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]


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.


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.

The Revival of Statism in Russia

Throughout centuries, Russia’s foreign policy has been shaped by the developments in the West, how the status of Russia as a global power was evolving in that light, and how its national strategic interests were met by key external actors. In the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet empire, the new leadership and the elites had embarked on a quest for a new sense of national identity. Initially, a pro-Western vision of national identity and foreign policy was espoused by the Russian leadership, which was consistent with their perception of the world at large. Subsequently, following the economic decline, the new Russian worldview derived primarily from the perception of its economic backwardness relative to the steadily growing Western economies and the ideological unity among most of the Western countries relative to the political chaos, disorder, and disintegration trends that dominated the Russian domestic arena. As a result and in response to these threats, the need for a strong leadership in Russia became more salient.

Tsygankov points out that Statists, along with Westernists and Civilizationists, constitute the three distinct traditions, or schools, of Russian foreign policy thinking. He maintains that these schools “sought to preserve Russia’s international choices in ways consistent with the schools’ historically established images of the country and the outside world.”[4] Westernists tend to embrace Western modes of thinking, stressing Russia’s similarities with the West. Civilizationists have always viewed Russian values as different from those of the West. Statists, on the other hand, have always sought to preserve and increase the role of the state and its ability to sustain the social, political and international order. Statist way of thinking is conducive to the consolidation of state control. More importantly, Statism is reinforced and accompanied by a strong national idea. For Statists, the West is seen as a threat to a strong state because Western interests are thought to weaken statehood in Russia. Therefore, Statists, by their nature, tend to prevent and undermine any Western involvement and influence in Russia as well as across the globe.

One of the central preexisting factors leading to Statism is the presence or perception of the external threat to the security of the state. Plans to expand the US military presence in Europe and in the former Soviet territories had sparked a new wave of statist thinking because of the perception of immediate threat to Russia’s state interests, among other factors. Current Russian leadership can be best described as Statist and hardly Westernist, especially when one looks at how issues related to national security and cultural identity are being approached by it. The following chapters will provide evidence of the resurgence of statism in Russia and expose the general shift in the Russian foreign policy in greater detail.

National Missile Defense

Although Yeltsin was objecting to US plans to deploy the elements of the National Missile Defense system in the former Warsaw pact countries, the financial aid package and the membership in the G7, a group of economically advanced democracies, promised in exchange for implementing liberal and economic reforms helped to tone down Russian criticism. The signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the promise of advancing the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention were indicative of the relative success and of the ongoing cooperation between US and Russia during Yeltsin’s rule. Yeltsin expressed his opposition to the US initiative to install the components of the National Missile Defense system in Eastern Europe, yet he never used the language of threat so as to influence the decision of the countries involved and to delay or disrupt their plans. Both Yeltsin and Putin consistently stressed the importance of respecting Russia’s national strategic interests by international partners, yet Putin went further to threaten targeting the former Warsaw Pact allies by the Russian offensive strategic nuclear forces in an effort to prevent the installation of the system:

I would start with the Adapted Conventional Armed Forces Treaty in Europe (ACAF). We have not simply stated that we are ready to comply with the treaty, like certain other partners have done. We are actually implementing it: we have removed all of our heavy weapons from the European part of Russia and have placed them behind the Urals. We have reduced our Armed Forces by 300,000. We have taken several other steps required by the ACAF. But what have we seen in response? Eastern Europe is receiving new weapons, two new military bases are being set up in Romania and in Bulgaria, and there are two new missile launch areas – a radar in the Czech republic and missile systems in Poland. And we are asking ourselves a question: what is going on? Russia is disarming unilaterally. But if we disarm unilaterally then we would like to see our partners be willing to do the same thing in Europe. On the contrary, Europe is being pumped full of new weapons systems. And of course we cannot help, but be concerned.[5]

In contrast, Yeltsin stated that “We never fought the United States, and I can say as president that we will never fight the United States in the future. Instead, we will focus on building a world of decency and welfare.”[6]

