Report

January 27, 2021

Russian Foreign Policy in 2020

Strengthening Multi-vectorialism

In 2020, DGAP’s Strategy Group on Russia focused on Moscow’s long-term efforts to diversify its foreign policy portfolio, turn away from Europe, and build-up other non-Western vectors in its diplomacy. Against this background, this report assesses Russia’s relations with the EU, China, and the United States. While Russian relations with the West are unlikely to improve in 2021 – especially ahead of this fall’s Duma election – there is still a chance for limited engagement on issues of mutual interest.

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Below you will find the introduction and conclusion to the 2020 report of DGAP’s Strategy Group on Russia, both written by András Rácz and Milan Nič. To read the complete text of the report, including citations, please download the PDF here

Introduction 

The year 2020 was an unexpectedly turbulent one for the Russian Federation in terms of both domestic politics and foreign policy. The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic damaged Russia’s economy, already hit by low oil prices, and disrupted President Vladimir Putin’s political agenda. Domestically, the most visible aspect of this turbulence was a prolonged, somewhat messy process of constitutional change.  

Through a national vote that eventually took place on July 1, 2020, Putin secured an option to run for president beyond 2024 when his current mandate expires and re-arranged the existing power system in a way that could allow him to maintain control even if he leaves the Kremlin. The constitutional reform also emphasized the primacy of Russian law over international law, moving Russia further away from multilateralism. It underscored the primacy of Russia’s domestic agenda and the principle of national self-reliance over foreign policy and engagement with the international system, which is dominated by the West.  

Meanwhile, 2020 brought the further multi-vectorialization of Russian foreign policy, which is highly likely to continue in 2021. While cooperation with China has been progressing, the poisoning of leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny caused further strain to Moscow’s relationship with the European Union. The increased political tensions resulted in the introduction of new sanctions and even called the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – a collaboration of high symbolic value – into question. The US presidential elections held on November 3 resulted in the victory of Joe Biden. Under Biden’s administration, US policy on Russia is likely to be more consistent and tougher than in the past four years of his predecessor, Donald Trump. 

Moscow’s long-term efforts to diversify its foreign policy portfolio, turn away from Europe, and build-up other partnerships and non-Western vectors in its diplomacy were the focus of DGAP’s Strategy Group on Russia in 2020. Its sessions were chaired by MP Manuel Sarrazin, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the German Bundestag. 

Three developments justified the choice of this focus for the Strategy Group one year ago: 

  1. Limited progress in diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine 

  2. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to improve France’s bilateral relations with Moscow (as a pretext to improve EU-Russia relations) 

  3. The German EU Presidency in the second half of 2020 

In December 2019, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France met in Paris in the so-called Normandy Format – the first such meeting in three years. Although no breakthrough was achieved, this meeting helped bring a lasting ceasefire to the Donbass and established a roadmap for a follow-up summit. It also created conditions for a package deal in EU-brokered talks on the transit of Russian gas via Ukraine, which was signed between Moscow and Kyiv only days before the old contract expired on January 1, 2020. The Paris summit was considered to be a sign of Moscow’s pragmatism and good will toward Germany and France. Without committing to any concessions over eastern Ukraine, Moscow was testing the extent to which major EU powers are exhausted with the conflict in the Donbass and ready to bargain over the gradual alleviation of EU sanctions in order to normalize their relations with Russia. At the same time, German diplomacy needed Moscow’s cooperation in its diplomatic process to contain escalating armed conflict in Libya, which led to the high-level international conference in Berlin in January 2020 that was attended by all the main external actors.  

From a longer-term perspective, however, Moscow clearly considers its relations with Europe much less important than it did a decade ago. Russia’s gradual reorientation of its foreign policy and its intensification of relations with non-Western partners already started in the early 2010s. In the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the onset of war in eastern Ukraine, these processes intensified as relations with the West cooled.  

The 2020 outbreak of the coronavirus brought disruption. The pandemic overshadowed many political processes and decisively influenced others. As mentioned above, Russia’s economy and political processes have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. The virus had several effects on Russia’s foreign policy, too. In addition to generally complicating international diplomacy, the first wave slowed down the transformation of Russia’s domestic political landscape, which is also an issue of key importance for Moscow’s foreign partners.  

