Globe-Trotting Putin Landed in 64 Countries

xinhuaPresident Vladimir Putin watching two monks demonstrate Shaolin kung fu during a visit to the Shaolin Temple in China's Henan Province on March 22, 2006.
President Vladimir Putin's visit to Bulgaria was notable in many ways -- a multibillion-dollar pipeline deal, a chance to cement ties with an East European ally, and an opportunity to let Dmitry Medvedev shine in his first trip abroad since winning Putin's blessing as the next president.

But the visit carried additional significance. It was most likely Putin's last after eight years as president, the Kremlin said.

The globe-trotting president has visited 64 countries and territories on five continents over some 190 foreign trips, according to a schedule of his travels on the Kremlin web site.

The trips, which first focused largely on Europe and later on farther-flung regions, tell a compelling tale of Russia's foreign policy priorities. They also tell of attempts to win over friends at a time of strained ties with Europe and the United States.

Putin became the first Kremlin leader to visit Brazil and Saudi Arabia and the first since Stalin to travel to Iran. He has ventured as far afield as North Korea, Chile and Australia. He went to Malaysia three times, India four times and China seven times.

There have been so many foreign trips that some Kremlin and government pool reporters own two passports: They travel with one, while the other is at the embassy being stamped with visas for the next trip.

Yet Central and Eastern Europe -- one of the regions closest to Moscow -- has remained largely a blank spot on Putin's foreign policy. The Bulgarian trip, which took place Thursday and Friday, was Putin's second to the country as president. This may not seem like a lot in comparison to his multiple trips to Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Germany -- the countries he has visited most over the years. But two visits is more than most East European countries got.

Herbert Knosowski / AP
Berlin's mayor showing Putin the city on June 16, 2000, as Schröder watches.
The president visited Poland twice -- but only during the rule of then-President Aleksander Kwasniewski -- and paid relatively brief visits to Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia. He never once toured Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

"This is a huge missed opportunity," said Alexander Rahr, an analyst with the Korber Center for Russia and the CIS in Hamburg.

He said Putin, like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had made a mistake by focusing on ties with leaders from so-called Old Europe and largely looking down on countries that once were in the Soviet Union's orbit.

Under Putin, relations with Poland and Estonia worsened dramatically, but the Kremlin maintains that Warsaw and Tallinn are to blame for the breakdown.

"He was too proud," Rahr said, adding that Putin should have been willing to acknowledge that fault rested with both sides.

While ties with East European nations remain a sore point, Putin has taken enormous steps toward re-establishing the country's status as a global superpower. Under Yeltsin, Russia aligned itself with the United States for lack of its own foreign policy, and it took Putin several years to articulate his own agenda, said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies. "Russia didn't have a foreign policy before 2004," he said.

During the first two years of Putin's presidency, his trips abroad were so frequent that the Foreign Ministry had trouble keeping up with the presidential administration in laying the groundwork for the visits, said Kagarlitsky, who has spoken privately to Foreign Ministry officials about the issue. Many trips, he said, came at the Kremlin's initiative.

"The Foreign Ministry people were crying. It was an organizational catastrophe," he said.

By the start of Putin's second term in 2004, the Kremlin's foreign policy priorities began emerging, with Ukraine becoming a major plank. Putin visited Ukraine more than any other country, traveling there six times in 2004 alone as he sought to ensure the election of his ally Viktor Yanukovych as president. Putin made stops in Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk, Kerch, Yalta and Odessa -- all of which received lavish coverage on Russian state television, which is broadcast to Ukraine.

But after the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko defeated Yanukovych, Putin all but ended his travels there. Of 21 trips to Ukraine in the past eight years, only two have been made under Yushchenko.

Putin's journeys also reflect his efforts to win new allies. After the Europe-focused diplomacy of his first term largely failed, analysts said, he ditched those brief visits in favor of ambitious multination sojourns, such as a Greece-South Africa-Morocco trip in September 2006 and a Saudi Arabia-Qatar-Jordan trip in February 2007. Those journeys have usually had a heavy economic agenda that promoted Russia as an energy superpower.

Derrick Ceyrac / AP
French writer and politician Maurice Druon and Putin feeding a horse Feb. 12, 2003, at Druon's country home in France.
With the clock ticking down on Putin's presidency last year, he seemed to be under pressure to make as many foreign trips as possible to cement his legacy and his vision of Russia's place in the world. In 2007, he visited a total of 24 countries, the largest number in a single year.

While the Kremlin said the Bulgaria trip was likely Putin's last, unconfirmed media reports last week suggested that Putin might try to squeeze in a visit to Libya for arms and other deals.

A senior Kremlin spokesman said the Foreign Ministry acted as the main coordinator for Putin's trips and worked closely with the Kremlin's own foreign policy department. He declined further comment about Putin's trips and referred all questions to the Foreign Ministry.

Spokespeople at the Foreign Ministry declined comment, saying the issue was "too specific." They did not elaborate.

Putin's eagerness to explore the world comes in marked contrast to Yeltsin, who spent the second half of his presidency in and out of hospitals.

Putin has traveled so much that he has sometimes taken trips that were unnecessary, said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. He said Russia had had little to gain from Putin's 2004 trips to Chile and Brazil -- two countries that are traditional U.S. partners -- but the president went anyway. "It was an attempt to ruffle some feathers," Volk said.

Putin seems to feel the most comfortable on friendly soil. After Ukraine, he visited Kazakhstan the most often, going there a total of 15 times. In Europe, Putin most frequently traveled to Germany, where he once worked as a KGB officer. Most of his 13 visits were made when his close friend Gerhard Schröder was the chancellor. Putin's first foreign trip in his second term was to Hannover to congratulate Schröder on his 60th birthday.

Volk said Putin had traveled not only to raise Russia's profile but to satisfy his "love for la dolce vita." During a 2000 trip to Cuba, for example, Putin spent several days in Varadero, a tourist mecca known for its white, sandy beaches, after finishing official business in Havana.

"To a certain degree, he's making up for a difficult childhood and pretty dull work in the Soviet Union," Volk said.

Putin's Travels

Vladimir Putin has visited 64 countries and territories on five continents during his eight years as president.
CountryNo. of Visits
(if more than once)
Czech Republic
North Korea
Ramallah, West Bank
Saudi Arabia
South Africa
South Korea2
The Netherlands2
United Arab Emirates