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Assessing Russian Diplomacy Today

A Brief Look at its Strengths and Weaknesses, written for the Valdai Club

Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla

Legacy of Russian diplomacy: L to R: Nesselrode, Gorchakov,

Gromyko, Lavrov

Russian diplomacy comes from a long imperial tradition, which has produced some of the great diplomatists of European history, and on a global stage in more recent times. It is not easy to assess the level of diplomacy today, compared with the past, at a generalised level. Perhaps a good way to approach this would be to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Russian diplomacy today.

There are five identifiable strengths in Russian diplomacy. The first is the advantage of clear leadership and direction. For all the time that I have dealt with Russia [and the Soviet Union], it has been clear where decision-making rests, and on what basis decisions will be made.

The second strength is a consequence of the first: there is a uniformity of understanding of any given issue. There is little variation among different departments or agencies – they are more or less all agreed on the substance of any issue, and on the policy response. This is a great advantage, as there is no confusion or ambiguity in the execution and articulation of Russian foreign policy.

The third is the transparent commitment to the national interest, though there have been occasional derogations from this in the past. No interlocutor is in any doubt that Russia has its clearly articulated interests and will defend them resolutely. This adds to the credibility of the foreign policy.

The fourth is a hard-headed approach to diplomatic practice. Of course, sentiment plays a part, as do personal relations, as they should. But, in the end, it is the calculus of national interest that determines what Russian policy will be.

The fifth is another important strength: good language skills. This is not as good as it was in Soviet times, but it is still at a high level. I have an impression that the number of languages being studied is smaller now than in Soviet times. But the important thing is, this is coupled with an openness to the culture of the foreign country where the diplomat is posted.

The weaknesses that I would list must begin with a major one: a poor comprehension of how democracies function. This is probably a corollary of the fact of clear and consistent leadership in Russia itself and its governing structures, because Russian diplomats frequently do not understand the role of, for example, the media or the courts or NGO’s in a democracy.

The second weakness among Russian diplomats that I frequently find is a limited understanding of Economics. While diplomacy must retain its traditional skills, these have to be supplemented with a knowledge of Economics, and an outreach to the economic operators in a foreign country. The one exception, where Russia’s understanding is good is Energy economics; this is especially true of the Hydrocarbon sector – Russian diplomacy understands this rather well.

The above weaknesses lead, in turn, to one more: because of these two weaknesses, there is either insufficient or incompetent effort at reaching out to the media or to business. There is limited understanding of how to promote Russia as a business partner. Equally, there are conspicuous failures in some important instances in explaining Russian motivations in some of the great issues of the day.

There is, then, another problem that one encounters even at senior levels. This is an inadequate grasp of the broader framework in which an issue is to be understood and a response fashioned. I often found that those who dealt with East Asia, for instance, were not well up on other parts of Asia, and how the first fitted into the larger piece.

There is also a degree of institutional weakness that causes problems. The steadiness of purpose that a great country’s foreign policy must have demands institutional stability. For example, Russian foreign policy swings between extremes in its relations with the west in particular – from being excessively accommodative to being unreasonably rigid. This is detrimental to its own standing over the long run.

New Delhi,

May 2014

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