During his speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin said:

why is this being done, why are our American partners so insistent about implementing the missile defense plans in Europe, if they are obviously not needed for protection against the Iranian or North Korean missiles? It is well known where North Korea is located and what the range of their missiles needs to be to reach Europe. It is clear that it is not against them or us, because everyone knows that Russia does not intend to attack anyone. Why is this being done? Perhaps, to provoke our response and to prevent our integration into Europe. Missiles with a range of about five to eight thousand kilometers that really pose a threat to Europe do not exist in any of the so-called “problem” countries. Any hypothetical launch of, for example, a North Korean rocket to American territory through Western Europe obviously contradicts the laws of ballistics. As we say in Russia, it would be like using the right hand to reach the left ear.[7]

A perception of external threat posed by the expansion of US offensive and defensive systems in Europe led Putin to consider a counter-strategy aimed at the revival of the military, building new alternative alliances, demonstratively testing new missiles, resuming strategic bomber flights in close proximity to NATO’s bases, and conducting war games in concert with anti-Western countries. Putin also took steps to restore relations with Germany and France, offering them an alternative Russian-European missile shield to counter US proposals. His 2000 military and foreign policy doctrine refers to NATO as an impediment to securing the Russian strategic interests, yet it also highlights the difference between Europe and US and underscores the importance of the “multipolar” global order. However, European NATO member countries felt reluctant to accept Putin’s proposal, which excluded the US ally. Subsequently, US-Russian relations improved and the concept of multipolarity was mentioned less frequently. The international war against terrorism improved the Russian relations with NATO and in May 2002 the NATO-Russia Council was formed in which Russia became one of the twenty members. Its goal was to promote cooperation in fighting terrorism, crisis management, arms control, rescue operations and emergency situations, to name a few.

In summary, Putin’s foreign policy and rhetoric related to the US defense initiatives manifest his increased awareness of the threat to Russia; highlight his reluctance to cooperate and his willingness to pursue exclusive Russian national interests while neglecting the international commitments formerly supported by the Yeltsin administration. His rhetoric supports the argument that Putin perceives Western security efforts with increased caution and enmity. Whereas his opposition to Western security initiatives can be seen as a response to the rejection of his proposals to deploy joint missile defense systems with both Europe and US, his great power ambitions and national identity objectives appear to be the main vehicle of the new foreign policy course.

NATO Expansion

After the collapse of the Communist system in Russia, deep structural transformations, liberal and economic reforms were encouraged by the West and reinforced by the pledges to provide substantial foreign aid. A great influence upon President Yeltsin’s foreign policy strategies was exerted by the so-called group of Westernists who, in large part, steered the country toward the accommodation of western interests and urged the fulfillment of the international financial institutions’ demands in exchange for large inflows of aid. In 1991, in an effort to demonstrate a pro-western policy orientation, the Yeltsin administration even sent a letter to NATO expressing a strong interest in the membership and the willingness to move toward a full-scale partnership. “His letter did receive some publicity in the media, but suspicion lingered in the West about the permanency and even about the viability of Yeltsin’s democratic reforms in Russia.”

By not encouraging Russia to become a member, the West missed an excellent opportunity to strengthen Russia’s nascent democracy. An acceptance, or at least a positive response, would have given an initial boost to Yeltsin’s pro-Western foreign policies, a much-needed new identity to the floundering Russian military, and would have effectively countered Yeltsin’s nationalist and Communist critics.[8]

Felkay maintains that “despite NATO’s reluctance to embrace Yeltsin’s Russia, the Yeltsin-Kozyrev team pushed on toward integrating Russia with the rest of Europe and building a friendly relationship with the United States.”[9] Yeltsin realized that he had to make the post-Soviet political and economic transformations attractive to the American decision-makers, and especially President Clinton, because Russia’s integration into the rest of the developed world was of foremost importance.

