Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

From Yugoslavia to Iraq: Russia's Foreign Policy and the Effects of Multipolarity

Vadim Kononenko

June 2003

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


The aim of this study is to analyze the evolution and political implications of Russia’s doctrine of multipolarity. Multipolarity emerged as one of the earliest doctrinal solutions to the post-Soviet Russian foreign policy dilemma, and has remained essential for Russia’s strategic behavior since the early 1990s. The multipolarity doctrine describes the post-Cold War world and Russia’s place in it. As I argue in this study, Russian “multipolarity” – (the idea of the multipolar world; the vision of Russia as one of its ‘poles’; and the understanding of the principles of international politics in the strict terms of realpolitik) is not an ideological resource for Russia’s foreign policy but rather, a result of learning how to secure the country’s international status given the scarcity of foreign policy resources available, and the drastic change in the international institutional position of Russia. To sum up the central argument of this study: the multipolarity of Russian foreign policy – both a doctrinal strategy and foreign policy practice – has evolved as a template-like foreign policy approach to solve Russia’s strategic dilemma since the demise of the Soviet Union: how to secure its place in the new international structure and compensate for the loss of the international arrangements that disappeared with Soviet might and the bipolar international system as a whole.

To explain the evolution of multipolarity, I use an array of cases that trace Russia’s experiences during the most crucial and sensitive post-Cold War international events: the wars in Yugoslavia in 1994–1995 and 1999; September 11 and the war in Afghanistan; and the war in Iraq of 2003. These were chosen to demonstrate that the practice of multipolarity, although bearing harmful political implications, has remained a persistent pattern of Russia’s foreign policy. At times, multipolarity was thought to be the only solution to exit from the crisis and repair Russia’s relations with the outside world.

The case studies progresses chronologically. They begin with a general overview of the systemic changes of the late 1980s and Russia’s response to them, showing that multipolarity initially emerged as a doctrinal solution to Russia’s dilemma of upholding its declining role in world affairs. The multipolarity of the early 1990s leaned towards Russia’s only remaining strengths, in particular its permanent seat in the UN Security Council, nuclear capabilities, and residual influence in the CIS area. This led to formulation of Russia’s international status as the world great power. The sections that follow, discuss the evolution of this grand design and its effects on Russia’s international behavior.

In the following, I attempt to analyze the complexity of multipolarity. In doing so, I seek to question the scholarly view towards multipolarity – as a completely inadequate, outdated doctrine. I focus on empirical cases and the gap between the doctrinal vision of the multipolar world and actual foreign policymaking process. Hence, I aim to delineate the doctrinal effects, which reveal themselves in present Russian foreign policy and, as I argue, will continue to be manifested in Russia’s international behavior in the mid-term perspective. Therefore I question the commonly held opinion that Russia’s foreign policy after 11 September was a swift strategic turn away from multipolarity. Furthermore, this study shows that during the international crisis over the war in Iraq in 2003, the Russian position was largely formulated along the lines of multipolarity.