Russia is easing into 2020 under expectations of continued economic stagnation and deeper political limbo. And yet, over the previous 12 months, Russia’s foreign policy behavior was rather cautious and passive, as if President Vladimir Putin assumed that global drivers were working in his favor, precluding any need for proactive moves. Taking stock of the achievements as 2019 drew to a close, only the most Kremlin-loyal pundits found the situation satisfactory (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, December 26, 2019). Putin’s subordinates, however, surely see that the temporizing has resulted in a series of setbacks (Rosbalt, January 5, 2020; Republic, December 23, 2019). The final blow last year was the decision of the World Anti-Doping Agency to punish Russia for its systematic cover-up of bad tests, and Putin’s complaints about unfair treatment rang false even to his domestic audience (Novaya Gazeta, December 23, 2019; see EDM, December 12, 2019). This inability by the Russian state to clean up the undeniably tainted act illuminated Moscow’s failures along all key foreign policy directions.
At the top of that list were continued abortive efforts throughout 2019 to pursue high-level dialogue with and United States. Putin had reasons to hope for a rehabilitation of his connection with US President Donald Trump after the conclusion of the Special Counsel investigation by Robert Mueller. But no new start in this key conversation happened. Meanwhile, the breakdown of arms control talks and agreements particularly worries Moscow (Russiancouncil.ru, January 10, 2020). The Russian president’s bragging about new superior weapons systems (see EDM, February 21, 2019) failed to stimulate Trump’s interest in negotiating new deals or at least in prolonging the New START strategic arms control treaty, which is fast approaching its expiration date in February 2021 (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 3, 2020). Russian demonstrations of military might also did not scare European neighbors enough to cajole them into adopting a policy of appeasement; instead, Moscow’s saber rattling convinced many Europeans of the need to invest more into upgrading the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s containment capabilities. Furthermore, the chain of deadly accidents involving various Russian nuclear assets during 2019 revealed the scope of neglected risks in the country’s much-abused military machine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 30, 2019; see EDM, July 8, 11, 2019 and September 3, 2019).
Significant emphasis was placed in Moscow on the expansion of the much-valued strategic partnership with China (see EDM, October 22, 2019), which last year celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist state with all the due pomp; but the relationship actually endured plenty of troubles, first of all in Hong Kong (Moscow Echo, January 2, 2020). Putin used every opportunity to cultivate his personal rapport with President Xi Jinping and hoped that the escalation of the trade war with US would increase Russia’s value as China’s key partner. But the two economic powerhouses instead engaged in hard bargaining on their own terms—with Russia left watching from the sidelines (Kommersant, December 27, 2019). The construction of the Sila Sibiri (Power of Siberia) natural gas pipeline to was finally completed in 2019, but the project—praised as the “deal of the century” back in 2014—now looks like just another trickle among other global gas flows (Carnegie.ru, December 4, 2019). Joint military exercises (see EDM, July 30, 2019 and September 26, 2019) are portrayed as evidence of a mature partnership, but last month’s rendezvous of a Russian frigate, Chinese destroyer and a couple of Iranian patrol crafts in the Gulf of Oman was a curiosity rather than a real demonstration of naval power (Gazeta.ru, January 10, 2020).
The year 2019 was supposed to mark the victory of Russia’s intervention in Syria, but instead it produced more delays and uncertainty. Turkey persisted with objecting to a decisive offensive on the rebel-held Idlib province, and its forceful incursion into northern Syria aggravated the conflict with the Kurds and stretched Russian patrols across dangerous territories (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 27, 2019; see EDM, October 17, 24, 31, 2019). Russian forces abstained from interfering with Israeli air strikes in Syria and made no attempt to dislodge the remaining US troops from their more southerly positions, securing control over Syrian oil fields, even if the Bashar al-Assad regime desperately needs access to this resource (TASS, December 3, 2019). Instead, Moscow sought to strengthen its influence in the Middle East by providing support to the motley forces commanded by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Hafter in Libya; but now this game has been distorted by the Turkish intervention in support of the government of Fayez al-Sarraj (Russiancouncil.ru, January 10, 2020).
Russia maneuvered carefully in the escalating conflict between the US and Iran, seeking to sustain the cooperation with pro-Iranian militias in Syria while staying clear of the exchanges of direct hits. The January 3, 2020, US missile strike on General Qasem Soleimani was condemned in official Russian statements but produced instant expectations of benefits for Russia if it could successfully play both sides of the dangerous confrontation (Russiancouncil.ru, January 9, 2020). Iran’s reluctant admission of responsibility for destroying a Ukrainian passenger flight near Tehran has now distorted all such opportunistic calculations in Moscow, however; and it again illuminated Russia’s continued refusal to take similar responsibility for the tragedy surrounding the MH17 flight, downed over Donbas by Russian-controlled militants on July 17, 2014 (Moscow Echo, January 11, 2020).
It is Ukraine that constitutes the gravest failure of Russian foreign policy over the past year, and Putin’s hopes of gaining advantage from the electoral defeat of Petro Poroshenko in the 2019 presidential elections were bitterly disappointed. Instead, the arrival of the dynamic and charismatic Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the position of leadership in Ukraine made for a sharp contrast with the now-two-decades-old repressive autocracy in Russia. The inexperienced president has shown remarkable integrity in dealing with multiple tough challenges (Kommersant, December 27, 2019). Putin gained no ground in the December 9 “Normandy-format” summit in Paris with the leaders of France, Germany, and Ukraine; and more recently, the Russian leader has had to approve the agreement on continuing the transit of Europe-bound gas via the Ukrainian pipeline system (RBC, January 3, 2020). The Kremlin sought to compensate for this setback with a success in advancing political integration with Belarus, but President Alyaksandr Lukashenka defied heavy pressure and preserved his sovereign control (Rosbalt, January 10, 2020).
Putin may pretend that all these international failures represent only minor setbacks, but he cannot deliver a single foreign policy victory that would distract his domestic audience from Russia’s accumulating economic problems. He will try to turn the forthcoming celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II into a show of Russian unity and military might. But his emotional revisiting of historical experiences has brought more controversy and condemnation than public support (Moscow Echo, December 31, 2019). Every outburst of public protest around the world—from Hong Kong to Caracas to Tehran—is seen in the Kremlin as an assault-by-proxy on its grasp on power. This fear of sudden mass uprisings will continue to influence Russia’s foreign policy, which oscillates from cynically pragmatic to desperately aggressive.