Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 19

Less than a week after the inauguration of a new U.S. president, President Vladimir Putin delivered a major foreign policy speech which appeared to come down harder on Russia’s diplomats than on the country Moscow views as its primary competitor. Western accounts of Putin’s January 26 speech tended to emphasize its references to continuing Russian-U.S. differences over missile defense and the ABM treaty. But the address was in fact considerably more far ranging than that, setting out the Kremlin’s near-term foreign policy priorities while admonishing Russia’s diplomats for performance shortcomings over the past year. It is noteworthy that Putin’s appearance at the Foreign Ministry building was his first since becoming president over a year ago. Many of the senior Russian diplomats and ambassadors in attendance reportedly flew to Moscow specifically to attend the gathering. That the occasion was an important one was also highlighted by Putin’s retinue–Kremlin administrative head Aleksandr Voloshin and his deputy, Sergei Prikhodko; Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and the ubiquitous secretary of the Russian Security Council, Sergei Ivanov.

As described in a text of the speech posted by the Strana.ru web site, Putin began his remarks by noting the many difficulties Russia now faces in the international arena. He pointed to the accelerating phenomenon of globalization, and suggested that Russia’s main strategic task today consists in integrating itself into this rapidly evolving world community. He said that the chief task of Russian diplomacy is to create the sort of stable and secure conditions around Russia which will permit the government to concentrate on solving the country’s social and economic problems.

Putin then went on to identify some of the more specific problems on which the Kremlin wants its diplomats to focus their attention. Under the rubric of “ensuring strategic stability” he raised the twin issues of U.S. plans for a national missile defense system and preservation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. He resorted to none of the saber-rattling often heard out of Moscow on this issue, and even suggested that the Kremlin had some hope of reaching a negotiated settlement by which the two sides might resolve their differences in this area. He provided no specifics as to which signals from Washington had led him to draw this conclusion, however, but said that the Kremlin was looking forward to negotiating with the Bush administration on these issues. He also made brief mention of another complex of issues that fell under the rubric of strategic stability. They included regional conflicts, separatism and the threat posed by terrorism and what he called fundamentalism.

Putin then turned in a somewhat unexpected direction, telling those assembled that Russian diplomacy had to place greater emphasis on the promotion of the country’s economic interests abroad. Among other things, he 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. He also said that the Foreign Ministry had to do a better job working with various Russian regions in promoting their economic interests abroad, and singled out Siberia and the Russian Far East for special attention. He provided few details, but did urge the Foreign Ministry to act more aggressively by taking advantage of a decree issued earlier by then President Boris Yeltsin. The decree entrusted the Foreign Ministry with a “coordinating role” in the implementation of Russian foreign policies.

Putin then devoted some attention to relations between Moscow and the CIS, portraying Russia as the driving force for integration within the region. He also underscored–yet again–Moscow’s intention to defend both Russian culture and the interests of the Russian-speaking populations in the CIS countries.

Indeed, in what was something of a departure, Putin also chose to emphasize to the diplomats what he described as the importance of promoting Russia’s image abroad more generally. “The battle for influence on public attitudes abroad is becoming one of the most acute and urgent of our foreign policy problems,” Putin said. Without naming names, he intimated that certain countries were intent on portraying Russia as a threat–so as to justify building up their military forces and “to justify the use of force in international affairs.” Putin suggested that Moscow had to reinforce the notion around the globe that Russia had fundamentally changed.

Putin also dealt quickly with Europe and Asia. On the first count, he underscored Moscow’s desire to enjoy friendly relations with the European Union and with what he described more generally as a rapidly changing Europe. The Russian president likewise spoke of his desire for constructive relations with NATO, and intimated that the Western alliance is a reality which Moscow will have to deal with pragmatically for the foreseeable future. But Putin also underscored Moscow’s continuing opposition to NATO’s enlargement and the frictions which he said the issue would continue to spawn in relations between the two sides.

Putin’s comments on Russian-Asian relations were noteworthy for two reasons. For one, he spoke in general terms of the increasing importance Moscow is attaching to this part of the world, but without identifying the especially close ties Russia has been cultivating with China and India. He also made it clear that Moscow is attempting to balance its relations between East and West–“for us there can be no shift, either to the West or to the East.” That assertion would seem to rebut reports which surfaced last year alleging that Moscow (under Putin) was moving to deemphasize its relations with the West in order to focus more attention on the East. Whether it also means that China and Russia are not likely later this year to sign a formal political agreement–as some reports have suggested–is not clear.

If Putin’s January 26 speech appeared to devote little attention either to Russian-U.S. relations or to looming talks on key strategic arms control issues, it was not true of comments Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made following the president’s remarks. Ivanov underlined Moscow’s belief that it would be a mistake to allow a “pause” to occur in Russian-U.S. ties now that the Bush administration has taken power in Washington. Moscow intends to discuss with Washington “the entire complex of questions on the agenda, including questions of strategic stability,” Ivanov was quoted as saying. He also said that Moscow hoped, once the Bush administration had settled in, to reestablish regular, active contacts with the American side. Ivanov told reporters that Putin had made these same points during his talk before the Russian diplomats (Strana.ru, Russian agencies, AP, Reuters, UPI, January 26; Izvestia, January 27; Moscow Times, January 29).