Today, however, the rhetoric is much stronger over what the leadership perceives and presents as the encirclement of its geo-political domains by the US-led NATO forces. In his 2000 State of the Nation address, Putin stressed the need to alleviate the dependence on foreign aid: “it not only relates to our national pride, though it is also important. The question is more dramatic and of much greater significance. It is whether or not we can survive as a nation and civilization when our well-being again and again depends on international loans and the favor of world economic leaders.”[10]

At the Munich Conference devoted to global security issues, President Putin criticized US leadership for conducting a unilateral foreign policy, for pursuing its national interests while ignoring those of other countries, both major and minor. He described US diplomacy as using an “almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, a force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” He also expressed Russia’s concern when he pointed to the “so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each. It turns out that NATO has put its frontline bases on our borders…”[11]

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any connection to the modernization of the alliance itself or to ensuring the security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: who is the target of this expansion? And what happened to the assurances that our western partners had made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?[12]

In contrast to that, in his 1995 State of the Nation address, Yeltsin stated that:

the objective of the year is to shift the emphasis from accelerating the expansion of NATO to nurturing the bilateral partnership. This will determine the dynamics of the Russia-NATO cooperative framework. Another strategic priority is to establish a European-wide system of genuine mutually beneficial relationships based on friendship with the countries of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. To achieve that, political dialogue must be intensified, economic and cultural links must be enhanced. Historical friends and partners of Russia must play a more important role in our foreign policy and diplomacy.[13]

In his 1997 speech, Yeltsin reiterated his opposition to the NATO expansion plans by stating that “they aim to contradict the Russian security interests and are conducive to fracturing the European political space. The significance of existing European-wide political organizations will diminish. Never before has anyone been able to create an effective security system in Europe without Russia or against it.”[14] He further proposed to increase the dialogue in an effort to ease tensions.

This year Russia’s diplomacy sought to implement those foreign policy objectives outlined in the previous addresses, namely, to create favorable external conditions for the continuation of domestic reforms, for building and maintaining genuinely equal relationships with the leading countries of the world, corresponding to the status and potential of Russia. Our aim is to defend our national interests not by resorting to confrontation, but by building the foundation for future stability and cooperation in international relations. Russian foreign policy is aimed to construct the system of international relations based on the multipolar peace, devoid of the dominance by a single center of force.[15]

He went on to say that “The 21 century world must rely less on the military force and more on the force of law. That is why we propose to sign the Treaty on Nuclear Stability and Security with the main nuclear powers and to hold the Third Conference for Peace.”[16]

The agreed-upon financial aid package did not eliminate, but helped to tone down Russian criticism of NATO’s eastward expansion during Yeltsin’s rule. The American assurances given on the ABM Treaty also helped. The signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the promise of advancing the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention were gestures of ongoing cooperation between the two nations, despite their disagreement on NATO expansion. The American side had made another concession to appease Yeltsin, by announcing that the United States would support Russia’s full participation in future meetings of the Group of Seven (G-7).

In contrast to Yeltsin’s diplomacy and his manifested willingness to cooperate despite the unilateral engagement of NATO in Kosovo, Vladimir Putin pursued a consistent and strictly pro-Russian policy course on matters related to global security and peace. Putin is more cautious about the NATO expansion plans. The recent military conflict between the pro-American Georgia and Russia exacerbated the tense relations between US and Russia. For the US, Georgia is a geo-strategic partner and an ally waiting for the membership in NATO and in the European Union, which represents a salient opportunity to implement the NATO eastern expansion objective. However, western leaders are reluctant to aggravate tensions with Russia by acceding Georgia into NATO, which demonstrates that maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with Russia is more important for them than expanding the NATO presence eastward. Nevertheless, that does not diminish Russia’s concern about the threat posed by the military bloc.


