Foreign policy and defense
Russia is a nation in Eastern Europe. Its capital city is Moscow. Russian foreign policy is aimed at strengthening the country’s role as a major power that always gets a say in the team when international crises are to be resolved. Russia has tried to cultivate good relations in all directions but claims the right to safeguard its national interests, especially in the immediate area, which has led to a confrontation with the western countries. The conquest of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 triggered the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the days of the Cold War.
At the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia took over the Soviet Union’s international obligations. This meant, among other things, that Russia gained a permanent place in the UN Security Council with veto rights. At the same time, Russia suffered an economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Eastern Defense Alliance Warsaw Pact. The Russian troops in Central Europe and the Baltic States were withdrawn and bases in the Third World closed.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Russia for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
In the first years after the dissolution of the Union in 1991, Russia turned to the west and tried to meet the wishes of the Western powers for reforms to facilitate integration into international cooperation. Trade with Europe increased, mainly through oil and gas exports, and a number of countries in Eastern and Central Europe became dependent on this.
Russia was involved in founding a number of regional organizations, for example. The Baltic Sea Council, the Barents Council and the Arctic Council. The state joined the Council of Europe in 1995 and remained there despite the war in Chechnya (see Rebellion in Chechnya) and increasingly violations of democracy and human rights. Russia was also included as a member of the G7 group of leading industrialized countries. In 1998, a cooperation agreement was concluded with the EU and in 2005 an action plan on politics, the economy, justice and external security was adopted, for which a joint council was established.
Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Putin expressed his support for the United States in the fight against international terrorism and accepted NATO’s military intervention against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. Russia formed a joint NATO-NATO Council on Counter-Terrorism in 2002 disarmament, and participated in NATO exercises, including in the Baltic Sea. In 2010, President Medvedev entered into a partnership for modernization (of Russia) with the EU and a number of countries.
But ever since the 1990s, Russia has constantly emphasized that it is and will remain a great power and has turned to US dominance in world politics. Instead, a multipolar world is advocated with Russia as one of the ‘poles’. Moscow has vigorously defended Russia’s position as one of the five permanent members with a veto right in the UN Security Council, and Russia, often in conjunction with China, has used the veto power to try to stop UN intervention in various crisis hearings, for example in Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003 and in Syria during the 2011 civil war.
During the first decade of the 21st century, when President Putin strengthened his power while both nationalism and the economy grew, Russian enthusiasm for cooperation with the West had faded. Moscow demanded increasing influence and respect in the world community. The country opposed first the former allies of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, then the Baltic States sought and gained membership in NATO in 2004. The Russian leadership proposed that NATO be dissolved like the Warsaw Pact and instead emphasized the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where all the states of Europe are involved and have the right to veto, as a joint security forum.
Russia also rejected the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program of 2009, which was initiated by Sweden and Poland and aimed at increased cooperation on political and economic reforms in six former Soviet republics – Belarus (Belarus), Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nor did Russia want to participate in the EU’s strategy for cooperation in the Baltic Sea area.
When Putin re-entered as president in May 2012, internal repression increased and after the attack on Ukraine in 2014 (see below), a crisis arose with the relationship with the western states. Russia’s participation in the G7 was stopped and cooperation with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council was suspended. The EU and NATO imposed financial sanctions on Russia, which responded by stopping food imports from the same countries, increasing their imports from other countries and investing in self-sufficiency. Negotiations with the EU for an extension of the cooperation agreement, which would lead to visa freedom, were suspended.
In the context of the Ukraine war, Russia intensified its propaganda war against Western democracies. The news agency Sputnik and the TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today) are now operating in a number of countries where they spread news in many languages from the Russian point of view. With cyber warfare and so-called magic factories in social media, Russia has also sought to influence opinion formation and election processes in the West, not only in small neighboring states such as Estonia but also in the United States. Russia supported Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and had high hopes for him when he won, as he expressed sympathy for Putin and criticized NATO. But those hopes came to shame. The United States did not abolish sanctions against Russia, but tightened them in connection with the fact that Russia, judging by everything, was behind a poison assassination attempt in the UK against a former Russian intelligence agent.
