What in the World does Russia Want?

The end of the Cold War marked the end of Russia’s status as a global superpower. A politically and economically turbulent 1990s weakened Russia’s influence in the world. In 2000, the election of Vladimir Putin ushered in an era of political stability, one in which Russia could once again pursue long-term foreign policy goals. In 2014, Russia openly challenged the post-Cold War order in the Ukrainian crisis. Ukraine was on the verge of joining the European Union when Viktor Yanukovych suspended preparations, effectively caving to Russian influence. Vladimir Putin won a key battle against the West for the future of Ukraine. Russia escalated the crisis and challenged US and European hegemony by annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian rebel groups, against the will of the West. Russia and the West have since clashed in Syria and over interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. The past three years have marked a period of more direct confrontation between Russia and the West. The heightened period of confrontation between Russia and the West begs the question: what are Russia’s overarching foreign policy goals? What explains Russia’s increased aggression?

In a new Russian Foreign Policy Concept approved in December of 2016, Russia stated the need to increase and broaden their spheres of influence on the world. According to James Nixey, Russia, “wants to change the post-Cold War order”. In other words, Russia is keen on strengthening their position in the world — they are not content to continue being dominated by the United States on the international stage. According to Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russia’s strategy is to, “coerce its former partners turned rivals — the United States above all — to acknowledge Russia’s security interests and accept its importance as a power to be reckoned with globally.”

An important component of this plan is consolidating Russia’s role in the global information space. Through expanding Russia’s presence in the global information space, more people will be exposed to Russian views. The end goal of this expansion is creating more sympathy for Russia internationally. The most striking example of this has been the rise of Russian state sponsored media groups, namely Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News. At the start of 2017, RT received an additional $19 million in state funding. The aim of the increased funding is to help the channel perform, “a number of language tasks“, according to Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin. Specifically, the budget increase attempts to improve RT’s French coverage. Considering French elections occurred 5 months after the budget increase, its purpose is clear: to use media channels to influence global politics in a way that serves Russian interests. During the French elections, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team banned RT and Sputnik News from their events. Macron’s campaign justified the banning as a reaction to RT and Sputnik’s spreading of fake news in order to help Marine Le Pen. Of course, the editor-in-chief of RT, Margarita Simonyan denied these claims, while the Kremlin asserted that they preferred no candidate. However, it is evident that state-sponsored media has become an important tool for Russia in the international community.

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Russia is using state-sponsored media groups to project their own point of view internationally in an effort to influence world politics and garner sympathy from international readers. The larger RT’s international audience, the more people are exposed to Russia’s views and influence. During the 2016 election, RT clearly preferred Donald Trump as a candidate, while portraying the American political establishment as corrupt and unfair. RT’s presence in the US media during the election once again allowed Russia to promote their own views overseas. Evidently, Russia has been strengthening their position in global media. The effect of increased pro-Russian news is unclear. Ellen Mickiewicz, a Duke based expert on Russian media says that RT’s audience is “extremely small“. While RT claims that they are watched by 8 million people weekly in America, they are not ranked in a list of the top 94 cable news channels. However, analysis of RT provides insight into the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals, namely increasing their presence in the global media space.

No recent analysis of Russian foreign policy is complete without evaluating its recent actions in Ukraine and Syria. In both cases, Russia has challenged the West in order to preserve or extend their sphere of influence. In Ukraine, Russia attempted to ensure that Ukraine did not join the European Union, which would bring the Ukraine closer to the West and weaken Russia’s power over the country. With the Minsk II agreement, Moscow seeks to block the possibility of Ukraine entering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the EU. If there is peace in Ukraine, the government may be able to reignite these processes.  Interestingly, Russia has engaged Europe and the West on potential cooperation in Ukraine. While negotiating the Minsk II agreement, Russia worked with France and Germany in an attempt to end prolonged fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Despite the agreement’s overall failure to come to fruition, the collaboration between the East and the West demonstrates future potential for cooperation. On November 13th, US and Russian envoys will meet to discuss the potential deployment of a UN peacekeeping force into Ukraine. Russia does not want to annex all of Ukraine or rebuild the USSR with this move; their goal is simply to preserve their strength in the region. Russia’s willingness to engage with the West highlights aspects of their foreign policy. Similarly to their use of state-sponsored media, Russia’s involvement in Ukraine attempts to show their strength and have their point of view acknowledged by the West.

Russia’s goals in Syria are similar to those in Ukraine, but also actively attempt to extend their sphere of influence outside of their immediate neighbors. Russian presence in the Middle East was weak after the Cold War; Syria presents an opportunity to carve out a space. In the last 20 years, the Middle East has become an increasing stronghold for the West. The US and NATO have worked together in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and Israel remain close allies of the United States. In a region where the future is uncertain, increasing Russian influence over the Middle East could increase their geopolitical power. Once again, Moscow has positioned themselves against the United States by working with Iran to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but it has not been opposed to working with Washington. In 2013, the US and Russia worked together to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons and this summer they brokered a ceasefire. According to the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russia hopes to come together with the United States in a peace deal. If such a peace deal was constructed, the US would be recognizing Russia as a legitimate player in the Middle East, allowing Russia to increase their international standing.

Russia is working towards a new global equilibrium and challenging the US’s prolonged period of international dominance over the last 25 years. While the US remains the world’s leading power, they are no longer uncontested. China’s power is increasing and the European Union is working together as a strategic player. Furthermore, countries like India and Japan may seek a greater influence in world politics as they grow in strength. The future of the global power structure is one of change. The deck is being shuffled and Russia wants to receive a good hand. Russia’s actions in the world’s media space and in Ukraine and Syria are attempts to consolidate their role as a great power in a new, future global equilibrium.

Edited by Patricia Sibal