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Analysis & Opinion
28.02.12 The World Through Putin’s Eyes
By Andrew Roth

Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Vladimir Putin published his final policy statement – this one on foreign policy – in the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper on Monday. In the article, Putin reiterated the Kremlin’s goals of protecting national sovereignty against the growing threat of Western interventionism. Putin has strengthened his accusations against the West for meddling in local affairs in both the Arab world and Russia, but he seems to be returning to familiar, safe grounds just days before the presidential elections.

In language that was at times aggressive and at other times reserved, Putin attacked not only the West’s cavalier use of “missile-and-bomb” democracy in the Middle East, but also its increased reliance on soft power through funding local NGOs and promoting human rights abroad. “It is often said that human rights override state sovereignty,” wrote Putin. “This is undoubtedly true… However, when state sovereignty is too easily violated in the name of this provision, when human rights are protected from abroad and on a selective basis, and when the same rights of a population are trampled underfoot in the process of such ‘protection’… these actions cannot be considered a noble mission, but rather outright demagogy.”

As the Putin reelection campaign kicks into high gear, speeding down the election home stretch, a healthy dose of patriotism and anti-Western rhetoric is to be expected. In front of a crowd estimated by the police at 130,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last week, Putin told his supporters “not to look abroad, not to run to the other side and not to deceive your motherland, but join us,” concluding: “the battle for Russia continues, victory will be ours.” Campaign strategists seem to be pulling out all the stops to earn more of the vote this Sunday. To wit: by the time state-funded Channel One announced yesterday that a plot to assassinate Putin after the elections had been uncovered and foiled in Ukraine, many analysts suggested that the plot was manufactured to give Putin an extra boost before the election.

Pavel Zolotarev, the deputy director of the U.S.-Canada Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, argues that Putin and the Russian government are actually far less antagonistic toward the West than Russia’s own citizens. “Our leadership is far more focused on building normalized relations with the West and the United States than society is. There is very strong anti-American feeling in Russian society today… [and the leadership] feels compelled to react to that and take the people into account,” he said.

Despite escalating tension that can be felt in Moscow following mass protests against election fraud, Alexander Rahr, the director of the Berlin-based Berthold Beitz Center for Foreign Policy, called the article “quite conservative,” a demonstration that Putin plans to “stay the course” in his foreign policy by allowing a place for cooperation with the West but on terms that suit Russia as well.

But not everyone is reassured. Kommersant columnist Aleksandr Gabuev wrote that the greatest takeaway from Putin’s final preelection policy statement was that Putin was not likely to turn liberal after the elections, a possible change in character that had been termed “Putin 2.0.” “Putin 2.0’s foreign policy will not differ at all from Putin 1.0’s foreign policy… All the dishes in Putin’s foreign policy kitchen come from the same, tattered menu. For instance, these insidious NGOs sponsored by the West, and the ‘North’ and ‘South’ Stream pipelines that will save Europe…”

There were some key omissions to the article as well. While Putin focused on preserving the BRIC countries’ independence and benefitting from the economic progress in the Asia-Pacific region, no mention was made of key Russian neighbors in the South Caucasus, where Russia’s relations with Georgia remain tenuous, or Ukraine, which Russia has threatened to bypass completely in gas exports. While the Russian-American “reset” did not make the cut either, Putin gave the nod to both the WTO and the START treaty, saying that the latter was “working fairly well.”

Continuous uprisings in countries like Libya and Syria are clearly the chief concern for Russia’s foreign policy at the moment. While Russia sat out a resolution in the UN Security Council that led to intervention in Libya, Putin seems to have drawn a line in the sand this time around, writing: “No one should be allowed to employ a Libyan scenario in Syria.”

Elena Suponina, the head of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Affairs at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, said that Putin did not suggest any radical changes in Russia’s Middle East policy in his article. “Russia is still confused about how exactly to respond to these events. The conclusions in Putin’s article oscillate between admitting the socio-economic causes behind these events and hints that someone is trying to pull Russia out of this region for its [local] contracts.”

Yet with violence raging in Syrian cities, like Homs, and the Friends of Syria – a coalition of Western and Arab countries that does not include Russia or China – calling for Assad’s resignation, there always remains a danger that countries leaning toward military action could simply bypass Russia and the Security Council. “The logic of such conduct is counterproductive and very dangerous,” wrote Putin. “No good can come of it.”
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