Zigzags in Russia’s Strategic Intentions
Dealing with a Russia of multiple voices is a challenging task since each incident might quite easily become political and cause further damage to bilateral relations. Yet it also creates opportunities.
The new edition of the Russian National Security Strategy published in July 2021 was supposed to reinforce the international perception of Russia as a politically unified country that has reached a consensus on a broad set of issues related to national identity and interests, as opposed to the undecisive and disintegrated West. However, no other recent document released by the Kremlin has been the object of such conflicting and diametrically opposed interpretations.
Some commentators saw in the Strategy a confirmation of Russia’s preparation for a lengthy military confrontation with the West, while others called the Strategy an anti-imperial manifesto in the sense of Russia’s penchant for concentration on domestic issues, as opposed to foreign policy expansionism. Seen from one prism, the Strategy is explicitly political and even ideological due to its apparent emphasis on Russia’s irreducible dissimilarity from the West, while, according to another opinion, the document implicitly presumes an austerity policy for the population, and, in this sense, mainly serves the interests of Russian oligarchic capitalism. In the words of an analyst, the new Strategy is “the dangerous mix of profound insecurity and nihilistic cynicism.”
Russia led by a “weak strong man” claims to speak with one single voice both domestically and internationally, but what we see in reality is a plurality of voices coming from Moscow.
This plurality of assessments and expectations betrays something reaching far beyond the text of the Strategy – it reveals the inherent duplicity of Russian foreign policy in a more general sense. Russia led by a “weak strong man” claims to speak with one single voice both domestically and internationally, but what we see in reality is a plurality of voices coming from Moscow. It does not look incidental that the promulgation of the new National Security Strategy was followed by several comments from Russian experts who – even though indirectly – tried to bring back to the political agenda the alleged “Westernization” of the Russian elite, the indispensability of the West for efficient economic modernisation and the old story of the mutual cultural attraction of Russia and Europe. This language ostensibly contravenes the hyper-securitized and explicitly anti-Western rhetoric of the Kremlin officialdom without directly challenging Putin’s foreign policy discourse.
Russia’s Policy towards Estonia
This heteroglossia often translates into multiple inconsistencies which ultimately expose the incoherence of Russia’s international standing. Some of the controversies may be discerned in Russia’s policy towards Estonia.
At the end of April 2021, TV Channel ‘Rossiya 1’ reported that the Kremlin was considering including Estonia, along with the two other Baltic states, on the list of “unfriendly countries”, a new – and so far largely symbolic – diplomatic tool of the Kremlin. However, the list – as published in May 2021 – was comprised of only two countries; the United States and Czechia. The Russian Foreign Ministry did not rule out that the list might be extended, but specific criteria for inclusion seem to be intentionally blurred and imprecise – from disagreements with Moscow’s interpretation of the Second World War to the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
Russia’s attitude towards the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples held in Tartu in June 2021 was even more controversial. On the one hand, the Russian Finno-Ugric Association had issued a notification of its refusal to participate in the Congress due to its so-called politicization and alleged interference in Russian domestic affairs. The deputy head of the Federal Agency on Nationalities corroborated this isolationist position. None of the Russian regional units of the Association sent official delegates to Tartu, and Russian border authorities were reported to have impeded some individual participants from Russia travelling to Estonia. In line with the logic of the boycott, in early June 2021, a few days prior to the Tartu Congress, Russia hosted its own Festival of local Finno-Ugric people in Izhevsk thus demonstrating its self-detachment from the international Finno-Ugric movement. This position seems to be detrimental to Russian soft power and politically self-defeating due to the fact that among the founding members of the Finno-Ugric world are Finland and Hungary, two countries are known for their political loyalty to Russia.
On the other hand, Russian Minister of Culture Olga Liubimova officially addressed the Congress in Tartu and underscored Russia’s commitment to the Finno-Ugric movement and interest in international cooperation in this realm. Since the next World Congress is scheduled to be held in Russia, this only enhances the sense of ambiguity regarding Russia’s strategic intentions. It is highly unlikely that someone in the Kremlin has a clear vision in this specific policy area.
Russia intentionally plays with uncertainty, leaving as many options open as possible – either as a pressure tool against other countries or for the sake of phasing out hostilities.
