Russia: a new confrontation? - Defence Committee Contents

1  Context

Our inquiry

1. In a previous investigation in The future of NATO and European defence we examined the changing role of NATO in tackling the challenges of the 21st century.[1] It is difficult to consider the future of NATO and the global security challenges it faces without taking account of Russia. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that there is a risk of a new Cold War emerging as a result of Russia's increasingly assertive foreign policy. It was against this backdrop that we decided to launch an inquiry. Our title Russia: a new confrontation? encapsulated the uncertain relations between the West and Russia that was at the heart of our inquiry, and our Report serves as a guide to future defence policy for the UK and NATO.

2. We held four oral evidence sessions and received 22 memoranda. In January 2009, we met senior officials, diplomats and military representatives at the NATO Headquarters and EU institutions in Brussels. In March 2009, we undertook a week-long visit to Russia, Georgia and Estonia,[2] during which we met senior officials, national politicians and military officers. In Russia, we also met human rights experts who provided us with an insight into the difficult conditions under which they work. In Georgia, we met members of the EU Monitoring Mission who told us about their important work in supporting security and human rights in the region. In Estonia, we visited the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence where we learnt about their vital developing work to enhance cybersecurity. We are grateful to all those who helped us during our visits, who provided evidence to us, and to our specialist advisers: we particularly wish to single out Professor Michael Clarke who guided us through many of the more difficult issues. A list of the people that we met during our visits is provided in the annex.

3. Our Report starts by focusing on Russia's foreign policy. In chapter 2, we then examine Russia's military capability and posture and consider its security implications. Chapter 3 looks at the conflict in Georgia and the role of the international community in supporting peace and stability in the region. Chapter 4 provides an analysis of the role of NATO in relation to Russia. Chapter 5 considers the changing nature of Russian relations with the EU. Chapter 6 broadens the perspective to the international arena, considering Russia's role in global security issues.

Russia's foreign policy

4. The starting point of our inquiry was to examine Russia's relations and behaviour in the international domain. An understanding of Russia's foreign policy is vital as it has a direct effect on Russia's defence policy and military posture. This understanding was essential to enable us to make recommendations on how the UK and the West should respond to Russia.

5. In the last few years, many commentators have noted the more assertive tone of Russian foreign policy heard in Kremlin rhetoric. In February 2007, Vladimir Putin, then President of the Russian Federation, gave a speech at the Munich security conference that was widely reported as anti-American.[3] The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) concluded that "Russia has been pursuing a more assertive foreign policy in defence of its national interests, particularly in its 'near abroad', the independent republics of the former Soviet Union".[4] Russia's military rhetoric has also been increasingly assertive. In November 2008, President Medvedev announced that short-range missiles would be placed in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to neutralise, "if necessary", the threat of the US ballistic missile defence system—though Russia has subsequently backtracked from doing so.

6. Many witnesses stated that Russian policy is underpinned by a world view that is significantly different from that held by the majority of Western states. Oksana Antonenko, Senior Fellow at the International Institute of Security Studies, argued:

Russia still views security in terms of geography and realpolitik. Its leaders remain worried about the influence of external actors in what they consider to be Russia's security space and continue to see such matters as a zero-sum game.[5]

Dr Alex Pravda, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, Oxford University, told us that Russia wished to be seen as a "senior great power which has particular droit de regard in the former Soviet space".[6] James Sherr, Head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, told us that Russia has a "pre-Cold War, pre-1940 view of things", which includes a "conspiratorial view about absolutely everything".[7]

7. Russia views its security predominantly in terms of its geographical power. During our visit to Russia, officials and politicians stressed the legitimacy of Russia's 'privileged area of interest'—an expression preferred by Russia to 'spheres of influence' owing to the latter expression's connotations of illegitimacy. In particular, we were told that since Russia was surrounded by countries who wanted to join NATO or who were cooperating with NATO, Russia needed to protect its interests in these areas. In a TV interview, President Medvedev explained his understanding of its 'privileged area's of interest':

as is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are home to countries with which we share special historical relations and are bound together as friends and good neighbours. We will pay particular attention to our work in these regions and build friendly ties with these countries, our close neighbours. These are the principles I will follow in carrying out our foreign policy.[8]

