Pirouettes and Priorities: Distilling a Putin Doctrine

By Trenin, Dmitri | The National Interest, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Pirouettes and Priorities: Distilling a Putin Doctrine


Trenin, Dmitri, The National Interest


IN THE beginning of 2003, the Bush Administration was genuinely surprised by Moscow's handling of the Iraq issue. President Vladimir Putin's decision to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq alongside France and Germany was arguably his most important foreign policy move since September 2001, when he boldly led his reluctant countrymen into something that promised to become a strategic partnership with the United States. Thirty months later, he seemed to have backtracked from what was seen as an underconstructed parmership. When, in spring 2003, France, Germany and Russia formed a "coalition of the unwilling", many observers believed that Putin was returning to his pre-9/11 emphasis on relations with Europe. By this fall, however, the troika was largely history, and relations with George W. Bush were more or less patched up. Such pirouettes are by no means reserved for relations with the United States. The Chinese, for their part, still quietly reeling after Putin's 2001 volte-face on the ABM Treaty, were greatly surprised by Russia's abrupt change in its stance on the Angarsk Daqin pipeline, only a few months after Presidents Putin and Hu Jintao had formally endorsed it. The natural question to ask, then, is whether Putin's vaunted pragmatism is Russia's sole guiding foreign policy light, or does Russia actually have a foreign policy doctrine?

Basic Ingredients of a Putin Doctrine

FORMALLY speaking, an official foreign policy doctrine does exist, signed by Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his presidential term in mid-2000. This was subsequently developed in a number of statements, most notably in an address to Russia's ambassadors and other senior diplomats in mid-2002. Russia also has a declared national security concept, a military doctrine and a blueprint for military modernization. Despite its usefulness as an artifact of Russian bureaucratic thinking, this body of literature can hardly provide a clear and unambiguous answer to the following important questions: What is Russia's international identity? How does it define its interests, and in what order of priority? How will it promote and, if need be, defend them? How does it relate to other international actors, in particular the United States, the European Union and China?

Obviously, one has to deal here with moving targets. Russia remains a work in progress. Its concrete transformation into a developed market economy and a genuine democracy will probably take up to three generations. National identity and a definition of the national interest are still in the gestation period. Before institutions will emerge, personalities will continue to matter, and the personality of the First Person above all. This is nowhere as evident as in foreign and security policy.

Without doubt, Vladimir Putin is Russia's foreign policy director. He replaced neither the foreign minister nor even the Kremlin's in-house foreign policy advisor, both of whom are holdovers from the previous administration, yet he has been able to turn Russia's foreign policy around. He abandoned Boris Yeltsin's agenda, with its desire to play an oversized role in world affairs, its old-fashioned quest for multipolarity to balance America and its mea adpa attitude to the notion of CIS integration. Instead, he immediately adopted a "don't mess with America" attitude, reached out to Europe, sought to rebalance relations with China, and tackled the former Soviet states oneon-one. To Putin, economic concerns were not only superior to stale geopolitical schemes; they constituted the master key to the Russian state's position in the international arena.

Thus, for the purposes of both analysis and prognosis it is very important to situate Russia's second president in the context of his country's political development. Putin is usually described as a KGB veteran, the conclusion being that he is a non-ideological pragmatist. He is also credited with practical experience in early market economics during his time as an aide to St. …

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