Russia’s new 2023 Foreign Policy Concept, the first since 2016, has come into immediate effect. The document updates the priorities, goals, and objectives of the foreign policy activities of Russia and is an important read into the overall national development and other strategies. It can be broken down into 14 specific sections, which we outlined here. In this article, I discuss the implications for what this means for the development of the BRICS Plus.
What Is The BRICS Plus?
The BRICS Plus is a grouping of original members Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, together with other countries that have either, or are in the process of joining. It is not a Free Trade Bloc per se, although trade between members is encouraged, while specific geopolitical and financial decisions are made by the group as a collective whole. This includes, for example, the decision by all BRICS nations to de-dollarize and de-euro their mutual multilateral trade and to use their respective currencies instead. Other initiatives, such as the establishment of a BRICS financial token, in order to bypass SWIFT, are under development. Intra-BRICS trade reached US$162 billion in 2022, while in terms their share of global GDP, the BRICS overtook the G7 nations last year, achieving a total of 31.5% of global GDP, while the G7 share has fallen to 30%, a trend that is expected to continue.
The original BRICS nations formed a policy and investment bank, now known as the New Development Bank, which acts as an international infrastructure development bank, with an emphasis on green technologies. The NDB is invested by and invests into projects to be developed by its members. The NDB has recently been joined by Bangladesh, Egypt, and the UAE, making them defacto BRICS members as well. Another 20 nations have expressed official interest in joining, with these identified in this article here.
Were this to happen, this expanded BRICS would create an entity with a GDP 30% larger than the United States, over 50% of the global population and in control of 60% of global gas reserves. With Russia as a primary member of BRICS, its position is highly influential, meaning what Moscow states in its Foreign Policy Concept is of significant global geopolitical and trade interest.
The BRICS is dealt with in several chapters of the Foreign Policy Concept, including Russia’s policy towards the ‘Near Abroad’; Eurasia, China, and India; the Asia-Pacific, the Islamic World, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. I will deal with these separately.
Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’
In the Foreign Policy Concept, Russia specifically mentions the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Union, the Caspian Sea and ‘other nations interested in developing economic relations with Russia’. Effectively this covers the entire Eurasian land mass from the Eastern borders of the European Union, as far south as the Middle East, and to the borders of Western China. This region is already institutionalized by Russia, although not exclusively in terms of security.
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
This is a loose trade bloc made up of ex-Soviet nations, and today includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is an associate member. Rather than a being a full Free Trade bloc, members states have bilateral trade agreements with one another, although some coherence and multilateral adoption of collective trade standards has been and continues to be implemented. Both intra-bloc trade and foreign investment into this region has been increasing with significant jumps in 2022 as Russian and Chinese trade and investments pushed their way into the CIS to underpin trade corridors between the CIS countries as Russian capital and trade pivoted East. Discussions within the CIS nations not part of the Eurasian Economic Union (Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) are on-going to fast-track them all into an EAEU Free Trade Bloc, capable of reaching FTA agreements with other countries and blocs, a situation that is likely to develop.
The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)
The EAEU is a more advanced bloc in terms of trade alignment, it has full Free Trade Capabilities. Including the CIS members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, it has also signed successful FTA with Iran, Serbia, and Vietnam. The EAEU showed a collective trade turnover of about US$100 billion in 2022, this has also been increasing, as has investment into the bloc. Numerous other countries have also expressed desire to join the EAEU, including several ASEAN nations, India, several Middle Eastern and African countries as well as those from South America’s Mercosur trade bloc.
Talks are proceeding in terms of integrating the EAEU with the CIS and the BRICS.
The Caspian Sea
The Caspian Sea has taken on extreme significance as a transit hub in wake of Russia’s Pivot East and the repercussions of the Ukraine conflict. The Caspian Sea nations include Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and is a fundamental node of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). This links Russia to various Central Asian routes via Kazak and Turkmen seaports, to the Caucasus, Turkey and beyond via Azerbaijan’s Baku sea port, and to the Middle East, East Africa, India and South Asia via Iran’s Caspian connectivity routes to the Persian Gulf.
Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ Intent
In the Foreign Policy Concept, Russia made several statements about the ‘Near Abroad’, including placed an emphasis on maintaining its ‘security, stability, territorial integrity and social and economic development’ while ‘strengthening Russia’s position as one of the influential centres’ while ‘ensuring sustainable long-term good-neighbourly relations and to combine the strengths in various fields with the various states’.
