Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert at the Hanoi Opera House in Vietnam, June 20, 2024 [lmage via Reuters]

Putin’s Gambit: Russia’s Foreign Policy in a Multipolar World

The political chessboard has a new knight reclaiming his position in the “Game of Thrones“ and disrupting the hubris of powers that be. Russia’s foreign policy under the former officer of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall is taking a shift that demands a thorough examination.

Russia’s Foreign Policy: Historical Context and Identity

Two crucial elements underpinning the debating parameters over Russia’s national identity and its core foreign policy goals are worth mentioning here.

First, an enduring belief exists that Russia is a great power and must be treated as such. Second, international politics is essentially a Darwinian or Hobbesian competition in which ‘‘realist’’ and ‘‘neo-realist’’ state-centric power politics is the dominant paradigm.

Dominant Perspectives in Russian Foreign Policy

Keeping these in mind, three dominant perspectives have informed Russian foreign policy; Pro-Western Liberals advocating for major reforms and close ties with the West, Great Power Balancers championing Russia’s great power position, and Nationalists emphasizing Russia’s unique mission and integration with former Soviet states.

Shift in Putin’s Foreign Policy

Mr. Putin started as a centrist great power balancer during his first term, however, following the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the belief that the United States sought to weaken Russia and thwart Moscow’s interests gained more traction. Resultantly, appeal to Russian nationalism and opposition to U.S. policy, especially in post-Soviet space became a dominant theme.

Vladimir Putin with his parents in 1985, before departing for Germany where he worked as a KGB officer [Getty Images].

What exactly are the differences between these two positions, and where does Russia stand now following the Ukraine fiasco? The great power balancers view the international system through a lens that prioritizes state-centric dynamics. They focus specifically on advancing Russian national interests within the framework of maintaining a balance of power. This belief stems from their view that Russia’s status as a great power is an elemental driving force of their identity.

Nationalists, in contrast to the great power balancers, are notably more resistant to Western interests. They advocate for redrawing Russia’s boundaries and prioritize maintaining buffers and spheres of influence in former Soviet territories. This stance is primarily driven by their perception of US meddling in Russia’s immediate geopolitical sphere.

Russia’s Current Stance Post-Ukraine Invasion

Ukraine’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the resulting invasion by Russia saw a strong nationalist influence within the ranks of Russian policymakers adopting a defensive posture concerned with survival. However, as the war has entered its second year and Russia has emerged unscathed from Western sanctions, the revisionist tendencies of Great Power Balancers are again taking root.

The recent foreign policy actions are a testament to the fact that Russia is vying for global influence and is back in the power game.

Russia-North Korea Relations

Most important is Putin’s recent visit to North Korea which revised the Cold War era pact of 1961 which was discarded following the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This “breakthrough document” stipulates a landmark military assistance pact that promises immediate military aid if either country faces armed aggression. Kim reiterated his “unconditional” support for “all of Russia’s policies,” including its war effort, and termed it a “higher level of an alliance”. This is a major shift of weaponizing the West’s most potent adversary and strengthening its position in the Russian camp.

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un ride in an Aurus car in Pyongyang, North Korea. [Image via Reuters]
Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un ride in an Aurus car in Pyongyang, North Korea. [Image via Reuters]

US intelligence officials believe Putin is providing North Korea with nuclear submarine and ballistic missile technology in exchange for arms for his war in Ukraine. Citing six senior US officials, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network said the Biden administration was concerned Russia might help North Korea complete the final steps needed to field its first submarine capable of launching a nuclear-armed missile. 

In Kim’s words, it is a step towards “accelerating the creation of a new multipolar world”, thus expressing Russia’s intent to challenge the conception that the US and China are the only contenders of the new Cold War power struggle.

Russia’s Engagement with Vietnam

Equally important is the visit to Vietnam as an embodiment of the Great Power Competition in which Russia has set its bets too. Keeping in line with its “bamboo diplomacy” Vietnam seeks relations with all major powers including the US, and China, and is now hinting at welcoming Russia’s influence in the Indo-Pacific as well. US and Chinese Presidents recently visited Vietnam too which has led Putin to follow suit to court Hanoi.

