Putin’s foreign policy challenges in third term

Text of report by anti-Kremlin Russian current affairs website Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal on 15 June

[Article by Arkadiy Moshes, under the rubric "Around Russia": "Circled by ‘Friends’"]

The geography of Vladimir Putin’s recent foreign policy contacts from Paris to Beijing and the personal physical energy and negotiations resources that were needed to conduct all these meetings and visits cannot fail to impress people. But then the substantive aspect makes us hesitate. There is essentially no real progress or guarantees of stable and unproblematic relations with partners in even one direction. Unlike 2004, when Russian diplomacy under the leadership of President Putin, who took over his post for the second time, began a foreign offensive, today’s action plan looks like a defensive one and does not much resemble the behaviour of a power confident of its own strengths. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hide that the difficulties and challenges are building up.

Let us begin with Belarus. The only thing firm that remains is Moscow’s consent to offer Minsk the latest instalment of economic aid, which was just recently declared to be possible only in exchange for the start of a programme of privatization. What happened must not be considered anything other than [Belarusian President] Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s victory and an enormous image loss for the Kremlin. Lukashenka was not afraid and showed resolve and his usual rhetorical straightforwardness that violates diplomatic proprieties. "Neither Russia nor Putin has the resources to strangle Belarus," he said three weeks before the visit, and despite all the idle talk about surrender, he received the money. One can expect that in the near future, Minsk’s appetites will only grow since Moscow is demonstrating at the present moment that it cannot afford to make relations with Lukashenka worse, not to mention to really start twisting his arm by trying to get property handed over or other concessions.

Let us move on to the blitz visit to Berlin and Paris. The street protests that greeted the Russian president in the German capital may not be noted, of course, but the cold attitude towards Putin’s third term by Ms Merkel personally will not be ignored. Undoubtedly, Germany’s business circles do not intend to abandon existing business opportunities, but the failure of the Medvedev modernization plans that were announced has lowered the bar of expectations in the area of bilateral economic cooperation seriously and apparently for a long time. The conversion of the European gas market into a buyer’s market rather than a seller’s market in effect put an end to the opinion widespread in Germany earlier that there is no alternative to increasing the share of Russian gas in European energy consumption. One should add that the description of Russia in the German press has in effect ceased to be different from the English language media, and today it is already impossible to convince anyone, as it was in the times of Gerhard Schroeder, that Putin’s rule is an "imperfect" democracy that nonetheless is aspiring to perfection.

The restoration of the Moscow-Berlin-Paris triangle like the one that existed during the preparation of the American operation in Iraq is also impossible. On the one hand, Barack Obama has to a significant extend managed to rebuild trans-Atlantic unity; the holding of the last NATO summit meeting in Chicago, on the territory of the United States, was a symbol of that. On the other hand, Russian assessments of the situation in Syria are fundamentally at odds with the opinion of the Europeans. The military intervention of the West in Syria has not yet become inevitable, but a threshold undoubtedly exists. At some point the escalation of violence, if it continues, and the rise in the number of victims will become unacceptable and the inability of the UN Security Council to make a decision will cease to be a restraining factor. There have been sufficient precedents for actions bypassing the Security Council in recent years. However, even if Western intervention does not become a reality, al-Asad’s regime in Syria will all the same become weaker, and its support by Russia will eat up its influence in the Near East, and that will affect Moscow’s international stature overall.

Everyone became accustomed to the absence of results of Russian-European Union summit meetings a long time ago. Actually it is useless to expect the introduction of a no-visa system – for all citizens and certainly for holders of official passports separately – when the general level of expectations is falling and the Europeans’ certainty that any person with connections or money can obtain an official passport in Russia in contrast is rising. Moscow has taught everyone that it does not overdramatize anything. But that is just a bold front. In reality dramatic notes are distinctly heard. The so-called Third Energy Package directly threatens Gazprom’s positions in the European Union countries, and Vladimir Putin is publicly demanding an exception for the Russian monopoly permitting it not to sell the assets acquired before the adoption of this legislation. To that Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission, a man who earlier in response to harsh statements by the Russian leader would as a rule silently smile – firmly and prosaically answers that the Third Package will be realized whether Russia likes it or not. And speaking of the approaching crash of the euro and of the European Union itself at that very moment when the rouble is falling in relation to this euro somehow comes at the wrong time.

Then comes Asia’s turn. Islam Karimov, apparently personally not wanting to, gives an unpleasant diagnosis of Russia’s current condition when he says that the assortment of Russian goods is very scanty. In that way it becomes clear that Russian industrial exports are not competitive even in Uzbekistan. The visit to Kazakhstan is a bright spot, and it cannot be otherwise since it is both an official and a jubilee one because it is occurring in the year of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the basic treaty on friendship and cooperation. But that does not mean that questions do not exist. In Minsk just a few weeks ago, President Nazarbayev made it unambiguously clear that improvements in the conditions for transit of Kazakhstani energy media would be expected of Russia for further development of integration processes.

And finally, China. The status of the visit is a state one, which eliminates all questions relative to the real priorities of Russian foreign policy. But it does not remove the anxiety that has built up. The mutually enthusiastic diplomatic statements and the stability attained in political relations cannot conceal the build-up of problems in other spheres. Yes, commodity turnover is rising, but it is rising through increased Chinese exports to Russia rather than the opposite. In other words, the money earned from selling raw materials to Europe goes to the Celestial Kingdom. There are in effect no ways to change this trend. Russian arms exports to China are rapidly declining, there are still no contracts for delivering gas, and Russia’s accession to the WTO will almost certainly give Chinese producers new opportunities to get past Russian customs protection, while Chinese investments in Belarus in the medium term will permit them to develop production this time within the limits of the Customs Union.

Everything has already been said about the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] summit meeting. Suffice it to mention that the Russian mass media perceived Russia’s ability to block the SCO’s adoption of a considerable number of China’s economic initiatives as a diplomatic victory. Against that background, the usual moderately anti-Western statements and meetings with Iranian President Ahmadinezhad no longer seem like the main news.

By the way, in this context the visit by Putin that did not happen – his failure to participate in the Big Eight meeting at Camp David – also comes to mind once again. The "reset" with the United States in this case is not important; what it was really based upon was a success. But now the prospect of its curtailment is becoming a reality. Barack Obama refused to come to the APEC [Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation] summit meeting in Vladivostok, which is very important to Russia, and without the support of the United States, building up Russia’s presence in the Pacific Ocean Region will be an extremely difficult matter, and it is difficult to imagine equalizing the balance in relations with China without that.

Let us summarize. The effect of a presence is undoubtedly assured, but one should not speak of the prospect of the restoration of a global role or at the least regional leadership.

So it turned out that in the last 10 years, Moscow has been trying to preserve a free hand, "equality" in relations with the big players, loyalty from post-Soviet clients, and pragmatic, business-like, and not always transparent "exchanges" not only in economics. Such an approach did not envision mutual trust and long-term relations based on values. So today one should not be surprised that other leading countries do not want to link themselves with certain immutable obligations in relation to Russia but are willing to replay the situation to their own benefit as circumstances change, while clients are always willing to seek new sponsors.

Source: Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal website, Moscow, in Russian 15 Jun 12

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