As the year 2005 begins, Russia’s foreign policy strategy appears to be at a fork in the road. Most experts agree that the country’s principal strategic dilemma remains unresolved. On the one hand, Russia aspires to join the “Western world.” On the other, it cherishes a dream of restoring its status as a velikaya derzhava (great power), dominating its geopolitical neighborhood. These two goals clearly contradict each other. To confuse matters even further, throughout the past year, Russia has come to be seen as a “semi-authoritarian state basically belonging to the Third World” (Politcom.ru, December 30). Thus if the crucial policy choice is not made, the Kremlin’s international behavior in 2005 will likely be as faulty and contradictory as it was in 2004.
The divergence of views on Russia’s foreign policy record is truly remarkable. Most of Moscow’s liberal commentators agree that in the past year Russia performed dismally in the international arena. In particular, Russia worsened its relations with Western democracies and weakened its position in the former Soviet lands. According to one commentary, “For Russia, the main foreign-policy result of the past year is the most serious crisis in its relations with the West since the Cold War era” (Kommersant-Vlast, December 20). At the same time, the statist and nationalist experts assert that, strategically, Russia did not suffer serious losses in 2004 and “has all the chances for success in 2005” (Rossiiskiye vesti, December 30).
Most liberal-minded analysts predict that the relationship with the West might well remain Moscow’s “biggest irritant” for 2005. The source of mutual frustration lies in that the Putinists and Western policymakers understand the notions of partnership and cooperation quite differently.
When Putin succeeded President Boris Yeltsin in 2000, he also inherited Russia’s official foreign policy doctrine of the 1990s, which envisaged Moscow’s international identity as one that embraces human rights and democratic freedoms. That acceptance of “universal human values” formed the basis of Russia-West cooperation during the first post-communist decade, when relations were thought to be evolving toward Russia’s gradual integration with the Western world.
But Putin’s backtracking on democratic reform, his recent agitprop-style lecturing on the “unique features” of Russian democracy, and the Kremlin’s continuous attacks on the OSCE and other European organizations constitute, in fact, a rejection of those parts of the foreign-policy blueprint that stipulated that Russia and the West share common political ideals and values. Significantly, in Putin’s opinion, the Kremlin’s authoritarian and hawkish trends should by no means result in either a radical break with the West or the curtailment of cooperation. On the contrary, the Kremlin, as one analyst perceptively notes, wants to see an intensification of energy cooperation; yet at the same time it seeks to reduce Russian-Western interaction to just this one, albeit very lucrative, sphere. This strategy, the commentary concludes, can be called a transition toward a “Chinese model” (Gazeta.ru, December 8).
The West’s perspective is, naturally, different. The United States and European political elites, as well as public opinion in general, hold the view that Putin’s Russia has veered from the path of reform and modernization. The realization of this sorry fact will make relations between the Kremlin and the leading Western powers hypocritical, some liberal experts say. In the opinion of Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the influential journal Rossiya v globalnoi politike, having lost the hope of Russia’s integration into the Western world, Putin’s counterparts in the West will likely keep the appearance of partner-like and even friendly relations with the Kremlin leader, “trying to use [these ties] to get economic or political advantages for their countries” (Gazeta.ru, December 30).
The second negative trend — the erosion of Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space — is linked with further strains in Russian-Western ties. According to a number of regional experts, political processes in the former Soviet borderlands will become a “major foreign policy problem” for the Kremlin in 2005. The past year has demonstrated how dramatically Moscow’s prestige has dropped in the countries that Russia’s political class still regards as its strategic backyard. According to one commentator, for the leaders of the post-Soviet states, Russia’s weakness is a troubling signal that protection by Big Brother Russia has ceased to be a serious guarantee of their power. This prompts them to take a more independent line with Moscow and seek the support of other, possibly more powerful, international actors (Gazeta.ru, December 30).
Furthermore, Russia’s appeal as an attractive socio-economic model is definitely waning. According to Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, in the past year Russia’s economic performance was not terribly impressive, despite the extremely high oil prices. And the Russian political model, Karaganov adds, is increasingly perceived “at least in the Western parts of the former USSR, as neither particularly attractive nor stable” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 20).
Against this backdrop, the analysts note, the Ukrainian election debacle has indeed been Russia’s most painful foreign policy defeat, whose negative consequences will continue to be felt in 2005. Given the powerful pull of the EU, Kyiv will likely withdraw from the ambitious plans to fashion a Russia-led Single Economic Space. As Karaganov conceded, due to the Kremlin miscalculations, the EU has reaped “gigantic possibilities” in Ukraine.
In contrast, nationalist-minded commentators assert that Moscow, in fact, was quite successful in pursuing its national interests in 2004. From their perspective, Moscow’s main achievement was to successfully rebuff Western attempts to shape Russia in the Western image. Americans and Europeans, these analysts contend, fail to understand that Russia “is not Europe’s backyard but [is] a special world unto itself — a unique civilization that has an enormously rich historical experience behind it.”
Thus Russia’s strategic objective should be to build a system of alliances aimed at turning today’s U.S.-dominated “uni-polar” world into a “multi-polar” one. This strategy requires the development of comprehensive, trilateral cooperation among Russia, China, and India. According to one commentary, the past year saw a “strategic breakthrough” in Russia-China relations, with military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Beijing reaching the level of “military alliance,” envisaging co-production of military hardware and joint war games (Rossiiskiye vesti, December 30).
Yet other analysts rightly point out that, for their part, India and China are not going to enter into a confrontation with the Western world. Consequently, it is a good thing for Russia to strengthen economic and political ties with the Asian countries. However, any idea of building an anti-Western alliance with some leading Asian nations is a “reactionary utopia” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 20).