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Russia: The Kremlin's Evolving Foreign-Policy Stance

By RFE/RL analyst Victor Yasmann Will Medvedev (left) continue Putin's foreign policies? (AFP) As Russia's presidential transition proceeds and it becomes increasingly clear the First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will succeed President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, there has been considerable speculation about the future direction of Moscow's foreign policies. The question is particularly hotly debated in the former Soviet republics and in Central and Eastern Europe.

Some analysts have noted that Medvedev's public pronouncements to date have generally been less openly confrontational than those of Putin. Except for a few appearances intended for domestic consumption, Medvedev has avoided harshly anti-Western rhetoric and has generally come off as more conciliatory and more liberal than Putin.

Others, however, emphasize that Medvedev is Putin's handpicked successor. They argue that Putin does not intend to relinquish control and will remain the dominant player in the unfolding Medvedev-Putin tandem. They note as well that Medvedev has been chairman of the board of directors of the state-controlled Gazprom for the last four years, years in which that company has played a major role in implementing the Kremlin's policies vis-a-vis Russia's neighbors.

Focusing on foreign-policy issues does shed light on the question of why Medvedev was chosen as the heir apparent. Despite Putin's often harsh statements, one important thread of Russian policy abroad has been an effort to improve Russia's image internationally. Putin and the various elites of siloviki -- people connected with the military, police, and security organs -- that surround him are concerned with legitimizing their status and their assets in the West. They know that only people who are perceived in the West as "liberals" -- people like Medvedev -- can advance the interests of the new state megacorporations abroad and open up new international markets for Gazprom and other companies the Putin-era elites control. Only these "liberals" have a chance of attracting significant foreign investment to Russia. The siloviki need the cover these liberals provide, and Medvedev is seen as a reliable intermediary.

No 'Soft-Liner'

These economic goals, however, do not necessarily mean that Russia will renounce many of its assertive foreign-policy stances. The Kremlin may, however, seek opportunities to use changes in those positions as bargaining chips to advance the economic side of its agenda. To do this, however, Russia under Medvedev will likely continue confronting U.S. and European Union interests and extending its own zone of political and economic influence.

And the harsh rhetoric will likely continue, simply because the ruling elite in Moscow has come to believe that it gets results. Since Putin's notably belligerent anti-American speech in Munich in February 2007, Russia has rarely been far from the center of attention internationally. In this way, Russia is following the same policy as Iran and North Korea.

Of course, this does not mean a return to the Cold War, which was a unique product of a bipolar world and could not exist in today's much more complex international configuration. In addition, there are real limits to how far Russia can pursue its confrontational policies. Politically and militarily, Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union was. In fact, it is in reality much weaker than the robust image it tries to project abroad.

In recent weeks, global increases in the prices of food commodities -- which specialists project as a long-term trend -- have revealed a new aspect of Russia's economic vulnerability. Russian media have reported that some of the country's largest cities import as much as 60 or 70 percent of the food they consume from abroad. Although Russia has substantial currency reserves to purchase such imports, the Kremlin would much rather spend those resources on its ambitious development projects.

Therefore, the confrontation between Russia and the West will continue to evolve along the lines of a "soft-power" conflict. Moscow will use its growing economic and financial power; its energy exports; and political, cultural, and informational resources to pressure former Soviet republics and to expand its geopolitical role across Eurasia.

End Of The Cold War

The Putin-Medvedev tandem is ideally suited for this kind of foreign policy. Putin's KGB specialization was "disinformation of the main enemy" -- meaning the United States. Russian pundits are fond of saying that Putin's political approach derives from his experience with as a black belt in judo; the word judo is Japanese for "the soft way."

At the same time, Medvedev is young and urbane, familiar with modern information technologies. He has presided over a national program to computerize the country's schools and has overseen plans to switch the country to digital television. He is a self-professed Internet addict.

No matter what Russian politicians and analysts might say, the United States remains the single most important foreign-policy focus for Russia. The tenor of those relations will only become clear after the U.S. presidential election in November. However, no matter who wins that contest, Moscow does not expect substantial improvements. So in the time remaining before the transition in Washington, Russia will continue its efforts to bolster its political, diplomatic, and military positions in anticipation of a long standoff.

As for the rest of the world, Russia under Medvedev will continue its Putin-era balancing act with the European Union, China, and the Islamic world.

In the short term, Russia's foreign policies will not change much. But a medium-term evolution is possible because Medvedev remains a largely unknown quantity in the political equation. Although he is not so far from the siloviki as the Kremlin's propaganda would have you believe, there are clear distinctions between him and Putin. Medvedev is a civilian, not a person who has been imbued with the KGB mind-set of "get it now at any price." And he is not a Cold War veteran -- and that could make a difference.

Cracks In The Facade

Cracks In The Facade

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