An Early Assessment of Putin's Foreign Policy

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President Vladimir Putin's participation in the NATO summit in Bucharest and his talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Sochi marked the final foreign policy episode in his two terms.

Putin's legacy is worthy of serious study and impartial analysis, but this is not possible right now. Time must pass before the strong enthusiasm of his supporters and the equally strong condemnation of his implacable opponents subside. Only then will we be able to analyze the Putin epoch accurately.

The country Putin will be handing over to his successor differs substantially from the one he inherited from his predecessor.

Observers in the West love to ask: Where did we go wrong with Russia? Why did Moscow take a path different from the democratic one everyone in the early 1990s was hoping it would follow? Why did it not become integrated into the European community under the benevolent supervision of the Western powers?

But these questions emanate from the false premise that it is possible to construct a policy for Russia only. The world really has become a global community, and the West's policy toward Russia cannot be conducted in a vacuum.

Rather than wondering where it went wrong with Russia, the West should be asking: After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, why haven't we seen a fair and just world order?

During Putin's two terms in office, it has become clear that the formulas designed to solve the world's problems might not actually work or could lead to unexpected results. At the same time, the West was slow to realize that global problems were increasing as a direct result of the inadequate methods it employed in grappling with them. In this sense, Putin benefited from the West's failures.

Russia's new sense of confidence derives not only from high oil prices, but from the West's miscalculations as well. The West -- and primarily the United States -- has lost the chance that it had in the early 1990s to play a leading role in the global transformation.

It is worth noting that, for all of his aggressive rhetoric, Putin did not create a single serious problem for the West. It is another matter that Moscow exploited problems in other countries to strengthen its own status, but that is not surprising for a superpower trying to regain its position.

Was Putin's foreign policy confrontational? On the surface, yes. When asked in Bucharest why he thought everyone expected a fiery speech like the one he delivered at a security conference in Munich in early 2007, Putin answered: "There's some kind of strong fear in anticipation of my speeches. I don't know what caused it." Of course, he knows. By the end of his second term, Putin had developed a penchant for making sharp, provocative remarks aimed at the West and then sitting back to watch the subsequent commotion.

But confrontation with the West was hardly Putin's goal. More likely, he was striving to put Russia on equal footing with the West by re-establishing its superpower status. Did he choose the right methods for this task? Hardly. Was he pursuing the right goal? Or more important, is there any point in speaking about integrating Russia into a global system that has not developed a stable foundation since the end of the Cold War?

Nearly all the global institutions that formed the previous world order are now in crisis. The West has been unable to abandon its Cold War-era habit of dividing the world into ideological camps, rendering it unprepared for a movement away from ideologically charged international relations. Attempts to explain problems in terms of the presence or absence of democratic institutions has not produced the desired result. Global processes do not lend themselves to a universal model of development.

In terms of rhetoric, global superpowers have rejected former geopolitical principles and outdated notions about the balance of power. But those advocating a return to realism are retrogressive in their thinking. After all, leading nations speak about humanitarian values and the need to do away forever with the mentality of the zero-sum game. In practice, however, every country acts out of personal interest, though perhaps somewhat subconsciously. At the same time, they are unwillingly to shoulder the responsibility needed to formulate new rules of the game that would be acceptable to all the players.

They also demonstrate a clear desire for an opponent. But every attempt to transform the battle against international terrorism into an integral element of the world order has ended in failure. A phantom-like adversary is incapable of either uniting the world community into a resilient alliance or serving as a perceived evil that is strong enough to define the ideological and political positions of the countries opposing it.

Moreover, terrorism is not an independent phenomenon driving political events. It is the product of failed approaches to various strategic and economic problems.

During Putin's presidency, many in the West referred to "authoritarian capitalism" as exemplified by China and Russia. This political and economic model became the "official bogeyman," even more than global terrorism. Unfortunately, the idea of pitting authoritarian capitalism against liberal capitalism is far-fetched. The fabricated collision of two capitalistic systems was probably born more out of the incapacity to grasp the underlying nature of current events than any willful desire to provoke an ideological battle.

When evaluating what Putin achieved as president, the results are fairly modest. But he was tremendously successful in creating the perception of great achievements, both domestically and internationally. This contradiction, as well as the dangerous level of euphoria, seems to be causing some disquiet among the ruling elite -- or at least among the small number of its more thoughtful members.

The impression of success is due not only to powerful, omnipresent government propaganda, but also to Russians' desire to overcome their complex of having lost the Cold War. Once that emotional high of success loses steam, however, Putin's foreign policy legacy will probably be viewed in a more conservative light. Specifically, it will become clear which chances he missed, what he actually achieved and what he was unable to accomplish through no fault of his own.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.