Chapter 10: Post-Communist Russia and the West: From Crisis to Crisis?

  • James HeadleyEmail author


This chapter examines the continuities and changes in post-Communist Russian–Western relations, arguing that the main principles of Russian foreign policy have been fairly consistent since the early 1990s: assertion of Russian national interests distinct from those of the West, insistence on Russia’s status as a great power, maintenance of Russia’s role in international institutions, and resistance to Western unilateralism and hegemony. These principles help to explain the periodic clashes with Western states that regard Russia as an irritant in their promulgation of norms and approaches to resolving international crises. Until recently, crises tended to be followed by rapprochements, but Russian domestic developments, and evolving circumstances in the former Soviet Union and Middle East, have led to a more permanent freezing of relations.


European Union Foreign Policy Security Council Territorial Integrity United Nations Security Council 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

In 1994, the first major post–Cold War crisis between Russia and the West occurred over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) threat to bomb the Bosnian Serbs. Five years later, a worse crisis erupted over the Kosovo war, culminating in a stand-off between Russian and NATO troops at Pristina airport. In 2003, Russia strongly opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the following year tensions emerged over the disputed election in Ukraine. In 2008, Russia’s war against Georgia was strongly condemned in the West. Disagreements have continued over the war in Syria since 2012. And in late 2013 the most severe crisis of all broke out, over Ukraine. In one sense, then, the post–Cold War period can be seen as a succession of crises in Russian–Western relations after the initial “honeymoon period”. In each case, there was talk of a new “Cold War” and soul-searching in the West over what approach should be taken towards Russia. However, after each crisis, a rapprochement followed, such that the whole period cannot be considered one of continual antagonism between Russia and the West. Nevertheless, the severity of the Ukrainian crisis suggests a more serious and possibly permanent schism.

This chapter examines the continuities and changes in post-communist Russian foreign policy as reflected in Russia’s relations with the West. It argues that key features of Russia’s foreign policy approach were already in place in the early Yeltsin period: assertion of Russian national interests distinct from those of the West, insistence on Russia’s status as a great power, maintenance of Russia’s role in international institutions, and resistance to Western unilateralism and hegemony. These features clashed with key developments in Western foreign policy approaches, helping to explain the recurrent crises. Hence, the chapter also argues that there was much continuity from the Yeltsin to the Putin periods, although an economically stronger and politically more stable Russia could back up its assertive rhetoric more effectively after the chaotic first decade of post-communism. However, changing political circumstances in Russia and changing international circumstances explain why the Ukrainian crisis may mark a turning point in Russian–Western relations: a more authoritarian and conservative nationalist Russia aiming to reintegrate areas of the former Soviet space is coming up against a European Union (EU) that is seeking to engage more actively in the “shared neighbourhood”, and a United States that regards Russia as a renewed antagonist.

I will look first at the similarities and differences between Russian responses to the Yugoslav conflicts and the war in Syria. I will then consider what this shows us about the main tenets of Russian foreign policy and how they have developed in the intervening years in response to crises and as a result of political change. Then, I will show how these developments have culminated in the serious crisis in Russian–Western relations over Ukraine. I will conclude with some observations on what lessons we might draw from 25 years of post-communist Russian relations with the West.

Cycle of Crises? Bosnia, 1994, to Syria, 2013

On 5 February 1994, a mortar shell was fired into the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo, Bosnia–Herzegovina, killing 68 people and wounding a further 200. Five days later, NATO issued an ultimatum to all forces fighting within 20 km of Sarajevo to hand over their heavy weapons and to refrain from attacks within the area; if they failed to do so within 10 days, heavy weapons of any of the parties found within the exclusion zone, along with their military support facilities, would be subject to NATO air strikes. This led to the first major crisis in Russian–Western relations after the Cold War (Headley 2003). Although Russian policymakers approved of the aims of the declaration, they criticised the threat of force, the fact that it would be carried out by NATO, and the fact that Russia had been sidelined in taking the decision. Instead, the Russian envoy Vitalii Churkin gained the agreement of Slobodan Milošević (President of Serbia) and Radovan Karadžić (leader of the Bosnian Serbs) to withdraw Serb heavy weapons, while 400 Russian peacekeepers were transferred from Croatia to Sarajevo. This defused the crisis without recourse to air strikes. Both NATO and Russia claimed the credit.

Russian policymakers drew lessons from the crisis, which contributed to the consolidation of broader principles in relation to the wars not only in former Yugoslavia but also in Russian foreign policy more generally (Headley 2003). They argued that NATO had no right to threaten force without a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution; that although the language of the ultimatum was neutral, it was clearly aimed against the Bosnian Serbs even though their responsibility for the mortar shell had not been established; that it was the fact that Russia had asked the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons, not the threat of force, that had made the difference; and that the crisis showed the importance of Russia to the resolution of such situations. These conclusions displayed key elements of the Russian position on the Yugoslav conflicts which had been established over the preceding year: that there should be a peaceful resolution to the conflicts through negotiations without preconditions; that there should be no threat or use of force by outside powers; that the UNSC should play the lead role in conflict resolution, not NATO; that the conflict in Bosnia was a civil war in which it was “impossible…to determine who is right and who is wrong”, in the words of Sergei Lavrov, then Russian ambassador to the UN (Headley 2008, p. 123); that since the conflicts were taking place in a region of Russian interests, but also had implications for European and global security, Russia should be involved as an equal partner in resolving them; that Russian interests might differ from those of Western powers, who were also pursuing their own interests; but that it was important to avoid a great power conflict, including outside powers supporting proxies in the conflict.