The case of Kosovo quite vividly demonstrates that the shift in the Russian foreign policy was manifested not only in the statements made by the presidents, but also in the policy actions of the Russian government. The conflict in Georgia in 2008 over the two annexed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, when the invasion by the Russian military forces was justified as being in line with the actions of the West in Kosovo and the US-backed declaration of independence of the breakaway region is illustrative of the Putin administration’s neglect of international legal norms and of the commitment to use military force in advancing the new national idea. In Yeltsin’s era, however, there was a tendency to defer the making of difficult decisions. Moscow was prone or at least attempted to ignore problems related to Yugoslavia in an effort to postpone a decision on how to respond to Milosevic and his barbaric actions in Yugoslavia.[17] As a result of such policy, it appeared that Moscow approved the Western policy in the Balkans. Yeltsin was compelled to invent a new type of relationship with the US seeking greater economic support and a solution to the accumulating domestic political pressure in light of the painstaking transition process. At that time, the US was the sole superpower and as many people in the Russian elites asserted – a major source of donor aid. In that context, Yeltsin had no choice, but to place a primary emphasis on strengthening US-Russian relations. However, his consistent health problems, inability to control the domestic processes, the peculiarity of his personality, and at times, lack of assertiveness also created additional impediments to forming a solid foreign policy course.

In the wake of his rule, Vladimir Putin came to power when Russian foreign policy was weak, inconsistent and ineffective. It was then that a new foreign policy course began to form. Putin’s foreign policy appeared increasingly solid, goal-oriented, consistent and pragmatic. During his visit to Kosovo in 2001 Putin said that “the international community, which set up a protectorate in Kosovo at the end of the civil war in 1999, must act to implement a UN Security Council resolution guaranteeing the rights of minority Serbs in the province of Kosovo and the integrity of Yugoslavia.”[18] Putin reiterated that the long-standing Russian ties with the Serbian people constitute the foundation of the bilateral relations. Russia viewed NATO intervention in Kosovo as being the cause of the Albanian nationalism in the region.

In his 2000 State of the Nation address, Putin said that:

Cold War is in the past, yet even today we have to overcome its hard consequence, including the attempts to infringe the rights of sovereign states under the umbrella of the so-called humanitarian interventions and the difficulty of finding a common language when it comes to resolving the issues of regional and international threats.[19]

The situation in Kosovo, which Yeltsin failed to handle appropriately, had sparked a new wave of anti-Western sentiments and helped Putin to consolidate his political platform and to engage in the wide-scale military operations in the North Caucasus. Yeltsin said that “Russia has a number of extreme measures in store, but we decided not to use them so far. We are above that. On the moral level we are superior to the Americans. The NATO aggression against Yugoslavia is a very big mistake made by the American diplomacy and by Clinton, and they will be held accountable.”[20] Subsequently, Yeltsin appealed to the leaders of the Contact Group on Yugoslavia and called for the Security Council meeting to end the bombing and to continue the search for peace – an effort that did not yield results. However, this demonstrates Yeltsin’s greater commitment to peace and political dialogue. He strove to prevent unilateral military interventions and sought greater involvement of the UN in the resolution of the crisis. In his State of the Nation speech, Yeltsin proclaimed, “I will do everything to put an end to military actions in Yugoslavia, but Russia has already made its choice – it will not allow itself to be drawn into the conflict. We are trying to avoid another global split.”[21] In contrast to this, Putin stated that “with increased money inflows from abroad we have greater external interference with our internal affairs. In the past, states-colonizers referred to the so-called civilization mission while expanding their national interests, which happens today, only with democracy as a pretext.”[22]


Disagreements between US and Russia over the resolution of the conflict in Chechnya became more common after Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia. He perceived and presented Chechen rebels as a threat not only to the Russian society and its territorial integrity, but also to the civilization at large, which he predominantly associated with the West, so as to achieve a greater international support for the operations in the Caucasus. In his April 2002 State of the Nation address, Putin said that “in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, many people realized that the Cold War is over and that there are different threats and there is another war with international terrorism. This does not require additional evidence and equally applies to Russia.”[23] The first wave of terrorist attacks in Moscow and the second Chechen campaign that followed them boosted his ratings substantially before the presidential elections in 2000 and gave him greater confidence in promoting a centralized governance system across the nation.

