Russia: Change of Power in the Kremlin Part III
5: Russian self-image and the outside world
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has struggled to define its new place in the international system. This is often explained by reference to a centuries-long debate about Russian identity and self-image. Is Russia part of Europe, of Asia or simply a civilization in itself? From the dissolution of the Soviet Union until today, the Kremlin has made a number of foreign policy adjustments . Periods of approach to the West have alternated with greater emphasis on Russia’s national interests.
When Putin took office as president at the turn of the year 1999-2000, he declared that his most important long-term goal was to re-establish Russia as a great power. But according to Putin, the new Russia should be a modern superpower. This meant that one should no longer base the status of great power solely on traditional hard power (military strike force and nuclear deterrence), but also develop economic strength .
This led Putin’s Russia to initially focus on the West, for example through strong support for the United States in the fight against international terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
But the Russian westward turn did not yield the expected results. On the contrary, the setbacks came on the assembly line: the United States overcame Russian opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, pushed for international recognition of Kosovo and withdrew from the so-called ABM agreement (a 1972 agreement that limited the parties’ ability to develop anti-missile defenses). rocket shield, etc.).
In the time around Putin’s re-election in 2004, there was thus another change of course. The Kremlin now advocated a pragmatic foreign policy with no ties to either the West or other centers of power. The key should be to ensure the greatest possible impact on Russian interests.
Towards the end of Putin’s second term, however, pragmatism was increasingly overshadowed by more assertive Russian assertion – not least rhetorically (cf. at the same time US plans to deploy a missile shield in Europe and the exchange of words about Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership).
While many hoped that Medvedev would liberalize the economy, few expected any change in foreign policy. On the one hand, Medvedev had limited foreign policy experience, and on the other, the political course seemed to have stabilized. There was also not much new to trace in the new foreign policy program that Medvedev launched in July 2008. Perhaps the biggest innovation was the idea of a pan-European security pact . According to Smber, a new agreement would make further expansions of existing security organizations (in practice NATO) superfluous. However, Medvedev never managed to follow up this initiative in practical politics before the Georgia war left the proposal dead.
On the night of August 8, Georgian forces moved into Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. A majority of the inhabitants of South Ossetia have chosen to obtain a Russian passport. Russian peacekeepers stationed in the breakaway republic also ended up in crossfire between Georgian and South Ossetian forces. The Kremlin’s response was resolute and brutal: During the five days of the war, the Georgian forces were not only driven out of South Ossetia; Russian forces also penetrated deep into undisputed Georgian territory.
From Russia’s point of view, the operation was a success: the Russian defense had shown that it could react quickly and massively if vital Russian interests were at stake. That same month, the Kremlin decided to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia (the other Russian-backed breakaway republic in Georgia) as independent states. At the same time, Medvedev launched a foreign policy doctrine that defended Russia’s right to operate with a sphere of interest and to protect Russian citizens and interests abroad.
But the war in Georgia also revealed the limitations of the great power . Russia lost the battle for international opinion and was left quite alone in its understanding of the war in South Ossetia as a humanitarian operation. The conflict also showed how little influence Russia has in its alleged sphere of interest: No other former Soviet republic has so far recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia (the only country that has followed Russia’s example is Nicaragua).
At the same time, the war led to a sharp cooling of relations with both the EU and the US. The EU, Russia’s main trading partner, suspended negotiations on a new partnership and cooperation agreement, NATO froze military cooperation and the United States reduced political contacts to a minimum.
Some observers went so far as to claim after the Georgia war that we were back in a Cold War-like situation. A more precise description is perhaps that we see the contours of what could become a new world order. Here, US hegemony is challenged by a number of different actors, including Russia. Such a multipolar order has long been welcomed in the Kremlin, but the Georgia war and the financial crisis have also shown that it is still unclear how strong a pole Russia itself could be in such a system.
6: What room for maneuver does Medvedev have?
Medvedev is facing another challenging year. The gloomy realities of the financial crisis are spreading among the population. According to opinion polls, the proportion of Russians who believe Russia is moving in the wrong direction has risen from 24% in September to 40% in December. At the same time, Medvedev has far less economic clout to face rising unemployment and social challenges than Putin had as president. The social contract “putinism” has been based on – growth in prosperity in exchange for reduced political freedoms – may thus seem to be under pressure.
Today’s division of power between president and prime minister is often described as a “tandem”. So far, this scheme has worked far better than many skeptics had expected. Medvedev went to the polls on a program based on putting “Putin’s plan” into action. The question is how strong this unity is when the crisis hits in earnest – and whether Putin’s plan includes Medvedev as Russia’s future president.