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Report to Congress on Russian Foreign Policy

The following is the Aug. 14, 2021 Congressional Research Service Infocus report, Russia: Foreign Policy and U.S. Relations.

From the report

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rise to leadership more than 20 years ago, tensions have increased steadily between Russia and the United States. Some observers attribute Russian foreign policy actions to the personality and individual interests of Putin and certain hawkish advisers. Some contend Russian authorities are focused mainly on reclaiming Russia’s status as a great power. Others argue Russian foreign policy is centered on protecting the country’s status as the dominant power in the post-Soviet region and defending against foreign interference in Russia’s domestic affairs. Whatever the motivations, most observers agree Russia’s natural resources and military modernization program, launched in 2008, provide Russia’s leadership the means to conduct a flexible and often aggressive foreign policy, as well as to project force in neighboring countries and further afield (such as in the Middle East).

Russia’s foreign policy priorities traditionally have focused on the post-Soviet region and the West, including relations and tensions with NATO, the United States, and Europe. However, Russia under Putin (like the Soviet Union before it) also pursues a global foreign policy. As relations with its neighbors and Western countries have become more adversarial, Russia—seeking to balance against U.S. and European power and interests—has cultivated deeper relations with China and other countries.

Russian authorities have demonstrated a capacity and willingness to use force to accomplish its foreign policy goals. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region and instigated an ongoing insurgency in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, Russia intervened to support the government of Syrian President Bashar al Asad, including through the use of “private” military companies that Russia has deployed in conflicts elsewhere. Russia has been linked to numerous malicious cyber operations, including interference in U.S. elections. Russia uses disinformation and propaganda to undermine opponents and promote favorable narratives. Its intelligence agencies reportedly conduct wide-ranging and often brazen operations against perceived opponents, including assassinations and the use of chemical weapons.

Energy exports, primarily oil and natural gas, are an important pillar of Russian foreign policy. Energy resources are central to the Russian economy, help fund military modernization, and give Russia leverage over energy-importing countries. Russian authorities seek to increase Russia’s market share and access by constructing natural gas pipelines, such as Nord Stream 2 (under construction to Germany), TurkStream (to Turkey and southeastern Europe), and the Power of Siberia (to China). Russia also conducts an aggressive and often militarized approach to the Arctic to exert control over current and potential energy deposits and shipping routes. Russia’s arms exports, behind only the United States in monetary value, also are an important source of hard currency and fulfill key foreign policy objectives.

Significant tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship include Russia’s use of force against its neighbors; cyber and influence operations, including interference in U.S. elections; targeted attacks on political opponents; and involvement in numerous conflicts worldwide. Congress and successive U.S. Administrations have imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia in response to various malign activities. To reassure allies and deter further aggression in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the United States increased its military presence in Europe, enhanced military cooperation with NATO allies and non-NATO partners, and provided lethal weaponry to countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. Despite tensions, U.S. and Russian authorities have stated the importance of continued engagement on certain issues of common interest.

The Biden Administration and the 117th Congress continue to consider responses to Russian actions and the contours of the U.S. relationship with Russia. The Biden Administration has imposed sanctions on Russian officials for the poisoning and arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and it has tasked the intelligence community to assess several issues in U.S.-Russia relations. In recent years, Congress has called on the executive branch to address other issues, including Russia’s use of energy exports as a foreign policy tool, deployment of private military companies, global influence operations, money laundering and corruption, and human rights abuses.

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