European Affairs

Why Putin Wants Russia To Become More European     Print Email
Jury Sigov

When Vladimir Putin became President of Russia, it was obvious that his international strategy would be much more orientated to Western Europe and Asia, and much less toward the United States.

That did not mean that Moscow intended to forget about America. Mr. Putin and his team simply calculated, in pragmatic fashion, that they could reap much more benefits and dividends from a predictable Europe than from an unpredictable United States under Republican leadership.


The disastrous events of September 11 have given a new twist to that strategy. There will now undoubtedly be more collaboration with the United States.

Moscow believes that three-cornered cooperation between Russia, Europe and the United States in eradicating international terrorism can lead to a new, higher level triangular relationship. This is a chance for Russia to be in the same corner as the Western democracies, without second thoughts and backstage political calculations.

Nevertheless, Mr. Putin’s overall long-term strategy will be to bring Russia closer to Europe. Even if the U.S. political establishment was initially rather bewildered and annoyed by this unexpected change of tack by the Kremlin, the European dimension of Russia’s new foreign policy is quite logical and understandable.

There are several reasons behind this strategic reorientation. Firstly, in spite of his highly publicized and apparently warm-hearted meeting with President George W. Bush, Mr. Putin does not trust Americans. As a result of his previous experience as an intelligence officer, he regards them as former and potentially future long-term adversaries.

(No Kremlin advisers are pro-American)

Secondly, he doesn’t have any pro-American advisers or assistants in his close entourage. Many of his advisers are personal friends from the intelligence services, who used to work against the United States in different parts of the world.

Thirdly, Mr. Putin does not speak English. That was not a priority for his predecessors in the Kremlin, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. But it is extremely important now for the establishment of trusting and close personal relations with the President of the United States.

It is true that after his arrival in the Kremlin he started learning English, because he feels uncomfortable without a direct means of communication with most foreign leaders. For the time being, however, his English is better suited to fun get-togethers with Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair than for serious discussions of international engagement and mutual trust.

In addition, Mr. Putin strongly believes that common economic interests and mutually beneficial partnerships can strategically link Moscow with West European capitals politically and economically, and not just for the short term. Whatever Washington thinks, Russia is a European country, and, over the past 15 years, has become more so in every respect.

Moscow has lost the huge Asian regions it controlled under the Soviet Union, and four fifths of the Russian population now lives west of the Ural Mountains. Europe accounts for 35 per cent of Russian trade.

Meanwhile, the United States is becoming less European. The American “melting pot” has not yet successfully integrated the recent huge waves of immigrants from Latin American, South Asia, Africa and the Arab countries. Racial and cultural separation of the United States from Europe in general terms is an objective process, and it will continue without any action from Russia.

It is also true that Mr. Putin is listening attentively to the advice of Evgeny Primakov, the former Foreign Intelligence Service Director and Foreign Minister who was Prime Minister under Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Primakov’s strong anti-American views are well known, as is his position on international issues: Russia should strengthen her relations with Asian and Arab countries, especially with India and China, to counterbalance her relations with the United States.

(China had offered no business deals)

Mr. Putin, however, understands that there is nothing Moscow can offer to Beijing and Delhi other than rather questionable one-sided military cooperation. Despite all its strategic arms shipments to China over the past several years, Russia has not succeeded in winning even modest trade or business deals with Beijing. The Chinese constantly give lucrative multi-million dollar contracts to European, American and Japanese companies, but never to Russians.

Moreover, the Russian authorities are somewhat dubious about the highly unstable “friendship and cooperation” relationships they have forged with China and India by dint of selling them sophisticated weapons. The currently flourishing  “Russian- Asian strategic partnership” is a much more a politically motivated, short-term economic arrangement than a long-term partnership.

The tragedy of September 11, when the whole world reassessed its priorities, posed serious questions for Mr. Putin. America became a victim of international terrorism, just as Russia had suffered from the same evil with bomb explosions in Moscow and other cities two years ago. Political and military rivalry with the United States suddenly became of secondary importance compared with the universal plague threatening both countries.

