Diplomats in many corners of the world are puzzled by what appears to be a fundamental shift in Russia’s foreign policies in recent months, from a strategy based on threat and intimidation to one of a low profile seeking friendship, especially with Western countries. Their consensus, however, is that this shift is only temporary and that Moscow will sooner or later return to its old tactics.
The first sign of such apparent change was noted in the aftermath of a tragic airplane crash that occurred on Russian soil April 10, killing Polish President Lech Kaczyinski and a number of other high government officials of Poland. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally led a special committee to investigate the cause of the crash, and accompanied Kaczyinski’s body back to Warsaw.
The Polish population, who have been historically critical of Russia, are said to have been deeply moved by the presence of President Dmitry Medvedev at the state funeral for their late president while the leaders of many other countries were prevented from attending the ceremony by the Icelandic volcano, which disrupted air traffic across Europe.
One Polish government official said Medvedev’s attendance seemed unbelievable in light of the earlier threat that if Poland agreed to the deployment of a U.S.-led missile defense system in its territory, Russia would counter by installing missiles along the border.
Poland is not the only country to which Moscow has sent messages of reconciliation. In April, Russia lost no time promising financial aid to the transition government of Kyrgyzstan under Roza Obunbayeva, after civil unrest had forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the country. In so doing, Moscow made no mention of the existence of a U.S. military base in that country even though the regime change offered a golden opportunity for Russia to seek its closure.
Diplomatic experts were also surprised by Russia’s attitude at a summit meeting of the “BRIC” nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China in Brazil on April 16, at which Russia dropped its previous slogan of setting up a new international monetary system to challenge the current U.S.-dollar based system.
At its top-level meeting with Ukraine on April 21, Moscow offered to reduce the price of natural gas in exchange for Kiev’s agreement to let the Russian Black Sea Fleet use Ukrainian port facilities for another 25 years.
On April 27, President Medvedev visited Norway and the two countries agreed on drawing a demarcation line between their respective continental shelves in a manner that gives each side the same area. Even Norwegian diplomats were puzzled as to why Moscow suddenly softened its attitude.
Perhaps the most symbolic event reflecting changes in Russia’s basic diplomatic attitude was the military parade held in Moscow’s Red Square on May 9 to commemorate Victory in Europe Day. For the first time, some 200 troops from the United States, Britain and France marched with their Russian counterparts in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum.
One answer as to why Russia has been making these and other conciliatory gestures is that Moscow, at least for now, does not see any need to continue a confrontational attitude toward the West at a time when American influence is dwindling in the former Soviet sphere of influence and former Soviet republics and when Western European nations, hit by serious economic slumps, have suspended efforts to expand NATO’s sphere of influence further east.
It would be a mistake, however, to jump to the conclusion that Moscow has abandoned its diplomacy of threat and intimidation for good. There are two factors to indicate that the apparent change to “friendly diplomacy” will last no more than a year or so.
The first, according to diplomatic sources, is the U.S. midterm congressional elections this fall. Russia believes that, after the elections, President Barack Obama will no longer be able to work on “resetting” relations between Washington and Moscow. In anticipation of this, the Russian leadership is looking for an opportunity to establish “more equitable” U.S.-Russia relations, in which Russia takes the lead.
The other factor is the election of the members of the State Duma, or the lower house of the Federal Assembly, late next year and the Russian presidential election in two years. Before these elections, the government must prove to citizens that the Russian economy is recovering. Prime Minister Putin’s goal of making Russia among the five top economic powers will require at least a 6 percent annual growth rate. Therefore, Moscow is seeking economic cooperation with as many countries as possible.
In April, Medvedev became the first Russian head of state to visit Argentina, where he discussed construction of nuclear power stations and diversification of bilateral trade.
On the other hand, the government is faced with the need to inspire patriotism among citizens, because a “peace diplomacy” will not win large numbers of votes held by “Siloviki” officials in the security and military services. One Russian government source predicts that Moscow will return to its traditional diplomacy of threat and intimidation against Washington, after Obama becomes a “lame duck president.”
Another important factor is that Russia is turning its smiling face only toward the U.S. and its allies in the West, while giving the cold shoulder to its eastern neighbors, particularly Japan and China. An expert in Russian affairs observes that the present detente between Moscow and Washington is reminiscent of the two countries’ working together to fight international terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
Chinese President Hu Jintao showed his displeasure with this situation when he watched the military parade of the Russian, American, British and French troops in Red Square.
Russia’s attitude toward Japan might even grow tougher than toward China. For example, with the backing of the Kremlin, the Russian Federal Assembly is working to revive “Victory over Japan Day,” which had been abolished following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.
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