A series of articles by Vladimir Putin, the latest of which was published in the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, represents the prime minister’s view of the world and Russia’s place in it.
According to Putin, the world is unpredictable and fraught with many threats – from increasing, impatient aggression and the erosion of international law, to “illegal instruments of soft power” (a new concept) that has been introduced from the outside but eats away from within. The spirit of the article is wary and defensive – Russia must be ready to counter numerous challenges and threats. This makes its message different from the main thrust of Putin’s speech in Munich five years ago, which had an offensive, and many believe, even an aggressive flavor. Today, this offensive spirit has given way to alarm and concern.
How should Russia behave in this world?
Above all, Russia should stop looking back at the events of 20 years ago. In his first election article Putin wrote that the post-Soviet era is over and its agenda has been exhausted. This is important because for the entire period leading up to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with the numerous consequences that came along with it, was as a point of departure for the nation and its ruling class, which was unable to overcome the psychological trauma of it. In his recent article Putin makes almost no mention of the Cold War (except for some reproaches for stereotypes about Russia), which is unusual and has not been done before. Incidentally, this departure from the Cold War discourse is designed to emphasize that it is wrong to attribute problems concerning Russia’s relations with the United States and the West in general to the inertia of the confrontation of the 20th century. This is a thing of the past, and in many cases the divergence of interests is genuine.
Putin’s Russia is disappointed in the West, and not so much because the West does not respect Russia and is not ready to treat it as an equal partner. This has been said many times. Worse yet, Western policy is ineffective and short-sighted and fails to produce the desired effect. Nothing is going as expected, neither the Arab Spring, nor the European debt crisis, nor events in Iran and North Korea. Putin still believes that the main political impulses come from the West, that the West contrives all these plans. But now he is more relaxed about all that – they won’t achieve anything anyway. Putin sees the international picture as an integral whole, emphasizing that these or other actions inevitably produce consequences. This may be a trivial thought, but current practice suggests that consequences are the last thing some politicians think about, if they think about them at all. Each action is viewed in isolation, as a thing in itself.
Putin writes about the foundations of the world order, repeating his usual positions: central to international relations is “the time-honored principle of state sovereignty,” while the protection of human rights from the outside is “outright demagogy.” Putin is convinced that nobody has yet invented any fundamental idea that can replace the principle of sovereignty. World politics is based on solid principles rather than abstract values, the application of which is determined arbitrarily on a case-by-case basis, proceeding from the current alignment of forces.
Putin is convinced Russia must remain a global power acting across the entire field. This distinguishes his approach from that which took shape under President Dmitry Medvedev: toward pursuit of immediate and geographically close, albeit vast, interests. Importantly, activity all around the world, that is, a global status, is required not for expansion but for the maintenance of the status quo. In this context Putin sees Russia not just as a consistent U.S. opponent, as many believe he does, but as a guarantor of a classical system of views and relations that, in his opinion, is shared by the BRICS countries. This system is based on the primacy of strategic independence, the inviolability of sovereignty and a balance of forces.
Putin does not doubt that Russia is an object of permanent and mostly unfriendly influence — from military challenges (such as missile defense, other high tech improvement and NATO’s expansion) to attempts to impose other forms of social arrangement on it by way of media campaigns and “illegal instruments of soft power.” The world as a whole is being perceived as a highly risky and hostile environment. Reliance on force — solid force — is the only path to success. As Putin sums up, “Russia is only respected and has its interests considered when the country is strong and stands firmly on its own feet.”
Putin remains deeply mistrustful of the United States. He developed this mistrust during his first two presidential terms while dealing with his then counterpart George W. Bush. Putin reveals this attitude constantly in his public statements. A pause of three and a half years, during which time Putin abstained from direct involvement in foreign policy, has not diminished his grievance of a lack of reciprocity in the 2000s, and this attitude will affect foreign policy.
For all that, Putin views Russia as an open country that is ready for economic cooperation with all countries; as a country that is not seeking isolation and is not trying to build even a semblance of autarky in the economy. Especially revealing in this context is his admission that the purchase of military hardware abroad is a normal practice (on a reasonable scale), and his explanation of the benefits that Russia’s unpopular WTO membership will bring to the country. In general, Putin is interested in big business and its promotion, strategic alliances of large companies and major deals as an instrument of political rapprochement.
Finally, Russia has become much more attentive to China and the rest of Asia, particularly in the context of developing Siberia and the Far East. A common view on the problems of the current world order that has long been acknowledged is now being supplemented by the desire “to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy.” Putin has emphasized the seriousness of Russia’s attitude toward its Eastern neighbor by mentioning in passing its intention to monitor immigration from China. This reservation shows that China occupies an important place on Russia’s agenda.
Recent developments have shown that serious strategic planning is virtually pointless in the current unpredictable world. It appears that Russia’s usual tactic of responding to continuously changing foreign impulses is the only rational choice, even if it does not fully justify itself. It is for this that the number one candidate is preparing himself and the country.