Some Western commentators have already called 2004 Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annus horribilis. This year has seen the Kremlin’s political failures in the Caucasus and Ukraine as well as Putin’s recent loss of credibility throughout the world. While some Kremlin-connected foreign policy experts appear ready to acknowledge Russia’s strategic retreat, they predict that the consequences of the Ukraine crisis both for Russia-West relations and the country’s internal policies will likely be “huge” and, in certain aspects, “irreversible.”
According to a number of Kremlin insiders, the Ukraine debacle has affected Moscow in a much more serious way than NATO eastward expansion and the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq did. The bulk of the Russian political class perceives the United States and European Union’s stance regarding developments in the neighboring Slavic country as an open manifestation of the West’s unfriendly position and believes a deep rift in Moscow’s relations with the Western world is imminent, perhaps the worst fracture since the beginning of the 1980s.
In the opinion of Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, who is known to be close to the Putin administration, relations between Russia and the West “are gradually slipping into the danger zone of possible conflict.”
“A crisis in international relations could come at any moment,” argues Markov. “Such a crisis is becoming more and more likely, as is the likelihood that this crisis could unfold swiftly and very negatively” (Moscow Times, December 10).
Another very well informed and influential Kremlin analyst explains why Moscow’s reaction to the perceived strategic offensive of the West in Ukraine has been so harsh and what shifts in Russia’s external and internal policies can be expected. In a policy paper published in the December 11 issue of the popular daily Trud, Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation think tank, presents what he himself calls a “view from the Kremlin.”
According to Nikonov, Moscow regards what has already happened and is still happening in Ukraine not only as a de facto anti-constitutional putsch but also as the “first large-scale geopolitical ‘special operation’ of the united West aimed at a revolutionary regime change in a CIS country, which is Russia’s [strategic] ally.” No wonder that Putin lashed out at the West with critical remarks, whose sharpness, Nikonov notes, were “unprecedented” in the entire post-Soviet period.
But Putin’s words are only the beginning of the story, the Kremlin strategist warns, and deeds will soon follow. Nikonov predicts six major changes in Russia’s international behavior.
First, Russia’s distancing from the West will definitely take place. It is unclear what will remain of the good rapport Putin had established with President George W. Bush and a number of other Western leaders.
Second, there will be a serious strain in relations between Moscow and all the major European and Euro-Atlantic organizations. The Council of Europe and the OSCE sparked the Kremlin’s ire as the “organizations that actually endorsed public disturbances in Kyiv.” In addition, ties with the EU and NATO will also be “somewhat frozen.”
Third, if the Western leaning Viktor Yushchenko finally becomes Ukraine’s president, Russian-Ukrainian relations are “very likely” to worsen, particularly when the new Ukrainian leadership decides to pull out of the Single Economic Space or starts pushing for NATO membership. These steps might trigger a series of negative developments such as Russia’s support for “autonomist sentiments” in a number of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, disruptions of Russian oil and gas transit to Europe across Ukrainian territory, breaking of Russian-Ukrainian economic cooperation, especially in the military and aerospace industries, and stricter conditions for Russian businesses operating in Ukraine.
Fourth, Moscow will likely step up integration with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Central Asian states.
Fifth, given the prominent role of Western foundations and NGOs in the Orange Revolution, the Kremlin will take a tougher stance toward political opposition in Russia and its potential sponsors. Any Western organization that “promotes democracy or the development of civil society” in Russia might face additional problems.
Sixth, the Russian government will become “more strict and selective” in its dealings with Western corporations operating in Russia. Russian “tax and other legislation” will be more thoroughly applied.
For Nikonov and other like-minded analysts, a new page is being opened in Russia-West relations. Moscow will be pursuing a “more egoistic and pragmatic policy” and will be ready to take unilateral action when necessary. Domestically, the Kremlin will focus on the further political consolidation of Russian society, and in foreign affairs its efforts will concentrate on building a new system of strategic alliances.