The traditional meeting of the international Valdai club with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday lasted long into the night but still was an indubitable letdown. The privilege of raising direct questions with the real master of Russian politics was diluted by the awkward awareness that there was not much to ask about. Those experts who did not see Putin himself as the answer to all questions tried to impress upon him that the potential of his uni-centric political system was exhausted, and he reassured them that it was not (RIA Novosti, www.newsru.com, November 12). They tried to probe whether new experience had altered his political preferences and prejudices, and he demonstrated that all the familiar spots were on the same places. “Stagnation” is the word that marks the bottom line of expert warnings but Putin appears ready to embrace it, while granting Dmitry Medvedev some leeway to act on his agenda of “modernization” in the post of prime minister (www.gazeta.ru, November 12).
Putin definitely tried his best to convince the influential messengers that Russia was on an even keel and open to cooperative work with the West, and it was only once that he mentioned problems looming in the relationship with the US – and his readiness to face them (RIA Novosti, November 12). The issue in question was the deployment of a ballistic missile system, on which no agreement is even probable, but the disagreement could be dramatized or played down as political expediency dictates (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 7). The necessary precondition for escalating this quarrel is restoring Russia’s rusting nuclear arsenal, and Putin made a walkabout on the deck of a new strategic submarine last week after finalizing the package of contracts between the defense ministry and the consortium of shipbuilding corporations on laying new keels for the Navy (Kommersant, November 10).
On the same day, the fiasco over launching the Fobos mission to Mars proved yet again that Russian missile technologies had become dangerously unstable (www.lenta.ru, November 11). No amount of money can restore quality control in the cyclopean Soviet-era shipyards and missile plants, and the astronomic sums that Putin has solemnly promised to allocate for rearmament will be – as the former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin keeps arguing – slashed and eaten by inflation (www.gazeta.ru, November 12).
Strategic armaments with all their expensive deadliness are merely playthings in the old show-biz of deterrence but one real controversy with the US that Putin appears ready to play up is centered on Iran. The IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program was released last week, and Moscow had little to say on the substance of the new evidence of its weaponization, so it tried to undermine the credibility of the agency by blaming it for leaking the confidential annexes (RIA Novosti, November 8). Another questionable point in the report is the allegedly crucial contribution to the Iranian program of Russian physicist Danilenko who denies any involvement in nuclear matters (Kommersant, November 10). The Russian foreign ministry cuts short any discussions on possible new sanctions against Iran, and Putin has instructed Rosatom to prepare the contract on constructing new nuclear power reactors to follow up on the recently completed Bushehr project (Vedomosti, www.gazeta.ru, November 10). There is definitely more in this denial of a massive challenge to the non-proliferation regime than just the mercantile interest in this contract, particularly since the prospects for entering the nuclear market in the Arab Gulf states are more enticing. Putin’s implicit message to the US appears to be that nothing short of a massive air war could stop the Iranian program – and Russia would then righteously condemn this aggression and harvest the profits from sky-rocketing oil prices (Moskovskiy Novosti, November 9).
This by no means hypothetical scenario looks far more interesting for Moscow than it does for Beijing, since China is deeply worried about any interruption of oil supplies from the Gulf. Putin had an opportunity to discuss the joint stance against Iranian sanctions with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in St. Petersburg (Kommersant, November 8). Despite the limited achievement record of this ten year old organization, several countries, including Turkey, are negotiating accession, and this fits perfectly into Putin’s new (or rather recycled) vision of Eurasian cooperation. He eagerly elaborated on this theme for the Valdai experts, but it is hard to take it seriously against the background of a nasty quarrel with Tajikistan, in which Russia has found no better way to prevail than by expelling hundreds of illegal Tajik migrants from Moscow (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 12).
Putin is confident that the severe and still deepening financial crisis in the EU secures for Russia’s foreign policy a position of strength, and that the US cannot escape from the path of setbacks and retreats not least because of the escalating domestic political discord. The cordial meeting between Medvedev and President Barack Obama in Honolulu is of little import as Putin is keen to exploit the perceived weakness of the troubled world leader (www.newsru.com, November 13). This opportunistic course may bring some moments of personal gratification but it is self-defeating for Russia, which misses opportunities to connect better with the West through joint efforts to contain the crisis and finds itself isolated even in such peripheral positions as over Syria where “principled” support to Bashar al-Assad has damaged Russia’s reputation (www.gazeta.ru, November 9).
The “reset” with the US may have exhausted its drive but it has deleted anti-Americanism from the list of exploitable political topics, and Putin has not quite internalized this effect. He still presumes that his firm foreign policy course would mobilize public support for his mono-centric system of power but in fact, the fast-eroding respect for this corrupt system makes Russia’s external behavior ambivalent and erratic. In the coming farcical elections, Putin could establish the Russian variation of the Pareto principle, when 20 percent of the supporters for his United Russia party score 80 percent of the votes, but that would only signify a big leap in destroying the credibility of Putinism. The Valdai experts concur that a forceful regime change is not a probable scenario in Russia, but Putin is set to disprove them.