The events of 2004 proved a major challenge for Putin, after two civilian airplanes were downed and more than a thousand schoolchildren and teachers were taken hostage in Beslan, North Ossetia, both of which resulted in hundreds of casualties. The attacks seemed to have been spreading across the whole region and people felt increasingly less secure from the threat. The initial reaction was hardly in line with the pragmatic Western-oriented course. In his first statement, President Putin admitted that Russia lacked sufficient and adequate defense, but also relegated partial responsibility for the Beslan incident to some unspecified external forces that worked to undermine the Russian influence in the region and to instigate secessionist sentiments and movements. In a vague reference to the West, he said that “some want to tear off a big chunk of our country and others are helping them. They are helping them in the belief that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, still poses a threat to them and, therefore, this threat has to be eliminated. Terrorism is their only tool.”[24]

However, US-Russian relations improved in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and after the two presidents met in 2001. Whereas certain Russian policymakers had expressed their willingness to support the USA, given the concessions on NATO enlargement initiatives were made, President Vladimir Putin immediately endorsed the US plan to launch a global war on terrorism, which was seen in line with Russia’s domestic campaigns to suppress insurgencies and secessionist tendencies.

The events of September 11, 2001 presented a perfect opportunity for Moscow to gain greater support for its domestic policies. “Fighting terrorism has been the argument used by Russia to combat rebel groups in Chechnya and it builds on a strong national consensus created by the bombings of civilian apartment complexes in Russia in 1999.”[25] The obvious reason was that Putin already saw Russia as fighting such a war in Chechnya and that the resumption of this war in 1999 had greatly contributed to his accession to power. Russia thus supported the US-led campaign to oust the Taliban regime and to eliminate the Al-Qaida network in Afghanistan. As a result, Putin reluctantly accepted the US plan to deploy military bases in Central Asia, despite the domestic opposition. Russia was seen as an even closer ally than NATO. The response of the US leadership was the softened criticism of the war in Chechnya, which was subsequently referred to as the internal affair of the state.

When referring to the situation in Chechnya in 1994, Yeltsin had stressed the need to rely strictly on negotiations so as to reach a social and political consensus. The consensus is aimed at a common goal of consolidating the Russian state and increasing the welfare of its citizens without regard to the differences in opinions and political positions.[26] In 1995, he stated that in rare cases when coercion is to be used all actions need to conform to the will of the people, which is enshrined in the Constitution. He further stated that Russia was compelled to use force against the outlawed Chechen regime in the first campaign that was started against the backdrop of weak statehood, poor condition of military forces, fragile civil society institutions, and a still growing democracy when the government was able not to suppress the wave of criticism and remain open both domestically and internationally. Despite the war in Chechnya, Yeltsin was well aware of the necessity to maintain a solid, business-like relationship with the West, and was not about to forfeit Russia’s right to fully participate in European and world affairs. To alleviate the international criticism during the height of the campaign, Yeltsin even allowed OSCE fact-finding missions to enter Chechnya in an effort to resolve the conflict. By permitting the OSCE to play an important role in Chechnya, the Yeltsin administration attempted to give evidence of its willingness to cooperate with international organizations, notwithstanding the strong criticism by the Republican-led US Congress.

However, Wallensteen rightly suggests that “with the conflict in Chechnya – for which an agreement was found in 1996, to be overturned by 1999 – Russia refused to allow any international participation. It is likely to be difficult for international organizations to be involved if it is resisted by a major power that also happens to be party to the conflict.”[27]

Vladimir Putin’s position on the Chechen question was drastically different, which primarily derived from his strong conviction that state collapse can be averted only by the strengthened state control in all Russian regions. In his May 2003 address, Putin stated that:

Russia will be a strong country with modern, well-equipped, and mobile armed forces, with the army prepared to protect its homeland and its allies, the national interests of the country and its citizens. Our history shows that a country like Russia will exist and prosper only if it is a great power, yet in time of economic or political crises there has always been a threat of disintegration.[28]

The statement points to his concern about the potential cessation of the Muslim-populated regions. It also highlights the paramount necessity envisioned by Putin to suppress the separatist movements by force of arms under the pretext of the war against international terrorism and to project strong Russian influence across the entire North Caucasus.

