s trip to China also reinforced the impression of Russia’s junior partner status in this relationship, a fact brought home by the recent China-US summit in San Francisco. Xi proclaimed that the world was big enough for two powers. He made no mention of a third.
Finally, from Russia’s standpoint, the most stable international pact remains the Union State of Russia and Belarus. This pact dates to the 1990s and was signed by Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. The nature of this agreement has always been rather murky. After 24 years of existence, Prime Minister Mishustin just announced that a joint tax committee is almost in place. Nevertheless, Belarus has been Russia’s staunchest supporter during the war in Ukraine, while Russia has long been Belarus’s main trade and energy partner.
Russia must rely on a disparate group of partners cobbled together through past historical links, empty slogans, and long-standing resentments.
These longstanding ties, however, have not stopped Lukashenko from demanding compensation from Rosatom for the delay in the construction of a nuclear power plant, although the plant was only built thanks to a $10 billion loan from the Russian Federation. Belarus also appears to be pursuing its own China policy, so even Russia’s most loyal partner seems willing to play international powers against Russia itself.
Russian foreign policy and its parade of confusing alliances with their jumble of acronyms continues to churn. Moldova officially announced that it would no longer be a part of the CIS. In a surprise move, Prime Minister Pashinian agreed to be head of the EEU, with the proviso that it remains a purely economic and not a political organization. The UAE, the newly appointed member of BRICS that was theoretically to help lead the BRICS’ (and Russia’s) overture to the Global South, refused to open a bank account in the country to facilitate energy payments to India. Finally, Argentina announced it would not join the BRICS, while Saudi Arabia reportedly is still on the fence about membership.
Putin’s revolving door of coalition partners, however, cannot distract from his disastrous invasion of Ukraine. Putin finds himself in a war of attrition while trying to mobilize new troops just to keep this stalemate going. Putin may have scratched the imperial itch and annexed Ukrainian territory, but he must now defend a 600-mile front that is grinding down his military forces. His annexations in Ukraine have only added to Russia’s demographic crisis, since it has not added a younger population but merely a new crop of pensioners. In addition, his actions have alarmed his neighbors and, with Finland’s accession to NATO, more than doubled Russia’s border with the NATO alliance.
Putin still possesses substantial sources of revenue from gas and oil, but without the top prices that European customers previously paid. Instead, Russia has been forced to limit its exports of benzine and diesel, to stabilize the domestic market. Even more disturbing, Russia has been forced to accept energy payments from India in rupees, a non-convertible currency that does not improve Russia’s balance sheet.
Finally, the Russia has begun to feel the effect of global sanctions, with a host of problems (inflation, high interest rates, low investment, labor shortages, lack of access to Western technology and spare parts) that will eat at the Russian economy for years to come. The impact of sanctions can also be swift and severe. On November 28, the US imposed sanctions on the St. Petersburg stock exchange. The exchange immediately spiraled downward and declared bankruptcy. Criminal indictments are most likely to follow. International law may catch up to Putin as well, on such charges as war crimes and reparations.
To counter these and other economic and geopolitical challenges, Russia must rely on a disparate group of partners cobbled together through past historical links, empty slogans, and long-standing resentments. Alas, the West has no time to gloat, since the test of all these global alliances—both in Russia and the US—lies just around the corner. If the US Congress decides not to renew aid for Ukraine in early 2024, it will invariably weaken the Euro-Atlantic alliance while giving Putin a golden opportunity to increase the pressure on Ukraine. Moreover, there will be no second chances if Ukraine becomes a casualty of Western division and Putin’s aggression. We may not be sleepwalking into a major crisis; the facts are there for anyone who wants to see them. But if we don’t want to find out what Putin’s vision of a multipolar world actually looks like, we must support Ukraine now.
William Pomeranz, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, is an expert guide to the complexities of political and economic developments in Russia, particularly through the lens of law. He leverages extensive, hands-on experience in international and Russian jurisprudence to address a wide range of legal issues, from the development of Russia’s constitution to human rights law to foreign investment and sanctions. He is also the author of Law and the Russian State: Russia’s Legal Evolution from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin (Bloomsbury, 2018).
This article was adapted from Kennan Cable No. 87: Peeling Away the Layers of Russian Foreign Policy.
Cover photo: From left, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, China's President Xi Jinping, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a BRICS group photo during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Center in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, August 23, 2023. (Gianluigi Guercia/Pool via AP)