20 years under Putin: a timeline

The new Russian foreign policy concept signed by Vladimir Putin lists the Kremlin’s traditional grievances against the West and promises to rely on “soft power” in international affairs. According to Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for all its “soft power,” Russia will be unable to improve its image in the world until it begins to change internally.



President Vladimir Putin presented Russia’s new foreign policy framework to the Russian Federation Security Council on February 15. The document, according to Putin, “reflects major developments such as the global financial and economic crisis[,] . . . the changing balance of power in the world and in world affairs, the growing turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, and the increasing significance of the cultural and civilizational dimensions in global competition today.” Within this framework, the West is no longer able to “dominate in the world economy and politics.” Moreover, the world is experiencing a period of transition during which a new “polycentric international system is forming, which opens the possibility for new economic and financial systems, new alignments in collective security and shifts in political development.” Such a period allows the creation of “flexible forms of participation in many-sided structures with the goal of effectively attempting to resolve the errors of the West.” Russia, said Putin, “will continue to pursue an active and constructive line in international affairs. . . . Its weight and influence in the world will increase.”

Russian media sources have reported that this policy document had been sitting on Putin’s desk since late November, and that he may have delayed signing it until he toughened up the report’s provisions, especially in response to U.S. passage of the Magnitsky Act.

This new policy framework asserts that Russia will seek to advance its interests through “soft power.” Moscow hopes to create an “objective image” of the country and to improve “information support” of its foreign policy. Toward this goal, the report proposes using new technologies, as well as the potential of the multimillion-strong Russian diaspora. The Foreign Ministry unit dealing with the diaspora, the Rossotrudnichestvo, was for the first time identified as an organization charged with developing and carrying out Russian foreign policy. In addition to expanding contacts with the diaspora, the Kremlin’s efforts will also aim to increase the number of Russian scientific and cultural centers abroad that work directly with foreign youth and promote the Russian language.

The Foreign Ministry unit dealing with the diaspora was for the first time identified as an organization charged with developing and carrying out Russian foreign policy.

This framework outlines an alternative vision of international relations, as well as a model of uniquely Russian political development. What is mostly gone is talk of Russian “modernization through diplomacy,” a catchphrase of the Medvedev presidency that implied closer across-the-board integration with the West. In the new formulation, Russia must instead play a “unique” balancing role in international affairs and the development of “world civilization.” More specifically, the document shifts the focus of Moscow’s attention eastward, stating that integration of the post-Soviet space is the highest priority, with special attention devoted to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Customs Union, the future Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the deepening of ties with Ukraine. The maintenance of ties with NATO and the European Union remains a priority—although special emphasis is given to more limited objectives, such as the importance of visa-free travel—as do ties with Russia’s EU gas customers—Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands.


In 1999, Yevgeny Primakov (left) was Vladimir Putin's chief competitor in the struggle for power. Today, the former prime minister is a reliably Putin ally.


Relations with the United States are given the third top priority but are also cast in a one-sided light that benefits Russia. Moscow will continue to seek, says the report, legal restraints on missile defense systems and will work to prevent Washington from interfering in the affairs of other countries.

In fact, portions of the report seem largely designed to codify Russia’s recent foreign policy grievances against the West. Outcomes to be avoided, the report urges, are the weakening of the United Nations through the “arbitrary interpretation of its resolutions,” the regulation of crises “by using unilateral sanctions and force,” the “implementation of policies aimed at overthrowing lawful governments”—certainly references to the Libya and Syria crises—and the “tendency toward the re-ideologization of international relations” (a reference to U.S. democracy promotion). Less new is its call for a multipolar world, a reflection of Moscow’s long-standing resentment of U.S. global preeminence. On February 20, for example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told students at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow that the United States has a long record of breaching the norms of international law. Putin’s anti-American rhetoric in recent weeks, meanwhile, continues to be fierce.

Street protests, a disaffected middle-class, Putin’s declining poll ratings, capital flight, and elite tensions have raised doubts about the durability of Putin’s system.

In addition to representing a response to American assertiveness—although the United States is certainly not Moscow’s enemy—the document is also a response to Russia’s uncertain domestic situation. Frequent street protests, a disaffected middle-class, Putin’s declining poll ratings and narrowing popular base, capital flight, and elite tensions have raised doubts about the durability of the system over which Putin rules. Military expert Vladislav Shurygin, chief editor of the publication Soldiers of Russia, recently urged soldiers to protect the Sochi Winter Olympic facilities carefully, because the “slightest attack” on the site could provoke a political crisis. In order to consolidate its hold on power, the Kremlin has resorted to a program of nationalism, traditionalism, and selective repression. Unable to stoke ethnic nationalism for fear of further igniting the volatile North Caucasus, the Kremlin has taken aim at the West and Western values.

Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov recently attempted to outline a theoretical foundation of the Kremlin’s attempt to create an alternative path for Russia in an article in the government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. In this article, Primakov attacks Russian “neoliberals” who seek the large-scale application of Western theories of economic development in the Russian context and reject the idea that market forces, rather than state planning, ensure social justice. He also provides a rationale for Putin’s hard line at home. “The identification of political freedom with the limitation of state power is categorically incompatible with the need to democratize our society,” he writes. Western attempts to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs, says Primakov, could harm Russia.

Igor Yurgens, president of Russia’s Institute of Contemporary Development, recently warned that the Kremlin’s simultaneous opening of two fronts—against Russia’s internal opposition and against the Euro-Atlantic alliance—risks overstretching its political and economic resources and represents a further deterioration of Russia’s domestic political and economic situation. In this regard, the new foreign policy framework, and Primakov’s rationale, may be useful for forging stronger ties with ruling elites at home and abroad or even for prolonging Putin’s system. But soft power is not simply empty or unappealing content seductively presented with rock music or by social media. Above all, the success of soft power will depend on the depiction of genuine openness, freedom of choice, the protection of human rights, and the establishment of a multiparty system. Until Russia offers something attractive to other countries, its soft power will at best be limited to a set of technical measures—not entirely useless, but ultimately ineffective.