8. Russia's official foreign policy is most recently outlined in the document Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, published in July 2008. At the heart of this document is a declaration that Russia's foreign policy is to be shaped by considerations of national interest. The importance of multilateral solutions and the role of the United Nations are both stressed. Yet the document also warns that, if other countries are unwilling to participate in joint efforts Russia, "in order to protect its national interests, will have to act unilaterally but always on the basis of international law".[9] This would include situations where Russia was acting to defend the interests of Russian citizens in other countries. This official commitment to defending the interests of Russians abroad has been a particular concern of other former Soviet States who have significant ethnic Russian minorities living within their borders.

9. Russia's foreign policy is particularly coloured by its belief that NATO is a threat to its power, despite repeated NATO reassurances that it is not an offensive military alliance. President Medvedev's Foreign Policy Concept commits Russia to cooperating with NATO while criticising NATO's eastwards expansion, particularly with regard to Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia maintains its negative attitude towards the expansion of NATO, notably to the plans of admitting Ukraine and Georgia to the membership in the alliance, as well as to bringing the NATO military infrastructure closer to the Russian borders on the whole, which violates the principle of equal security, leads to new dividing lines in Europe and runs counter to the tasks of increasing the effectiveness of joint work in search for responses to real challenges of our time. [10]

The extent to which Russia views NATO today as a genuine threat to its security is debatable. Some believe that Russia deliberately portrays NATO as an aggressor to galvanise support for its foreign policy and defence objectives. Nevertheless, Russia's sense of being surrounded by hostile forces and its sense of its history are significant influences upon its current foreign policy.

10. There is a distinction between Russia's official written foreign policy and its policy in practice. A prime example of this is Russia's approach to international law. Officially, Russia upholds the importance of international law. In its Foreign Policy Concept, it is stated "Russia consistently supports the strengthening of the legal basis of international relations and complies with its international legal obligations in good faith".[11] It is signatory to numerous international treaties and a member of the UN Security Council. Yet many witnesses questioned Russia's commitment to upholding international law given its actions in Georgia. Russia's actions were in this instance in breach of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter which states:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.[12]


11. There is a debate as to the extent to which there is continuity in Russia's foreign policy. Martin McCauley, author and former lecturer at the University of London, told us that Russia "wishes to become like the Soviet Union. Its end goal is to become a superpower".[13] He stated that the main difference is that Russia's current policy is based on pragmatism rather than ideology.[14] Andrew Wood, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, argued that Russia's policies towards the Baltic States:

reflect revisionist ambitions and a refusal to face up to the Soviet past. That is a change from the 90s, when the newly established Russia was more open to integration into European and Atlantic frameworks.[15]

Vladimir Putin once stated that the "collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster".[16] Others have argued that Russia's foreign policy is more reminiscent of pre-Soviet foreign policy. According to Dmitri Trenin, Director at the Carnegie Moscow Centre:

Unlike the Cold War era, the new round of Russian-Western relations is not necessarily a zero-sum game; but unlike the period of "strategic partnership," the relationship is no longer thought of in terms of win-win. This new round is closer to the late-19th century model, with the great powers simultaneously partners and rivals, avoiding full-scale conflict.[17]

12. Regardless of whether Russia's foreign policy is new or not, it is clear that any state's thinking is influenced by its past. Russia feels a deep sense of historic grievance against the West, particularly arising from its experiences during the immediate post-Cold War years. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia retreated from the world stage. For much of the 1990s Russia remained pre-occupied by its domestic politics, in particular its debt-ridden economy. President Yeltsin adopted a pro-Western foreign policy in the early years of his presidency, partially as a result of its economic plight.[18] Popular disillusionment with the impact of liberal, free-market economic reforms, which ultimately led to the economic crisis of 1998, fuelled resentment against the West. In addition, Russia perceived the West's actions in Eastern European during the 1990s as a threat to its power. James Sherr stated that Russia's current "sense of aggressiveness is reinforced by a deep sense of obman [deceit]".[19] There were two particular issues that dominated Russia's attitude towards the West—NATO enlargement and Kosovo.

13. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO, despite strong Russian opposition. Russia believes that this expansion was a breach of a commitment made by the United States and Germany, at the time of German unification, that NATO would not extend its membership eastward; this claim has been made by various Russian leaders including Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.[20] Dr Jonathan Eyal believed that we did not know whether such promises were made, as we are not privy to the negotiations at the time. However, he also stated, "even if such an understanding existed, it clearly became irrelevant once the Soviet Union itself disintegrated in 1991".[21] James Sherr argued that to believe Russia's claim of a NATO commitment against eastward expansion would be to "distort the historical record".[22] Denis Corboy, Director of the Caucasus Policy Institute, King's College, told us that he also did not believe that any such commitment was given, yet the Russians "have this deep-seated belief that they have been betrayed".[23]

14. A further grievance that Russia holds is the West's intervention in Kosovo in 1999. James Sherr stated that the humanitarian dimension of the conflict was "of no interest at all" to the Kremlin. It perceived the intervention as removing "any pretence that NATO was a strictly defensive alliance".[24] Russia felt particularly aggrieved that other countries, including the UK and the US, recognised the independence of Kosovo. During our visit to Russia, this issue was raised unprompted by national politicians,. suggesting that Kosovo remains a contentious issue; the Kremlin has used the issue to legitimise its actions in recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


15. To understand the direction of Russian foreign policy it is necessary to appreciate the domestic context of foreign policy decision-making. One key debate is whether President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin determines Russian foreign policy. Constitutionally the Prime Minister is subordinate to the President.[25] Under the 1993 constitution, the Russian President acts as head of state, commander in chief of the Armed Forces and head of the security council. It also states that he shall "direct foreign policy of the Russian Federation".[26] Yet Russia's latest foreign policy concept contains a provision that gives the Prime Minister responsibility for implementing Russia's foreign policy.[27] The Moscow Times reported that this provision "granted unprecedented rights" to Prime Minister Putin.[28]

16. Professor Margot Light of the London School of Economics, told us that Prime Minister Putin was really in charge of foreign policy:

Putin spent a lot of time re-establishing what he called a power vertical, and he has taken part of that power vertical away with him from the Kremlin to the White House, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the decisions are made in the White House and in the Kremlin.[29]

James Sherr agreed with this view. The outbreak of the conflict with Georgia demonstrated Putin's primacy. Russian television pictures at the opening of the conflict showed Putin, not Medvedev, flying into Vladikavkaz, just north of the border with South Ossetia, to oversee operations. The view that Putin is in charge was firmly supported by President Saakashvili during our meeting with him. Some commentators are beginning to suggest that the economic crisis is shifting the axis of power towards Medvedev, as Putin's popularity declines.[30] Yet it is not clear that a shift in power will result in any change in Russia's foreign policy. There is little evidence to suggest that Medvedev holds significantly different views to Putin, despite personality differences. Although there may be some commonality of view among Russia's leaders on Russian foreign policy, we recognise that the Russian public may not share their leaders' views. Russia is a vast and diverse country and this is reflected in the different opinions that the Russian people hold.

17. Russian foreign policy is not developed in the same context as it is in the UK or other Western States. It advocates the concept of sovereign democracy: this is a limited view of democracy. Putin explained that the concept meant that "Russia can and will decide for itself the timeframe and conditions for its progress along this road [democracy]".[31] The implications of sovereign democracy are that Russia often strongly opposes international interventions in the affairs of other countries including its own as it regards this as illegitimate Western interference.

