Sunday, 25 March 2012 06:06

Return of the Monolith

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Vladimir Putin is celebrating a decisive victory in the 2012 Presidential elections in Russia. After four years as Prime Minister, he returns to the highest position of power in Moscow. What can Europe expect from the return of a man who has never minced words?

Putin received more than 60% of the overall votes, although international observers such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have made several charges of fraud. No matter how (un)fair and (un)free these recent elections may have been, Europe has to deal with the return of a well-known political veteran.

It seems that Putin has managed to appease his political counterparts in Europe. While there have been statements from German chancellor Angela Merkel and from the EU's high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton, praising the rise of civic movements in Russia and highlighting the need for political reforms, European leaders are mostly relieved that Russian politics look as if they'll remain stable. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé frames it in a pragmatic way: "The election has not been exemplary. That is the least you can say. Putin has been re-elected by a large majority, so France and her European partners will pursue its partnership with Russia." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed the hope that Germany would "continue and deepen the strategic partnership with Russia."

It is political realism to deal with the current situation rather than bask in hopes of a sudden change of terms. Moreover, Europe's biggest fear is probably not a Russian Federation under Putin's rule but an unstable regime that does not behave predictably. Just a few days before the elections, Putin released an article in the newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti which can be regarded as a blueprint for his foreign policy, giving European politicians an overview of upcoming goals and priorities of the new Russian president.

It is interesting to see, from this article, that the Arab Spring and the current conflicts in the Middle East are of high importance for the new president. Many Russian politicians, not just Putin, feel betrayed by the way the US and its European allies acted in the Libyan civil war. It is a common belief in the Kremlin that the UN resolution of a no-fly zone over Libya opened the way for the final removal of Gaddafi and therefore allowed Western interference into the sovereignty of an independent nation state. Russian foreign policy strongly emphasised the importance of international law and self-determination of sovereign states and European leaders can be assured that Putin will continue the approach, as seen in Syria, of opposing his western partners in the Security Council.

Putin describes Russia as an "organic part of Europe," and views it as a bridge between its western and eastern neighbours.

For the European continent, there is a dual vision embedded in his speech. From an ideological viewpoint, Putin describes Russia as an "organic part of Europe," and views it as a bridge between its western and eastern neighbours. The EU is Russia's most important trade partner and it can be expected that mutual economic cooperation will continue to increase. When talking about EU exports to Russia however, the scope is limited to economic powers such as Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands. Small member states are likely to remain insignificant in this relationship.

Russia's energy connections with Europe do however concern small countries. For most Central and Eastern European states, the overwhelming majority of natural gas is supplied by Russia. This energy trade has been the key source of income for Russia and its role in the overall Russian economy will remain high. Since Moscow has in fact been a reliable partner when it comes to securing Europe's energy supply, political stability in Russia is of critical importance. From the perspective of security issues, Russia's criticisms of NATO and its expansion up to Russia's borders, also a central theme in Putin's recent article, demands a more open and innovative solution. It is expected that this topic will be the main point of discussion at this year's NATO summit in Chicago.

First and foremost, Putin is a realist. His foreign policy will be framed around the goal of increasing Russia's role in the world, while focusing on cultivating and expanding economic opportunities and multilateral agreements. Although other countries are emerging as potential partners, such as China, Brazil and India, Europe will still remain essential for Russia.

Even though Putin can rely on the centralisation of power to pursue his policies, the recent protests decreased his domestic support from at least a part of Russia's population. Simultaneously, his United Russia party will have a smaller majority in the Duma; the need for political bargaining may become important. There are surely exciting years to follow and Europe should expect a self-confident Russian President to return to international politics – an arena from which he never really disappeared.

Last modified on Saturday, 24 March 2012 20:30
Simon Schmidt

Simon Schmidt holds a BA in International Business and is an alumnus of the International MA program of Political Science with respect to Russia and Eurasia of the European University at St. Petersburg. His main interests are Russian-EU relations and energy, security and economic developments in post-Soviet Eurasia. He currently lives and works in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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