Russia has also actively sought to increase fragmentation within Europe, by developing contacts with right-wing radical governments and parties (as in Hungary and France) and playing on opposition groups’ hostility to the US, NATO, the EU, immigrants and refugees.
Thus, Russia’s relations with the democracies in the west are now very frosty.
Relations with the former Soviet republics
Most important for Russia’s superpower position is to maintain the dominant influence in the former Soviet area and keep the western states away from it. Therefore, at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed for cooperation between former Soviet republics. The CIS came to include all the former Soviet republics except the Baltics. The collaboration led to many agreements, but few were realized. Most of the CIS countries wanted to strengthen their independence and seek support in the West. Moscow then went on to try to develop relations with the CIS countries that were most dependent on Russia, ie Belarus, Armenia and the countries of Central Asia. Most importantly, the military cooperation within the Collective Security Agreement Organization (CSTO in English) was formed in 1992. CSTO includes Russia, Belarus (Belarus), Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The cooperation involves, among other things, Russian arms exports to the other members and joint exercises. The organization is seen as a counterpart to NATO with mutual defense obligations.
Following several attempts to create joint institutions in the economic field, in 2015, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan formed the Euro-Asian Economic Union (EEU), to which Armenia and Kyrgyzstan soon joined. With the EU as a model, it aims at the free movement of goods, capital, services and labor, including customs and visa freedom.
The tightest ties in the CIS are Russia and Belarus (Belarus). In 1999, the countries struck a deal to form a “union”. The text of the agreement states that the countries should be both sovereign and integrated with each other, but most of the cooperation that the countries have agreed has never been realized and the relationship has at times been turbulent. Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenka wants to preserve the country’s independence and thus its own power. Lukashenko has refused to recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and is trying to maintain normal relations with Ukraine as well as maintain good relations with the EU countries. However, Belarus’s room for maneuver vis-à-vis Moscow is limited by its large economic dependence, mainly in the energy field. When Belarus pursued an overly independent policy,
In order to exert pressure on those states which, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, opposed Russian control, such as the Baltics, Russia supported the Russian minorities with money, Russian passports and propaganda funds. Disputes over the Baltic states’ border closure with Russia were largely resolved in the 1990s, but Estonia and Latvia’s refusal to automatically grant citizenship to Russian-speaking residents is still a problem in relations. The Balt States, for their part, criticize Russia’s refusal to admit that they were occupied by the Soviet Union during and after World War II.
The Baltic States joined NATO and the EU in 2004. Their economic dependence on Russia is now insignificant, while Russia is trying to reduce its dependence on transport through the Baltics. In the early 2000s, Russia began building oil and freight terminals in the Gulf of Finland and laid a gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea directly to Germany (Nord Stream). A second gas pipeline (Nord Stream 2) is currently being built in collaboration with Germany. The project has sparked some debate since the annexation of Crimea, partly because it deprives Ukraine of future gas export revenues along that route, and partly because countries along the line of leadership are worried about the security policy consequences of Russian activity near the coasts.
The conflict in Georgia
Following the so-called Rosen Revolution in Georgia in 2004 (see GEORGIA: Modern History), the country gained a new leadership that sought membership in the EU and NATO. This concerned Russia, which therefore increased the support of the groups that fought for the independence of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. By undermining internal conflicts, Russia weakened Georgia’s chances of joining the EU and NATO. Following outbreak attempts in the 1990s, Russian peacekeeping forces had been deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and residents there had been offered Russian citizenship. When Georgia tried to take military control of South Ossetia in August 2008, Russia immediately struck back with the motivation that Russian compatriots were threatened by genocide.
After the war, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, as no Western states or even any other CIS states did. Russia entered into military alliances with the breakaway republics. Russian military bases were established and Russian soldiers took over border guard against Georgia.
