Putin the Realist, Medvedev the Liberal
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


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Vladimir Putin’s speech to Russian diplomats contained nothing sensational but it did demonstrate the picture of the world by which the president is guided. This is particularly striking if we compare his words with what Dmitry Medvedev said at a similar meeting two years ago. 

“For all the sharpest contradictions on the world arena, there is an obvious striving for harmony in relations, for dialogue and a lessening of tensions today,” Medvedev said optimistically two years ago.

“International relations are growing more complicated all the time…we cannot describe them as balanced and stable. On the contrary, they are becoming more tense and uncertain, and, regrettably, there is often little room for trust and openness,” Putin stated gloomily.

Medvedev-2010: “Spurred on by the international financial crisis we are all searching together for new approaches to reforming not only global financial and economic institutions but also the world order in general. I’m referring to fairer principles of cooperation and development of relations between free nations on a solid foundation, solid principles of universal international law.”

Putin-2012: “The world economy is in the grip of a crisis and protectionism is becoming the norm… Many of our partners are striving just to endure their own invulnerability, forgetting that in modern conditions everything is interrelated. There are no reliable options for overcoming the world economic crisis… the prospects are becoming increasingly alarming… The struggle for access to resources is intensifying, provoking abnormal fluctuations on the commodities and energy markets.”

Where President-2010 sees opportunities and prospects, President-2012 discerns threats and reasons for concern. Has the world become so much more dangerous in such a short span of time? Or is it more in the nature of a personal vision? Both assumptions are true.

It is hard to argue with those who say that the world situation is deteriorating. In the last two years, Europe has become hopelessly immersed in a quagmire of debt crisis which is only getting worse. The Arab Spring has turned the whole of the Middle East on its head. The Iranian issue is becoming increasingly urgent. NATO has undertaken yet another intervention for regime change. Afghanistan is no nearer to peace; tensions in Asia are mounting and polarization inside American policy is as intense as ever. However, these trends were there before, and in 2010 Medvedev’s beaming optimism sounded a discordant note according to most expert estimates.

The difference is one of the starting points. Medvedev proceeds from Russia’s domestic developments and looks for how events on the world arena could promote Russia’s growth. Putin, by contrast, starts with the global picture and draws conclusions on how external events can influence domestic processes.

Medvedev is a genuine liberal, at least in terms of international relations. As a liberal, he thinks that foreign policy is determined by domestic policy and should be subservient to it. The main part of his speech in 2010 was devoted to the need to promote modernization and innovation. He assumed that Russian diplomats would know the basic directions of these trends by heart, like the Lord’s Prayer.

“We have to decide with which countries will cooperation help Russia the most in developing the relevant technologies and markets with a view to putting high-tech Russian products onto regional and global markets,” Medvedev said. In his view, the second task of foreign policy is “to consolidate the institutions of Russian democracy and civil society. We must promote the humanization of social systems all over the world, and primarily at home.”

This approach is unconventional – after all, since time immemorial diplomats have been trying to resolve the one main issue – that of war and peace. Resolving it correctly has always been the biggest contribution diplomats could make to the successful development of their homeland. However, the introduction of the concepts of “democracy” and “humanization” into foreign policy discourse is a strictly liberal skill.

Putin, and this is particularly obvious when seen against the background of Medvedev, is a classic realist. Of primary concern to him are structural factors and the international system which determines how states behave, and sometimes leaves them no choice. What is important to Putin are the balance of power (now including soft power) and the ability of the country to be “self-sufficient and independent,” in other words not to yield its sovereign rights. He also talks much about markets and technology (without mentioning the word “modernization” once) but in strictly practical terms. “We need to step up our efforts to help our companies in foreign markets,” “we should not be shy about promoting the products of our defense industry,” “we have to exploit the opportunities of the WTO, abolish visa requirements with the EU to encourage business…”

This is not a strategy (Putin simply does not believe that it is possible in today’s world) but a tactic of expanding opportunities and, hence, building up strength, because without it there is no chance of doing anything today.

There are also other differences between President-2010 and President-2012. Medvedev tends to give priority to Asia, whereas Putin seems to lean more toward Europe, but these are details. However, both presidents agree that Russia is part and parcel of the global world. “Russia’s foreign policy… has nothing to do with isolationism or confrontation and calls for integration into global processes.”

This is the type of thing Medvedev is likely to say but it was actually taken from a speech made by Putin. In globalization one can see opportunities like Medvedev, or threats like Putin, but there is nothing to be done about it. And therein lies the main reason for the continuity of Russian foreign policy, which everyone is obsessed with.

| RIA Novosti