The entire issue of who will succeed President Vladimir Putin is
a fascinating story, and its possible plot twists will no doubt
provide even more entertainment for the remaining months leading up
to March. Unfortunately, the political drama has become more
important than the serious issues facing the country, which should
be a central part of the presidential campaign.
On the other hand, the profile of the future president and his
political and economic agenda is a very important issue. It
represents the culmination of the transitional period that began
with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. By the end of the
next president’s term in 2012, the general outline of Russia’s
future role in the world will be apparent.
It is clear in retrospect that the first two presidents pursued
foreign policy agendas that achieved different goals.
If you put aside the meaningless arguments over who «lost» the
Soviet Union and look at Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the context
of establishing a new country, it is obvious that his main task was
to preserve Russia’s role as a major player on the world stage and
to retain at least something of its Soviet geopolitical legacy.
And at the opening of the 21st century, Moscow has remained an
important world capitals with a unique view on the evolving global
order. Although Yeltsin lacked the strength to push that vision
forward, evaluating the legacy of his presidency requires a more
objective analysis than the caricatures and banal comments that we
often hear about him.
On this backdrop, Putin set about the task of re-establishing
Russia’s status as a superpower— one that can play a role in
determining the rules of the global geopolitical game. Overall, he
succeeded. Russia is now a global leader whose interests and views
are taken into account by other nations.
But the next president will face a difficult challenge. Having
returned to the superpower club, Russia must first define its
function in this arena and, second, it needs to convert its
abstract influence into concrete geopolitical and economic
dividends. Achieving these tasks will require substantial
During the last year of his presidency, Putin’s strategy of
waging a diplomatic frontal assault has had a significant impact on
the country’s relations with the West. His hard line changed the
West’s attitude toward Moscow: The United States and its European
allies could no longer afford to treat Russia with indifference.
But after gaining the West’s attention and putting its foot in the
door of its arrogant neighbors, Moscow found itself at a loss as to
what it wanted to say. It lacked a well-defined and logical set of
ideas and desires.
It is time to move away from the practice of denouncing various
imperfections in the world order and toward making constructive,
substantive suggestions. Strategic vision and solutions to problems
are needed, not empty rhetoric. For example, if Russia is
dissatisfied with the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo, it should present
a detailed alternative for resolving the conflict. Propagandistic
retorts are not constructive. Moscow’s current tactic of engaging
in endless negotiations is a losing strategy because it is not
putting any concrete proposals on the table.
In addition, Russia’s persistent statements advocating a new,
multipolar world order, which it first voiced two years ago, have
now become a banality. These appeals are even counterproductive
since they focus attention on an empty discussion of Russia as an
«independent center of global power.»
If you take a sober, balanced look at Russia’s real potential,
it is doubtful that the country is able to be a power center all by
itself, but this says nothing about the country’s future course.
There is an even greater need for Moscow to develop a clear-cut
system of principles, priorities, mutual relations and alliances in
this multipolar — and thus less stable — world. Instead of
engaging in developing such a vision, it seems that Moscow cannot
stop rejoicing over the failure of the United States’ efforts to
spread its influence around the world.
In the meantime, a much more urgent problem looms for Russia
over the next five to seven years — its inability to maintain
political parity with China’s increasing global influence. The
prospect of becoming Beijing’s junior partner might make the
multipolar paradigm seem far less attractive to Moscow.
Russia’s ability to achieve its goals remains a critical
concern. Putin’s style reflects his attempt to reaffirm the
country’s status after a decade of political and economic crises.
But self-affirmation cannot be a goal in itself, especially since
this aggressive behavior has a impact on Moscow’s partners for a
limited time only; Moscow’s partners soon become accustomed to this
firm stance, and they even find ways to work to turn Putin’s
toughness to its own advantage. Measuring a country’s foreign
policy effectiveness by the level of influence it exerts — in this
case mostly negative — is to reduce an superpower to the level of
a petty nation.
It is common for Russian officials familiar with international
relations to take pride in Putin’s «intellectual superiority» over
his foreign colleagues. There is no doubt that Putin stands a head
above most of his partners in his ability to answer any question
with a wide range of facts and to discuss specific topics in depth.
True, it turns out that other heads of state don’t necessarily need
to memorize the capacity of a particular gas pipeline or the
specific articles of a country’s investment laws. Their job is to
promote a general political strategy, and this requires not so much
a genius IQ as it does a certain intuitive sense acquired through
political experience. Only after the agreements are reached and
projects set in motion is there a need for highly qualified and
ambitious bureaucrats to step in and finish things up.
Carrying things through to their proper conclusion is obviously
more difficult to accomplish for various reasons — either for lack
of qualified personnel or due to psychological factors. This is why
it is necessary to stress the impact that Russia’s policies have on
its foreign partners. And this results in a paradox: The public
does not take pride in finding advantageous solutions to
international problems, but rather in striking blows to relations
with foreign states, interpreting each hit as a show of Moscow’s
growing strength. Moreover, this kind of thinking is characteristic
of our ardent «professional patriots,» whose numbers have been
increasing exponentially the last few years.
Russia’s foreign policy priorities should become the subject of
serious and broad discussion. If we make a shallow or incorrect
analysis, this could lead to damaging consequences. Substituting
discussion with demagoguery and propaganda — whether pro- or
anti-Kremlin — is outright dangerous.