With Vladimir Putin heading back to the Kremlin amid large-scale demands for political change, one key question is: Will Russian foreign policy toward the EU and its immediate neighbors change? Domestically, in only three months, from December 2011 to March 2012, Russian civil society made huge steps in voicing public demands for greater freedom and transparency, seemingly bringing Russia closer to European norms of democracy and human rights. The Kremlin was forced to react to these domestic demands. Yet it is hard to extrapolate these trends to the sphere of Russia’s foreign policy. On the contrary, Putin’s presidential campaign revealed a number of alarming symptoms of the resilience of “old thinking.” For the first time, nationalists with highly questionable reputations – like Sergei Kurginian and Alexander Dugin – were allowed to speak on behalf of the Kremlin.
The pro-Putin discourse was contaminated by strong accents on enmity to social and political groups portrayed by the official propaganda as “non-ours”, “unpatriotic”, “alien”, and even “traitors.” The hysterical reaction of the Kremlin to the meeting of the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul with a group of opposition politicians revealed the depth of the political gap between the Kremlin and the White House. After the harsh statement by President Dmitry Medvedev of November 23, 2011 on Russian counter-measures to the U.S. anti-missile project, it became clear that the Russia-U.S. “reset” is moribund.
The clash between Russia and the West became even more obvious in the Syrian debate and in Russia’s veto on the Security Council resolution aimed at exerting greater pressure against the oppressive regime in Damascus. Against this backdrop, it is hard to expect more cooperative relations between Russia and its key Western partners in the nearest future. It is equally unlikely that any new approaches in Putin’s foreign policy will appear – his public pronouncements during the electoral campaign were a traditional combination of “balance of power” and “spheres of influence”-type thinking. What is even worse is that within the foreign policy community, there is no clearly articulated demand for changes.
As analyst Viacheslav Nikonov has said, “Putin is not a newcomer to the Russian political scene, so he doesn't need to provide any novelties. Besides, foreign policy is something which has its own inertia.” In practical terms, it can be expected that Putin will keep making a strong emphasis on fostering mechanisms of integration within the Customs Union, as well as the Eurasian Union. He will keep treating the EU as a weak international actor, yet in the meantime, he will certainly keep expecting Germany to remain the most loyal to Russia among EU member states. Of course, German political elites clearly understand the degree of their country’s dependence on Russian gas, and Moscow will undoubtedly remain Berlin’s key economic partner.
However, Putin may be wrong to hope that he will be able to rely upon German support politically. As prime minister, he already received a warning signal in summer 2011 when the Board of the Quadriga Foundation withdrew the prize they awarded to him a few days before under pressure from an angry public. Germany, undoubtedly the key country within the EU, is becoming increasingly skeptical about its strategic partnership with Russia. The Meseberg process is stalled because of the lack of Russian influence in Transnistria and Moscow’s inability to streamline political change in the breakaway territory.
The German political discourse – with the exception of people like Alexander Rahr who simply translate Kremlin viewpoints to the German audience – is becoming increasingly critical of the Kremlin. It is quite indicative that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle issued an unusually harsh statement after the March 4 election: “I hope that Russia now, after the elections and with a clear view, will see that it stands on the wrong side of history.” Westerwelle obviously had in mind Russia’s intransigent position in Syria, but his words may be projected onto other fields of Russian foreign policy of interest to Germany, including the regions of the EU-Russia common neighborhood. In the nearest future, Russia will face a number of new developments in its neighborhood. One of them is the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, which won’t make Russia more secure – on the contrary, Russia will find itself more vulnerable to threats emanating from Afghanistan and the region. Secondly, a possible U.S.-led military operation against Iran will obviously have a direct impact on countries adjacent to Russia.
The chances are slim that the Kremlin will be able to handle the repercussions of the increasingly complicating situation in what it dubs its “near abroad” alone. It is quite symptomatic that the most important positive changes in Russia’s relations with its neighbors – political rapprochement with Poland and Georgia’s consent to Russia’s WTO membership – were mediated by Russia’s Western partners, Germany and the United States respectively. It seems that the times of the “near abroad” as an area of Russia’s exceptional influence are over, and the agenda is now what might be called regional multilateral diplomacy.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.