Russia’s conflict-laden foreign policy

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Russian foreign policy has hardened under President Vladimir Putin. Although Russia is looking for cooperation, it is not afraid of confrontation, which has often led to difficult foreign relations. DW has the lowdown.

United States

Russia has an ambivalent relationship with the US. During the US presidential elections in the fall of 2016, Russia apparently tried subtly to influence public opinion to assist the election of Donald Trump. At least, that is the focus of special investigator Robert Mueller’s investigation to date.

But since Trump’s inauguration, the relationship between the two heads of state has been strained. At the beginning of March, Putin announced in his state of the nation speech that he wanted to turn new, and what he described as impossible to attack, nuclear missiles against the West.

This was also a reaction to the US’ withdrawal from the treaty with Russia on missile defense in 2002. In any case, the US did not seem surprised by this move. Trump announced the construction of new nuclear missiles with reduced explosive force. Political scientist Susanne Spahn told DW that she suspects it is important to Putin to strengthen his country’s balance of power specifically in relation to the US.

“The main enemy is the United States. Putin has used very threatening rhetoric towards the West along the lines of, ‘in the past you did not want to listen to us, you will listen to us now’.”

Middle East

Russia’s ambition to become an international political heavyweight again is most evident in the Middle East. Russia strongly supports the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is at war with sections of his own population. Russia has set up a substantial military contingent to protect Assad and his established political order.

There are several reasons for Moscow’s involvement: Firstly, it is about having a military foothold in the Mediterranean region. Above all, however, Russia has become an actor in the region that no one can avoid. Together with Assad’s other key ally, Iran, Russia now has considerable influence in the region between Iran and Israel.

Russia’s authority holds significantly more weight in the region now than it did at the beginning of the Syrian war, especially in Iraq, Syria and in areas of Lebanon controlled b yIran-backed Hezbollah. Russian authority also counts in Turkey, which intervened in northern Syria in January. The US largely withdrew from the Middle East under the Obama administration, leaving behind a gap that Russia is increasingly filling.

Central and Eastern Europe

Russia has rather difficult relations with the former satellite states of the Soviet Union. Lithuania has barely had any political contact with Russia since the Ukraine crisis. Around 65 percent of Lithuanians regard Russia as an “unfriendly” neighbor, while around 18 percent do not rule out the possibility that Russia could invade their country. This has made them all the happier about the 1,000 NATO soldiers who have been deployed to their country.

Lithuania has also distanced itself economically. For a long time, the Baltic country was heavily dependent on imported Russian energy. It has systematically reduced this dependence.

Russian relations with Poland are also at a low point. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose role as chairman of the right-wing conservative ruling PiS party makes him a kind of eminence grise of Polish politics, is a staunch anti-communist. He has also distanced himself from Putin’s Russia. For example, he is a strong supporter of the EU’s sanctions against Poland’s neighbor to the east. Neither country has any discernible interest in rapprochement.

On the other hand, Russia enjoys good relations with Serbia, which is in large part due to the good personal relationship between Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Serbia also gets a substantial proportion of its arms and energy imports from Russia.

Germany

Russia has had a difficult relationship with Germany since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Germany supports the EU’s decision to impose trade sanctions on Russia, despite the fact that German firms have suffered heavily as a result; around 40 percent of trade losses affect Germany.

Nevertheless, Germany is maintaining its critical stance on the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine, SPD foreign policymaker Rolf Mützenich told DW. The breach of international law in Crimea is unacceptable, he said. However, he explained that the relationship with Ukraine and Russia generally remains a focal point of German foreign policy. “We must not put ourselves at the mercy of domestic political actors in either country,” said Mützenich.

Russia’s President Putin has an unclear relationship with Germany. On the one hand, Moscow maintains a close dialogue with Berlin. On the other hand, Putin questioned Germany’s sovereignty in June 2017. “There are not that many countries in the world that enjoy the privilege of having sovereignty. I don’t want to offend anyone, but what Mrs. Merkel said [in a previous speech – Ed] is an expression of the resentment of a limited authority that has accumulated over a long period of time.” The relationship is also strained by alleged Russian hacker attacks on German government computers.

Asia

Since relations with the EU have cooled as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Russia has increasingly turned its attention to China. Both countries want to expand their trade relations. Russia also wants to participate in the expansion of the “New Silk Road” — the dynamism of this primarily Chinese-European trade route should also benefit the Russian economy.

In political terms, both states maintain a similar style, in particular regarding authoritarian dealings with critics and opponents within the country and a robust representation of their own interests to the outside world. Both states have repeatedly spoken out against Syria’s condemnation in the UN Security Council. They argue that interference in the country’s internal affairs is not admissible.

The two states have also come closer to each other militarily. They conducted several joint maneuvers — not only in central Asia, but also in the East China Sea. As a result, Russia has somewhat moved away from its previously cultivated neutrality in the dispute between China and Japan over islands in the South China Sea — a state of affairs that weighs heavily on Russian-Japanese relations, but which has further strengthened those with China.

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