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International Affairs Editor

Putin’s foreign policy: Can we expect changes?

Le 09-03-2012

Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy pronouncements during the recent presidential electoral campaign were virulently anti-Western. Can we expect changes now?

Well, if you make the assumption that what he said was solely for domestic consumption and intended to win him votes in the election, yes, now is the time to anticipate a softer line. The truth of the matter though is that what we heard in the election is quintessential Putin. Yes, the presentation might be less rough but the content will be little changed.

He has a very black and white understanding of the world. He really does seem to believe that Russia is surrounded by enemies and that the opposition are working for the West - jackals scavenging near Western embassies. He sees strength in terms of force - so expect him to try to revamp Russia’s armed forces, expect him to continue to be tough on what Russia calls its near abroad, and expect him to resent any Western encouragement of democratisation in Russia.

For a while it seemed that Russia and the US might find common language on Iran - is it likely that Putin will seek to recalibrate Russian policy towards Iran to bring it closer to the Western approach?

It looks highly unlikely at this stage, not least, it has to be said because Moscow is genuinely unconvinced by the argument that Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon. Russia has more reason than most to fear a nuclear Iran. But it is also very happy to stand on the sidelines while the West gets drawn into a costly battle of wills with Tehran. It condemns sanctions and wins applause from Iran and China - but it also benefits from the sanctions because the price of oil is going steadily up - and a high oil price is all that is keeping the Russian economy and Putin afloat.

And what about Syria? There seem to be some in the US who think that now the election is over, Putin can be persuaded to support a resolution against Syria in the United Nations Security Council.

To believe this demands a certain amount of credulity - to imagine for instance that elections in Russia are like elections in the United States. Putin did not need to resist the rest of the world on Syria to win the election. It was guaranteed anyway. Putin will not support a resolution on Syria because support for the Assad regime is the keystone of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. If Russia loses Assad, it will also lose its only ally in the Middle East and its naval port at Tartus. So, no, Russian foreign policy towards Syria is very unlikely to change. But the consequence of that is that Russia faces potential political annihilation in the Middle East.

Are we set then for more confrontation with Russia?

Well, Russia is now about to join the World Trade Organisation and Western, including US, investment in Russia may increase again now that the elections are over. Russia appears relatively stable and the potential for development is still enormous. So there is potential for rapprochement. But Putin is set on massive rearmament - $700 billion over the next decade. If the oil price continues to rise to around $130 a barrel or so, Russia might just about be able to sustain this - in which case Putin will be encouraged to adopt an assertive nationalist posture towards the outside world. On the other hand, if the price of oil falls and Putin finds himself unable to meet the promises he has made to the Russian people - infrastructure, pensions, healthcare and education - we can also expect him to fall back on nationalism as his defence of last resort. In short, there is nothing much to look forward to in Russian foreign policy.

Is there anything the West, and in particular the United States, can do to win over Putin?

Well, the diplomatic reset sought at the start of the Obama administration simply hasn’t produced dividends - and there is nothing to suggest that it ever will. Putin is seething with resentment over what he regards as Western duplicity in Libya. Putin feels Russia was suckered into agreeing to the no-fly zone idea. It’s made him resistant to deals elsewhere - like Syria for instance.

It should be transparently obvious by now too that Moscow is not going to give any ground on the US missile defence plans, however strong the US argument that the shield could never be effective against Russian missiles.

So, the US will perhaps need to recalibrate its foreign policy towards Russia. Will it become more assertive in support of human rights in Russia? Will it provide more forthright support for states that border Russia, like Georgia, as long as they continue to make progress on reform and democratisation? We probably won’t see significant change in this election year, but patience with Russia appears to be running out in the United States and regardless of whether the next president is Barack Obama or a Republican, the Washington line looks set to toughen.