It’s fair to say that relations between Russia and the West are at a low point right now. With the UK currently considering how to respond to allegations that Russia assassinated a defector on British soil using a deadly nerve agent, it’s unlikely Vladimir Putin will receive warm congratulations from Western leaders when he wins the upcoming Russian elections and is re-appointed president.
However, could the Russian elections be an opportunity to reset relations? There are many areas where Russia and the West have adjacent (if not overlapping) interests, from counter-terrorism, to global economic stability, to energy security and climate change. When Putin is safe in position for another six years, might he have space to reconsider his approach?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Samuel, arguing that a change in Russian policy towards the West would basically require a change in leadership. He doesn’t believe there is any chance that Putin will make any changes to his foreign policy objectives if he wins another term in office. Is he right? And what are Russia’s foreign policy objectives under Putin?
To get a response, we spoke to Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Russian think tank based in Moscow. What would he say are Vladimir Putin’s key foreign policy objectives? And could he make any changes to his foreign policy after the elections, or is he unlikely to moderate his approach?
Well, I think that for Vladimir Putin it is very important to reinstall Russia as a great power, as a power which does not have its sovereignty challenged by other nations. It is important to have a say in major international issues, most importantly in security-related issues. I think that Putin is concerned about national security, and he would like to protect Russia against potential interference in its domestic affairs.
Ideally, think he would like to have a belt of friendly countries along Russia’s borders, but this is not something that Russia is close to achieving at this particular stage. But let me also say that Russian foreign policy over the next 6 years is likely to be reactive rather than proactive, and in my view it is likely to be opportunistic rather than strategic. A lot will depend on decisions made about economic reforms in Russia. I think the country’s economic strategy might define its foreign policy as well.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Arkady Ostrovsky, Russia and Eastern Europe editor of The Economist. What would he say?
Putin’s key foreign policy objective is related to his domestic key objective, which is to stay in power. For that, he needs to legitimise himself, and in the absence of democratic elections he needs to legitimise himself through foreign victories. So, he needs to keep showing to his public at home Russia’s assertiveness and prestige, because that is the thing which people credit him with most.
Therefore, I think we should expect more Russian assertiveness, possibly including some aggressive action. But not a full-scale war, because that is something Russia cannot afford and that could undermine Russian legitimacy very fast. So, he needs to do a balancing act between showing Russian assertiveness whilst also keeping the elites and himself relatively safe.
Next, we had a comment from Nicola, who set out some concrete steps which she believe could be taken to improve relations between Russia and the West, including removing nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and halting the expansion of NATO. Is she right? What would it take to improve relations between Russia and the West?
What does Andrey Kortunov think it would take?
Well, I think that it’s not easy. I would venture to say that there are three scenarios under which we can expect a radical change in this relationship. The first scenario will be if the West is tired of the confrontation with Russia. If the West is distracted by other international crises or problems, and Russia demonstrates its resilience and its ability to resist external pressures. That’s one scenario. The West might say: “We are fed up with this confrontation. Let’s get down to business as usual.”
The second option is regime change in Russia. We’ll have mounting economic and political problems in the country, the opposition gets stronger and the position of Vladimir Putin gets weaker, and we have an entirely new group of leaders who get to power in the Kremlin. Then they might change Russia’s foreign policy objectives in a rather dramatic way, like it was back in 1991. They would focus on building new cooperative relations with the US, they would try to imitate Western institutions and models, so it would be an entirely different Russia compared to what we have right now.
Finally, the third option for real change in the relationship would be an external threat to both Russia and the West. A threat on such a scale that would make the current disagreements between Moscow and Brussels, or Moscow and Washington, basically not that important. An invasion of aliens willing to conquer the Earth would be probably the best illustration of this scenario. So far, we have not encountered such a challenge. Even the threat of Islamic terrorism turned out to be insufficient to bring the West and Russia together…
Finally, how would Arkady Ostrovsky respond to the same question?
What would it take to improve relations between Russia and the West? The change of regime in Russia. Putin is dependent upon confrontation with the West for his survival at home, so I cannot see how under his leadership the relationship can make a qualitative change.
Will Putin moderate his foreign policy after the Russian elections? What would it take to improve relations between Russia and the West? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!