Russia’s Assertive Foreign Policy Part of Long-Term Trend, Argues CFR Book

Russia’s Assertive Foreign Policy Part of Long-Term Trend, Argues CFR Book

March 3, 2009 2:02 pm (EST)

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Russia’s recent assertiveness on the world stage is consistent with Russian foreign policymaking since the mid-1990s, rather than just a feature of Vladimir Putin’s leadership, says a new book about Russian foreign policy since the end of the Cold War by Jeffrey Mankoff, adjunct fellow for Russia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “With this book, Jeffrey Mankoff has established himself as the best young American analyst of post–Cold War Russia. This careful and clear assessment of Putin’s grand strategy should be required reading for the Obama administration, as well as for anyone else interested in Russia’s rapid but fragile resurgence as a great power in twenty-first-century world politics,” says John Lewis Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett professor of history at Yale University.

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Mankoff argues there is little reason to fear a return to a Cold War-like standoff between Russia and the West. While Russia is determined to restore what its leaders consider to be its rightful place among the world’s great powers, Mankoff, in Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics, writes: “Today’s Russian Federation is hardly suited to play the Soviet Union’s role of superpower rival to the Untied States.”

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Roughly eight months after Russia’s military action in neighboring Georgia the book warns that “understanding the nature of Russia’s interactions with the rest of the world in the second decade of the twenty-first century (and after) is impossible without at least appreciating the continuities between [Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev’s Russia and the rapidly changing, often unpredictable country that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.” Specifically, Mankoff posits that “the assertive, narrowly self-interested foreign policy that has characterized Russia during the Putin-Medvedev years is merely the culmination of a process that began over a decade earlier, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.”

Mankoff explains that as Russia struggled to recover from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the policymaking elite developed a deep-seated desire to prove to the rest of the world that Russia is, in fact, a “Great Power” that acts independently of the West: “No matter Yeltsin’s affinity for the West and no matter Russia’s continued dependence on foreign assistance, most of Russia’s ruling class continued to think of their country as destined by history and geography to be one of the principal guardians of world order.”

What turned Yeltsin’s foreign policy aspirations into Putin’s actions, the book argues, are external factors like consistently high energy prices and the perception of waning U.S. hegemony. “Putin and Medvedev’s Russia has not embarked on a new, more threatening path in the world but has merely recovered enough to act in a way that even most Yeltsinites desired,” Mankoff writes.

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Because the circumstances that brought about an assertive Russian foreign policy are the result of long-term trends, Mankoff asserts that they are likely to endure far beyond Medvedev’s assumption of the presidency and the shock of the global financial crisis.

While Mankoff does not see Russia likely to confront the West, he also does not see much improvement likely in its relationship with the United States: “The increased power disparity between Russia and the United States along with very different ideas about the nature of the post–Cold War world and its threats have contributed to the disappointment and occasional crises that have permeated U.S.-Russian relations ever since 1991… If Russians too often see the United States as an arrogant power that ignores their interests, the U.S. tends to see the Russian Federation as a country that has not completely broken with its imperial past and refuses to play the role of a responsible stakeholder in the international system.”

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Mankoff describes the daunting foreign policy challenges facing the newly-elected Russian President: “Medvedev will have to confront a dangerously unstable world, where Russia’s interests are not always clearly defined and where it will be necessary—as it was under Putin and Yeltsin—to balance Russia’s engagement with the West with the need to contain the arc of instability around Russia’s borders, while simultaneously managing relations with an increasingly vibrant East Asia.”

He also offers advice to those who hope to work effectively with Russia in international affairs: “The West must get used to dealing with a new, more powerful, and more confident Russia that has not entirely freed itself of the baggage accumulated during its imperial and Soviet past, regardless of the economic crisis overtaking the country at the start of 2009. The West should do what it can to encourage Russia’s transformation into a responsible stakeholder in the international system, even while standing up for its own interests and values. Above all, the West must understand that the Russians themselves will determine what kind of country they will have in the twenty-first century and how that country will interact with the rest of the world.”


“It was refreshing to read a book that was so well-written. Using both Western and Russian sources, the author carefully researches and analyzes controversial issues in Russian foreign policy, but does so in an evenhanded and nuanced way.”
Gordon B. Smith, University of South Carolina

“Jeffrey Mankoff’s analysis of Russia’s foreign policy is a serious and well-researched exercise in understanding the complexities of a country still in search of its post-communist, post-imperial identity. Russia is no longer on a path to Western integration; but it still struggles with what it means to be a great power in the twenty-first century.”
Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie Moscow Center

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Jeffrey Mankoff is adjunct fellow for Russia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and associate director of International Security Studies (ISS) at Yale University.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


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