Pirouettes and Priorities

December 1, 2003 Topic: DefenseSecurity Regions: RussiaEurasia Tags: BeslanHeads Of State

Pirouettes and Priorities

Mini Teaser: A pragmatist seeking integration with the West.

by Author(s): Dmitri Trenin

IN THE beginning of 2003, the Bush Administration was genuinely surprised by Moscow's handling of the Iraq issue. President Vladimir Putin's decision to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq alongside France and Germany was arguably his most important foreign policy move since September 2001, when he boldly led his reluctant countrymen into something that promised to become a strategic partnership with the United States. Thirty months later, he seemed to have backtracked from what was seen as an underconstructed parmership. When, in spring 2003, France, Germany and Russia formed a "coalition of the unwilling", many observers believed that Putin was returning to his pre-9/11 emphasis on relations with Europe. By this fall, however, the troika was largely history, and relations with George W. Bush were more or less patched up. Such pirouettes are by no means reserved for relations with the United States. The Chinese, for their part, still quietly reeling after Putin's 2001 volte-face on the ABM Treaty, were greatly surprised by Russia's abrupt change in its stance on the Angarsk Daqin pipeline, only a few months after Presidents Putin and Hu Jintao had formally endorsed it. The natural question to ask, then, is whether Putin's vaunted pragmatism is Russia's sole guiding foreign policy light, or does Russia actually have a foreign policy doctrine?

Basic Ingredients of a Putin Doctrine

FORMALLY speaking, an official foreign policy doctrine does exist, signed by Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his presidential term in mid-2000. This was subsequently developed in a number of statements, most notably in an address to Russia's ambassadors and other senior diplomats in mid-2002. Russia also has a declared national security concept, a military doctrine and a blueprint for military modernization. Despite its usefulness as an artifact of Russian bureaucratic thinking, this body of literature can hardly provide a clear and unambiguous answer to the following important questions: What is Russia's international identity? How does it define its interests, and in what order of priority? How will it promote and, if need be, defend them? How does it relate to other international actors, in particular the United States, the European Union and China?

Obviously, one has to deal here with moving targets. Russia remains a work in progress. Its concrete transformation into a developed market economy and a genuine democracy will probably take up to three generations. National identity and a definition of the national interest are still in the gestation period. Before institutions will emerge, personalities will continue to matter, and the personality of the First Person above all. This is nowhere as evident as in foreign and security policy.

Without doubt, Vladimir Putin is Russia's foreign policy director. He replaced neither the foreign minister nor even the Kremlin's in-house foreign policy advisor, both of whom are holdovers from the previous administration, yet he has been able to turn Russia's foreign policy around. He abandoned Boris Yeltsin's agenda, with its desire to play an oversized role in world affairs, its old-fashioned quest for multipolarity to balance America and its mea adpa attitude to the notion of CIS integration. Instead, he immediately adopted a "don't mess with America" attitude, reached out to Europe, sought to rebalance relations with China, and tackled the former Soviet states one-on-one. To Putin, economic concerns were not only superior to stale geopolitical schemes; they constituted the master key to the Russian state's position in the international arena.

Thus, for the purposes of both analysis and prognosis it is very important to situate Russia's second president in the context of his country's political development. Putin is usually described as a KGB veteran, the conclusion being that he is a non-ideological pragmatist. He is also credited with practical experience in early market economics during his time as an aide to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. What also distinguishes Putin from his country's other top leaders is the five years he spent in Germany, his fluency in German and his willingness to study English while on the job. Two other features are exceedingly important. Putin is both a sportsman and a lawyer. As a sportsman, he is flexible, quick in response, accustomed to competition and willing, even eager, to trade blows. As a lawyer, he is a clear, if conventional, thinker (and the best Russian speaker at the head of the Russian state since Nicholas II), and a rather cautious-some would say calculating-political actor. As a former operative, he is an excellent tactician, but no strategist.

To someone born, raised and educated in Russia's former imperial capital, two political certainties formed naturally in his mind: One, Russia is definitely a part of Europe; two, Russia owes its greatness to the power of the state. At the same time, he saw what corruption could do to a powerful state's ability to retain its position, having witnessed its rapid decline both abroad and at home. The country to which he returned in 1990 was very different from the one he had left in 1985.

