Vladimir Putin made his first visit in his new status of
president-all-but-elect to China last week and used the opportunity to
emphasize the unprecedented level of trust between the leaders of the two world
powers, which "learned to act hand-in-hand" on the international arena.
It is far from certain that Russia and China "absolutely lack any problems in
the political and humanitarian sphere", as Prime Minister Putin asserted, but
it is a fact that in many tough situations, for instance in casting a veto on
the United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against the
Syrian regime, Moscow and Beijing move in synch.
Putin negotiated a compromise solution in the dispute on prices
for Russian oil exported to China through the new Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean
oil pipeline but hardly found much satisfaction in the deepening dependency on
supplying raw materials to China’s industrial boom, continuing for 33 years. He
was very careful in dispensing criticism of the United States' and the European
Union's economic policies; nevertheless, the visit sent a pronounced message
that Russia is ready for a cooling and reversing of the reset in relations with
Supporting evidence for this estrangement can be found in the demonstrative
support for ailing President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the new contract on
supplying Russian arms to Venezuela. The main source of tensions, however, is
the unbridgeable disagreement over the building of the European tier of the US
missile defense system.
President Dmitry Medvedev's idea of making Russia responsible for a wide sector
in this system is clearly unworkable, and Putin prefers to play hardball in
this field without bothering to educate himself on the basic parameters of
evolving strategic deterrence.
It is probably better for self-confidence to remain ignorant about the scale of
the problems with deploying the new generation of submarines and missiles as
well as about the limitations of Russia's much-advertised S-400/500
surface-to-air missiles (that have never been tested against ballistic
missiles) that render the grand design for an air-space defense system
Putin is clearly irked by every new US step in deploying strategic assets, for
instance in Spain, and signals that without a deal on connecting Russia to the
joint defense against hypothetical missiles there will be no point for him to
partake in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago next May.
Another area where disengagement is occurring is the proto-partnership with the
EU in advancing Russia's modernization as championed by Medvedev.
This cooperation has never gained any traction because Medvedev's project went
directly against the preferences of the ruling bureaucracy. And now as Mikhail
Khodorkovsky, Russia's most famous political prisoner, argues, there is no
point in expecting any modernization "from above".
Putin is probably disappointed about the massive exodus of Western capital, but
at a recent investment forum he could only dodge a tough question from a German
businessman: "What signal do you need to send so that smart Russians stay in
this country and smart investors come to Russia?". He hardly expects any
pay-off from the key talking point in his trip that China could become Russia's
privileged partner in modernization instead of the EU.
What denies Putin the opportunity to put more pressure on the depressed and
divided Europeans is the saturation in the gas market, where Russian energy
giant Gazprom is reluctantly yielding to many demands for discounts.
If there was a chance to undermine this position of consumers' strength by
concluding the long-negotiated gas deal with China, Putin did not grasp it,
presuming that Beijing demands concessions too far.
One way to compensate for this weakness of the "gas muscle" could be found in
applying financial clout (valued at US$500 billion) toward the desperately
indebted European states. Emergency credit of $3.3 billion has been quietly but
efficiently provided for Cyprus, which is a major "safe haven" for money moving
to and from Russia. A more "strategic", though improbable, proposition aired
last week is for taking on a share of sovereign debt of Spain, where Russia has
few financial or energy interests.
Such experiments probably appear interesting to Putin's lieutenants, impatient
to demonstrate that the period of Medvedev's concurrence in foreign policy is
over and that all kinds of "resets" that have exhausted their usefulness could
What is missing in this desire to revive Putin's trademark style of toughness
and tit-for-tat is a reckoning that while the EU and the US cannot find a way
to reduce debt without slashing growth, every crisis is certain to hit Russia
harder than Western counterparts.
The main lesson from the painful contraction of 2008-2009 drawn by the Kremlin
is that its domestic political consequences are light and easily erasable, so
nothing could possibly disturb the reconstitution of "strong presidency" in the
next half year. Remarkably little effort is in fact geared toward securing the
great-as-ever result at the parliamentary elections for the United Russia party
of ruling bureaucracy; yet, the quota for Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe election observers to Russia has been cut down to just
200 for the upcoming political race.
Putin informed the Chinese media that his decision to reclaim the presidency
was "absolutely the correct one because it will not weaken, but rather
strengthen the governance system in Russia", which was an odd way to formulate
a rather questionable proposition.
He could have learned that the efficiency of the Chinese non-democratic system
of governance is secured by the constant renewal of the ruling elite, but this
lesson is lost on the crowd of his courtiers.
The Putin that is moving back to the Kremlin is not the hard-driven
fast-climber of 2000; he is rather a spoiled and irritable over-stayer whose
only agenda is to cling to the levers of power for as long as possible.
Dr Pavel K Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace
Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).