No less ambiguous is Russian policy towards the Sputnik V vaccine in Estonia. On the one hand, the Russian ambassador has urged the Estonian government to allow its usage in Estonia beyond the policies of the European Medicines Agency, referring to “multiple appeals” from local Russian speakers who, in his words, prefer the Sputnik V to “Western vaccines”. These attempts were part of the worldwide campaign to promote the Russian vaccine all across the globe, including in EU member states. Yet on the other hand, the Russian consul in Estonia ultimately recommended Estonian Russophones to get their jabs with any vaccine available in the country. The ambiguity was exacerbated by an incident with a Russian diplomat who used his connections in the local hospital in Narva to receive his out-of-turn vaccine in Estonia (which apparently was not Sputnik V).
Besides, Russia did little to practically implement the widely propagated idea of vaccine tourism for those citizens and residents of foreign countries who would like to get their Sputnik V jabs in Russia. Russian media has reported about the possibility for Estonian residents to get the Russian vaccine in close vicinity to the border, yet so far very few Estonian Russian-speakers have taken advantage of this option due to the red tape requirements in Russia.
There is also some degree of uncertainty regarding Russian interest in resuming air travel with Estonia. Aeroflot restored regular flights between Moscow and Tallinn on April 25, 2021, only to discontinue them on May 2. Some Estonian commentators directly related the cancellation of flights to the growing political tensions between the two countries. If this explanation is not ungrounded, then it might be illustrative of Moscow’s vacillation between adherence to a depoliticized agenda of bilateral communication and the de-facto predominance of political approaches over technical arguments.
Playing with Uncertainty
There might be at least two different explanations of these zigzags in Russian policies. One suggests that Russia intentionally plays with uncertainty, leaving as many options open as possible – either as a pressure tool against other countries (for example, keeping open the perspective of including Estonia on the list of “unfriendly countries”), or for the sake of phasing out hostilities in case they reach an unacceptably high level. This logic explains why Russian diplomats and foreign policy makers are so fond of using endlessly broad concepts open to multiple interpretations, such as “politicization” of cultural projects, “unfriendly countries”, or “Russophobia”. Intentionally leaving them ill-defined and context-dependent, Russian policy establishments are free to use them as manipulative arguments at the Kremlin’s discretion.
In a typical postmodern way, Russia tries to be both “in” and “out”, to mark its presence on the whole spectrum of policy options.
In a typical postmodern way, Russia tries to be both “in” and “out”, to mark its presence on the whole spectrum of policy options. In Sergey Karaganov’s words, Russia wants to both “punish” and “forgive” those who challenge its foreign policy. It is both boycotting, yet not discarding, the World Finno-Ugric event; it both supports the predilection of local Russophones towards Sputnik V and advises them to get immunity with other vaccines; it both expresses loyalty to cultural exchanges and prevents the Estonian National Museum exhibition from returning home on time. By the same token, these controversies betray the inconsistency of Russia’s policies: if Moscow wishes to depoliticize relations with Estonia, how could it be that the air transportation between the two countries, as well as a museum exhibition, were – even if implicitly and indirectly – affected by the logic of political confrontation?
Yet there is another explanation: Russian foreign policy is far from being coordinated by one single centre, and in fact represents a loosely connected series of steps and moves, each grounded in its own logic. It could well be that the Ministry of Culture was not behind the decision to boycott the Finno-Ugric Congress, and Russian embassies in the Baltic states were not among the initiators of the whole idea of “unfriendly countries”. And the timing of the violation of Estonian airspace by Russian military jets might be out of reach of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Crisis of Russia’s Self-Perception
Regardless of the interpretation, what we are witnessing right now is primarily a crisis of Russia’s self-perception in the world, and only in the second place a crisis in Russia’s relations with the trans-Atlantic West. It is not as much about Russia’s conflict with the EU and its member states, but about Russia’s detachment from the entire liberal international society and its legal foundations.
The variability of Russian narratives means that the Russian coverage of international events might range from the technical to the intentionally hyper-politicized. The detention of the Estonian consul in St. Petersburg in July 2021 is a case in point. While most Russian media comments remained relatively neutral and embedded in a “business-as-usual” narrative, there was still ample space for voices talking about a “loud scandal” and accusing the Estonian government of playing the role of a proxy for more powerful Euro-Atlantic powers.
Dealing with a Russia of multiple voices is a challenging task since each incident might quite easily become political and cause further damage to bilateral relations. Yet in the meantime, the diversity of interpretations of international events coming from Russia creates some opportunities for Western countries to develop their counter-narratives and try to reengage with the most pragmatic of Russian voices.