An Olive Branch from Putin?

Image: Russian president Vladimir Putin addressing a meeting of ambassadors and permanent envoys. Kremlin photo.

Despite containing a litany of customary anti-Western complaints, the Russian president's speech clearly showed that he’s willing to improve relations with the West once Russia and NATO complete announced deployments.

The good news about the public portion of Vladimir Putin’s June 30 meeting with Russian ambassadors was that there was no news—and that bodes well for those who have not yet lost hope that Russia’s relations with the West can be normalized. Despite containing a litany of customary anti-Western complaints, Putin’s speech clearly showed that he’s willing to improve relations with the West once Russia and NATO complete already-announced deployments of forces against each other.

Of course, once the press was ushered out of the meeting, Putin must have dispensed some new instructions to the diplomats and their boss, Sergei Lavrov, whose staff is currently drafting Russia’s new foreign policy doctrine. But at least in his public address to the ambassadors, who gather in Moscow every two years to receive strategic guidance, Putin did little more than repeat recent talking points. He referred to opportunities for deepening the “unprecedented” partnership with Beijing and advancing economic integration both with China and with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. As in his 2014 address to the envoys and other more recent speeches Putin did highlight the threats posed by NATO expansion and American unilateralism and faulted the collective West for not only ignoring Russia’s interests but also overthrowing regimes in “color revolutions.” At the same time, as has also become customary, Putin referred to Western countries as “partners” and left the door open for getting Russia’s relationship with the West back on better footing, even though NATO leaders are expected to sign off during their July 8-9 summit on plans to start rotating fourbattalions-plus” size units next year in the Baltics and Poland in addition to one armored brigade and hardware that the U.S. plans to dispatch to the region to deter Russia.

If Putin were to have unveiled a major military-political initiative in response to NATO’s planned deployments, then his June 30 meeting with the Russian ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters would have been a good occasion in terms of timing and venue. But he chose not to do so. Perhaps, Putin has concluded that his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s recent announcements of plans to form three divisions in western and southwestern Russia would suffice as a response to NATO’s planned deployments, at least for now. Or he may have taken heart from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s recent vow to adhere to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which prohibits permanent (as opposed to rotational) deployments of substantial forces in newer member states. Or both. Rather than rattle a sabre at the West in the presence of his diplomats, the Russian president only vaguely promised that “we will be able to defend ourselves and guarantee the security of the Russian Federation and its citizens” without getting locked into a new arms race with NATO.

The absence of explicit threats against the alliance in Putin’s speech—coupled with Russia’s recent consent to hold another meeting of the NATO-Russia Council after the Warsaw summit—indicates that Mr. Putin is looking beyond the current cycle of deployment-counterdeployment in Russian-NATO relations. A desire to normalize relations can also be inferred from Putin’s overtures to the United States and its allies, whom he urged to cooperate with Russia on creating a “broad anti-terrorist front.” In his speech Putin noted that Russia’s successes in arranging ceasefires and facilitating peace talks in Syria have been achieved in cooperation with “the United States and other partners,” not on its own. “I would like to emphasize that we are interested in close cooperation with the United States on international affairs,” Putin said. Such a conciliatory tone would have raised eyebrows as recently as last fall, when Putin was referring to Western countries as “our geopolitical adversaries,” but not anymore. Only two weeks before the ambassadors’ meeting, Putin told an audience that included European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson that he accepts the United States as the world’s “only superpower” and “we want to work with the United States and we are prepared to.”