Russia’s Foreign and Defense Policy during Putin’s Third Presidential Term
Moscow Defence Brief 2012
In May 2012 Vladimir Putin will begin his third presidential term of office. Although he remained Russia’s most important politician even as prime minister, this is not going to be a mere change of decor. Putin’s return to the Kremlin may well herald a significant correction in Russia’s foreign and defense policy.
Foreign policy was one of those areas where President Dmitry Medvedev has demonstrated the greatest degree of independence over the past four years. It appears that his visit to the South Kuril Islands in November 2010, which caused the worst deterioration in Russian-Japanese relations in many years, was his personal initiative. After the visit Medvedev continued to demonstrate a hawkish stance on the territorial dispute with Japan, sending senior officials to the islands and pledging to strengthen their defenses. Such a stance was clearly designed to bolster Medvedev’s credentials as a protector and defender of national interests.
Even more importantly, Medvedev took a number of independent foreign policy steps aimed at mending fences with the United States. It was Medvedev’s decision to interpret the UN Security Council ban on weapons supplies to Iran, imposed on June 9, 2010, as sufficient grounds not to deliver the S-300PMU (SA-20B) SAM systems, for which Tehran signed a contract back in 2007. The president’s decision was opposed by the Foreign Ministry; senior ministry officials had gone as far as making some rather feeble attempts at getting it overturned, which by their standards is entirely extraordinary conduct.
The conflict with Medvedev eventually cost AndreyNesterenko, head of the Foreign Ministry’s press department, his job. He was fired because he continued to insist in his public statements that the sanctions do not apply to the S-300PMU-2 contract – even though he had already been informed of the president’s view to the contrary. In another curious twist, the Foreign Ministry dragged its feet with the sacking of Nesterenko in an apparent hope that Putin would intervene. As a result it took until January 2011 for Nesterenko to be formally dismissed.
Medvedev’s decision aimed to achieve a rapid improvement in Russian-Western relations – but the flip side of it was the loss of an 800m dollar contract with Iran and a general deterioration in relations between Moscow and Tehran. Domestically Medvedev faced accusations of ceding too much ground to the Americans and selling out Russia’s national interests. It must be pointed out, however, that the contract seemed destined to fall through in any event, given the general political context and the subsequent developments in the Iranian crisis.
A much more serious political standoff within Russia was triggered by another independent foreign policy decision by Medvedev – namely, not to oppose the military operation in Libya by NATO and its allies. That presidential decision was openly criticized by Prime Minister Putin; in fact, it was the first precedent since the early 1990s of top Russian leaders openly disagreeing on a foreign policy issue. Up until then, setting Russia’s foreign policy course had been an unquestioned prerogative of the president, a prerogative which was never assailed even during the darkest days of the Yeltsin presidency.
Even worse, the president’s stance on the Libyan conflict was openly questioned by a serving Russian diplomat. That, too was something unprecedented in Russia’s post-Soviet history. In March 2011 the Russian ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, sent a scandalous cable to Medvedev in which he described Russia’s decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973 as a betrayal of Russian national interests. Surprisingly, even though Chamov was recalled from his post in Libya, he was then appointed to a senior position in the Foreign Ministry. He even announced his difference of opinion with the Russian leadership in an interview with MoskovskiyKomsomolets, a popular tabloid.
It is therefore safe to assume that Putin’s return to the Kremlin will at the very least restore the president’s status as the sole decision-maker on foreign policy issues.
Nevertheless, Putin’s pre-election article “Russia and the Changing World” in MoskovskiyeNovosti, a high-brow broadsheet, suggests that Russian foreign policy priorities will remain essentially unchanged. The article contains the traditional criticisms of the United States and its closest NATO allies, who are accused of “undermining trust” by their policies on strategic security. It also accuses Washington of “diktat and arbitrariness” in the international arena.
