A ‘new’ foreign strategy for Russia

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Politically correct rhetoric of recent addresses from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his focus on problems in Russia and post-Soviet space may be attributed to the objective lack of foreign partners to form a global strategic agenda, writes Lidiya Smola.

Lidiya Smola is head of the analytical and social research at the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy – "People First".

"In recent months the newsfeeds of world news agencies, dedicated to Russian themes, were mostly filled with reports on the opposing of “Dima Yakovlev’s law” and “Magnitsky Act”, deterioration of Russian-American relations and a possible new round of a Ukrainian-Russian “gas war”.

On this background, such an important event as a formation by Russian establishment of a new foreign strategy for the country was virtually overlooked by the expert community. This strategy has two main components – maximum pragmatism in relations with the EU and the use of “soft power” in the post-Soviet space.

The EU-Russia summit in December drew a kind of a line in the bilateral relations. It passed without signing of any documents or joint declarations, which would have fixed the progress in the relationship.

Energy cooperation and the implementation of the third EU energy package predictably became the hardest topic. Russia’s position is quite understandable, as far as the EU new energy rules actually destroy the monopoly of Gazprom for simultaneous trading gas and possession of networks for its transportation.

Issues of the financial crisis in the EU and financial assistance to Cyprus became difficult to discuss. To allocate such assistance the EU requires the transparency of the banking system of Cyprus, which automatically jeopardises the offshore accounts and companies, registered by Russian businessmen in this country.

Brussels also reacted guardedly to the desire of Russian party to introduce visa-free regime before the beginning of Winter Olympics in 2014. At the EU-Russia summit in December 2011, the parties adopted a list of common steps towards visa liberalisation, but the next stage – the start of negotiations – has never begun.

In general, the sterility of the summit has indicated the cooling of relations between the EU and Russia and focusing of their efforts solely on economic sphere.

Politically correct rhetoric of recent addresses from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his focus on problems in Russia and post-Soviet space may be attributed to the objective lack of foreign partners to form a global strategic agenda.

Under such circumstances, the leadership of the Russian Federation decided to concentrate on increasing Russia’s influence in its nearest neighbourhood.

In the new version of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, developed in December 2012 by Sergey Lavrov’s Office, it was indicated that the protection and promotion of Russia’s interests in neighbouring countries should be achieved by using a strategy of “soft power”.

Almost 10 years after the term was formulated by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, the concept of “soft power” at last has been added to the armoury of Russian political leadership.

According to official Russian interpretation, the “soft power” is an integrated tool for solution of foreign policy issues, drawing on the abilities of civil society, info-communicational, humanitarian and other methods and techniques, alternative to classical diplomacy.

This strategy will be implemented mainly by efforts of the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, Russians who live abroad, and Russian centres of science and culture abroad (currently there are about 60 of them).

In some cities it is planned to establish branches of major Russian museums, and in others – their virtual offices. One may suggest with the strong probability that these tools will be used to promote the idea of Eurasian Union as an alternative to the European Union.

The image of the Eurasian Union as a powerful alliance which can help countries of the former USSR to “beat back” the new global challenges, will be acquiring new positive features.

In the context of the implementation of above mentioned strategy, promoting of Russian language will become a separate area for efforts exertion. It is planned to create a State Fund for supporting of Russian media abroad.

In some CIS countries it is planned to open language courses for labour migrants. Lots of attention will be devoted to cases of "oppression" of Russian language in the former Soviet states. It is clear that Russia will be provided with an “invaluable” help on this matter from “fifth column” in the post-Soviet countries.

In addition, emphasis will be placed on working with foreign youth. Thus, in particular, the quota for admission of foreigners to Russian educational institutions should be increased.

Also it is planned to increase the number of programmes providing short study tours to Russia for young representatives of political, social, academic and business circles from foreign countries.

In this context House of Friendship with Peoples of Foreign Countries and the Russian Friendship Societies (analog to the Union of Soviet Societies of Friendship) are to resume operations.

In 2017 it is planned to hold the International Festival of Youth and Students, like those that took place in the Soviet Union. It is worth recalling that in the USSR such festivals were held twice: in 1957 and in 1985, the latter the beginning of “perestroika” was proclaimed.

It should also be noted that in Soviet times, cultural and educational centres, besides the officially declared work on advocacy, were actively engaged in intelligence activities.

Probably, the newly created structures will also be involved in gathering of information and conducting info-psychological operations.

Despite the absence of relevant reference in official documents, one can predict the further energising of the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet space. In Ukraine, this activity will enhance the confrontation of different religious confessions.

Sure thing that electoral processes, in particular, the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine will not be neglected.

Will it be feasible to implement this strategy? The answer is a question of time, resource base and the political situation in Russia itself. However, we can already say that Russian strategy of “soft power” will focus on rigid regaining of geopolitical positions, lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union."

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