In a 2007 interview, Vladimir Putin uttered the memorable phrase, "Since the death of Mahatma Gandhi, there is no one in the world worth talking to any longer". Like so many jokes, this one contains an insight. By the end of his second presidential term, Putin had grown tired of his international obligations, and of most foreign leaders he had to deal with. For four years from 2008, Putin enjoyed a break from the many formalities of presidential diplomacy to focus on managing Russia - its elites and its huddled masses - and, of course, its natural resources and money flows.
Putin, of course, stayed in charge all along. He was the power not so much behind as above the throne. He placed his full trust in Dmitri Medvedev, sending him to his first G8 summit barely a month after his inauguration. He definitely benefited from Medvedev's likeability, his mild manners and encouraging rhetoric, particularly in the West. He hoped that Medvedev would succeed where Putin himself either would not or could not go: with the governments and publics of America and Europe, and their points of reference in Russia, the liberal intelligentsia.
Still, Putin had to approve all the major decisions formally taken by his junior partner. In August 2008, he literally called the shots in the brief war with Georgia. In July 2009, after a breakfast meeting with Barack Obama at his dacha outside Moscow, he gave the go-ahead on the Russian side to the policy of 'reset'. True, the US-Russian 'reset' would hardly have been possible, at least in the form it actually took, had Putin, rather than Medvedev, been formally in power, but it would have gone nowhere without Putin's blessing. Meantime, Putin himself successfully engaged the Poles, even kneeling in 2010 at the Katyn memorial.
In 2011, Putin and Medvedev took seemingly diverging approaches to dealing with the Libyan crisis. In reality though, there was far less divergence between the Russian Premier and his President than met the eye. With no love lost between Muammar Gaddafi and either member of the tandem, and the uncertainty about the outcome of the uprising, their goal was to limit the damage to Russian interests no matter how things would turn out. As Medvedev sent his envoy to the Transitional Council in Benghazi, Putin's emissary was playing chess with Gaddafi in Tripoli. In the end, both Putin and Medvedev became embittered, as NATO went beyond the UN Security Council mandate, an infringement of the world order that both men in Moscow had been seeking to uphold.
Now that Putin is back in the Kremlin, and the sources of formal and informal power in Russia are again united in one person, it is tempting to say there will be no major change in Moscow's foreign policy. In general terms, and for the immediate future, this may be right. However, it is safer not to jump to premature conclusions. Although Putin has become, by now, firmly associated in the Western mind with a hard-line approach to foreign affairs, each of the three previous four-year presidential terms - two of his own and one Medvedev's - has been marked by a different policy toward the West. The six-year period opening in 2012 is likely to follow that pattern.
Initially, Putin aspired to an alliance with the United States and integration with the European Union. The symbol of that policy course was Putin's reaction to 9/11, and its manifesto, his speech in October 2001 delivered in German in the German Bundestag. The period that followed was marked by disenchantment and alienation. Its manifesto was the Munich speech of February 2007, and the war with Georgia 18 months later was to become its symbol. Finally, there was a period of relative stability in Russo-Western relations, symbolised by the U.S.-Russian reset and the EU- Russian 'Partnership for Modernisation'.
Looking ahead, it is important to keep in mind that Russia's foreign policy is still largely reactive. Vladimir Putin himself is more a tactician and an operative than a strategist, although occasionally, like on 9/11, he may have strategic insights. He does not so much initiate or control developments as respond to them or use the opportunities that present themselves. He is thoroughly non-ideological (although deeply conservative) and wholly transactional. He much prefers business people to politicians. He knows real power when he sees it and treats those who can only make speeches with disdain.
Domestically, Putin's take four in foreign policy will be based on the realities of contemporary Russia. After the tumultuous period between the Duma elections in December 2011 and the Presidential ones in March 2012, Russia has entered a new period in its political development. This period could be called the 'Russian Awakening', and it is driven by fundamental social changes in society. This process will continue unevenly, but it can hardly be stopped, much less reversed. As it unfolds, the basic elements of Putin's system of governance will be increasingly challenged. Unless that system finds the potential to transform itself, which quite a few people doubt, it may be overwhelmed.
Putin probably realises that his legitimacy as President will critically depend on Russia's economic performance. That, in turn, is still governed by the oil price. Currently, this is relatively high, but the Russian government's social obligations have grown substantially. Even though the government sounds confident that it can withstand a significant drop in the oil price, to $70 per barrel, and still keep its key obligations for two years, such a drop would deal a major blow to the federal budget: the break-even price, which stood at only $40 in 2007, is now as high as $110.
