Waiting for a Democratic Godot in the Kremlin

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Official Russian strategic policy papers have long been dismissed as bland statements of little practical value. The latest foreign policy blueprint, which was unveiled by President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday at the Foreign Ministry's meeting with the country's ambassadors, has received more than the usual amount of attention. People tried hard to identify a "Medvedev touch" in policy-making, or at least thinking.

But, as it turned out, this was all in vain. The text of Medvedev's foreign policy speech could have easily been signed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Actually, it was drafted while Putin was still president.

What is routinely referred to as "Putin's foreign policy" did not take shape until the spring of 2005. A number of events shaped its formation: the invasion of Iraq, the Yukos affair, Beslan, the enlargement of NATO and the European Union, and the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. In short, Putin's "new course" put an end to Moscow's unsuccessful attempts to integrate Russia into the West and proclaimed the country's strategic independence.

That was an important decision with all sorts of far-reaching implications. The EU would be more of a partner than a model, and certainly not a future home for Russia. The United States would often be a problem.

Moscow's desire for equal relations with the EU and the United States would require asymmetrical policies to compensate for the real inequalities. Even to hold what it regards as its own, the country would need to punch above its weight.

This stance is unlikely to be reversed in the near future. Russia's double-headed eagle will continue to look forward and backward at the same time. Its foreign policy strategy strives to make it a 21st-century technologically modern superpower, but it is stuck ideologically in a 19th-century status game. Trying to combine these two elements won't come easy. Like Putin, Medvedev realizes that there can be no gain in status without advances in modernization. After all, the oil surge will not last forever. The problem is, of course, that genuine modernization would require changing the very system that Putin institutionalized to bring "stability" to the country.

Even if Medvedev and Putin confront corruption seriously, liberate the courts from administrative abuse and proceed with innovation initiatives, Moscow's foreign policy will not become pro-Western. The Kremlin already looks beyond the Western-dominated global system. The 500-year era that started with Portugal and Spain first dividing the whole world between them is coming to a close. To Russian leaders, the United States is the last Western empire. Rather than associating itself exclusively with the West, Russia is actively reaching out to the aspiring countries of the non-Western world, such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran and others.

At the very least, Moscow's foreign policy objective is to keep its spot among the major global players, which it joined under Peter the Great and from which it nearly dropped out in the 1990s. On a more ambitious level, its objective is to replace U.S. hegemony with an oligarchy of the new global powers, with the United States as a primus inter pares and Russia as a sought-after moderator. In anticipation of that universal regime change, Russia -- revisionist when it comes to the post-Cold War world order -- has opted for creating alternatives to U.S. domination.

The core element of Russia's asymmetrical strategy calls for pitting U.S. economic and military power against the authority of existing international law. As a lawyer, Medvedev is particularly well-equipped for this. By raising objections to Western actions in Kosovo, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran or Sudan, Moscow places the United States and its allies in a somewhat awkward position. They can either back down and thus acknowledge that the Russian position was correct, which would promote Moscow's role as a guardian of international law, or they could decide to pursue their legally questionable policies at their own risk.

Those in the West who had granted Medvedev a grace period to prove himself different or independent from Putin, are dismayed by his handling of the Zimbabwe issue. At the Group of Eight meeting in Japan on July 8, Medvedev said he would support "financial and other measures" against Zimbabwe for the country's crackdown on opposition activists. Several days later, however, Russia joined China in vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. Whether the Western dismay was genuine or the vote was forced merely to cut off illusions about "Medvedev the liberal," it means that the West continues to be stuck in the past in its thinking about Russia.

Waiting for a liberal and pro-Western Godot in the Kremlin is a losing proposition. And hoping that a dramatic plunge of the oil price would finally bring Russia to its senses is not any more promising. But a modernized Russia is more likely to emerge as a capable competitor than pliant partner.

You don't have to agree with Medvedev's foreign policy to acknowledge that one exists. What the West needs is a policy of its own for dealing with a country that it cannot change.

Dmitry Trenin is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and deputy director of its Moscow Center. He is the author, most recently, of "Getting Russia Right."