The Concept laid a de facto historical claim, by stating that these regions are ‘connected with Russia by centuries-old traditions of joint statehood, deep interdependence in various fields, a common language and close cultures.’ Russia intends to give priority to:
1) Preventing and resolving armed conflicts, improving inter-state relations, and ensuring stability in the near abroad, including preventing the instigation of “colour revolutions” and other attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Russia’s allies and partners;
2) Ensuring the guaranteed protection of Russia, its allies and partners under any military and political scenario in the world, strengthening the system of regional security based on the principle of indivisibility of security and Russia’s key role in maintaining and strengthening regional security, the complementarity of the Union State, the CSTO and other formats of interaction between Russia and its allies and partners in the defense and security sphere;
3) Countering deployment or reinforcement of military infrastructure of unfriendly states and other threats to Russia’s security in the near abroad;
4) Deepening integration processes, which serve Russia’s interests, and strategic cooperation with the Republic of Belarus, strengthening the mutually beneficial comprehensive cooperation system based on combined CIS and EAEU potentials, as well as developing additional multilateral formats, including a mechanism for interaction between Russia and the states of the Central Asian region;
5) Establishing an integrated economic and political space in Eurasia in the long term;
6) Preventing and countering unfriendly actions of foreign states and their alliances, which provoke disintegration processes in the near abroad and create obstacles to the exercise of the sovereign right of Russia’s allies and partners to deepen their comprehensive cooperation with Russia;
7) Unleashing the economic potential of good-neighbourliness, primarily with the EAEU member states and states interested in developing economic relations with Russia in order to form a broader integration contour in Eurasia;
8) Comprehensively supporting the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia, promoting the voluntary choice, based on international law, of the peoples of these states in favour of a deeper integration with Russia;
9) Strengthening cooperation in the Caspian Sea zone, proceeding from the premise that the solution of all issues relating to this region falls within the exclusive competence of the five Caspian states.
Near Abroad Analysis
These statements have effectively redrawn the Russian sphere of influence as previous CIS members have been excluded, suggesting that Moscow sees countries such as Ukraine and Moldova as effectively lost in terms of the ‘Near abroad’. It would be an error however to think that Moscow views them as undefendable, as we have seen, the Ukraine situation has resulted in a bloody ongoing conflict. The Concept realises the pragmatism of this and instead ignores Kiev as a development partner. The Ukrainian situation is dealt with in other Concept paragraphs which this article is not intended to discuss. However, the Concept does make it clear that Russia maintains and expects to maintain significant influence, including investment, trade and security to maintain the status quo and improve connectivity with the ‘Near abroad’.
Eurasia, China, and India
While much of Eurasia is already covered in the paragraphs concerning the ‘Near abroad’, the Concept does go further in strategically aligning the Eurasian region with China, and India. This effectively means that Russian thought and strategic thinking has moved several thousand km to the East in terms of its strategic development and it sees itself now more aligned towards Asia than Europe. This is neatly summarized in paragraph 51 of the Concept whereas Russia looks towards:
“A comprehensive deepening of ties and enhancement of coordination with friendly sovereign centres located on the Eurasian continent and committed to approaches which coincide in principle with the Russian approaches to a future world order and solutions for key problems of the world politics.”
Moscow also sees itself as instrumental in ‘transforming Eurasia’ stating in the Concept that “Russia seeks to transform Eurasia into a continental common space of peace, stability, mutual trust, development and prosperity.”
It then goes on to state that achieving this goal implies:
1) Comprehensive strengthening of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) potential and role in ensuring security in Eurasia and promoting its sustainable development by enhancing the Organization’s activities in the light of current geopolitical realities;
2) The establishment of the broad Greater Eurasian Partnership integration contour by combining the potential of all the states, regional organizations and Eurasian associations, based on the EAEU, the SCO and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as the conjunction of the EAEU development plans and the Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative” while preserving the possibility for all the interested states and multilateral associations of the Eurasian continent to participate in this partnership and – as a result – establishment of a network of partner organizations in Eurasia;
3) Strengthening of the economic and transport interconnectivity in Eurasia, including through the modernization and increased capacity of the Baikal-Amur Mainline and the Trans-Siberian railway; the rapid launch of the International North – South Transport Corridor; improvement of infrastructure of the Western Europe – Western China International Transit Corridor, the Caspian and the Black Sea regions, and the Northern Sea Route; creation of development zones and economic corridors in Eurasia, including the China – Mongolia – Russia economic corridor, as well as increased regional cooperation in digital development and establishment of an energy partnership.