Putin emerges as a derzhavnik, a "statist", but an enlightened one. For him, Russia is above all the Russian state, and the Russian state is nothing if not a great power. When he assumed office, he found the state in distress and immediately set about stabilizing it. He was also convinced that economic modernization was the state's key to recovery and future success. However, extensive political control was necessary to ensure stability throughout the process of modernization. Essentially, Putin returned to square one and took as his starting point pre-1917 Russia: economically vibrant, socially backward, predominantly authoritarian, but gradually evolving toward some form of representative government. He would probably echo the famous plea by czarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin for twenty years of stability, during which Russia would be changed.

High oil prices since 1999 have helped Russia enormously, as has the corrective effect of the 1998 financial collapse. Under Putin, the Russian economy has been growing at a healthy annual rate of 5-6 percent. Not only has Russia stopped borrowing money from international financial institutions, it has proceeded to repay its Soviet-era debts on or even ahead of schedule. In fall 2003, Russia was for the first time awarded an investment grade rating by Moody's. The resulting self-confidence allowed Russia to hold firm at the WTO accession talks, which Moscow hopes to conclude with minimal concessions. Yet, Russia will remain a relatively small economic entity for the foreseeable future. Even if GDP doubles within ten years, Russia's share of the global economy will only be around 3 percent. But what makes Russia economically important to the rest of the world is its energy resources.

Never before have energy resources played such an important role in Russian foreign policy. Growing unrest in the greater Middle East turns Russia, which produces some 10 percent of the world oil, into a factor of stability in uncertain times. Putin's stance on energy puts his country squarely on the side of Western consumers, and thus helps to increase the probability that relations with the United States, the European Union and Japan will, for the most part, remain positive and friendly. Regarding relations with China, Russia has been trying to use the energy connection to rebalance an increasingly asymmetrical relationship. Russia's energy supplies to the newly-independent states of the former Soviet Union serve as a good incentive for all concerned to maintain loyal neighborly relations. Finally, Russia's oil and gas reserves make it a serious partner to the two main Middle Eastern regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Oil gives Russia a prominence it would otherwise not have retained in the post-Cold War world.

However important in budget and balance of payment terms, oil- and gasbased commerce will not guarantee Russia a bright economic future and a strong and respectable position in the world. What is needed is a fundamental transformation of the economy. Under conditions of globalization, this can only be achieved through investment and technology inflow, primarily from the West.

The U.S.-Russia Relationship

PUTIN realized this fact from the very beginning. His initial step in late-1999 involved toning down anti-American rhetoric. He then restarted the dialogue with Washington that had been so damaged by the Kosovo war, domestic corruption scandals and Chechnya. He also realized that his own international stature--symbolized by G-8 membership critically depended on how he would be treated by Washington. Putin patiently bade his time throughout 2000 and the first half of 2001, waiting for the new administration to arrive and settle in, and then spared no effort in trying to establish a good personal rapport with his new American counterpart. At their first encounter in Slovenia in June 2001, the Russian president succeeded--probably beyond even his own expectation.

Putin explicitly acknowledged American global dominance, something that Yeltsin and Yevgeny Primakov, thenforeign minister, had found hard to do. This dominance, Putin reasoned, was but a geopolitical fact. If to "mess with America" could only be done at one's own peril, why bother? Consequently, Putin determined that Primakovian attempts to counter-balance America were useless and harmful. By unilaterally deciding to drastically slash the Russian nuclear arsenal, further reduce and restructure conventional forces and eliminate two important remaining vestiges of erstwhile Soviet global military presence-the Lourdes intelligence gathering facility in Cuba and the Cam Ranh Bay base in Vietnam (and all this before September 11)--Putin was signaling to Bush that he was finally pulling out of virtual competition with the United States. Primakovism had given way to pragmatism. America had to be engaged for the benefit of Russian modernization.

The September 11 attacks brought about a qualitative leap in the relationship. Irrespective of whether Putin simply made a virtue out of necessity, he was able to capitalize on Bush's need for allies in Afghanistan. In particular, this meant that the presence of American military bases in Central Asia was not interpreted as a threat, and the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan eliminated the Taliban threat to Central Asia and thus to Russian core interests. It also allowed Putin to fold Chechnya into the global war on terrorism, legitimizing the centerpiece of Russia's security policy since 1999.

