A few weeks ago, as we planned our coverage of Russia’s election, my colleagues and I at Kommersant, a Moscow-based daily newspaper, discussed whether we should prepare an overview of the foreign policy proposals of all eight candidates running for president. I argued it wasn’t worth it. What’s the point in analyzing seven programs that have no chance of being carried out?
Vladimir Putin is all but certain to win re-election to his fourth term in office on Sunday. The other candidates are merely decorations, there to provide the election with a facade of procedural legitimacy. Mr. Putin didn’t even have a foreign policy program as part of his campaign. In fact, he didn’t have much of a campaign at all. He didn’t need one.
Even the president’s opponents admit that he is so popular that he could win the election even without manipulating the results at the ballot box. And Russia’s foreign policy in recent years is a significant contributor to that popularity.
In December, the Levada Center, an independent research organization, released a poll that found that 72 percent of Russians think their country is “a great power.” In March 1999 only 31 percent of Russians thought so.
State television, where most Russians get most of their news, regularly reminds viewers how many foreign policy achievements they have to be proud of: There’s the “reunification” with Crimea, which, according to the Levada Center, 70 percent of Russians believe was good for their country. And there’s the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where, according to a state-run poll, 73 percent of Russians believe their government has achieved its goals.
But another factor that undeniably helps keep Mr. Putin so popular at home is how he is perceived in the West. Why would he need to bother with a campaign? For several years, Forbes magazine has named him the “most powerful person in the world.” And the magazine isn’t alone in giving Russia’s president that superlative. While Barack Obama once dismissed Russia as “a regional power,” President Trump’s national security strategy describes the country as “a great power” once again. And now he is believed by critics in the West to be able to organize the boldest assassination attempts under the nose of their security services.
Even the accusations of Russian meddling in America’s 2016 presidential elections play into Mr. Putin’s hands. Ordinary citizens say — some jokingly, some with more seriousness — Russia is now so powerful that it decides who sits in the Oval Office. Add to that the accusations by European politicians that Moscow influenced Brexit, Catalan separatism and elections everywhere from France to Malta: Mr. Putin’s core voters feel proud of their omnipotent leader. And even many of his critics feel a measure of solidarity with their government because of the widespread demonization of Russia in the United States and Europe.
The West has responded to some of the Kremlin’s policies — in particular in Ukraine — with sanctions. On Thursday, the White House announced that it was imposing new sanctions on Russian entities and individuals in response to “malign Russian cyber activity, including their attempted interference in the U.S. elections.”
But if these sanctions are supposed to bring Russians into the streets to protest their government and demand change, they are having the opposite effect.
Rather than teaching the government a lesson, sanctions have provided it with a useful talking point. Officials say sanctions benefit the Russian economy by encouraging the production of local goods. (Whether that’s true is another story.) Polls have found that most Russians believe the government should pursue its current foreign policy despite the sanctions.
The closest the president came to outlining his foreign policy program was two and a half weeks before the vote. On March 1, during an address to the Federal Assembly, he spent about a third of his time talking about defense and foreign policy.
He boasted that Russia is testing a new line of nuclear-capable weapons that, he said, can easily overcome American antimissile defenses. According to the president, this is a response to the decision by the United States in 2001 to leave the Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed in 1972 with the Soviet Union. “You didn’t listen to our country then,” Mr. Putin said. “Listen to us now.” And although quite a few experts doubt that these new missiles are anywhere near operational, most ordinary citizens were impressed.
What does all of this mean for the future of Russia’s foreign policy as the country prepares for Mr. Putin’s fourth and probably final term?
In the coming years, the Kremlin will continue to pursue what it sees as its rightful interests in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere in whatever way it sees fit and no matter what others think. But at the same time, as Mr. Putin begins to look ahead, he has signaled that he is ready to negotiate with the rest of the world — so long as it is on “equal” terms.
The president sent this message last weekend, for example, in a long interview with Megyn Kelly of NBC, in which he indicated that Russia is ready to consider a prolongation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or even a new agreement with further reductions. He also repeated several times that Moscow is interested in signing a treaty with the United States on cyber issues.
It is clear that Mr. Putin is more interested in foreign affairs than he is in domestic policy. Anyone who has watched him speak at a news conference or in a public speech can see where his enthusiasm is.
So far, his adventurous foreign policy has worked for him, both domestically and internationally. As he eyes the eventual exit, he may be looking to leave a more august legacy, one that includes real and durable achievements. The problem is that in recent years, what Russia sees as victory too often means a loss for someone else.