Mikhail Pashkov *: Foreign Policy Aspects of the Presidential Election Campaign in the Russian Federation


The presidential election campaign in Russia (if it can be called election in the generally accepted sense) has become the prologue to a new round of confrontation on the West-Russia axis, in fact, to a new phase of the cold war.

The Address of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly, surpassing his famous Munich speech in aggressiveness and confrontation, was a de facto pre-election programme in the form of a video ultimatum to the West. The March speech of the Russian leader dispelled all the illusory expectations of at least some liberal developments in domestic and foreign policy.

The tone and sense of the Address as a whole give an answer to the question of what the Kremlin's foreign policy will be in the period of the next presidential term of V.Putin. The following conceptual vectors can be singled out in the most general form.

First. The political, ideological and socio-cultural militarization of the country and clear orientation at the "middle class in uniform", and law enforcement agencies. According to expert estimates, the number of law enforcement officers in the country exceeds 4 million. They, together with the bureaucratic apparatus, a stratum of governmental employees, "affiliated" creative, scientific intellectuals and a conglomerate of pro-state mass media, form the basis and support of the current Russian political regime. This class is the main and sole beneficiary of confrontation with the West, fattening during the cold war. The nomalization of relations with the USA is a bad dream, a geopolitical verdict for them. Moreover, Western sanctions take large corporations such as Rusal under the governmental umbrella, alienating the country from market economy.

Second. Philosophy and apologetics of "besieged fortress". There is a definitely clear orientation at an uncompromising confrontation with the "hostile" West. Moreover, the theme of "rebuffing external enemies" is the main and, unfortunately, non-alternative incentive for the authorities to mobilize the society. It is the external threat that makes the core of domestic and foreign policy. Without such a confrontation - the empire is expecting for rapid degradation and collapse.

Third. State ideology of the "third way". The image of an exclusive, self-valuable and self-sufficient "civilization state " of a non-Western and non-Eastern type is gradually growing and asserting itself in the public consciousness. Subsequently, the ideology was journalistically interpreted in V.Surkov's indicative article "Loneliness of Half-Blood", published on 9 April, 2018 in Russia in Global Politics journal. Anti-Westernism in essence became a state doctrine, a criterion of patriotism, a marker of a civil position. In fact, we are talking about the rejection of universal civilization western values.

Fourth. Geopolitical nuclear blackmail of the West. More than a third of the two-hour speech by the President of the Russian Federation in the Manege exhibition hall was devoted to new achievements of the Russian military-industrial complex, demonstration of the Kremlin's nuclear power. In fact, Russian foreign policy boils down to a simple formula - if our rules of the game are not accepted (e.g., zones of interest), then we are not heard, so these are enemies, then we will act from the position of strength.

Fifth. Willingness to pay the social price of confrontation with opponents of Russia. Russia has the potential and resource base for a relatively long stay in the regime of "loneliness of half-blood" and stagnation. Moreover, the level of protest moods in the Russian society is very low according to a recent survey of the Levada Centre as of March, 2018. Only 8% of Russians expressed their readiness to take part in protest actions.

However, the presidential election showed that the incumbent authorities, in fact, do not produce innovative ideas and those unifying Russians in the socio-economic sphere. The above-mentioned Address has indicated nominal growth paths: a) labour productivity at medium and large enterprises; b) increase in investment; c) development of small business; d) development of non-primary exports. Though it does not read about growth, but about steady degradation of social and economic sphere in the conditions, when the totalitarian system of state administration is not reformed, cardinal limitation of foreign investment, and the existence of the regime of Western sanctions.

Sixth. Designation of the circle of possible partners. The Address outlines a group of friendly countries - China, India, the BRICS countries, the SCO, the CSTO, the EEA, the CIS. However, the pathos of the new term of V. Putin was overshadowed by the arrival of a whole flock of "black swans" (poisoning in Salisbury and massive diplomatic demarche, tragedy in Kemerovo, American sanctions, missile attack in Syria, etc.). All that continued the row of events negative for the Kremlin (annexation of the Crimea, war in the Donbass, the crash of flight MN-17, the case of "the girl Lisa" in Germany, the doping scandal, conspiracy in Montenegro, interference in the US elections, and so on, and so forth). And the accumulation of a critical mass of facts of Russian sabotage, provocations, cyberattacks, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, inevitably leads to qualitative changes in the position of the West.

