Last week Russia’s foreign policy transformed, at least in tone and spirit. The atmosphere of confrontation that has dominated official Russian statements and the state-controlled propaganda machine has been diluted by offers of friendship and cooperation. Vladimir Putin did not act as a lame-duck president due to step down next month but as a ruler who has decided to correct the nation’s foreign policy course. Putin will not, however, be unemployed a single day after relinquishing presidential power on May 7. State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said on Monday that the Duma would hurriedly approve Putin as prime minister at a special session on May 8. This will allow Putin to oversee the military parade on Red Square in Moscow on May 9, standing side by side with the new president Dmitry Medvedev as an official co-ruler (RIA-Novosti, April 7).
Last week, during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Putin declared that unlike the time of the Cold War there were no ideological divides in Europe, that existing misunderstandings were marginal and that everything was negotiable (RIA-Novosti, April 4). This was a big step forward in tone and spirit. Only recently Russian generals threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if they allowed U.S. MD installations on their territories, while Putin himself threatened less than two months ago to aim nukes at Ukraine, if it joined NATO (RIA-Novosti, February 12).
During a summit at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sunday, Putin and George Bush endorsed a U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration that outlined future cooperation on arms control, anti-missile defense, MOD proliferation, the fight against international terrorism, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russia’s WTO membership and so on. While unspecific on details, the declaration was high on rhetoric: They agreed that the foundation for the relationship between the United States and Russia should be based on the core principles of friendship, cooperation, openness and predictability; and they rejected the “zero-sum thinking” of the Cold War when “what was good for Russia was bad for America” and vice versa (U.S. White House, April 6).
Putin and Bush agreed that the two nations would not wrangle publicly over plans to install an anti-missile defense system (MD) in Europe and would try to work together. Putin, while still disapproving of the U.S. MD plans, agreed in principal to accept transparency arrangements to allay Russia’s concerns. In a further conciliatory step, Putin agreed to discuss the possible future architecture of a global missile defense system with Washington. Putin expressed a strong desire for such a system with “equal joint controls,” which, of course, would be militarily impossible as the response time of an MD in the event of a real missile attack is seconds and negotiating a consensus between Moscow and Washington would be impractical. Putin added that if the goal of “equal joint control were not achieved, Russia might settle for transparency arrangements similar to those proposed for MD facilities in Europe (www.kremlin.ru).
Last December First Deputy Defense Minister General Yuri Baluyevsky told journalists in Moscow that U.S. MD plans for Europe were less dangerous by themselves than they were as a part of a grand U.S. plan to build a global MD system that would directly target Russia with the eventual goal of nullifying our strategic nuclear potential (Interfax, December 15, 2007). Putin’s public commitment in Sochi to consider a future global MD system and a reasonable promise to eventually approve such a system is thus a major breakthrough.
In Sochi the United States and Russia did not sign agreements on the concrete details of the transparency arrangements to cover future MD installations in Europe, but that is technically impossible at present. In Bucharest NATO decided to transform the U.S. plan for an MD in Poland and the Czech Republic into an all-NATO initiative to build a collective MD system. In 2009 the U.S. will present concrete details of the architecture of the system. The final list of NATO member nations that will house components of the MD system will also be approved later and only later will the concrete transparency arrangements be negotiated with Moscow. Accordingly, the Kremlin announced that the main result of the Sochi summit was not concrete agreements but its “positive mood” (RIA-Novosti, April 6).
The desire to end public hostilities over an MD in the spirit of the new detente is all the more significant after Bush’s brief meeting in Sochi with president-elect Medvedev, who pledged to continue Putin’s policy of cooperation with the United States (Itar-Tass, April 6). At a press conference after the summit in Sochi, Putin confirmed that after May 7 foreign policy would be the responsibility of Medvedev (www.kremlin.ru, April 6). Medvedev got Putin’s blessing to continue with detente, which will make it much harder for the Russian military-industrial complex and other anti-Western forces to attack moves by Medvedev to decrease tension.
A policy of detente is not, of course, a basic change in policy. It is fine to declare the end of the “zero-sum thinking of the Cold War,” but it is much harder to implement this when many influential people and institutions still see the world in those terms. Putin is a practicing Christian and a declared anti-Communist, which is indeed a break with Cold War practices; but he is also a self-proclaimed Russian nationalist and autocrat. The political and ideological divide between East and West has not truly disappeared. The present period of perceived detente may easily end in renewed confrontation as other periods of détente did during the Cold War.