On 21 August 2013, a chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, focused international attention on the Syrian conflict and led to calls in a number of Western states for intervention against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The following month, after a UN investigation confirmed the use of sarin, Russian diplomats played a lead role in brokering a deal by which the Syrian government would destroy its chemical weapons stocks and sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This deal averted intervention by Western powers, although debates in the US Congress and the UK House of Commons showed that there was significant reluctance to get involved, even though the atrocity had crossed President Obama’s “red line”. Russia’s position was that it was essential to verify which side had used chemical weapons before taking any action; that the crisis should only be resolved by peaceful means (that there should be no threat or actual use of force against the regime); that the crisis showed the importance of Russian diplomacy; and that although Russia did not rule out the future use of force if the government side did not comply with the agreement, any such action must be approved by the UNSC (e.g. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MFA] 2013a).

These responses to the chemical weapons crisis also reflected wider Russian policy towards the Syrian conflict at that time. First, there should be a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and no preconditions to negotiations (such as the immediate resignation of Assad); second outside powers should neither threaten nor use force to bring about a resolution to the conflict; third the war was a civil war with no side in the right or wrong (except the extreme Islamists) – as President Putin (2013) argued in an article in the New York Times, “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country”; fourth decisions must involve Russia, through the UNSC or an institution or conference in which Russia was an equal participant; fifth the war was taking place in an area of Russian interests,1 but it was also of global concern with implications for world order; and finally Russia’s interests might diverge from those of Western powers, yet it was important to cooperate in finding a common position and preventing it from becoming a proxy war or even a direct war between outside states.

There are many significant differences between the earlier situation in Bosnia and the current conflict in Syria, and also in Russia’s policy towards them. In practice, for example, Russia was less supportive of the Bosnian government and more favourable towards the “rebels” (Serbs) than in Syria because of sympathy for the Serb side, domestic pressure and a tendency to view Bosnia as an artificial construct, although formally Russia continued to support Bosnia’s territorial integrity. Russia was also bound by existing UNSC resolutions that it had voted for in its initial post-Soviet “liberal Westernizing” foreign policy phase – sanctions against Serbia, the “safe areas”, the no-fly zone and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Russia also favoured upholding the arms embargo, whereas in Syria, it was arming the government side.

Nevertheless, the similarity of policies across a 20-year gap is striking, indicating the long-term continuities in Russian foreign policy. A statement by a representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 30 August 2013 could have been taken from any official statement in relation to the Yugoslav conflicts after 1992:

Any unilateral forceful action bypassing the UN Security Council, however “restricted” it is, will become a direct violation of international law, will disrupt the prospects of a political and diplomatic resolution of the conflict in Syria, and will lead to a new turn of confrontation and new victims. We cannot allow such [a] development of events. (Russian MFA 2013b)

We can see here the insistence on international law, in terms of due process (through the UNSC) and observation of principles of non-intervention and sovereignty, and on a Russian role in resolution of international crises. What this amounted to in terms of Syria, as with former Yugoslavia previously, was the use of the UNSC to block external intervention in a civil war and to avert any action outside a UNSC framework (Charap 2013; Hahn 2012). It reflected scepticism about the notion of “humanitarian intervention” or a “responsibility to protect”, which Russian policymakers saw as a mask for self-interest on the part of Western states.

Russia propounded these principles in other key crises in the intervening period, with policymakers demanding that Russia be involved in their resolution, resisting Western interventionism and standing up for what they perceived to be Russian interests. First, the Russian response to Operation “Deliberate Force”, NATO’s air campaign against the Bosnian Serb forces in August–September 1995, was a logical extension of its position in relation to the Sarajevo crisis: Russia objected to the use of force by NATO without a clear-cut Security Council resolution (policymakers argued that existing resolutions creating the “safe areas” did not permit such extensive action) (Headley 2008). The same applied when the Kosovo crisis emerged a few years later. Russia objected to NATO threats of force against Serbia, and then its actual use of force from March to June 1999, Operation “Allied Force”. In addition, it saw NATO’s intervention and the terms of the peace agreement that ended it as paving the way for Western-backed independence for Kosovo, and also a mechanism to bring about “regime change” in Belgrade. Policy thereafter became focused on resisting moves towards Kosovo independence, in line with the principle of territorial integrity as set out in, for example, the Helsinki Final Act, and in line with the rather ambiguous UNSC Resolution 1244 that ended the conflict (Headley 2008).

In each of these cases, a key factor was NATO. It was not just that NATO was pushing Russia aside, but that such actions gave NATO a raison d’ětre in the post–Cold War world. Hence, the issue of NATO action in former Yugoslavia became tied up in the wider question of the role of NATO in post–Cold War Europe and the increasingly divisive question of NATO enlargement (NATO in fact admitted its first former Warsaw Pact members in April 1999, during Operation “Allied Force”). Furthermore, in Kosovo, Russia rejected Western claims that existing resolutions permitted military action, and regarded as spurious the argument that the fact that a draft resolution condemning the bombing was defeated in the UNSC gave it legitimacy. Fundamentally, Russian policymakers believed that Western powers were not respecting international law, were dismissing out of hand objections by other states and were motivated by self-interest rather than humanitarian impulses (Headley 2008).

Similar issues arose with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the difference that the West was more divided in this case. Again, Russia objected to intervention in a sovereign state against its government’s wishes and without explicit UNSC approval. Russian policymakers did not accept the argument that existing resolutions allowed for such action, and were unconvinced by the claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; instead, they attributed the Bush-administration’s policy to geopolitical calculations. There were, however, additional features in relation to Iraq that concerned Russia, which I will discuss in more detail below: regime change and the attempted imposition of liberal democracy; and the belief that such action might create a failed state and encourage Islamic fundamentalism.