Putin describes Russia’s relations with China and other countries in Asia Pacific as a growing priority. Ties with the EU are also viewed as important, but Putin complains of Europe’s discriminatory practices against Russian companies and highlights the continent’s economic problems, which are contrasting sharply with the rise of “China, India and other new economic powers”. He describes partnership with the United States as “lacking stability”. According to him, this is a consequence of America’s “phobias and stereotypes” about Russia, and of Washington’s aspiration to dominate and to ignore other countries’ interests. He views the Arab Spring as just another episode in a power struggle in the Middle East that has brought nothing but more bloodshed. He also stresses that Russia vehemently opposes the use of force to resolve the Iranian and North Korean nuclear problems, and rejects as a matter of principle the Western practice of “humanitarian intervention”.
Putin voiced even more outspoken views on the international situation in an interview with Russian national TV channels on November 17, 2011. Answering a question about the future of relations between Russia and China, he said that China’s aspiration was not to secure the natural resources of the adjacent territories but to become a world leader, adding that “we have no quarrel with China on that score”. “In this China has other competitors. Let them sort it out among themselves”. He also said that it was “usually our Western partners” who were trying to intimidate Russia with the alleged Chinese threat.
Russia is already seen as one of the decisive factors in determining the outcome of global rivalry between the United States and China. Russia itself does not believe that it is in a position to contend for world leadership, but it wants to capitalize on Sino-American rivalry. Moscow’s relations with Washington will be part of that balancing act. But, unfortunately, these relations are poisoned by deep-seated mistrust, which is evident from Putin’s foreign policy pronouncements.
As for Putin’s future policies on national defense, it is absolutely impossible at this point to make specific predictions about any reshuffles in the army, the uniformed agencies or the Russian defense industry that may or may not be in the pipeline. The Russian security and defense community is full of various rumors about such reshuffles, but the entire record of Putin’s personnel policy suggests that such rumors turn out to be true very seldom and only by coincidence. The Russian leader has always kept his intentions regarding his future appointments very close to his chest, and all attempts by external analysts to predict those intentions are almost always wide of the mark. But the recent appointment of Dmitry Rogozin, an outspoken nationalist, as the deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex may be a signal that serious reforms and reorganizations are in the pipeline. If that is the case, Rogozin’s role might be to “sell” those reforms to the audience both in Russia and abroad.
Medvedev’s defense policies have always followed the course set during the Putin presidency. The political impulses generated by Medvedev himself have been fairly sporadic and chaotic. As far as we can judge, it was Medvedev who rammed through the decision to buy the expensive Mistral-class universal assault landing craft from France, despite the opposition of the Russian defense industry and grumblings in the Russian political establishment. On several occasions Medvedev sharply criticized the Russian defense industry - and the aerospace industry in particular – for churning out technologically substandard products. But, despite these criticisms, it was during the Medvedev administration that Russia saw the biggest increase in spending on the army, the uniformed agencies and the defense industry.
In a notable departure from Putin’s style, Medvedev has tended to be more confrontational with the Cabinet on financial and economic matters. That confrontation peaked in September 2011, when Russia’s widely respected finance minister, Aleksey Kudrin, lost his job. One of the pretexts for his sacking was that he disagreed with Medvedev-approved plans for a rapid increase in military spending. Putin, on the other hand, had always made a point of listening to Kudrin’s opinion during his time as president. In the expectation of Putin’s imminent return to the Kremlin, rumors started to circulate in the early 2012 that the Cabinet was working on a plan to cut spending on defense by 0.5 percentage points of GDP in the period up to 2020. Later those rumors were denied by Putin himself, but it appears that such plans had in fact been considered. If the economy takes another turn for the worse, those plans may yet be given the green light.
Putin outlined his future defense policies in an article published in the RossiyskayaGazeta newspaper in February 2012. He reiterated his intention to press ahead with the military reform and to ramp up the financing of defense programs. Some 23 trillion roubleshas already been earmarked for the rearmament program for the period until 2020. Putin praised the achievements of the reforms but also highlighted the need for further measures to improve the military command-and-control system, make military service a more attractive career, and improve the recruitment system, etc. Meanwhile, the defense industry has been tasked with achieving “a technological breakthrough” using both indigenous and imported technologies. But, although Russia has begun to import some weapons systems, the bulk of the weaponry for the Russian army’s rearmament program will continue to be sourced from Russian suppliers.