Parsing Putin’s Foreign Policy Treatise


by Richard Weitz

Vladimir Putin, currently Russia’s prime minister and a candidate for the Russian presidency, set out his core foreign policy views in his latest pre-election newspaper article. Unlike most election manifestos, the content of this one seems to reflect Putin’s genuine views and the actual policies he will implement if elected.

One evident theme is a concern about Russia’s potential geopolitical isolation and an affirmation of Moscow’s global relevance. Russia constantly fears being isolated in Europe and Asia or excluded from important regional diplomatic efforts such as those involving the Middle East. For example, despite the current differences between Russia and many Arab states over how to maange the Syrian crisis, Putin affirms Moscow’s interest in promoting a Middle East peace settlement and claims to “see real possibilities that will enable Russia to fully preserve its leading position in the Middle East, where we have always had many friends.”

Putin insists that “Russia is an inalienable and organic part of Greater Europe and European civilization. Our citizens think of themselves as Europeans.” His uneasy at Russia’s exclusion from NATO and the EU are evident in Putin’s call for “the creation of a common economic and human space from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean – a community referred by Russian experts to as “the Union of Europe’.” Instead, “we perceive some aspects of U.S. and NATO conduct that contradict the logic of modern development, relying instead on the stereotypes of a bloc-based mentality,” by which he means “an expansion of NATO that includes the deployment of new military infrastructure with U.S.-drafted plans to establish a missile defense system in Europe.”


Another theme is the emphasis on adhering to proper international principles. Putin says that Moscow sought, gradually and peacefully, “to ensure a new world order, one that meets current geopolitical realities.” In his view, the core principles of international security are the “inalienable right to security for all states, the inadmissibility of the excessive use of force, and the unconditional observance of the basic principles of international law.”

In this context, Putin offers a strong defense of the traditional interpretation of national sovereignty.

“The recent series of armed conflicts started under the pretext of humanitarian aims is undermining the time-honored principle of state sovereignty, creating a moral and legal void in the practice of international relations.” Although Putin accepts that individuals responsible for grave human rights violations should be tried in an international court, “ when human rights are protected from abroad and on a selective basis, and when the same rights of a population are trampled underfoot in the process of such ‘protection,’ including the most basic and sacred right – the right to one’s life – these actions cannot be considered a noble mission but rather outright demagogy.”

In terms of his own country, Putin complains that “Russia has been the target of biased and aggressive criticism that, at times, exceeds all limits.” He claims that these attacks constitute “persistent effort to influence our citizens, their attitudes, and our domestic affairs” making it “clear that these attacks are not rooted in moral and democratic values.” In response, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairslast year began issuing its own annual reports on other countries’ human rights policies, devoting special criticism to American practices.

Given Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council, Putin naturally stresses the importance of respecting that body’s exclusive right to authorize the legitimate use of military force.

“Nobody has the right to usurp the prerogatives and powers of the UN, particularly the use of force with regard to sovereign nations.”

Alluding to Western military interventions in Kosovo and Iraq that occurred without the approval of the Security Council (thanks to Russia’s veto), Putin laments to “how states that have fallen victim to ‘humanitarian’ operations’ and the export of ‘missile-and-bomb democracy’ appealed for respect for legal standards and common human decency. But their cries were in vain – their appeals went unheard’.” Complaining about the “almost hysterical reaction to the Russian-Chinese veto” of the recent Western-Arab resolution on Syria, Putin writes that, “I would like to warn our Western colleagues against the temptation to resort to this simple, previously used tactic: if the UN Security Council approves of a given action, fine; if not, we will establish a coalition of the states concerned and strike anyway.”

Putin also joins other Russian leaders in warning about how modern Internet tools can be used to undermine authoritarian regimes.

“The Arab Spring has graphically demonstrated that world public opinion is being shaped by the most active use of advanced information and communications technology.” In an interesting definition, Putin writes that, “The notion of ‘soft power’ is being used increasingly often. This implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence.” According to Putin, “Regrettably, these methods are being used all too frequently to develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries.”

Sounding like the Egyptian government minister who has arrested members of various domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations, Putin insists that “the activities of ‘pseudo-NGOs’ and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable.”

Another concern is what Putin calls the the question of the United States and other NATO members for “absolute security,” such as having a comprehensive and highly effective defensive system against foreign missile attacks.

In his words, “The Americans have become obsessed with the idea of becoming absolutely invulnerable. This utopian concept is unfeasible both technologically and geopolitically, but it is the root of the problem” since “[b]y definition, absolute invulnerability for one country would in theory require absolute vulnerability for all others.” Instead, Putin again insists on the right of all states to equal security.

