The Elections Are Over and Putin Won: Whither Russia?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 64

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Source: Reuters)

The Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011 inspired a wave of demonstrations against graft corruption and a rigged vote, as well as political rumblings across the country. Yet, in spite of it all, Vladimir Putin won a resounding victory in Russia’s March 4th presidential elections and will take office in May for a six-year term. In the immediate aftermath of the election, the global press was full of speculation about where Russia was headed under Putin. Much of the discussion focused on whether and how Putin might adapt his version of managed democracy to changes in Russian society, especially the emergence of political demands in the two major urban centers, Moscow and St. Petersburg, for a more open and less authoritarian order. Some doubted Putin’s ability to evolve, citing his background in the KGB and his many years already in power. John Lough – an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House and vice president of BGR Gabara, a public affairs and strategic consulting company that supports pan-European government relations services, media relations across Europe, political campaign management and financial communications – wrote of Putin having lost his “Teflon coating.” Lough, who has spent years in Moscow, appreciates how Putin earned his “Teflon” and understands how he lost it. The absence of viable alternative candidates gave Putin his easy victory this time, but it did not end the underlying problems of Russian society, especially among the young and upwardly mobile, who do remember the decade of crisis that brought Putin to power but want more than minor political and economic reforms, which might turn “stagnation minus” into “stagnation plus” (The Moscow Times, March 13).

Anti-Americanism as Tactic, Strategy or Ideology?

The other major focus in the global press was upon what direction Russian foreign policy might take. In the West, and especially in the United States, the focus was on the fate of the “Reset” in US-Russian relations, which had gotten rocky in November over Russia’s objections to the further development of US-NATO’s European missile defense system in the absence of any agreement on NATO-Russian cooperation. Relations got worse as the situation in Syria moved from demonstrations to repression and approached civil war, with Russia and China vetoing an Arab League-sponsored resolution calling for President Assad to step down. On the eve of the elections, National Public Radio interviewed Ambassador Michael McFaul on the future direction of US-Russian relations. McFaul, an expert on Russia before he became a diplomat, had been involved in the formulation of the “Reset” at the beginning of the Obama Administration. He expressed surprise at the anti-American tone of Putin’s presidential campaign and the current tensions between the US and Russia over humanitarian intervention in Syria. On the eve of the election – with public opinion polls predicting a Putin victory – McFaul stated that the US government would continue to follow the “Reset.” “We think it’s been successful. And we plan to stick to our guns. And we look forward to having a partner on the other side that sees the value in continuing as well” (National Public Radio, March 3). Nikolai Zlobin also commented on the anti-Americanism in Putin’s electoral campaign but attributed it to a flawed ideology that affects Russians: “According to this line of reason, the only way to accomplish periodic attempts at modernization is to rally the people against an outside enemy.” Zlobin decries such efforts to convince the Russian people that the country’s development – and even survival – depends on defeating an imaginary outside threat (The Moscow Times, February 16).