However, it is not only Vietnam’s multilateral diplomacy that has all the superpowers competing for its attention as many other countries do the same. A point worth investigating is that all three countries are offering Vietnam security guarantees at a time when it needs it the most to strengthen its influence in the Asia Pacific. Putin has understood this.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia with his Vietnamese counterpart, To Lam, at the presidential palace in Hanoi on 20 June 2024 [Image via NYC].

Arms Purchases and Modernization Plans

A leaked document from the Vietnamese finance ministry, dated March 2023, indicated that Hanoi plans to modernize its military by secretly paying for arms purchases from Russia via payments to the joint Vietnamese and Russian oil venture Rusvietpetro, which has oil and natural gas operations in Siberia. This is because following the Ukraine war, Russian defense exports to Vietnam had tanked despite Russia being the largest provider of weapons to Vietnam till 2022 due to fears of the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Also See: Putin’s Blockade: Russia Vetoes Space Arms Control

Rumors suggest that Vietnam is eyeing the purchase of Brahmos as Russian systems would also be easy to integrate into the Vietnamese military without extra training, as the Vietnamese forces have decades-long experience using and maintaining, Russian weapons. Moreover, the visit also highlights Russia’s commitment to Hanoi to not compromise on Vietnam’s security despite closer ties with China, another important component of the “independent foreign policy” principle maintained by Great Power Balancers.

Sergey Lavrov: The New Age Primakov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with former ministers Igor Ivanov and Yevgeny Primakov at a Diplomat Day reception at the Russian Justice Ministry [Image via RIA Novosti Archive].

While Putin is in the spotlight of steering Russian Foreign Policy, another Kissinger is emerging from the ranks of the Kremlin – Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. It would be more apt to term him the new age Primakov of Russia, founding father of the great power school of thought who was an academic, Russia’s prime minister from 1998 to 1999, and its foreign minister before that starting in 1996.

Lavrov Diplomacy

Lavrov has become the face of bilateral diplomacy as well as a staunch proponent of the Primakov doctrine. In his Africa tour, he gained the support of African nations like Chad and Congo offering Russian assistance to dispel Islamic militarism and supporting the African Union’s efforts to solve Libya’s issue, strengthening Russian roadways to Africa. In a bold statement, he said that any French military instructors sent to Ukraine would be a “legitimate target” for Russian armed forces after Ukrainian officials revealed they were seeking training assistance for their troops from France. Lavrov has sharply criticized Israeli actions, further adopting an assertive foreign policy posture.

Stance on Afghanistan and Counterterrorism

Relations with Afghanistan are also being considered. For the first time in 30 years, an air corridor between the two countries was opened, enabling not only the delivery of aid to the Afghans but also the restoration of diplomatic relations between Kabul and Moscow. Lavrov also asserted that the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) agree that it is necessary to establish a constant and project-oriented dialogue with the current Afghan rulers. Supporting Afghanistan to fight extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeeda has been stressed by Lavrov.

In addition, Lavrov also blatantly rejected the US proposal to resume talks on nuclear arms calling it impossible till the US supported Ukraine. This tough posturing is significant. Besides, Lavrov also held discussions with his Slovakian counterpart during his visit to Turkey, in a rare high-level encounter between the European Union (EU) member state and a country that the bloc has sought to isolate. Thus Larvov is shoring up Russian influence in a bid to secure Russia’s deserved place.

In conclusion, Russia’s foreign policy under Putin is marked by a blend of great power balancing and assertive nationalism, positioning Russia as a formidable player in the emerging multipolar world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.

Simran Saeed Janjua | Author at South Asia Times (SAT)

Simran Saeed Janjua is an International Relations Researcher from National Defense University Islamabad, currently serving as research intern at South Asia Times (SAT). Her areas of research interest include traditional and non traditional security issues and foreign policy analysis. She can be reached at and on X (formerly Twitter) @i_simranjanjua.

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