In each of the previous crises, the downturn in Russia’s relations with the West was gradually reversed and a relative rapprochement occurred as each side recognised the importance of maintaining cooperative relations built on mutual interests. The Iraq war, however, added to building resentment among Russian policymakers at the disregard for Russia’s objections, and wariness about backing resolutions in the Security Council that might be used as a pretext for intervention, especially as the pattern was later repeated in relation to Libya. Russia abstained on UNSC Resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone in Libya in 2012, but subsequently objected to the way in which certain NATO states exceeded the mandate. As Lavrov, now Foreign Minister, put it in response to an interview question of whether Russia had been misled on the resolution:

We stated clearly that the mandate given by the resolution on which we and the Chinese abstained was grossly violated. The no-fly zone is about not allowing the military aircraft flying, and that’s it. And that’s it. The coalition was not patrolling the no-fly zone and was not ensuring the no-fly zone. It was taking out targets on the ground, directly participating in the internal conflict. (Glasser 2013)

And in a speech later that year at MGIMO university he reiterated the point:

In the case of Libya, where, as you know, there was declared a task to establish a no-fly zone and only afterwards the rule of democracy, there took place a simple transformation of this no-fly zone into elementary, cynical occupation of the aviation of NATO member countries involved in the internal conflict that were on the side of the opponents of the regime of Gaddafi. This was evident in the shocking fact that Gaddafi was savagely killed by NATO forces. (Lavrov 2013).

These developments help to explain Russia’s subsequent reluctance to allow more extensive international action over Syria, and also contributed to deepening its already entrenched distrust of Western interventionism.

Norms and Interests in Russian Foreign Policy

What can we conclude from this brief survey of international crises involving Russia? I have suggested that we can see a fairly consistent defence of a set of norms of non-intervention, sovereignty and territorial integrity (I will discuss below problems in the Russian position in practice from 2008). These are traditional state-centric norms, reflecting scepticism about ideas of humanitarian intervention, but still couched in principled terms.2 For example, the 2013 Russian Foreign Policy Concept states (31[b]) under the heading “Rule of Law in International Relations”:

Arbitrary and politically motivated interpretation of fundamental international legal norms and principles such as non-use of force or threat of force, peaceful settlement of international disputes, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, right of peoples to self-determination, in favour of certain countries pose particular danger to international peace, law and order. Likewise, attempts to represent violations of international law as its “creative” application are dangerous. It is unacceptable that military interventions and other forms of interference from without which undermine the foundations of international law based on the principle of sovereign equality of states, be carried out on the pretext of implementing the concept of “responsibility to protect”. (Russian MFA 2013c)

Russia claimed not to object in principle to action on the basis of humanitarian concerns, but believed that it should not undermine the general basis of international relations, and also should be decided through due process (the UNSC). For example, in the context of the debate over Syria and the Libya events preceding it, Lavrov answered the question, “do you think there are any situations in which humanitarian intervention is justified?” as follows:

Well, you know this issue has been discussed a lot, including at the United Nations. It is a generally accepted rule and norm of international law that sovereignty cannot be used as a pretext for gross violations of human rights, ethnic cleansing, genocide, military crimes. And all this has been clearly spelled out in 2005 when the United Nations General Assembly was convened at the summit level and adopted a declaration where this “responsibility to protect” concept was described. That declaration clearly stated, that the priorities given to the efforts of the states themselves who have the obligation – the primary obligation – to protect their population, that the priority must be given to political means. And that only in case when a state exhausts all its possibilities and is not able to protect the population, it is only then that the international community can interfere, but only when the Security Council so decides. So this issue is closed. The rules have been agreed. (Glasser 2013)

In practice, throughout the period, Russia has held the bar very high in terms of what is required for the use of force, even to uphold resolutions it has supported, especially where policymakers believe Russia’s interests to be at stake. For example, in early 1994, in his capacity of Deputy Foreign Minister, Lavrov explained to the Duma the Russian position on air strikes in Bosnia: existing resolutions allowed force only in the event of an attack on a convoy delivering humanitarian aid, a violation of the no-fly zone or “direct obstruction of the UN peace-keeping forces in carrying out their mandate” for the maintenance of the “safe areas”. And a special procedure was required for force then to be used:

In all the enumerated decisions the question is only about a threat of the use of force against a violator. Its actual use requires a special additional procedure – consultations between the secretary general and the members of the Security Council. Our position in the course of such consultations, if they begin, will be negative. (Headley 2003, p. 215)

This would seem to indicate a predetermined rejection of the use of air strikes in any circumstances. Similarly, in 2013, Russia opposed the use of force in Syria by outside powers even to enforce the weak UNSC resolutions 2042/3. As suggested above, this was partly the consequence of what had happened in Libya, and also genuine concerns about the security vacuum that might be created if Syrian government forces withdrew (as with Kosovo in 1999).

It is easy to see, however, that Russia had interests in preventing Western action in each of the situations discussed. In former Yugoslavia, Russian policymakers perceived those interests to include restricting NATO’s role and, increasingly, to nurture Serbia as a potential ally in the Balkans (there was an increasing trend towards supporting the Serb side which, while not an explicitly pro-Orthodox/Slav policy, did reflect such sympathies among the elite and was a consequence also of domestic pressure). In Iraq, Russia resisted being pushed out of a Middle Eastern country with which it had strong ties, including lucrative contracts for oil extraction. In addition, as I explore below, opposing the idea of “regime change” became paramount under Putin. In the case of Syria, the standard account of Russia’s position was that Russia was supporting an authoritarian ally, and protecting arms sales and its naval base at Tartus (its only one in the Mediterranean) (Charap 2013, p. 35). All of this is in line with the dominant realist outlook in Russian foreign policy which stresses the pursuit and defence of Russian interests even when they may conflict with those of the West, and attributes Western foreign policy to a corresponding pursuit of self-interest.