The latest indications are that economic and political cooperation between Russia and the European Union will continue to strengthen. At the same time, however, there will be fewer politically motivated disputes between Moscow and Washington on issues of principle.

Furthermore, the White House drive to promote U.S. business may speed up a regeneration of American interests in Russia, in terms of both investment and direct participation in joint projects.

Nevertheless, in spite of the “Third World” orientation of some of his closest confidants, Mr. Putin is now even more strongly committed to developing concrete cooperation with Western Europe. It is important to note that while Mr. Putin will listen to almost everyone around him in the Kremlin, he takes the final decisions by himself.

Don’t forget that East Germany was, and still is, the only real window on the world for Mr. Putin, however many foreign trips he may take as President. After working for almost six years in Germany, speaking German, and lacking any other overseas experience, Mr. Putin feels that it is Europe he can best understand and cooperate with in future – or at least more easily than with China or the United States.

(He strongly believes in personal relations)

To develop this kind of “European understanding”, Mr. Putin strongly believes in personal relations and tête-à-tête contacts with leading West European politicians. He believes he has informal and friendly relations with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Mr. Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister.

It is important to understand that Mr. Putin’s European “personal friendships” are based on real empathy with the other parties, and much less on the showy smiles and rhetoric that have so far characterized his meetings with Mr. Bush.

Some of these new European friendships have already been successful – Spain, for example, decided to restructure Moscow’s debts to Madrid. Some have been less fruitful. In spite of speaking a common language, Mr. Putin and Mr. Schroeder have not yet achieved any breakthrough in rescheduling payments due by Russia to Berlin.

The general trend of Moscow’s activity on the old continent, however, is quite straightforward. It is to become closer to the Europeans, to involve them in talks and negotiations, and, if possible, business projects, and later to solve bilateral problems as friends, not rivals.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is fully aware that Western Europe is still a major financial donor to Russia. Russia’s debts to European countries in the London and Paris Clubs, and the complicated structure of Moscow’s debts to Germany, make him very pragmatic in his dealings with the Europeans. Europe has no choice but to accept these closer links.

At the same time, this is a double-edged offer of friendship. Most of Europe sits at the end of Russian gas pipelines, and could become even more dependent on them if war expands beyond Afghanistan. The so-called privately owned Russian gas behemoth Gazprom is in fact a major state-controlled tool of Russia’s foreign policy in Europe.

(Europe depends increasingly on Russian gas)

Through new Gazprom contracts with European countries (the latest is to build a pipeline from Russia’s northern gas fields across Poland to Western Europe), Moscow will make countries like Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands even more dependent on its gas. It means that these and other European states may in future face potential penalties for any anti-Russian rhetoric or activities that do not suit Moscow.

Largely because of its considerable energy presence on the continent, it is much easier for Moscow to negotiate complicated issues with Europeans. Taking into account Russian gas and oil supplies, most European states are trying to avoid making strong political demands on Russia. A similar pattern in bilateral relations with the gas-independent United States would be completely out of the question.

With or without joint efforts in fighting international terrorism, Russia is still very interested in full integration in all European structures and institutions, including close cooperation with the Council of Europe, and the European Union.

By playing the card of European integration, Moscow was initially trying to derail U.S. plans for the deployment of a new anti-missile system. With this apparently anti-American approach to Europe, Russia was trying to exploit European unhappiness with, and misunderstanding of various U.S. foreign policies.

After the events of September 11, however, this strategy is likely to be revised. Of course, some European countries are buying this kind of Russian anti-American concern. That obviously pleases Moscow and openly irritates Washington. Nevertheless it would be a big mistake for Russia to think that Europeans would swap their solid partnership with the United States for something vague and unclear offered by Moscow.

It was Western Europe that showed its unconditional support for the United States after the terrorist attack. Russia took quite a time wondering how to forge closer links with America, before offering a deal that was much more political (involving NATO expansion and missile defense) than real cooperation.

(Russia is a U.S. ally against terrorism)

Nevertheless, there are hopes for a thaw in trade and economic contacts between Russia and the United States. Russia is no longer a dangerous strategic rival but rather an ally in rooting out international terrorism. And partners treat partners differently from rivals, including where trade and economics are concerned.

