A Focus on the Revival of Statism in Russia

This essay identifies and assesses the general shift in the Russian foreign policy during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The author uses the State of the Nation Addresses of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin to make a comparative analysis of the presidents’ foreign policy approaches. The case studies focus on the US National Missile Defense, NATO expansion, the situation in Kosovo, the situation in Chechnya and US-Russian relations in the context of the global war against terrorism. The main argument of this essay is that a general shift in the Russian foreign policy had occurred during Vladimir Putin’s presidency owing to the rise in statist thinking.[1]

Introduction

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

The beginning of the twenty first century marked the dawn of a new era in the US-Russian relations. The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and the ensuing warm relations between the former adversaries brought the decades of geo-political, military, economic confrontation and of the competition for the spheres of influence across the globe to the end. The collapse of the Soviet empire resulted in a form of an alliance between Moscow and Washington in the first half of the 1990s, when president Yeltsin was the head of the Russian state, which abruptly deteriorated into fragile interstate relations filled with mutual suspicion, mistrust and confrontation after Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as the new Russian leader. During the Soviet era the confrontation and the inability to bridge the gap between the superpowers could be understood in the broader context of the ideological struggle.

In the mid-1990s, however, when Russia’s leadership vowed to support the ideals of democracy and market economy and when the western world no longer expressed concerns about the spread of communism in Europe, other factors came into play. For instance, growing political pressure caused by declining economic conditions, wide social discontent and a threat posed to state security by the secessionist movements in the Caucasus brought Vladimir Putin to power and gave him wide political support. Given these adverse domestic conditions, there was a demand for strong leaders in Russia and it was then that the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin hand-picked Vladimir Putin to lead the country out of chaos and disorder. Putin decided that moving away from the adopted by Yeltsin Western-oriented policy course would serve Russia’s national strategic interests better. Generally, he maintains a hard-line stance on all foreign policy issues, especially those dealing with US-Russian relations, which resulted in the renewal of political tensions between the two countries, reminiscent of the confrontation during the Cold War era.

Throughout Russian history, state crises, military and political defeats of various forms were often blamed on weak states and on the absence of firm national leaders. It is still popular to think that the status of Russia as a global power can be sustained only by means of coercive state power, widespread repressions and the restriction of political freedoms. Moreover, it is believed that the “imposition” of liberal reforms and Western values from abroad is conducive to state failure and, therefore, unacceptable to Russia. The western mode of governance is thus inappropriate for the Russian society, according to a popular belief. Herspring and Rutland explain the nationalist sentiments in Russia as “if there is an ‘ism’ that drives Putin, it is nationalism – nationalism built not on ethnic, cultural, or spiritual values, but on the centrality of state power, which in Putin’s case embraces a deep-seated desire to restore Russia’s former greatness.” Vladimir Putin claims that “patriotism is a source of courage, staunchness, and strength of our people. If we lose patriotism and national pride and dignity, which are connected with it, we will lose ourselves as a nation capable of great achievements.”[2]

When Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president, the Russian policy toward the United States began to shift – from a soft confrontation, economic and political cooperation and reciprocal support to a cold, aggressive and highly pragmatic diplomacy, accompanied by military demonstrations, strong rhetoric and other conspicuous aspects that characterize current Russian foreign policy. This change was mainly aroused by the former President Putin’s personal perceptions of Russia’s new political and military standing in the world and his strong patriotic convictions.

Current Russian policy toward the United States is mainly concerned about the advancing US plan to build a National Missile Defense system against the so-called rogue states and the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia perceives the plan to install the missile shield as being targeted against it. As a result, its leaders had sparked an international campaign against these US initiatives. The missile shield is being seen as a threat to the strategic parity, the global balance of power, and, more importantly, to Russia’s strategic and geopolitical interests in Europe. The US plan “wonderfully fits the overall picture of the American global anti-missile defense, which, according to our analysis — just look at the map — is being deployed along Russia’s perimeter, and also China’s, incidentally.”[3]

Relations were further strained when George Bush succeeded Bill Clinton as US president in January 2001 mainly because he made the final decision to implement the project rapidly. The unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the arms control treaties and the aspiration of its leadership to expand its military presence and to pursue its geo-political objectives in the areas of traditional Russian influence in Europe and across the globe, had sparked a new cycle of struggle, when Russia, led by the newly-appointed President Vladimir Putin, was rising as the energy superpower and an important world actor willing to be reckoned with on matters related to global security. Certainly, sky-rocketing oil prices, high dependence of foreign markets, primarily European, on Russia’s energy resources, and an economic boom accounted for the form of the tone with which Putin asserted the country’s position on the global political arena. More importantly, however, this assertiveness mirrors a highly substantial agreement among the Russian political and public circles on the nature of Russia’s new role in the world, inspired by the patriotic convictions of the former Russian President Vladimir Putin.

During the early 1990s, the situation was drastically different, when Russia, dependent on foreign, mainly US economic assistance and investments, sought to collaborate with the West on a multitude of issues, from liberal reforms to disarmament and space program to economic transformations.

Methodology

This essay will identify and assess the shift in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. In order to illustrate the dramatic shift in Russia’s foreign policy, a comparison of two time periods will be drawn – the foreign policy trends from 1992 to 1999 and from 2000 to 2007 under Yeltsin’s leadership and under Putin’s leadership, respectively. This essay argues that, first and foremost, the drastic change of Russia’s foreign policy was driven by the former President Putin’s heightened sense of patriotism and the belief that state control is the key to progress, stability and the restoration of Russia’s global power status.

To illustrate the change of the foreign policy course a comprehensive comparison of the State of the Nation addresses of two Russian presidents will be drawn. A number of case studies will be assessed to support the main argument of the essay. The paper will focus on the US National Missile Defense, NATO expansion initiatives, the situation in Kosovo, the war in Chechnya and the evolution of US reactions to it, as well as the US-Russian relations in the context of the global campaign against terrorism. By drawing a comprehensive comparison of the annual State of the Nation addresses of Putin and Yeltsin, the author will identify the shift in the positions toward these aspects of foreign policy and analyze the implications of the statements made.