Russian foreign policy in Putin’s third term

Despite the sweeping changes taking place across the Middle East and Asia, Putin is unlikely to change Russia’s foreign policy.

Mark N. Katz

What will Russian foreign policy be like now that Vladimir Putin has resumed the Russian presidency? There are two general observations that can be made about this question.

First, Putin’s return to the presidency is unlikely to lead to dramatic change in Russian foreign policy since he appears to have been the principal architect of it while serving as prime minister.

Second, and more importantly, an unchanging Russian foreign policy is likely to mean that the most important priority for it under President Putin is likely to be—just as it has been under Prime Minister Putin—opposition to change and preservation of the status quo.

Putin’s foreign policy priority during his earlier years as president (1999-2008) was to reassert Russia’s status as a great power. Putin appeared to be highly successful at achieving this goal so long as the price of oil was rising. Curiously enough, the beginning of Dmitry Medvedev’s term as president in May 2008 was followed soon thereafter by a worldwide economic crisis and a rapid decline in oil prices.

Although Russia is generally considered a European nation, its geography spans both Europe and Asia.

Since then, oil prices have recovered somewhat. But what the past four years have demonstrated is that there are limits to what Moscow can do to revive Russia as a great power. The growth in Russia’s petroleum sector has not led to the growth in its non-petroleum economy. The inability—indeed, unwillingness—of the Russian leadership to eliminate widespread corruption has meant that Moscow has been unable to attract the foreign investment that it urgently needs to bring about economic growth. The aging and shrinking of Russia’s population means that the manpower resources available for the Russian military are only going to become increasingly limited. Further, the emergence of opposition to Putin across the political spectrum means that he now needs to worry more about whether his policies are domestically popular. Taking risks abroad could have serious consequences for him inside Russia.

Even as prime minister, Putin’s reaction to Russia’s decreased ability to act as a great power has been to emphasize relatively risk-free actions that (he hopes) give the appearance of Russia being a great power. Thus, Putin has emphasized the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and his plan for a Eurasian Union. Similarly, Putin has devoted a lot of time and energy to summits with the leaders of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)—even though it is increasingly apparent that these countries have very different interests and are not going to form an alliance.

Otherwise, Putin’s principal foreign policy priority now is to prevent any change that might harm Russia—which increasingly appears to mean the prevention of any change at all. Putin, for example, opposes the increase of American power and influence. But he also opposes the weakening of it in Afghanistan for fear of the problems Russia will face there if America withdraws completely. In addition, Putin opposes a strong European Union that seeks to cajole Russia into adopting European norms and values. But he does not want an economically weak Europe that buys much less oil and gas from Russia either.

Furthermore, Putin opposes the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. But he also opposes any forceful action to prevent it from doing so. Similarly, Putin does not want North Korea to undertake any actions that would lead to conflict in north-east Asia. But he does not want to see the collapse of the regime there either. And Putin can only view with concern the rise of China under its current authoritarian regime. But he certainly doesn’t want to see democratic change in China either, for fear of the impact this might have on his own authoritarian rule.

Finally, Putin very much opposes the downfall of long-lived authoritarian regimes and the prospect of democratization in the Middle East via the Arab Spring. But he cannot afford to have bad relations with the new governments that have arisen for fear of the impact this could have both on Russian commercial interests in these countries and on the ability of Muslim opposition groups in Russia to obtain support from them.

Under Putin’s leadership so far, then, Russia’s foreign policy has become increasingly opposed to change in the world. This is a trend that is not only likely to continue during his third term as president, but also one that is likely to become more and more apparent. The problem with such a policy, of course, is that change occurs whether certain leaders want it to or not. The US is not going to halt its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Europe will not solve its economic problems, China’s power and influence will not stop rising, and the Arab Spring will not come to an end out of deference to Putin. In a changing world, a successful foreign policy will be one that adapts to change. A leader like Putin who focuses on trying to prevent change is especially unlikely, then, to pursue a foreign policy that is successful in the long run.

Mark N. Katz, a regular contributor to Addis Standard magazine, teaches at George Mason University and is the author of a recently released book ‘Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan’

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