Putin’s Policies Promise Measured Change

April 2, 2000

Boris N. Yeltsin’s Russia has now passed from the scene. What will distinguish Russia under Vladimir V. Putin? The first thing to be said is, no one knows, not even Putin, to a great degree. Some of his aspirations and characteristics do, however, provide important clues. He will seek to introduce more stable, predictable and orderly government, policies and society. To Russians and the West, that would be a step forward from Yeltsin’s capricious course.

One risk is that Putin may place so high a premium on order and policy execution that some democratic processes will be curtailed. Putin is not, however, inclined toward dictatorial rule, nor will he seek a reversion to the Soviet system. It is difficult to assess the influence of his background as a KGB officer, but it is not all negative, and indications are that he is not an ideological die-hard, but a pragmatist.

Putin’s priority must be to establish stability, viability and prosperity in Russia. There are also important foreign-policy matters that require his prompt attention. These internal and external developments affect one another. Yet, most central and most challenging is the reconstitution of internal order and impetus to internal development.

Putin takes office riding the wave of a moderately resurgent economy. The state of the economy and, above all, the state of people’s expectations for the future have been at least as important in Putin’s electoral triumph as the relatively successful war in Chechnya and other indications of a renewal of national pride. But the favorable economic wave is largely due to oil-export earnings, caused by the rise in world market prices that is likely to recede. The relative success in Chechnya has by no means ended all conflict there and has had severe economic and humanitarian consequences in the region.

The Russian electorate’s positive expectations, Putin’s largely unformed policy inclinations and the still intractable internal economic problems are the most important elements of the challenge Putin faces.

In economic and social policy, Putin will probably crack down on the worst of the prevalent corruption and excessive influence of oligarchs who survived the crash of 1998. But it is not clear he will change the system that spawned them. He will not attempt to roll back privatization. Yet, it is doubtful he will persevere with the difficult, but necessary, process of reforming the economic structure.

Most of Putin’s national rivals prudently left the field before the electoral battle began. They saw the time was not right and supported his candidacy. This is also true of many regional leaders. The Duma elected in December is dominated by shifting centrist political groups that will not challenge Putin, but not necessarily follow him, either. He has no real political party. Much will depend on his political skills, as well as shifts in the economy and public opinion.

What can we expect from Putin’s foreign policy? He will, as he should, pursue Russian national interests. Yet, he will not, by choice, pursue an anti-Western policy, nor will he seek to reestablish hegemony over former Soviet republics. There will, however, be some frictions when Russian national interests conflict with other countries’, including the U.S.

Putin will seek Western investment and trade, and his policies may be more consistent than Yeltsin’s. He will want continuing assistance from international financial institutions and on debt rescheduling, but not at the price of abdicating his oversight of the Russian economic policy. Nor will he be swayed by U.S. and other Western pleas—still less by threats—over human-rights issues such as those rising from the relentless military campaign in Chechnya.

Russia’s need for hard currency will continue to stimulate efforts to sell military equipment and some dual-purpose technologies to parties the United States does not wish it to. For example, in pursuing policies directed against nuclear proliferation, Russia, in some cases, weighs the risks of providing arms or technologies differently from the United States. One recurrent example is the sale of nuclear reactors to Iran. Another is the sale of advanced conventional air and naval systems to China. In the past, the U.S. objected to Russia’s sale of space boosters to India. There is much room, and need, for U.S.-Russian talks on such matters.

One significant area of growing U.S.-Russian friction arises from the U.S. role in the exploitation and transportation of the oil and gas in the Caspian Basin. This is particularly sensitive to Russians, not only because of its economic significance, but also because the basin was part of the Russian, then Soviet, empire and still retains many ties to Russia. Turkey, Iran and various international companies are also involved, but Washington has adopted an active role. Vigorous U.S. diplomatic maneuvering, often with an ill-concealed anti-Russian element, has provoked Moscow’s concern and resentment. This is heightened when accompanied by such things as a U.S. military presence through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Partnership for Peace training programs. Putin will seek to protect Russian interests in the region, preferably cooperatively with the U.S., but, if necessary, competitively.

