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Russia’s Foreign Policy Is Nearing Complete Failure

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
November 3, 2013
Financial Times

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It seems only yesterday that President Vladimir Putin seized the world's attention with his proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. To many, the fancy footwork had a clear message: Russia was back in the diplomatic big league at last.

We can see now what all the headlines briefly obscured. Since Mr Putin regained the presidency last year, his foreign policy has foundered. Russia has not faced such a serious need to rethink its role in the world for more than a quarter century.

Start with Europe. For the past decade, Moscow avoided conflict in relations with the EU by staying on good terms with Germany. No more. Whether the issue is energy pricing or gay rights, Berlin is now one of Mr Putin's foremost critics. Russian trade tactics – such as a recent threat to ban Dutch tulips as unsafe – make enemies across the continent.

Belligerence has antagonised former Soviet neighbours, too. To thwart Ukraine's and Moldova's interest in closer ties with the EU, Moscow has warned that it may block their goods from entering Russia. In September it started a similar quarrel with Belarus; last month, with Lithuania. Mr Putin, it seems, will pick a fight with anyone.

Russia's influence in the Middle East is also declining. Almost three years into the Arab spring, it is on worse terms with nearly all the region's states. Seen from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Moscow's support for Iran promotes instability. And Russian backing for Syria's regime evokes genuine anger.

Relations with the US show the same pattern. President Barack Obama cancelled his Labor day summit with Mr Putin because it promised no results. Yes, Russia's granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower, annoyed the US. But the summit was scratched because there was so little to justify it.

Some experts point out that Mr Putin has at least improved ties with China. This achievement is far less significant than it should be, however. Imagine how the US would feel in the same position. When you have good relations only with China, you have nowhere else to turn. Russians are as uneasy about China's rise as Americans – maybe more so. But they are facing it alone.

Mr Putin may reckon others will eventually yield to his pressure. But his strategy is clearly not working. The response of most governments is outrage and resistance. Many think they can stand up to Moscow because its leverage is declining. Upheaval in global energy markets – especially the shale gas revolution – is one reason. The dramatic drop in Russian economic growth this year further saps Russian influence.

And although it threatens a trade war, Moscow ignores the fact that many of its neighbours have already redirected their exports to the EU. Russia's diplomatic tools are weaker in other areas, too. For years, Moscow found a middle route in the stand-off between the US and Iran. Now, with Washington and Tehran in wary contact, Russia's influence with both will decline.

A record this poor ought to be a problem for Mr Putin. Yet it is rarely criticised. The public seems to like his bristly nationalism. The president has mounted an intense domestic propaganda campaign to portray his Syria moves as a huge success. Disputing this claim – much less suggesting that the rest of his policy is going nowhere – only invites retribution.

Even many of Mr Putin's critics seem to think that attacking his international record is not the best way to challenge him. Better to focus on economic, political or legal reform – issues on which he may be more vulnerable. When Russia starts to change, I have been told, foreign policy will take care of itself.

Right or wrong, these answers testify to the timidity of Russia's foreign policy establishment, its intellectual and business elite and its political opposition. Yet it is hard to believe the nation will long be satisfied with the path he has put it on. Current policy produces too little benefit for anyone. A more fundamental course correction – no easy undertaking in any country – is inevitable.

Can the rest of us do anything to hasten a Russian reassessment? Anti-Putin crusading will not help much; to many Russians, it simply confirms he is doing the right thing. But conciliation is not the right response either; it too suggests he is getting results. What Russian policy makers and experts alike should hear from Europe and the US – a message delivered more in sorrow than in anger – is that their foreign policy has gone way off track. Until it rights itself, Russia will have less and less global influence.

The old remark about Britain in the 1960s – that it had lost an empire but not yet found a role – captures Moscow's predicament exactly. More than 20 years after the Soviet collapse, Russians have to think this problem through for themselves. Mr Putin, unfortunately, keeps putting the answer out of reach.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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