18. The US think-tank Freedom House undertakes a world survey of democracies. It assessed that on a scale of one to seven, with seven indicating the lowest levels of democracy, Russia scored five and a half—in comparison, the UK scored the highest level of democracy at one. Freedom House also stated that there had been a downward trend in Russian democracy in 2008 as free and fair parliamentary elections were unable to take place.[32] OSCE parliamentary observers declared that the Duma elections held in December 2007 were not fair. In particular, they raised the following concerns: that the media showed a strong bias in favour of the ruling United Russia Party; that the new election code made it extremely difficult for new and smaller parties to compete; and that there were widespread reports of harassment of opposition parties.[33]

19. Although the Russian constitution allows for freedom of speech, the Kremlin tightly controls the media. Since 2003, the government has controlled, directly or through state-owned companies, all of the national television networks. Journalists who have been critical of the Russian government have been imprisoned, attacked and, in some cases, killed. The murder of the well-known investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, in October 2006, who had covered Chechnya extensively, highlighted the danger and intimidation faced by many Russian journalists.

20. During our visit to Russia, we met individuals who worked for human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs). We were struck by their courage in continuing to operate under such difficult conditions, including the threat of violence. One of the issues they raised was the increased state restrictions imposed on NGOs. In January 2006, a new law was introduced that imposed strict registration requirements and gave increased powers to state officials to decide which NGOs met these requirements. The Kremlin's stated intention was to limit foreign influence over NGOs. Freedom House assessed that the freedom of Russia's civil society was worsening. In particular it stated:

Russia's NGOs continue to face intense pressure from the Russian state, particularly in complying with the provisions of the 2006 Law on NGOs. The state applies the law more harshly against NGOs it does not favour, and many are having trouble meeting its onerous requirements.[34]


21. Russia's foreign policy assertiveness has been based on its economic resurgence arising from the surge in oil and gas exports. The Foreign Affairs Committee, in its 2007 Report on Russia, concluded that Russia's foreign policy was driven by the transformation of the country's economic position.[35] Since then, the global economic crisis has hit Russia hard as a result of its dependency on energy exports: oil accounts for over half of Russia's federal budget revenues.[36] The FCO said, "whereas in 2008 as a whole, Russia ran a fiscal surplus of 4 per cent of GDP, it recorded a deficit of 21 percent of GDP in December" owing to the collapse of energy prices.[37]

22. Some commentators argued that Russia's economic plight is more likely to make it amenable to cooperating with the West. Dr Alex Pravda said, "the overall effect of the economic crisis on Russia's external outlook is to be more engaged rather than less".[38] At the G20 Summit in April 2009, President Medvedev was keen to cooperate with the West to tackle the global financial crisis. The Russian economy, and state finance, is dependent upon revenue from exports. Any breakdown in relations, particularly with the European Union, could threaten this income. Others are less optimistic about the implications of the economic crisis. Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist, argued that Russia may become more aggressive, as a result:

The overwhelming lesson of the last two decades is that when politics is going badly, you look for external scapegoats and pick a fight with them.[39]

23. Russia has been hit hard by the global economic downturn. It is too early to judge how this will affect Russia's foreign policy. Russia's low level of democracy may make it more likely to be assertive in its foreign policy than would be the case with a Western liberal democratic state that faced similar economic difficulties.


24. Russia's foreign policy approach has direct consequences for other former Soviet States. In evidence to us, the then Minister for Europe, the Rt Hon. Caroline Flint MP, said, "We accept that they [the Russians] have legitimate interests in a number of the countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union".[40] This, however, is frequently interpreted by Russia as legitimacy for maintaining 'a zone of privileged influence' within the former Soviet republics—otherwise referred to as a sphere of influence, in which a powerful state influences the affairs of another country through cultural, economic, political or military means. [41] In the case of Russia, Martin McCauley told us that it treats the territory of other former USSR states as its "near abroad", and that it would as a consequence like Georgia and Ukraine to "come back within its fold".[42] Since the 1990s, Russia used the term 'near abroad' to describe post-Soviet States, though in official Russian foreign policy this term is no longer used.