It remains to be seen whether the Russian role in the Caucasus-Caspian-Central Asia region will rest on economic, diplomatic or covert political means. Putin’s inclinations, yet unclear, will be important, as will the Russian response to indigenous developments in the countries of the region. Russia’s brutal suppression in Chechnya does not prefigure any resort to military means beyond the Russian Federation. Moscow has not laid claim to any land beyond its borders and has not responded to pleas from breakaway regimes in Georgia, Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia or Moldova.

On the other hand, there are grounds for suspicion that Russia covertly assisted the Abkhazian campaign to drive the Georgians out of Abkhazia in 1992-93. This may not have been Russia’s only covert intervention in the area, though the extent of such interference has been exaggerated. Putin’s KGB background is probably irrelevant to future decisions on such matters, but his desire to see a continuing Russian role in the area may not be.

Putin is not likely to challenge the current arrangements for security in Europe, though there is potential for friction over the continuing NATO and U.N. involvement in Kosovo. Russian ties to NATO are being restored but remain minimal. Further steps toward enlargement of NATO to the east remain another potential area of friction. In particular, Russia would strongly object to any move to incorporate the Baltic states or Ukraine. Putin’s suggestion that perhaps at some time Russia would enter NATO if it evolved into more of a political body, while intriguing, is not on the agenda for the foreseeable future. Yet, ways should be sought to encourage and enable Russia to become more integrated with the evolving European security system.

Concerns that Russia may seek to build an anti-U.S./NATO alliance with China, India, Iran and Iraq are not realistic. Speculations rest on a misreading of Russian relations both with the West and with China and the other putative partners. Russian-Chinese relations are better than they have been for decades, but neither wants an alliance directed against the United States. Russia also seeks good relations with India and Iran, but not an anti-Western alliance—nor do they.

Putin is likely to obtain Duma ratification for the long-stalled START II, the U.S.-Russian strategic-arms-reduction treaty, and to negotiate a START III. The main problem will be Russian insistence that START II and III reductions be tied to U.S. adherence to the ABM Treaty; and a U.S. decision to deploy even a modest missile-defense system would require either amendment of the ABM Treaty or U.S. withdrawal. A major challenge to both governments is whether agreement can be reached on such changes.

A summer or early fall summit meeting of Putin and President Bill Clinton would serve the interests of both. It should be possible after Duma ratification of START II, particularly if they are able to agree on elements of a START III and, more problematic, an understanding on the ABM Treaty.

Russian foreign-policy problems, like its domestic problems, are more long-term than immediate. But Russia must balance its long-term security requirements against its current modest opportunities and limited resources—political, economic and military. Putin cannot change that situation, but he can recognize it and steer a course accordingly.

Yeltsin understood that Russia must integrate with the West. He realized Moscow had no choice but to accept the eastward enlargement of NATO, despite concern it could marginalize Russia. NATO’s offensive against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, without U.N. authorization, was also a problem for Russia. Putin must determine how to balance Russia’s continuing need to be accepted by the West with its other security needs, notably the preservation of the Russian Federation and its internal security by suppressing the rebellion in Chechnya.

Putin, like Yeltsin, accepts the demise of the former Soviet Union but also sees continuing Russian security, political, economic and other interests in the countries of the “near abroad.” For eight years, Yeltsin tried to build the Commonwealth of Independent States into a close alliance under Russian leadership but could not do so. Putin may be more realistic and rely on bilateral or limited multilateral groupings that see a common interest in close cooperation in specific areas.

The Putin era will certainly be different from the Yeltsin era, but it is far too early to judge differences in direction and result. We should suspend judgment until we see more, but Washington should not suspend its engagement and efforts to influence Putin’s decisions in ways beneficial to U.S. interests, as well as to Russia’s. We should not expect him to pursue courses of action simply because we want him to. But if we recognize common interests and seek to resolve differences, we can make relations with Putin’s Russia mutually productive.