Putin may not use the word modernisation as often as Medvedev did, and the progress in 'modernisation partnerships' with the advanced countries may not be monitored as closely, but Putin hardly needs to be convinced that his economic agenda of 'new industrialisation' only has a chance of success if there is a flow of capital investment and technology from Europe and the United States. Putin's method, however, is different from Medvedev's: less focus on innovation, no hint at political reform as part of 'modernisation', and a heavy emphasis on striking specific business deals.
Strategic Agenda with the US
It is logical that Putin does not need trouble with the United States. However, the U.S. dimension of Russia's foreign policy is among its most challenging. Domestically, Putin has been using crude anti-Americanism against his liberal opponents, accusing them of being in the U.S. government's pay. The Kremlin rejects official American support for Russia's civil society institutions as interference in its internal affairs. The prospect of the U.S. Senate passing something like the Magnitsky amendment to impose sanctions on Russian officials connected with the lawyer's death in prison could set a serious precedent.
In the field of politico-military relations, the centrepiece of the Moscow-Washington agenda since the days of the Cold War, the issue of missile defence is absolutely key. By the time of Putin's third inauguration, Moscow had hardened its approach, demanding from Washington not only a legally-binding agreement reassuring it that U.S. missile defences in Europe would not affect the integrity of the Russian nuclear deterrent, but also that the Americans give the Russians the exact technical parameters of the interceptors they deploy. Both requirements are absolute non-starters with Republicans in Washington, who are wary of President Obama's 'flexibility' at the negotiating table.
Obama's re-election in November is thus a sine qua non condition for any U.S.Russian agreement on missile defence, but this condition alone is not sufficient. Will Putin be able to keep his cool, confident that the U.S. plans in Europe present no real threat to the Russian strategic weapons, as the more competent Russian experts claim? Or will he reach out for an agreement with the U.S. and, in order to do so, be prepared to modify Moscow's current approach? If so, will he drop the 'legally binding' mantra, a belated reaction to NATO's eastern enlargement, which Gorbachev supposedly could have prevented with the stroke of (George H.W. Bush's) pen? Will he appreciate the value of missile defence cooperation as a strategic game changer with the United States and the West? He might - or he might not. A lot will depend on what he gets in return from the U.S. side. In either case, it will be a momentous decision on his part. A game changer can turn into a game spoiler.
All other issues in arms control, whether dealing with non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe or the strategic non-nuclear ones that the United States possesses, or conventional forces in Europe and America's precision-guided weapons worldwide, not to speak of a newer New START, appear dependent for the moment on the situation in missile defence. It is possible, of course, that no U.S.-Russian agreement on missile defence will be concluded in the next few years - Russian strategic systems may be affected starting from 2020 - but that will probably mean that a lot of arms control issues will be held in abeyance for some time.
Meantime, Putin is likely to be promoting U.S.-Russian business interaction, to broaden the base of the relationship, still poised shakily on the arms control perch. He has resolved to improve Russia's investment climate and move the country from the 120th position in the global Doing Business index to a more decent 40th. In 2011 and 2012, he blessed two deals between ExxonMobil and Rosneft, and he clearly hopes that the two companies' alliance in the Arctic will give Russia a measure of lobbying power in the United States.
Economic Agenda with Europe
As regards Europe, Moscow's agenda is predominantly economic. Russia's accession to the WTO arguably allows it to move towards a free-trade zone arrangement with the EU, but building up the institutional base of the relationship is hard. A general partnership and cooperation agreement, to replace the one that expired in 2007, is still being negotiated. Russia's efforts to gain a visa-free regime for its nationals in Schengen countries are yielding only incremental progress in a Europe wary of immigration.
Although Putin's personal relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany may not be too close, they are solid enough. For Moscow, Berlin will remain Europe's principal national capital. Putin can be expected to redouble his efforts to woo the German business community to his version of a greater Europe, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, which he laid out in the autumn of 2010. Paris takes second place in Moscow's order of European priorities, and there, Putin will emphasise economic relations over international political issues, not to speak of values. Indeed, the latter two could be a source of Franco-Russian friction.
Putin can be expected to pursue further the process of historical reconciliation with Poland, and consolidate the more normal relations between Moscow and Warsaw that he and the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk have built. It is an open question whether the reconciliation process can be expanded to involve one or more of the Baltic states, which suffer from much the same historical grievances as the Poles. Should Putin go for this, he could score an important point not only in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius, but also in Brussels and Washington. His own recent Polish experience is a powerful argument in favour of moving along that path. For this, however, he will need partners in the Baltics, confident enough to engage the big neighbour to the east.
A View to the East
East of the EU, Putin's big project will be the Eurasian Union (EAU), which he outlined as an idea in the fall of 2011. On closer inspection, the EAU looks far less like a USSR redux than a pragmatic economic arrangement of three countries - Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia - to create a medium-sized common market of 165 million consumers, 140-plus of them in the Russian Federation. Putin will try to endow that market with its own version of Schengen, but he will hardly be able to transform it into a political union. A union of strict equals will not satisfy Moscow; while a union built on the model of a joint-stock company, with each partner wielding as much weight as its economic potential would allow, would be unacceptable to Astana and Minsk.
