By Mikhail MARGELOV, chairman of the international affairs committee, Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of Russia
Several years ago a full-scale involvement of Russia in G8 discussions seemed purely hypothetical. But today the Russian president is an obligatory and sometimes privileged interlocutor in discussions of key international policy issues, from nuclear non-proliferation to prices for energy resources. This is largely a result of the pragmatic foreign policy pursued by President Putin.
His predecessors, in particular Soviet leaders, always spoke about the messianic role of their country. Mikhail Gorbachev, who replaced them, though he rooted out the feeling of Moscow's hostility in the world, failed to remain at the helm of the imperial ship, which soon crashed.
Boris Yeltsin, who did his best to dissociate himself from Gorbachev, chose to behave far too exotically for foreign partners to take Russia seriously. His demonstrative steps towards the USA and the EU, cut short by U-turns towards China and India, left the impression of improvisation without a clear view of the future.
It became clear in the first months after the election of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia that the Kremlin was working on a new foreign policy strategy. It was to be geared to the requirements and possibilities of the state in the throes of a deep economic crisis, as well as to its historical role of a bridge between the West and the East. Alien to cheap effects, Vladimir Putin avoided theatrical proclamations of doctrines, preferring simply to pinpoint the priority interests of the state and to ensure they corresponded to the schedule and routes of his visits and meetings.
A sober analysis of the Russian economy, an appraisement of the risks engendered by the centrifugal trends in some regions, and an awareness of the need to rapidly reform the army and the defence industries called for a new foreign policy style. It had to be devoid of expensive great-power ambitions, but needed to incorporate careful analysis of possible consequences of decisions, a firm (harsh, when necessary) negotiating stand, and an ability to find compromise solutions. It became clear that at this stage the country's foreign policy goals were located inside the country.
The main task, which has been proclaimed by the President more than once in his state of the nation addresses to the Federal Assembly, is accelerated reform and modernisation of the obsolete economy, the vast Soviet heritage created in a different era for quite different purposes. Vladimir Putin clearly formulated his criterion of judging the work of the state structures - effectiveness. It is the underlying principle of his new foreign policy.
In a word, pragmatism as the definition of Putin's foreign policy logically stemmed from his understanding of the situation in Russia. The country has rich deposits of mineral resources, yet its population suffers from oppressive poverty; it needed investment but had only a fragmented market infrastructure. At the same time, separatism was growing stronger in the country and preparing for a drawn-out terrorist war.
Pragmatism does not tolerate self-deception. As a pragmatist, Vladimir Putin drew the only possible conclusion: Russia will not benefit from international crises; it can allow itself to take part only in actions with predictable consequences. This is why the Russian President persistently calls for creating a world order based on clear norms and rules of the game.
Internal stability has become the business card of the Putin administration for Russians. Likewise, the striving to ensure regional and global stability has become the highlight of Putin's dialogue with foreign partners. He acts consistently. His support for the US president on September 11, 2001 and subsequent participation in the anti-terrorist operation was a logical and not a time-seeking decision. The closure of bases in Cuba and Vietnam was not a present to the USA, but a decision based on awareness of national defence requirements. The ABM compromise was part of agreements on further nuclear reductions. In reply to the enlargement of NATO and the EU, though these processes frequently disregarded Russian interests, the Putin administration stepped up not military efforts, but negotiations and the creation of new joint institutions designed to search for mutually acceptable solutions.
An ancient Chinese philosophical postulate goes that flexibility defeats harshness. This approach would appear to be appropriate for the settlement of international crises. The Iraqi problem revealed not only the weakness of such international institutions as the UN, but also the risk of contradictions between the traditionally rallied NATO members. Some observers interpreted Russia's stand in the crisis as an attempt to play on the contradictions, a remake of Gromyko's diplomacy. In fact, Russia was only protecting its interests and acted flexibly in the pursuit of this goal.
The tactic proved worthwhile. Moscow has maintained normal relations with the USA and the Arab world. It called for the active involvement of the UN in the settlement of the Iraqi problem, and now the occupying powers are advocating this, too. Moscow pointed to the risks connected with internal destabilisation in Iraq, and US and British troops have sustained more losses after the operation than during it. Moscow called for spotlighting the risks inherent in the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, and it has become clear now that the USA overestimated its ability to control the process.
Our forecasts have come true, but this does not give Moscow any pleasure at all. It sees that the risks growing in the Middle East threaten not only the USA and Britain.
Russia's understanding of the best conditions for its development prevents it from remaining an aloof observer. The duplicity of Hussein and the military operation did great damage to Russia's interests. The Iraqi state debt has largely depreciated; Russian contracts in Iraq are threatened because their normal implementation is impossible in conditions of UN sanctions. But the point at issue is not only economic losses and missed benefits.
The drawn out nature of the normalisation process in Iraq, the weakness of its authorities, and growing confessional and ethnic contradictions give a chance to the extremist forces which stand behind the September 11 attacks and numerous explosions in the Middle East, Central and South East Asia, and which are resisting the restoration of peace in Chechnya.
This is why Russia is considering the possibility of dispatching troops to Iraq and is holding intensive consultations in the UN Security Council in an attempt to find effective solutions. Moreover, a country with 20 million Muslims, Russia probably knows better than many other countries that the struggle against terrorism must never, under no conditions be presented as another crusade. Saddam has been overthrown, but he has not left the political scene yet, and bin Laden and his closest associates are still at large. Iraq has a long way to go to achieve peace and Afghanistan will spend a long time yet trying to eliminate the Taliban once and for all. The anti-terrorist coalition must rally the firm support of the Islamic world.
Accordingly, President Putin is paying great attention to the development of dialogue with South East Asia and the Persian Gulf countries. However, this vector of Putin's actions traditionally has an internal goal: he wants to free relations from old dogmas and facilitate ties based on new principles and traditions, ties that should become the pillar of harmonious development of the polyconfessional Russia.
Pragmatism does not mean myopia. While spotlighting its internal problems, Russia cannot and will not remain on the sidelines of globalisation and growing global competition. The stakes are too high and time goes extremely quickly in the 21st century. But then, other countries hardly make plans on the assumption of Moscow's sluggishness. Caution does not preclude quick reaction, while pragmatism and consistency obviously make for a worthwhile strategy.