Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 64

Less than a week after Russia’s presidential election, incongruities already appear to be emerging in Moscow’s “Putin-era” foreign policy. That, at least, seemed to be the case yesterday during an address to leading Russian cultural figures delivered by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Recent reports out of Russia have suggested that President-elect Vladimir Putin will seek to cool the anti-Western hysteria which has engulfed Russia over the past year and to substitute policies based on a more pragmatic view of Russia’s national interests. Yet what Ivanov had to say yesterday suggested that Moscow will continue not only to pursue Great Power status, but also to blame the West for the reverses it has suffered on the international stage. Ivanov’s remarks were filled with the same sort of anti-Western paranoia which has long driven Russian pronouncements on the West and the West’s alleged geopolitical aims. They also underscored the degree to which Moscow continues to see Russian foreign policy–and international politics more generally–as a struggle involving perceptions rather than objective realities.

Ivanov told his audience yesterday that Moscow will not allow itself to be “deprived of an independent voice in world affairs” or to be “forced to play a secondary role” in the international arena. He also suggested yet again that international criticism aimed at Moscow over its bloody war in Chechnya is not only unjust and misdirected, but also the product of some sort of vast international propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting Moscow and diminishing Russian influence in the world. Interestingly, Ivanov appeared to point in particular at Europe in this regard. He accused “some European organizations” of engaging in “concrete political consultations” aimed at “pushing Russia into the background and depriving it of an independent voice in world affairs by manipulating public opinion” and declared that “Russia will not allow this to happen,” though the tone of his comments suggested that Moscow will attempt to address European concerns not by altering its behavior–particularly in Chechnya–but rather by propagandizing more forcefully on its own behalf. Given such comments, Ivanov’s subsequent assertion that Russia would nevertheless not allow itself “to slide towards a primitive anti-Western policy or self-isolation” rang a little bit hollow. Ivanov, it is worth noting, was himself an enthusiastic practitioner of the “primitive anti-Western” foreign policy which Moscow followed during 1999, one which it is now allegedly intent on leaving behind.

Participants at yesterday’s Moscow meeting had reportedly gathered to discuss a draft document on “Theses of Russia’s Foreign Cultural Policy–Year 2000.” It was unclear precisely how that document is meant to serve, but Ivanov did appear to connect it to yet another major foreign policy document–the Foreign Policy Concept–which is apparently under preparation in Moscow. The Russian government this year has already approved in various forms a draft National Security Concept and a draft Military Doctrine. Ivanov said that, among other things, the new foreign policy concept examines the “task of bringing objective and accurate information about Russian cultural, scientific and intellectual achievements to the broad circles of the international public as an important area of Russia’s foreign policy activities.” According to Russian Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoi, the formulation by Moscow of a “clearly defined state policy” in this area will help Russia to “effectively and professionally use the existing cultural and material potential for creating a favorable image of modern Russia abroad” (Russian agencies, March 29).

There is, of course, nothing untoward about an effort by Moscow to sell Russian culture abroad. As presented by Ivanov, however, the initiative appears to be devoid of any recognition that Western criticism of Russia’s human rights record may have some basis in fact, and seems aimed instead at changing views in the West primarily by means of a bigger and better public relations effort. Moscow’s immediate concerns in this regard–as was evidenced by Ivanov’s reference to “European organizations”–are probably directed at next week’s Council of Europe debate on the war in Chechnya. A host of Russian officials have suggested in recent days that Moscow is prepared to pull out all stops to ensure both that the meeting is not dominated by criticism of Russian actions in the Caucasus and that European lawmakers do not suspend Moscow’s membership in the Council’s parliamentary assembly. Yet below such specific goals lurks what may be a larger reality: that Vladimir Putin and his fellow KGB officials are looking to resurrect in some measure the Soviet equation of foreign policy with propaganda. But this approach seems already to have brought Moscow few successes with regard to the war in Chechnya, and it is difficult to see how its broader application will be any more effective.