Since the pandemic started raging within the Russian Federation, Moscow has taken the opportunity to conduct “coronavirus diplomacy” in the field of foreign policy – often together with China. It poses as a country that is ready to help the “incapable” and “unprepared” West with medical and protective equipment. As of late 2020, Russia has been actively promoting its own Sputnik V vaccine worldwide in addition to starting a national vaccination program in December. 

In its June 2020 meeting, the Strategy Group assessed the state of EU-Russia relations in light of recent developments, especially the commencement of Germany’s EU Presidency on July 1. According to Tatiana Romanova, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, the bitter alienation of EU-Russia relations since 2014 has become the new normal, particularly as the crisis in Ukraine constitutes a lasting obstacle to any normalization of bilateral ties. Further key hindrances are mutual sanctions, the situation in the Middle East, the lasting influence of the United States on Europe, and the ongoing economic disengagement between the EU and Russia. As Romanova’s assessment came before the Navalny case, one can only agree that her forecast of a lack of any perspective for a major improvement in bilateral relations was accurate.  

An update on perspectives for EU-Russia relations after the Navalny poisoning is provided by Sarah Pagung, associate fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations. She argues that the Navalny case was a catalyst for the mistrust that had already built up between Europe and Russia. It thus marked the end of any kind of special relationship between the two – and with Germany, in particular – for the foreseeable future. The strategic partnership still promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 has been fully replaced by a policy of mutual sanctions. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. As Russia does not perceive the European Union as a serious foreign policy player, it does not even strive to improve its relations with the EU – no matter how much key EU leaders and institutions try. This situation leaves the EU with only one realistic option: considerably strengthening its own foreign policy, security, and even defense policy while not falling into the trap of selective engagement on a purely bilateral level, which would help Moscow to divide member states. 

Because Russia’s efforts to set its foreign policy on increasingly multi-vectorial ground have been largely focused on China, the September session of the Strategy Group was dedicated to this topic. Hence, two chapters of this report deal with the perspectives for further intensifying Russia-China relations. Independent expert Natalia Chabarovskaya [a pseudonym] argues that both trade and energy relations demonstrate the increasingly asymmetric relationship between Moscow and Beijing, clearly favoring the latter. She sees technology and the military as the most promising and mutually beneficial fields for bilateral cooperation. Although Moscow and Beijing share opinions on many international issues, she points out that they are careful not to become entangled in each other’s complicated positions on the global stage. In his chapter, Niklas Swanström, director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, looks at this relationship from the Chinese side and comes to a similar conclusion: in terms of geopolitics, the current constellation provides what both Moscow and Beijing actually want. Strategic collaboration in technology and around the digital economy is mostly driven by China, but there are important exceptions. In the area of robotics, as well as in some arms and missile systems, Russian technology is still ahead – at least for a few more years. Given the shortage of Russian resources for research and innovation, it is merely a matter of time before China catches up. Aware of this limited window for profit, Moscow recently reduced restrictions on sensitive arms sales to Beijing and increased joint production of the latest military technology. Meanwhile, China sees learning from Russian experience with military combat, cyber operations, and disinformation campaigns as an increasingly valuable asset.  

The last two chapters, written in November, are dedicated to the foreseeable future of US-Russia relations following the election of President Joe Biden. Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies of Georgetown University, argues that, while trying to forecast US-Russia relations in the Biden era, one first needs to remember that there will be plenty of continuity in the Russia agendas of the US administrations, as well as lasting personal continuity on the Russian side. The Biden administration will put major emphasis on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and recommit the United States to the Paris Accords to counter climate change. The Artic may serve as an area of possible US-Russia cooperation, as may the fight against COVID-19, particularly if the United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Stent notes that every new US administration since 1992 has tried its own “reset” with Russia, but all of these efforts ended with disappointing results.  

According to Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, the Biden administration may follow a mixed policy vis-à-vis Russia. He argues that, on some issues – particularly, nuclear arms control – relations may actually become more pragmatic than they were under President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, in other fields, Washington is likely to play hardball against Moscow, for example, in Russia’s neighborhood. Besides, the United States will probably continue to put pressure on China, which may well result in a “dual containment” policy aimed against both Moscow and Beijing. 

The final chapter includes an update on how Russia has been dealing with the pandemic at the end of 2020, plus some lessons learned from the year’s Strategy Group sessions.  

