Amid the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, the Kremlin has adopted a new national strategy that crystallizes trends that have been gaining ground in Russia over the past two years. This development goes beyond the current crisis in Russian-Western relations and has important consequences for Russia’s neighbors, especially the EU.
Essentially, the Kremlin sees Russia’s future as separate from the rest of Europe’s. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal for a Greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, cold-shouldered by many in the EU, has now been finally withdrawn by its author. Instead, Russia will largely rely on its own resources as it seeks to develop its economy, consolidate its political system, and build a strong military.
Russia’s development model will not be autarkic, but neither will it rely too much on exploiting the fruits of globalization. Recent sanctions against it have taught Moscow that these fruits can suddenly grow sour. Instead, Russia will be in the business of import substitution industrialization, promoting domestic agricultural production, and seeking to create a measure of financial autonomy.
Confrontation with the West—especially over economic sanctions and information warfare against Russia—has given Russian patriotism a powerful boost. Now, Moscow’s task at hand is to consolidate the bulk of Russian society on the basis of this platform, thus cementing national unity. Those few who disagree would be putting themselves beyond the pale as foreign agents.
Positive national consolidation will be achieved through the Kremlin’s promotion of traditional values. These include the overriding importance of the state; moral and spiritual guidance provided by established religious organizations, with the Orthodox Church playing a salient role; the sanctity of the traditional family; and peaceful cohabitation of different ethnic groups throughout the country.
Crimea, in this context, is simultaneously a symbol of Russia’s national unity across ideological divides and a sign of the country’s newly discovered capacity to push back against its competitors. Once reintegrated into Russia, Crimea will not be abandoned under any circumstances. To make this absolutely clear, the Russian military garrison on the peninsula is being beefed up. NATO, which is now positioning its forces closer to the Russian border, is again designated as a likely adversary.
In pursuing its new foreign policy, Russia will be firm but patient and cautious. Moscow's agricultural countersanctions against the West have hit a number of Central and Eastern European countries hard. At the same time, Russia will continue to avoid an open armed conflict with the United States and NATO, particularly in Ukraine.
Russia should not be expected to give up on Ukraine, but it can and will change tactics and strategy in its long game there. Moscow may shift its attention from the insurgency in the east to more political issues, in view of Ukraine’s forthcoming parliamentary elections, and economic priorities, as winter approaches.
Globally, Moscow will be building alliances with non-Western countries to diminish U.S. hegemony. China stands out as a premier partner, with Russia supplying it with more energy and more advanced military technology, while seeking cash and investment in return. India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, are also being eyed by Moscow with enhanced interest.
Russia is joining forces with the non-West, but it will not seek to undercut the United States in the areas where U.S. actions do not harm Russian interests, for example, in Afghanistan or Iraq. Unlike in the wake of 9/11, however, Moscow—while having no sympathy whatsoever for Islamist extremists—will point its finger at Washington’s policies as the root cause of regional instability from Libya to Iraq.
Russia will also feel free to withdraw from international treaties and agreements if it concludes that they no longer serve its national interests. In particular, this may apply to the 1987 U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned both countries from having a whole class of missile systems, but left the rest of the world free to arm itself with them. Likewise, Russian participation in the European Court of Human Rights is in danger: Moscow considers the court to be too politicized. Neither decision has been taken yet, but warnings have been served.
Moscow is not completely ignoring Europe, but its European connection has been downgraded more severely than any other relationship. The Russians have been bitterly disappointed by the EU twice in the past six months. First, by France, Germany, and Poland failing to uphold the February 21 agreement they had brokered in Kiev between Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition. Second, by the EU aligning itself with the United States and imposing sectoral sanctions against Russia following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which both America and Europe blamed on Russia even in the absence of irrefutable evidence.
Given all this, the Kremlin will have even less reason than before to abstain from reaching out to individual EU member states: European unity today means Europe’s solidarity with the United States against Moscow. At the same time, it knows that Europe wants an end to violence in Ukraine more than Kiev’s military victory there. It further understands that the Europeans would want some cooperation with the Russians on Ukraine, as early as this coming winter. This promises a lively relationship, even if a highly transactional and competitive one.