LONDON — In his recent State of the Nation speech, President Vladimir Putin said that “Russia’s modern foreign policy is based on the principles of pragmatism, predictability and the supremacy of international law.”
That seems clear-cut if you forget that recent events have shown that pragmatism overrules predictability and international law whenever it serves Putin’s concept of Russia’s self-interest.
Various groups among his cronies press Putin with different conceptions of where that self-interest lies. A visiting Russian scholar at Chatham House (Yury E. Fedorov) recently identified the different groups trying to bend Putin’s ear. (His talk, “Boffins and Buffoons,” can be found at the Chatham House Web site: www.chathamhouse.org.uk/pdf/research/rep/BP0306russia.pdf )
Fedorov recognizes four groups: hard traditionalists, pragmatists, multipolarists and neo-imperialists.
* Hard traditionalists want to have a strong army and modern military industry to defend Russia against threats from the West. They want to close off the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), made up of former Soviet states, to influence from the United States and NATO.
These are the buffoons — and they clearly have Putin’s ear sometimes, as he always ranks the strengthening of relations among CIS countries as his prime foreign policy objective. He also accepts the need to rebuild and strengthen the army and its equipment suppliers. In his State of the Nation speech, Putin said the arms race is still going on.
* The pragmatists argue that globalization means that Russia has to work with the Western democracies that are the core of the new system if it wants to have a place on the world stage — such as membership in the Group of Eight industrial countries. Putin wants to strut on the world stage, but he is not so willing to accept either the democracy that the West wants or the military downsizing and restructuring that the pragmatists call for. This means that his strutting days (except before the CIS) may be numbered. The G8 summit meeting in St. Petersburg in July may be a defining moment.
* Most of the multipolarists, Fedorov argues, also want to strut on the world stage as they believe that Russia is a unique and great country in its own right. They do not want to be part of the West, but they do want to be equal with it. The West, they believe, is breaking up under globalizing pressure, so they argue that Russia should play off the interests of the subgroups that are emerging — U.S., European Union, Japan and China — by forming different alliances with each.
Putin does this so much now that no one regards him as predictable or dependable. The main strategic idea that arises from this is the “Big Triangle” of Russia, China and India, an alliance that would offset NATO. In this alliance, Putin includes the CIS countries. Multipolarist logic is driving Russia to work with China to expand and strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by bringing in India, Pakistan and Iran at its summit meeting in Shanghai in June.
* The neo-imperialist group developed post-9/11 and after the “rose,” “orange” and “tulip” revolutions has a foreign policy strategy that is an updated version of the multipolar strategy. They support the Big Triangle but put more emphasis on links with China. They long for development of the CIS (minus the Baltic states) into something like the old Soviet Union, with an updated and extended nuclear shield plus an emphasis on using the economic and political power that the control of oil and gas provides.
At various times over the past few months it has been easy to believe that Putin has been listening closely to each of the four groups that Fedorov identifies. You have to remember that Putin was trained and operated as a KGB officer, which implies that he agrees with whoever he is talking to. On the other hand, when the chips are down, the fangs come out.
The only fangs that Putin has are the oil and gas reserves and the pipelines through which they are carried.
He admits that the Russian Army is basically useless and knows that nuclear power cannot be used to project Russian interests abroad. To keep the military on board, however, and to ward off prospects of a coup, he must humor them. That means more money for weapons development and new technology — and money to persuade women to have more babies to staff the army in the future.
With the army on board, he can concentrate on his “strategy,” the basis of which is to try to re-create the Soviet Union, which he has described as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. As a KGB officer, however, he only knows how to do this by force — using oil, gas and their pipelines and supporting those CIS leaders who use whatever force it takes for them to stay in power.
Putin needs to maintain the monopoly or near monopoly over the pipelines to get the power he craves. This produces some odd results (such as gas-supply cutoffs to Ukraine in winter). If he has to share the pipelines, or if other pipelines are built that he does not control, then he loses power.
He uses the monopoly to keep prices to CIS oil and gas producers at very low levels, and then has the gall to call on the G8 countries to pour aid into these countries (and Russia) because they are so poor.
He is fighting off the Europeans who want access to pipelines that carry energy they buy themselves from CIS countries. For as long as he can, he is refusing to commit to an oil pipeline to China or Japan. He knows that once it is built, he loses monopoly power.
He agreed to build two pipelines to supply gas to China recently to stop them from dealing independently with CIS gas producers. But after he delayed committing to the oil pipeline, China signed an agreement with Turkmenistan to get gas from that country. Putin is now said to be fighting back by getting Uzbekistan to refuse to allow the pipeline to be built across that country.
He is building a pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany to bypass Poland and give Russia more control over that flow. He has persuaded Belarus to sell it a share of the company that controls pipelines that go to the EU. He is putting pressure on the Ukraine to do the same.
With the population of Russia falling at the rate of 700,000 a year and the health of many citizens in decline due to poverty, drinking, tobacco, drugs, TB and HIV/AIDS, he is desperate to have access to the growing CIS populations. He wants 25 million immigrants; without them, Russia’s power will be curtailed. He supports those CIS leaders who abuse human rights to stay in power.
Putin’s Russia does not have a foreign policy. Putin, though, has a Soviet fantasy and he is using his energy power to realize it. Will other countries adjust their foreign policies to support Putin’s dreams?
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