From 1917 to 2017: Russian Foreign Policy 100 Years On
We’re still a few weeks away before the 100th anniversary two important events that changed the course of Russian and world history. The first is The February Revolution, during which Tsar Nicolas II abdicated the throne and began so-called period of “dual power”, when the Provisional Government and the Workers’ Councils ruled the country. The second is the October Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, came to power. Because of the different calendar in use in the Russian Empire, the anniversary dates has been transplanted to March and November using the Gregorian Calendar.
Russia in 1917
Revolutions do not necessarily happen during a period of economic upheaval. In 1917, Russia was a sprawling empire with a population of 150 million which counted Finland and large parts of modern day Poland among its territories. The average annual rate of economy growth exceeded all other developed countries, accounting for 8% in the 1889-1899 and 6.25% in the 1900-1913.
The rapid growth was taking place not only in the traditional sectors like agriculture, extraction of minerals and metallurgy, but also in the mechanical and electrical engineering, chemistry and the fledging aerospace industry.
The growth of money deposits and savings in banks increased from 2.24 billion rubles in 1900 to 5.27 billion in 1914, indicating an improvement of the material position of the population and the increased opportunities for investment from internal funds. Before the revolution the peasants already owned 77.4% of agricultural land and only 16.6% remained in the landlord possession.
Whispers of Revolution
What led to the Revolution? The February Revolution was in many ways, spontaneous. The governmental crisis during the First World War and the dual power play of spheres of influence divided between the Tsar and the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich leading to ineffective on the war front is an oft-cited catalyst. Once the starving industrial proletariat and mutinous soldiers got the revolution underway, the rule of Tsar Nicholas II collapsed.
We also should mention that the February Revolution was in many ways the anti-German revolution. One of the most popular slogans was: "We defeated the Germans internal, we will defeat the Germans external". "The internal Germans" referred to the Tsarina and the Tsar, who genetically could be considered more German than Russian.
Rising from the chaos of Revolution was a provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky, a bold step for a nation that stretched from Black Sea in the west to the Sea of Japan in the east that had only formally abolished serfdom barely half a century earlier in 1861.
Newly democratic Russia wouldn’t last for long, as the next few months in 1917 would show. Staying in a losing war, deserting soldiers, Tsarist loyalists working to restore Nicholas II to power and local Soviets who, to put it mildly, were reluctant to co-operate with the new administration culminated in a revolution of “workers’ power”, from which a new ruthless regime rose. This new regime was meant to herald a new age of equality, brotherhood and the paradise of a classless society
Russia in 2017
Fast forward 100 years and we find ourselves with a very different Russia. President Vladimir Putin, flexing Russian might from Syria to Ukraine, has entrenched himself as one of the, if not the most powerful political leader of modern times.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s status anxiety to position itself as an equal to NATO and the United States was officially translated into state policy in 2015 with the Russian National Security Strategy document committing to “transform the Russian Federation into a world power” as a key national interest.
Political experts agree that 2017 should become a preparation for 2018, the year of president elections in Russia. The Russian government is putting in a lot of effort to maintain a stable political and economic environment, avoiding words such as revolution and trying to unite people around historical events, for example, the victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1945, widely celebrated with a military parade on the 9th of May each year. Much of Putin’s popularity hinges on the relationship with the newly elected US president Donald Trump.
Can a Trump-Putin partnership reshape global politics
With relations between the United States and Russia at an all time low, President Putin has extended hints of a potential partnership with the Trump administration. Speaking to Russian media on 10 February, Putin said that relations “require recovery in the interests of both the Russian and American people”. With a Russian-U.S summit scheduled within the next few months, the best outcome for the world would be a move away from the “Russia acts, United States reacts” scenarios that was the hallmark of the Obama administration.
As the world has seen, the combination of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure did little to change Russian foreign policy. However, the future certainly looks promising enough. Donald Trump’s administration has put an attempt at reconciliation with Russia the centerpiece of its foreign policy. President Trump’s aides have hinted at greater cooperation with Russia to combat “radical Islamic terror”. Sanctions would be relaxed in return for Russia’s commitment to stop military activities near NATO members’ borders and eventually, nuclear weapon control talks could even be on the cards.
One aspect of the reconciliation plan would no doubt be an overture to the Russians to abandon the strategic partnership between Russia and Iran. With enough incentives, Russia may be willing to weaken the alliance. What the cost would be, is unclear. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed on in 2016 opened Iran’s economy in return for greater supervision of its nuclear programme. Since then, more than $100b in sanctions relief and an increase in trade with key trading partners is making Iran prosper. The past couple months saw Russia conclude several arms deal with Iran worth more than $10b, a welcome boost to the Russian economy.
This suggests that Russian Iranian cooperation would be hard if not impossible to abandon. Even if President Trump wans better relations with Russia, he must thread lightly with the knowledge of the importance that the Russian place on the relationship with Iran.
Presidents Trump and Putin want to make themselves and their countries number one, something which is impossible. Sooner or later, United States – Russian relations will change. For better or for worse is anyone’s guess.
WRITTEN BY VLADISLAVA KOLESNIKOVA FOR BESA
PLEASE DIRECT ANY INQUIRY TO AS.BESA@UNIBOCCONI.IT