In April, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his counterparts in Moscow — as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson relayed U.S. concerns that the bilateral relationship is “at a low point.” Earlier that week, Tillerson cautioned that Russian support for the Assad regime in Syria was out of step.
The recent tension between the United States and Russia over Moscow’s influence in Syria is the newest chapter in the ongoing saga of understanding Russia’s game plan — a Grand Strategy.
In 2015, Moscow released the Russian National Security Strategy (NSS), a document on the country’s priorities, interests and threats. The new NSS reflects a deliberate effort to support domestic health and education policy while promising renewed interest in Central Asia and relations with China. There are a few veiled references to potential adversaries, including the United States and NATO, but the rhetoric hardly rises to the fervor of Cold War enmity.
A “Grand Strategy,” however, is a country’s broader effort to leverage all available instruments of power to shape the international system to work in its favor. The Russian Grand Strategy incorporates elements of the NSS but goes far beyond stating priorities — with the goal of shaping the international community to Russia’s liking.
Putin does not advertise a Russian Grand Strategy, however Russian foreign policy initiatives in the last six months present a clear picture of his goals. Specifically, Russia’s Grand Strategy targets three elements: creating a new, more favorable balance of power in the international system; broadening access to new markets for funding and exports; and actively exerting influence in the former Soviet region.
1) Create a polycentric world by impeding Western institutions.
According to the 2015 NSS document, the Russian state harbors no clear aspiration to become a global powerhouse. Instead, Russia hopes to reorder the current Western-oriented international system. The Russian goal is to see other powerful actors respect the interests of the Russian state — instead of seeing Russian goals as contradictory to the central order.
To this end, the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy consistently refers to creating and supporting a “polycentric” international order, one which would make the Russian state a partner equal to the United States, the European Union and China. Diminishing the international reach and impact of Western institutions is central to the creation of this polycentric world.
This means challenging the resolve of NATO, celebrating E.U. discord and attempting to manipulate the U.S. and French electoral processes — all moves that can knock the liberal international order off its center of gravity. The partnership between Russia and China, while still tenuous, continues to develop as a foil to the Bretton Woods global financial system that emerged after World War II.
So Moscow benefits when Western security, political and economic institutions are operating in uncertainty.
2) Open up markets, and remove sanctions.
The second focus of Russia’s Grand Strategy is to create cash inflows to the state treasury by accessing export markets for weapons systems and oil and gas. A short-term goal is reducing or eliminating economic sanctions imposed on the Russian state, major Russian financial companies and high-ranking Russian officials following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The sanctions, combined with low oil and gas prices, successfully delivered a blow to the Putin regime and to many exporting firms within Russia. As long as these sanctions remain, efforts to expand the markets for Russian gas, oil, and weapon exports are impeded.
3) Project regional authority/power.
The third step is for Moscow to re-exert influence and project power in the traditional sphere of influence — and in new areas. The Russian state seeks to shape the foreign policies of neighboring states and heavily influence their governing coalitions.
Further, a Russian policy announced by Putin in March 2014, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, purports to defend Russian populations abroad. Moscow is pursuing a more aggressive policy of influence in former Soviet states, and a promise of forceful “protections” of Russian populations abroad equates to a resurgent Russia.
4) Unofficially, there’s an added goal — buying loyalty.
While not a stated element of the NSS, of course, several recent books on Putin and his leadership style reveal that one central characteristic of the Putin regime is the transfer of public funds into private hands. The personal enrichment of loyal elites epitomizes Putin’s style of operating, with impunity, outside the constraints of traditional governmental institutions.
In particular, rewarding personal loyalty with lucrative contracts, negotiating kickbacks or ignoring graft among friends and family is standard procedure. Consequently, underpinning Putin’s authority — and therefore, Russian Grand Strategy — is ensuring access to enough capital to distribute to friends and allies. Efforts by international actors or domestic opposition to stymie the Putin patronage system will be vigorously challenged.
All of these underlying strategies help explain Russia’s desired foreign policy outcomes: challenge the Western-led, post-World War II international regimes that are based on international organizations, the expansion of democracy and the protection of human rights.
Instead, the Russian government is aggressively pursuing a return to a state-centric international order with an emphasis on realpolitik — when countries operate according to their needs and perceived opportunities, rather than according to moral convictions about foreign policy. What remains unknown is how committed U.S. and Western allies are to countering Russia’s pursuit of a new Grand Strategy, especially if that means ramping up efforts inside Syria.
Andy Akin is an assistant professor of national security studies at the USAF’s eSchool of Graduate PME. He studied in Russia with the Middlebury College School in Russia as a Lilly fellow, and with Moscow’s Higher School of Economics as a Fulbright-Hays fellow. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air Force Research Institute, Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.