But the spirit of the November 2001 Bush-Putin summit at Crawford, Texas left a sour aftertaste. Putin had to reconcile himself to a series of U.S. actions that cut deeper into Moscow's status than he was willing to concede. (These actions included the abrogation of the ABM Treaty, the semi-permanent American military presence in the former Soviet south and the decision to admit the three Baltic states along with several central and eastern European countries to NATO.)

Faced with these tough realities, Putin adopted a "no contest" attitude--although he obviously detested America's maneuvers, in part because the Russians had no ready-made response. It appeared to many observers that Putin's choice to side with the United States in the War on Terror was a strategic decision without a strategy. Putin was unclear about what Russia should or would receive out of this new relationship with America other than a series of "price lists." The Bush Administration, for its part, did not believe that it needed to provide additional compensation for actions it felt were also intrinsically in Russia's national interest. Yet Putin's minions and Russian elites felt that they had received nothing in return for their support of U.S. policy. Thus, the strategic partnership proclaimed in 2002 soon rang as a hollow phrase on both sides. The Iraq War marked both the psychological and political limit of a relationship based on reluctant acquiescence.

Putin may have been misled by the dire predictions put forth by some of his analysts concerning the consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As an astute politician, he distanced himself from the United States so as not to share the blame, but he quickly changed his tone as the war's military success became certain. Still, the fallout from Iraq did leave a deep mark on the relationship. The formula "agree to disagree", which superseded the stillborn partnership, struck a new balance. Although Moscow's growing awareness of the risks of WMD proliferation did bring it closer to the U.S. position on Dan and North Korea, Putin was at the same time rather vocal in protecting the interests of the Russian nuclear industry. Russia's postwar flexibility at the United Nations did not diminish its resolve to raise the authority of the Security Council. Following his American tour this fall, Putin felt obliged to call on U.S. journalists based in Moscow to fight back the latest American criticisms concerning Chechnya, media freedom and the YUKOS affair.

At the end of the day, the antiterrorist coalition is still being preserved as the pillar of the U.S.-Russia relationship, with Moscow maintaining all the while the freedom to disagree that characterizes certain types of friendships. Putin continues to feel that Russia does not need (and cannot afford) the United States as an adversary, but he has firmly rejected the notion of Russia as a junior ally or partner to America. Putin does not see himself as another Tony Blair. Does this "adjustment" presage Russia's turn away from America and toward continental Europe?

Russiaand the Two Wests

DURING THE 1990s, the Russian elites developed a notion of "two Wests." The "far West"--that is, America--was popularly thought to be distant, arrogant and bullying. By contrast, the "near West"--essentially the European Union--was considered close, quiet and accommodating. Rather than trying to divide the West, a feat Russia was unable to accomplish, Moscow sought to benefit from whatever divide happened to open on its own. Thus, when the going in Washington became particularly tough, Russia warmed up to Europe. When things got better in Washington and Russia enjoyed a moment of togetherness with America, Europe was usually forgotten and ridiculed for its lack of strength, or vision, or both.

Putin is not the first Russian leader to claim that Russia is a part of Europe. If one skips the usual banalities about geography, history and culture, today a European Russia means a more modem Russia, compatible with the EU, with an eventual institutional arrangement between Brussels and Moscow that falls short of full membership. Thus, Russia's domestic transformation and the formation of "common spaces" between Russia and the EU (economic, legal, humanitarian, etc.) would result in integration with, as opposed to within, the European Union.

Today, Russia deals with an essentially self-absorbed EU, which officially treats Moscow in the same league of neighbors as Morocco and Israel. Putin can hardly be happy with this arrangement. To him, a "wider Europe" is essentially composed of two principal players: the European Union, or the "near West", and Russia. To counter this benign neglect of Russia at the EU level, he deftly plays European national leaders against the EU bureaucracy in a "good Europeans, bad Eurocrats" game. True to tradition, Moscow's emphasis is on relations with the big countries--Germany, France, Italy and Britain. Central and eastern Europe are only gradually being rediscovered. Across the board, the promotion of economic ties is the top priority.

Overall, relations with Europe are close but not particularly cozy. Putin gave Jacques Chirac the cold shoulder from 1999 to 2000 because of France's criticism of the Chechnya situation. Relations with Denmark became less friendly for a similar reason in 2002. That same year, the issue of transit across Kaliningrad for future EU member Lithuania became highly contentious. Russia continues to criticize Estonia and Latvia severely for their attitude toward domestic Russian speakers and for not granting them citizenship. The Schengen issue came up in 2003 when Putin advanced an argument for Russian visa-free travel to Europe. Lastly, in an abrupt about-face from his previous position, Putin refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2003.

