This article was written by two Spring 2012 Participants in PSA’s Congressional Partnership Program. All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Hill Staff who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.
Putin’s Complicated Foreign Policy
Within weeks of being inaugurated in his third term as the President of Russia in May, Vladimir Putin announced his decisions to skip the G-8 summit at Camp David, and to send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in London, sending commentators in the Western world into a frenzy. Many in the United States proclaimed (and mourned) the end of the Russia reset. This view only increased as Putin appeared to turn his attention to his immediate neighbor, Belarus, making his first international visit with President Alexander Lukashenko, and then attending a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Additionally, Putin has joined China in opposing UN efforts to sanction Syria, a move that has frustrated many, while Russia continues to supply the Assad regime with weapons. Although the Russian reset with the West technically took place during Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, there is little doubt that then-Prime Minister Putin was heavily involved in this decision (as well as most others). What, then, explains this sudden and drastic shift?
“Russia is only respected and has its interests considered when the country is strong and stands firmly on its own feet,” Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in February in a piece for The Moscow News. Putin is not trying to hide his motives. Because ideology does not drive his actions, his decisions can look inconsistent, but Putin’s main interest is in returning Russia – and himself – to a position of greatness. In the face of protests and an increasing lack of support within his own country, Putin is trying to remain on the world stage, but is currently doing so by isolating himself from the world’s players.
Putin’s actions have raised concern in the west, and at home, as well. The December 2011 Duma elections were widely regarded as a referendum on Putin. Although Putin’s party, United Russia, won with 50% of the vote – a landslide by Western standards – by Russian standards, this was a cause for alarm. Four years ago, United Russia had received 64% of the vote, and independent monitors believe that the 2011 figures may be 15 to 20 points lower than reported for United Russia.
Russians have responded to the flawed election process by holding protests. Beginning immediately after the Duma elections, and continuing through 2012, a series of protests have taken place, and have been aimed primarily at Putin and United Russia.
Faced with what appears to be a threat to his legitimacy, Putin is appealing to nationalism to win popular support. By pursuing an isolationist strategy and creating common enemies, he is attempting to unite the Russian people. While he may appear to be anti-Western, it is in reality more of a current strategy than a permanent ideology. Putin is, at heart, a realist who seeks to return to the days of Russian dominance. He will create and destroy alliances and pursue and turn away from policies as it suits his interests at any given time. In the instances of Iran and Afghanistan, Putin has both created problems and then earned goodwill by offering minor concessions. In the case of Iran, Russia helped build the controversial nuclear reactor at Bushehr, offered to enrich uranium for the Iranians, and agreed to sell the country S-300 air defense missile systems, considered to be among the most effective anti-aircraft systems in existence. This friendship between Moscow and Tehran concerned many in the West. Ultimately, Russia backed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, imposing sanctions on Iran (that had been watered-down at Moscow’s request), and canceled the sale of the S-300 systems. The Western world welcomed Russian cooperation; meanwhile, Russia continues to benefit from tensions between Iran and the West (including sanctions), which keep oil prices high. Similarly, Moscow has reportedly pressured Kyrgyzstan to terminate its lease of Manas Air Base to the United States, a crucial air base for Afghanistan operations, while allowing NATO troops to transport non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan through Russia. Putin is able to appear helpful in Afghanistan, engendering goodwill, while simultaneously undermining efforts behind the scenes. He seems less interested in building lasting strategic relationships with other nations, and more interested in tactical political calculations. As for his turn to the East, this is also not likely to be a lasting alliance.
Publicly, under Medvedev and Putin, Russia has been turning its attention toward regional alliances, like the SCO, as a means to curb US and Western influence in that part of the world. Putin has shown little regard for the Western community since his return to the helm of Russia. His recent actions regarding the G8, the London Olympics, and his repeated sabotaging of a United Nations resolution on Syria are proof that he will do anything he can to torpedo agendas that might interfere with his own – and that includes those of the same nations with which he is seeking a bolstered relationship.
“I am convinced that China’s economic growth is by no means a threat, but a challenge that carries colossal potential for business cooperation – a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy,” Putin stated earlier this year. This sentiment is likely rooted more in a clever public relations campaign, however, than truth. The truth is that Russians cast the same suspecting eye to the south as they do to the west. The deep-rooted history of transgressions aside, Putin’s private feelings toward China are on full display through his actions taken in the Russian Far East.
In the Far East, Putin has become concerned over the sphere of Chinese influence creeping across historically disputed borders. While military action between Moscow and Beijing over the region is likely a thing of the past, the economic reality is the Russians in the Far East are becoming heavily dependent upon Chinese goods and services. Old Cold Warriors frequently say that Russians have long memories; if this is true, then those in cities like Vladivostok certainly don’t look back fondly on the rough times after the Cold War where shortages of food rations caused starvation and death among the military garrisons in the region. As such, it is not uncommon now to see Russians in the Far East taking short trips across the border to China to procure items not readily available to them at home. This is something that has been encouraged by China and has caused heartburn in the Kremlin.
In response, the Russian government has taken several steps to begin mitigating China’s influence in the region. Such steps include standard government practice of injecting the region, specifically Russky Island, with cash for infrastructure projects to increase commerce and tourism. The government has also created state-owned enterprises to exploit the natural resources of the area. But more bizarrely, the Russian government has paid to transport hundreds of Russian-speaking families to the region to bolster the local population against the ever-increasing size of the Chinese populace. All of these maneuvers are being overseen by Viktor Ishayev, the inaugural Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East. 2
The most telling sign, however, of the state of relations between Moscow and Beijing is the fact that Russia is in the planning stages of home porting its new class of submarines with the naval fleet at Vladivostok. Even more interesting is that in the summer of 2012, the Russian Navy, for the first time, was a participant in the bi-annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) war games exercise – the largest international naval cooperation. RIMPAC was initially founded as a way for the United States Navy and its allies to prepare for a shooting war with the Soviets. More recently, the participating nations have each turned their attention to a more aggressive China. Russian participation suggests that they, like the rest of the Asian-Pacific have concerns about China’s growing sphere of military influence. The irony of the Russian Navy participating in war games alongside the United States, while at the same time opposing the United States in various other scenarios will not be lost on many; however, it plays right into the notion that Putin will concentrate his own decisions to achieve his ultimate goal of returning his country to its former glory.
It would be a drastic understatement to say that Vladimir Putin is a complicated man. The world watched in amazement over a decade ago when this unassuming ex-KGB officer ascended to the highest reaches of Russian power, wondering who this man was, and what he would represent for the future of Russia. Today, Western powers still speculate with fascination how Putin has continued to inject himself into, and influence world affairs. The United States is mere months away from deciding who its next President will be. Whether that is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, the American President over the next several years will have to delicately balance his dealings with the Russian leader. There can be no doubt that Putin will stop at nothing to see his country restored to the respect and fear it once commanded. The response of the United States, and the West, will matter a great deal to the future of global security and economics.