In his 1994 State of the Nation address, Boris Yeltsin stressed the need to enhance the dialogue with the Chechen authorities with the aim of holding democratic elections in the breakaway republic.[29] He also said that:

without developed civil society institutions, state power will inevitably become totalitarian and despotic. It is because of civil society that this power serves the interests of citizens. The distinction of the situation in Russia is that parallel to building civil society institutions, democratic foundations are being developed in so far as a democratic society cannot exist without a civil society. It is not about the interference of the state with the life of the civil society structures and not about equipping these organizations with executive powers, but about a targeted assistance of those institutions that are capable of consolidating the democratic potential of the power.[30]

Generally, there is a more pronounced tendency in the statements made by Vladimir Putin to impose state control and use coercion and violence against the separatist movement in Chechnya in an effort to prevent the disintegration of the Russian state. What is more important is that some of Putin’s policy actions and statements go beyond the constitutional constraints and explicitly inspire intolerance against the minority populations of Russia, thereby reducing the domestic ethnic cohesion. In contrast to that, Yeltsin had always emphasized the involvement and the significance of democratic institutions and civil society in tackling ethnic problems.


In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Vladimir Putin offered the US leader his country’s strong support in operations against Al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan. This included intelligence cooperation, opening Russian airspace for humanitarian aid flights, participation in rescue operations as well as compelling the Central Asian leaders to provide support to the US intervention forces. There was logic behind these actions. In his February 2002 interview to Wall Street Journal, Putin expressed his willingness to provide alternative energy market opportunities for the United States.[31] At that time, Russia was the major oil producer, yet only one percent of imported American oil had Russian origins. Putin anticipated an increase in the production of crude oil much of which was intended for export, mostly to the United States.

Eager to engage the United States, Putin was careful not to overly express his opposition on the long-standing issues, such as the NMD, NATO expansion and the situation in the former Yugoslavia. His decision to support the US invasion of Afghanistan derived from the goal to oust the Taliban regime and to replace it with the Russia-backed Northern alliance. However, while offering his support, Putin made it clear that Russia will not engage in the military operations because of the painstaking domestic and international authorization process. In return for his support of the US invasion of Afghanistan, he expected a US approval of his policies in Chechnya and, possibly, accession to WTO. That is why President Putin decided to support the US campaign against terrorist networks in Afghanistan. When the Bush administration announced its plans to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime and to proclaim a democratic Iraq, Russia responded in a different manner. Putin decided to join the coalition of the opposing countries. Not convinced by the US arguments about the WMD threat, he was insisting on the broader UN involvement, thereby asserting his disagreement with the US leadership. The decision to oppose the US invasion was again driven by the pragmatic calculations of Vladimir Putin to benefit from the cooperation with the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein and by the reluctance to let US companies occupy the oil-rich country. In his 2003 State of the Nation address, Putin said: “Countries with highly developed economies are around us. I must say they push us aside from the lucrative world markets whenever possible. Their visible economic advantages give them the reason for geopolitical ambitions.”[32] However, in the end, his efforts to oppose the invasion of Iraq were in vain and Russia could not use its veto power in the Security Council because of the Bush administration’s negligence of international normative standards and unilateralism.

In an effort to eradicate the domestic sources of terrorism and to project the Russian influence across the former Soviet territories, Putin patiently assembled a coalition of empathetic countries from among the former ideological allies and formed a security bloc, similar to NATO, the Shanghai Organization of Cooperation. He succeeded in pulling available military and intelligence resources in the region, both bilaterally and multilaterally.


