A CHANGING RUSSIAN FOREIGN POLICY
Written By Braxton R.
Since the mid-2000’s, Russia has made it clear that it wishes to be a power player on the world stage once again, and while to some this may seem to have happened overnight, it certainly did not. The recent interventions and actions by the Russian Federation are just the latest in a series of steps in their transition to a more interventionist foreign policy that has been growing increasingly aggressive in the decade and half following the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Vladimir Putin.
On 7 May 2000 Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was inaugurated President of the Russian Federation. However, he had been playing a major role in shaping and changing Russian Foreign Policy as the Prime Minister before he was elected President.
In early October, 1999 following repeated bombings, border skirmishes, abductions and the invasion of Dagestan by Islamic militants from Chechnya, Prime Minister Putin called the Chechen government illegitimate and announced plans for a Russian military invasion of Chechnya as part of what would become the Second Chechen War. And this was only the beginning. In the following years it would be made quite clear that he intended to change the status quo of Russian Foreign Policy.
As President he made this point abundantly clear in February of 2007 with his address to the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in which he stated his plain refusal to accept the Western-centric, or “unipolar world” as he referred to it, that had developed following the fall of the Soviet Union and his ambitions to change it. Claiming that this model lacked democratic values at its core. He called it “unacceptable and impossible”. The full text of his address can be found here.
Since that time, there have been three points in time where this change has truly been displayed. The first of the three came in the summer of 2008 with the Russo-Georgian War, the second came with Ukraine crisis, and most recently the Russian intervention in Syria.
I. Relations between the Russian Federation and Georgia began to sharply deteriorate after President George W. Bush called for an offer of a NATO Membership Action Plan be extended to them on 2 April 2008 at the NATO conference in Romania. President Putin then as a direct rebuke of President Bush’s call for a Membership Action Plan be offered to Georgia, authorized the establishment of official ties with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia after saying at the same NATO summit just days earlier that he would not recognize the breakaway republics.
This clear counter move to Western and specifically US policy in the region was the first of a continuing series of geopolitical moves that Russia would make over the coming years in both direct and indirect opposition to US and Western foreign policy around the globe.
Following a continued rise in tensions over the previous two months, on 7 July 2008 a group of Georgian soldiers were captured by South Ossetian separatists near the border. This would be just the first of many incidents. With the situation beginning to spin out of control on 1 August, South Ossetian forces began exchanging small arms and artillery fire with Georgian forces just across the border, this served as a prelude in the Russo-Georgian war.
Russia wanted to prove it was still a geopolitical force in the post Cold War/Soviet Union era that would use all means necessary to ward off potential NATO encirclement.
It was fought between 7 and 12 August 2008 and lead to the formal recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the Russian Federation. It was the first time since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that Russian (formerly Soviet) military forces operated outside of their own borders. The conflict served two purposes, neither of which were to assist South Ossetia and Abkhazia gain independence from Georgia.
The first purpose of the conflict was as a means to show the world community at large, and the US in particular, that Russia would use military force within its sphere of influence to reach its desired outcomes. Russia wanted to prove it was still a geopolitical force in the post Cold War/Soviet Union era that would use all means necessary to ward off potential NATO encirclement.
The second purpose, which was at least as important as the first, was to test their military capability at the time. This can be evidenced from the considerable overhaul and modernization campaign that has taken place and is still taking place throughout the armed forces of the Russian Federation. Many of the systems currently being employed in Syria today came about at least in part because of these programs of modernization.
II. Arguably the largest of these displays of strength was the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. After the expedition into Georgia, Russia had been, relatively, militarily quiet outside of their modernization programs. That changed in late 2014 as protests in Ukraine lead to the ousting of the sitting president Viktor Yanukovych.
Hybrid Warfare caught the West and NATO completely by surprise.
Small scale protests began after Yanukovych had backed out of a trade deal with the EU that would have started moving Ukraine closer to joining the European Union and creating closer ties with the West at large. But the protests quickly grew in scale and scope after an initial attempt by Yanukovych and other government leaders to brutally suppress the protests. They eventually would force Yanukovych to flee to Russia following his ousting as president. The Russian government became concerned at the possibility of losing one of the only warm water ports they had access to in Sevastopol which sits along the Black Sea on the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian state and media claimed the protests in Kiev were just another attempt by the West and the U.S to interfere within their sphere of influence. These were the major motivating factors behind Russia’s next move, the invasion and soon after annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.
Not a typical military invasion in almost any way, what would later be dubbed the Invasion of Little Green Men was arguably the most successful land grab by a nation in the past hundred years, they secured the Crimean Peninsula hardly firing a shot.
What is now being called Hybrid Warfare caught the West and NATO completely by surprise. The use of uniformed soldiers that lacked any identifying markings, be they flags or unit patches, along with the Russian state media disinformation campaign lead to the slow response and apparent shock emanating from the West.