One of the main takeaways is that, although 2020 has been hard and resulted in further deterioration of EU-Russia relations, 2021 is unlikely to be any better. There are four main reasons for this:  

  • First and foremost, Moscow is no longer interested in maintaining good relations with the West, including Europe. Russian leaders – and security services that play a dominant role in decision-making – continue to focus on hard security matters and consider Europe to be a weaker partner. They are unwilling to make any concessions on the conflict in Donbass or any other regional issues that are important for Europeans. Also, they remain convinced that the West has entered a period of irreversible decline and, consequently, that time is on their side.  

  • Second, the new US administration is likely to conduct a tougher, more coherent foreign policy vis-à-vis Moscow, in particular in the aftermath of the recently discovered and not yet fully understood hacking attacks against US governmental servers in 2020. Such an approach will induce similar Russian counterreactions. Still, such policy may, over time, be more predictable than that of the Trump era. It may even lead to more cooperation in areas of mutual interest, e.g. climate change. In the short term, however, this predictability is likely to mean steadily cold relations, in which cooperation will be limited to only the most urgent issues, in particular, arms control.  

  • Third, the case of Alexei Navalny – his poisoning and especially his recent detainment in Russia – will prevent the EU and Germany from moving toward more dialogue and selective engagement. In other words, the EU is unlikely to make any concessions. Also, due to the upcoming Duma elections, the Kremlin cannot afford to look weak by making a compromise either. Thus, further diplomatic pressure and even sanctions from the EU are in the cards. Over time, and as long as the EU retains its unity toward Russia, this could lead to more engagement and bargaining with the Kremlin – also on European terms. In Moscow, Germany is still seen as the main interlocutor for the EU; a new chancellor will be seen as “somebody to talk to” and present an opening for repairing the relationship. While the interim period until Germany’s parliamentary elections in fall 2021 should be used to develop soft topics and a forward-looking agenda, it would be naïve to expect that the “old topics” will simply go away.  

  • Fourth, from Russia’s perspective, its increasingly strong cooperation with China – as well as with Turkey and other powers – is indeed bearing fruit. Therefore, Moscow is likely to continue to multi-vectorialize its foreign policy and trade. Russia will also use this multi-vectorialization to demonstrate less dependence on the West in a world in which global power relations are rapidly shifting.  

Of course, these factors do not mean that Germany’s limited engagement with Russia will become impossible – particularly on issues of mutual interest, such as fighting COVID-19 and climate change. It will, however, be important to avoid cross-topic concessions. Progress on issues related to combating the pandemic, cooperating on vaccines, or tackling climate change should not result in Germany weakening its support for human rights, democratic values, and regional issues. 

Conclusions and Outlook for 2021 

None of the challenges faced by Russia that were discussed in this report – either in domestic or foreign policy – could be efficiently addressed, let alone solved, in 2020. 

The Tragedy of COVID-19 

At present, the most pressing – and also tragic – challenge that Russian leadership is facing is the coronavirus crisis. While in January 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Russia acted efficiently to isolate the first cases, later developments clearly got out of control. The harsh lockdown measures imposed in spring 2020 did not manage to significantly push down the number of active COVID-19 cases, which remained above 160,000 during that time. Starting in late September 2020, the country has been hit by a devastating second wave; by the end of the year, the number of active cases reached 547,000.  

Russia’s official statistics for 2020 show a relatively low number of COVID-related deaths, with some 55,000 fatalities by the end of the year. This means that, comparatively, Russia fared a lot better than the United Kingdom, France, or Italy did in this regard – not to mention the staggering data of more than 300,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States in that same period. Meanwhile, there has been plenty of criticism about the reliability of Russia’s statistics as well as its methodology of reporting to the WHO. Russian statistics were mostly based on a substantial, unexpected growth in yearly death cases compared to the previous years, reaching some 220,000 fatalities. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center, more than 60 percent of Russian doctors did not believe the official coronavirus statistics as of July 2020. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has adamantly kept arguing that the data has been accurate and Russia has been managing the crisis well. 

This narrative was refuted by Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova on December 28, when she admitted that some 81 percent of Russia’s excess deaths were related to COVID-19. Based on Golikova’s announcement, more than 186,000 Russians have died from the pandemic in 2020 instead of the 55,000 that were reported earlier. This means that Russia’s real COVID-related death toll could be the world’s third highest, following the United States and Brazil. Neither the official numbers nor the reporting methodology were adjusted after Golikova’s revelation, however. And according to a survey conducted in mid-December 2020, while 57 percent of all Russians would be ready to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, only 38 percent would be ready to get the Sputnik V vaccine developed by Russia. 

