"Russia’s New Foreign Relations Concept will usher in a fundamental change in the balance of its domestic politics"
Gilbert Doctorow (April 3, 2023)
On Friday, 31 March, Vladimir Putin signed into law a new Foreign Policy Concept which will guide Russian diplomacy in the years to come. It replaces the Concept promulgated in 2016 and sets out on 42 pages in logically organized form what we have been witnessing in Russia’s behavior on the world stage since the launch of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine and subsequent nearly complete rupture of relations with the US-led Collective West.
I found few surprises in the document precisely because it restates what I have read in speech after speech by Vladimir Putin, what I read in the lengthy Joint Declaration issued at the conclusion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on 20-22 March.
We see here familiar clusters of words like the ‘multipolar world’ which Russia is striving to midwife in a joint effort with the People’s Republic of China. What is at issue is the creation of a new post-Cold War order that is more democratic, attaches greater weight in international institutions to newly emerged economic powers and is more respectful of the different cultures and solutions to governance of countries around the world than the ‘rules based order’ which Washington is fighting tooth and nail to preserve, since it is a nice cover for American global hegemony. The new world order will be built on international law as agreed within the United Nations and its agencies. The new security architecture will be all-inclusive and leave no country out in the cold.
The new Concept enshrines the strategic alliance with China and extends a hand of friendship to what we used to call the Third World. It clarifies relations with what are now ‘unfriendly states,’ meaning the U.S.-led Collective West. The door is left ajar for improvement of relations with the West. We are told that they are not enemies, as such. But the page has turned and the age of banging on the doors of the West for recognition and treatment as equals that characterized Putin’s foreign policy for more than twenty years until the Special Military Operation has definitively passed.
These aspects of the Foreign Policy Concept document have already drawn the attention of serious analysts. Even the Russian media outlet RT has produced a useful overview for those who want a quick guide: https://www.rt.com/russia/573945-russia-foreign-policy-concept-key/
Once they get their footing, Western experts will no doubt be producing reams of commentary in which they discover in this document what has been plain as can be for anyone following the speeches of the Russian President and Minister of Foreign Affairs over the course of the last year. But then again, very few Western analysts actually read or listened to those speeches, which they dismissed out of hand. Anyone, like myself, who dared to publish summaries and commentaries on those speeches was systematically denounced as a ‘stooge of Putin.”
Now, when confronted by a concise and logically consistent unifying Concept, the mainstream experts will be compelled to do for the big picture what they just did with respect to the little picture, Russian-Chinese relations, following Xi’s visit. In the past week they have been writing about this strategic alignment as if it were suddenly newsworthy, when others, myself included, wrote three or more years ago that the Russian-Chinese entente was about to change the global power balance.
And our economists and bankers will be concentrating their minds on the point in the Foreign Policy Concept that concerns them most directly: de-dollarization, meaning commercial exchange between states using their own national currencies. That idea has been around for a good long time but was until now said to be an impossible dream of would-be disrupters of the rules based order because of restrictions on capital flows by the issuing countries and due to shallow liquidity. Commerce not passing through the dollar was said to be something that might occur in future decades, not tomorrow. However, the petrodollar is being swept away as we speak, and even dollar loyalists like the Financial Times have recently taken note.
For those who want to go to the source document and try to make sense of it for themselves, an unofficial translation is available on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry: https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/fundamental_documents/1860586/
What I propose to offer here will look at a wholly different dimension of the Foreign Policy Concept: what it means for Russian domestic politics. Why is that important? Because there are key elements of the Concept that indicate Russia is reviving certain Soviet traditions that served them well. But let no one be mistaken, there is no hint of reconstituting the USSR.
Before proceeding, I am obliged to say a few words about the organization of the new Concept document. First, unlike earlier editions which seemed to be only positive and constructive, this Concept has a very large defensive or reactive component. Many of the tasks it assigns to Russian diplomacy are to counteract hostile acts of the countries identified here as ‘unfriendly.’ These acts range from sanctions on Russian state and private economic actors to hybrid war in all its manifestations. Russian diplomacy is instructed to act to protect Russians living abroad and to facilitate the immigration into the country of bearers of Russian culture who are subject to Russophobic persecution where they live abroad.
A large part of the text is a recitation of tasks of Russian diplomacy generally. The Concept document gets interesting only when it reaches the section on “Regional Tracks of foreign policy.” This section roughly sets down a descending order of priorities, from those areas closest to Russia’s national interests to those areas which are hostile to Russia’s national interests.
The closest circle of nations for attention is the immediate neighbors in the Community of Independent States, i.e., the former Soviet republics, otherwise called “The Near Abroad.”
Then comes Asia, with particular mention of China and India. This is understandable given that these two countries are what saved Russia from collapse of its hydrocarbon exports during the past year. India alone increased its Russian imports by 22 times. The safeguarding of these strategic partnerships is obviously at the top of things to do for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Also in Greater Asia, special mention is made of the Islamic World, specifically Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. For anyone following the daily news this past year, it is patently obvious that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also been of greatest importance in keeping the Russian economy humming and resisting the effects of American led sanctions.