War in Ukraine
Relations between Russia and Ukraine following the dissolution of the Soviet Union were regulated in 1997 through a friendship agreement and an agreement that gave Russia the right to continue to lease some of the former Soviet naval base in Sevastopol in Crimea. This peninsula had been transferred in 1954 from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. One reason was that Crimea lacked land relations with Russia and was mainly supplied from Ukraine.
In the autumn of 2013, however, an open conflict broke out between Russia and Ukraine. When the Russian-friendly President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, rejected an association agreement with the EU and entered into an agreement with Russia, a growing popular protest movement arose. Large demonstrations were held in the capital, Kiev. After bloody attempts to stop the protests, Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014 and a Western-friendly government took over. For a short time, members of the right-wing party Svoboda also sat in the government. Russia called the events in Kiev a fascist coup that could lead to NATO taking over the naval base in Sevastopol and the repression of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Rapidly occupied Russian forces, together with local separatists throughout Crimea, where about 60 percent of the population is Russian. In a swiftly organized referendum that was carried out during a weapons threat and condemned as illegal by the outside world, 97 percent voted for independence. Then Crimea and Sevastopol joined the Russian Federation. All Ukrainian property was seized including military bases.
This was the first time since World War II that a European state had conquered part of another country. The reaction from the outside world was strong. Russia was accused of violating international law and a number of international agreements. The United States and the EU introduced step-by-step financial sanctions against Russian rulers and people in Crimea, but in practice could not do anything about the completed fact.
Russia strengthened its military forces in Crimea and thus gained a dominant influence over the entire Black Sea. Under a 2003 agreement, control over the Azovsk Lake would be split between Russia and Ukraine, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea changed the situation. In 2018, a car bridge was completed at connecting Crimea with Russian mainland. As part of this, Russia also tightened control over the Kerch Strait and the inland Azovska Lake. In November 2018, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to sail into Azovska Lake on the Strait of Keri. Russia claimed that the vessels violated its territorial waters and the crews were imprisoned.
In parallel with the conquest of Crimea in 2014, a riot broke out in the Russian-dominated provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine. As in Crimea, local separatists were supported by Russian “advisers” and received weapons. Here too, “referendums” were carried out and “people’s republics” were proclaimed. The Kiev central government took up arms in April 2014 and began to push back the separatists, where Russia intervened in August with “voluntary” soldiers and extensive weapons assistance. In July, a Malaysian passenger plane was accidentally shot down and all 298 on board were killed. The robot was suspended from a separatist controlled village in Ukraine. The International Commission investigating the incident determined that the robot was Russian-made and fired from a ramp brought into Ukraine from Russia on the same day.
After months of fighting, two Western armistice agreements were signed in western Minsk – in September 2014 and February 2015, respectively – but the situation is still tense and sporadic fighting is taking place. According to the UN, around 13,000 deaths have been harvested and millions of people have moved to other parts of Ukraine or to Russia.
Russia does not seem to be striving to formally incorporate Donetsk and Lugansk, even though economic and social integration is ongoing between these areas and Russia. For example, residents’ ID documents are valid in Russia and they can also get Russian passports. The purpose of supporting the separatists is primarily to prevent Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO (which is unlikely as long as the conflict continues) and that the country instead adapts to Russia. But Ukraine is increasingly distancing itself from Russia and, for example, has signed an association agreement with the EU. No solution to the conflict can be discerned.
Following the annexation of Crimea, the military tension between Russia and NATO also increased. When the Baltic States and Poland sought help against the perceived threat from Russia, smaller NATO forces were placed in these countries. Russia responded by reinforcing its forces, not least in the strategic Kaliningrad area, including by deploying new Iskandermis missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and having a range of at least 40 kilometers. Russia has also carried out border violations and other provocations in the Baltic Sea region, also against Sweden and Finland, which have been warned to join NATO.
