Resurgent Russia? Continuities and Change in Russian Foreign Policy

This is the first in a series of posts from members of the Defence Studies Department’s Regional Security Research Centre, focusing on Russia and the implications of its increasingly assertive posture on the international stage. This post examines Russia’s revised military doctrine within the context of the country’s current foreign policy position. It will be followed by posts each subsequent Monday on the implications for NATO, the European Union, nuclear non-proliferation, and for Britain.


Russian President Vladimir Putin ended a turbulent 2014 by signing off the country’s long-awaited new military doctrine, a revision of the previous policy published in February 2010. The document reiterates some long-running themes in Russian foreign and security policy, notably continued opposition to NATO’s global reach and enlargement, the perception that global competition is intensifying and a desire to strengthen relations with its fellow BRICS. It maintains the principles of nuclear deterrence and use that were outlined in the 2010 doctrine: Russia’s nuclear weapons are intended to deter both nuclear and conventional threats, but can only be used to counter an existential threat, either to itself or its allies. The revised document also continues to differentiate between military ‘dangers’ (opasnosti) and ‘threats’ (ugrozyi), the former identifying areas of concern, the latter possible catalysts for conflict. Whilst international headlines were dominated by reports that the 2014 doctrine identified NATO’s enhanced capabilities, global scope and enlargement as the principal risk to Russian national security, it is important to note that it was classed as a military ‘danger’, rather than a ‘threat’.

The overall tenor of the doctrine highlights a sense of vulnerability, that Russia perceives challenges to its national security everywhere, and that it will take steps to defend itself against this array of apparent threats. This signals continuing tensions with the West. Criticism of the predominance of US power and anti-Western sentiment now dominate Russia’s foreign policy discourse and Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated further over the past year as events in Ukraine have unfolded, reflecting a strong, widespread sense of grievance at perceived Western hostility, inflexibility and unwillingness to cooperate with Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a speech at the UN in September 2014 to call on the US to ‘abandon claims to eternal uniqueness’ and criticise the United States and the European Union for ‘expanding the geopolitical area under their control without taking into account the balance of legitimate interests of all the people of Europe’, before condemning NATO enlargement and the alliance’s inability to change its Cold War-era ‘genetic code’. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has been taking an increasingly assertive stance on the global stage. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and increasing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are indicative of a far more confident Russia, one that is determined to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area.

The Arctic is another area of increasing friction between Russia and the West, with growing international interest in the region putting Russia on the defensive in an area that it considers as its own ‘strategic backyard’. It has re-established a permanent military presence in the region and the Arctic became a priority for the Russian Navy in 2014. The revised military doctrine affirms, for the first time, Russia’s intention to protect its national interests in the Arctic, and was preceded by the establishment of a new Arctic Command. In addition, a military group consisting of two Arctic brigades will be stationed in the Far North and there will be an increase in the number of border guards. The Arctic has always been an important region for Russia, but events in recent years have placed a greater emphasis on it as a core area of significance for Russian security. In 2008 the US Geological Survey (USGS) released a report stating that the Arctic could be ‘the geographically largest unexplored prospective area’ for oil on the planet and that same year former president Medvedev declared that the country’s biggest task was to ‘turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base for the 21st century.’

Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming years and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means. It is seeking to position itself as an alternative to the Western liberal model and will strengthen its cooperation with those countries that share similar views. The revised military doctrine identifies countries within the BRICS group as ‘partners’ and notes that Moscow is seeking to strengthen its ties with both the BRICS and the Asia-Pacific region. Its continued opposition to the predominance of US power within the international system will find support with many states around the world. In January 2105 Moscow signed a military cooperation deal with Iran, strengthening ties between the two, to confront what the Iranian defence minister described as the ‘expansionist intervention and greed’ of the US.

Away from the international stage, Putin faces an array of domestic challenges and 2015 has got off to an inauspicious start for the Russian leadership: the rouble and the price of oil have continued to plummet, knocking millions off the value of the Russian economy, inflation and unemployment are on the rise, and international sanctions are beginning to bite. This could well undermine the government’s ability to spend on those areas which boost the social and political stability that has taken root under Putin’s leadership. Putin remains a highly popular leader and, since the annexation of Crimea, his approval ratings have soared to levels that Western leaders can only dream of. The official narrative, that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are under attack from ‘fascists’ and Russia needs to support its fellow Slavs, has united the country behind the leadership. This has significant implications for the West. Putin is in no mood to compromise and, as the 2014 military doctrine highlights, Moscow perceives the West to be the source of many potential challenges to Russia’s national security. The Russian leadership will continue to manipulate the spectre of threats to the country’s vital national interests from ‘outside’ to maintain the support of the population in the face of severe economic crisis. Whilst there are some areas where future cooperation is possible, notably counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, high-level disagreements are likely to persist.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting officers appointed to senior command positions, 31 October 2014. Photo courtesy of the Presidential Press and Information Office.

3 thoughts on “Resurgent Russia? Continuities and Change in Russian Foreign Policy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s