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Russian Foreign Policy: Watching for "Grey Swans"

The SWP Research Paper "Conceivable Surprises: Eleven Possible Developments in Russian Foreign Policy" elicited harsh criticism in certain quarters. Here its editors, Sabine Fischer and Margarete Klein, explain their study’s aims and methods.

Point of View, 10.08.2016 Forschungsgebiete

Русская версия

Russian Foreign Policy: Watching for "Grey Swans"

The SWP Research Paper "Conceivable Surprises: Eleven Possible Developments in Russian Foreign Policy" elicited harsh criticism in certain quarters. Here its editors, Sabine Fischer and Margarete Klein, explain their study’s aims and methods. 

Your study on conceivable surprises in Russian foreign policy triggered some harsh reactions, especially in Russian-language media. Were you expecting that?

Yes, we did expect a stronger reaction than is usually the case with SWP Research Papers. Firstly, the subject of Russian foreign policy is highly politicised and evokes strong emotions in both Russia and Germany. Secondly, the method we used is not yet widely known, which increases the risk of misunderstandings.

What is the essence of the method?

The project was an exercise in research-based foresight. Our interest was directed towards so-called “grey swans”, potential crisis developments that emerge over a longer period without being adequately addressed politically. Our starting point was the realisation that the annexation of Crimea and the Russian military intervention in Syria took political actors and experts completely by surprise – incidentally, not only in the West, but also in Russia. Yet these developments did not simply emerge out of nowhere. In fact, the signs were already apparent during the preceding years but, for a variety of reasons, did not receive sufficient attention.

So it was your deliberate intention to reflect upon developments that could lead to further surprises?

Exactly. We are not thinking up situations unrelated to the present, but exposing and extrapolating existing trends. And of course we cannot predict whether the situations will materialise as described. More importantly, however, these are scenarios which – should they materialise – would have serious implications for Germany and the EU. Researchers and politicians must consider them in order to be better prepared for possible future developments. We see it as our task to expand analytical thinking about Russian foreign policy into the future, being open in a double sense: open to possible negative developments and open to those that could offer starting points for cooperation. This method can and should be applied more broadly, not only to Russia.

What advantages does this method offer?

The method enables us to expand our thinking into the future on the basis of sound scientific expertise and argumentation, illuminating the “universe of conceivable possibilities” – yet naturally without ever being able to comprehend its full extent. Such reflections are also extremely important for political action to promote desirable trends and avert undesirable developments.

Does the method have disadvantages?

We are well aware that by selecting eleven out of an infinite number of possible developments we are shaping ideas about the future. We address this through methodological rigour: the contributions state their assumptions, they went through a selection process and were discussed internally, peer reviewed, and revised several times. It was clear to us that our publication involves a certain degree of risk, both with regard to misunderstandings and attempts at instrumentalisation. Yet we believe that our approach offers a contribution to a transparent, research-driven discussion.

How did you agree on the thematic priorities?

The study covers four areas – EU/Europe, other regions, internet/energy/security, and Eurasia – with two or three contributions on each. We did not specify them in advance; instead, they emerged in the course of the group’s  discussions. But they do reflect the key areas of Russian foreign policy. It is not surprising that we have a particularly large number of contributions on Eurasia and EU/Europe since these regions are particularly closely linked to Russia. Former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Asia are also represented; Africa, Latin America and Australia, where links to Russia are considerably less profound, on the other hand, are not. In each of the four subject areas, the authors discuss specific individual situations where the probability of Russian action is particularly high – either because Moscow feels forced to take action or because an opportunity arises.

Which scenarios have provoked the strongest reactions?

The scenarios on Central Asia and Russia have been the most widely discussed. In the scenario developed by Sebastian Schiek, the unresolved question of succession in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan causes internal power struggles in which Russia intervenes politically and militarily. And in our own scenario, a Russian government headed by Alexej Kudrin and containing both reform-oriented technocrats and siloviki – actors with military and security backgrounds – sends contradictory signals to Berlin and Brussels.

Why do you think these two scenarios drew particularly strong responses?

They both take up discussions that were already going on in political and expert circles within and outside the region. To that extent they are not new. At the same time they are, of course, politically delicate and touch on certain sensitivities. Reactions to our publication In Central Asia reflect both a general uncertainty over unresolved succession in highly personalized authoritarian systems and fear of Russian hegemonic ambitions. In Russia, the lack of transparency in the political system feeds recurring speculation about government reshuffles and other personnel changes. At the same time, the deepening economic crisis increases pressure on the political leadership. This is especially true in view of the upcoming elections to the State Duma in September 2016 and the presidential elections in spring 2018. In this increasingly tense political situation, our scenario seems to be attracting special attention.

How do you respond to the critics?

We must emphasise that we do not expect these scenarios to occur in the form described. Our concern is to draw attention to certain situations that could materialise – and would then have serious repercussions. In contrast to mere speculation, we disclose our assumptions concerning starting points and causalities and open them to criticism. We issued an “invitation to critique” and it has been taken up. That is confirmation of our approach. Obviously, the critique must also live up to academic standards.

Which image of Russia does the study reflect?

The majority of the contributions assume continuity in Russian foreign policy, in the sense of Russia continuing to seek supremacy in Eurasia and a role as a major international power. Rather than a foreign policy master plan, we see an actor with specific interests working systematically to expand its options. Its actions, however, will continue to be determined to a great extent by external conditions upon which its influence is limited.

Interview conducted by Candida Splett, head of external communications.

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