4) Producing a comprehensive settlement in Afghanistan, assistance in building it as a sovereign, peaceful and neutral State with stable economy and political system which meets the interests of all the ethnic groups living there and opens up prospects for integrating Afghanistan into the Eurasian space for cooperation.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a developing trade and security bloc which now covers much of Eurasia, including China, India and Russia and has attracted new members in the Middle East. As trade entities such as the CIS and EAEU already exist, the SCO can be expected to take on more emphasis as concerns regional Eurasian security. NATO has identified the SCO as a ‘threat’, bringing into focus an interest by the United States and EU as concerns regional expansion – despite denials.
The Concept also implies that the SCO focus would instead prefer to be on producing a settlement in Afghanistan, where an inclusive pan-tribal political party government has still yet to be formed – the Taliban have stated they are an ‘interim government’ until a more representative body can be created. Given that once in power, local Talib officials are unlikely to want to cede this remains a thorny issue that the United States failed to reconcile in 20 years of war. However, Afghanistan remains a singular part of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept – meaning it has not abandoned the nation and is looking to reintegrate it.
Of special note are the references to ASEAN and the Belt and Road Initiative, which Russia sees as integral parts of Eurasian development. That is of interest as it suggests ASEAN trade and investment interest heading towards North and East Asia, while certainly Russian and EAEU trade and investment heads south-east. It also implies a set of future Free Trade and similar agreements between Eurasia and Southeast Asia are a core part of Russia’s Foreign Policy.
That also extends to specific trade corridors reaching throughout the region, in the Russian Far East, Mongolia and the various Trans-Siberian routes, as well as acting as a facilitator for China-European trade.
These two last paragraphs position both Russia – and China – as transit hubs. China acting as a transit route for Russia and EAEU trade with ASEAN, and Russia acting as the same for Chinese goods heading West.
There’s not much new in the China-specific statement that isn’t already known, with the Concept stating: “Russia aims at further strengthening the comprehensive partnership and the strategic cooperation with the People’s Republic of China and focuses on the development of a mutually beneficial cooperation in all areas, provision of mutual assistance, and enhancement of coordination in the international arena to ensure security, stability and sustainable development at the global and regional levels, both in Eurasia and in other parts of the world.”
A perhaps more detailed analysis of the Russia-China axis and the outcomes from last month’s discussions between Presidents Putin and Xi can be seen here.
The Concept praised India, mentioning the relationship as ‘privileged’ and stating “Russia will continue to build up a particularly privileged strategic partnership with the Republic of India with a view to enhance and expand cooperation in all areas on a mutually beneficial basis and place special emphasis on increasing the volume of bilateral trade, strengthening investment and technological ties, and ensuring their resistance to destructive actions of unfriendly states and their alliances.”
It should be noted that India is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union.
The Concept doesn’t go into huge detail concerning the AsiaPac region, although it should be remembered that Russia is very much an Asia-Pacific nation. Russia’s eastern seaboard is 4,500km long.
The Concept states that Russia is going to focus on:
1) Increasing economic, security, humanitarian and other cooperation with the states of the region and the ASEAN member states;
2) Establishing a comprehensive, open, indivisible, transparent, multilateral and equitable architecture of security and mutually beneficial cooperation in the region based on a collective and non-aligned approaches as well as unleashing the region’s potential aiming at the establishment of a Great Eurasian Partnership;
3) Promoting constructive non-politicized dialog and interstate cooperation in various areas, including with the help of opportunities provided by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum;
4) Countering attempts to undermine the regional system of multilateral security and development alliances on the basis of ASEAN, which rests upon the principles of consensus and equality of its participants;
5) Developing a broad international cooperation to counter policies aimed at drawing dividing lines in the region.
It is significant when Russia’s Concept discusses the Asia-Pacific that it isn’t looking to Japan, South Korea, or the United States. Instead, it discusses ASEAN, meaning that it sees the East Asian Pacific coastline as a conduit to reach ASEAN markets. It should be noted that direct Vladivostok-Ho Chi Minh City shipping routes already exist, meaning that under the EAEU-Vietnam FTA, fresh shrimp and other seafood from Vietnam now reaches markets in Moscow via the Trans-Siberian, and Russian beef and pork heads the opposite way. Russia is looking to attract other ASEAN nations to use this East Asian route, while leaving the Asian geopolitical issues concerning the Asia-Pacific very much in China’s domain.
