Wind of domestic and foreign policy change in Russia

In recent months and years, Russia has been particularly active and to some extent successful on the international scene. Why so and why now are the logical questions to be posed?


It has been a month since the first-ever Russia – Africa summit in Sochi. As a result, the debt of 20 billion dollars was canceled to the number of African countries. It is the highest peak of boosting relations over the past 4 years. Since 2015, 12 visits of heads of African states were held in Moscow and half of them in 2018[i], politically declaring Russia’s ambition in the region.

In September 2019, following the withdrawal of the US military troops, Russia re-entered North Syria to normalise climate and serve as a mediator between the Turkish army, Kurdish forces, and the Syrian government. The move embedded Russia’s presence in the country and the Middle East that was started in 2015 with an intervention to support the regime of Bashar al Assad during the civil war. Due to the power shift in the region from the US leadership to Russia’s, it has become a key ally for Israel in facing Iran’s threat, while maintaining links with other regional players and strategic partners. Currently, Russia is the only major power actively present in the region.

Since 2014, Russia has also increasingly put effort to tighten its relationship, especially economic ones with China and larger Asia. The process is widely known under the name Russia’s turn to the East. In 2018, Russia-China trade for the first time exceeded 100 billion dollars. China’s share in Russia's foreign trade between 2013-2017 increased from 10.3 % to 14.7 %. As a result, China has become Russia’s top trading power, squeezing out Germany[ii]. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)has been launched to economically integrate Eurasian Economic Organisation into China’s Silk Road Projects. The Russian-Chinese axis has also been strengthening in the politico-military domain. The unprecedented participation of over 3,000 Chinese troops took place in Russia’s large-scale strategic training Vostok-2018 in Eastern Siberia[iii]. Furthermore, looking back to the President’s speech before the Parliamentary Assembly in February 2019, China, Japan and India were named “partners” far before any European name[iv].

What all these events have in common - they took place in the post - Ukraine crisis world.

Tectonic shifts of Russia

Once you start losing your position on one side – the West, there are two scenarios – either you surrender your interests under the “stick” policies to remain part of the Western club, or you turn around and start building a new club aligning with more unconditional and like-minded partners. This seems to be the case in Russia.  

There are two main reasons for doing so again and, first of all, it is the economic rationale.

Between 2013-2017 Russia's total trade with the world declined from 863.1 billion to 591.7 billion dollars, or by 31.4 %[v]and the level of Western direct investment inflows dropped from 37 billion dollars in 2016, to 26 billion in 2017 and to 13 billion dollars in 2018 (e.g., -270 % with Finland, almost - 100 % with the UK, and others)[vi]. It is hard, however, to assess the direct impact of the Western sanctions on the recession of Russia’s economy[vii], considering the oil-price decrease in the same period, while estimates show about 1.5 % drop of Russia’s economic output related to the sanctions[viii]. To compensate the inability of trading with Europe, its central economic partner since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia aims at China’s large market for its agricultural and manufactured products. The result though is yet in favor of Chinese import, rather than Russia’s export, and hopes on alternative investment opportunities did not justify themselves either - China’s share in Russia’s direct investment in 2018 was only 0.6%[ix].

The arms trade is also a significant issue when looking at Russia’s endeavors in the Middle East, Asia, South Africa, and even Latin America. It is the second-largest export sector of Russia right after the energy[x]. Furthermore, arms lobby within the Russian government is powerful enough to drive forward the tendency with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s, known as Putin’s Chef, privately owned Wagner group to be the front runner of supplying contractors to the insurgency regions across the globe[xi].   

In the past decade, Russia’s share in the global market of armament shrank from 27 to 21 % (yet Russia is the 2ndlargest armament exporter[xii]); actions were taken to reverse the situation. 

In 2019, Russia entered the top 3 exporters of weapons to the Middle East. The region is currently the second largest and fastest-growing consumer of arms (35 % of global arms import from 2014-18[xiii]). Also, recently a significant arms deal worth 2 billion dollars was signed with Egypt, as well as the deal about Egypt’s first power plant building. Russia’s foreign ministry reports about an increase of 350 % over the past decade in trade relations with African countries[xiv]. Russia’s sales of arms in Africa have doubled in 2017 and during the Russia-Africa Summit premises of the conference were adapted for exhibiting armament and encouraging further cooperation[xv].   According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia now is the largest supplier of arms to the continent[xvi].

Yet following country’s actions in Ukraine and later in Syria, arms deals with Russia have been restrained by the West. The US has issued a decree of counter-sanctions targeting Russia’s trade partners of defence and intelligence sectors. They automatically become a subject of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Rostec, a state corporation that brings together all the major producers of defence and high-tech products, is on the CAATSA list. Sanctions have already been applied to China to establish a precedent and ensure credibility of intention, which puts at risk many long-term deals with Russia and threatens its arms sector expansion.

