The 2012 guessing game about the future of the so-called tandem of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin is beginning to dominate the political debate in Russia. However, if the objective is to determine the outlines of future policy, personalities do not matter much because the future head of state will be constrained by circumstances.
In the 20 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian foreign policy has been strictly reactive – reacting to foreign events with varying degrees of success. There is no reason to believe that a strategy will appear in the near future. This is not because Russia’s political elite is incapable of developing a strategy but because strategic planning is impossible in principle. Key players have to adapt to rapid, unpredictable changes. While it may be tempting to believe that someone is directing the storm, this is not the case.
What trends will dictate Russia’s conduct on the international scene?
First, the erosion of the global institutions established in the era of geopolitical balance during the Cold War has entered its final stage. However, no new agencies and rules have taken form in this transitional period in the global system. Moreover, the final destination remains unclear, which calls into question the meaning of integrating into existing institutions.
Second, it is becoming clear that flexibility is preferable to permanent commitments. The growing interdependence in the world has made it clear that global issues cannot be resolved at the national level. But since political consciousness is still unable to transcend national borders, the more common response to today’s challenges is not to join forces but rather to seek room for maneuver. Stable alliances may limit rather than expand opportunities in a rapidly changing situation.
Third, there is an obvious striving for national emancipation. The number of important players is growing. Medium-sized countries (Turkey, Egypt, France) that used to be loyal partners of bigger states, that were inactive (Brazil) or that were isolated (Iran) are beginning to act independently and proactively, although not necessarily in a professional manner and with the desired results. This further complicates the equation by injecting even more variables.
Finally, the point of orientation in the world is changing. Until recently, relations with the West were the point of departure for Russia, but the shift in focus of global events to Asia is rendering this approach ineffective. Given the political decline of Europe and America’s increasing attention to South Asia and the Pacific, Russia’s lack of clarity about its role in Asia is tantamount to the renunciation of a proactive foreign policy.
Russia has two options in this extremely versatile and intricate situation. It can be guided by the do-no-harm principle of medicine, displaying caution and avoiding radical steps and irreversible solutions in the hope that things will become clearer. The other option is to take risks and exploit the chaos to improve its positioning in the hopes of a more privileged place in the future world order. However, the latter scenario requires a certain vehemence and a solid domestic political and economic foundation, both of which are lacking in Russia. Most likely, sufficiency and moderation will become the leitmotifs of Russian foreign policy for the next presidential term unless unexpected and dramatic foreign developments compel Russia to react accordingly.
Due to recent global changes, Russia finds itself in a completely different geopolitical environment. Sooner or later it will have to make serious decisions on its future orientation. But in a situation like this, haste makes waste.