The staggeringly high number of fatalities, combined with an extremely low level of trust in the Russian-made vaccine, suggest that Russia’s prospect for getting the pandemic under control in 2021 is rather bleak. Shortcomings in vaccine production present another problem. As of December 24, 2020, Russia planned to produce some 30 million doses of vaccine until June 2021 – a pace that is far from sufficient when considering that Russia’s population exceeds 140 million people. According to the head of the Gamaleya research laboratory, the producer of the Sputnik V vaccine, 100,000 doses are distributed every day. This means that, unless production can be massively upgraded, it might take way more than a year to produce the sufficient number of vaccines. 

Relying on Western vaccines to bridge production shortcomings would mean a loss of prestige and political failure as the country moves toward State Duma elections that are due to take place no later than September 2021. Given that campaigning will be done amid a growing mood of protest across Russia, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will significantly adjust its policies of managing the pandemic. Cooperation with the West on joint vaccine production might, however, be a way forward. 

Meanwhile, it is important to note that Russia’s economy is faring relatively well despite the decline caused by the pandemic. Contrary to catastrophic forecasts from the beginning of 2020, it had become clear by the end of the year that the Russian economy, although it took a hit, managed to avoid collapse. The overall slowdown is forecasted to be approximately 4 to 5 percent of GDP. Moreover, the massive reserves in the National Wealth Fund, which amount to nearly 180 billion USD, provide Russia with a cushion sufficient for several months, should economic and financial hardships prevail. Instead of using these funds to help the population by providing widespread benefits, the Kremlin is further increasing the reserves – probably due to concerns about future US sanctions. The fact that Russia’s economy turned out to be relatively more resilient compared to many Western economies might well reinforce Putin’s overall assessment that the Russian economic model is better than the liberal Western one.  

Increasing Self-isolation from the West 

All in all, there is no imminent economic or financial pressure on the Kremlin to change its foreign policy course vis-à-vis the West – particularly because 2020 has hardly been an easy year for Russian-Western relations. The victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential elections is likely to pave the way for a more coherent, more principled, and significantly more heavy-handed policy on Russia. This is particularly likely to be true in light of the recently discovered and not yet fully understood hacking attacks against US government servers. Yet, this policy may well be more predictable than that of the Trump era and even more cooperative in certain issues such as arms control. In the short run, however, this predictability is only likely to mean steadily cold relations, in which cooperation is limited to the most necessary fields, including a limited extension of New START in February 2021. 

Still, any new agreements on arms control will be very difficult to reach. Many fundamental disagreements remain, including on engaging China and other nuclear powers. According to Andrey Kortunov, Europe is moving into a very dangerous interim period. Although no legally binding US-Russian agreements in strategic arms control will be in place, new technologies will continue to allow more and more disruptive activities to shift to the cyber arena, space, or artificial intelligence.  

Meanwhile, Russia’s relations with Europe are now in a deadlock that is unlikely to be resolved soon. Relations were already burdened before 2020, first and foremost by Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, but also by various efforts to interfere in European elections – including those in Germany – and tensions over energy supplies. However, the August 2019 murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten park, the newly emerged details about Russia’s hacking attack against the Bundestag, and, most importantly, the August 2020 poisoning of Alexei Navalny worsened relations further. These developments inflicted lasting damage on the willingness of Germany – and also the EU – to actively strive for better relations with Russia as each side is only willing to engage in cooperation on its own terms. Russian leadership is losing interest in dealing with Europe and remains convinced that time is on their side.  

In light of these developments, China remained Russia’s sole great power partner in international affairs. As of 2020, the cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is far from any kind of an established alliance. Instead, their cooperation is more based on temporarily shared interests – a kind of marriage of convenience – in which there are strong limits to mutual trust, and both parties have only very limited willingness to take up any confrontation in support of the other.  

It is also a very asymmetrical partnership. The Chinese economy is more than seven times larger than Russia’s. Even if Moscow can offer geopolitical and strategic support, it cannot do much to help China in economic terms, including in a trade war with the United States. For its part, the Kremlin is very careful not to fall too much into China’s embrace. 