There is clearly tension between the principled rhetoric and the realist outlook on foreign affairs. I cannot explore this contradiction in further detail here, but would suggest, first, that it is not uncommon for self-interest and defence of norms to be intertwined, and in terms of international theory we should not consider them to be in contradiction or mutually exclusive. In the Russian case, policymakers believed that Russia is better off with traditional state-centric principles in international affairs, but also that these principles are best for the world as a whole. Second, the Russian realist-based claim that all states are equally pursuing their self-interest has been a rhetorical strategy that masks the fact that Russia often is making principled arguments (Averre 2009; Casier 2013; DeBardeleben 2012). It seems to have convinced many analysts who take it at face value and contrast it with the West’s normative approach. For example, in response to the Wikileaks, Farrell and Finnemore (2013) wrote:

Indeed, the United States could take a page out of China’s and Russia’s playbooks: instead of framing their behaviour in terms of the common good, those countries decry anything that they see as infringing on their national sovereignty and assert their prerogative to pursue their interests at will. Washington could do the same, while continuing to punish leakers with harsh prison sentences and threatening countries that might give them refuge.

My analysis challenges the claim that Russia does not frame its behaviour in terms of the common good, but it is an empirical matter whether, in the case of Russia and Western states, such rhetoric merely masks self-interest.

Third, and connected to the previous point, Western refusal to acknowledge Russia as an equal interlocutor in developing international norms and in deciding international policies has fed into Russian resentment and increased assertiveness over the past two decades. Russian policymakers have shown growing frustration over Western claims to a special knowledge of the moral truth based on various forms of exceptionalism. We get a hint of Russian frustration in Lavrov’s interview in 2013:

And speaking of the Syrian situation in general and about the American position and the Russian position, we have been listening for a couple of years during the previous administration of President Obama. We have been hearing appeals to us to change our position. All the time the official representatives of the State Department or the White House will be saying, “We call on Russia and China to change their position”, which meant the conviction of Washington that their position was right. (Glasser 2013)

The Russian rejection of US exceptionalism was later well summed up by Putin (2013) in response to President Obama’s address to the US nation over Syria:

I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional”. It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Russian policymakers, then, have been sceptical about the concept of a “responsibility to protect”, but also about the way Western powers assume the sole moral authority to judge its applicability in specific cases. In order to undercut this presumption, Russian policymakers have increasingly accused their Western counterparts of displaying double standards in their policies across a range of areas – for example, in recognition of Kosovo, in upholding minority rights and in supporting authoritarian allies in some countries, but seeking regime change in others (Headley 2015a). For example, Lavrov (2013) complained:

If we talk about the Middle East and North Africa, there was what we call a “double standard”, as well as personal attitude i.e. personal animosity to a single authoritarian leader results in the agreement that he must be toppled by all means, and authoritarian leaders who do not cause such dislike and who are allies of our Western partners and assist them, are not taken into consideration at all.

Finally, my analysis challenges the common tendency among commentators to argue that Russia’s assertive approach occurred only under President Putin. For example, many analysts point to Putin’s speech at the Munich security conference in 2007 as evidence of a turning point towards an aggressively assertive Russian policy. Yet, the essentials of that speech have formed the basis of foreign policy since around 1993/1994: pursuit of multipolarity, opposition to NATO enlargement, resistance to Western interventionism and the undermining of sovereignty, especially when carried out unilaterally and without regard for the UNSC, and so on. There was little new here that had not been heard in complaints throughout most of the post–Cold War era, and can be seen in successive versions of the Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine, for example. It was merely stated more directly than usual, but Putin (2007) explained why:

This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms. This conference’s format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems. And if my comments seem unduly polemical, pointed or inexact to our colleagues, then I would ask you not to get angry with me. After all, this is only a conference.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the changes that have occurred during Putin’s rule, especially as they connect to his domestic consolidation of power; and we also need to explain the dramatic developments in relation to Syria and Ukraine since 2013. I will turn now to a more detailed analysis of the Putin period, before focusing on those recent developments.

The Putin Era

Three key interrelated factors in the Putin era shed light on Russia’s increasingly strained relations with the West, each one linking domestic and foreign policy developments: Chechnya, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism; increased authoritarianism in Russia, legitimised through the notion of “sovereign democracy” and connected to resistance to “regime change”; and emphasis on the former Soviet space with the aim of reintegrating it economically.

Putin rose to power on the back of crushing Chechnya. Although the renewed war resulted in more terrorist atrocities across Russia, the pretext for the invasion in 1999 was the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk as well as incursions by Islamic fundamentalists from Chechnya into neighbouring Dagestan. After the interim peace agreement in 1996, Chechnya had been de facto independent, but was ruled by warlords and fundamentalists intent on trying to expand their control. Hence, Putin’s rhetoric in the early 2000s linked the threat of separatism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and he saw these as connected across an “arc of instability” spreading from Afghanistan across the Middle East (and Russia’s southern tier) to the Balkans (Headley 2005). He argued that Russia and the West shared a common interest in resisting this threat, and justified military action on this basis. In early September 2001, one of the major international news items was the rising tension between Russia and Georgia as Russian airplanes conducted strikes against Chechen fighters based in the Pankisi Gorge, an area of Georgia neighbouring Chechnya. When the terrorist attacks occurred in the United States on 11 September, Russia offered sympathy and support against a “common enemy”, including allowing transit of goods by the US military across Russia to support the war in Afghanistan. The common threat was used as a basis to repair relations severely strained after the Kosovo conflict and NATO enlargement and to divert criticism away from Russia’s conduct of its operations in Chechnya (although two years later, Russia, like other states, rejected the claim that Iraq was linked to terrorism, and as we have seen, the Iraq invasion led to a renewed crisis in relations).

