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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Foreign Policy a Private Affair

Unlike with President Vladimir Putin's domestic policies, which are usually ascribed to one or another group of advisers within the corridors of power, the genesis of foreign policy is a murky affair.

Market reform can be traced to the recommendations of the distinctive so-called St. Petersburg group of technocrats who are not shy about making their positions known. In the political sphere, it is no secret that Putin's moves toward centralizing authority and cracking down on opposition find support among the military, secret services and other so-called power ministries.

But no clear group influences foreign policy, and analysts are generally at pains to identify which individuals have the most access to the president's ear. Many say Putin has acted alone in seizing the initiative in foreign policy, offering the United States unprecedented cooperation in the fight against terrorism since Sept. 11.

Putin's renowned silence about his objectives irks members of the traditional foreign policy establishment.

"Those who support the president's foreign policy among the elite are a tiny minority," said Sergei Karaganov, head of the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an influential group whose members include a number of the country's political, academic and economic elite. Karaganov was speaking at a council briefing in March.

Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center agrees. "Foreign policy is initiated by a small group of policy-makers," he said in a telephone interview, adding that the situation is similar to the ill-fated last days in power of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who increasingly relied on a limited group of hard-line advisers marginalized from public opinion.

When he came to power, Putin vowed to restore the dignity Russia lost with the Soviet collapse. He began on a distinctly hard-line note, booting U.S. foreign service officials out of Moscow last year in a case of tit-for tat after Washington expelled Russian diplomats it accused of spying.

The president is now using his new pro-Western stance as a political show of strength -- even as many of his supporters bemoan major concessions to the United States, such as allowing U.S. troops in former Soviet states.

But a number of instances in which Putin has capitulated to the West can be put down to sheer pragmatism -- such as his decision not to publicly criticize Washington's announcement last December that it would pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Moscow had called the treaty a cornerstone of global security, but could do nothing to save it.

If he was hoping to reap political rewards from the West, it can be of little comfort that tangible benefits have so far been slim.

Putin has been welcomed on the global stage as a responsible leader, a role he clearly relishes. But Western leaders have only somewhat muted their criticism of Moscow's brutal campaign in Chechnya, and the United States has made it clear it will continue to pursue an essentially unilateral foreign policy, brushing aside criticism from opponents and allies alike.

Economic dividends for Russia are a more palpable motive for friendliness to the West, especially given the country's role as one of the world's top oil and gas producers.

Despite general support for his policies, Putin is widely reproved for making his decisions behind closed doors. While Karaganov's views are often close to the Kremlin's outwardly pro-Western position, for instance, he bitterly criticizes how policy is formulated and publicized.

"No one understands what he [Putin] really wants in foreign policy and that's a giant drawback," Karaganov said, speaking at a Moscow conference last week in which he echoed widespread opinion.

But Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, tells a different story, saying that rather than formulating policy himself, Putin only gives a final nod to initiatives worked out by a host of others.

Chief among them are members of the president's administration, and specifically its secretive chief Alexander Voloshin. The administration sets strategic goals and exerts the greatest influence on foreign policy, Markov said.

A former economist with ties to exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Voloshin is one of the last major officials in power to have taken office under Putin's predecessor, former President Boris Yeltsin.

Voloshin is said to represent the interests of Yeltsin's political clan, which generally favored stronger ties with the West. But the chief of staff rarely appears in public and almost never makes statements, much less about foreign policy.

Among bona fide foreign policy gurus said to have the president's ear are Kremlin deputy chief of staff and top presidential foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko, who occupied the same position in Yeltsin's administration and is in charge of Putin's appointment book.

Second in influence, Markov said, is the Foreign Ministry, which works out tactical approaches to policy set in the Kremlin. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, a career diplomat, has generally shown himself to be a cautious official who toes the Kremlin line.

Third in importance, Markov said, is the Defense Ministry, headed by Putin's close and hawkish associate Sergei Ivanov, who, like the president, is a former KGB officer.

The Carnegie Center's Ryabov, meanwhile, said Sergei Ivanov is the only one of Putin's advisers who can without question be said to influence foreign policy. Ivanov often makes saber-rattling statements and reflects the outwardly more cautious approach to relations with the West that held sway before Sept. 11.

The government's liberal economic bloc of technocrats -- including Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref -- are among the groups that play a part in foreign policy, not least with their pressing for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. Big business, especially exporting firms such as gas giant Gazprom and oil major LUKoil, also has a role in pushing its interests.

Finally, members of the "foreign policy elite" -- academics, analysts, legislators with foreign policy expertise and other shapers and mirrors of public opinion -- also influence the Kremlin's foreign policy decision-making process.

Chief among them is Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council's foreign affairs committee, another former KGB agent who is reputed to be a close presidential adviser.

Reflecting the Kremlin's current foreign policy line, Margelov supports warmer ties with the United States, saying the position is in the interests of Russia's national security. "I hate to say this, but fortunately for us the Americans got involved," Margelov said of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in a recent interview with the Financial Times.

He tied the campaign in Afghanistan to Russia's war in Chechnya, justifying the internationally criticized conflict by saying, "Sept. 11 has shown us we have a common enemy."

