President Vladimir Putin’s participation in the NATO summit in
Bucharest and his talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Sochi
marked the final foreign policy episode in his two terms.
Putin’s legacy is worthy of serious study and impartial
analysis, but this is not possible right now. Time must pass before
the strong enthusiasm of his supporters and the equally strong
condemnation of his implacable opponents subside. Only then will we
be able to analyze the Putin epoch accurately.
The country Putin will be handing over to his successor differs
substantially from the one he inherited from his predecessor.
Observers in the West love to ask: Where did we go wrong with
Russia? Why did Moscow take a path different from the democratic
one everyone in the early 1990s was hoping it would follow? Why did
it not become integrated into the European community under the
benevolent supervision of the Western powers?
But these questions emanate from the false premise that it is
possible to construct a policy for Russia only. The world really
has become a global community, and the West’s policy toward Russia
cannot be conducted in a vacuum.
Rather than wondering where it went wrong with Russia, the West
should be asking: After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of
communism, why haven’t we seen a fair and just world order?
During Putin’s two terms in office, it has become clear that the
formulas designed to solve the world’s problems might not actually
work or could lead to unexpected results. At the same time, the
West was slow to realize that global problems were increasing as a
direct result of the inadequate methods it employed in grappling
with them. In this sense, Putin benefited from the West’s
Russia’s new sense of confidence derives not only from high oil
prices, but from the West’s miscalculations as well. The West —
and primarily the United States — has lost the chance that it had
in the early 1990s to play a leading role in the global
It is worth noting that, for all of his aggressive rhetoric,
Putin did not create a single serious problem for the West. It is
another matter that Moscow exploited problems in other countries to
strengthen its own status, but that is not surprising for a
superpower trying to regain its position.
Was Putin’s foreign policy confrontational? On the surface, yes.
When asked in Bucharest why he thought everyone expected a fiery
speech like the one he delivered at a security conference in Munich
in early 2007, Putin answered: «There’s some kind of strong fear in
anticipation of my speeches. I don’t know what caused it.» Of
course, he knows. By the end of his second term, Putin had
developed a penchant for making sharp, provocative remarks aimed at
the West and then sitting back to watch the subsequent
But confrontation with the West was hardly Putin’s goal. More
likely, he was striving to put Russia on equal footing with the
West by re-establishing its superpower status. Did he choose the
right methods for this task? Hardly. Was he pursuing the right
goal? Or more important, is there any point in speaking about
integrating Russia into a global system that has not developed a
stable foundation since the end of the Cold War?
Nearly all the global institutions that formed the previous
world order are now in crisis. The West has been unable to abandon
its Cold War-era habit of dividing the world into ideological
camps, rendering it unprepared for a movement away from
ideologically charged international relations. Attempts to explain
problems in terms of the presence or absence of democratic
institutions has not produced the desired result. Global processes
do not lend themselves to a universal model of development.
In terms of rhetoric, global superpowers have rejected former
geopolitical principles and outdated notions about the balance of
power. But those advocating a return to realism are retrogressive
in their thinking. After all, leading nations speak about
humanitarian values and the need to do away forever with the
mentality of the zero-sum game. In practice, however, every country
acts out of personal interest, though perhaps somewhat
subconsciously. At the same time, they are unwillingly to shoulder
the responsibility needed to formulate new rules of the game that
would be acceptable to all the players.
They also demonstrate a clear desire for an opponent. But every
attempt to transform the battle against international terrorism
into an integral element of the world order has ended in failure. A
phantom-like adversary is incapable of either uniting the world
community into a resilient alliance or serving as a perceived evil
that is strong enough to define the ideological and political
positions of the countries opposing it.
Moreover, terrorism is not an independent phenomenon driving
political events. It is the product of failed approaches to various
strategic and economic problems.
During Putin’s presidency, many in the West referred to
«authoritarian capitalism» as exemplified by China and Russia. This
political and economic model became the «official bogeyman,» even
more than global terrorism. Unfortunately, the idea of pitting
authoritarian capitalism against liberal capitalism is far-fetched.
The fabricated collision of two capitalistic systems was probably
born more out of the incapacity to grasp the underlying nature of
current events than any willful desire to provoke an ideological
When evaluating what Putin achieved as president, the results
are fairly modest. But he was tremendously successful in creating
the perception of great achievements, both domestically and
internationally. This contradiction, as well as the dangerous level
of euphoria, seems to be causing some disquiet among the ruling
elite — or at least among the small number of its more thoughtful
The impression of success is due not only to powerful,
omnipresent government propaganda, but also to Russians’ desire to
overcome their complex of having lost the Cold War. Once that
emotional high of success loses steam, however, Putin’s foreign
policy legacy will probably be viewed in a more conservative light.
Specifically, it will become clear which chances he missed, what he
actually achieved and what he was unable to accomplish through no
fault of his own.