20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russia’s new foreign policy doctrine proclaims a responsible and “multivectoral” course of action in international affairs. However, according to Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the Kremlin’s actions often contrast with its rhetoric.



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an “independent,” “multi-vector” foreign policy for his county in the new issue of the influential journal International Affairs. Russia’s foreign policy is not “conservative,” he said.  Rather, it seeks to ensure peace, equality, and representative leadership for effective global management.  Achieving international stability, he added, would create favorable conditions for the growth of Russia’s economy.  He also stressed Russia’s role in ensuring peace through its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.  Lavrov emphasized the rapid change in the international environment, the growth of a “polycentric system of international relations in which Russia plays a key role,” and the importance of strengthening of multilateral forums such as the G20, G8, SCO and the BRICS.

Lavrov’s comments were not new.  They expanded upon the themes laid out by Vladimir Putin in his new foreign policy concept published in February.  Lavrov’s remarks, like Putin’s, suggest Russia’s goal is to be a responsible international player even as it seeks to shape a new global order less dominated by the West.

Indeed, in recent weeks the Russian leadership has acted responsibly to implement these principles on two issues – though only up to a point.  Despite its longstanding opposition to US plans for ballistic missile defense, Moscow expressed its interest on restarting discussions less than two weeks after Washington cancelled plans to install anti-ballistic missile defenses in Poland.  It also worked to defuse “explosive” tensions over the North Korea.  But here too Moscow fell short of its stated foreign policy approach.  It urged North Korea and the US to end a “vicious cycle” of tensions that could “simply get out of control,” and criticized “unilateral action” around North Korea – a clear reference to the US response, thereby insultingly implying a moral equivalence between Pyongyang’s provocation and the justifiable response of Washington and its South Korean ally.

Moscow insultingly implied a moral equivalence between Pyongyang’s provocation and the justifiable response of Washington.

Despite the soaring rhetoric of the doctrinal pronouncements of Lavrov and Putin, Moscow has elsewhere behaved contrary to its new foreign policy concept. First, its support of the United Nations and multilateralism is conditional.  Although Russia began shipping humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon on April 3, it continues to resist international pressure to lift the arms embargo on Syrian rebels.  Russia criticized the Arab League decision to allow Syria’s main opposition coalition to take the country’s official seat at its summit.  It supplied weapons to the army of Syrian dictator Assad throughout the crisis and vetoed three UN resolutions condemning his crackdown on the Syrian rebels.

The Kremlin has also been selective in its support for other multilateral actions.  It took a leading role at the March summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), an organization it sees as a counterbalance to Western institutions such as the European Union.  Moscow is also seeking to broaden the involvement of nonmembers in the G20, which Russia chairs this year.  But it abstained from supporting a global arms trade treaty, approved by the UN General Assembly on April 2, which for the first time would link the sales of conventional arms to the human rights record of the purchasers. (Last week, Putin called for Russia, the world’s second largest weapons supplier after the United States, to increase sales.)


Vladimir Putin (right) views BRICS as a counterweight to Western-dominated global institutions.


Despite its stated preference for negotiated solutions to international problems, Russia continues to rebuild its military establishment, long in decay, and flex its muscles to intimidate its neighbors.  Although it said it is willing to reengage on ballistic missile defense, Moscow is not ready for a new round of nuclear arms reduction, according to Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief-of-staff at the Kremlin.  He called for Russia’s armed forces to expand to at least one million men.  Moreover, the Kremlin ordered large-scale military exercises in the Black Sea region at the end of March, using troops mostly based in Ukraine.  It has been reported that Moscow is also considering a permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean.

Russia must determine its own national interests, of course.  Other countries, including the United States, often act in contradiction to their expressed principles.  But Russia’s new foreign policy concept, as articulated by both Lavrov and Putin, should not be allowed to obscure the more fundamental aspects of its international behavior that, as Leon Aron has pointed out, reflect an elite consensus that has evolved since the fall of the USSR: that Russia should be a nuclear superpower on strategic parity with the United States; that the country should be a great global  power (an idea contained in its foreign policy concept), and that Russia should be the dominant political, economic and military power in Eurasia. In practice, this means giving priority to recovering for Russia the political, economic and geostrategic assets lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Inventing an “external enemy” for Russia provides a useful rationale for a hard line at home.

Above all, the Kremlin’s new foreign policy doctrine masks the interrelationship between its domestic policies and its international behavior.  Putin’s declining political base, popular anger at corruption, and the emergence of a more articulate middle class have led the Kremlin to crack down on civil liberties at home, thereby seriously complicating Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States.  Inventing an “external enemy” for Russia provides a useful rationale for a hard line at home, even as it complicates relations with the West. (At a Moscow roundtable last week, former Army Chief-of-Staff Yuri Baluyevsky said that some of his colleagues do not rule out a US nuclear first strike against China or Russia.  Almost every informed expert would certainly disagree.)

Putin’s standing at home relies, in part, in ensuring the contentment of Russia’s businessmen, many of whom have extensive interests abroad, with little regard for whether it conforms to Russia’s foreign policy blueprint.  The financial crisis in Cyprus posed a dilemma for Putin: on the one hand, he had been promoting “deoffshorization” and had proposed a ban on foreign bank accounts for Russian officials.  An anti-Western campaign to strengthen Russia’s autonomy was also underway.  On the other hand, the Kremlin allowed recent oligarch business deals overseas to go ahead.  Thus, when the Cyprus controversy occurred, the authorities were forced to defend Russian offshore accounts contrary to their own stated policy.  Finally, the Cyprus crisis strained relations with the West.  The German financial community was concerned about flows of illicit Russian money into the island.  Western leaders, meanwhile, were concerned that Moscow Russia would take advantage of the situation to establish a naval base in Cyprus or buy the island’s energy resources.  In this regard, the Kremlin’s response to the recent Cyprus financial crisis was the victim of crossed “multivectoral” wires.