Putin Positions Himself on Foreign Policy

28.02.2012

Once the votes are counted, we will see whether Putin moderates his anti-Western sloganeering. But it will take quite a while longer before we learn if the emerging agenda of a partly-free Russian politics comes to encompass issues of war, peace, and a forward-looking model of international problem solving for the twenty-first century.

Vladimir Putin’s final pre-election position paper, appearing in Monday’s Moskovskie novosti, is devoted to foreign policy. It is the seventh in a series ranging widely over the current national agenda, after earlier offerings covered Russia’s overall development, the nationality question, economics, democracy, social policy, and military affairs. The papers first appeared in mid-January and have been a centerpiece of the government’s response to the political challenge posed by the unfavorable result in the December parliamentary election and especially the mass protests that erupted in Moscow and other cities after accusations of widespread cheating in the vote count. 

All these documents must be read in the proper political context. On March 4 Russians go the polls in their nation’s sixth presidential election. Putin in all likelihood will easily win his third victory in three tries, probably in the opening round of voting this coming weekend. Unlike the first two times, he has had to wage something resembling a real election campaign this time around, as he has crisscrossed the country, wooed particular social groups, made costly pork-barrel promises, and so forth. Until victory is achieved, and the inevitable post-election wave of protest weathered, almost everything Putin says must be seen as a function of his drive to reclaim the presidency and return to the Kremlin.

A number of the earlier Putin papers showed evidence of modest rethinking, if not of the fundamentals of Russian politics, then at least of some of the ways and means. The shock produced by the December street rallies, when added to the highly circumscribed kind of electoral competition that currently exists in the system, forced Putin and his team to counter with an at times grudging admission that the country had to do more to adapt to altered circumstances, including a growing popular hunger for more accountable and responsive government. Dmitrii Medvedev, in his waning weeks as head of state, seems to have been consciously increasing the pressure on Putin to respond from within the ruling coalition, mostly through use of the presidential pulpit to deliver reformist rhetoric.

This shift toward flexibility, however, is all but absent in the foreign policy essay released by Putin’s office on February 27. It opens with a nod to the fluidity of the global environment: “The external challenges and the changing world around us are compelling us to make decisions in the spheres of economics, culture, the budget, and investment,” that is, in domestic policy. There is not a word here, and barely a word in the six thousand words that follow, about the need to change anything significant in Russian foreign policy. Instead, the Prime Minister moves quickly into a restatement of his familiar stance on the need for Russia to be a powerful and independent player in international affairs. “We intend,” he says, “to proceed consistently from our own interests and goals and not from decisions dictated by somebody else. Russia is respected and taken into account only when it is strong and stands firmly on its own feet.” From here, the paper proceeds to a recitation of both longstanding and fresh grievances against the United States and the Western countries. The dispute over missile defense is touched on first, in noticeably weary tones: “Our arguments are well known, and I will not spell them out again. Unfortunately, our Western partners are irresponsive and merely brush them aside.” The essay soon works its way into the Arab Spring. Only two specific countries are mentioned—Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi met a bloody death at the hands of the insurgents, with Western support “under the pretext of humanitarian goals,” and Syria, where he vows Russia will ensure this experience is not repeated. The underlying goals of Western governments in the region, the paper hints darkly, are mercenary. “The thought might occur that these tragic events have to some extent been stimulated not by concern about human rights but by someone’s interest in a re-division of the commercial market,” an injustice to which Russia could not remain indifferent. The tour of the terrain continues in more or less this vein through issue after issue.

I do not want to overdraw the point. Putin’s tone throughout is calm. He insists that he favors cooperation with outside powers. He notes progress on specific issues such as WTO admission, New START, and anti-terrorist operations and subscribes to the idea of a “Union of Europe” which has been promulgated by liberal and centrist Russian intellectuals. There is no saber rattling or name calling in the tract. In the final paragraph, Putin underscores his commitment to “very active and constructive participation in world politics and in efforts to solve global and regional problems.” All the same, the position paper is imbalanced and devoid of self-reflection or self-criticism. It makes no reference, for example, to the “reset” with the United States. Oddly, it all but ignores the foreign policy realm which Putin seemed before December to be making his priority going forward—the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union and the “Eurasian Union” he proposes to build on it as a base.

Some early reviews of the latest Putin paper attribute its overall sourness to election strategy. This is a valid point as far as it goes. Putin and his team have without question used alleged foreign sponsorship of the post-election unrest as a device to rally support at the polls and to sow doubts about the motives of the nascent opposition to the current state of affairs. But there is another point that does not get made. It is that Vladimir Putin faces almost no effective internal competition in the foreign policy domain. Electoral fraud, appointed governors, social inequality, and a host of other domestic issues have figured prominently in the revived public politics of the last several months, as played by within-system and non-system actors. But almost no one has engaged the government on issues of national security. As long as this silence continues, the leaders will continue to have foreign policy to themselves and will continue to be able to manage and at times manipulate it to their advantage.

Once the votes are counted, we will see whether Putin moderates his anti-Western sloganeering. But it will take quite a while longer before we learn if the emerging agenda of a partly-free Russian politics comes to encompass issues of war, peace, and a forward-looking model of international problem solving for the twenty-first century.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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