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The Kremlin resets Russian foreign policy

by Tina Burrett

2010 has seen a change in Russia’s relations with the West. The Obama administration came to office promising a “reset” in relations with Moscow, and in the past year, this new mood of cooperation has begun to deliver tangible results. Moscow and Washington are working together to reduce their nuclear arsenals, as well as to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states.

And it is not just with the United States that Russia has seen a breakthrough in relations. At the NATO summit in Lisbon last month, President Dmitry Medvedev pledged greater Russian cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan and on a joint antimissile shield for Europe. Furthermore, in September, Moscow signed an agreement with Norway, ending a bitter 40 year dispute over maritime borders that will allow both parties to pursue new oil and gas exploration in the Artic.

Nothing better captures this new spirit of detente than the image of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin crooning to an unsuspecting child at a Hollywood charity bash last week, to the visible delight of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. But as so often in Hollywood, looks can be deceiving; beneath an attractive exterior there may be little of substance.

Russia and the West have been here before. On taking office in 2000, the then-President Putin promised a pragmatic approach to relations with the West. In a moment reminiscent of a bad Hollywood romance, U.S. President George W. Bush famously looked into the eyes of his Russian counterpart and saw Putin’s soul. But just three years later, after the invasion of Iraq, Cold War rhetoric had returned on both sides.

Does the most recent thaw in U.S.-Russian relations have any greater prospects of longevity? Is Russia sincere in its professed desire for greater cooperation with the West and will this spirit be extended to other states and regions, specifically to Japan?

The answer to these questions lies partly in Russian domestic politics. Russia’s political leaders today are much more confident in their hold on power than in the early 2000s, and with good reason. High oil prices in the middle of the decade provided Russia with a windfall that improved economic conditions. During Putin’s eight year presidency, real incomes more than doubled and the average salary increased eightfold.

Rightly or wrongly, Putin was given the credit, enjoying public approval ratings of around 70 percent for most of the past decade. Even without control over the media, political parties and the courts, Putin would likely be as popular.

Recent opinion polls showing Medvedev pulling even in public support with Putin, suggest that the current regime will survive beyond Putin.

Democrats and democracy remain terms of derision for many Russians, who associate such terms with the chaos of Yeltsin’s democratic reforms in the 1990s. But although there are few existing political threats to worry Russia’s ruling elite, this could quickly change in the event of a prolonged economic downturn.

This risk was brought home to the Kremlin by the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Russia harder than most, as oil prices plummeted and the foreign credits on which Russian banks and companies depend dried up. In 2009, the Russian economy, which has averaged 7 percent annual growth since 1998, shrank by almost eight per cent, the first decline in a decade. Dependence on natural resource exports renders the Russian economy hostage to volatility in global commodity prices.

This dependence has the greatest potential to undermine domestic political stability. But to diversify and modernize its economy, Russia requires help from more technologically advanced nations. In an article published last month in the Russian journal Itogi, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov openly declared Russia’s interest in “investments, the newest technologies and innovative ideas” from beyond its borders. This search for modernization and innovation is at the heart of Russia’s new conciliatory approach in its relations with the West.

Russia’s new focus on economic and technological modernization should be an opportunity for Japan to improve its own dismal relations with Moscow. After all, Japan is the world leader in many high-tech industries and is much closer to Russia than the U.S., especially to the economically depressed Russian Far East and Siberia.

But Russia’s policy of rapprochement has not extended to its relationship with Japan. Rather, last month Japanese-Russian relations hit a 20 year low after Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit the Northern Territories, four islands off the coast of Hokkaido held by Russia and claimed by Japan.

Japan’s leaders may be indignant over Medvedev’s visit to the Northern Territories, but they should not be surprised. While Washington and Europe have actively courted Russian cooperation, for example, by toning down criticism of Russian human rights violations and inviting Russia’s participation in international forums, Japanese leaders have done little to improve relations with Moscow. Since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in September 2009, no Japanese leader has visited Russia.

Given the difficult history between the two, a Russian-Japanese detente will not come easy. But by taking proactive steps to build trustful bilateral ties, Japan can capitalize on Russia’s need for modernization and broker a “reset” of its own. In settling its territorial disputes with Norway and China, Russia’s current leaders have shown that they are willing to cede ground, literally, in exchange for economic and technological benefits.

All this of course depends on the continuing stability of the Putin-Medvedev regime. As presidential elections in 2012 draw closer, it is possible that whoever represents the current administration at the polls, Putin or Medvedev, will fall back on nationalist, anti-American rhetoric to win support. As in previous post-Soviet Russian elections, it is likely that the main opposition to the incumbent administration will come from the equally nationalistic ultra left or ultra right.

Ultimately, it is the need to hold on to power in a generally conservative, hierarchical and nationalistic country that will limit the extent of the current Russian government’s rapprochement policy and the success of its efforts at modernization.

Tina Burrett, an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan campus, is the author of “Television and Presidential Power in Putin’s Russia” (Routledge).