Vladimir Putin is set to reassume the reins of power in the Kremlin. But what will Russia's foreign policy be, and how should the European Union and its member states react?
Last week’s weather forecast in Moscow was ‘visibility close to zero; high pressure remains: an apt description of Russian politics at present. Vladimir Putin won the recent presidential elections, but the protest movement is determined that ‘the return of politics to Russia’ is not just a temporary phenomenon. But if domestic matters are still foggy and opaque, are there any signs of clarity over foreign policy for when Putin reassumes the presidency?
Much will not change. For more than a decade Russia's foreign policy ambitions have been consistent: Moscow wants to be treated as an equal partner to the West and is keen to maintain global influence through permanent membership on the UN Security Council, its huge nuclear arsenal and its large economy. In Europe, Russia expects understanding or at least tolerance of its 'sphere of interests' in the former Soviet region. The actors are also an ever-present: while Putin is returning to the Kremlin, he is not returning to power – he never left it in the first place. Few think president Medvedev’s foreign policy steps (such as the reset with the US) happened without Putin’s assent.
However, many other aspects of Russia’s foreign policy have been far less constant. Most importantly for Europe, EU-Russia relations have calmed down. Russia is no longer seen as such a challenge, and is no longer the main issue dividing member states. Some, including Poland, have rethought their relations with Moscow and softened their tone. Most importantly, while five years ago the member states could not agree whether to engage or contain Russia, now a new (albeit soft) consensus seems to be emerging that the EU should try to work with Moscow rather than against it. Meanwhile the Kremlin seems to have finally come to terms with the existence of the EU as an entity and has reached out to a number of member states, rather than just its ‘traditional allies’ such as France or Germany. In the last three years, Russia signed 18 bilateral agreements on economic cooperation with EU members. Equally importantly, the majority of the political and business elite in Russia realise that if Russia’s economy is to modernise and diversify, there is simply no better partner than Europe.
These are all good omens, but this relative calm will not necessarily last when Vladimir Putin returns. Domestic politics in Russia are certain to have foreign policy implications. One objective will be to protect the domestic political system from outside interference. While the opposition momentum has (at least temporarily) faded, if the leadership suffers another crisis of legitimacy, and if the opposition also mounts a real challenge, the Kremlin may try to tighten the screws. During Mr Putin’s first two presidential terms, NGOs were closed down, political parties were deregistered and political freedoms circumvented under the pretext of fighting terrorism, reimposing rule of law or resisting foreign-supported 'colour revolutions'. Moscow frequently criticised the West for supporting ‘instability’ or trying to ‘undermine’ Russia's political order. Earlier this year Putin began accusing Washington of being the ‘puppet master’ behind popular protests. If Russia becomes more restless, the EU, which has also expressed support for the opposition, may also end up in the Kremlin’s firing line.
Tensions may also rise in the common neighbourhood between Russia and the EU. The EU‘s flagship Eastern partnership (EaP) project, covering the six former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, is now in limbo. Ties with Belarus were cut after Minsk clamped down on political activists and civil society. The government in the EaP’s most important country, Ukraine, seems to prefer settling political scores with the opposition at the expense of advancing relations with the EU via a comprehensive Association Agreement (it has been finalised but not ratified). Russia is unlikely to watch idly: Vladimir Putin’s first foreign policy speech after announcing his candidacy was about the establishment of the Eurasian Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. With the EU’s power weakened by economic crisis and little appetite in most Eastern partnership countries for the kind of reforms that would bring them closer to the EU, there is an opportunity for Russia to advance its own integration project.
Nowhere is this opportunity greater than in Ukraine, which Moscow repeatedly invited to join the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. President Yanukovich has come under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally. His Party of the Regions faces parliamentary elections in October but opinion polls indicate that his party will struggle; it is now being out-polled by the party of the jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Just months before the elections Ukraine will also need to pay around $3billion on its IMF loan. Although the government seems to be at pains to find these funds, ministers have announced that an almost equal sum of money will be spent on pension increases and other social handouts in the run-up to the elections. Ukraine can hardly expect much assistance from the EU as long as Tymoshenko remains behind bars and the practice of selective justice continues. With parliamentary elections quickly approaching, and mounting financial problems, Ukraine’s leadership may be more open to Moscow’s proposals (or more vulnerable to Russian pressure). If Ukraine joins the Customs Union, it would mean an end to Kyiv’s oft-repeated but recently rarely demonstrated ambitions to integrate with the EU both economically and politically.
So how should the EU react to possible changes in Russian foreign policy? The economic crisis and the Arab Spring have been consuming much of the EU’s political and financial resources, and Moscow thinks the EU model is faltering. Despite its evident problems, the EU does have some tools. Rather than seeking to contain Russia it should deal with Moscow as with other partners, while denying it the ability to divide and rule different member states. It could liberalise the EU's internal energy market (undermining Moscow’s position as the monopolist gas supplier to several member states), and sign a new trade agreement or insist on reciprocal access to Russian markets (including energy). If the EU no longer believes it can transform Russia, it should at least prevent the spill over of negative effects of Russia’s political regime (such as corruption) to Europe by passing strict anti-corruption legislation or supporting civil society.
When journalists asked Harold Macmillan, former UK prime minister, what was most likely to blow governments off course, he famously said ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Events will also determine what kind of relationship the West will have with Russia in the next couple of years. But hoping that recent improvements might continue without also preparing for possible setbacks would be just as irresponsible as naive.
A different version of this article also appeared on the LSE's blog
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.