After Russia had secured Crimea they turned their attention to aiding the rebel groups that had begun to crop up in the east of Ukraine following Yanukovych’s ousting as president. With Russian support in the form of arms, training and likely men themselves, these groups began waging a civil war against the new Ukrainian government in a bid to break away from Ukraine and achieve autonomy and maybe even join the Russian Federation.
Following the invasion and annexation which was seen in Western nations as a clear breach of international law, a wide ranging series of sanctions were imposed on the Russian Federation by a number of European powers and the US. Ranging from travel bans for senior Russian officials to targeted economic sanctions against Russian banks and corporations. The sanctions have dealt a considerable blow to a Russian economy that was already wounded by the sharp fall in oil prices, without the addition of external pressure. It has also lead to a sharp deterioration of relations between the West and Russia reviving Cold War-esque sentiments amongst the citizens on both sides.
III. In March of 2011 Syria became swept up in what would come to be called the Arab Spring when tens of thousands of people began protesting across the country. Many thousands marched in the capital of Damascus alone.
Initially the protesters were merely calling for democratic reforms and more freedom, not the overthrow of their government. But as it became increasingly clear that no such reforms would take place under this regime, and as the crackdown against protesters escalated, the protesters moved to calling for the removal of Bashar Al-Assad and his government from power. From there things escalated quickly, eventually devolving into the full scale civil war that we see today that has raged for five years and in which an estimated 300,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced from their homes and towns.
In late September 2015 the Russian Federation began conducting airstrikes within Syria at the request of the Syrian Government to assist in the defeat of the rebels they had at that point been fighting for more than four years but also in reality to save the regime of Bashar Al-Assad from collapse and secure their continued access to their naval base at Tartus. Since this air campaign began, it has been largely lead and conducted by the Russian Air Force with occasional naval involvement in the form of multiple salvos of cruise missiles being fired from both the Mediterranean and Caspian Sea, with the total number of strikes now reaching into the thousands.
Most observers agree that the primary goal of the Russian intervention was not to weaken these terrorist organizations, but to stabilize one of their few remaining allies, the Syrian Government
The air-campaign has largely targeted “moderate” rebel groups, many of whom are being supported by the United States, this has served as just another example of Russian refusal to accept a Western-centric international policy in an area which it deems to be within its sphere of influence.
According to Moscow the strikes are being carried out against terrorist groups and organizations such as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, however the US, other Western countries and independent groups on the ground such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have suggested the strikes have been carried out against a much wider range of targets than just those groups that the international community as a whole deem to be terrorist organizations. Most of the strikes have reportedly been carried out against the dozens of different rebel groups throughout Syria, however, any group that has posed armed opposition to the Syrian regime up to this point has been declared terrorists by the Assad regime.
A short list of locations that have been targeted since the Russian air campaign began would include; Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zour, Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa. Now that is by no means a complete list of locations that have been targeted but it is, combined, where the vast majority of strikes have been carried out. It is worth noting that the majority of those locations do not have a significant ISIS or Al-Nusra Front presence. Raqqa being the exception as it is ISIS’s self proclaimed capital.
Only time will tell if this, the most recent of Russian foreign policy displays, helped bring an end to this terrible civil war that has gone on far too long, or if it was a futile attempt to stabilize a country on the verge of collapse.
Most observers agree that the primary goal of the Russian intervention was not to weaken these terrorist organizations, but to stabilize one of their few remaining allies, the Syrian Government, who for many months leading up to the Russian intervention were being pushed back, and by some accounts beginning to collapse. But since the Russian air campaign began, not only has the regime stabilized but they have also launched a number of new offensives and made very significant gains under the cover of Russian air power. According to recent reports, Russia has been doing more than just providing air cover, they have installed advisors within Syrian front-line units to assist on the ground as well. Moscow has confirmed the death of one advisor to ISIS mortar fire while multiple rebel groups claim to have killed advisors as of late.
Government advances and a quickly changing political situation on the ground have lead to both negotiations by representative bodies for the rebels and Syrian government and the installment of a temporary ceasefire negotiated and enforced by both the United States and Russia with limited success. Where things will go from here is a very hard question to answer with far too many variables in play to truly answer accurately. But one thing is for sure, the Russian intervention drastically altered the situation on the ground for the rebel groups and significantly changed the course of this conflict, for better or worse.
The recent interventions and actions by the Russian Federation are just the latest in a series of steps in their transition to a more interventionist foreign policy
As we see a potential end or lessening of Russian involvement in Syria with Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal of the main Russian combat force, it’s hard to see this latest intervention as anything more than the latest in a series of foreign policy moves designed to directly counter and challenge US and Western foreign policy around the world and to assert Russia as a power player once again. Only time will tell if this, the most recent of Russian foreign policy displays, helped bring an end to this terrible civil war that has gone on far too long, or if it was a futile attempt to stabilize a country on the verge of collapse.
Cover photo credit: Ivan Vdovin/Corbis