The Soul Behind Russian Foreign Policy
One day circa 1698 A.D., Peter the Great returned home from a diplomatic delegation to Europe, picked up a hatchet, and with sweat on his brow, carved a window into an enlightened Europe out of the brush that kept Russia in the dark. Having cut the beards of the boyars, repulsed the Swedes and the Tartars, ordered Russia’s first navy, and adopted the Julian calendar, Peter dragged a backward Russia into modernity.
His fond memories of Holland even motivated him to model his new capital Saint Petersburg after Amsterdam, the late 17th century’s financial and trade center. This history is a forgotten key to understanding Russia, particularly its foreign policy. Instead of obsessing with the idiosyncratic determinants of Russian foreign policy by attempting to spot a change after Putin replaced Medvedev, the international community should focus on time-tested leitmotivs of Russian foreign policy motivated by oil and gas, modernization, sovereign democracy, and geopolitics.
The Paradox of Russian Foreign Policy
A paradox reigns over the international community. While IR gurus pulled out their crystal balls in an effort to predict changes in Russian foreign policy following Putin’s succession to Medvedev this past spring, the same commentators assert that Putin was the effective leader behind Kremlin walls all along.
However, both assertions cannot hold true if you attribute the cause of the anticipated change to the personality in the presidential office. Either Putin was the puppet master all along and looking for changes in Russian foreign policy is useless, or Putin was not in charge for the last four years and looking for changes is priceless.
Medvedev and Putin have different public images, but divergence in style is not conclusive for difference in policy. Medvedev is a rule of law kind of lawyer, a liberalizer, modernizer, anti-corruption crusader, New Start Treaty signatory, and US-Russia relations reset-ter. Even Russians believe that he was appointed to keep the throne warm for Putin. Putin, on the other hand, is Dmitry’s alter-ego. With a black belt in Judo, a “past” in the KGB, friends like Berlusconi, and a PR campaign following him as he co-pilots supersonic jets and F1 cars, he chaperones the siloviki.
The divergence in style may give credence to the argument that Russian foreign policy will differ based on these idiosyncrasies due to self-fulfilling prophecies that result from the international community’s different interaction with each of them separately. However, the 2008 Russia-Georgia showdown happened under Medvedev’s presidency, and the NATO-Russia Council was set up during Putin’s first term. Focusing on styles and personalities provides little insight into Russian foreign policy.
The Four Leitmotivs of the Soul of Russian Foreign Policy
#1: Of Prices and Pipelines
Oil and gas revenues do not only stimulate Russia’s GDP but fill up Kremlin coffers and increase its international aggressiveness. Higher prices disadvantage Eastern and Central Europe, as Russia can demand higher prices and shut the pipelines if those downstream do not pay up. Disputes between Ukraine’s Naftogaz and Russia’s Gazprom lead to the shutting down of pipelines to a freezing Europe in the winter of 2009. Kiev, overtaken by the Orange Revolution, won enough disfavor from Kremlin for Gazprom to accuse Naftogaz of stealing gas and to demand for a new contract price.
Moreover, oil prices have rebounded from the 2008-2009 dip not without compounding Russian foreign policy potential with new pipelines. In the East, Russia is finishing the ESPO pipeline that penetrates China and the Pacific. In the West, Russia is planning the Nord and South Streams in order to decrease its dependence on uncertain partners for reaching markets further downstream. As a result, Russia gains the potential to pressure its customers and the motivation to pursue an aggressive policy towards the Nabucco and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines that channel fuel from Central Asia to Europe without involving Russia.
#2: Windows of Emulation
Having carved a window out of the trade barriers that hurt its exports for the last 18 years, Russia claimed a diplomatic victory with its WTO admission on Dec. 16th 2011. Moreover, the US Congress is poised to repeal the Jackson – Vanik amendment, as it is blocking American business from an export opportunity in Russia worth $19 billion USD. Proposed as a replacement to Jackson-Vanik, the Magnitsky Bill attracted threats of retaliation by Putin, but the bill would only divert investment away from the US. These developments are freeing up Russian foreign policy from the external pressure that came along with Russia’s dependence on the willingness of WTO members to advance in the negotiation process.
