The Russian World
On September 05, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a new foreign policy plan that aims to “protect, safeguard, and advance the traditions and ideals of the Russian World.” Through this 31-page document, dubbed as “humanitarian policy,” Russia has made protecting, safeguarding and advancing the traditions and ideals of the Russian World its official doctrine. The concept of a “Russian World” is a notion that hardliners have used to justify intervening abroad to support Russian speakers, such as in parts of Ukraine. And, the new doctrine also justifies intervention abroad in support of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians outside of the country.
Why this policy?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of Eastern Bloc countries broke away from the USSR and became independent, but around 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves living outside Russia. West Slavs are in Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, East Slavs are in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, while South Slavs are in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia.
President Putin thinks of the collapse of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” and has been highlighting, for years, what he sees as the tragic fate of those millions. It was one of his predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev, who failed to prevent the break-up.
But till today, Moscow has continued to view the former Soviet lands, from the Baltics to Central Asia, as its legitimate sphere of influence – a notion strongly resisted by many of those countries as well as by the West.
It is due to this reason that Russia’s foreign policy has, in recent years, become more assertive than it had been in the first two decades since independence. The Kremlin surprised many with its 2008 war in Georgia, its 2014 seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, and its 2015 deployment of forces in the Syrian civil war. Underpinning this greater assertiveness is a growing consensus among Russian analysts, scholars and officials that Russia should play a larger role in the world, one where Moscow is free to act according to its own interests.
The Concept consists of six sections:
The first one covers general provisions.
The second one is dedicated to Russian national interests in the humanitarian sphere abroad and presents objectives, tasks and principles of such policy.
The third section lists key areas of the humanitarian policy abroad.
The fourth section covers humanitarian cooperation with Russia in multilateral and bilateral formats.
The fifth section is dedicated to inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.
The sixth section deals with forming and basic mechanisms for implementing the humanitarian policy abroad.
Russia has long railed at the US and Europe for advancing the rights of minorities, and asserted the priority of collective social interests against liberal individualism. It outlawed same-sex marriage in the constitution last year and lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would tighten already stringent restrictions on the discussion of LGBTQ rights.
Putin has overseen sweeping domestic repression to crush political protest since his Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine sparked the biggest crisis in Europe since World War II, with thousands of people killed and millions forced to flee their homes. Within weeks of starting the war, he threatened to cleanse Russian society of “scum and traitors.”
The new policy stated that Moscow should further deepen its ties with the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic – two breakaway entities in eastern Ukraine, where the war continues to rage.
It also said it should strengthen its links more with Abkhazia and Ossetia, two Georgian regions recognised as independent by Moscow after its war against Georgia in 2008.
The policy further states Russia should increase cooperation with Slavic nations, China and India, and further push its ties to the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.
“The goals of the Concept of Russia’s Humanitarian Policy Abroad envisage formation and strengthening of the objective perception of our country in the world, promotion of understanding of Russia’s historical path, role and place in world history and culture, and also expansion of contacts between people,” the Concept reads.
According to the document, the humanitarian policy is an integral part of Russia’s foreign policy. Among the Concept’s tasks are protection, preservation and promotion of traditions and ideals inherent in the Russian world; strengthening of the role, importance and competitiveness of the Russian language in the modern world; increasing the competitiveness of domestic education, and others.
The document names Russian culture as the most important and integral part of world culture, as well as an instrument of soft power.
The new policy says the Russian Federation “provides support to its compatriots living abroad in the fulfilment of their rights, to ensure the protection of their interests and the preservation of their Russian cultural identity”.
It said that Russia’s ties with its compatriots abroad allowed it to “strengthen on the international stage its image as a democratic country striving for the creating of a multi-polar world”.
Russian cultural policy abroad will continue to describe Russia as a separate civilization, distinct from other regions and countries. Western states are described as the main threat to Russian culture and, therefore, Russian statehood. One implication of this line of reasoning is that cooperation between Russian and Western cultural and educational institutions will be inevitably limited.
A key task is to promote and defend the foundations of Russian “traditional values”, in particular Russian family values, deemed to be threatened by “neo-liberal governments” (i.e. the West). The document also promotes Russia’s “constitutional identity” which characterizes Russia as a country legally steeped in “traditional spiritual-moral values,” dedicated to the principles of “non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states”.
The document also singles out the Baltic states, Moldova and Georgia as places where Russian culture can protect the rights of Russian-speaking groups. The broader Slavic region is also mentioned as one of strategic significance. Hence, engaging with diaspora groups in Europe and elsewhere remains a priority.
The policy also calls for Russia to increase cooperation with Slavic nations, China, and India, as well as strengthen relations with nations in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. “Developing friendly relations with China and India is one of the priorities of Russian foreign policy,” says the Concept. A manifestation of this came in the form of Vostok-2022 war games that Russia hosted in coordination with China and that involved more than 50,000 troops and participation from several former Soviet nations, China, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua and Syria.
“Strengthening Russia’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region (APR) is becoming increasingly important since Russia is an integral part of this fastest-developing geopolitical zone, toward which the center of world economy and politics is gradually shifting. Russia is interested in participating actively in APR integration processes, using the possibilities offered by the APR to implement programs meant to boost Siberian and Far Eastern economy, creating a transparent and equitable security architecture in the APR and cooperation on a collective basis,” says the Concept.
First of all, it should be clear that the document does not represent a new foreign policy doctrine, although this was implied by several international media outlets. It should, thus, be assumed that the official foreign policy doctrine, adopted in 2016, remains in force. The document outlines the principles of a policy for promoting Russian culture abroad.
The Concept claims that Russia will make a meaningful contribution to the stabilization of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa … on the basis of respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity of states and non-interference in their internal affairs. However, the Russian doctrine of “non-interference” is immediately contradicted by the stated goal of promoting Russian culture and influence in the CIS region, including the areas of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the so-called republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In conclusion, Russia has produced a document on a narrow domain of foreign policy, or public diplomacy. It is long, repetitive and tedious, written in the style of thinking usually associated with Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky. In many ways, the document also repeats – albeit in different words – core tenets of Soviet ideology: the idea of Russia as a unique civilization, a permanent conflict between Russia and the West, and the need for Russia to push back against hostile forces abroad. In this regard, the document confirms a profound continuity in Russian foreign policy thinking.
In fine, this doctrine suggests a kind of soft-power strategy, the origin of which can be found in the official policy views of Russian politics and religion, which some hardliners use as justification for supporting pro-Russian secessionist factions in parts of Ukraine and the country’s eastern regions.