Neighbors in Asia
During Soviet times, Russia was on several occasions at the border with war with China, but since the 1990s relations have improved. Moscow now calls China a “strategic partner”. In 2001, a friendship and cooperation agreement was concluded, which included regulation of the border issue, increased trade, Russian arms exports and cooperation against US dominance in world politics. Together with China, Russia and four Central Asian states in 2001 formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with the aim of solving mutual security problems, fighting terrorism and separatism, promoting trade and maintaining stability, that is to resist changes in the direction of Western model democracy. Since then, India and Pakistan have also joined.
When the West imposed sanctions on Russia following the conquest of Crimea in 2014, cooperation with China intensified. More and more joint military exercises were held and agreements were signed on oil and gas pipelines to China. China became Russia’s main trading partner.
The problem for Russia is that while the Russian economy is stagnating, the Chinese have grown uninterrupted. China’s economy has become the second largest in the world, and Russia risks becoming economically dependent. Russian exports to China are dominated by commodities, while China is increasingly exporting industrial and consumer goods and producing its own weapons. China also does not invest as much in Russia as expected and adheres to Western sanctions on Russia. At the same time, China has taken over Russia’s role as the main trading partner for the Central Asian states, where China has also built roads, gas and oil pipelines. China is now increasing its influence throughout Asia through the giant Belt and Road Initiative giant project, which will link China’s land route to Europe through Central Asia and the sea route to Africa.
As a counterweight to China, Russia has long sought to bring in India, its old friend since the Soviet era, in the cooperation, but this is made more difficult by conflicts between India and China. Russia also wants to expand contacts with Japan’s economic power to get more investment in Siberia, but this is hindered by the long-standing dispute over some islands in the Kuril Islands archipelago occupied by the Soviet at the end of the Second World War. Japan’s defense alliance with the United States is another stumbling block.
While US influence in the Middle East has diminished, Russia’s military intervention in Syria has strengthened Russia’s position in the Middle East. Moscow now has good relations with most states. The friendship is favored in some cases by the Russian leaders refraining from interfering with other states’ “internal affairs”, for example by criticizing democratic shortcomings and violations of human rights. However, with regard to contributions to reconstruction and economic development, Russia has little to contribute compared to the US, EU or China.
During Soviet times, Russia supported authoritarian regimes with socialist cues such as Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Libya, but during the 1990s internal crises, Russia could not afford to maintain support for old allies. Instead, Russia focused on economic gains through arms exports to and energy cooperation with all Middle Eastern countries, including conservative states such as Saudi Arabia.
As a result of the US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003 (see IRAK: Modern History) which Russia opposed, Moscow lost its contacts with this country and later also with Libya, when its dictator Muammar Gaddafi overthrew the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 (when popular revolts demanding democratic reform led to a shift in power in several Arab countries).
But Russia was given new opportunities to regain influence. When the military returned to power in Egypt, the region’s most populous country, and its relations with the United States deteriorated, Russia signed new agreements with Egypt on trade and investment, including Russian weapons and nuclear power plants, as well as tourism.
Syria is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East since the Soviet era, and has maintained a naval base, the only one in the Mediterranean. When the Arab Spring reached Syria and a civil war broke out in 2011, Russia supported the incumbent President Bashar al-Assad and introduced several vetoes in the UN against dismissing him. When the United States threatened to intervene because of the regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, Russia initiated the process that led the Syrian government to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Then, when the Sunni rebels, including the Islamic State forces in 2015, appeared to threaten Damascus, Russia intervened to rescue Assad with weapons power. It was the first time since the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s that Russia acted outside the Soviet Union. Russia sent warships to the naval base, set up an air base near Latakia on the coast, and bombed nearby “terrorist strongholds” without much regard for civilian casualties in hospitals and aid convoys. On the other hand, few efforts were made in eastern Syria against IS, which was highlighted as the main terror threat. Russian aviation in collaboration with Iranian ground forces seems to have helped the al-Assad regime to victory in the civil war.
