On the eve of his fourth presidential term, Putin seems to enjoy a stronger mandate than ever before. Weighing domestic and international circumstances, is it reasonable to expect foreign policy changes during Putin’s fourth term? What could the impact of these changes on the European Union? How should the EU respond to possible openings in its relations with Russia?
In the presidential elections Putin gathered more than 76 percent of the popular vote. The ‘Red-Brown’ alternative took approximately 20 percent; whilst the liberal-leaning candidates that were allowed to participate, received about 5 percent. The elections may not be the most reliable marker of society’s desire for change, but there are very few indications that a significant share of Russians, young people included, demand major political change, and certainly not in the liberal-democratic direction. International affairs are not at the forefront of popular attention in Russia, but there are sufficient indications that Putin’s foreign policies enjoy wide popular support.
Over the last few years, Russia has benefited from a profoundly positive international environment, caused by what many in the Kremlin consider as an existential crisis of Western brinkmanship. 2014 was a turning point in Russian foreign policy. The annexation of the Crimea, the involvement in eastern Ukraine, the military intervention in Syria and the almost demonstrative interference into the political processes of Western countries convinced the Russian leadership that audacity and boldness pays in international politics. It is how Moscow compensates for its relatively limited resources. Russian foreign policy is a perfect example of how in international relations power is a relative notion. It is not just about resources, but also about how you are willing to employ them.
Putin’s weakest point is the economy. The situation is challenging. Sanctions, which the IMF estimates cost Russia 1-1.5 percent of its GDP per year, low oil prices, increased military spending and a highly volatile business climate (leading to a massive outflow of capital) have reduced growth figures, lowered income levels, and raised the number of people living in poverty. Russia’s short-term economic prospects are not impressive, but neither are they dramatically poor. In 2017 the Russian economy emerged out of a recession and showed a moderate growth. But Putin’s foreign policies have done nothing to address the longer-term structural economic needs of the country: a more competitive and diversified economy, an improved investment climate, a better infrastructure, legal and administrative change. An important element among Russia’s elite seems convinced that further economic modernization requires better relations with the West. Additionally, hundreds of prominent Russians have been personally affected by US and European sanctions. So far, being on the list of sanctioned individuals was hailed as a token of one’s patriotism, but personally suffering for the prestige of the country has its limits of course.
What will Putin’s fourth term bring?
Russia’s recent foreign policy gains are too evident to change course. The idea that the West can force Russia to adopt a more conciliatory approach, though sanctions and comparable means, seems rather illusory. For the Kremlin short-term geopolitical advances are more important than longer-term economic benefit. But if the Russian leadership is even remotely open to suggestions from its own intellectual and political entourage, it might be persuaded to counter the negative consequences of its policies. This may include foreign policy concessions. It is in the interest of the countries of the European Union to identify and explore the possibilities for a more conciliatory Russian position.
Currently, there is very little appetite in Europe for diplomatic moves towards Russia. We have to wait till the storm of the Skrypal affair blows over before initiatives can be expected. And not all of the issues between Russia and the West are of Russia’s own making. Brexit and Euroscepticism, the proliferation of political populist parties, the divides within the European Union, the opportunities for fake news – Russia exploited rather than created these issues. It is up to the Europeans themselves to minimize the opportunities for Russia to exploit the differences within and between European countries.
Russian concessions will especially concern issues that it may expect to continue to control, that will not undermine its global position or prestige, that will potentially improve its relations with the West, and that may also help to further the modernization of its economy. Four key foreign policy issues present themselves.
One, Moscow could scale down its massive anti-Western propaganda domestically and its intervention efforts in political processes in Europe and the United States. The Russian leadership is in full control over these changes, which will undoubtedly have a beneficial impact on its relations with the West. The risks are small for Russia; the advantages may be considerable.
Two, de-escalation in eastern Ukraine could be a first step towards a wider political agreement is another, albeit much more complex possibility. The dominant Western interpretation is that Putin may have gained the Crimea, but that he lost Ukraine. That remains to be see. Ukrainian politics have been so volatile over the last two decades that another change of leadership and policy direction, including a more conciliatory course towards Russia, is not impossible. It also depends of course on the extent to which Russia is willing to compromise on its strategy in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. A more flexible policy would serve Russian interests, not only vis-à-vis the West, as a first step towards the lifting of sanctions and counter-sanctions, but also towards a post-election Ukraine, and especially also towards some of its more anxious allies in the Former Soviet Union (Belarus, Kazakstan).
Russia and the EU’s interests may also coincide in Syria and the larger Middle East. Russia will remain engaged in Syria and the Middle East, but the nature of its involvement is uncertain. Russia lacks the financial means and the political expediency to invest heavily in the post-war reconstruction of the country. It will probably focus on efforts to create a security configuration which should allow Russia to build a permanent presence in the region and its allies and powers to coexist peacefully. Like in the eastern part of Europe, it is Russia rather than the EU that defines the parameters of regional order. Today, Russia is the only relevant outsider that has workable contacts with all major powers in the Middle East. But many of Russia’s prime interests in the Middle East seem to coincide with those of the EU: countering nuclear proliferation and terrorism, building peace, national and international stability and resilience (read the EU’s security strategy: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European’s Foreign and Security Policy). It should be possible for Europe to work with Russia on these shared concerns, and to pursue other issues on the European agenda (human rights, women rights, democratization) autonomously.
And finally, there is the Korea crisis. Russia is not a prime mover in the Korean issue, nor is Europe. While the stakes of Russian-EU coordination on the conflict with North Korea are high, the risks are relatively low, given that the greatest hazard for both parties is to be marginalized in the settlement of the conflict. The EU may want to present a strong presence also with regard to the volatile leadership of the United States, while it is in Russia’s interest to balance the growing inequality in its relations with China. Russia considers its emerging alliance with China as one of the most important consequences of its rift with the West. China is an important destination of Russian energy and arms sales, and it is an increasingly vital source of high technology. In geopolitical terms, the partnership with China helps Russia to maintain a high international profile. But the Russia-China relationship is also disturbingly unequal, with Russia as a junior partner. This unnerves the political class in Russia considerably.
It is not going to be easy to resume ‘normal’ relations with Russia. It is almost a counter-intuitive response to the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy behavior during the last few years. It tastes of appeasement, but it is not. It is an argument for the ‘compartmentalisation’ of our relations with Russia —an unpopular argument because it is widely identified with moral vacillation and yielding to aggression. But dividing our relations with Russia in different parts can also be considered as an option to identify common concerns and to explore joined efforts. Russia’s regained global influence reflects a wider global power transition. We are not living in a new Cold War, and we are not going back to the earlier post-Cold War one, to that brief moment of Western supremacy during the 1990s and early 2000s ( a supremacy which did more harm than good to the West). Russia profited from the global power shift away from the West, and it will further encourage it. It is the primary task of the European Union to help to protect the political and the economic interests of its member states, and in that context it is not particularly relevant to continue to couch our issues with Russia in terms of moral or normative conflict. The West may persist in claiming the moral high ground in international relations, but that does not make much of an impact anymore, neither in Russia or beyond.