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The Power Vertical

Detente And Modernization

U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at Prague Castle on April 8.
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at Prague Castle on April 8.
According to a report in "Russian Newsweek," Moscow is planning to reorient its foreign policy in a more pragmatic and pro-Western direction. The story by journalists Konstantin Gaaze and Mikhail Zigar, which cites a recent Foreign Ministry policy paper, says the move is part of an effort to attract badly needed investment to modernize the country's crumbling infrastructure and diversify its economy to make it less dependent on energy exports:

The idea behind the document is that Russia intends -- not just in words but also in deeds -- to have a foreign policy in which there are not friends and enemies, but only interests. The country's economy needs to be modernized and foreign policy must also work to solve this problem. A senior official at the Foreign Ministry who participated in the drafting of the document confirmed that in place of a Cold War there will be Detente.

The policy paper's preamble, written by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, calls for "the strengthening of relations of interdependence with the world's leading powers," with the most desirable partners being the United States and the European Union.

According to the "Russian Newsweek" story, the "triumphant optimism of Russian leaders in a time of record-high oil prices is a thing of the past. In the post-crisis world, Russia is forced to look for friends and start a useful economic ties." It cites an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying that "the crisis has shown that Russia cannot develop independently."

The report (which, judging from the sourcing, appears to be the result of an authorized leak from the Foreign Ministry) comes as an increasing number of stories are appearing in the Russian media calling for closer ties with the United States and the European Union. Writing last week in "Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal," for example, Aleksey Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies made a similar argument for engagement with the West:

[The authorities] have now begun -- at least at the conceptual level -- to develop measures to kick the oil and gas habit. The modernization of the country, however, cannot be carried out in isolation from the most economically developed -- and at the same time democratic -- states. You can not get investments from North Korea, or innovations from Venezuela.

It is still unclear whether a true policy shift is in the cards. The combination of the economic crisis, last year's drop in oil prices, and U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Moscow have certainly sparked a debate in the Russian elite about the direction of its foreign policy.

For years there has been evidence that a small segment of the elite has been very uncomfortable with the Kremlin's anti-Western orientation (See this piece by economist Sergei Dubinin just months after the Russia-Georgia war and this one by former deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Yevgeny Savostyanov late last year.)  Now it appears that such voices are ascendant.

Will they be ascendant for long? And what will a new entente with the West mean?

The thing to remember here is what motivates Russia's rulers more than anything else is the long-term preservation of the political status quo -- that is, the long-term preservation of their power, privilege and wealth.

If Vladimir Putin and his inner circle can achieve such security through confrontation with the West, that is the route they will go. But if they can better achieve it through closer relations with the West, they can go down that road as well.

Right now, the Kremlin elite feels threatened by a creaky economy and an increasingly restless public. They need the West and appear ready to reach out -- and the West appears ready to respond in kind.

But sooner or later, the Kremlin is going to run into the same political-economic conundrum that has accompanied every Russian attempt at modernization. Modernizing an economy implies diversifying and decentralizing. It implies respect for property rights. It implies greater transparency. It implies respect for the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the gun.

And finally, it implies political decentralization. And that is something few Russian rulers have been willing to tolerate for long.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: lavrov,Russia,Foreign Policy,Detente

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by: Todd Lucas from: Arlington, TX
May 11, 2010 18:46
I am wondering how much this might have a tie in, however remote it may be, to the recent near collapse of Greece's economy.

Russia has been admitting for a while now that they need to modernize their infrastructure and many other vital systems within their borders, but unless I am just not totally up in things, Russia hasn't really made such a concerted effort to do so until recently. So I am wondering if Moscow might be fearing a "Greek Meltdown" of their own unless the take such drastic measures.

by: Ray from: Lawrence, KS
May 12, 2010 02:27
Change "Russia's rulers" to "the professional political class within the DC beltway" and the statement below rings as true.

"The thing to remember here is what motivates Russia's rulers more than anything else is the long-term preservation of the political status quo -- that is, the long-term preservation of their power, privilege and wealth."

While you want to believe in a qualitative difference between the ruling class in Russia and that of the U.S., the leadership in both countries is corrupt with short-term pragmatism and fiscal irresponsibility. Indeed, the U.S. may soon be borrowing some survival lessons from the Russians on what to do when the economy implodes.

by: Cliff B from: Texas
May 12, 2010 03:28
What happens when the "new" oligarchs arise? ...Of course modernization will have a unique Russian twist!

by: Johnathan Gonzales from: Trinidad
May 30, 2010 02:18
But sooner or later, the Kremlin is going to run into the same political-economic conundrum that has accompanied every Russian attempt at modernization....
And finally, it implies political decentralization. And that is something few Russian rulers have been willing to tolerate for long.
The stupidity of this statement is beyond belief what about the
fact that modernization without liberalization took place in spain,taiwan,south korea,singapore,china and chile

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or