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#13 - JRL 7002
Russia in world scene - review of capabilities (commentary).
By Mikhail Petrov
January 2, 2003

Russia's foreign policy shall be purely pragmatic and match the country's capabilities and national interests. The 2002 realities fully agreed with this idea, contained in President Putin's message to the Federal Assembly. Realistic evaluation of what the country is currently capable of has come to the forefront.

Russia last year managed to enhance its influence somewhat in the priority foreign policy area - the Commonwealth of Independent States. Although it has failed to bring about any qualitative improvement of the CIS as an organization - judging by the results of the latest summit in summit in Kishinev - Russia's bilateral relations with individual CIS member-states were developing quite well. Specific projects and agreements have been achieved with Ukraine (strategic cooperation in the gas sphere), Armenia (economic cooperation and mediation in efforts to settle the Karabakh dispute), Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan (settlement of the Caspian Sea status), and Kyrgyzstan (cooperation in the field of security).

The Kremlin took the most resolute action in relations with Georgia and Belarus.

Moscow's ultimatum forced Tbilisi to take measures against Chechen militants in its territory, including the Pankisi gorge. It is noteworthy that U. S. -hawk-like moves by Russia, coupled with clear argumentation, cut the ground from under the feet of Eduard Shevardnadze's American supporters.

Relations with Minsk is another bright example. Analysts believe President Putin has put an end to the "mild' policies of his predecessor to take a harder line against Lukashenko by refusing to create a over-bureaucratized supra-national structure, or giving Belarus the right of veto in a future union state. Although further controversies are not ruled out in either case, the Kremlin has scored additional points.

One cannot but take note of Russia's leading role in such associations as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. In the context of the continuing counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan and Washington's claims to influence in Central Asia, as well as the risk of a worsening of the situation around Iraq, a viable security mechanism in the region will be a trump card in the Russian diplomats' hands.

As for progress in another priority area - European integrationRussia's capabilities and achievements have proved far more moderate.

Firstly, this is seen in the problem of life support for the westernmost exclave region of Kaliningrad. The Kremlin has been saying a compromise has been found and the main task fulfilled - Russians will not have to apply for visas to cross Lithuania to make trips to and from Kaliningrad. In reality transit documents have remained in force, although they are not called visas.

Chechnya was another irritant in Russia-European Union relations. At a certain moment it seemed that the European Union had eased its criticism and most E. U. countries voiced support for the struggle against extremism. However, another tide of criticism following the hostage-taking crisis at a Moscow theater and some Western countries' duplicity in the Zakayev affair have indicated quite clearly that having defended its right to take a hard line in his own country in relations with the United States President Putin will now have to do the same in Europe.

In general, Washington's support on a number of issues should be interpreted as the Kremlin's success. The United States has begun to recognize Chechen militant leader Aslan Maskhadov's connections with terrorists. The Department of State is considering the question of blacklisting some Chechen groups as foreign terrorist organizations. The international anti-terrorist coalition, in which Moscow has taken an active part, has continued its efforts to start eliminating - mostly through U. S. efforts - a hotbed of terrorism and drugs trafficking in Afghanistan. For Russia, with its years-long tensions on the southern borders, this is an indisputable benefit.

As for relations with the United States in general, Russia has been drifting away from attempts to play the role of a counter-balance to the Western super-power. Cooperation meets Russia's interests to a greater extent.

This allowed to secure the conclusion of a new legally binding agreement after the United States' walkout from the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty and to compensate for NATO's expansion with its own closer relations with the alliance.

Now there is another major question on the agenda of the Russian-U. S. dialogue - Iraq. Moscow has so far managed to keep Iraqi settlement efforts within the United Nations. The United States, though, seems reluctant to stay within the diplomatic framework for too long. In a situation like this Russia has very little time to save face and to re-adjust its policy to the likely march of events.

There are several other issues Russia will have to address in 2003. Admission to the World Trade Organization is one. The clash over admission terms acceptable to Russia is going to be tough. On the other hand, Moscow is determined to settle foreign debts, which will let the country's leadership gain a firmer foothold in negotiations with economically more advanced partners.

Stronger influence in Central Asia is an urgent need. Asia in general should be high on the list of permanent priorities.

On the whole, a balanced policy matching the realistic capabilities looks the soundest way of conducting the dialogue in the international scene. It remains to be seen whether Russia's capabilities in twelve months' time will be greater than they are today.

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