Top Russian weakness that West can exploit:  Russia’s Crumbling Diplomacy

This essay series identifies 10 of the most critical vulnerabilities in today’s Russia across the defense, economic, and diplomatic and political domains. 

10 essays analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian Federation were released by the Center for New American Security (CNAS): “Identifying Russian Vulnerabilities and How to Leverage Them”

Vulnerability 8: Russia’s Crumbling Diplomacy

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    “Putin’s war in Ukraine has sapped the strength and vitality of Russian diplomacy, undermining a traditional strength and making it vulnerable to pressure that will make it harder for Moscow to punch above its geopolitical weight for the foreseeable future”

    by By Pete Schroeder

    On November 18, 2021, just three months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the annual board meeting of Russia’s Foreign Ministry. It was a rare in-person appearance, particularly given his isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as Putin was overseeing the military buildup on Ukraine’s border, he charged Russia’s diplomats with securing long-term security guarantees from the West, putting Russian diplomacy front and center on Moscow’s path toward war. It was an impossible task—if he was ever serious about it. Regardless of his intent, the emphasis that Putin placed on Russia’s diplomats in the run-up to the invasion made the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) an accomplice in his war, and in doing so turned Russian diplomacy—traditionally a strength—into a vulnerability. Russian diplomacy has long been a key tool in helping Moscow punch above its weight, leveraging its experienced, expert corps of diplomats and positions in multilateral organizations to get Moscow a seat at the table for the most pressing global issues. Today, however, Russian diplomacy is cowering in a defensive crouch, ceding the initiative to others. Deft U.S. policy can capitalize on this vulnerable position to roll back Russian gains over the past decade and diminish Russian clout in international organizations and multilateral forums. 

    It is true that the Russian Foreign Ministry’s role in policy formulation has been waning over the past decade, with the military and intelligence service taking on quasi-diplomatic roles. As a case in point, when Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov notably seemed out of the loop, according to then–Secretary of State John Kerry. Moreover, Putin chose an obscure officer, Aleksandr Lavrentyev—not a senior diplomat—to manage Syria-related diplomacy back in 2015 after Russia’s intervention. And yet, despite the waning influence of the MFA, until 2022 Russia’s diplomacy had been a relative strength, helping Putin play a poor hand well. It had been global, securing Moscow a voice in nearly every major international issue, from Middle East conflicts to Afghanistan’s future, nuclear nonproliferation to climate change and technology. As a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) permanent member, Russia has wielded its veto and leveraged it for influence. It has also been adept at using U.N. systems and other multilateral forums. 

    For example, Moscow both shaped the creation of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism and ensured a Russian diplomat leads it. In 2019, Russia also successfully pushed a measure through the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) to set up an international convention to fight cybercrime, over U.S. and Western opposition. Finally, Moscow has successfully navigated regional differences and bitter rivalries, deepening relationships and influence with a range of partners, including Iran and Israel, Turkey and the Kurds, and China and India. 

    But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sabotaged its own diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, after selling Kremlin narratives about Ukraine while downplaying the likelihood of war, the invasion has damaged Russia’s credibility, even among those more inclined to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt. Boris Bondarev, one of the few Russian diplomats to resign in protest, has described Russian diplomatic work as practically impossible now, adding that Russian foreign policy is fundamentally broken. Western diplomats regularly walk out of multilateral meetings when Russian officials speak, and at the Raisina Dialogue in India this year, the audience even laughed at Lavrov when he tried to portray Russia as a victim. UNGA has repeatedly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by overwhelming margins—often by margins larger than in 2014—as seen most recently in February 2023 in a resolution that was supported by 141 states, with 7 against and 32 states abstaining. At the second Russia-Africa summit in July 2023, less than half the number of leaders attended, compared to the first summit in 2019. 

    “Today, Russian diplomacy is cowering in a defensive crouch, ceding the initiative to others.”

    Russia has had some success in keeping countries in the so-called Global South neutral in its war in Ukraine. For example, only 45 countries have imposed sanctions on Russia, and nearly 90 countries still offer Russian citizens visa-free entry, including Argentina, Israel, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela. However, much of Russia’s apparent “success” has been more the product of these countries’ colonial histories and their dissatisfaction with the United States than a result of Russia’s diplomatic strength. And even though Russia may be a colonial power, that legacy does not reside with the countries in question. A simple comparison makes the point. Although only 45 countries have imposed some form of sanctions against Russia, over three times that number—141—voted at UNGA against Russia’s war. The dichotomy suggests that it is not Russian diplomats persuading their counterparts of the justness of Russia’s actions that is leading the Global South to stay neutral. 