Next comes Africa: “Russia stands in solidarity with the African states in their desire for a more equitable polycentric world and elimination of social and economic inequality, which is growing due to the sophisticated neocolonial policies of some developed states towards Africa.”
After Africa, we find Latin America and the Caribbean. With respect to all of these states, we read that Russian foreign policy aims to strengthen friendship with them and to help them resist American hegemonic demands. With the exception of Brazil, none of the states in Latin America or Africa can be major markets or partners in overcoming the effects of Western economic pressure on Russia. However, maintaining ever closer relations with them is critical to another mission of Russian foreign policy which is not mentioned in the Concept, namely to gather votes in support of Russia in the UN General Assembly. What we have here is an important exercise in Soft Power and Public Relations. It is important because the Concept places great reliance on the United Nations as the source of International Law that can and must normalize international relations and keep the peace.
Next in order of priority we come to the ‘unfriendly states’. These are Europe, about which we read: “Most European states pursue an aggressive policy towards Russia aimed at creating threats to the security and sovereignty of the Russian Federation, gaining unilateral economic advantages, undermining domestic political stability and eroding traditional Russian spiritual and moral values, and creating obstacles to Russia’s cooperation with allies and partners.”
Finally we get to the villain in the piece: ‘the U.S. and other Anglo-Saxon states.’ Here we read: “Russia’s course towards the U.S. has a combined character, taking into account the role of this state as one of the influential sovereign centers of world development and at the same time the main inspirer, organizer and executor of the aggressive anti-Russian policy of the collective West, the source of major risks to the security of the Russian Federation, international pace, a balanced, equitable and progressive development of humanity.”
Turning from statements of principle to the specific vocabulary used in the Foreign Policy Concept, I point to several words which I would call ‘dog whistles,’ because behind their use there are world views that are held by specific political actors in Russian domestic politics.
The first key word here is ‘neocolonial.’ This designation for the Collective West would have suited Leonid Brezhnev just fine. It assumes an approach to identification of the moving forces in history that any student of Marxism-Leninism would feel comfortable with. It is a dog whistle to the Communists.
The other dog whistle term that I see here is “Anglo-Saxon states.” Ask a Frenchman who is responsible for all the world’s woes and he is likely to speak of the Anglo-Saxons. The same is true of patriotic minded Russians, including those in parties on either side of United Russia. This is not a term one would see bandied about by United Russia, because so many of their friends considered London to be their second home.
In an essay that I published on 2 January entitled “Wars make nations,” I pointed out that the Ukraine war has consolidated the Russian nation in a patriotic, rally-round-the-flag phenomenon as one would expect given the existential threat the country is facing as it squares off not merely with Ukraine, but with the whole of NATO that is supporting Ukraine with money, arms and military personnel.
Perhaps as many as one million Russians left the country after the launch of the military operation in Ukraine. Among them were, of course, many draft dodgers. But they also included television and music industry celebrities, as well as journalists and prominent business people. From the standpoint of the Kremlin, and also of the vast patriotic majority of the population, their departure was a godsend, since they were viewed as a fifth column, as a contingent working against the country’s economic and political sovereignty. Symptomatic of the rats leaving the ship was the departure from Russia of Anatoly Chubais. He was the head of the scandalous privatization program under Boris Yeltsin and the evil genius behind the 1996 fraudulent presidential election. No sooner was he gone, just ahead of arrest warrants being served, than Chubais was finally publicly reviled for the thief and saboteur of the country’s priority investments in technology that he had become.
On the other side of the ledger, a good many Duma members, regional administrators and simple citizens have volunteered and gone to the front in Donbas to fight alongside the contract soldiers and mobilized reservists. Without any doubt, at the war’s conclusion these veterans will rise quickly both in government and in the Russian business world. President Putin has said as much. We may anticipate that when they come to power, they will show little tolerance for the hedonism and personal excesses that have flourished among the creative intelligentsia in Russia’s major cities. But it would be a mistake to draw facile conclusions on where the patriotic forces that will come to enjoy political and economic power after the war is over stand on the usual Right-Left political spectrum, especially given the specifics of Russian-Soviet history, which I will get to in a moment.
Meanwhile, the new Foreign Policy Concept has the potential to transform Russian political life even more dramatically by making official what has been implicit: the neo-Liberal preferences for cooperation with European and American capitalism which underlay the legislative, budgetary and military reform policies of the ruling party, United Russia, are now being replaced by political and economic alignment with the Global South under the very same Left-leaning slogans of anti-colonialism that were the calling card of the USSR. I mentioned anti-colonialism above with reference to Africa, but the slogan also resonates in China, India and in many other countries of the former Third World or Developing World.
The closest that the Concept document comes to making an anti-colonial programmatic statement is found at the very beginning, in point 7 under the heading “Modern World: Main Trends and Prospects for Development.”
