National Security and Foreign Policy under Putin

By
Lauren Crabtree

Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin has undergone a substantial evolution, remarked Celeste Wallander at a 27 November 2000 lecture at the Kennan Institute. Wallander, Senior Fellow, European Studies, Council on Foreign Affairs, addressed both the differing style and substance of the Yeltsin and the Putin administration's approaches to the world outside of Russia. Downplaying changes in style, Wallander found Putin a reasonable policymaker, whose goal is to bolster Russia's status as a world player rather than simply accept a supplicating role in international negotiations.

To understand these differences, Wallander began by challenging the criticism of Putin as being primarily motivated by anti-Americanism. Yeltsin and Putin do not vary significantly in their primary objects of economic prosperity and international stability, she argued. Their differences lie in the means they are willing to deploy in order to achieve such stability. Wallander sees Putin's policies as practical approaches to position Russian national security interests.

Yeltsin believed it best to approach the West "as subordinate, if necessary, because [Russia] was a weak supplicant ready to trade cooperation in political and military affairs for economic support and assistance," stated Wallander. In characterizing his relations with neighboring and weaker states, Wallander found Yeltsin's approach to be forceful, attempting "to bully and assert Russia's rightful place as a country more powerful than the others."

As Putin defines his role on the international front, Russia veers away from a perceived tradeoff between economic cooperation and political concession the U.S. One of the themes emerging from the recent Putin policies is that cooperation, debt relief, and further resources from Western countries and institutions, like the IMF, are desirable, but not necessary.

Putin's assessment of national security interests is markedly different from Yeltsin's. Wallander identified two reasons for this difference. First, the composition of Putin's domestic, political, and economic coalition is unlike that of Yeltsin's, and, secondly, that Putin is dealing with an economy driven by rising energy prices. Putin is now in a position to defy the oligarches' control over the country. The strength of the economy lies in capitalizing on advanced technologies and exporting competitive sectors of the defense industries. These interests are determined by Russia's national and foreign policy, a factor, Wallander argued, that the West often overlooks in criticizing Russia's international role.

Putin's overall objective, Wallander suggested, is to create conditions for the potential success of the market economy, and to further the success of industries on the international horizon. While Yeltsin concentrated his efforts on achieving low inflation and international credit-worthiness, Wallander reasoned that Putin "is unwilling to sacrifice the core economic and political sectors in order to achieve these broad objectives."

This stand is a prime indication of Putin's strength as a leader, Wallander stated. Putin refuses to be strong-armed by the U.S. for concessions based upon U.S. foreign interests. Wallander called upon the recent example of IMF negotiations, in which Russia walked away from the unfavorable conditions stipulated by the U.S., and referred to the Russian denouncement of the "unreasonable" compromise programs. "By declaring [U.S. terms] desirable, but not essential, [Russian leadership] has removed the single most important lever of influence that the West, and the United States in particular, had and wielded over Russian foreign and security policy in the 1990s."

Russia's alternative is to diversify its position, reaching out to countries such as China, India, Libya, and Iraq. In addition, trade with these countries has the added appeal of coinciding with the current leadership's own domestic priorities, such as military modernization and support for defense industries.

In changing the means by which economic prosperity is reached, Putin has begun to take advantage of Russia's geopolitical location, seeking a multi-polar world in which Russia is a great Eurasian power. This strategy is not a primary goal, as in the days of Primakov, argued Wallander, for it seeks mutual benefits for a variety of countries.

Cooperation with the U.S., therefore, is not necessary for Putin to achieve his long-term goals. Rather than responding to anti-American motivations, as he has been accused, Putin is attempting a realistic assessment of the domestic, political, and economic state. Instead, Wallander found the U.S. has viewed Putin's foreign policy to date as motivated by anti-anti-Americanism, a position which reflects U.S. slow-footedness to adapt to the new international stage.

In conclusion, Wallander advocated that the U.S. "selectively focus [its] interests into areas where Russian interests really do conflict" with U.S. policy, and encouraged the U.S. to "welcome Russia's foreign policy diversification where it is in keeping with [U.S.] interests, such as in accelerating Russia's integration and cooperation in Europe, and to seek to address its causes where it is not, such as in the economic profit incentives fueling Russian-Iranian, Russian-Chinese and Russian-Indian arms sales." If the U.S. instead chooses to adapt to the new arena, and focus on economic cooperation and profit, it stands in a much better position to profit from Putin's approach to Russian foreign policy.

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