It reads about sustainable formation of negative reputation of the Kremlin, the back-alley and toxic character of the Russian political regime as a whole. Certainly, the crisis of confidence does not exclude dialogue, but it will be the dialogue of a completely different type, without illusions about peaceful and democratic nature of the Kremlin. Therefore, the circle of Russia's partner countries today resembles "shagreen skin".

However, it should be noted that the Russian president has a number of obvious advantages in the confrontation with the West: a) he is not burdened with international legal-treaty "conventions" such as borders and agreements; b) he relies on the tradition of utilitarian and uncontrolled use of human resources; c) he has a high level of public confidence; d) he has a unique, by Western standards, personal speed of decision-making and unconditional support by the rest of the governmental institutions.

Does the European establishment understand it? Does it understand the fact that in the conditions of European geopolitical super-tolerance, super-pluralism and liberal freedoms erected in the cube, consensus in decision-making, as well as with bureaucratic rigidity of Brussels institutions, the European West will lose in a hybrid war against Russia?

The outcome of the Russian election would allow answering the question of what will be the Ukrainian vector of the policy of the Kremlin in the period of the next cadence of V.Putin. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has not reached the bottom. The entire range of interstate relations envisages the only possible option of hostile confrontational coexistence with the threat of permanent escalation - at least in the medium term.

It is obvious that the tactics of the Russian Federation regarding Ukraine will come to: a) categorical refusal to consider in any form the topic of the annexed Crimea; b) keeping the situation in the Donbass in the suspended no-war-no-peace state and imitating peacekeeping initiatives while upholding obviously unacceptable demands; c) preparing and creating conditions for a massive hybrid strike at "zero hour" - during the presidential election campaign in Ukraine (and subsequent parliamentary election).

It is hardly worth counting on the Kremlin being an outsider watching the struggle for the presidency in Ukraine. The entire long history of Russian aggression against Ukraine gives grounds to believe that the Russian side would launch a campaign of systematic, purposeful and wide-ranging measures to intervene in the Ukrainian elections at the end of 2018, - beginning of 2019. Unlike the elections in the USA or, say, France, the Kremlin has a much richer and more efficient arsenal of instruments of influence at the Ukrainian direction. The main directions of the "pre-election" phase of the Russian expansion will be:

- Loosening and destabilizing the internal political situation through information sabotage and provocations, incl. through a network of "agents of influence." Provoking separatist sentiments in the regions. Carrying out concentrated cyberattacks (which happened many times already) at critical infrastructure objects - management, energy, banking, transport.

- Political, information, financial support of the "fifth column" - pro-Russian political forces, media, public organizations, religious structures, individual activists.

- Expanding information campaign in the Ukrainian media and social networks to discredit the Ukrainian authorities, pro-European and Euro-Atlantic policy of the country, domestic reforms. Implanting the values and senses of the Russian World in the public consciousness.

Certainly, this is not a complete list of the alleged actions of the aggressor country. And these actions may have a critical effect against the background of the complex socio-economic situation, vulnerability of the national information space to the influence of the eastern neighbour.

Therefore, it is necessary to take appropriate measures now. In other words, we need a plan with the participation of special services and law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of the election campaign.

First, it is worthwhile adopting the French legislative initiative of combating disinformation at the period of election campaigns. We are talking about granting the right to executive bodies (strictly during the pre-election period) to react promptly and radically to fake content in the media.

Second, it is necessary to ensure in practice the implementation of both the decision of the NSDC to counteract the information aggression of the Russian Federation and the law on cybersecurity of Ukraine. In parallel, to deploy and strengthen the newly established National Centre for Responding Cyber Threats. Strengthen the system of protection from cyberattacks of public infrastructure facilities in key sectors. Naturally, we are talking about the electronic communications of the Central Election Commission as well.

Third, to ensure full-scale connection to the European system of EU and NATO centres for combating hybrid threats (the Baltic countries, Poland, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.), including intensifying cooperation with the new EU Agency on Cybersecurity, joining the work of the NATO Centre for Advanced Experience in Energy Security. By the way, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly decided last October to expand assistance to partner countries (including Ukraine) in the field of information security.


* Information about the author:

Mikhail Pashkov - co-director, foreign policy and international security programmes, Razumkov Centre.

The article has been prepared on the basis of the address at the International Conference "Presidential Election in Russia: Conclusions and Forecasts".

08.05.2018 22:00:00