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Professor examines foreign policy through Russia's lens

Monday, March 31, 2014

LAWRENCE – After Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the West is wondering what comes next in its relationship with the former Cold War enemy. A University of Kansas professor believes to better understand Russia’s motives, political commentators and scholars would benefit from looking at Russia’s recent actions through the lens of Russia’s unique “geopolitics code."

Mariya Omelicheva, an associate professor of political science and an expert on Russian foreign policy, said Russia’s foreign policy is shaped by its contemporary experiences, history and philosophical and intellectual traditions. The conflicting identity of “Western state” versus “unique civilization” has shaped the Russian Federation’s national interests and foreign policies, Omelicheva said.

Over time, Russia’s self-perceptions have changed from a frustrated “great power” in the 1990s to a strengthening “great power” in the early 2000s. Today, Russia views itself as “sovereign great power,” entering an era where Russia has substantial influence on world affairs.

 “Russia’s strategic independence, sought under the pretext of a foreign policy that reached out to countries in both the West and East, has allowed the Russian government to use a very elastic, opportunistic, and pragmatic approach in its relations with other nations,” Omelicheva said.

Omelicheva is the director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at KU. Omelicheva, who received a juris doctor with concentration in international law from the Moscow Federal Law Academy as well as a doctorate from Purdue University, has published articles on Russia’s foreign policy and its relations with Central Asia, Georgia, Estonia and Iran.

Russia has appropriated ideas of democracy and human rights from the West but stretched their meanings to fit its own political realities, Omelicheva said. To counteract the West’s efforts to bring democracy to Central Asia, Russia has used its “soft power” to disseminate its own views on the proper forms of governance and the ills and merits of Western-led democratization.

In late March, Omelicheva presented her paper, “Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Deciphering Russia’s ‘Geopolitics Code,'” at the annual International Studies Association convention in Toronto. Part of the paper looked at Russia’s conduct in Ukraine.

For Russia, Omelicheva said, order is paramount, and chaos is viewed as a major threat. Russia has associated the series of Western-instigated Color revolutions in former Soviet countries over the past decade with plunder and anarchy, viewing them as a major security threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long censored the United States for fomenting chaos throughout the world. Under this pretext, Omelicheva argues that Russia’s action in Crimea shouldn’t come as a surprise.

As for the fate of countries surrounding Ukraine, such as the Baltic states to the north, Omelicheva said a history of Russian invasion allows for valid concerns. But she doesn’t see a viable threat of Russia’s takeover for these countries.

“For these countries, their history and relationship with Russia is different from its connections to Crimea and Ukraine,” Omelicheva said. “They developed early ties to the European Union and are part of NATO. And, Russia is a pragmatic actor and is not going to do anything to prompt a NATO response.”

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