On July 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his second plenary address to the Russian diplomatic corps. Putin declared that Russia should be at the vanguard of the countries “shaping the new world order.” In this respect, Russia’s ambassadors were told to do more to promote the country’s image abroad and to successfully compete with the other international players active in the post-Soviet region.
Some 130 elite members of the Russian diplomatic corps were summoned to the Foreign Ministry building in Smolenskaya Ploshchad to hear Putin outline the Kremlin’s foreign policy priorities. Two years earlier, in July 2002, Putin made a similar address to his diplomatic corps, criticizing the foreign policy establishment for its failure to improve foreigners’ views of Russia. This year Putin again tasked his diplomats with improving Russia’s international prestige by “forming an unbiased, favorable image of domestic and foreign policy.”
“The way people view Russia in the countries where you are based is often far from reality. Planned campaigns to discredit the country — with obvious harm to the state and Russian businesses — are not rare,” Putin acknowledged.
The Kremlin’s desire to touch up Russia’s image is quite understandable, given the growing geopolitical competition in Moscow’s backyard, namely. Having unambiguously stated that his major foreign policy goal is to preserve Russia’s leadership role in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Putin specifically stressed that Moscow’s dominance is not preordained. Russia must vigorously compete in the post-Soviet space for fear that more active countries usurp its leading position. “What we should not do is get carried away by sentiments that no other state but Russia has a right to claim leadership in the CIS. This is an erroneous, illusory, and disorienting approach,” the Russian president cautioned.
Some local commentators praised Putin’s approach, noting that it reflects a pragmatic and shrewd assessment of current geopolitical realities. Throughout the 1990s, the bulk of Russia’s political class viewed the territory of the former USSR as Moscow’s natural zone of influence, which it had been smoothly inherited as the dominant successor state after the demise of the Soviet empire. The reality, however, is that the clear-cut and well-marked zones of influence are being replaced by vaguely defined spaces suddenly important to the latest geopolitical alignments. A state’s political influence is no longer defined by a gentleman’s agreement between key world players on the division of spheres of influence but rather by the power of each individual international actor.
In order to be a strong competitor in the new world order, Russia must draw the other successor states back into its orbit and revitalize traditional relations with its CIS partners. Putin urged the ambassadors to focus on strengthening political and economic ties with the “near abroad.”
“It is necessary to exert every effort to support the integration processes taking place in regional unions, particularly such as the Eurasian Economic Community and the Single Economic Space,” Putin continued. “Besides, it is necessary to try to make relations between Russia and other CIS countries as attractive as possible — not only for us, but also for them.”
To emphasize the importance of the task, Putin named Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko as his special envoy for CIS integration efforts. With few results to date on CIS integration, the Kremlin seems to be pinning its hopes for a strategic breakthrough on Khristenko, who is considered to be one of the ablest Russian officials. But time is of the essence. Should pro-Western forces win the October presidential election in Ukraine, it may signal the end of Moscow’s efforts to control post-Soviet relations.
Symptomatically, on July 14, leading political scientists and advisors gathered for a conference in Crimea. Participants represented all four members of the Single Economic Space: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. These “spin doctors” decided to form a “Single Expert Space” or SES-2 for short. With this announcement, the pro-Moscow political scientists sought to underline their close association with the Kremlin’s integrationist efforts.
According to Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Studies and known to be close to the Kremlin, the SES-2 took upon itself the ambitious task of “protecting our population from the foreign, particularly American, brainwashing.” America spends huge sums to secure its strategic positions in the post-Soviet space, Markov asserted. Therefore Russia and its CIS allies need to create an antidote to U.S. policies (Izvestiya, July 13; Gazeta.ru, July 13; Politcom.ru, July 13, 14; Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 14; Trud, July 14).