Chechnya laid the basis for Putin’s rise to power but also contributed to the authoritarian shift in Russian politics (Headley 2005). First, there was the indiscriminate attack on Chechnya with little regard for loss of civilian lives, and the subsequent repression there under President Kadyrov. Second, outspoken critics of the Chechnya campaign, and individuals who have investigated the questionable actions of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the apartment bombings preceding the second Chechen war have been silenced (Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaia). Third, the Chechen war has been used by Putin to consolidate and centralise power (e.g. after the Beslan massacre in 2004, governors of federal entities were appointed rather than elected, and Duma election rules were changed to favour larger parties).

These measures fed into the broader trend towards authoritarianism, which was couched in ideological terms as “sovereign democracy”, the assertion of the right of each sovereign state to its own form of democracy against pressure from the West and international organisations in promoting universal human rights and liberal representative democracy (Headley 2015b). As a result, a normative gap arose between Russia and the West, including between Russia and the European Union over the degree to which pan-European norms should be developed to shape the domestic and international behaviour of all European states, over who should develop such norms, and how (Headley 2012a). Increasingly, the Russian authorities clamped down on non-governmental organisations based in Russia that were portrayed as agents of Western states, contributing to the narrowing of civil society. Such organisations were accused of promoting “regime change” in Russia itself, so that the idea of a domestic threat to the Putin regime became tied to Russian foreign policy in resisting “regime change” in the Middle East and particularly in the former Soviet space.

Increasing emphasis on the former Soviet space as the priority area for Russian foreign policy was a feature of the more assertive approach in the 1990s after the initial “liberal Westernizing” phase. Under Putin, it became more than a declaration of intent, as signified by his famous statement in his 2005 address to the Federal Assembly that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” (Putin 2005). Putin acknowledged that the former Soviet space remained highly integrated in many ways – movement of people and goods, for example – particularly with the Russian economic boom in the 2000s. But by the early 2010s, Russian policymakers were actively pursuing regionalism (the deliberate policy of developing intra-regional ties) through specific integrationist projects (Putin 2011). This has been accompanied by rhetorical emphasis on the idea of a “civilizational identity”, although this is in tension with the simultaneous promotion of specifically Russian language and culture and support for ethnic Russians in the “near abroad” (Headley 2012b, 2015b).

Such developments have contributed to recurrent crises with the West during the Putin era. First, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 challenged the apparent manipulation of the election there, including direct Russian interference in support of Viktor Yanukovych, while Russia accused Western states of engineering “regime change” and overturning democratic results in order to get pro-Western forces into power. This crisis prefigured the 2013 crisis and prompted similar fears of a new Cold War. Then, in 2008, Russia fought its first war in the post-Cold War era outside the borders of the Russian Federation, against Georgia. Russian actions were clearly intended to protect perceived interests in the former Soviet space: to block the pro-Western Georgian President Saakashvili’s attempt to reclaim South Ossetia and Abkhazia and to show the credibility of Russian commitments to breakaway regions (Russia had explicitly stated that Russia would prevent any forceful attempt by Georgia to reclaim them). They were also tied to the wider issue of NATO enlargement, as Ukraine and Georgia were pushing for NATO membership, encouraged by the Bush administration (Mearsheimer 2014).

Although the subsequent report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (2009) held Georgia primarily responsible for initiating the conflict,3 Russia’s willingness to use force and apparent incitement of Georgia confirmed for many Western commentators and policymakers that there had been a major shift in Russian policy under Putin and that his Munich rhetoric was now being applied in practice. Furthermore, when Russia recognised the breakaway regions as independent states it seemed to signify a major departure: after all, in rhetoric at least, Russia had previously insisted on the territorial integrity of the former Yugoslav and former Soviet republics. This remained the basis of Russian objections to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 and its subsequent recognition by most Western states, as well as the legitimation for Russia’s own reabsorption of Chechnya into the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, these developments again need to be understood within the context of longer-term developments in Russian foreign policy. It is true that by recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian policymakers abandoned any real claim to consistency of defence of such principles (though, like Western powers with Kosovo, they portrayed it as a unique case that had no implications for those principles), but they had warned repeatedly that Western recognition of Kosovo against Russia’s (and Serbia’s) objections would have implications elsewhere (Headley 2012a). They had also warned that they would uphold their role as peacekeeper in “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet space (although Russian troops have in fact provided support for de facto states since the early 1990s). In addition, Russia had had to accept NATO enlargement as a fait accompli, including the accession of the Baltic states, but Russian policymakers have repeatedly warned against any further NATO encroachment into the former Soviet space, viewed as an area of vital and special Russian interests.

