The presidential election is still two weeks away and the inauguration of the next president more than two months off, but we can already analyze the results of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. The current focus is on his mentor and most likely successor, Vladimir Putin, who has made a number of policy statements as part of his tireless campaign efforts, including on foreign policy, which was not part of his brief as prime minister.
The highlights of Medvedev’s foreign policy include the new European security architecture initiative launched during his visit to Germany in June 2008, a month after he assumed office, a five-day war with Georgia later that year, the subsequent statement on “the sphere of privileged interests” and the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A gas war with Ukraine left part of Europe without heat in the middle of winter, but then Russia signed the “Gas for Fleet” agreement, under which it cut gas prices for Ukraine in return for an extension of the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea.
Russia also secured an extension to its military presence in Armenia and has been working for a settlement in Nagorny Karabakh. The Kremlin joined Washington’s efforts to reset bilateral relations and signed the New START treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. Medvedev cancelled a contract to deliver S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran, which did not go down well with the Russian defense industry.
His other political achievements include a sharper focus on China and other Asian nations and the idea of launching a major energy project to settle the Korean problem. Medvedev has exchanged words with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, against whom he even initiated a media war. In a surprise move, Russia approved military intervention in Libya but later said that it was a mistake. Medvedev’s visit to the South Kurils caused a sharp deterioration in relations with Japan.
His indirect foreign policy achievements include the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and progress in relations with Poland, although Vladimir Putin contributed more to both of these than Medvedev.
Anyone analyzing Russia’s activity in the period from spring 2008 to autumn 2011 needs to remember that its foreign policy was not the sole responsibility of Medvedev, but a joint effort of the ruling tandem, even though Putin stayed behind the scenes for the most part.
A closer look at Russia’s foreign policy achievements leads to a paradoxical conclusion. Medvedev, with his friendly smile and pro-modernization rhetoric so acceptable to Europe and the United States, was widely seen as a pro-Western politician. Yet Russia has made hardly any advances on the Western front, while its anti-Western or alternative policy directions have proved much more successful.
The only exception is the reset policy, which was quite successful within its narrow limits. Its goal was to normalize U.S.-Russian relations, which were deadlocked during President George W. Bush’s two terms in office. This goal has been achieved, along with other issues on the original agenda – the Afghan transit deal, Iran sanctions, the New START treaty and even Russia’s accession to the WTO. The reset policy did not seek to create a new model of bilateral relations, there was no miracle. The next U.S. and Russian administrations will have to start afresh at least, though not completely from scratch.
Russia’s relations with NATO and more particularly with the European Union have not been hugely successful either. The European security initiative was a minor element of an endless game in Europe, which is rapidly turning into a strategic periphery. The ineffective Partnership for Modernization and ballistic missile defense for Europe never got off the ground. Worse still, the ballistic missile defence discussions did achieve a result of sorts – an unequivocally negative one.
On the other hand, the EU and the European part of NATO are currently in no mood for large projects due to their financial problems. By the end of Medvedev’s term it became clear that relations with the EU are far from neutral, as evidenced by the EU's coordinated attack on Gazprom, the growing rivalry between pipeline projects and policy differences over Syria.
The most successful act in Russia's relations with the West turned out to be the war in South Ossetia, which also drew the most heavy criticism. Despite the West’s initial shock and threats of isolation, Russia's ability to flex its military muscles so quickly had a sobering effect on Russia’s partners and even prevented the curtailment of some bilateral projects. Looking back on it now, the war with Georgia could be regarded as Medvedev’s biggest foreign policy achievement, even though it runs contrary to his public image.
Russia has also been successful in Asia and is now considering elaborating a comprehensive strategy that would combine the restoration of its position in the Asia Pacific region with the development of the Russian Far East. The trans-Korean gas pipeline project is part of a fundamentally new resolution paradigm, and Medvedev’s visit to the Kuril Islands is a signal that Russia will not give up its place in Asia, designed not so much for Japan as for China, with whom Moscow seems to be enjoying excellent relations.
Medvedev has set out a policy which will be continued under Putin: Russia's transformation into a power with a regional focus, although the region in this case is Eurasia, which adds a global dimension. Other actions that fall into the same category include the proclamation of a zone of its privileged interests (which means that interests are not global as the former Soviet Union and the United States believed, but have clearly marked borders), its detached stance on Libya and growing efforts to boost post-Soviet integration organizations such as the Customs Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the CIS free trade zone. Russia has been confining its priorities along its border and using all other issues as bargaining chips. This policy was only just started, but its effects are already being felt.
The period after the war with Georgia, which was the belated fallout from Putin’s policy, can best be described as foreign policy stabilization. It was a logical interlude, as by autumn 2008 Russia had exhausted all the opportunities for political recovery after the collapse of the Soviet Union and needed time to review its achievements and formulate new goals. This process is not over yet and Putin will need to flesh it out.
Apart from the Eurasian Union the presidential candidate has not yet outlined his other foreign policy objectives. Putin’s recent meeting with political analysts showed that he is still very emotional about relations with the United States. The four-year pause when Medvedev was responsible for Russia’s foreign policy has not moderated Putin’s feelings about Washington’s “dictates and arrogance.”
This emotional and personal factor – Putin has done a lot to develop mutually beneficial business relations with the United States, but has been met with a clear unwillingness to accept Russia as an equal partner – will seriously influence the U.S.-Russia agenda. Due to this factor of personal grievance, the United States does not seem to fit into Putin’s foreign policy, which is on the whole more pragmatic and prudent.