A British View of Russian Foreign Relations Under Putin

Whether Putin’s anti-Americanism was just election posturing or ideological manipulation to foster internal mobilization for transformation does not answer the question just how will Putin, the geopolitical realist, guide Russian foreign policy over the next six years. Saying more of the same does not really provide a compelling answer because Putin has been adaptive to circumstances. In the wake of 9/11, he was an open proponent of US-Russian cooperation against terrorism. When the Bush administration decided upon military intervention in Iraq, Putin’s government expressed its opposition to that course of action. Russia has cooperated in efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and has supported sanctions against Iran as it has warned against ill-considered military options. Allied forces in Afghanistan receive supplies via lines of communication crossing Russia. Russia is not a superpower, but it is a regional power and claims to be one of the emerging regional great powers, which include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). The BRICS are expected to exercise increasing influence over the next decades. In this context, the most effective prism for assessing Putin’s post-election foreign policy is regional, as James Nixey made clear in a recent essay on “Russia’s geopolitical compass.” Nixey’s essay is part of a Chatham House Report. He addresses four geostrategic axes for Russia: the West, Russia’s many “souths” – the Black Sea region and the Islamic world – Russia’s Far East and the Arctic North. Nixey emphasizes the enduring importance of the West to Russia as a point of orientation. But Russian analysis has shifted its focus and now does not perceive the West as “a monolith – and certainly not all-powerful.” This fact, in part, explains his subtitle: “Losing Direction.” In his review of Russia’s relations with Britain, Germany and the United States, he underscores the diverse relations that Russia has with the West, but also suggests that US-Russian relations under the “Reset” have not achieved a qualitative breakthrough because the Russian elite continues to see the United States as a rival if not an overt enemy in spite of the “Reset.” Nixey does recommend that the US Congress should repeal Jackson-Vanik as a Cold War relic in the hope that after the US presidential elections political stability will permit the administration to devise the means to deal with “a more assertive Putin.” In the Black Sea region and the Islamic world, Nixey focuses upon the Arab Spring and its impact upon Russian policy. He suggests that Russia’s efforts to play the role of a great power have put it into a position of isolation with regard to the West and to the Arab states. Of course, Russia’s isolation with regard to the veto of humanitarian intervention in Syria was not complete. Russia joined China in that venture and here Nixey takes note of Putin’s desire to make Russia an Asian power, even as its underlying weaknesses in Siberia and the Russian Far East are evident. Nixey agrees with Bobo Lo, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London, that Russia’s relations with China are nothing more than an “alliance of convenience” by which Russia seeks to leverage influence with the West to gain acceptance. In this context, China is only a “geopolitical counterweight to the West.” Turning to the Arctic, Nixey notes Russia’s interest in this region because of its geo-strategic position, its energy potential and the emerging possibility of maritime navigation in the polar north. Putin has expressed a powerful vision of Russia’s place in a dynamic Arctic region and has sought foreign assistance in getting access to the region’s natural resources. But, there has also been much talk about the militarization of Russia’s Arctic bastion to stake claims to sovereign access to the region’s resources. Beyond the individual regional directions, Nixey sees the underlying fact of Russia’s control of considerable natural resources, especially oil and gas, making it a key player in the global economy. (James Nixey, Chatham House, 2012).

A Geopolitical View from Paris

Other analyses of the impact of Putin’s election on Russian foreign policy have emphasized the differences among leading Western powers in their approach to Russia. Marc Rousset, a French historian and political analyst and author of La nouvelle Europe: Paris-Berlin-Moscou [The New Europe: Paris-Berlin-Moscow] (2009), commented that Putin’s election was good news for “Old Europe.” According to Rousset, Putin would bring “bravery, foresight and pragmatism” to Russian policy in the interest of creating a geopolitical order from the Atlantic to Vladivostok. Rousset emphasized that Putin is a European from St. Petersburg working toward closer ties among Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. His conception of a Eurasian union had the possibility of creating an imperial order to rival that of the American empire and the emerging new orders in China and India (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, March 6). Rousset was quoted in November of last year as seeing the emergence of an axis of Paris, Berlin and Moscow being the answer to the present crisis in the Eurozone and the means to restore Europe’s position as a major player in the international system (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, November 17, 2011). Sergei Karganov answered that line of thought in December of last year by calling on Russia to turn away from Europe and make its future with a dynamic Asia-Pacific region led by China (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, December 28, 2011).