Even though Russian and continental European positions formally coincide on a range of U.S.- and UN-related issues, Russia as a traditional nation-state is instinctively closer to the United States than to the EU. It is Russia's present weakness that puts it into the same category as the postmodern Europeans.

East of the Urals

PUTIN'S APPROACH toward Asia is heavily influenced by his concerns about the viability of the Russian Far East and Siberia. Early in his presidency, Putin dropped the multipolar view of China as a potential ally in an America-balancing exercise. In 2000, Russia signed a formal treaty of friendship with China and soon afterward acted to transform the Shanghai Forum into a regional security organization. But Putin clearly saw the dangers of too close an embrace with Russia's giant Asian neighbor. The Kremlin certainly wants to keep a generally friendly relationship with China and to develop greater economic ties with it. At the same time, it is becoming more worried about the prospect of Chinese migrants settling on the Russian side of the border, thus changing the entire ethnic composition of the region and putting its Russian identity in question. Russia's demographic decline--to the tune of just under a million citizens a year--is a constant theme in Putin's pronouncements. The Russian president is desperately looking for ways to balance against a possibly gathering Chinese threat.

One such way is to expand economic and other ties to Japan. Aware of the territorial obstacle to an improved relationship, Putin was initially ready for a compromise based on the "two-plus-two" formula of the 1956 Moscow declaration. This, however, was unacceptable to Tokyo. Since then, Putin has developed a good personal rapport with Prime Minister Koizumi. As is the case with the Bush-Putin relationship, this partnership is centered on security and energy, albeit on a much-reduced scale. A degree of cooperation on the North Korean nuclear problem and the proposed oil pipeline from Angarsk to Nakhodka--which directly competes with the Angarsk-Daqin route to China--has come to symbolize the opportunities currently existing in the Russia-Japan relationship. Elsewhere in Asia, Moscow has sought to re-energize relations with India, which is viewed as a virtually unproblematic partner and a welcome addition to the continental balance.

Commonwealth or Empire?

PUTIN DOES not have a CIS-wide foreign policy concept. He regards the Commonwealth at twelve members--which for Yeltsin was some sort of atonement for his role in dismantling the Soviet Union--as unworkable and impractical. Full-scale CIS summits have grown ritualistic, but should they become substantive, there is always a danger that the other eleven states, or most of them, will gang up on Russia. Instead, Putin prefers one-on-one encounters, as they give Russia immense advantage over its former sister republics. Naturally, Moscow also backs the expansion of Russian business interests in individual CIS countries.

Putin has inherited a unification project with Belarus that, in his view, would only make sense if a union were to make Belarus safe for Russian business acquisition. With the European Union touching the limit of its conceivable enlargement at the western border of the CIS, a successful Russian economy could serve as a natural magnet not only for Belarus, but for Ukraine and Kazakhstan as well. Even as Moscow discusses with Brussels the idea of a common economic space with the EU, Putin is promoting a parallel plan: a joint economic space comprising the four largest CIS countries.

Elsewhere in the CIS, Putin's prime concern is security. Long considered moribund, the 1992 Collective Security Treaty has been recently reorganized into a smaller but more tightly-knit alliance. Its prime mission is to maintain stability in Central Asia. In 2003, a Russian air squadron returned to Kyrgyzstan for permanent basing, the first "comeback" anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Georgia's refusal to cooperate with Russia on fighting the Chechens led to Moscow imposing de facto sanctions on Georgia and presenting its leadership with an ultimatum.

Finally, Putin has made protection of Russian citizens abroad and support for ethnic-Russian minorities a hallmark of his presidency. Latvia and (briefly) Turkmenistan experienced Moscow's wrath over the treatment of their Slav minorities. In response to the growing Muslim activism inside Russia--some of it resulting from a decade of conflict in Chechnya--Putin opted for observer status at the Islamic Conference in 2003. On the issue of the openness of Russian borders to visitors from the CIS, as well as potential residents and citizens, Putin is torn between the restrictive instincts of his security aides and the need to compensate for the population shortfall. Recently, the latter has been gaining the upper hand.

