Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 3

In an interview with Russian journalists last week, President Vladimir Putin highlighted what appears to be one of the central goals in the Kremlin’s emerging approach to foreign policy: the need to steer an intelligent course between the imperialistic posture of Soviet policymakers and what Russian commentators today claim was the overly pro-Western foreign policy orientation of the early years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. “In the Soviet days we scared the world so that huge military and political blocs emerged,” Putin told Russian television viewers. “But,” he added, “ten years ago we decided for some reason that everyone heartily loves us.” This course turned out to “wrong as well,” the Russian president concluded. “We must get rid of imperial ambitions on the one hand, and on the other clearly understand where our national interests are, to spell them out and fight for them.”

Putin’s comments, coming on approximately the one-year anniversary of his accession to the Russian presidency, reflect what many are describing as a new pragmatism in the Kremlin’s conduct of Russian foreign policy. This apparently includes stepped-up Russian efforts to reconstruct relations with a host of countries which had close ties with Moscow during the Soviet period, countries which to varying degrees continue to be viewed as rogue states by some Western governments. Putin suggested in comments on December 25, however, that whereas Moscow had based friendly relations with these countries on “ideological” considerations during the Soviet period, Russian policymakers would now turn to these countries on a more pragmatic basis. Putin provided few details, but appeared to suggest that economic considerations would loom large in this new assessment, and that Moscow was attaching great importance to regaining markets in the countries with which it had once enjoyed partnership relations.

Putin also made it clear that Moscow has extended this sort of analysis to its relations with both Iraq and Iran. “Substantial changes are taking place [in these countries],” he said. He then suggested that Russia must take advantage of these changes in order to promote its own interests: “We… must help our companies to work there [in Iraq and Iran] and create the necessary conditions for them.” His remarks came only days before Defense Minister Igor Sergeev arrived in Tehran for three days of talks with Iranian leaders aimed at boosting military and more general cooperation between the two countries (Reuters, AFP, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Russian agencies, December 26, 2000; see the Monitor, January 2).

A new factor in Russian foreign policy–which Kremlin observers have noted, but which the Russian president did not mention on December 25–is Moscow’s apparent determination to regain some sense of having the initiative on the world stage. This effort has been manifested in part simply by the unexpected intensity of Putin’s diplomatic activities: Although he was expected to focus primarily on Russia’s domestic problems following his accession to the presidency, Putin has in fact traveled and met with other world leaders at a feverish pace. The contrast between his activities in this area and his predecessor Yeltsin’s has been especially marked. As Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Moscow Center put it last month with regard to Russia-U.S. relations: “For a number of years under Yeltsin, we would always come to him with the list of things we wanted to do and it was always a task of trying to get him to cooperate. Putin has changed that dynamic. Suddenly we are responding to him, and frankly some people don’t like that” (New York Times News Service, December 14, 2000).

In pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, one which includes the mending of fences between Moscow and the so-called rogue states, Putin’s Kremlin has nevertheless labored to ensure that it maintains constructive relations with the West. The difficulty of that task has been eased somewhat (and so far) by the Kremlin’s decision to differentiate between the United States and its various NATO allies in shaping Moscow’s dealings with the “West.” Thus, Putin has traveled to a host of European capitals (as well as to Canada), and has emphasized Moscow’s close ties to Europe, while seemingly attaching less urgency to promoting ties with Washington. Most recently, including in his December 25 remarks, Putin has spoken publicly of his belief that friendly relations can be maintained between Moscow and Washington under the incoming Bush administration. But other Putin moves over the past year suggest that the Kremlin is in fact keen to exploit tensions between the United States and Europe, and that it is likely to use such divisive issues as U.S. national missile defense plans and the creation of a European defense force–not to mention the more sympathetic postures of many European states to the so-called rogue countries–in an effort to gain political influence in Europe at Washington’s expense.