The Putin Doctrine


From Leon Aron, Foreign Affairs:  The first imperative of Russia’s foreign policy consensus is maintaining the country’s position as a nuclear superpower. The centrality of preserving Russia’s parity with the only other nuclear superpower, the United States, explains Moscow’s eagerness to engage in strategic arms control negotiations with Washington. At the same time, Putin’s assertive pursuit of this goal accounts for the vehemence with which Moscow has opposed anything that could weaken this strategic parity, such as NATO’s missile defense system in Europe. It is hardly surprising, then, that the claims of top U.S. and NATO officials that the system poses no threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrence have fallen on deaf ears. As Putin declared in his speech at the Russian Foreign Ministry last July, the missile shield allegedly “upsets the strategic balance” — that is, it weakens Russia’s status as a nuclear superpower.

A secondary but symbolically important (not to mention financially rewarding) pillar of Russia’s position as a nuclear superpower is its export of nuclear technologies. The state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, has been busily selling nuclear technology and currently has contracts for the sale of nuclear reactors to China, Turkey, India, Belarus, and Bangladesh. Iran has been a particularly attractive customer — Russia helped construct the $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power plant in the face of  U.S. resistance. The Bushehr project underscored not only Russia’s nuclear technological capacity but also Moscow’s willingness to assert its policies in the face of Washington’s resistance.

This imperviousness to U.S. wishes is central to Putin’s reinterpretation of the second objective of Russia’s foreign policy consensus: broadly maintaining the country’s status as a great power. It is in this context that Moscow has actively pursued former Soviet clients in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Emblematic of this policy were the upgrading in 2009 of the supply-and-repair facility at Tartus in Syria and Putin’s visit to Cuba in December 2000, the first by a Russian or Soviet leader since Leonid Brezhnev’s trip there in 1974. Moreover, Moscow’s use of the UN Security Council to weaken or block U.S. initiatives has steadily risen: in the 1990s, Russia cast two vetoes in the Security Council; between 2000 and 2012, it wielded its veto eight times.

The pursuit of the third component of the foreign policy consensus — regional hegemony — has led Moscow to strive for the political, economic, military, and cultural reintegration of the former Soviet bloc under Russian leadership. In his speech at the Foreign Ministry last summer, Putin reaffirmed this commitment, calling the “deepening of the integration” of former Soviet territory the “heart of our foreign policy.” Despite less-than-enthusiastic cooperation from the newly independent states, this quest has resulted in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a military alliance that includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) and the customs union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which is set to evolve into the Eurasian Union by 2015, a project that Putin has advocated frequently and forcefully.

Under the Putin Doctrine, the pursuit of regional hegemony has acquired a new dimension: an attempt at the “Finlandization” of the post-Soviet states, harkening back to the Soviet Union’s control over Finland’s foreign policy during the Cold War. In such an arrangement, Moscow would allow its neighbors to choose their own domestic political and economic systems but maintain final say over their external orientation. Accordingly, Moscow has taken an especially hard line against former Soviet republics that have sought to reorient their foreign policy. In the case of Georgia, which openly aspired to NATO membership, Russia went to war in an attempt to humiliate and dislodge President Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime. Similarly, Moscow sought to destabilize the Ukrainian government of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko — who advocated joining the European Union and, eventually, NATO — by shutting off or threatening to shut off natural gas deliveries in 2006 and 2009. Today, even with a far more pro-Russian government in Kiev, Moscow refuses to lower the prices of its natural gas exports to Ukraine — which pays more than many European importers — until the country abandons plans for gradual integration into EU economic structures and, instead, charts a path to membership in the eventual Eurasian Union.

Another central pillar of the Putin Doctrine, the pursuit of unchallenged military superiority in Russia’s neighborhood, explains the steady increase in Moscow’s defense budget during Putin’s years in power, from an estimated $29 billion in 2000 to $64 billion in 2011 (both figures are listed in 2010 U.S. dollars). Even in today’s tough economic environment, Moscow continues to expand defense outlays at rates far outpacing those for other domestic programs, including education and health care. During his campaign for the presidency in February 2012, Putin promised a “comprehensive and systematic rearmament” of the Russian military and “modernization of the military-industrial complex,” pledging to spend 23 trillion rubles ($770 billion) on these projects in the next ten years.   (photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

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