Vladimir Putin may be too pragmatic to wholeheartedly share the idea of a liberal empire advanced by Anatoly Chubais, the leader of the Union of Right Wing Forces. There is little to be gained and much damage to be expected from publicly advancing such a vision. But Putin's approach to the former republics aims for maximum benefits for the Russian business community and seeks to solidify a loyal and secure environment in which Russian interests are taken seriously. Such a policy may look like an imperial design in theory, but it is not so in practice.

Assessing the First Term

THE ABOVE analysis amounts to a clear set of guidelines, if not a full-fledged foreign policy doctrine. In sum, Putin's view of Russia is as a free-standing element of the global system, positioned between the United States and the EU politically, and between America, China and Europe strategically. In implementing his vision of Russia as a successful and competitive player in Eurasia, Putin needs to face up to several major challenges.

First is the challenge of non-institutional integration. As distinct from the German and Japanese experience after World War II, or the experience of the CEE countries now, Russia stands no chance of being accepted into the European Union, and only a very small chance of being admitted to the new NATO. In the near-absence of outside pressure, Russian presidents will have to assume the leading role in the transformation process. Putin's instincts, however, usually drive him to the center of gravity in domestic politics rather than put him in the vanguard.

Another challenge is the lack of a foreign policy strategy, especially if one compares it with his economic strategy. Relations with America, Europe, China and Japan are often guided by short-term considerations. It is not clear what Moscow plans to achieve from contacts with its partners, and how foreign policy should assist in the central transformative task ahead. This lack of a grand strategy can be attributed to the preference for bureaucratic analysis and advice, as well as the generally conservative, archaic nature of Russia's foreign, security and defense policy elites. Nowhere is this more evident than in the armed forces. Russia's defense policy, and especially its military doctrine, is dangerously at odds with the course of Putin's foreign and security policy.

While the latter sees the United States as a partner and Islamic terrorism as the prime adversary, the former justifies its unreformed condition by viewing the United States as the de facto enemy.

Russia's foreign relations will be significantly informed by how the Kremlin responds to domestic challenges. For the foreseeable future, Russia is likely to remain semi-authoritarian, for the simple reason that it lacks a demos. Thus, for a long time yet, the central question will not be so much the quality of Russian democracy as the nature of its emerging capitalism. If the oligarchic system built during the 1990s is succeeded by a "vertical" construction of stifling bureaucratic controls, Putin's modernization effort will be doomed and ditched. If uncertainties about property rights persist or even increase, there will be no investment, only capital flight. If the legal system and the law enforcement agencies continue to be routinely used by the authorities as weapons in policy or business disputes, there will be no trust in society, and all hope will evaporate. The cumulative international effect of it all will be Russia's progressive stagnation, degradation and marginalization due to its failure to integrate with the more advanced sections of the world system.

The Khodorkovsky affair has put Putin's record on the spot. The Russian government's stated commitment to economic reform will be more severely tested than ever. To pass that test, more than soothing words will be required. The issue of property rights will need to be tackled as the first priority. Small- and medium-sized businesses ought to be given a powerful boost by reducing, as much and as quickly as possible, corruption-breeding red tape. Structural reforms, such as in the banking sector, should be aggressively promoted. One can only expect that, in several decades' time, a more civilized version of capitalism and a firming rule of law would provide a foundation for Russian-style democracy and help narrow the values gap between Russia and the West.

It is true that the outside world has little direct influence on Russia's domestic developments. This is as it should be. Russia will be put right, or not, by Russians themselves. Still, serious Western advice matters and, when delivered frankly and privately, can be helpful. America and Europe will continue to figure prominently on Russia's modernization agenda. By contrast, calls for Russia's excommunication, whether from the Council of Europe (over Chechnya) or from the G-8 (over YUKOS) may be emotionally satisfying but are sterile and counterproductive. Russian membership of either body, after all, is not a democracy certificate, but essentially a mutual security assurance. One may hope for more, but one must not pretend that it is there now.

In all probability, Vladimir Putin will remain president until 2008. He will then either have to respond to these challenges or resign himself to his own obvious limitations. At the beginning of his career, President Putin was called, with some hope, an unfinished product. He has certainly progressed, but it would be sad if he agreed to go down in history with unfinished business. If nothing else, the sportsman in him ought to finish the job.

Dmitri Trenin is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Director of Studies at the Carnegie Moscow Center. His new book on the wider implications of the war in Cheehnya, Russia's Restless Border (CEIP/Brookings), is forthcoming.

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