    Russian diplomacy, therefore, has become more of a vulnerability than a strength. Russia has long relied on diplomacy to help keep threats at bay. Today that is less the case, opening the Kremlin up to a greater degree to external challenges. Moscow now has fewer resources and tools available to engage foreign partners and boost Russia’s global influence. As of June 2023, Russia is already facing significant budget deficits, with few prospects for robust future growth. Moreover, Moscow’s traditional use of arms sales and security cooperation to build influence with foreign partners is already being undermined by its war in Ukraine. Either Russia needs the arms and equipment for its own uses, it has fewer personnel available to spearhead cooperation and training, or foreign partners fear sanctions or the reputational risk of buying arms or working with Russian military and intelligence services. Reports in early June, based on analysis of customs clearance data, suggest that Russia is even reimporting military equipment that previously was sold to India and Myanmar. Russian diplomacy, therefore, is likely to remain in a defensive crouch, with Moscow unable to mount significant diplomatic initiatives and struggling to defend its prerogatives and global influence. The growing weakness of Russian diplomacy in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine is already apparent. Despite years of Russia positioning itself at the center of Middle Eastern geopolitics, it was Beijing that brokered the normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moscow is finding it harder to leverage its position at the U.N., as witnessed by the overwhelming defeat of Russian ally Belarus’s pursuit of a rotating seat at the UNSC. Moscow’s role as the indispensable player along its periphery is also slipping. Two years ago, Russian engagement was critical to halting Azerbaijan’s offensive against Armenia, yet now Moscow’s diplomatic role was eclipsed by the EU and Russia was unable to prevent renewed hostilities. Russia is also moving from diplomatic creditor to debtor as the war forces Moscow to rely more on its partners. For example, Turkey has become a key interlocutor, helping broker the grain export deal with Russia, Ukraine, and the U.N., and serving as a key transshipment node for goods making their way to Russia. Reflecting the changed dynamics, Russia in January supported the UNSC resolution extending cross-border aid into northwestern Syria from Turkey; it had previously bargained hard for concessions and ultimately abstained. Greater reliance on its partners will also make it harder for Moscow to navigate regional rivalries. Closer defense ties with Iran likely will make it harder to court Israel; greater economic reliance on China will likely make it more difficult to sustain constructive relations with states in Southeast Asia.

    Russian Efforts to Mitigate or Offset the Vulnerability

    The erosion of Russia’s diplomatic legitimacy and influence certainly is not lost on senior foreign policy officials in Moscow. UNGA votes are a decent barometer of Russia’s global standing, and as previously noted, Moscow is consistently losing by large margins. Russia’s relations with the West have collapsed; Bondarev noted that Russian diplomats’ personal relationships with their Western counterparts fractured in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    Recognizing its vulnerable diplomatic position, Moscow seemingly is pursuing a three-pronged approach to mitigate the potential risks. First, Moscow is lowering its ambitions, eschewing broad, high-stakes initiatives, and focusing on simple engagement for engagement’s sake to show that Russia is not isolated. For example, Russia is no longer pushing for a summit of the leaders of the five UNSC permanent members, which Putin had proposed in January 2020. Such simpler engagement contributes to the success that Russia has had in keeping the Global South and others neutral in the Ukraine war. This engagement is buttressed by narratives, propaganda, and information campaigns that seek to reinforce skepticism and criticism of the West in the Global South. In contrast to U.S. and Western efforts to get the Global South to support sanctions and other punishments, Moscow largely is not asking anything of these states other than to keep meeting

    The second prong in Moscow’s approach is to pair with China whenever possible. Although not formal allies, Beijing and Moscow share many concerns about a U.S.-led world order, and so the Kremlin in many instances can now count on China to take the lead in opposing the United States. Moscow probably will also try to place more emphasis on multilateral groups, such as SCO and BRICS, as a means to harness China’s global weight and influence, though diluted through a multilateral mechanism. 

    For the final prong, Moscow is likely to focus its remaining diplomatic energy on defending its ties with strategic partners key to its ability to sustain its war in Ukraine and confront the West, in particular Iran, Turkey, India, and Saudi Arabia. Limited time, energy, and resources are likely to impose a more stringent prioritization.

    Opportunities for the U.S. and its Allies to Exploit the Vulnerabilities

    Russia’s diplomatic vulnerability creates opportunities on which adept U.S. policy can capitalize. Washington can roll back Russian influence and create obstacles to Russian diplomacy in the future. Much of Moscow’s success in the past decade has come from leveraging bilateral problems in a country’s relationship with the United States to interpose Russia as an alternative. Global concerns about the direction of U.S. policy during the past decade, whether it be about the need for a deal with Iran or U.S. commitment to its allies in Europe, has provided Moscow additional room to maneuver. The resulting relations have not been based on deep ties and common values, but Moscow nevertheless has had success with these interests-based, realpolitik-like approaches. Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia have provided the most obvious examples of locations where focused U.S. efforts could help roll back Russian influence, even if they don’t completely resolve the various challenges in bilateral relations with Washington. Outside those three countries, targeted investments by the United States in security cooperation could help block one of Russia’s main pathways to build influence, leveraging the retrenchment in Russian resources and greater global reputational concerns about working with Russian military and security entities. The United States can also mobilize concerns about Russia’s actions in Ukraine to curb Moscow’s influence and advance U.S. priorities at multilateral institutions. For example, Washington can mobilize global opinion to block Russian officials from occupying leadership positions in multilateral organizations, similar to how U.S. efforts helped defeat the Russian candidate to lead the International Telecommunications Union.

    Finally, Washington can use Russia’s diplomatic weakness to push initiatives at multilateral organizations where Russia would usually pose a strong obstacle—for example, in security-related bodies and on issues such as space security, nonproliferation, and export controls. Countries are also already racing to establish frameworks for regulating AI, which might be easier to shape to U.S. interests with Russian diplomacy weaker. It might even be a propitious moment to push forward on UNSC reform while Russia’s influence is weak. 

    With Russia on the back foot, the United States has a number of opportunities to lock in weaker Russian global influence for the longer term. Deft U.S. policy now can help ensure that Russia will not punch above its geopolitical weight for the foreseeable future.

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