Domestic Power Relations and Russia's Foreign Policy

By Kaczmarski, Marcin | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Domestic Power Relations and Russia's Foreign Policy


Kaczmarski, Marcin, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: President Vladimir Putin's domination of Russia's politics, coupled with the apparent stability of the regime, have contributed to the relative neglect of domestic politics in explaining Russia's foreign policy. This article seeks to overcome this lapse and argues that the evolving distribution of political and economic power under the surface of Putin's leadership has been influencing the process and content of Russia's foreign policy-making to a significant extent. The concentration of material resources by a number of domestic actors limited Putin's room for maneuver and his flexibility in the area of foreign policy. The changes in the size and internal composition of Putin's winning coalition have been reflected in shifting patterns in Russia's international behavior. Domestic power struggles led to foreign policy outcomes inconsistent with the Kremlin's strategic designs. These effects are unpacked by investigating the case of Russia's policy toward Asia and its two most outstanding features: the rise of Sinocentrism and the failure to diversity energy exports to the Asian market.

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The link between domestic politics and how foreign policy aims are prioritized and put into operation is crucial, but it is perhaps the most difficult factor in the equation to analyze. (1)

The current Russian regime has been in place for nearly fifteen years, having survived occasional challenges at the ballot box, in the streets, and even a temporary succession in the presidential seat. President Vladimir Putin has secured his domination over the political scene by enforcing a "power vertical," curtailing the autonomy of state institutions, and imposing the "virtualization" of public politics. This concentration of domestic power was initially acclaimed as leading to a centralization of foreign policy-making, which replaced the turmoil characteristic of Boris Yeltsin's period in power. Initially, it was Putin who effectively shaped Russia's international behavior. (2)

Putin's dominance has not, however, removed pluralism and competition from Russian politics. Following Putin's first term, a process of contestation governed by informal rules re-emerged in the factional arena, which has prevailed over public politics. (3) Constant bargaining among domestic actors over political influence, economic assets, and control over the means of violence has become a durable feature of the Putin era. Although these power struggles have not jeopardized either the system as a whole, or the position of Putin as the leader, they have limited the scope of Putin's authority and the coherence of state policies. (4)

There has been little consensus among scholars regarding the extent to which domestic politics have influenced Russia's foreign policy. Some see Moscow's international behavior as isolated from the intensity of domestic political struggles. Others view foreign policy in utter disarray because of the nature of the political system in which it has been embedded. Interpretations located in-between these two positions have attributed a certain degree of influence to interest groups, bureaucratic structures and informal coalitions, such as the siloviki (a Russian term for politicians from the security and military services), but in general the key role of the Kremlin and the autonomy of Putin in foreign affairs have been acknowledged.

This article proposes to reconstruct the evolution of Russian politics by focusing on domestic power relations: shifting coalitions, changes in Putin's entourage, and struggles for political influence and economic assets. Russia's advance toward a non-democratic political system has marginalized the role of both general elections and autonomous institutions. Domestic power relations have emerged as the most intrinsic feature of internal arrangements. Such an approach allows for tracing the role of domestic politics in Russia's foreign policy in a systematic way. …

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