Vladimir Putin’s Fourth Vector
Photo: FP – “The No-Show”, by Dmitry Trenin
Changes in Russian Foreign Policy
By Dmitry Trenin, Russia in Global Affairs, June 30, 2013
Russia has pursued a multi-vector foreign policy since 2000, when Vladimir Putin began his first term as Russian president. Putin focused on establishing strong alliance – type relations with the United States and on further integration with the European Union as part of what was called Russia’s “European choice.” That short period was characterized by Putin’s support for the U.S. after the events of 11 September 2001 and was highlighted by Putin’s speech to the German parliament in October 2001. By the middle of the decade, however, Russia had left the West’s political orbit to position itself in opposition to the U.S. on key global policy issues. The culmination of that period is the five-day Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and its most prominent “literary testament” is Putin’s Munich speech of February 2007. The third period was Dmitry Medvedev’s in form, but Putin’s in essence. It was marked by a ‘reset’ in Russian-U.S. relations and textually characterized by an order from the Russian government to foster ‘modernization partnerships’ with developed states.
The change in Russian foreign policy orientation does not coincide precisely with the presidential terms of Putin and Medvedev, but there is some connection there. Russia’s foreign policy has changed again following Putin’s return to power, but the change in presidents is certainly not the main reason for that. Putin remained the leader under Medvedev and it was he who determined the foreign policy vector. In fact, the “Libyan episode” was not Medvedev’s improvisation: it was definitely Putin who ordered the Russian delegation to abstain from voting in the UN Security Council. New key factors include significant changes in Russia’s domestic situation and a shifting global environment in which this policy is implemented.
THE DOMESTIC ENVIRONMENT
In the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been qualitative changes in Russian society. About 20 percent of the population has achieved a modicum of financial security and an intellectual level that makes their active participation in public life possible and even necessary. This part of society unilaterally denounced the tacit “mutual non-interference” pact with the authorities whereby the government refrained from intruding in the private life of its citizens and the latter stayed clear of politics. As a result, the Russian governance formula – authoritarianism with the consent of those being governed – had eroded in part and contented consumers turned into angry townspeople, or protocitizens. In late 2011 and early 2012, public anger spilled onto the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major Russian cities.
The authorities immediately classified this movement as a product of subversive activities by the West, primarily by the U.S. Putin publicly accused the U.S. Department of State of financing the protests. By so doing the authorities tried to portray the opposition as a Western fifth column that wanted to weaken Russia as much as possible, and to present themselves as a national patriotic force that defended the independence and integrity of the country. When Putin declared himself the winner of the presidential election at a public rally in the evening of 4 March 2012, his words sounded like a declaration of victory over a foreign enemy and its collaborators inside the country.
Putin’s first decisions as the newly elected president were aimed at neutralizing potential sources of foreign influence on Russia’s political situation. A law was adopted hastily, which required Russian foreign-funded non-governmental organizations to register as foreign agents. Russia demanded that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) stop all operations in the country. The Russian government withdrew from several agreements with the U.S., such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, where the U.S. appeared to be the donor and Russia the recipient of aid. At the same time, the Russian government followed a policy of conspicuously conservative principles rather than imitating liberalism, as it did before.
During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, the topic of Russia went largely unmentioned except for an ambiguous statement by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who referred to Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress scrapped the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment in late 2012, but adopted the controversial Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions against Russian officials who had reportedly violated human rights. In response, the Russian parliament passed a law that banned the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. This mobilized a portion of the U.S. public against Russia, while anti-American rhetoric in Russia became one of the pillars underpinning official patriotism.
These steps taken by Moscow coupled with targeted political repressions against Russian opposition leaders, the harsh verdict against members of the female punk band Pussy Riot, who had staged a unsanctioned performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, as well as unscheduled inspections of German political foundations in Moscow, had led to increased criticism of Russia’s domestic policy in EU countries. For their part, the Russian authorities had for the first time since 1991 said that they did not fully share contemporary European values, including those related to human rights, and would steer their own course.
All this has prompted the following conclusions:
- Russia’s domestic policy and the reaction in the U.S. and Europe have for the first time in the post-Soviet period interfered with Russia’s relations with the U.S. and the EU;
- this interference has created a tendency where internal affairs partially ‘occupy’ bilateral relations;
- Russian official patriotism is fostered openly using, among other things, anti-American rhetoric; and
- disagreements between Russia and the EU have become not only situational and political, but also substantive and axiological in nature