The events of September 11 showed that all our countries - the United States, Europe and Russia - are in the same boat. The United States may resent Russia’s strengthening cooperation with the EU. But such feelings can only be of secondary importance.

Both Moscow and Washington must abandon old dogmas, stereotypes and jealousies. Both countries have much more serious challenges to deal with than to worry about who visits which countries more frequently on official visits.

Mr. Bush did step forward to thank Russia for her support of America in the joint fight against international terrorism. He invited Mr. Putin to his Texas ranch and openly thanks the Russian leader for his trust in America. Mr. Bush also openly avoids war-like threats toward Moscow, and does a lot personally to renew trade and economic cooperation between two countries.

All this being so, it would be a big mistake for Russia to try to give an anti-American slant to the improvement of her relations with Europe. By doing so, Moscow would definitely scare Europeans much more than Americans. It is also a golden opportunity for Russia to cooperate with Europe, not as an alternative to America, and, of course, not as a snub to America, but in a sort of valuable addition to Europe’s political and economic weight.

There is obviously still the possibility of a sudden rift between Russia and her new West European friends when the next phase of NATO enlargement starts in 2003. Most West European countries are currently pursuing a quite balanced and reserved policy on this issue, to the irritation of Moscow.

When, however, the United States gives its formal approval to the admission of former Soviet Baltic States into the alliance, as Mr. Bush has already said it would in Warsaw, Moscow will definitely protest strongly. And despite all their pragmatic cooperation with Moscow, there are few hopes that the European countries will take Russia’s side in this dispute.

Moscow’s predominant European orientation may last for quite a time. Few people believe that Mr. Putin came to office for just one elected term, provided nothing extraordinary happens. Successfully secured in power after being brought to the top by Mr. Yeltsin, he feels quite comfortable in the Kremlin. He has no serious opposition to his policies in Russia, he is learning fast, and he is dealing with important international affairs quite professionally.

(Russia has little to offer Asian partners)

For the time being, there are few chances of the “bear-hug” relations between Moscow and Washington of the kind that existed between Mr. Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Putin perfectly understands that it would be much profitable for him to cooperate with the West than with another part of the world.

Even the most anti-American politicians in Moscow recognize that on the Asian front Russia has very little to offer to her partners except modern arms and military technicians. And if Russia does not join the Western democracies in their fight against international terrorism, the other camp (Iran, Iraq, etc.) looks a dubious and suicidal alternative.

At the same time, the countries of Western Europe are themselves very much interested in playing a more active and positive role in international affairs. Europeans can use their current rapprochement with Russia to advance their own causes, while still closely cooperating with the United States.

On some issues, such as NATO enlargement, missile defense, or Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, the EU may act as an intermediary between Moscow and Washington, drawing political and economic benefits from both sides.

For the foreseeable future, regardless of developments in the anti- terrorist campaign, Russia will be closely cooperating with the United States. With the right amount of assistance, however, Russia will find her new identity if she fully integrates into a “Big Europe.” There is no reason or chance that Moscow could ever be incorporated into a “Big China” or a “Big United States”.

As far as US foreign policy is concerned, friendship and cooperation between Moscow and the leading West European nations poses no threat to American strategic interests. One the contrary, Russia will be a good addition to the anti-terrorism campaign. And American politicians perfectly well understand that in a crunch, Berlin, Paris and London can more easily find common political language with Washington than with Moscow.

The events of September 11 showed that the traditional U.S policy of trying to disengage Russia from international affairs will now be significantly revised by the Bush administration. It can be replaced by both strategic and military pragmatism. Both countries now understand who their real enemy is, and, together with the Europeans, they have a chance to ensure their survival by making common cause against it.

Jury Sigov is the Washington Bureau Chief of the magazine, Delovye Lyudy (Business in Russia), as well as the daily Novye Izvestia. Before that, he was the Washington Bureau Chief of Moscow News, Foreign and Political Editor of Arguments and Facts, and worked as an interpreter at the Embassy of the USSR in Peru.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.

 
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