The war with Georgia showed that Russia was now prepared and able to back up its rhetoric of standing up for its interests, especially in the former Soviet space. So, although the rhetoric and overall outlook had not changed, Putin was more willing to implement it in practice even if it meant a deterioration of relations with the West. This was partly because, as a result of the economic recovery, Russia was now more capable of doing so and less dependent on economic ties with the West (the reintegration process within the former Soviet space was also designed to reinforce the economic revival and Russia’s independence from the West). However, as with previous crises, there was a subsequent attempt to emphasise shared interests with the West and to promote a rapprochement. One move in this direction was the proposal to develop a European Security Treaty that would help resolve the disputes over Kosovo and Georgia (Russian MFA 2009). As with earlier attempts to invigorate the Conference/Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE/OSCE) as the key security institution in Europe, the Russian initiative fell on deaf ears in the West. By now, Russia was seen as acting against European norms rather than as an equal participant in European affairs, and although there was more caution about further NATO enlargement,4 alternative ways of bringing former Soviet states into the Western fold were now pursued (the Eastern Partnership). Such a rebuttal merely contributed to further Russian resentment and assertiveness.

Hence, the cycle of crisis and rapprochement between Russia and the West seemed to be developing into a spiral of deepening mutual distrust.

Ukraine and Syria, 2013–

The developments outlined above came to a head with the Ukraine crisis. There is no room here to go into detail about internal Ukrainian politics;5 I will focus instead on how the crisis there turned into a wider clash between Russia and the West, and specifically on the Russia–EU dimension.

For much of the post-Soviet period, Russian policymakers viewed the European Union as the benign West in contrast to the United States and NATO (there are echoes here of Cold War wedge driving). Russia was fairly positive about European Union integration and did not object in principle to EU enlargement, unlike NATO enlargement. Nominally at least, Russian policymakers hoped that EU enlargement would also promote closer ties between Russia and the EU, and insisted that Russia was a European power. As suggested above, there were clashes over norms, however, and specific tensions as a result of EU criticism of Russia’s Chechnya campaign, over certain issues related to enlargement (Kaliningrad; the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltic States), as well as between Russia and individual EU Member States such as the United Kingdom and Poland. These tensions were a prelude to the dramatic clash over Ukraine which resulted from an assertive Russia seeking reintegration in the Soviet space meeting an EU that was emboldened to act in its neighbourhood and regarded Russia as a disruptive influence.

In one respect, the Ukraine crisis was the result of two contradictory integration projects (Headley 2012c, 2013). Although Ukraine was not being offered actual membership of the EU, the Association Agreement (AA) incorporating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) was designed to extend many features of membership and incorporate Ukraine into the wider EU orbit, tied to conditionality in a way that was familiar from the enlargement process. The AAs grew out of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, developed partly in response to the Georgia crisis. Ukraine was key for Russia, however: Putin believed that Ukrainian membership was vital for the success of reintegration initially as a Customs Union and more ambitiously as a Eurasian Economic Union; Russian oligarchs were intimately involved in Ukraine, and Ukraine was central to Russian energy exports; culturally and historically, eastern Ukraine at least was considered part of a common space with Russia, and ethnic Russians lived there in large numbers; and Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula, controversially leased from Ukraine, was the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Both sides made it clear that Ukraine could not be a member of the Customs Union and sign an FTA with the EU. This points to problems with the narrative of EU integration as a peace project, since a deep integration project of this sort creates similar issues to those that emerged with the nation state: breaking up existing common economic and cultural spaces and making borders more significant. Furthermore, the EU’s foreign policy was conducted in a way that did not promote peace: it ignored Russian concerns about the agreement, and, convinced of its own inherent goodness and the benefits an FTA would bring to Ukraine, equated a pro-EU orientation with democracy, neglecting legitimate concerns among many Ukrainians about the proposed agreement (these problems with the divisive effect that integration could have, and with EU foreign policy, echoed aspects of the Yugoslav conflict in the early 1990s; Woodward [1995]).

Furthermore, the AA also required Ukraine to align with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which Russia increasingly perceived as a way to build close ties with NATO and as being antagonistic towards Russia. Combined with US support for the Maidan protestors and its apparent attempt to engineer the removal of President Yanukovych and replace him with Arseniy Yatsenyuk – whose “Open Ukraine” organisation ( was sponsored by, among others, the US State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Polish Embassy, Chatham House and the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Kiev – such policies led Russian policymakers to perceive events in Ukraine as a Western attempt to push Russia out of an area of vital interests, implemented through the now familiar method of regime change – in this case the removal of a democratically elected president through a popular protest campaign orchestrated in part by anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists.

Consequently, when Yanukovych fled (apparently against Putin’s wishes) and the future orientation of Ukraine became clear, it is perhaps not fully surprising that Putin moved surreptitiously to annex Crimea – an opportunistic move to solve once and for all the Sevastopol issue (Mearsheimer 2014). Once again this was a blatant violation of the norm of territorial integrity that was supposedly still central to Russian foreign policy. Although arguments could be made, as with Kosovo, that Crimea is a special case (it has a majority of Russian speakers, and it was only part of Ukraine due to its arbitrary transfer from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954), Russia had clearly come a long way from its stance of 1991/1992 – that the constituent republics of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and of the Soviet Union were now independent states entitled to their territorial integrity. Subsequently, Moscow played Belgrade to eastern Ukraine’s Republika Srpska, again in stark contrast to the Yugoslav wars when Russia had voted for sanctions against Serbia for supporting Serb secessionists in Bosnia – even if, unlike with Crimea, Russia formally claimed not to support independence or accession to the Russian Federation for the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk “republics”, urging instead substantial autonomy within Ukraine.6

The Ukraine crisis is the culmination of Russia’s more assertive attitude – especially in its “near abroad” – now backed up with a willingness to stand up for its interests even with force, despite the isolation and economic repercussions it entails. At the same time, Russian policymakers still attempt to defend their actions in terms of shared principles, and to accuse the West of abrogating those principles (in manufacturing a coup against an elected leader by those who threatened the rights of the Russian minority) and displaying double standards; and they object to the lack of consultation with Russia or consideration of Russian interests. For example, Putin (2014) told the Duma in December 2014:

…in the case of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, there was no dialogue at all. We were told that it was none of our business or, to put it simply, we were told where to go. All the arguments that Russia and Ukraine are members of the CIS free-trade zone, that we have deep-rooted cooperation in industry and agriculture, and basically share the same infrastructure – no one wanted to hear these arguments, let alone take them into account.