Putin may continue to woo Ukraine to join the customs union with Russia and its two other partners, but Kyiv will balk at entering into too close integration with Moscow, for fear of being dominated. Putin will be tough with the Ukrainians, but he will probably try to avoid new crises, whether about gas prices and transit or other issues. Instead, he will talk tough and bide his time, expecting that a Ukrainian leadership hard-pressed for money and receiving no meaningful support from the EU, will turn to Russia as the saviour of last resort, and will have to accept his terms of engagement.
Across the Black Sea in the South Caucasus, Putin will refuse to deal with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili, waiting for the completion of his presidential mandate in 2013, after which he might make a fresh attempt to engage Saakashvili's successor. Russia, of course, will not withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it may propose to re-establish diplomatic relations and start a dialogue with Tbilisi. In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just a few miles from the Abkhazian border, Putin will be interested in enhancing security across the North Caucasus and offering an olive branch to post-Saakashvili Georgia. He can also be expected to strongly discourage Azerbaijan and Armenia from resuming the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Putin has long been well respected in China, where they prefer him to Medvedev. He will try as hard as he can to maintain the generally good-neighbourly relations with Beijing, to engage them in cross-border trade and investment, and to cooperate with China both globally, as within the UN Security Council and in such public relations exercises as BRICs, and regionally, as in Central Asia by means of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. At the same time, Putin sees the challenge posed to Russia by China's rise, and will seek to rebalance the relationship through development projects in Russia's Far East and Siberia, integration of Central Asian states within Moscow-led bodies, and outreach to Beijing's neighbours - and rivals - from Delhi to Hanoi. By hosting an APEC summit in September 2012 in Vladivostok, Putin will promote Russia as a Pacific power.
Putin is potentially the only Russian leader who can do a deal with Japan on the disputed islands. Reputed to be a strong nationalist, he can get away with ceding territory, while gaining a major strategic breakthrough. Indeed, ridding the Russo-Japanese relations of the territorial issue and transforming then into something similar to the Russo-German ones would give Moscow's position in the Asia-Pacific a powerful boost. At this point, all this is highly speculative. Whether Putin is ready to deal, whether an appropriate formula of settlement can be worked out and, crucially, whether Japanese politicians will be capable of a compromise cannot, of course, be ascertained at the moment.
On the issues pertaining to the Muslim world, Putin has already indicated where he stands. He will help the U.S. and its NATO allies to transit from Afghanistan across Russia. Moscow will be a party to discussions about a regional security framework for post-American Afghanistan. Russia may be ready to participate in some economic reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, if the conditions are propitious for that. Russia, however, will not intervene again in the country where the Soviet Union spent a lost decade. The Russians will be pragmatic when judging how to respond to possible Taliban successes in Afghanistan after the bulk of the U.S. forces leave. In any event, Russia will be focusing on Central Asia to prevent its destabilisation and to stem the flow of drugs from Afghanistan.
Putin is certainly no ally of the Iranian regime, or of its leaders. Moscow's best bet is an agreement between Tehran and the international community, which allows for some enrichment in Iran under strict international monitoring, but safely excludes two of the worst options: an Iranian nuclear bomb and a U.S.-Israeli attack against Iran. As in the case of North Korea, Moscow will remain sceptical of international sanctions, believing them to be counter-productive, beyond a certain point. However, should diplomatic efforts fail and an attack be launched, Russia can be expected to condemn it strongly. As a result, Russo-American relations could experience a new low, and Russo-Chinese ties may grow closer instead.
Finally, on developments in the Arab world Putin will continue with Moscow's current approach. It has three main elements. On the top, there are the issues of the global order. Russia will continue to insist that international military intervention in the Arab civil wars is inadmissible, and a forcible regime change engineered from abroad is out of the question. All solutions must be locally led, with international organisations - the UN and the Arab League - acting as facilitators and/or observers. At the middle level, Russia will continue to see the Arab popular uprisings as paving the way for Arab radicals and even extremists. A Western-style democracy in the Arab world will continue to be seen, from Moscow, as remote or highly unlikely. And at the bottom level, Russia will be concerned about its own interests in the countries concerned, although in all cases they are rather limited.
The irony of history is that, two decades after the end of the Cold War, Moscow has no geopolitical interests in the region which was a major battleground in the U.S.-Soviet global rivalry. To the extent that Russians feel any empathy towards the countries of the Middle East, they focus on Israel, the Holy Land, where they can travel without a visa and where a fifth of the population is Russophone. And, it is appropriate to add, Vladimir Putin is definitely the most pro-Israel head of state Russia has ever had.