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Russia Profile
22 January 2008
20 Foreign Policy Questions for Medvedev
How Does the Successor View Russia’s Place in the World?

Comment by Vladimir Frolov

Last week, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accompanied President Vladimir Putin to Bulgaria in his new capacity as a soon-to-be-registered presidential candidate. Although he was there more as chairman of the board of Gazprom than the likely next president of Russia, Medvedev’s separate meetings with Bulgarian leaders were clearly meant to present him to a friendly foreign audience.

In his campaign trips to the Russian regions, justifiably, Medvedev has been emphasizing social and economic issues. After all, during this time of relative prosperity and peace, the election will be decided not on foreign policy, but on housing construction, pension plans and drug reimbursement programs.

But this is a presidential election, and in Russia, presidents set the country’s foreign policy and command the troops. For a candidate, focusing on social development is not enough; you need to demonstrate at least some expertise in foreign and defense policy.

During the 2000 elections, Putin passed the test on both counts – he was a former KGB foreign intelligence officer who had received solid training in international relations and had lived more than five years in a foreign country. He had also served as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in charge of international cooperation projects. Before he was appointed prime minister, he had been chief of the FSB and the Security Council. The military, the FSB and the Foreign Ministry never questioned his expertise.

But Medvedev is a foreign policy novice. Nothing in his life experience has prepared him for the kind of international challenges that he will have to face in the very short future. He has been, by and large, a very good lawyer and a capable administrator. Of course, he has been sitting in on all the closed security council meetings chaired by Putin and has undoubtedly learned a lot. He also ran some international errands for Putin as his chief of staff, including some sensitive missions to Kazakhstan and Ukraine as well as a trip to Washington.

But what do we really know about Medvedev’s own foreign policy views? Where is he likely to lead Russia internationally? We know he has pledged continuity with Putin’s course, but what does that mean specifically on the foreign policy front?

Medvedev has said that that he would soon unveil his electoral program, and it is possible that he might even do it today at the meeting of the Russian Civic Forum. But I think he needs to plan a special address to prove his expertise on key international issues. In my view, he needs to break with Putin’s bizarre tradition of presenting his major foreign policy initiatives to foreign audiences first. Medvedev would do well by going to a major Russian university – his alma mater in St. Petersburg would be a good fit – to lay out his foreign policy agenda and talk to the students and the Russian audience at large about his vision for Russia’s place in the globalized world.

Here are a few questions that I think Medvedev should answer in such a speech.

How are you going to set policy? Will you lay out your own strategy and assemble your own foreign policy team or will you defer on major issues to Prime Minister Putin and his men? Who will be your national security advisor? Your foreign minister? How are you going to manage the bickering foreign policy and security agencies, some of which seem to have their own agendas? Will you get the security services out of the business of running their own foreign policies, particularly in the former Soviet Union? Will you revamp the security council, which has been languishing in its comatose state of political irrelevance? Will you continue Putin’s Saturday sessions with the Security Council, and, if so, who will preside at those meetings?

How are you going to deal with the military? Will you let the chief of the Army’s General Staff make political statements committing Russia to a nuclear strategy of first use and preemption, as General Yury Baluevsky just did over the weekend? A preemptive nuclear strike is a very serious thing. The strategic consequences such an act would entail are no laughing matter. Setting policy on such highly controversial issues that touch the core of national security strategy is a clear presidential prerogative that should be spelled out in a doctrinal document signed by the president. This is none of General Baluevsky’s business. His job is to execute policy, not set it.

What is your strategy for the former Soviet Union, particularly with regard to the energy rich Central Asian states? As president, what will you do if at some point in your presidency, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan were to refuse to supply Russia with the amounts of natural gas it needs to replace its own gas contracted for exports to Europe? What are you going to do to countervail China’s influence in Central Asia?

How will you repair Russia’s strained engagement with the United States and the EU to minimize Russia’s risks and maximize Russia’s opportunities? What will you do if the United States and NATO deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe over Russian objections? How will you react to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and the likelihood that the United States and the EU will recognize Kosovo? Will you recognize Transdnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states once Kosovo’s independence is recognized internationally?

How do you see Russia’s role in the Middle East? Should we bring more resources to bear to produce a meaningful outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? How do we approach Iraq once the United States restores the country to sovereignty? What do we do with the Iranian nuclear program? The weapons are not there yet, but the know-how seems to be within reach.

Do you share the international concerns about global warming? Do you support policies to stimulate research on alternative fuels and alternative energy sources in Russia?

What are you going to do in case major international demand depletes Russia’s oil and gas reserves on your watch? What is your Plan B?

We do not expect an answer to all of these questions from Medvedev the presidential candidate. But we do have the right to demand it from Medvedev the president.