With Its Foot in the Door, Russia Needs to Act

The entire issue of who will succeed President Vladimir Putin is a fascinating story, and its possible plot twists will no doubt provide even more entertainment for the remaining months leading up to March. Unfortunately, the political drama has become more important than the serious issues facing the country, which should be a central part of the presidential campaign.

On the other hand, the profile of the future president and his political and economic agenda is a very important issue. It represents the culmination of the transitional period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. By the end of the next president's term in 2012, the general outline of Russia's future role in the world will be apparent.

It is clear in retrospect that the first two presidents pursued foreign policy agendas that achieved different goals.

If you put aside the meaningless arguments over who "lost" the Soviet Union and look at Boris Yeltsin's presidency in the context of establishing a new country, it is obvious that his main task was to preserve Russia's role as a major player on the world stage and to retain at least something of its Soviet geopolitical legacy.

And at the opening of the 21st century, Moscow has remained an important world capitals with a unique view on the evolving global order. Although Yeltsin lacked the strength to push that vision forward, evaluating the legacy of his presidency requires a more objective analysis than the caricatures and banal comments that we often hear about him.

On this backdrop, Putin set about the task of re-establishing Russia's status as a superpower-- one that can play a role in determining the rules of the global geopolitical game. Overall, he succeeded. Russia is now a global leader whose interests and views are taken into account by other nations.

But the next president will face a difficult challenge. Having returned to the superpower club, Russia must first define its function in this arena and, second, it needs to convert its abstract influence into concrete geopolitical and economic dividends. Achieving these tasks will require substantial effort.

During the last year of his presidency, Putin's strategy of waging a diplomatic frontal assault has had a significant impact on the country's relations with the West. His hard line changed the West's attitude toward Moscow: The United States and its European allies could no longer afford to treat Russia with indifference. But after gaining the West's attention and putting its foot in the door of its arrogant neighbors, Moscow found itself at a loss as to what it wanted to say. It lacked a well-defined and logical set of ideas and desires.

It is time to move away from the practice of denouncing various imperfections in the world order and toward making constructive, substantive suggestions. Strategic vision and solutions to problems are needed, not empty rhetoric. For example, if Russia is dissatisfied with the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo, it should present a detailed alternative for resolving the conflict. Propagandistic retorts are not constructive. Moscow's current tactic of engaging in endless negotiations is a losing strategy because it is not putting any concrete proposals on the table.

In addition, Russia's persistent statements advocating a new, multipolar world order, which it first voiced two years ago, have now become a banality. These appeals are even counterproductive since they focus attention on an empty discussion of Russia as an "independent center of global power."

If you take a sober, balanced look at Russia's real potential, it is doubtful that the country is able to be a power center all by itself, but this says nothing about the country's future course. There is an even greater need for Moscow to develop a clear-cut system of principles, priorities, mutual relations and alliances in this multipolar -- and thus less stable -- world. Instead of engaging in developing such a vision, it seems that Moscow cannot stop rejoicing over the failure of the United States' efforts to spread its influence around the world.

In the meantime, a much more urgent problem looms for Russia over the next five to seven years -- its inability to maintain political parity with China's increasing global influence. The prospect of becoming Beijing's junior partner might make the multipolar paradigm seem far less attractive to Moscow.

Russia's ability to achieve its goals remains a critical concern. Putin's style reflects his attempt to reaffirm the country's status after a decade of political and economic crises. But self-affirmation cannot be a goal in itself, especially since this aggressive behavior has a impact on Moscow's partners for a limited time only; Moscow's partners soon become accustomed to this firm stance, and they even find ways to work to turn Putin's toughness to its own advantage. Measuring a country's foreign policy effectiveness by the level of influence it exerts -- in this case mostly negative -- is to reduce an superpower to the level of a petty nation.

It is common for Russian officials familiar with international relations to take pride in Putin's "intellectual superiority" over his foreign colleagues. There is no doubt that Putin stands a head above most of his partners in his ability to answer any question with a wide range of facts and to discuss specific topics in depth. True, it turns out that other heads of state don't necessarily need to memorize the capacity of a particular gas pipeline or the specific articles of a country's investment laws. Their job is to promote a general political strategy, and this requires not so much a genius IQ as it does a certain intuitive sense acquired through political experience. Only after the agreements are reached and projects set in motion is there a need for highly qualified and ambitious bureaucrats to step in and finish things up.

Carrying things through to their proper conclusion is obviously more difficult to accomplish for various reasons -- either for lack of qualified personnel or due to psychological factors. This is why it is necessary to stress the impact that Russia's policies have on its foreign partners. And this results in a paradox: The public does not take pride in finding advantageous solutions to international problems, but rather in striking blows to relations with foreign states, interpreting each hit as a show of Moscow's growing strength. Moreover, this kind of thinking is characteristic of our ardent "professional patriots," whose numbers have been increasing exponentially the last few years.

Russia's foreign policy priorities should become the subject of serious and broad discussion. If we make a shallow or incorrect analysis, this could lead to damaging consequences. Substituting discussion with demagoguery and propaganda -- whether pro- or anti-Kremlin -- is outright dangerous.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.