Secondly, the domestic considerations of president Putin are at a place as well. Bringing back the status of the major international actor to Russia is a matter of national pride and a mechanism of public consolidation. Facing trouble of providing economic and social incentives to the citizens, regime’s legitimacy among other more coercive realms is built upon domestic sovereign “soft power” projection to its people with strong emphasis on country’s foreign policies or rather their reflection and the narrative of external enemy that dictates behavioral norms, intervenes in the domestic affairs and threatens stability.

Correlation may be observed in the graph[xvii]below, i.e., when the decline of support was in place before 2008 and prior to 2014, unexpected foreign policy action was taken. By some experts, the phenomena are described as Putin’s ability to do unexpected[xviii].

It is a part of sophisticated political planning by Kremlin’s political technologists such as Vladislav Surkov[xix]. To some extent aggressive foreign policy that confronts “red lines” of the West is an attempt to draw an image of a self-sufficient country that shapes international order and is counted with – a sovereign definition of great power. Being great equals being counted with, which historically (Russian imperia, Soviet times) has been part of Russia’s and its citizens’ identity.

Modern Russia fails to surprise or influence both – domestic and foreign dimensions by the economic output, science, and natural soft power realms of attractiveness as culture and values (even if wanted[xx]) that are among the key features of the 21stcentury great power definition. Consequently, aggressive foreign policies compensate for the rest. And seemingly there is a demand for such external actions. According to the Levada poll, over 53%[xxi]of respondents support Russia’s annexation of Crimea, also Georgian war in 2008 was popular[xxii]. And the latest Syrian endeavors fit very well interests of the ruling elite. So far short-term foreign policy victories have been used as pain killers for the condition of severing cancer – temporary relieving, but barely healing. Municipal elections of 2019 have shown acute issue for the ruling elite. First time ever about the half of seats of the City Duma of Moscow were taken by the opposition-backed candidates[xxiii], indicating breeze of change in view of decline of the average income of households on the course of 6 years[xxiv], increase of pensioning age[xxv], growing repressions against freedom of speech and will[xxvi]of people. So then, forthcoming presidential elections in 2024 drives towards an interesting question and a situation for anxiety about what agenda - forming maneuvers are ahead.


[i]Russia Africa summit: What's Behind Moscow's push into the continent? 2019, 45035889

[ii]Analysis: How strong is the Russian-Chinese alliance? 2019,

[iii]Lukin, A. 2019. CHINA IN RUSSIA'S TURN TO THE EAST. Washington, DC: East-West Cente,

[iv]Presidential Address to Federal Assembly. 2019,

[v]Analysis: How strong is the Russian-Chinese alliance? 2019,

[vi]Lissovolik, Y.2019. Q&A: What is the strategy behind Russia’s turn to the East? World Economic Forum,

[vii]Chatzky, A. 2019. Have Sanctions on Russia Changed Putin’s Calculus? Council on Foreign Relations,


[ix]Analysis: How strong is the Russian-Chinese alliance? 2019,

[x]Kruglov, A. 2019. Business booming for Russia’s arms traders. Asia Times,

[xi]Dettmer, J. 2019. Guns, Mercenaries, Minerals - Russia Embraces Africa,

[xii]Connolly, R., Sendstad, C. 2017. Russia’s role as an arms exporter.The strategic and economic importance of arms exports for Russia. Chatham House. P. 5

[xiii]Khlebnikov, A. 2019. Russia looks to the Middle East to boost arms exports. Middle East Institute,

[xiv]Stanley, T., Fletcher, B.Russia Steps Up Its Game in Africa. The inaugural Russia-Africa summit shows Putin's growing influence on the continent.,

[xv]Penney, J. 2019. These photos show African delegates enjoying the best of Russia’s unique hospitality,

[xvi]Dettmer, J. 2019. Guns, Mercenaries, Minerals - Russia Embraces Africa,

[xvii]Fokht, E. 2019. Russia and Putin: Is president's popularity in decline,

[xviii]Rutland, P. 2019. Putin’s Y2024 Problem. Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia,

[xix]Milam, W. 2018 Who is Vladislav Surkov?,

[xx]Levinson, A. (2015) Public opinion and propaganda in Russia. European Council of Foreign Relations,

[xxi]CRIMEA. 2018.,

[xxii]Krastev, I. 2008. Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap. European Council on Foreign Relations,

[xxiii]Moscow’s election results The opposition wins nearly half the City Duma seats, and United Russia’s local leader loses his seat.2019,

[xxiv]Russians’ Real Incomes Set to Fall Again in 2019.2019,

[xxv]Russia is raising its retirement age. How and why? 2019,

[xxvi]Russia’s New ‘Foreign Agent’ Law, Explained. 2019,

Published 14 February 2020

Author Evija Djatkoviča