Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 67

The state-of-the-nation speech President Vladimir Putin delivered on April 3 was noticeably short on foreign policy matters, but appears nevertheless to have fueled further speculation that an important shift may be taking place in the Kremlin’s posture toward the outside world. Indeed, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Putin’s remarks in this regard was not what he said, but what he did not. As numerous Russian and foreign commentators noted, the Russian president did not mention the United States, or relations between Washington and Moscow. The omission was undoubtedly intentional, suggesting that the Kremlin is prepared to assume at least a posture that downgrades ties with Washington as a response to the Bush administration’s pointed policy of deprioritizing relations with Russia. Putin underlined the point further, moreover, by including a specific reference to Moscow’s hopes of drawing closer to Europe. His remarks suggest that Russian foreign policy under Putin will continue a pattern of differentiating between the United States and its NATO partners, thus permitting Moscow to continue pursuing friendly relations with the “West” while simultaneously remaining noncommittal with regard to Russian-U.S. ties.

None of this, of course, was explicit in Putin’s remarks. But in the very brief section of his speech devoted to foreign affairs, the Russian president did speak of the importance Moscow is attaching to the future strengthening and “normalizing of partnership relations with the European Union.” And he described a “course of integration with Europe” as “one of the main directions” of Russian foreign policy. Putin’s emphasis on ties with Europe was all the more interesting because it represented the lone reference in Putin’s speech (Belarus being the only exception) to relations with a specific foreign partner. That is, the speech not only included no mention of the United States, but also made reference neither to Russia’s relations with China and India–Moscow’s main Asian partners and a cornerstone of its foreign policy–nor to the “Asian direction” in Russian foreign policy overall. These omissions were also of interest, both because the Kremlin has in recent years generally stressed the degree to which its foreign policy is “balanced” between East and West, and because this week’s address comes in the run up to a Russian-Chinese summit meeting at which Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin are expected to sign a lengthy friendship treaty. Most analysts see closer relations between Moscow and Beijing as a calculated response to their mutual troubled ties with Washington.

A pronounced “Western” orientation in Putin’s remarks was also evidenced by the relatively large amount of attention he devoted to relations between Russia and NATO. He did appear to suggest that Moscow is prepared to continue mending fences with the Western alliance, but only on the condition that NATO observe what Moscow claims are the conditions set out in the 1997 agreement that established formal relations between the two sides. Indeed, the Russian president used his brief foreign policy remarks to restate earlier Russian charges–related to the alliance’s air war against Yugoslavia–that NATO had violated international norms by using force without the authorization of the United Nations. “Our position,” Putin said, “is clear: The only organization empowered to sanction the use of force in international affairs is the UN Security Council.” Putin’s remarks in this regard were certainly nothing new, but it is interesting that this was one of the themes he chose to highlight in an address which devoted such scant attention to foreign affairs.

In more general terms, Putin also pointed in his State-of-the-Nation address to the new importance that economic considerations are being accorded in the formulation of Russian foreign policy. That is a theme Putin first highlighted during a well-publicized speech to Russian Foreign Ministry personnel on January 26. On that occasion, he called for Russia’s diplomats to place greater emphasis on the promotion of Russia’s economic interests abroad, and said it was necessary to create operating conditions for Russian firms overseas which are at least no worse than those which foreign firms face in Russia (see the Monitor, January 28). Putin’s remarks this week followed similar lines. He said that Russian diplomacy should “serve the interests of the Russian economy: to counter discrimination against domestic producers; to guarantee the maintenance and optimal use of Russian properties overseas (a comment presumably aimed primarily at the CIS countries), and to accelerate work on Russia’s entry into the WTO (World Trade Organization) under acceptable conditions (Russian agencies, Strana.ru, April 3; The Guardian, Izvestia, April 4).

While there is little doubt that Moscow is making a genuine push for a major upgrade in its relations with the European Union, it seems unlikely that the Kremlin’s intent to downgrade ties with the United States is as serious as might be suggested by Putin’s April 3 speech. Indeed, Moscow has made clear repeatedly since the Bush administration came to power that it is anxious to establish contacts with the new administration and that it hopes to resume negotiations on arms control and other important issues. And despite the rebuff that the Kremlin has thus far received from Washington, there is little reason to believe that Moscow will deviate too far from this path. This is because, on the one hand, it is obviously in Moscow’s interests to have cooperative relations with the United States. But it is also because the Kremlin appears determined to appear before Europe as a “reasonable” and pragmatic partner, and to put on the Bush administration the onus for deteriorating Russian-U.S. ties. It seems likely that Moscow hopes in that way to exploit concerns within the EU over the more confrontational policies that the current U.S. administration has adopted on a number of fronts, and to turn these concerns to Moscow’s advantage.