Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 72

In a sign that Vladimir Putin’s presidential election victory may herald a reordering of sorts in Russia’s foreign policy priorities, news reports announced yesterday that the Russian leader will travel next week to London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. The trip comes even before Putin’s May inauguration and will apparently mark the Russian leader’s first visit outside the territory of the former Soviet Union (Putin is scheduled to visit Minsk en route to London) in his capacity as Russian president. The April 16-17 visit to London is being touted in Britain as both a coup for British diplomacy and a further step in London’s effort to promote a policy of engagement between Russia and the West. The initial steps in that policy of engagement occurred in late February, when Cook traveled to Moscow for talks with Putin and top Russian officials, and on March 13, when Blair himself made a hastily arranged visit to St. Petersburg for a meeting with Putin (see the Monitor, February 24, March 13). It was in St. Petersburg that Blair extended an invitation for Putin to visit London.

Those earlier Russian-British meetings–and particularly the St. Petersburg talks–generated some controversy in Britain due to the Blair government’s apparent determination to downplay concerns over Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya in order to promote broader bilateral ties. Blair’s visit to Russia, coming only a week before the Russian presidential election, was also interpreted critically by some in the West as a virtual endorsement of the former KGB officer’s presidential effort. Whether Putin was properly grateful for the political risks undertaken by Blair in traveling to St. Petersburg is less clear. Only days after the visit Russian security forces announced that they had arrested a Russian citizen on charges of spying for Britain. The two sides kept the spy wrangle from becoming a significant diplomatic incident, but the affair could nevertheless only have been an embarrassment for the British prime minister (see the Monitor, March 17).

Blair’s willingness to host Putin in London will likely generate some new criticism of the British leader. The invitation comes, after all, only days after the Council of Europe suspended Russia’s membership on the basis of Moscow’s continuing unwillingness to seek a ceasefire and peace talks with Chechen rebel leaders. The visit also comes amid reports of both atrocities committed by Russian troops in Chechnya and calls for an international investigation into alleged Russian misdeeds in the Caucasus. One British foreign policy official was quoted yesterday as saying that there should be no question of a visit by Putin to London until Putin’s words about respect for human rights are matched by deeds in Chechnya.

But representatives of the British prime minister continued to defend the government’s policy of seeking engagement rather than confrontation with Moscow. A spokesman for Blair was quoted as saying that Putin’s visit would help cement a “new strategic relationship” between Russia and Britain. With regard to the war in Chechnya specifically, meanwhile, a Downing Street source said: “It is important to send a strong signal to Russia about our concerns over Chechnya, but the prime minister thinks the best way to get a response is through engagement, not isolation.”

The British government’s position, like that of its European and North American counterparts, is based on the belief that Putin’s election represents an opportunity for Russia and the West to put a year of acrimony in the past and to begin once again to seek “partnership” relations. As a British newspaper observed earlier today, that same position was confirmed last week during talks in Moscow between Putin and European Union envoys. The Europeans stated afterward that their “basic message was that we don’t want to make of this issue [Chechnya] a global confrontation with Russia. We want a strategic partnership with Russia” (Reuters, BBC, AP, April 10; The Guardian, April 11).

If the goals of Western diplomacy toward Russia are clear, the same can perhaps not be said right now of Russian policy toward the West, or toward the world more generally. That is because the Kremlin–notwithstanding its claims of continuity in Russian foreign policy–appears to be in the process of reevaluating some of the country’s diplomatic priorities in the wake of Putin’s accession to the presidency. Clearly, the newly elected Russian president does hope to mend fences with the West in the hope at least of attracting Western investment. What remains to be seen is whether he will pursue the sorts of internal economic and political policies needed to make that a reality.

However, Putin’s apparent shift to a more pro-Western policy, assuming it can be sustained, raises questions as to whether he intends to reshape Russian foreign policy elsewhere as well. Already some Russian sources have suggested that, under Putin, Moscow may move to deemphasize somewhat its “strategic partnership” with China. If that is so, it is significant because Moscow had seen its relationship with China as a key counterbalance to increasingly confrontational ties with the West.

Indeed, reports of Putin’s still-tentative foreign travel schedule for this year suggest that such recent Asian allies of Moscow as China and India may face a slight downgrading of status under Putin. The Russian president-elect’s decision to make Britain his first foreign destination–other than Minsk–could prove to be symbolic of a shift of this sort. Moreover, a report published last week suggested that Putin’s first official overseas visit as president–that is, following his May inauguration–is likely to be Japan for July’s G-7 plus Russia summit meeting. The same report, quoting highly placed sources, also lists possible subsequent visits this year to Germany, Italy, India and China.

A report of this sort is hardly conclusive, but it may perhaps be worth noting that the Kremlin had suggested earlier this year that Putin would make a visit to China one of his first priorities after being elected president. That appears no longer to be the case. India, moreover, like China a major purchaser of Russian military hardware, has been waiting nearly two years now for a visit by Russia’s head of state so that the two countries can finalize a “strategic partnership” agreement. That visit too appears to have been relegated to a back burner under Putin. In fact, for several years now Russian diplomats appear to have been quietly (and with little success) pursuing an Indian-Chinese-Russian “triangle” as a counterbalance to the United States and NATO. Whether Putin’s Kremlin continues this sort of policy in the weeks and months to come will say much about the foreign policy orientation of the new Russian presidential administration and the degree to which it really wants to improve ties to the West.