Nevertheless, under Presidents Xi and Putin, strategic cooperation between both powers is deemed to increase in importance. China still needs Russia to gain a military edge and strategic depth for its policy of confrontation to Taiwan and over the islands in the South China Sea. Also, China sees the opportunity to learn from Russia’s experience with military combat, cyber operations, and disinformation campaigns as an increasingly valuable asset. This may lead to the conclusion that, in the near future, Europe may well experience more of such moves – primarily in the cyber and information domains – not only from Russia, but also from China.  

All in all, Russia’s increasing orientation toward China and efforts to build up a joint anti-American center of power in Eurasia is a longer-term phenomenon likely to last. 

The Year 2021 Is Unlikely to Be Any Better 

By the end of 2020, it became spectacularly evident that Russia is not interested in maintaining good relations with the West if that would require Russia to make any significant concessions. Moscow has been increasingly refusing to conduct its foreign policy according to Western normative values; in fact, the joint rejection of these values serves as one of the cornerstones of its partnership with China. This is unlikely to change in 2021. Instead, domestic political pressures resulting from the approaching Duma election make any concessions even more improbable. 

There is also no reason to hope that Russia will stop its efforts to interfere in the domestic politics of Western countries, as illustrated by the aforementioned large-scale hacking of US government servers that was recently discovered and by several waves of COVID-related disinformation campaigns. Consequently, awareness needs to be maintained and resilience against hostile interference efforts further strengthened. This is particularly relevant in light of Germany’s upcoming Bundestag elections. 

While some may argue that, because the sanctions adopted by the United States and European Union have, so far, failed to stop Russia from trying to interfere in the domestic affairs of Western countries, they are inefficient and unnecessary, this is not the case. Sanctions, particularly those related to the financial, energy, and defense industries, have considerably increased the costs that Moscow needs to pay for rogue actions. While sanctions evidently did not deter Moscow from interference efforts, they considerably degraded the capabilities Russia may use for such purposes. Hence, sanctions need not be seen as a binary tool that either fully works or fully fails, but rather as a tool that helps put pressure on an adversary. 

All in all, similarly to the past year, 2021 is unlikely to bring any major improvement in relations between Russia and the West. Further worsening is, however, possible. The recent detainment of Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia on January 17, 2021, may indeed lead to a further deterioration of EU-Russia ties and particularly those between Germany and Russia. This will be especially true if Navalny’s controversial, yet suspended, sentence of three and a half years gets transformed into actual imprisonment. 

If that happens, neither the EU nor Germany will have any other choice but to adopt further measures against Russia. After taking a hard stance on Navalny’s poisoning in the summer and autumn of 2020, both Brussels and Berlin are politically bound to continue standing up for him, simply for the sake of their own credibility. Potential punitive measures may include not only further personal sanctions, but also the possible freeze of construction on Nord Stream 2, particularly because it overlaps with the intentions of the Biden administration. Moreover, if Russian authorities imprison the most important opposition figure right before the Duma elections, it may raise the possibility of the EU not recognizing the results of that election at all. From the Kremlin’s perspective, however, domestic considerations almost always trump foreign policy costs; hence, it is unlikely that even the toughest EU measures would be able to deter Russia from imprisoning Alexei Navalny. 

The likelihood of the further deterioration of relations with Russia leaves the EU and Germany with one remaining option. They need to intelligently manage the situation that is going to emerge when any improvement of strategic scale becomes out of reach in the short and medium term. This does not mean that occasional, issue-based cooperation should be rejected outright. Instead, questions related to global warming, environmental issues, and particularly the Arctic may indeed offer Russia an opportunity to willingly, honestly, and substantially cooperate.  

Handling the COVID-19 crisis may also constitute such an opportunity, depending on how successful Russia’s own vaccination efforts will be. If they do not meet expectations, widespread international cooperation might become necessary; the immunization of the Eurasian continent is not realistic unless the Russian population is provided with proper vaccines. However, it is important for both the EU and Germany to maintain selective engagement and avoid cross-topic concessions – for example, when a favor is granted in one sector to achieve progress in another. Progress in issues related to combating COVID-19 or climate change must not result in weakened support for human rights and democratic freedoms. 

Meanwhile, due to the upcoming Bundestag elections, Germany can hardly afford the luxury of not paying both attention and resources to increase its resilience against any possible outside interference efforts, including ones by Russia. Hence, an opportunity for improving Germany-Russia and EU-Russia relations may realistically only present itself after both the German and Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September 2021. It is also likely that Moscow will wait for the next German chancellor to engage. 

Bibliographic data

DGAP Report No. 5, January 27, 2021, 32 pp. 

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