The Islamic World
With the UAE joining the BRICS, Saudi Arabia joining the SCO, and Iran having an FTA with the EAEU, Russia’s positioning towards the largely Arabic and Gulf states is highly significant. It is also of interest to note that the Concept defines a specific ‘Islamic’ grouping, as opposed to taking a regional approach. In doing so, Moscow realises that the global Islamic community is growing – and requires specific attention.
The Concept pays significant attention to this; and is both humble and encouraging in language. It states that:
“The friendly Islamic civilization, which has great prospects for establishing itself as an independent centre of world development within a polycentric world, are increasingly in demand and more reliable partners of Russia in ensuring security and stability as well as in solving economic problems at the global and regional levels. Russia seeks to strengthen the comprehensive mutually beneficial cooperation with the Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, respecting their social and political systems and traditional spiritual and moral values. In pursuing these aims, Russia is going to focus on:
1) Developing the full-scale and trustful cooperation with Iran, providing comprehensive support for Syria, and deepening the multifaceted mutually beneficial partnerships with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, given the extent of their sovereignty and constructiveness of their policy towards Russia;
2) Establish a sustainable comprehensive regional security and cooperation architecture in the Middle East and North Africa, based on combining the capacities of all the states and interstate alliances of the regions, including the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Russia intends to actively cooperate with all the interested states and interstate associations in order to implement the Russia’s Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region, viewing the implementation of this initiative as an important step toward a sustainable and comprehensive normalization of the situation in the Middle East;
3) Promote interfaith and intercultural dialog and understanding, consolidating efforts to protect traditional spiritual and moral values, and combating Islamophobia, including via the Organization of Islamic Cooperation;
4) Reconcile differences and normalizing relations among the Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as between these states and their neighbours (primarily Iran and the Arab countries, Syria and its neighbours, the Arab countries and Israel), including within the efforts aimed at a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Palestinian question;
5) Helping resolve and overcome consequences of armed conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, South, Southeast Asia and other regions where Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are located;
6) Unleashing the economic potential of the Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation with a view to establishing the Greater Eurasian Partnership.
Islamic World Analysis
The Concept shows that Russia intends to play a leading role in promoting peace, trade and investment into the Middle East. It especially mentioned the reintegration of Iran and Syria into the Arabic world, echoing the recent assistance provided by Beijing in brokering a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and encouraging the same with Syria. That distinction is crucial – the United States in particular has been highly active for most of the 2000’s in the region – involved in wars in Libya, Iraq, and Syria while demonizing Iran over its nuclear policy. That influence is now waning and a realisation that the regional powers are better off collaborating than conflicting is a significant step forward. It is also worth noting that despite American involvement in the Islamic world, the US approach has largely been divisive, pitching Sunni and Shi-ite’s at each other and exploiting regional factions. Both Russia and China’s approach has been inclusive – treating the regional as Islamic as opposed to enhancing sect and tribal differences. This is gaining traction – Russia’s involvement in the Middle East may well be complicated, but along with China, encouraging inclusivity as opposed to divisiveness appears to be the way forward. If so, this will significantly impact future oil and gas trade flows.
The Russian Foreign Policy Concept takes a similar view of Africa. Rather than attempting to divide it into differing countries, and exploiting these differences, it considers Africa as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts – a direct opposite of the European colonial approach. In doing so, Russia is recognizing that while structurally the pan-African concept is still not yet complete, the future of Africa is the African Union and pan-African trade blocs such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
The Concept states: “Russia stands in solidarity with the African states in their desire for a more equitable polycentric world and elimination of social and economic inequality, which is growing due to the sophisticated neo-colonial policies of some developed states towards Africa. Russia intends to support further the establishment of Africa as a distinctive and influential centre of world development, giving priority to:
1) Supporting the sovereignty and independence of interested African states, including through security assistance, inter alia food and energy security, as well as military and military-technical cooperation;
2) Assisting in resolving and overcoming the consequences of armed conflicts in Africa, especially inter-ethnic and ethnic ones, advocating the leading role of African states in these efforts, based on the principle “African problems – African solutions”;
3) Strengthening and deepening Russian-African cooperation in various spheres on a bilateral and multilateral basis, primarily within the framework of the African Union and the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum;
4) Increasing trade and investment with African states and African integration structures (primarily the African Continental Free Trade Area, the African Export-Import Bank and other leading subregional organizations), including through the EAEU;
5) Promoting and developing links in the humanitarian sphere, including scientific cooperation, training of national personnel, strengthening health systems, providing other assistance, promoting intercultural dialogue, protecting traditional spiritual and moral values, and the right to freedom of religion.