25. Russia's assertiveness can be seen, in particular, through its actions in Georgia and its gas dispute with Ukraine in January 2009—both of which events will be examined in the following chapters. Our witnesses were clear that an understanding of Russia's unique geographical and historical legacy should not be allowed to slide into according legitimacy for a Russian sphere of influence in its neighbourhood.[43] James Sherr argued that to do so would,

not only be unprincipled, it would have very serious and I think very swift practical consequences, both in that part of the world and in our part of the world.[44]

26. Russia's attitude and actions towards other former Soviet States differs significantly from the liberal democratic values accepted in the West. This makes engagement between Russia and the West difficult, as there is little evidence of shared values underpinning the relationship. James Sherr said that there:

are now enormous differences in political culture. My way of characterising it would be to say that most Russians regard themselves as emphatically European but not liberal.[45]

He also argued that Russia did not respond meaningfully to dialogue based on an "unfocused commitment to values and process".[46]

27. The West needs to engage with Russia to develop cooperation, yet the absence of shared values makes this difficult. Witnesses identified many areas where cooperation was desirable based on mutual national interests. NATO, the EU and the UK Government need a pragmatic and hard-headed approach to their engagement with Russia to achieve the best results.

1   Defence Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2007-08, The future of NATO and European defence, HC 111 Back

2   Photographs of the Committee's visits to Russia, Georgia and Estonia can be found at: Back

3   "Putin attacks very dangerous US", BBC World News, 10 February 2007, Back

4   Ev 126 Back

5   Ev 148 Back

6   Q 118 Back

7   Q 68 Back

8   "Interview given by President Medvedev to Television Channels" Russian TV channels, 31 August 2008, Back

9   The Russian Federation, The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 12 July 2008, Back

10   The Russian Federation, The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 12 July 2008, Back

11   The Russian Federation, The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 12 July 2008, Back

12   Charter of the United Nations, Back

13   Q 116 Back

14   Q 116 Back

15   Ev 100 Back

16   Vladimir Putin, Address to the Federal Assembly, 25 April 2005, Back

17   Dmitri Trenin, Russia's Coercive Diplomacy, Carnegie Moscow Centre, Briefing, Vol 10, No 1, January 2008, p 5 Back

18   Russia and the West, Research Paper 09/36, April 2009, p 36 Back

19   Ev 136 Back

20   Ev 155 Back

21   Ev 155 Back

22   Ev 136 Back

23   Q 182 Back

24   Ev 135 Back

25   Russia and the West, Research Paper 09/36, April 2009, p 13 Back

26   The Russian Federation, Constitution of the Russian Federation, Chapter 3, Article 86 Back

27   Section V, The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, 12 July 2008 Back

28   "Putin gets a role in foreign policy", The Moscow Times, 16 July 2008 Back

29   Q 69 Back

30   Russia and the West, Research Paper 09/36, April 2009, p 35 Back

31   Vladimir Putin, Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, 25 April 2005 Back

32   "Map of Freedom 2008", Freedom House, Back

33   "OSCE refuses to monitor Russian votes", OSCE, Back

34   Freedom House, Russia Country Report 2008, Back

35   The Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Security: Russia, HC 51, para 13 Back

36   Ev 131 Back

37   Ev 131 Back

38   Q 153 Back

39   Q 28 Back

40   Q 241 Back

41   Qq 51, 52, 132, 155 Back

42   Q 132 Back

43   Qq 51, 52, 68, 132, 155, 241 Back

44   Q 51 Back

45   Q 74 Back

46   "Georgia: Russia demands to be number one" James Sherr, The Telegraph, 9 August 2008 Back

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