What’s really driving Russia’s new foreign policy?

By Dmitri Trenin, Russia in Global Affairs

Why Putin’s fourth foreign policy will be markedly different from the previous three.

Photo: Shutter stock/legion media

Since the year 2000, Russia has pursued a multi-vector foreign policy – meaning that its vector has changed several times.

At the start of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term the main focus of Russian foreign policy was to establish a strong alliance with the United States and to develop ties with the European Union within the framework of what was then called Russia’s “European choice.” The symbol of this brief period was Putin’s support for the United States in the wake of 9/11.

Then, in the mid-2000s, Moscow maneuvered out of the West’s political orbit, opposing Washington on a number of key issues pertaining to global politics and the world order. This period was exemplified by the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

The third period was “Medvedevian” in form, but undoubtedly “Putinist” in content. Its symbol was the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

It could be argued that with Putin’s return to the Kremlin, Moscow is charting a new course in international relations. This is not due to the reshuffle at the top: even under President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin was still the “head of state,” and it was he who set the vector of foreign policy. Rather, the main factors are the significant changes within Russia itself and the ongoing fundamental shift in the external environment within which that policy is being implemented.

Internally

Two decades after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Russian society underwent a qualitative metamorphosis. Several social classes, representing about 20 percent of the population, attained material and spiritual heights that make active participation in public life a necessity.

Satisfied consumers are now turning into irate citizens. In late 2011 and 2012, discontent spilled into the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg and other large cities. The powers that be were quick to point the finger at “subversive” actions by the West, particularly by the United States.

The first steps of Putin’s third term were all aimed at neutralizing potential sources of external influence on Russia’s domestic politics. A law was hastily passed requiring Russian non-governmental organizations in receipt of foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”

Moscow demanded that the U.S. Agency for International Development Assistance (USAID) cease all activity in Russia.

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The Russian authorities also announced their withdrawal from agreements with the United States, such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, in which the United States figured as the donor – and Russia as the recipient – of financial aid.

During the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, the Russian issue almost never surfaced – with the exception of a muddled statement by Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Russia as “geopolitical enemy number one.”

Having repealed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, at the end of last year Congress adopted the controversial Magnitsky Law, introducing sanctions against Russian officials accused of violating human rights.

In response, the Russian parliament passed a law forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. Public opinion in the United States swung sharply against the Kremlin’s policy, while open anti-Americanism became an official badge of patriotism in Russia.

For the first time in post-Soviet history, Russian domestic politics and its reflection in U.S. and European public opinion “invaded” the country’s relations with the United States and the EU. This “invasion” is now transitioning into partial “occupation” of bilateral relations by domestic issues.

Externally

The global crisis of 2008-2009 exposed the moral flaws of modern capitalism and the significant weaknesses in the system of government practiced by most developed democracies in the West.

At the same time, since the turn of this century U.S. policy has achieved less-than-impressive results. Iraq spirals into chaos following the withdrawal of U.S. troops; the specter of civil war looms over next year’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan; Iran continues to develop its nuclear program in the face of Western sanctions and Israeli sabotage and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests go on threatening war.

The Arab Spring, which the White House backed after some hesitation, empowered Islamists who have no intention of remaining loyal to Washington’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile, China’s economic growth continues and its nationalist rhetoric sounds ever tougher. The Asia-Pacific is becoming the main platform not only for international trade, but also for world politics.

Economically

The global economic situation is also changing. Oil prices, which fell sharply in the midst of the global crisis, have stabilized at a relatively high level: $110-$115 per barrel of North Sea Brent.

Further growth, however, failed to materialize, and the recession in Europe and slow economic recovery in the United States, coupled with falling growth rates in China, threaten another slump.

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Moreover, the start of commercial shale gas production in the United States has revolutionized world energy markets. This opened up the prospect of U.S. energy independence by 2030, and, consequently, caused a global redistribution of gas exports and altered the structure of trade in favor of spot deals.

Russia’s Gazprom has been forced to turn to Asia in an attempt to gain a foothold in the markets of Japan, South Korea, and, for the first time, China.

Meanwhile, Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization in August 2012 marked a significant shift in its economic position.

After 19 years of dogged talks, Russia’s negotiators managed to secure a number of major concessions from its WTO partners, but the effect of membership has so far been painful for some sectors of the Russian economy, primarily for agriculture.

In these conditions, Russia seems to have gotten temporarily allergic to further integration in the world economy.

Updated foreign policy in action

Putin’s first international contacts after his most recent inauguration highlighted Russia’s updated foreign policy.

An analysis of the latest version of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved by the president in February 2013, as well as policies actually put into practice, shows that first on the agenda was promoting integration within the CIS.

The second priority was increasing the role of relations with Asia; the third – cutting back economic ties with the EU and de-prioritizing cooperation with NATO and other Western institutions. The fourth is to maintain an arms-length relationship with the United States.

Regional integration vs. globalization

Putin’s article on the proposed Eurasian Union, which was published in October 2011 on the eve of parliamentary elections, was the first foreign policy manifesto of the new political cycle.

The publication had a clear domestic political subtext: the idea of restoring some kind of unity in the post-Soviet space goes down well with voters.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to reduce everything to simple propaganda. Back in 2009, Putin decided to push for the creation of the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, although at the time it seemed that such a step could seriously hamper Russia’s accession to the WTO.

Putin had clearly drawn a lesson from the global economic crisis: regional integration is more reliable than globalization.

This line of policy continues: as of 2012, the three countries officially operate a Single Economic Space (SES), while 2015 is supposed to see the creation of a full-fledged Eurasian Economic Union.

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Facing Asia

Russia’s about-face toward Asia and the Pacific remains a declaration of intent. A serious discussion of the topic demands a rethinking of Russia’s geopolitical position as a Euro-Pacific power and a strategy commensurate with that status.

Russia needs to keep sight of two crucial objectives: the “double integration” of the country’s Far East into the rest of Russia, and of Russia itself — through its eastern regions — into the Asia-Pacific region (APR).

The main threat to the country’s security is now defined by the fact that Russia’s most economically depressed area is in physical contact with the most dynamic part of the world.

To solve this problem, Pacific Russia needs a suitable development model.

Other, less direct threats stem from growing tensions between leading APR nations, primarily China and the United States, but also China and its neighbors — Japan, Vietnam and India.

Moscow must learn the art of maneuvering in these conditions in order to secure its own interests while avoiding third-party disputes and conflicts.

US stored away

In the first year after his return to the Kremlin, president Putin was mainly concerned with consolidating Russia’s sovereignty with regard to the United States. The real response to the Magnitsky Law was not the adoption act, but the move to ban Russian officials from storing their money abroad.

This makes Russian authorities less vulnerable to the actions of foreign countries while also strengthening internal discipline by making Russia’s political elite increasingly dependent on the Kremlin.

With the exception of the “sovereignty” issue, which has a much greater bearing on internal Russian politics than on relations with the United States, Putin paused for breath in dealings with Washington.

In Russia’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States, the president seems to be betting not as much on governments (and even less on media-influenced public opinion), but on major Western business, which he hopes to attract to Russia.

In his view, the interests of the U.S. business community can be used to achieve what cannot be done through arms agreements with Washington – namely forcing Russia’s partners to respect Moscow’s interests and abandon all attempts to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs.

Abridged text. Original: http://www.globalaffairs.ru/number/Chetvertyi-vektor-Vladimira-Putina–15992

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