John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Judging by Vladimir Putin's campaign article on Russia's foreign policy, no changes of substance should be expected during his next presidential term.

The foundations of Putin's foreign policy are those that have guided Russia's diplomacy over the past 12 years: the pursuit of an influential role for Russia in a multi-polar world to counter the predominance of US power.  

This consistency is not surprising given that the Putin system has created legitimacy at home by portraying itself as the arch protector of Russian interests in a world made dangerous for Russia by the instincts and behaviour of the US and its western allies.

When analysing official Russian foreign policy thinking, it is important to consider what is not said, as much as what is said. Putin's article does not describe the powerful economic forces that are constraining US defence commitments, the rapidly declining European defence budgets that have hollowed out much of NATO's military capabilities and the extreme pressures within the eurozone that are redefining relationships within the European Union. This is explicable in view of Putin's desire to present US and western interests as at best incompatible with Russia's and at worst, hostile to them. 

In addition, the article does not mention the CIS countries. This is a significant omission since Russia's immediate neighbourhood from Belarus to Tajikistan contains multiple foreign policy and security challenges for Moscow. It may be a further indication that for the purposes of a general foreign policy discussion, these countries are not viewed as foreign in their own right since they are part of what Dmitri Medvedev described as Russia's 'privileged zone of interests'.

The article shows that recent political events in Russia, while not inspired by the Arab Spring, are clearly connected for Putin and his entourage through their conspiratorial view of the world. Referring to the toppling of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Medvedev said tellingly in February 2011: 'They tried to prepare this scenario for us and what is more, they will try to achieve it – this scenario will not work'. 

Putin's immediate identification of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's criticism of December's parliamentary election as a 'signal' to opposition forces to demonstrate is a striking example of how he tends to voice instinctively in moments of crisis a belief that external forces are seeking to destabilise Russia. 

Continued hints by Putin that the US seeks undue influence in Russia and is stoking dissatisfaction with his rule could put further strain on US-Russia relations as they enter a difficult period The reset honeymoon is over following Russia's veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria, a move Clinton described as 'despicable'. US election politics will inevitably include a focus on policy towards Russia while the Magnitsky bill is still in the Senate waiting to be traded for the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations between the US and Russia. 

Putin's campaign rhetoric is one thing, his actions another. Russia's handling of Syria and Iran over the coming months will provide the clearest possible indicators of the extent to which Putin is prepared to work with the US and its allies.


Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West
Chatham House Report
Philip Hanson, James Nixey, Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood, February 2012