Putin echoes Trump on foreign policy as Russia softens rhetoric

By Vladimir Mikheev, Special to Russia Beyond the Headlines   |   Dec. 6, 2016 at 8:43 AM

Vladimir Putin's state-of-the-nation address on Dec. 1 was the Russian leader's 13th address to the representatives of power elites, elected officials and top executives, and, as has lately become a standing tradition, foreign policy agenda was once again subordinated to domestic issues. Still, the message from the rostrum came out loud and clear: Russia seeks friends not adversaries.

The president sounded both conciliatory and defiant, applying the tried and tested tactics of the "iron fist in a velvet glove."

The balance in Putin's speech was conspicuously in favor of a dialogue with the rest of the world, despite a natural commitment to protecting national interests at a time when the collapse in relations between Russia and the West that began in 2014 had reached Cold War proportions, threatening to provoke direct confrontation, which would have been almost inevitable if Hillary Clinton had won the White House and introduced, as she had vehemently promised, a "no-fly zone" in Syria.

Putin's mandate clearly implies ensuring for the nation full protection of its foreign policy interests and sovereignty. Russia would "not allow its interests to be infringed upon," he said. Under Putin, Russian society has recalled the memory of the existential threat of the Second World War, when Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler condemned Soviet Russia to annihilation and genocide in accordance with its dogma of Aryan racial superiority.

During the past decade, the gradual advancement of NATO military bases into Eastern Europe and the stationing of sophisticated weaponry near the borders of Russia has stirred a nasty feeling of déjà vu among the Russians, one that many feel calls for vigilance.

This year, relations between Russia and the West acquired a troubling resemblance to the attitude of benign neglect that prefigured both world wars. With the chances of an involuntary outbreak of hostilities looking ever greater, Putin simply had no choice but to assuage the fears of his compatriots that the government does not have its head in the clouds and is not living in an "alternate reality" – this is not the case.

Keeping the powder dry

Moscow is not falling into the complacency of the Yeltsin era of the '90s, when Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, acting on the pretext that Russia and the West were no longer ideological rivals, demanded that defense-related research laboratories and plants manufacturing armaments and military hardware be closed down and dismantled.

Maxim Suchkov, editor of Al-Monitor's Russia-Mideast, and an expert on the Russian International Affairs Council, told RBTH that unlike the previous "Foreign Policy Concept" of 2013, the current document is "tougher" both stylistically and content-wise – it focuses more on threats, and prioritizes security-related issues.

"The new strategy sees 'providing security for the country, its sovereignty and territorial integrity' and 'strengthening Russia's position as one of the most influential centers of the contemporary world' as its key priorities.

"This isn't something brand new, as the country has been operating in this paradigm for a while. Yet it reflects the Russian elites' vision of the modern world: This world is seen as by and large unfriendly and increasingly competitive. It also demonstrates Moscow's tenacity to move forward based on these concepts.

"What is particularly striking that probably for the first time in Russia's modern history the term 'soft power' was used in this document. In my view, this too shows that the Kremlin understands that this toolbox needs a critical update if the country is serious about staying in the top league of international politics."

Today, Russian elites have rediscovered the timeless maxim of the need to keep their powder dry. As the Los Angeles Times noted, Russia will be relying on the "newest line of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, the Satan II, touted as being able to destroy a land mass the size of 'Texas or France' with a single nuke."

Nevertheless, this is not warmongering or posturing. Putin emphatically asserted in his speech that Russia was not seeking hostilities with other nations.

Putin echoes Trump: coincidence?

The new foreign policy priorities that Putin briefly outlined specify a carefully weighted cooperation on certain tracks without imposing Russia's interests or even views on anyone. Period.

Paradoxically, it echoed the words of President-elect Donald Trump, who made a daring pledge in his victory speech after winning the U.S. election on Nov. 8: "I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America's interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone — all people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility, partnership, not conflict."

Did Putin's speechwriters plagiarize Trump's message? It's unlikely. But it looks like a "copy-paste" sample.

Russia's leader, who still enjoys phenomenal popularity ratings, seemed to have taken the words out of Trump's mouth when addressing the parliament: "We don't want confrontation with anyone. We don't need it. We are not seeking and have never sought enemies. We need friends."

If nothing else then at least the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin and the office of the U.S. president-elect is of matching tone and color. It's good for a start.

No more post-Soviet messianic drive?

The countries in Russia's close vicinity would be at pains to try to find any secret agenda in the "new foreign policy concept" that Putin was referring to. There is nothing there that hints at what has been routinely termed as""Russian expansionism" and a covert desire to restore the "empire" and bring back into Moscow's sphere of influence, or even under its jurisdiction, the post-Soviet republics. It appears on the surface that nothing could be further from the truth.

Moscow has made it clear that it will pursue a calibrated policy toward its immediate neighbors that remain formally members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Only three of them were mentioned: Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

Moscow will contribute its efforts "to search for a political and diplomatic solution to the internal conflict in Ukraine." But unlike the speech made in 2013, Putin no longer classified Ukraine as a "priority partner" within the CIS.

Moscow is interested in normalizing relations with the Republic of Georgia but only in areas where Tbilisi would be eager to reciprocate. It does not imply that Moscow will abandon rendering assistance to the virtually unrecognized breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on their way to becoming what Putin described as "modern democratic states."

Moscow respects the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova provided a compromise is achieved on the status of the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria, another breakaway statelet that remains internationally unrecognized. It is not a given, but the election of a pragmatic new president in Chişinǎu might put the course of events on the right track.

Conditional rapprochement

The change of tune in foreign policy pronouncements either in Washington or in Moscow has not yet been substantiated by solid and irreversible actions "on the ground." This is probably impossible until after Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20. But the reassuring overtures on both sides have been put on the record, and now it is up to the team in command of the world's "only remaining superpower" to make a bold move.

Moscow has made it clear who it sees as responsible for what it describes as the lost opportunities and blunders of the Obama rule, citing an "overload" in Washington's relations with Russia while simultaneously indulging the ego of Trump's strategists.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a recent interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, was adamant in pinning the blame for the glacial relations between Moscow and Washington on the latter: "We are confident that the new administration does not want to repeat the errors of the outgoing one, which deliberately destroyed U.S.-Russian relations."

Although it is hardly feasible to improve relations with the "collective West" on all tracks, there is a fair chance that a conditional partnership might emerge to tackle the common threat of religious radicals from Islamic State and similar terrorist groupings.

After all, in the first major foreign policy speech in Washington on April 27 this year Trump called U.S. foreign policy "arrogant" and attributed the surge of violence and unrest in the Middle East to it. Later, he accused Obama and Hillary Clinton of having created IS, undermining the security in the region and the United States.

In some way, Trump seems to be subscribing to the famous dictum of President John Kennedy who used to warn: "Domestic policy can only defeat us, foreign policy can kill us."

It appears that Vladimir Putin has also embraced the notion that the sustainable development of a country is achievable only in a safe, predictable and friendly international environment. This is the key element and utmost goal of his new foreign policy.

This article originally appeared at Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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