Meanwhile, Moscow is hoping to repeat the Chinese miracle that followed its own accession to the WTO and draw investment into Skolkovo, a symbol of Russia’s High tech modernization. Not unlike Peter’s emulations and Khruschev’s dreams of USA’s agribusiness, Skolkovo, the Kremlin’s imitation of the Silicon Valley, captured Medvedev’s imagination during a visit to California in 2010.
#3: Oh Sovereign Democracy, Last Hope against the Boogeyman’s Twist
After the Napoleonic wars, the Tsar spearheaded the reactionary Holy Alliance against an epidemic of popular uprisings. During the Cold War, Western interventionism was countered by a Russian foreign policy of containment. After 1991, interventionism became more than just a threat to Russia’s self-image as a superpower; it became a threat to Russia’s independence and territorial integrity.
Putin’s return coincided with the return of liberal-interventionist rhetoric that brings relations with the West to a deadlock regardless of personalities. Only this time, it’s personal. Not only have airstrikes in Libya overreached the UNSC 1973 resolution mandate, but the spirit of the Arab Spring infected Russia with protests of unprecedented proportions poking holes in Putin’s Tsar-like legitimacy.
During his first 8 years, Sovereign democracy, which signified that Russian democracy is an undisputable fact, was Putin’s emblematic deflection of Western criticisms of his authoritarianism. Building on a theme of the West’s malign efforts, Moscow accused the West of orchestrating revolutionary elections of pro-Western governments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and wanted to assure that it does not need second hand manuals on democracy. Starting July 21 2012, civil rights groups that receive foreign contributions have to be designated as “foreign agents”, reminiscent not so much of Cold War espionage as Stalin’s purges. In an effort to consolidate domestic legitimacy, the old narrative returns; as Russia’s last hope, Putin fends off Western boogeymen.
#4: Geopolitical OCD
First, the European Defense Shield rouses the security dilemma for Russia to levels unseen since the Iron Curtain. In the early 1800s, the balance of power was threatened by Napoleon. Towards the early 1900s, it was Germany. During the Cold War, the balance depended on the amount of nuclear warheads on the continent. Today, it is an expanded NATO with an even stronger umbrella that attracts threats of pre-emptive strikes by Russian generals and Putin’s no show at the 2012 NATO Summit.
Second, NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan offers Russia a bargaining chip and influence over Central Asia free of American intrusions. Russia’s Ulyanovsk airbase, a transit route for NATO out of Afghanistan, demonstrates the state’s commitment to pragmatic partnership with NATO, a club that does not reciprocate on the Shield. Moreover, the faster NATO is out, the faster Russia can return to imperialism as usual over its near-abroad.
It is a victory for Russia in Kipling’s two century old Great Game. In the 1800s, the Russian and British Empires competed to monopolize the heart of Asia. The Soviet Union lost a battle when it withdrew in 1989, but in 2012, the withdrawing West is admitting defeat. Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan, an on looking Russian air base in Kant, for which the lease was just extended for 15 years, is seeing the US escorted out of the Manas airbase for which the lease runs out in 2014.
Lastly, since Peter the Great, Russian expansionism focused on year-round ports at a time when a capable navy equaled superpower status. Russia targeted this problem by fighting Sweden to gain access to the Baltic, by fighting the Tartars and the Turks for access to the Black Sea, rushing through Siberia to build ports on the Pacific, campaigning against the Japanese for Port Arthur on the shores of the Yellow Sea, and in 2010, using gas prices to pressure Ukraine to extend the lease for the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol until 2042.
Today, Putin is not interested in letting the Assad regime fall for fear of losing access to Tartus, a Syrian port open to Moscow’s ships since 1971, which reduces Russia’s dependence on the Dardanelles’ NATO gatekeeper, Turkey.
At the Right Place, At the Right Time
Putin was re-elected into an environment on the international arena that has historically made Russia act more assertively. Oil and gas dynamics, a leap in Russia’s integration with the world, a rising tide of liberal interventionism, and the recurrence of historic geopolitical habits are more important determinants of Russian foreign policy than the changes in style at the executive level.
These four leitmotivs are the key to understanding the Russian soul of the two-headed eagle, stuck between East and West, Communism and Capitalism, Autocracy and Democracy, the past and the future.