Margelov has been a Kremlin spinmeister for some time, dating back to when then-Prime Minister Putin was looking to run for the presidency. Margelov followed by helping run the military's propaganda effort at the start of the second Chechen war in 1999 in his position as chief of Rosinformcenter, the state information agency notorious for keeping a tight lid on the campaign while releasing dubious statistics and rosy forecasts.

The war -- not least because of the government's positive spin -- helped boost Putin's public opinion ratings to unheard-of heights, virtually assuring him the presidency in 2000.

Markov said Margelov's importance to the Kremlin lies less in his formal role as foreign policy chief in the upper house than in his promise as a young, up-and-coming politician.

Also influential, but to a significantly lesser degree, are members of Karaganov's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Karaganov is close to Prikhodko, Markov said, but not to the Kremlin as a whole. "Many [of the council's] proposals aren't accepted and some are even sneered at," he said. The once mighty U.S.A. and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, headed by Sergei Rogov, has even less of a role in policy-making, Markov added.

The Council on Foreign and Defense Policy had a far greater say in the affairs of Yeltsin's Kremlin. Karaganov is close to Yevgeny Primakov, the former spymaster and longtime foreign minister who was the main factor behind increasingly hawkish foreign policy under Yeltsin's administration.

Karaganov, in his own words an "informal adviser to the president," says his council does not aim to influence policy but rather the minds of the political elite.

However, the council was instrumental in the ouster of pro-Western former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in 1996 and the installation of Primakov in his place, ending a brief diplomatic honeymoon with the West following the Soviet collapse.

Appointed prime minister in 1998, Primakov became a Kremlin foe, a position that was underscored when he joined forces with powerful Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in a failed bid to run for the presidency. Karaganov went into the enemy camp as a chief adviser.

In the days after Sept. 11, Putin moved away from the so-called Primakov doctrine of "multipolarity" -- advocating cooperation with India and China to balance the global reach of the United States -- and toward the ostensibly pro-Western yet firmly pragmatic and often even hard-line views of his behind-the-scenes advisers. Those included Putin-supporters Markov and his associate and chief Kremlin spin guru Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Efficient Policy Fund and creator of the Strana.ru web site, which publicizes the Kremlin's positions.

Ryabov said that while Markov and Pavlovsky's influence has been strong, it has declined somewhat since the beginning of the year as Putin pushed his overtures to the West even further.

"The new situation needs new ideas and new projects," Ryabov said. "The old logic no longer holds."

The newest tendency was more than clear when the Kremlin barely issued a peep after Washington announced it would pull out of the ABM Treaty. Observers had been expecting a major outcry.

When the Pentagon said in March that it was sending up to 200 troops to Georgia, several politicians and diplomats flew off the handle. Those who objected loudly included Foreign Minister Ivanov and Dmitry Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee and a known hawk.

In a by-then familiar pattern, Putin kept quiet on the issue before giving the final word: U.S. troops in Georgia did not pose a threat to Russia.

But Karaganov said such seeming contradictions were usually planned. "Eighty percent of such cases reflect a policy of 'good cop-bad cop,'" he said. "The rest are a result of incompetence," he added, naming as an example Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov's decision during a recent trip to Israel to skip a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Markov agreed, saying he was absolutely certain Rogozin's position on Georgia -- in which he proposed the Duma vote on recognizing the independence of two breakaway regions of Georgia -- had been orchestrated ahead of time with the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, among those to bemoan current policy are Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika think tank, once political strategist to Luzhkov and also a member of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy. He said the 1990s had brought ruin to a coherent foreign policy mechanism amid general Yeltsin-era anarchy, from which the country has yet to recover.

"Foreign policy has many towers," he said at the council conference, alluding to the Kremlin's many spires. "There's no single policy because each one [tower] has its own."

Liberal Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, speaking at the same meeting, also criticized Russia's foreign policy by saying it did not reflect the will of the people and that it was caught between the old Soviet command system and a more democratic future. "The authorities are alienated from society," he said.

But Ryzhkov also said it was crucial for Russia to become an integral part of Europe, echoing the views of another liberal, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who praised post-Sept. 11 foreign policy as Putin's chief achievement.

"The vector of foreign policy can have strategic perspectives and serve as a prologue to Russia's becoming a European state in the widest sense of the word," Yavlinsky told Interfax last Tuesday.

The Kremlin's rapprochement with the West looks set to move forward as the Kremlin continues to set out a role for itself in post-Sept. 11 geopolitics.

Moscow recently dropped its staunch opposition to Washington's intention to extend its war on terrorism to Iraq.

As Moscow and Washington prepare for a summit in May, both sides aim to further boost U.S.-Russian relations with the negotiation of a nuclear arms-reduction agreement and the development of a new NATO framework that would give Russia a greater say in decision making.

But Karaganov said Putin's reliance on a small group of advisers and refusal to publicize his goals would create problems in the future. "The president has at the very least to attract people from different parts of the country, not only in Moscow," he said. "If he doesn't explain what he wants, he can't attract those who would otherwise support him."