"paradox" of Medvedev’s foreign policy

Text of report by Russian Gazeta.ru news website, often critical of the government, on 3 May

[Commentary by Fedor Lukyanov: "Transitional president of a transitional period"]

The paradox of Dmitriy Medvedev’s foreign policy legacy is that he will most probably go down in history in by no means the way that he himself would have liked or expected to. The image of the progressive Westernizer with which, from the very beginning, rumour and the mass media endowed Russia’s third president was based on his manner of behaviour, which contrasted sharply with the image of his predecessor: the rhetoric of modernization and a predilection for modern gadgets. And Medvedev is being judged mainly on the basis of a single criterion – how far the results of his polices correspond to the task that commentators and observers formulated for him on the basis of this very image.

Meanwhile, the real contribution of the Medvedev era to Russia’s evolution in the international arena lies by no means in the successful, but at the same time, opportunistic reset with the United States (which never went beyond the eternal "pressurization-relaxation" pendulum characteristic of relations between Moscow and Washington since the sixties), nor in the fine words about "partnership for the sake of modernization" with the EU.

The two main landmarks of Dmitriy Medvedev’s presidency are the beginning of a turning towards Asia and the consolidation of Russia’s prestige as a country that needs to be reckoned with.

As far as the Eastern vector is concerned, under Medvedev, talk of elaborating a comprehensive strategy for Russia in Asia began for the first time. The discussion was considerably belated: The turning of world politics towards the Asia-Pacific region began back at the turn of the century, but Moscow was too occupied at that time with internal problems and attempts to recover ground in the eyes of the West. Now, however, the impossibly of making do without a full-blown Asian course has become obvious. The fact that the conversation on this topic has begun is to the credit of the president: Vladimir Putin, despite his anti-Western image, has become "stuck" precisely in the Western direction – he is interested above all in Europe and in Asia. Medvedev – whether by dint of understanding contemporary international trends, or because of simple curiosity – has set the mode for Asia, and this is undoubtedly to his credit.

As regards prestige, the situation was partially conditioned by the confluence of circumstances. Dmitriy Medvedev’s presidency began (100 days had not passed since his assumption of office) with the Georgian war, and it ended in sharp confrontation with the West and the Arab world over the Syrian question. From both episodes, which threatened to turn into dangerous international crises, Moscow unexpectedly managed to reap political dividends.

The war in South Ossetia and victory over Tbilisi brought little glory in the strictly military sense, but the political consequences are considerable. Russia’s ability to oppose hostile expansion by force came as an unpleasant surprise to foreign partners, and forced them to take Moscow’s statements and opinion far more seriously. Moreover, the actual quality of this force (unconvincing superiority over an incomparably weaker opponent), it turned out, did not have particular significance – the main thing turned out to be the readiness to use it.

Subsequent positive events, including the already mentioned reset, would hardly have occurred if the Georgian episode had ended differently: It is not necessary to conduct a serious dialogue with a country that is useless at defending its proclaimed interests.

A similar phenomenon manifested itself in the case of Syria. Russia took an extremely uncompromising stance, blocking a resolution against the regime of Bashir al-Asad proposed by the West and the Arab community in the UN Security Council. Initially, this provoked a veritable storm of indignation: Moscow’s motives were described as abhorrent and cynical, and total isolation and almost the status of an immoral pariah were predicted for it. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry staunchly withheld the gusts of the storm , not moving an inch, and some time later Russia’s opponents returned to the dialogue. As a result of Russia’s efforts, the very paradigm of the approach to the Syrian crisis changed: Into play came the classic techniques of peacemaking dialogue and more balanced political actions that did not paint the picture in black and white. There is no guarantee that in the upshot this will help bring about a peaceful settlement (everything has gone too far in Syria), but Russian foreign policy achieved almost its most striking professional success since the collapse of the USSR. To put it more simply, Moscow proved that without taking account of its opinion, it is not possible to achieve anything in the solution of world problems, although Russia’s relative passivity in the Near East had, up till then, created the impression that the Kremlin was no longer interested in this region.

In both cases, the prime mover of events was not the president. The Georgian war was, of course, the belated period to Vladimir Putin’s second term – it was determined by the logic and agenda of preceding policies. In view of his inconsiderable experience up to that time, Medvedev conducted himself entirely successfully: If he had lost his head and missed the moment to retaliate, this would have been a personal political catastrophe. But of course, he could not have been the mastermind behind the firm rebuff, acting as he did in the capacity of a suitable partner for the prime minister, with whom public opinion in Russia and the world indeed connected the action in South Ossetia.

The psychological confirmation of the fact that Medvedev himself still does not feel entirely confident in the Georgian context are the exaggeratedly scornful remarks about Mikheil Saakashvili that the Russian president repeats regularly – political pigmy, zero, nonentity…. There are many grounds for having a poor opinion of the Georgian leader, but he is a colourful and single-minded politician who is in no way a "zero" or a "nonentity." Medvedev’s pejorative invective is apparently designed to compensate for his inferiority complex, which is strange for the supreme commander in chief of an army that has won a victory.

President Medvedev also has a tangential connection with the Syrian success: The entire masterfully executed game was a benefit performance by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his department.

Medvedev’s own attitude to the Near East was revealed fairly clearly a year ago, when it was on his personal decision (despite the views of diplomats) that Moscow decided to abstain in the UN Security Council and not block the resolution on intervention in Libya. The president probably proceeded on the basis that Libya was not Russia’s game and that there was no sense in getting involved in it at the risk of spoiling relations with important partners. This corresponds to Medvedev’s general approach, which inclines towards seeing Russia as a great power, but a regional one, so that it is necessary to sort international crises depending on their proximity to the sphere of our direct interests.

Of course, the position on Syria was in many ways determined by the result of the Libyan abstention: The West and Arab countries interpreted their carte blanche too freely, essentially taking advantage of Russia’s passivity in their own interests. Be that as it may, in the Syrian episode it was the view opposite to Medvedev’s that prevailed de facto: Namely, that Russia should uphold its status as a great power on a global scale, which will help also in regional affairs – there will be more room for bargaining and exchanges.

Despite these paradoxes and internal contradictions, Dmitriy Medvedev’s times were a fairly favourable period for Russian foreign policy. He managed to consolidate prestige without fatally increasing tension with important partners, and our positions in the world were not weakened, but, on the contrary, somewhat strengthened. It is unfair to demand more from Medvedev. And not because he never did become a full-blown president. In the modern world, in which the concept of "global changes" is to all intents and purposes a synonym for the concept of "the uncontrollable collapse of the world order," the minimization of risks becomes almost the supreme achievement. It is simply useless to put together strategies. Dmitriy Medvedev was adequate to reality – the transitional president of a transitional period.

Source: Gazeta.ru website, Moscow, in Russian 3 May 12

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