NATO soldiers marching in Red Square on V-E Day; Moscow agreeing on a compromise resolution of the 40-year-old sea-boundary dispute with Norway; the sight of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin kneeling at the memorial to the Polish officers murdered by Stalin at Katyn: These are a few glimpses of what a European newspaper described as a kinder, gentler Russia. But three questions immediately arise: Is this real? Why the change? And how to respond to Russia’s new foreign policy?
In this case, what you see is what you get. Russia’s tone, especially toward the US, began to change last year, but the Kremlin’s support for a fourth UN Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran demonstrates that, today, there is real substance. Moreover, surrendering territorial claims in the Arctic — the stakes in the dispute with Norway — is no small matter.
Putin’s joint visit to Katyn with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in April was, of course, symbolic. But serious conversations between the two men started last September, during Putin’s visit to Gdansk to mark the 70th anniversary of WWII’s start. The kneeling act was also followed, just three days later, by Russian officials going out of their way to help investigate the air crash in Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and scores of Polish dignitaries, and to pay respects to the victims.
In May, an apparently genuine internal Foreign Ministry document made it clear that the Kremlin now prioritizes relations with the US and Europe. All of this is a far cry from using the Red Square platform to compare George Bush’s policies to those of the Third Reich, resuming air patrols along the Norwegian coast and into the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, or threatening Poland with deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.
Four factors have contributed most to this positive reversal: the Georgia war, the global economic crisis, the Obama factor and China’s relentless rise.
The Georgia war demonstrated how quickly relations with the US could deteriorate, almost to the point of reviving the Cold War, leaving Russia isolated and in a generally weak position. The economic crisis destroyed illusions of sustained energy-fueled growth through at least 2020 and the hubris that went with it.
Moreover, the administration of US President Barack Obama, by having reset US foreign policy, removed the principal irritants in Russia-Western relations, such as the prospect of NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia; close relations with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, and plans for the deployment of US defensive missiles in Central Europe. Obama also showed genuine respect and openness to Russia.
Finally, as China has become more confident and assertive, its shadow over Russia has grown longer and thicker.
Faced with this situation, the Russian leadership sees both new dangers and new opportunities, which are often intimately interlinked. The country’s backwardness vis-a-vis not only the West, but also some of the emerging powers drives home the need to modernize Russia’s technological base. But where is the money for that?
Russia’s worsening credit rating and the tougher borrowing terms in the international market are forcing Russia to compete harder for capital. Obama’s openness and pragmatism have turned the US into a partner, but it is uncertain how long he will stay in the White House and how strong will he will be in the future. China is both a market and a partner, but this partnership looks increasingly tilted in China’s favor.