Russia also developed its relations with Iran, which has been boycotted by the Western powers since the 1979 revolution. Iran bought Russian weapons and Russians helped build the country’s first nuclear power plant. Russia opposed sanctions in the UN against Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program but when signs emerged that the country was planning to build nuclear weapons, Russia was also worried. Together with Western countries, Russia contributed to an agreement in 2015 that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. This allowed Russia to resume arms exports and nuclear technology.
Russia’s relations with the NATO country Turkey have also changed. Between the countries, there is some competition for influence in the Caucasus and they stand on either side of the Syrian war, where Turkey mainly wants to fight the Kurds. In the fall of 2015, a crisis occurred when Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft that had been on a bombing mission in Syria. Russia punished Turkey with financial penalties, but the conflict was settled when Ankara apologized for the shooting. Turkey has become an important trading partner through tourism and energy cooperation. A gas pipeline over the Black Sea has been built (Blue Stream) and another is under construction (Turk Stream) which Russia hopes will lead to Europe.
The Soviet Union, in its time, was considered a military superpower equal to the United States, but by the 1991 state dissolution, the Russian armed forces was halved. Troops were taken home and bases closed, but some remained in former Soviet republics. Nuclear weapons abroad were also taken home and nuclear weapons became Russia’s main deterrent during the 1990s.
As the Russian economy grew during the 2000s, defense spending also increased each year, while most NATO countries continued to disarm. The security sector became the largest item in the Russian budget. Since 2014, appropriations to the military, measured in terms of GDP, have been around four to five percent of GDP and thus higher than the corresponding appropriations in the US and China, see here (link to the graph Military expenditure’s share of GDP).
In 2008, a military reform program was initiated with the goal that 70 percent of the weapons would be modern and one million in readiness by 2020. The number of officers was cut, more soldiers were contracted and the military duty was made shorter and more efficient, while the weapons systems were modernized, including through imports. The goals seem to have been largely achieved.
Increasingly larger and more complex exercises have been held, often near the borders. In 2007, Russia terminated the CFE agreement, which restricted NATO and the Warsaw Pact’s conventional forces in Europe. At the same time, the strategic bombing resumed its patrol flights over the world seas, the Northern Navy held exercises in the Atlantic, and the Black Sea Navy also diverted vessels for the Mediterranean.
In March 2010, Russia and the United States agreed on a disarmament agreement that would replace the Start 1 agreement from 1991. Start-1 regulated the countries’ long-range nuclear weapons holdings – over 500 miles (also called strategic nuclear weapons). The new agreement (Sort) meant drastic cuts in the number of long-range nuclear weapons. In 2011, another disarmament agreement (New Start) was ratified, which expires in 2021. Through New Start, Putin and US President Barack Obama agreed on further reductions in long-range nuclear weapons. The limit was set at 1,550 nuclear weapons points each.
Disagreement over the INF agreement limiting the number of medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe led to that agreement being terminated by the United States first and then Russia in February 2019. The INF agreement concluded in 1987 prohibits nuclear weapons with a range of between 50 and 500 kilometers. The US terminated the agreement, citing Russia’s long-standing breach of the agreement. According to the United States, a new Russian robot (9M729) has a range that falls within the prohibited range, while Moscow claims that the new robot only reaches 48 miles. Russia, in turn, has accused the United States of other violations of the agreement.
During the 2010s, Russia has increased its military presence in the Arctic by placing ground forces on the Kola Peninsula, establishing naval and air bases along the coast and on the islands of the Arctic Ocean. Military exercises up to the North Pole emphasize Russian demands on a large part of the sea where climate change is expected to open new trade routes and make it possible to extract mineral resources that are still impossible to exploit.
READING TIP – read more about Russian foreign policy in World Politics Day Issues
Putin’s Russia: In search of global influence (no. 7 – 8 2019)
and in UI’s online magazine Foreign Magazine:
The Russia-Iran Relationship in a Sanctions Era (2019-11-20)
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 280,000 Man (2017)
The air Force: 165,000 men (2017)
The fleet: 150,000 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 4.3 percent (2017)