Foreign commentators on Russian foreign policy have lost their hobby horse. They will no longer have to rack their brains over who in the Medvedev-Putin tandem exerts greater influence on Russian foreign policy. The experiment is over and the informal leader comes to the fore. True, now a different topic will be discussed for some time – how will the Kremlin’s conduct change as a result?
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been thoroughly demonized in the West, which, judging by his character, should be taken by him as a compliment rather than a criticism. His disregard for political correctness and his offbeat sense of humor combine to create an impression of unabashed force. Hence, the public sees the tandem as manned by an aggressive anti-West Putin and a progressive and civil (and, by default, Western-oriented) Dmitry Medvedev.
Of course, personality impacts policy, but the effect is much less than is commonly believed. Medvedev has been the face of the tandem, but the policies he has pursued are not at odds with Putin’s own views and interests. All major events have been well coordinated – the proposal on a European security treaty, the war in South Ossetia, the reset and the New START Treaty, the Ukrainian standoff from Yushchenko to Yanukovych, and the bitter disputes with Belarus.
Hints of division emerged on the Libyan issue because the decision on whether to use Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council was a matter of principle – this was the first time Russia had departed from its formerly immutable position of opposing any foreign interference in the domestic affairs of another country. Perhaps Russia would have used its veto had Putin been president. However, the general preference for keeping a low profile rather than making Russia’s voice heard on all matters was also a hallmark of Putin’s presidency. Suffice it to recall his prudent position in the run-up to the Iraqi war. Russia kept its distance until Jacque Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder persuaded Putin to join the anti-war chorus.
After Iraq and all that it unleashed, Putin grew disillusioned with the idea of joining the Western club. This is the origin of his current image. Something similar happened with Libya. After it became clear what the no-fly zone had become, Moscow’s willingness to support Western undertakings clearly cooled.
There is no reason to expect major changes in Russian foreign policy, although it is worth considering how tired Putin has become of his Western colleagues – something he does not conceal. However, the majority of Russia’s business partners (in the economic and geopolitical sense) would be happy to deal even with an irritated Putin – it is always easier to talk directly to the controlling shareholder. As for high-minded values and ideas, to which Putin is particularly allergic, global developments suggest that they will gradually recede into the background and be replaced by considerations of survival and damage control.
Putin has shown greater interest in Europe than Medvedev. Europe’s strategic marginalization with the shift of global politics to the Pacific will not be reversed, but under Putin the Kremlin will increasingly regard this as an opportunity – the weaker the European Union, the greater the opportunities for breakthroughs with individual states. Under Medvedev, ties with Europe have practically lost all substance, despite the outward goodwill and civility. While Putin’s return may not herald more positive emotions in relations with Europe, it will likely result in a more substantive agenda, especially with respect to economic alliances with potential political consequences. Needless to say, the Nord Stream and the South Stream gas pipelines will remain Putin’s darlings.
The personal factor is likely to reinvigorate dialogue with Asia, where statesmen appreciate an opportunity to deal with the real boss. As a geopolitical expert, Putin will place more emphasis on the risks of Asia’s (and China’s in the first place) rapid development than Medvedev, who has repeatedly emphasized the East’s potential role in Russia’s modernization.
No changes are likely to take place in relations with the United States. The two countries have carried through on the reset and broken the deadlock in relations, but that’s about it. The missile defense issue, which Putin dealt with during his first two terms as president, will remain central. The sides are likely to dig in further on their already opposing positions. Incidentally, the Russian reshuffle may adversely affect Barack Obama’s election prospects. Republicans may accuse him of taking a weak stance toward Russia, thereby helping to strengthen the Russian regime and guaranteeing Putin’s return essentially for good, and of building his entire policy on contacts with a lightweight. While unfair, this line of political attack suggests itself.
Putin’s return is bad news for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose relationship with Putin is not particularly good. Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is hardly likely to rejoice at Putin’s comeback either. However, in both cases, policy will depend much more on the intricate web of conflicts and interests rather than on personalities. It is clear that the Customs Union, which the prime minister has been promoting, will remain a top priority and determine Russian policy in this part of the world.
Putin is returning to the driver’s seat at a time when the interaction between internal and external factors is becoming new in nature. Regardless of its political system, each country is addressing one and the same challenge – how to preserve stability under the pressure of numerous influences (economic, political, cultural and ideological) engendered by the global environment. Above a certain threshold, internal tensions are inevitably reinforced by them and may spiral out of control. Hence, the reliability of Russia’s political structure is becoming a major foreign policy asset. Putin will have to deal with that as president, walking the line between a loose system and an excessive tightening of the screws.
Two motivations will underlie Putin’s foreign policy. One is the need to ensure domestic economic development, which is impossible without foreign partners and investors. The other is a reluctance to assume excessive commitments (including integration into various international structures) because complete unpredictability is likely to require freedom of action and maximal flexibility of reactions.
The integration-minded Putin of the first half of the 2000s will not return – there is virtually nothing to integrate into in the disintegrating world order. Nor will we see the Putin of his second term, who was angered by the West’s insensibility and tried to prove that its reluctance to treat Russia as an equal partner was a fatal mistake. It is no longer necessary to prove anything to anyone – everyone has other things on their minds. In 2012 and beyond, Putin is likely to opt for general restraint, accompanied by bold action to exploit opportunities that open up as a result of the erosion of the world’s current institutions.
There is also a worst-case scenario. If the situation in the world deteriorates to a critical point – whether due to acute local conflicts or a sweeping global crisis with a domino effect – we may see a fourth Putin. But it is impossible to say what Putin 4.0 might be like.