Since the late 1990s, Russia began to challenge the legitimacy of the new US-centric international order, together with its unipolar perspective, undisputed at the time. However, it was only after Putin’s rise to power in 2000 that Moscow started to effectively pursue this narrative and to demand that the West, and Washington in particular, acknowledged its own strategic interests. The dispute between US and Russia got increasingly worse, went through an acute crisis with the 2008 Georgian war, and then was exacerbated dramatically after the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This was a crucial moment in Russia’s foreign policy and, all in all, resulted in the end of the search for a positive relationship with the West; a relationship that had previously made the establishment of cooperative relations on many sensitive issues possible, despite frequent contrasts.
In this perspective, after the Ukrainian crisis, Russia has further developed its traditional “Westphalian” stance, strongly focused on national sovereignty and territory. Quite sparingly described as “belonging in the 19th-century” by US leaders, this stance seems, however, to allow for a foreign policy that is, in some respects, more effective than the “post-modern” stance of Western countries.
The new assertiveness of Russian foreign policy has been confirmed by the military intervention in Syria that began in September 2015. Isolated from the West and hit by severe economic sanctions, which exacerbated an economic situation already made precarious by low oil prices, Russia seemed to be cornered. The intervention in Syria, on the contrary – an unprecedented move in many respects – suddenly changed the international scenario. Despite the very high risks, the Russian intervention in Syria seems to have been very successful. First of all, because it diverted the international attention from the Ukrainian crisis, which quickly lost much of its geopolitical centrality. It has also imposed the need to deal with Russia in a crucial area such as the Middle East, where the West is becoming less and less influential. The fact that the peace talks on Syria held in Astana were attended by Russia, Iran, and Turkey but not by Western countries seems to be an important and perhaps historically decisive consequence of the Russian intervention in this country.
In an international scenario in which the role of the West is waning to the benefit of other political actors, first and foremost Asian ones, Russia – whose geopolitical nature can only be Eurasian – has become increasingly aware of this dynamic. First, by seeking to involve the other post-Soviet countries, in particular the Central Asian ones, in international organisations such as the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation, comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia since 2002) and the Customs Union (2011), which became the Common Economic Area in 2012, and the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 (besides Russia, it comprises Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan). The Eurasian Union project, which aroused so many hopes and fears in recent years, seems to be lagging behind. The accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan cannot compensate for the loss of Ukraine, but above all, this project is negatively affected by Russia’s lack of economic attractiveness and seems to have been overtaken by the Belt and Road Initiative of a far more dynamic China.
Russia has also pursued a policy of active cooperation with key Asian countries. The most important outcome of this cooperation was the 2001 launch of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a political, economic, and security organisation that is a very specific model of geopolitical integration, focused essentially on the internal stability of the constituent states and lacking those references to human rights that characterise the western international organisations. In June 2017, even Pakistan and India joined the SCO, which initially comprised Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, thus significantly increasing its importance. In light of the persistent contrast with the West, the “eastern” vector of Russian foreign policy seems destined to strengthen. This is due both to the unstoppable growth of Asian countries on the international arena and to a substantial sharing of ideological stances different from the Western ones, which could be broadly defined as conservative and centred around national, rather than “universal”, values.
Despite its insufficient economic dynamism and the isolation into which the West wants to confine Russia after the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow seems capable of operating effectively in several regions, even outside the post-Soviet space; but above all, it seems to be increasingly at ease in an international scenario that progressively tends to resemble a game among big powers pursuing their national interests independently from the existing multilateral institutions.