The return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin has been accompanied by a worldwide debate about Russia’s foreign-policy priorities. At first glance, the question looks largely artificial. From 2004–2008, Vladimir Putin did not leave Russia’s political Olympus. As the prime minister, he remained a key political decision maker.
But Putin’s recent actions warrant additional scrutiny. Upon regaining the presidency, Putin was eager to stress that his move to the Kremlin means a new milestone in Russian policy. Almost immediately after his inauguration, he outlined his priorities in a series of decrees, including one on “measures for the Russian Federation foreign policy implementation.” The president signed it without waiting for the emergence of a new “Foreign Policy Concept” document from the Kremlin bureacracy. Thus, Putin made it clear to his partners that it was his vision and not the result of a collective effort by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
According to this document, Eurasia will become a Russian priority. Proposals relating to integration projects, ethno-political conflicts and bilateral relations with the republics of the former Soviet Union were presented first, with ideas on relationships with the United States, EU and the Asia-Pacific region following later in the document. This suggests that Moscow sees its relations with its neighbors as a crucial component of its foreign policy.
Subsequent events have confirmed the seriousness of Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian aspirations. His recent agenda included hosting an informal Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit with former Soviet states as well as a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) extraordinary session with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Putin also met with the leaders of the partially recognized entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The first foreign visit of the Russian president will be soon take place in Belarus. Putin pointedly refused to participate in the recent G-8 Summit at Camp David, instead sending Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
Why does the Eurasian direction have so much influence on the attention of the old/new Russian president? In the West, many experts and politicians tend to explain such an interest as continuing fallout from the national traumas and pains of the Russian establishment after the USSR’s collapse. But this seems to be an oversimplification. Eurasia is crucially important for Russia’s policy not due to its past but primarily because of issues of the present. Can Russia, with its estimated three million ethnic Armenians and Azeris, be indifferent to the prospects of resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Would it be productive to maintain military infrastructure in Armenia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus but meanwhile be disinterested in the host countries? These questions are not merely rhetorical; they merit being asked. Moscow is also one of the mediators in the resolution of the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict. And all sides engaged in these conflicts are convinced (rightfully or not is another question) that the road to peace runs through Moscow.
Furthermore, it is impossible to overestimate Russia’s economic role in Eurasia. Even after the five-day war in 2008, Russia still ranks sixth in direct investments in Georgia and maintains several large business projects there, especially in the energy sector. And after the NATO coalition forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, Russia will be engaged in the resolution of new security challenges for its allies in Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The Nuances of Eurasian Diplomacy
Eurasia poses difficulties for relations between the United States and Russia. Kremlin activities in the territories of the former Soviet Union seem to many in the West an attempt to restore Soviet hegemony and territorial expansion. The Russian leadership in turn perceives any outside interventions in Eurasia as attacks on its vital interests in the region.
On one hand, it is hard to see a new approach in Vladimir Putin’s recent initiatives. He stands for multilateral cooperation and integration with the CIS countries, Belarus in particular. He is also focused on strengthening the CSTO’s cooperative format, as well as actively engaging in efforts at conflict resolution in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while also offering to support and promote them in the international arena.
On the other hand, consider some of the nuances that are usually neglected by experts. For example, on unrecognized and partially recognized political entities, Putin provides three different approaches. In the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he fully supports their independence and self-determination without respect to Georgian territorial integrity. However, in the case of Transnistria, the Russian president is in favor of a negotiation process on the basis of respect for territorial integrity and the neutral status of Moldova.
Practically the same approach is applied to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict-resolution process, though this unrecognized entity is not mentioned at all outside the negotiations process. Moreover, when it comes to the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Moscow is willing to cooperate with nonregional actors, including the United States and France, within the OSCE’s Minsk Group.
A Partial Pragmatism
Russian integration priorities of are rapidly changing. The old CIS, which Putin himself once called “an instrument for a civilized divorce,” is less important than the new goals of the proposed Eurasian Economic Union (EAU). In general, economic and security issues are presently seen as pragmatically oriented subjects—replacing the "common Soviet past." The post-Soviet space is fragmented, and this evolution is not lost on the Kremlin.
Moscow now promotes a more defensive, less offensive strategy. There is not room for total revisionism of Eurasian interstate borders or for nostalgic rhetoric. Putin’s recent initiatives have no ideological confrontation toward other countries and integration projects. His refrain is the defense of Russian national interests, as well as respect for Moscow’s geopolitical position. Unfortunately, his decrees do not adequately spell out the mechanisms and resources needed to implement both new and old ideas.
Though the forthcoming official Russian “Foreign Policy Concept” will likely correct for this lack of means, it is worth noting that Putin’s initiatives currently keep silent about the ideology behind Russian foreign policy in Eurasia. Pragmatic goals may sound good, but they are not enough. In comparison, well-known integration projects (whether NATO, EU, the Non-Aligned Movement or the African Union) are not built solely on a technical basis but rather have vital ideological components.
Moscow’s leadership will be more effective if it is based both on historical legacy and contemporary realities. New ideas and approaches are needed but will come only after extensive discussion. For now, we are left waiting to hear more from the Kremlin. One thing is clear, however: today, geopolitical and economic leadership in the former Soviet Union belongs to Moscow—but is not guaranteed.
Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.