Similarly, with Syria, Russia refused to back down from its support of Assad and then, later, provided direct military support to his regime. This was a demonstration of the assertiveness and geopolitical thinking (supporting an ally) that has been the mainstay of Russian rhetoric, including in relation to the Middle East where it displays the influence of the former Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov, a Middle Eastern specialist. Theoretically, it does not signify a reversal of Russia’s opposition to Western intervention in 2013 (and subsequently), or its earlier anti-interventionist position, because Russia was invited to join the campaign by what it sees as the legitimate government. However, as in Ukraine, Russia seems prepared to risk a confrontation with the West, this time by openly entering the war, thereby going beyond supporting a proxy, which is a far cry from the caution in Bosnia in the 1990s. This willingness can be explained in part by two developments discussed previously: the vision of Russia as a fighter against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, tying the Syrian conflict to Russia’s own struggle internally,7 and the attempt to match great power rhetoric with action, backed by renewed military capability. In this context, the multifaceted intervention in the Syrian war serves as a demonstration of Russia’s “return” to military “greatness” (Myers and Schmitt 2015). Yet, it is still justified in terms of existing international principles: support for a legitimate government that Russia portrays as the most effective bulwark against Islamic extremism, offering also the potential for cooperation with the West against Islamic State.


I have argued that the main principles of Russian foreign policy have been fairly consistent since the early 1990s. These principles help to explain the periodic clashes with Western states, particularly over issues or in areas that Russian policymakers perceive to be important to Russian interests. In broader terms, a Russia seeking to re-establish its great power status, which depends particularly on key strategic areas, is coming up against a West that regards Russia as an irritant in its promulgation of norms and approaches to resolving international crises. This is exacerbated by the tendency of Western policymakers to ignore Russian objections to their policies and not to engage seriously with the principles their Russian counterparts espouse. Until recently, crises tended to be followed by rapprochements, but the circumstances of Russian domestic developments, and developments in the former Soviet Union and Middle East involving Western states, have created a more permanent freezing of relations.

How can we interpret post-communist Russian foreign policy and its relations with the West? Firstly, I would argue that it is misleading to frame the tensions in terms of a new “Cold War”. Russia is not the Soviet Union, in borders or in politico-economic system, and does not present an alternative system to liberal democratic capitalism. Although Russia wants to be recognised as a great power, it does not have the global pretensions or global capability of its predecessor, nor the ideological drive to compete globally with the United States. The prime area of attention is the “near abroad”, the former Soviet space, which is both an area of primary Russian interests and a means for Russia to assert its great power status. The dominant realist thinking in foreign policy sees Russia as a regional hegemon and as a major power because of its dominant sphere.

A second, alternative interpretation is that Russia is a rising power, challenging Western hegemony. The idea of the BRICS suits this interpretation, moving beyond the Cold War paradigm. Russia, along with the other rising powers, is a revisionist power, seeking to challenge the dominant Western-led order. While there is some truth in this account, it is problematic to view such a diverse range of countries as a coherent group, regardless of attempts by policymakers to make it into one. Regarding Russia, although foreign policy over the past 20 years has been geared towards re-establishing Russia’s status after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, its former status and its level of development place it in a different position to other members of the group.

We can see then that Russia is a revisionist state in terms of power - it wants to be acknowledged as a great power, to be heard and to be one of the major powers making key decisions in the international arena. But this desire in fact manifests itself as a defence of the existing order of international politics based on the United Nations and especially the Security Council in which, as a permanent veto-wielding member, Russia can be an equal participant with other major powers. Similarly, defence of the idea of non-intervention and sovereignty suits the Putin regime’s interests but is also presented as a defence of fundamental principles of the world order under threat from Western interventionism and hegemony in the widest sense. So, Russia is more of a status quo power than a revisionist power regarding the principles of the international order. Nevertheless, when it comes to the immediate neighbourhood, Russian policymakers have increasingly contravened such principles in pursuing specific Russian and regime interests, in line with the realist idea of great power regional hegemony. Such actions only serve to undermine the principled stance promulgated in other contexts.

This makes it harder for Western policymakers as the normative gap between Russia and the West widens. Yet, Russia has become more assertive partly because it has been ignored in the past. Western policymakers have too often disregarded Russian opinions on international matters, and have then been surprised by Russian assertiveness. This is partly a matter of ignorance (House of Lords European Union Committee 2015), but also a habit developed during the Yeltsin period of assuming that Russian objections to Western policy are mere bluster for a domestic audience. Too often, also, Western policymakers are convinced of the rectitude of their own policies and disregard legitimate concerns from Russia. In this regard, Russia is not alone in demanding more equal consideration in international affairs and challenging Western hegemony in the post-Cold War era.


  1. 1.

    According to Hahn (2012), “being in the immediate neighbourhood”, Russia is “caught even more tightly” in the Syrian crisis than the United States.

  2. 2.

    In his detailed analysis of Russian approaches to military intervention, Allison (2013) also argues that Russia has defended a particular set of norms, leading to “normative friction” (p. 208) with the West.

  3. 3.