Humanity is experiencing an era of revolutionary changes. A more just, multipolar world continues to emerge. Irreversibly receding into the past is the nonequilibrium model of world development which for centuries ensured the outstripping economic growth of colonial powers through the appropriation of resources of dependent territories and states in Asia, Africa and the Western Hemisphere.
Let us be perfectly clear, in presenting itself as a force against the neocolonial powers of the West, Russia is playing a card which we may call its ace in the hole. The Soviet Union’s relations with Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia were for decades based on its financing and otherwise assisting national liberation movements. It was not for nothing that the USSR created a University of the Friendship of Peoples in Moscow and that it was named in honor of Patrice Lamumba, the murdered Left-leaning first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who symbolized the struggle of the peoples of Africa for independence. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lamumba’s name was removed from the institution. And it is no accident that two weeks ago, the Friendship of the Peoples University in Moscow was again given the name of Patrice Lamumba.
Of course, Russia’s cultivation of the Global South today does not ignore some points which the anti-Communist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky made repeatedly in recent years: namely that Russian foreign policy must pay for itself, just as the Americans have done, and not be a drain on public finances as was the case during the days of the USSR. The profitable contracts of the Private Military Company “Wagner Group” in Africa and Latin America for security services and also in support of mining operations show that Russia’s outreach to the Global South is not as soft-headed as in Soviet times.
Though over the past few years Russia established good working relations with many countries in Africa and in Latin America which had been close to the USSR, there was always a certain awkwardness in the relations because the Russian Federation had become one more capitalist state closely cooperating with Europe and America. Now that these former “partners” of Russia have all become “unfriendly nations” and now that Russia is a strategic ally of Communist China, we may expect nostalgia to be less of a driver and more “birds of a feather” relations with the USSR’s friends from the past.
In 2024, Russia will have its next presidential election and regional government elections. In 2026 it will elect the next State Duma. How may the processes underway in connection with the new foreign policy orientation and new management approach to the economy affect the votes?
I submit that these changes all put the ruling United Russia party on the back foot given that the principles guiding its foreign and domestic policies have now been abandoned by Putin and his Government.
If we look for parties represented in the Duma, meaning having more than a 5% share of the electorate, which traditionally stood opposed to Russia’s dependent relationship with the West and called for a more muscular, patriotic foreign policy, then we have one party on the Right, the Liberal Democrats (LDPR) and one party on the Left, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). They are the ones who stand to gain from the new policy lines.
In the last federal elections, the Communists polled about 20% and the LDPR polled about 15%. Their share of seats in the parliament were, of course, substantially less because of the way seats are allocated. Each of these parties had greater or lesser support in the various administrative units of the Federation, with the LDPR particularly strong in Siberia, for example.
As the stock brokers like to say, the past is no certain predictor of the future, and the LDPR in 2024 is unlikely to remain a major force. The party was founded and led for more than 25 years by the inimitable Vladimir Zhirinovsky. From the get-go, Zhirinovsky’s LDPR was vehemently anti-Communist. Over time, it became one of those minority parties which the Kremlin assigned the task of draining votes away from the Communists by stealing the Communists’ nationalist foreign policy and socially conservative domestic policy lines.
Zhirinovsky was well educated, an expert on Turkey. He was an exuberant self-promoter through use of scandalous rhetoric. He also was a charismatic leader. His untimely death from Covid a year ago left a hole at the top which apparently no one can fill, least of all his successor Leonid Slutsky, who is a clumsy orator.
Under wartime conditions, the leader of the Communists Gennady Zyuganov has already said that his party does not intend to put up a candidate to oppose Vladimir Putin in 2024. But we can be sure they will put up candidates for all regional Dumas and governorships, and I predict they will do very well indeed, taking votes from United Russia and from the LDPR.
For those in the United States, who might be alarmed to see growing political power in the hands of Russia’s Communists, allow me to bring them up to date. Zyuganov has been at the center of Russian politics for more than 30 years. He has been a voice on behalf of the downtrodden majority as Russia lurched headlong into a cruel phase of robber capitalism and pauperization of the masses in the Yeltsin years. He has opposed the rule of the oligarchs. He has always called for greater government control over the economy, for greater state investment in new productive capacities. But he is a committed democrat, a voice of moderation in issues of the constitutional structure of the country. His foreign policy views were never as strident, as hawkish as Zhirinovsky’s.
One may regret that Zyuganov has stubbornly refused to change the name of his party. The reality is that the Communist Party policy positions would, in the West European context, allow it to call itself the Social Democratic Party of Russia. Such a name change would surely win over to its candidates a greater share of young people. But it would cost him many of the old and very old Party loyalists. Nonetheless, even with the existing name, which many Russians disdain, the Party should do well since it has consistently fought for Russia’s place in the sun and has consistently fought for economic and political independence from the West. They will give the United Russia candidates a run for their money, which is all to the good since it will reinvigorate Russian democracy. ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2023