Moscow has undergone a lively debate on the future course of its foreign policy – which may now become obsolete by the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.
This was a strange Russian election, even by that very odd standard. It marked less the end of a competition for office than the start of post-election struggles. Now the process of shaping the post-Putin era will start in earnest. So, what does the start of the new struggle for post-Putin Russia mean for Russia’s foreign policy?
It is very much an open question. The events of recent years have shattered quite a few foreign policy assumptions in Moscow. The Russian leadership did not expect the West to introduce strong sanctions after Crimea and to stick with them for years. Then, it expected China to compensate for lost Western investments. It expected Hillary Clinton to win the US elections and become a tough anti-Russian president. Then it expected Donald Trump to become a soft Russia-friendly president. It expected the EU to collapse under the weight of its own in internal contradictions at the wake of Brexit. It expected Ukraine to collapse under the weight of its unreformed economy, corruption and unruly political passions. It expected the settlement in Syria to be a lot easier. Alas, the world turned out to be more unpredictable and complicated than many Russians thought.
These failed predictions have occasioned a lively foreign policy debate in Moscow – on the meaning of Donald Trump, on the fate of the European Union, on what to expect from China, on what next in Syria and Donbas.
By mid-winter, the fault lines of the debate were becoming increasingly clear. On one side, a coalition of intra-system liberals – both foreign policy thinkers and economic technocrats – argues in favour of improving the relations with the West, starting possibly from stabilizing the situation in Donbas. As former finance minister Alexei Kudrin succinctly argues, “if we want our economy to grow, and grow smartly, we need to improve the relations with the West.” The West remains the best source for modernisation. The need for technocratic modernisation – the need to master the world of artificial intelligence, blockchains and other 21st century wonders – seems to be understood also by President Putin, at least intellectually, if not passionately.
This dovetails with a foreign policy argument that holds that Russian foreign policy is overstretched and would benefit from ending a few conflicts. Stabilisation in Donbas, according to this camp, is the best place to start. Progress there would help to restart the relations with the European Union, and that might be of help at a time when the relations with the US are deadlocked because Russia has become a domestic issue in the US.
The other camp in Moscow, though, remains sceptical. They fear the West will view ‘concessions’ as a sign of weakness; or that rapprochement with the West would make Russia’s non-Western allies – from Iran to China – fear Russian ‘betrayal’. (Iran has already experienced such treatment in its relations with Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Moscow used Tehran as a bargaining chip in its relationship with the US.)
However, the sceptical camp does agree on one crucial point: foreign policy indeed needs to change. The primitively anti-Western rhetoric and tactics that centre on disruption do not work anymore. They do not work in the West, because there, Donald Trump is now the disruptor-in-chief; and an unpredictable one at that. They also do not work in the Middle East, where Russia now effectively owns the conflict in Syria and, to stay on top of the diplomatic process, it needs effective relations with all regional powers. This requires predictable behaviour. Surprise invasions have done their job, done it well (in Moscow’s eyes) – but their time seems to be over.
Such was the state of the debate when, in the afternoon of March 4, a former GRU employee and British double agent Sergei Skripal was found unconscious on the bench in Salisbury, poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, the only known producer of which is USSR/Russia.
This crime remains puzzling. Murders of exchanged spies – as Skripal was – have not been part of Moscow’s behaviour so far. Why ditch this Cold-War era taboo – and do so now, of all times? Was the only aim to kill a traitor? In that case, most other means would have been simpler than nerve agent. Or was it meant to send a message? In that case, ‘signing’ it makes sense… But message to whom and saying what?
Domestic political incentives are unlikely – the crime happened too late to feed into the presidential elections, nor was it necessary, or used accordingly. Was it indeed ordered by President Putin - with full knowledge of international implications? Or was it the job of some powerful Russian agencies, maybe sanctioned only in very broad terms? In that case, will the Kremlin manage to distance itself from them, and do so with the level of publicity that would satisfy the West?
We simply do not know, but these questions are now wedded to the question about the course of Russia’s foreign policy. Just two weeks ago, the various factions in Russia assumed that after the elections, Putin would choose his course and then we will know. Now, whoever committed the crime seems to have chosen for him.