Why Russia’s Secret Foreign Policy Annex Matters

Why Russia’s Secret Foreign Policy Annex Matters

Much of the Russian establishment, not just Vladimir Putin, believes that the United States cannot coexist with Russia in its current configuration.

When examining the secret annex to the recently released Russian Foreign Policy Concept, many of my colleagues have zeroed in on the recommendations for how Russia ought to play a “sharp power” Wurlitzer piano—utilizing all the tools of disinformation, cyber intrusions, and election interference to cause political turmoil in the nations of the Euro-Atlantic world, with the ultimate goal of eroding the cohesion of the Western bloc.

While these certainly are important topics to focus on, what has struck me in reading this document is that the proposals in question—which only form a portion of the overall advisory points—arise not from a position of confidence but pessimism. In contrast to the relatively anodyne language of the publicly released concept, the annex clearly is concerned that Russia may be on the verge of being knocked out of the ranks of the major powers—and so lose its ability to shape global affairs. In other words, the annex assesses that the United States no longer seeks partnership with a near-peer Russia but wants to ensure that Russia becomes a non-peer competitor with declining and degraded foundations of national power.

Below the surface of the bureaucratic language of the document, I detected three strains of worry.

The first is that some thirty-five years after the Paris Charter laid the hope for achieving a common European home with Moscow as a full partner, the finality of the assessment that Russia will never be part of the Euro-Atlantic world in any shape or form, whether full membership or ongoing association. During his first two terms, Vladimir Putin’s post-9/11 gamble was that the United States would recognize Russia as a near co-equal partner for managing world affairs. When the outreach to George W. Bush faltered, and the Barack Obama reset foundered, Moscow shifted its efforts in the 2010s to craft a working relationship with Paris and Berlin (and perhaps Rome) to encourage some degree of European equidistance from Washington and Moscow. Both efforts are now recognized to be failures. There is no longer a question of whether there will once again be a line between Russia and the West—only where that line will be drawn and how formidable a barrier it will present.  

The second is the Russian recognition that the United States and its allies still largely manage the current international system despite all the rhetoric of multipolarity. Since the restart of major Russian combat operations in Ukraine in 2022, the United States has been working both to isolate Russia from the main sinews of the globalized system and to find ways to exclude Russia from any substantive decision-making and agenda-setting role in international affairs. Of particular concern for Moscow is the efficacy of measures attempting to cut Russia off from the mainstream of the global economy.

Finally, the annex is infused with the recognition that maintaining any degree of Russian autonomy and agenda-setting power in the international system now rests on the goodwill of China and of a set of middle-power countries—what The Economist has labeled the “transactional 25”—to maintain Russia as a hedge against the United States and the expanded “D-10” states (the G-7 countries and the EU plus Australia and South Korea). Russia hopes that the rising powers of the global south and east will be prepared to do more to check the United States—but in so doing, Moscow is also ceding the initiative to them and increasingly will have to accept their terms, especially for trade. This incentivizes Moscow to show how and where the United States is unreliable—particularly in showing that Washington cannot bridge its stated commitments and its actual ability to keep its promises.

The annex lays out recommendations to find ways for Russia to safely raise costs for the United States if it wishes to continue its expansive program of global engagement. It is based on the hope that the United States will recognize its limitations and accept that it can no longer afford to maintain the post-Cold War settlement—and thus will be more open to proposed Russian modifications.

Russia’s proposed revisions have generally proven to be unacceptable to most of the U.S. national security establishment, and if, since 2022, the United States accepts that Russia cannot be persuaded to change its approach, then reducing the sources of Russian power and influence is the logical assessment. However, recognizing that Moscow is not prepared to reduce its footprint to accord with American preferences voluntarily, the United States should not be surprised that Russia will use any means necessary to foil American efforts. There is no reason to expect Moscow to refrain from exploiting the U.S. (or allied) domestic political dysfunction or take advantage of American missteps (such as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa).

The problem, of course, is that U.S. political leaders have promised Americans that the costs of forward engagement can be kept at a minimum. Russia did not create the growing sentiment that the United States must recalibrate and restrain its global activism, even if it seeks to benefit from it. The annex makes clear that much of the Russian establishment believes that the United States cannot coexist with Russia in its current configuration—and that America seeks changes in Russia’s position that would be highly detrimental to the present Russian political establishment. (This is why fantasies that Putin’s departure somehow magically improves U.S.-Russia relations are far-fetched.) If Washington assesses that those changes are necessary to achieve fundamental U.S. national interests, this annex serves as a wake-up call that meeting this challenge will prove neither easy nor inexpensive.

About the Author: 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the director of the National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: Shutterstock.com.