    The report wrote: “The shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia, yet it was only the culminating point of a long period of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents” (p. 11).

  4. 4.

    NATO’s invitation to Montenegro in December 2015 to begin accession talks sparked an angry Russian reaction, showing that Russia remains opposed to NATO enlargement even outside the former Soviet Union.

  5. 5.

    For detailed analysis of the Ukrainian crisis from contrasting perspectives, see Sakwa (2015) and Wilson (2014).

  6. 6.

    In practice, Putin’s control of events and of the secessionist forces is probably exaggerated in mainstream accounts, as was Milošević’s control over Serb nationalists outside Serbia; but as with Milošević, Putin is trapped by his own nationalist rhetoric which is instrumental to his popular support.

  7. 7.

    Although a report by Elena Milashina (2015) in Novaia gazeta suggested that the Syrian conflict has also been seen as an opportunity for Russia, with special services helping Islamists from the Russian Caucasus to go to fight in Syria, hoping thereby to remove a domestic threat.


  1. Allison, R. (2013). Russia, the West, and military intervention. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Averre, D. (2009). From Pristina to Tskhinvali: the legacy of operation allied force in Russia’s relations with the West. International Affairs, 85(3), 575–591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Casier, T. (2013). The EU-Russia strategic partnership: challenging the normative argument. Europe-Asia Studies, 65(7), 1377–1395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Charap, S. (2013). Russia, Syria and the doctrine of intervention. Survival 55(1), 35–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. DeBardeleben, J. (2012). Applying constructivism to understanding EU-Russian relations. International Politics, 49(4), 418–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Farrell, H., & Finnemore, M. (2013). The end of hypocrisy: American foreign policy in the age of leaks. Foreign Affairs, 92(6), 22–26.Google Scholar
  7. Glasser, S. B. (2013, April 29). “The law of politics” according to Sergei Lavrov: an exclusive interview with Russia’s top diplomat. Foreign Policy Magazine.Google Scholar
  8. Hahn, G. (2012, February 16). Russia’s hard-nosed realism in Syria: the roots and reasoning. Fair Observer. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  9. Headley, J. (2003). Sarajevo, February 1994: the first Russia-NATO crisis of the post-Cold War era. Review of International Studies, 29(2), 209–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Headley, J. (2005). War on terror or pretext for power? Putin, Chechnya, and the “terrorist international”. Australasian Journal of Human Security, 1(2), 13–35.Google Scholar
  11. Headley, J. (2008). Russia and the Balkans: Foreign policy from Yeltsin to Putin. London and New York: Hurst and Co.; Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Headley, J. (2012a). Is Russia out of step with European norms? Assessing Russia’s relationship to European identity, values and norms through the issue of self-determination. Europe-Asia Studies, 64(3), 427–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Headley, J. (2012b). Near abroads and arcs of instability: conceptualising the region in the South Pacific and Eurasia. Canterbury Law Review, 18, 15–40.Google Scholar
  14. Headley, J. (2012c). National and transnational challenges in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia. Global Change, Peace & Security, 24(2), 251–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Headley, J. (2013). A divided democracy/contested kleptocracy between two unions. Australian and New Zealand Journal of European Studies, 5(2), 98–101.Google Scholar
  16. Headley, J. (2015a). Challenging the EU’s claim to moral authority: Russian talk of “double standards”. Asia Europe Journal, 13(3), 297–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Headley, J. (2015b). Russia’s complex engagement with European Union norms: sovereign democracy versus post-Westphalianism? In: A. Björkdahl, N. Chaban, J. Leslie, A. Masselot (Eds.), Importing EU norms: conceptual framework and empirical findings (pp. 211–230). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  18. House of Lords European Union Committee. (2015). The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine. Accessed 6 January 2016.
  19. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia. (2009, September). Report. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  20. Lavrov, S. V. (2013, September 2). Speech by S.V. Lavrov, Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in front of the students and professors of MGIMO (University) MFA of Russia. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  21. Mearsheimer, J. J. (2014). Why the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault. Foreign Affairs, 93, 77–89.Google Scholar
  22. Milashina, E. (2015, July 29). Khalifat? Primarka dlia durakov! Novaia gazeta. Accessed 7 January 2016.
  23. Myers, S. L., & Schmitt, E. (2015, October 14). Russian military uses Syria as proving ground, and West takes notice. International New York Times. Accessed 17 December 2015.Google Scholar
  24. Putin, V. V. (2005, April 25). Annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  25. Putin, V. V. (2007, February 10). Speech and the following discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  26. Putin, V. V. (2011, October 3). A new integration project for Eurasia: the future in the making. Izvestiia. English translation at Accessed 6 January 2015.
  27. Putin, V. V. (2013, September 11). A plea for caution from Russia. New York Times.Google Scholar
  28. Putin, V. V. (2014, December 4). Presidential address to the Federal Assembly. Accessed 6 January 2016.
  29. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2009). Draft European Security Treaty. Accessed 6 January 2016.
  30. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2013a, September 4). Comment by the Information and Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding a possible forceful action by the United States against Syria. Accessed 7 January 2016.
  31. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2013b, August 30). Comment by the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Alexander Lukashevich regarding the statements of the United States about the forceful action against Syria. Accessed 10 December 2016.
  32. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2013c, February 12). Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation. Accessed 10 December 2016.
  33. Sakwa, R. (2015). Frontline Ukraine: crisis in the borderlands. London: I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  34. Wilson, A. (2014). Ukraine Crisis: what it means for the West. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Woodward, S. L. (1995). Balkan tragedy: chaos and dissolution after the cold war. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PoliticsUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations