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Foreign Proxies: Russia’s Hunt for New Friends

As Russia reasserts its global relevance, the Kremlin is forging unlikely friendships

Introduction

The outside ring of the emblem of the Soviet Union was formed from bound stocks of wheat. Bundling them tightly together were red ribbons, each representing one of the USSR’s republics and inscribed with the ideology that united Russia and its communist allies in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America: “Proletarians of the world, unite!”

When the USSR fell, this symbol of Soviet unity was chipped off of buildings and scrubbed away. While Russia was distracted with internal crises in the 1990s, many of its former republics and Soviet allies chose an orientation that looks away from Russia to the West.

More recently, Russia is on the hunt for new friends as it reasserts its global relevance. However unlike in Soviet times, Russia has little to offer in terms of ideology, economic security or loyalty as its own gas-dependent economy tanks and the list of frozen conflicts with its neighbors grows.

While supposedly fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine, Moscow has been supportive of far-right parties in France, Hungary and Italy. To its fellow Orthodox states like Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, it promises a revival of conservative values, to others, like the government of Syria or rebels in Ukraine, it provides military help. Alliances of Putin’s Russia are tailored to the individual needs of the countries and actors it supports, but running through them is the common promise of Russia as the alternative to the European and American status quo.

Without being able to offer much in terms of genuine patronage, the Kremlin may struggle to form traditional alliances. But it is finding proxies—states and foreign political parties—whose only common denominator seems to be resentment for liberal western democracy.

Will this strategy help Russia meaningfully reassert its international influence? Some argued it already has. Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election was unprecedented, but now as Moscow has a Russia-friendly leader in the White House, how will Vladimir Putin continue to get what it wants: a weak West? Will Trump’s election upend Russia’s model of courting proxies by presenting itself as a foil to America?

With the successful rise of far-right parties in Europe who are sympathetic to Putin and an American president who calls Putin a friend, how will Russia’s approach to gaining, and keeping, foreign friends change?

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