Two shifts in Russian foreign policy attracted much international commentary last week: President Dmitry Medvedev’s decree on curbing military cooperation with Iran, and Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, participating in an Arctic conference in Moscow.
There is, nevertheless, something odd about both these headline-making events.
The near-perfect concord between Medvedev and Putin in delivering a flexible and humble foreign policy stems not only from the obvious assumption that discord would weaken its credibility. It is also sustained by the suspicion that any discrepancy could trigger an elite quarrel, which is certain to be destructive for domestic stability. This passivity of the “masses” and lack of competition between domestic political forces is valued as the main achievement of Putin’s regime, but its continuity is problematic. Public protests might remain subdued but the feuds between corrupt clans are set to intensify as the volume of loot is shrinking. The natural first reaction on the arrival of recession is to abandon inflated ambitions, and Russia’s sensible behavior in the Arctic and towards Iran reflects this sobering adjustment. However, the second reaction to protracted stagnation might witness an attempt to overcome the elite crisis by launching a new “patriotic” mobilization –and Putin is better positioned to undertake such a disastrous remake.