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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

News Analysis: No Kremlin Policy Shift One Year On

After President Dmitry Medvedev was elected last year, then-President Vladimir Putin made a rather telling promise about his chosen successor.

"Medvedev is no less a Russian nationalist than I am, in the positive sense of the word, and I do not think that our partners will have it any easier with him," Putin said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

One year after Medvedev's inauguration on May 7, 2008, many observers agree that Putin was right, even though the new president has been sometimes labeled as a liberal reformer, albeit a cautious one. Medvedev has not initiated fundamental changes in Russian foreign policy — a realm where the Constitution clearly says the president is in charge.

 
NEWS ANALYSIS


All of Putin's foreign policies, with exception of the declared "reset" of relations with the United States, remain in place or have been further developed during Medvedev's first year in office.

"While he has stepped out from Putin's overcoat, both definitely remain members of the same team," said Viktor Mizin, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

As Russia pushed to dominate other former Soviet republics, Medvedev's first 12 months saw Russian soldiers crossing the country's borders for combat, when troops poured into Georgia during the conflict in South Ossetia last August. West-leaning Ukraine again briefly lost Russian gas supplies over the New Year's holidays, and Kyrgyzstan was rewarded $2 billion after it pledged to close a U.S. military base on its territory.

Moscow has not bent an inch on its opposition to plans developed by the previous U.S. administration to install elements of a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Moscow's attempts to control energy flows — often described in the West as Russia's new geopolitical tool — got a new boost under Medvedev last fall when he signed a key policy document in which Russia claims rights to vast oil and gas fields in the Arctic. Medvedev also ordered the Security Council to develop a detailed plan on how to attain those resources. The move has irritated the United States, Canada and Scandinavian countries.

Russia's atomic energy cooperation with Iran continued, while sales of sensitive military systems to the Islamic republic remained only suspended and could be resumed at any moment.

In other major global problems, such as North Korea's nuclear arms program and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Moscow did little, letting other players such as the United States, the European Union and China carry most of the burden.

Under Putin, who adopted belligerent rhetoric at home and abroad against those whom he said threatened Russia's interests, foreign policy with the West increasingly became a zero-sum game in which the Kremlin retaliated against any perceived loss. A push by NATO and the EU toward Russia's borders fixed the perception of the country as a "besieged fortress" among Russian foreign policy makers.

Yet some foreign observers still hope that Medvedev will break up Putin's zero-sum game.

Gert Weisskirchen, a German lawmaker and spokesman on foreign affairs for the Social Democrats, said the most promising sign was Medvedev's proposal for a new European security pact.

"He has promoted alternative thinking, both overcoming Putin and existing international structures," Weisskirchen said by telephone from Berlin.

Medvedev's proposal, introduced during a visit to Berlin last June, calls for a remodeling of the Helsinki accords of 1975 that resulted in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It has received little international support so far.

But Weisskirchen said it was "an intelligent and bold impulse to think beyond Putin."

Still, hopes of a liberal shift under Medvedev — who lacks Putin's experience in the secret services and who looks remarkably liberal next to the man he beat for the presidency, hawkish former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov — appear to have been far too high.

After Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in August, troubled ties with the West worsened as Moscow and NATO suspended their regular contacts. Their resumption last week was quickly threatened by the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from NATO's headquarters in Brussels and the consequent expulsion of two NATO officials from Moscow.

Weisskirchen argued that Medvedev should not be blamed for the war in Georgia. "He was driven into that conflict. It was imposed on him," he said.

But Weisskirchen conceded that he was unsure who was the driving force behind the war. "Maybe it was an unholy alliance between [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili and forces inside Russia," he said.

Tensions were aggravated further when Moscow decided to recognize South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway republic of Abkhazia as independent countries — a decision that has been followed by no nation except Nicaragua.

Medvedev said from the start of his presidency that relations with other former Soviet republics would be a foreign policy priority, choosing Kazakhstan and China for his first trip abroad.

Despite the fact that the financial crisis has put unprecedented pressure on the state budget, the government has recently engaged in some conspicuous spending to strengthen Moscow's position in key post-Soviet states.

Earlier this year, it negotiated the $2 billion aid package for Kyrgyzstan, which in turn notified Washington that it should close its air base there. Moscow has also promised to lend at least $2 billion to Belarus, whose government has inched toward rapprochement with the EU after years of isolation.

Rihards Piks, a former Latvian foreign minister and a deputy in the European Parliament, cautioned that Moscow's strategy of power projection onto former Soviet states was detrimental to European security. "Unfortunately, Russian foreign policy still keeps an eye on former Soviet territories. I think that this policy from Cold War times … is not good for long-term relations [in Europe]," he said by telephone from Riga.

He complained that the Kremlin is regularly identifying "enemies" in an apparent bid to achieve domestic policy goals. "Sometimes they are in the Caucasus, sometimes in Ukraine," Piks said.

Other than the financial crisis, the main driver of global change over the past year was the election of U.S. President Barack Obama. But Medvedev did not mention Obama at all in his first state-of-the-nation address, delivered the day after the U.S. election, and instead threatened to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad against the planned U.S. missile defense system.

Medvedev later said he "completely forgot" about the U.S. election when delivering the address. He sent Obama a congratulatory telegram several hours after the speech.

Both Moscow and Washington have pledged to improve relations, which neared Cold War lows in the months before Medvedev and Obama came to office. But Medvedev — unlike his predecessors Putin or Boris Yeltsin before him in their first years in office — has not made a single concession to the United States during his first year in the office. Putin helped the United States and NATO at the start of their operations in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Yeltsin accepted NATO's expansion into the former Soviet bloc.

It is hard to say whether Medvedev has decided not to follow a popular Russian foreign policy maxim that every Russian leader begins pro-American and ends fiercely anti-American or whether he is being directed by Putin on this issue.

Thierry de Montbrial, president of the French Institute of International Relations, said that while Medvedev's style was "gentler and perhaps more likable," there was no change on the substance of foreign policy.

He pointed out that Medvedev owed practically everything to his predecessor. "It should not be forgotten that Medvedev was Putin's personal choice as successor. Putin could have easily remained president," Montbrial said at a recent speech in Moscow.

Marek Menkiszak, an analyst at the Polish Eastern Studies Institute, said the Putin-era foreign policy is nearly impossible to change because it has the broad support of the country's ruling elite.

"There might be discussion on tactics, but Moscow's strategic goals are not the subject of disagreement," he said by telephone from Warsaw.

Menkiszak said any departure would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. "Medvedev has made an effort to underline the continuity of Russian foreign policy rather than to send signals of disagreement," he said.