Ever since his inauguration on May 7, President Vladimir Putin has been engaged in frenzied activities designed to convince the world that he is in full control of Russian politics, economics and foreign policy.
He has been especially active on the latter front. “The diplomacy of symbols and signals,” as one European diplomat called it, is to show the world where the Kremlin’s priorities lie.
Putin snubbed U.S. President Barack Obama by declining to attend the G8 summit in the U.S., even though Obama had moved the meeting to Camp David so that Putin did not have to go anywhere near Chicago, the original venue for both the NATO and G8 summits.
On Tuesday, Putin held a pompous summit of the Organization of Collective Security Treaty, Russia’s long-standing and so far completely futile effort to cobble together its own “NATO” from a batch of post-Soviet authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes.
Putin also announced that his first foreign trip will be to Minsk, where EU sanctions have isolated the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator and Russia’s official ally.
At the same time Putin reaffirmed his support for NATO’s transit facility in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga, which will assist the international forces in Afghanistan. Finally, in a move bound to please foreign investors, he signed a presidential decree ordering privatization of major non-energy sector state enterprises by 2016.
The Russian president was demonstrating his priorities. They, as opposed to the global flag-waving of his previous two terms in 2000-2008, will be focused on Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. Moreover, the Eurasian Union, which he first mentioned in a 2011 op-ed for Izvestia, will be central to the Russian president’s efforts to forge his legacy as a gatherer of what there was to be gathered after the collapse of the USSR.
It does not mean that Putin wants to recreate the Soviet Union as such. It means that he sees Russia’s integration with Kazakhstan, Belarus and possibly Kyrgyzstan as a viable alternative to building closer ties with the EU (of which Putin is inherently suspicious) or becoming China’s junior partner.
Putin expects the alliance with the two authoritarian regimes led by Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to give him a stronger hand to play against the Europeans and show Beijing that Russia is not alone and cannot be pushed around in Asia.
In short, this is what Putin himself termed an “independent foreign policy” in his now famous (or infamous, depending on one’s views) speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.
This is clearly a political project based on the idea of “development without democracy” favored so much by the Chinese and much admired in Moscow, but now so evidently under strain, as struggles inside Beijing’s ruling circle show the limits of this approach.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin believes it is the best way to realize the Putin regime’s main goal: perpetuating itself in power.
The difference now, compared with Putin’s previous presidential tenures, is that although Putin may never admit it in public, the system he created is under serious strain.
Ongoing protests in Moscow have revealed a legitimacy crisis that doesn’t seem to be going away. And although Russia’s macroeconomic data is sound and currency reserves stand at half a trillion dollars, promises of massive social programs, salary hikes for state workers and significant increases in the defense budget have made the Kremlin much more cautious in its foreign policy attitude.
Unless the West tries to squeeze Russia out of what it considers its “sphere of privileged interests,” as former president Medvedev once put it, Moscow is prepared not to do anything to rattle the West. The deal is simple – “Leave us alone and we’ll try not to create problems for you.”
Distant and detached: that is supposed to be the essence of Putin’s foreign policy. Western leaders may well accept the deal, just as they did - more or less - with Brezhnev in 1970s.
But as the history of 1970s and 1980s shows, this is a precarious arrangement. Events in Russia itself and around it may well upset this balance with unpredictable consequences.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.