Beyond Putin’s Westward Quest

Led by Pavel K. Baev

Jan 2002 – Dec 2004


This project builds on previous research on Russia’s European policy and its main aim in 2002 was to assess the shifting balance of interests and political forces driving Russia’s course towards Europe, to evaluate the sustainability of this course and to identify possible shifts in the mid-term future. A particular focus was on the context of President Putin’s visit to Norway in October 2002.

The main conclusions, as of early 2003, were as following:

Sustainability of the European Orientation

The aggregate sum of these challenges amounts to a relentless force that works towards ‘correcting’ Russia’s foreign policy closer to a post-Primakov version of the ‘multi-polar’ world of power balances. While Putin’s strong personal Westward drive has a solid basis in the interests of Russia energy complex, it is possible to conclude that in its present-day forms and features it is not really sustainable. The ‘rewards’ offered by the West up until the autumn of 2002 – from writing off parts of the Soviet debt to cutting off parts of the strategic arsenal – are not (and, realistically, cannot be) sufficient to sustain Russia on the ‘go-West’ course.

More fundamentally, only narrow segments of Russia’s elites could prosper through ‘bandwagoning’ with the US war against terrorism and only a few particular sectors of Russia’s economy could benefit from opening to global markets, while much larger parts of the economy are experiencing de-modernization and many key elites are marginalized. A new breakthrough in Russia’s internal transformation and a range of ambitious initiatives in reshaping major economic regimes and security institutions are necessary for securing its reunification with Europe.

The list of internal conditions is discouragingly long: from finding a political solution for Chechnya to promoting the freedom of press, and from advancing transparency and accountability of the government to seriously reducing corruption. Taken together, these reforms would amount to scrapping the half-implemented design of a vertically-integrated ‘police state’ in favour of an untested and in many ways unnatural (at least, from the Kremlin perspective) democratic model. Putin’s new aim at ‘de-bureaucratization’ of the state may signify an important step in this direction, but it is a fact of history that not a single Russian ruler has ever won a battle against own bureaucracy.

The range of external conditions is equally wide and deep: from opening the stop-gates to Russia’s energy exports to Europe to offering Moscow a realistic timetable for joining the EU and NATO. The central question here is keeping in check the US unilateralist tendencies, so Russia, somewhat ironically, is becoming interested in upholding a firm and functional trans-Atlantic link. Fundamentally, the West has to design and sustain the implementation of an ambitious programme for Russia’s accelerated modernization aimed at overcoming the deepening gap between Russia, with its rusting infrastructure and wounded society, and the rapidly globalizing Europe. It will require massive investment of capital and political will – and may still prove to be a mission impossible.

The internal reforms and external engagements are certainly interconnected, with much implicit conditionality between the latter and the former. For that matter, it could be argued that Putin has been able to perform and sustain his pro-Western turn only because he maintains firm control over the state apparatus and is able to manipulate the media. At the same time, the roll-back of democratic freedoms (handicapped as they were) in Putin’s ‘managed democracy’ creates a very low ceiling for rapprochement with the West.

While the US is so preoccupied with the anti-terrorist agenda, it is the EU that has to walk a tight rope so that the encouragement of democratic reforms in Russia would not in a slightest way offset its Western orientation. The need in flexibility is obvious but it is also essential to avoid the trap of ‘fair-weather-arrangements’ and prepare the asymmetrical-but-equal partnership for the next crisis. In this context, some lessons from the spectacular failure of Russia-NATO conflict management/peacekeeping dialogue in the mid-1990s, which was aimed specifically at establishing a common ground for the looming crisis in Kosovo, have to be drawn. For that matter, the nearly certain violent conflicts in the Southern Caucasus could probably be contained through already established mechanisms and so involve reasonably limited overall risk for European security. The increasingly probable conflicts in Belarus and Ukraine, to the contrary, could produce vast destructive resonance and so have to be addressed with due respect but without undue attention to ‘delicate nuances’ that could block pragmatic steps.

Overall, in the foreign policy realm Putin has so far performed way above expectations. However, the drama of his leadership is that even his best efforts are rendered down to ‘not good enough’ by the scale of accumulated disaster. He may have a portrait of Peter the Great on the wall of his office but in a mirror he can see only Vlad the ‘Not-too-Bad’. His European sympathies may be as sincere as is his rage against terrorism but the combination of the two does not necessarily make a smooth blend. There are many cross-roads ahead on the Westward course and on every of them it will be much easier for him make the proverbial two steps back than one step forward. That does not mean that Russia has any viable alternative to allying itself with the West and opening up to globalization, but there is too much evidence to the inherent tendency of this state to blow its best options and opt instead for introvert self-aggrandizing which could prove suicidal.

Up to autumn 2002, Putin has shown resolution to hold steady against all countervailing forces, but in the near future Chechnya or Belarus, Kaliningrad or Georgia could happen to become a crucial misstep that would trigger an avalanche of mutually reinforcing quarrels and conflicts. There is certainly nothing mystical about the ‘Slavic brotherhood’ and nothing personal about the Caucasus but even entirely rational decisions taken on the basis of pragmatic calculations of Russia’s interests in this nearest of all post-Soviet ‘abroad’ could deny Russia what little chance it has for rejoining Europe and redefining it in the process.

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