While the Concept as concerns Africa doesn’t go into detail, it does suggest that Russia will provide security assistance to stop conflicts; and intends to be heavily involved in developing pan-African structures to assist the continent as a whole. A major issue to be resolved is financing – the emergence of a pan-African bank is a priority. This is partially addressed by both Egypt and South Africa being members of the (BRICS) New Development Bank, but much more needs to be done. That is already very much part of China’s remit too, and joint China-Russia and certainly BRICS involvement in African trade and investment will be a major part of where and how the African continent develops. Russia, free of the colonial baggage that the EU and UK carry into Africa, will be influential.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Russia specifically criticizes the United States in this regional aspect of the Concept, pointing out that the US has not assisted with developing sovereignty amongst LatAm nations and has again pursued a divisive foreign policy. The Concept takes a different viewpoint and states: “Given the progressive strengthening of the sovereignty and multifaceted potential of Latin American and Caribbean states, Russia intends to develop relations with them on a pragmatic, de ideologized and mutually beneficial basis, giving priority attention to:
1) Supporting interested Latin American states under pressure from the United States and its allies in securing sovereignty and independence, including through the promotion and expansion of security, military and military-technical cooperation;
2) Strengthening friendship, mutual understanding and deepening multifaceted mutually beneficial partnership with Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, developing relations with other Latin American states, taking into account the degree of independence and constructiveness of their policy towards Russia;
3) Increasing mutual trade and investment with Latin American and Caribbean States, including through cooperation with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Common Market of the South, The Central American Integration System, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas, the Pacific Alliance, and the Caribbean Community;
4) Expanding cultural, scientific, educational, sports, tourism and other humanitarian ties with the states of the region.”
Latin America-Caribbean Analysis
Brazil is the most powerful economy in the LatAm nations, and is a member of BRICS. The BRICS experience in terms of Brazil has been highly positive, with this influence garnering increasing attention within the region. Although not specifically mentioned, Argentina, the regions second largest economy is also interested in joining an expanded BRICS, while several nations including Ecuador and Cuba are exploring FTA with the EAEU. It should also be noted that an increasing number of LataAm and Caribbean nations have also signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Honduras has just established diplomatic relations with Beijing instead of the US backed Taiwan.
While it can be expected that Russia will concentrate its activities in Eurasia, being the Russian heartland in terms of Foreign Policy, it should be noted that with the sudden exit from Russia of European products, they were almost immediately replaced with those from Latin America – where products that Russian consumers enjoy from Germany and Italy especially, are instead imported from the huge European diaspora in Latin America. That immediate trade increase is accelerating the interest of Russia as a trade and investment partner in LatAm – which is now expanding into nuclear energy and other big ticket items.
Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept when it comes to the development of the BRICS Plus can be seen as wide-ranging and diverse. While essentially ignored in the West, it does lay out very specific trends in strengthening Russian influence in its ‘Near Abroad’ – meaning Eurasia, the Middle East and ASEAN, while continuing to be involved in emerging markets. These, rather than classified in regional terms, are geo-politically inclusive, using concepts such as ‘The Islamic World’ and ‘Africa’ as opposed to deconstructed terminology that compartmentalize entire regions. This is a different approach to that commonly utilized by the West. It is also an approach that only significant global powers can take as it requires huge resources to be able to not just identify, but also plan and follow through on such Concepts.
Russia is not alone in this; China is following a similar, inclusive plan as part of its own National Development Goals. Both plans have been derided in the West as being irrelevant or inconsequential. Clearly, this is a significantly undervalued approach to take. However, the Russian Concept, with its underlying element of ‘inclusiveness’ does also serve to usher in the ‘multipolar world’ – with nations working together, and supporting each other rather than focusing on divisions.
As such, when compared to the Western approach, which tends to be exclusive, as we have seen with the funding of wars pitting sides against each other and imposing sanctions, the Russian Concept appears to have some strong foundations. The previous Russian Foreign Policy Concept lasted for seven years. It is probably wise to take note of this one when attempting to evaluate where Russia will be, and the implications of whether these strategies have arrived – or not – by 2030.