Russia's foreign policy over the coming decade will bear the signature of Vladimir Putin, as Russia seeks new alliances and international clout. The price that Russia is likely to pay is international isolation  

Putin is the most powerful man in the world. There may be men who rule in more powerful states than Russia – but neither Barack Obama, Hu Jintao or whoever is at the helm in Japan or the European Union have anywhere near the same domination, nor will they name their times the way this balding, smirking man who grew up longing to join the KGB in impoverished post-war Leningrad has.

Putin’s return to the Presidency is not a return to power – he remained, as Medvedev’s side-shuffle proves, the leader – but a return to front-row foreign policy. The Russian President is constitutionally mandated with foreign and security matters, while the Prime Minister directs internal affairs. This translated into Medvedev effectively being his foreign minister since 2008: dining with Sarkozy, speaking at the UN and manning the reset ‘mini-summits’ with the US. Putin often refused to meet foreign leaders, as he was ‘only a Prime Minister.’

Putin’s foreign policy return will see his personal projects and prejudices define Russia’s place in the world. We can expect this to last at least until 2018, or even 2024 when his term-limit lapses. After the announcement Putin penned an article in the national daily ‘Izvestia,’ calling for a ‘Eurasian Union’ forged out a customs union project with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

This economic project is his desired legacy. Putin’s understanding of the core of the ex-USSR as a natural unit, something young Russian policy-makers are less insistent on, will remain a policy crux. Opportunities to realize this vision will not be ignored.

Yet Putin is also withdrawing from the ex-USSR. His rule has so far seen Russian interest in the outer CIS: the south Caucasus, the Muslim republics of inner Central Asia and Moldova became less of a priority for the Kremlin. There is no desire to integrate them but simply to prevent others controlling them through a light-footprint of bases and pipelines.

Towards Europe, Putin’s convictions got it half-right and half very wrong. He presciently bet on Schroeder’s Germany, then the ‘sick man of Europe.’ Heavy investment in ties with Berlin means that post-crisis, where Germany is the EU’s mini-superpower, Russia is well positioned. The great mistake was the politics of gas and division that stirred European concerns about Russian re-imperialisation. Putin’s is thus partially the author of EU’s attempts to reduce energy dependence and the ‘Eastern Partnership’ that reaches out to European ex-Soviet states.

However in Central Asia, China’s neighbourhood policies of trade and road-building have undermined Russian influence for now but might boomerang in Moscow’s favour. Hedging against Beijing is a key reason Kazakhstan is keen on the ‘Eurasian Union’ – and fragile Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan interested.

Between China and the US, Putin is hedging. Between 2001-2003 Putin drew close to an unchallenged America, cooperating with Bush on the war on terror. At the time he even told French journalists he saw himself as a Russian de Gaulle – integrating into the West on his own terms perhaps, whilst retaining a sphere of influence in former colonies. By the late 2000s, talk of Western decline permeated Moscow and Putin has dropped travelling to the US in favour of constant visits to China. But Putin does not want to be a later day de Gaulle, integrating semi-autonomously with the West, or an Alexander Nevsky, defeating Teutonic knights but paying tribute to Mongols – he wants an independent Russia. He will probably achieve this – but it will be an isolated Russia too.

This article first appeared in English in The European Magazine

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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