At the annual Munich security conference last weekend, Russia received as little attention as it had attracted at the Davos World Economic Forum in the previous week. The star presenter this year was the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and hardly anyone reflected upon the sensational speech delivered at this venue by the then President Vladimir Putin just three years ago. Political vogue tends to swing, but Russia’s eclipse is caused by a profound loss of international influence accentuated rather than camouflaged by President Dmitry Medvedev’s efforts to build his profile. Russia has turned out to be one of the worst losers in the global recession, and while China’s model of “market communism” has proven its strength, Putin’s petro-state is struggling on a slow recovery track (Ekho Moskvy, February 5).
Russia’s relations with its Western partners, and even with NATO, have been normalized but the implementation of the “reset” proposed by US Vice-President Joe Biden in Munich last year, has also brought disappointment. Despite many promises, a new treaty on reducing strategic arms was not signed in time to replace the START I (which expired on December 5, 2009), and this dissipation of cooperative momentum might prove to be more significant than diplomats who are ironing out a perfect text tend to believe. Both sides refer to mere “technicalities,” but it is unclear how Putin’s insistence on the linkage between strategic offence and defense, and the US commitment to deploying a multi-layer strategic defense system can be reconciled (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, January 22). A new twist in this intrigue was added by Romania’s unexpected announcement of its readiness to host US interceptor-missiles, which could not fail to irritate Moscow (Kommersant, February 6). The Obama administration is exploring new avenues to reduce “the role and number of nuclear weapons,” as the National Security Adviser James L. Jones restated in Munich, but Putin’s loyal lieutenant, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov expressed no enthusiasm whatsoever about a possible new arms control framework for tactical nuclear weapons (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 5).
The emphasis on nuclear deterrence is quite pronounced in the official rhetoric, but the military doctrine approved by Medvedev last week after a long delay downplays this issue, describing nuclear weapons merely as “an important factor in preventing” both nuclear and conventional wars (RIA Novosti, February 5). Contrary to many leaks about a new guideline on preventive strikes, the doctrine clarifies that nuclear weapons could be used in a conventional war that “threatens the very existence of the state” (www.gazeta.ru, February 5). This condition is probably elaborated in the new confidential document on the Principles of State Deterrence Policy to 2020, but what is strikingly old-fashioned in the doctrine is the list of external military dangers which opens with NATO’s expansion, and deployment of the Alliance’s military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders (Kommersant, February 6). NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen could only say that the doctrine does not reflect the real world and contradicts efforts at improving NATO-Russia relations (www.newsru.com, February 6).
Medvedev tries to draw attention away from these remnants of Soviet strategizing by advertising his pan-European initiative, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov duly made yet another effort to sell it during the Munich conference (RIA Novosti, February 6). The German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle politely reiterated that Medvedev’s idea deserves “a substantive discussion.” However, signals from the US are firm and clear: Europe needs no more institutions, but rather greater commitment to the rules of existing organizations. Moscow has a point in arguing about the erosion of the core structures, yet its own heavy contribution to sabotaging them is undeniable, so Lavrov’s remark about the “atrophy” of the OSCE would hardly amuse even Kazakhstan, since it currently chairs this institution. It is slightly odd that Russian political propagandists now rarely mention Medvedev’s draft new treaty (published in late November 2009), but push the proposition based on the inadequacy of the security system that does not answer the needs of such a key member as Russia. What adds currency to this proposition is the concern in many European capitals (and hopefully in Moscow) that the Obama team has little time for, and scant interest in trans-Atlantic relations, which by default increases Russia’s profile (www.gazeta.ru, February 4).
Washington seeks to dispel such concerns by expanding debates on NATO’s new Strategic Concept, and Russian diplomats were sternly reminded by Madeleine Albright who chairs the group of “wise men” steering these debates that Russia is just one of NATO’s partners and not in any position to lecture the Alliance (Kommersant, January 28). One pivotal matter where Moscow has been far less cooperative than Western advocates of the “reset” had hoped is over the Iranian nuclear and missile programs (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 4). The Munich conference shows, however, that the policy of consensus-building has shifted. Previously, the US and the EU “troika” considered that it was crucially important to keep Russia onboard, and then China would not act as a “spoiler.” They now understand that China’s position is the key, and Russia will follow suit.
Russia’s dwindling security profile is determined by its economic ills, but distinctly sharpened by the weakness of its leadership. Every benefit of the doubt was given to Medvedev by his Western partners, but his message of “modernization” rings increasingly hollow. The Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), a think-tank working under Medvedev’s patronage, last week published a report on Russia’s desirable future, which portrays a mature democratic state that will upgrade its partnership with NATO to full membership (Vedomosti, February 3). The report provides no roadmap for reaching that barely believable goal, but it strongly emphasizes that innovative economic development is possible only through a profound democratization of the political system. Medvedev’s “modernization” dares not to set any targets in this direction, however, it still comes out as the only politically possible anti-Putin project (www.gazeta.ru, February 1). Putin once enjoyed small moments of cutting Medvedev down to size, but now it is becoming truly necessary for him to remind him who is the boss. Such reminders, however, fail to impress the political elites who observe at close quarters his denial of irrepressible change.