PUTIN THE DIPLOMAT
Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 16
In foreign policy matters, on the other hand, over the past fortnight Putin appeared to come up roses at every turn. He followed summit talks in China and a groundbreaking visit to North Korea with a performance at the summit of Group of Seven countries and Russia in Japan on July 21-23 which some participants described as “dazzling.” Nor did the Kremlin rest on its laurels after the Okinawa meeting. In the days which followed Moscow played host to separate high-profile visits by top officials from both Libya and Iraq. In the interim Putin won yet another diplomatic victory when New Delhi honored his request to release a group of five Russian pilots who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for having aided separatist forces in India. The pardon removed one of the few irritants in Russian-Indian relations and cleared the way for this October’s planned summit meeting between Putin and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Overall, Putin’s performance this past fortnight fulfilled predictions that the accession to power of the former intelligence chief would result in more assertive and energetic Russian policies abroad. It appeared also to confirm that the Kremlin would devote more of its attention to relations with the non-Western world.
What remained unclear, however, was whether a still economically and politically decrepit Russia could translate Putin’s highwire diplomatic acts into substantive geopolitical gains. The extent to which the Russian president’s visits to North Korea and China focused on joint opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, for example, suggested that Moscow may have made no great strides in terms of boosting broader bilateral relations with these two countries. Putin’s bravado performance in Okinawa, likewise, could not obscure the fact that the Russian president had been forced to back off the issue that was really of greatest interest to Moscow: the Kremlin’s hopes of winning debt relief from the G-7 countries. Moreover, Russia’s enduring economic backwardness and the country’s still questionable democratic credentials (rendered more questionable still since Putin’s accession to power) put in an awkward light talk of making Russia a permanent member of an expanded “G-8.”