“The German” Is Back in Charge

The view of Putin’s foreign policy from Berlin takes into account Europe’s economic problems. Alexander Rahr, Putin’s biographer and the Program Director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia of the German Foreign Policy Association, stressed the need for Europe to cultivate economic ties with Russia. Rahr, who made the subtitle of his biography of Putin “Der Deutsche im Kreml” [“The German in the Kremlin”], was quite optimistic about Putin’s accomplishments during his third term as president. He asserted, “I think the President will accomplish everything that he spoke and wrote about in his articles: the further strengthening of the social bases of the state, the country’s military potential, democratic institutions, investment climate, the movement of Russia into the World Trade Organization and the global structures of the world economy. He will also shift the modernization of Russia, which will move away from dependence on oil and gas” (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, March 6).
Rahr emphasized the need for the European Union to open its own window to Russia in order to survive and prosper in a new global situation. Liberal opinion in Europe has been very negative toward Putin and considered his election illegitimate. But European opinion had to overcome that view. Putin would remain committed to a strategic partnership with the European Union, even as Russo-American relations remained rocky over European missile defense and the crises in Syria and Iran. Changes in the rest of the world would enhance Russia’s importance for the EU. America would have to face the economic rise of China as a true competitor. In this context, Rahr presented Putin as a practitioner of Realpolitik, whom the EU would do well to cultivate as a partner. Rahr pictured a multi-polar world order where Western unity would be, at best, nominal (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, March 6). Rahr carried these points further in a piece on Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, in which he stated that the idea of a Eurasian Union based on cooperation among Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus held out the prospect for peace, economic development and stability for the region. If successful, it could be a suitable partner for the European Union, now going through its own troubles (Alexander Rahr, Valdai Discussion Club, March 14).

Once More Eurasian Dreams

In the aftermath of Putin’s election, Aleksandr Dugin, the chief ideologue of anti-Western Eurasianism, stated that Putin stood at a moment of strategic choice: embrace the liberalism and Westernism of Russia’s bourgeois elite or the nationalism of the Russian common folk – historically the victims of the corruption of Russia’s liberal elite, which champions Russia’s subservience to the West. Dugin wrote that by promoting a Eurasian Union, Putin had already spoken the word that defined his choice. This was the path to national revival and to an economy based upon the reconstruction of Russia’s defense sector. Dugin states: “Both sides want reforms from Putin but they desire direct opposites. The elites want democratization, modernization, liberalization and growing closer to the West. The people want the national idea, a firm hand, a strengthening of sovereignty, a great power state, paternalism and social justice.” This choice for Putin comes at a particularly critical moment, according to Dugin. The hegemony of the US and its allies is being tested in an emerging multi-polar world. The immediate challengers are Syria and Iran. But once those two states have been defeated by military intervention, Russia itself will have to face the threat of such intervention. “…after the prepared attacks on Syria and Iran, the logical next target will be Russia. Of course, Russia will not survive such a confrontation with the West alone. Therefore, it is necessary to quickly create a multi-polar coalition, doing everything so that China, India, the states of the Islamic World, Asia and Latin America would be on our side,” Dugin writes (Aleksandr Dugin, Argumenty i Fakty, March 14).

Dugin sees an alliance with China as supporting both the domestic and foreign policy goals of Russia as understood by the creation of a Eurasian Union. Putin has articulated a different role for the Eurasian Union and sees Russian cooperation with China as a necessary part of Russia’s integration into the coming century of Asia. As seen from Eurasia, Putin would seek stability with the West, strengthen Russia’s ties with its neighbors, be pragmatic toward Washington but expect no major breakthrough in relations, and cultivate ties with Beijing to ensure Russia’s position in Asia. As Putin declared in his pre-election foreign policy program, “Russia needs a prosperous and stable China just as China needs a strong and successful Russia” (Aziatskii Reporter: Delovye Khroniki Vostoka, March 6).
There have been many rumblings since the March 4th presidential election about Russia’s future relations with China, much of it informed by the perception of the dynamics governing the Beijing-Washington-Moscow triangle and the various forces acting upon it. Some of the comments envision a deepening of the strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing, while others openly speak of China as an economic threat to Russia’s interests. So far the geo-strategic re-orientation of the Obama administration does not seem to have impacted Russian strategy, which still sees US-NATO missile defense as the decisive barrier to qualitatively different relations.