The State of the Nation addresses of Yeltsin and Putin examined in this paper suggest that there was a shift in the foreign policy course of the Russian state from the expressed commitment to consolidate the bilateral cooperation with the US, to develop civil society institutions and to build a free market economy during Yeltsin’s presidency to a strong political and diplomatic opposition by Vladimir Putin of all US-backed security initiatives, military and economic coercion, the centralization of executive power and the willingness to use military force in tackling political problems both domestically and internationally. The shift is mainly manifest in the rhetoric and policy actions of Vladimir Putin and members of his administration. Although many other factors can explain the difference in the foreign policy approaches of Yeltsin and Putin in the context of the US-Russian relations, such as different personalities, distinct socio-political circumstances that accompanied both leaders, distinct manners of speaking, particular personal relationship chemistries and different manners of reacting to US proposals; most importantly, however, the change of the foreign policy course can be seen as a consequence of Putin’s strong personal conviction that the status of Russia as a global power can be restored by means of consolidation of coercive state power. Arousing the nationalist agenda is one way of achieving that. Similarly, external threat can be seen as the instrument used by the elites to advance their narrow interests and to consolidate the power base of the ruling regime.


[1] This essay was completed as part of a graduate course titled “International Peace Research.”

[2] Dale R. Herspring (ed.), Putin’s Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003)

[3] Vladimir Putin (2007), Deutsche Welle, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2574113,00.html, (accessed December 5, 2008).

[4] Andrei P. Tsygankov, Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2006), 4.

[5] Vladimir Putin (2007), G8 Summit Press Conference, Heiligendamm, Germany.

[6] Andrew Felkay, Yeltsin’s Russia and the West, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 178.

[7] Vladimir Putin, Munich Conference on Security Policy, http://www.securityconference.de/konferenzen/rede.php?sprache=en&id=179, (accessed October 25, 2008).

[8] Andrew Felkay, Yeltsin’s Russia and the West, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 178.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Vladimir Putin (2000), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/01/17/poslanie_prezidenta_rossii_vladimira_putina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_2000_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[11] Vladimir Putin, Munich Conference on Security Policy, http://www.securityconference.de/konferenzen/rede.php?sprache=en&id=179, (accessed October 25, 2008)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Boris Yeltsin (1995), State of the Nation Address, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[14] Boris Yeltsin (1997), State of the Nation Address, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dale R. Herspring (ed.), Putin’s Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), 227.

[18] Vladimir Putin, BBC News website, “Putin urges Kosovo crackdown,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1392938.stm, (accessed December 5, 2008).

[19] Vladimir Putin (2000), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/01/17/poslanie_prezidenta_rossii_vladimira_putina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_2000_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[20] Andrew Felkay. Yeltsin’s Russia and the West, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 88-120.

[21] Ibid., 88-120.

[22] Vladimir Putin (2007), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/04/27/poslanie_prezidenta_rossii_vladimira_putina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rossijjskojj_federacii_2007_g.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[23] Vladimir Putin (2002), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/02/05/poslanie_prezidenta_rossii_vladimira_putina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_2002_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[24] Andrei P. Tsygankov. Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2006), 145.

[25] Peter Wallensteen. Understanding Conflict Resolution: War Peace and the Global System, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2007), 217.

[26] Boris Yeltsin (1994), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/02/04/poslanija_prezidenta_rossii_borisa_elcina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_1994_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[27] Peter Wallensteen. Understanding Conflict Resolution: War Peace and the Global System, (London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2007), 164.

[28] Vladimir Putin (2003), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/02/05/poslanie_prezidenta_rossii_vladimira_putina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_2003_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[29]Boris Yeltsin (1994), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/02/04/poslanija_prezidenta_rossii_borisa_elcina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_1994_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[30] Boris Yeltsin (1994), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/02/04/poslanija_prezidenta_rossii_borisa_elcina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_1994_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).

[31] Vladimir Putin (2002), Interview to Wall Street Journal, http://www.ln.mid.ru/bl.nsf/5d5fc0348b8b2d26c3256def0051fa20/ab5431e15c70d0df43256b5f00268928?OpenDocument, (accessed December 5, 2008).

[32] Vladimir Putin (2003), State of the Nation Address, http://www.intelros.ru/2007/02/05/poslanie_prezidenta_rossii_vladimira_putina_federalnomu_sobraniju_rf_2003_god.html, (accessed November 25, 2008).