Putin sees this quest for absolute security as well as the West’s quick resort to military force against regimes it opposes as contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons: “It seems that the more frequent cases of crude and even armed outside interference in the domestic affairs of countries may prompt authoritarian (and other) regimes to possess nuclear weapons. If I have the A-bomb in my pocket, nobody will touch me because it’s more trouble than it is worth. And those who don’t have the bomb might have to sit and wait for “humanitarian intervention.”

Putin also decries what he sees as the excessive “willingness to ‘punish’ certain countries,” which he terms an outdated practice in the 21st century. “Let me remind you that we are not in the 19th century or even the 20th century now.”

Another theme is a strong emphasis on affirming  Russia’s foreign business interests and assisting Russian “entrepreneurs in occupying their rightful place in the world market.” In the converse of what many international experts believe to be the case, “We are trying to attract foreign capital to the Russian economy. We are opening up the most attractive areas of our economy to foreign investors, granting them access to the “juiciest morsels,” in particular, our fuel and energy complex. But our investors are not welcome abroad and are often pointedly brushed aside.” Putin warns that the Russian government will more aggressively defend Russian business interests in the future.

In addition to faulting the Western military interventions in Libya and other Arab states as empowering extremists and killing civilians, Putin also sees Western economic imperialism as resulting from, if not necessarily causing, the interventions.

“It appears that with the Arab Spring countries, as with Iraq, Russian companies are losing their decades-long positions in local commercial markets and are being deprived of large commercial contracts.” He writes. “The niches thus vacated are being filled by the economic operatives of the states that had a hand in the change of the ruling regime.” In this interpretation, “One could reasonably conclude that tragic events have been encouraged to a certain extent by someone’s interest in a re-division of the commercial market rather than a concern for human rights.”

This business emphasis also applies to Russia’s broader foreign alignments. For example, Putin and other Russian leaders are very enthusiastic about the BRIC [Brazil-Russia-India-China] grouping. “That unique structure, created in 2006, is a striking symbol of the transition from a unipolar world to a more just world order,” Putin writes. “BRICS brings together five countries with a population of almost three billion people, the largest emerging economies, colossal labor and natural resources and huge domestic markets.” The fifth country is South Africa, which when included brings the total share of world GDP of the five states to above 25 percent. Putin neglects to mention that the BRICS lack an independent organizational structure, common projects for many areas, and, most seriously, shared preferences regarding many key international questions. Conflicting interests divide their members on important issues, such as the desired world price of oil and whether to seek to replace the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency.

Russia is also undertaking its own Asian pivot, albeit primarily for economic reasons.

Putin notes that Russia actively sought the chairmanship of APEC in order to “promote the further development of Siberia and the Russian Far East and enable our country to become more involved in the dynamic integration processes in the “’new Asia’.” Russia would be better able to accomplish this objective if it could improve its relations with Japan by negotiating a solution to their disputed islands (known as the Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan).

Putin professes to welcome the rise of China.

“First of all, I am convinced that China’s economic growth is by no means a threat, but a challenge that carries colossal potential for business cooperation – a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy” such as by using Chinese investments and trade to revitalize the depressed Russian Far East. “Second, China’s conduct on the world stage gives no grounds to talk about its aspirations to dominance.” Furthermore, “we have settled all the major political issues in our relations with China, including the critical border issue.” Finally, Russia and China “have created a solid mechanism of bilateral ties, reinforced by legally binding documents. There is an unprecedentedly high level of trust between the leaders of our two countries.” In short, “Russia needs a prosperous and stable China, and I am convinced that China needs a strong and successful Russia.” In private and now in some of the media, Russians welcome China’s rise.

Finally, with respect to Russian-U.S. ties, Putin laments that the bilateral relationship remains “fundamentally” unchanged from the antagonism of the Cold War.

“The instability of the partnership with America is due in part to the tenacity of some well-known stereotypes and phobias, particularly the perception of Russia on Capitol Hill,” he writes. Putin also criticizes the U.S. penchant “to engage in ‘political engineering’” in Russia and in other countries of interest to Moscow. In addition, Putin again attacks U.S plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe as disrupting the Continent’s “military-political balance established over decades” and for violating the “principles of equal and mutually respectful partnership.”

“But the main problem,” Putin writes, “is that bilateral political dialogue and cooperation do not rest on a solid economic foundation. The current level of bilateral trade falls far short of the potential of our economies. The same is true of mutual investments. We have yet to create a safety net that would protect our relations against ups and downs. We should work on this.”

Putin is correct in his assessment that the relationship needs more economic ballast. Atlhough the economies of the European Union and the United States are approximately equal in size, the volume of EU trade and investment with Russia is much greater. One problem is that the United States does not need to buy Russia’s main export items, energy and arms.

But another obstacle is U.S. wariness of the Russian business practices, such as the lack of either commercial transparency, intellectual property protection, or evident division between public and private actors in the Russian economy.