Grading Medvedev's Foreign Policy
The Duma's confirmation of Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister on 8 May, a day after Vladimir Putin's inauguration as president, marked the completion of their long-anticipated role swap and a new period in Russia's foreign relations. Over the previous four years it had been difficult to discern which half of the Putin-Medvedev tandem was responsible for the country's mixed record of foreign-policy successes and failures. However, Medvedev established good relationships with his foreign interlocutors who viewed him as a moderniser.
Medvedev embraced Washington's desire to 'press the reset button' on its relations with Russia, altered policy towards Iran (he cancelled the planned sale of S-300 air-defence missile systems and approved United Nations sanctions in June 2010), attended NATO's Lisbon summit in 2010 and authorised Russia's abstention from a UN Security Council resolution on Libya which paved the way for NATO to launch its 2011 mission there. However, he also sent Russian troops into Georgia in August 2008 in support of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, and later granted recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Medvedev ended his term embroiled in a stand-off with the West and the Arab League over the crisis in Syria.
War in Georgia
The five-day war with Georgia came just three months after Medvedev took over as president from Putin, who had long embarked upon a narrative of confrontation. As viewed from Moscow, the conflict enabled Russia to assert its role as a global power willing to defend its interests by force, it prevented further NATO enlargement in the post-Soviet space, and served as payback for what Russia viewed as the 'dangerous precedent' of an independent Kosovo. It also laid the ground for the United States-Russia 'reset'.
However, Medvedev's decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states has proved a diplomatic problem. Russia remains isolated on the issue: so far, only a handful of countries - Nicaragua, Venezuela and a few small Pacific island nations - have followed it in recognising them. Thus, the war actually served to highlight Russia's declining influence among the Commonwealth of Independent States. Its members viewed it as a unilateral attempt to change post-Soviet borders.
While Medvedev's role in the Georgian war remains the subject of debate, few doubt that it was he who initiated Russia's June 2008 proposal for a comprehensive security treaty for Europe, later extended to the entire Euro-Atlantic region. Conceived as a legally binding successor to the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the treaty would be open to all European countries regardless of 'allegiances to blocs or other groups', and would seek to limit the ability of the US, through NATO, to dominate Europe's security apparatus while bringing Russia in from the margins. However, the proposal was criticised as lacking detail. By the time the Kremlin produced a draft text in December 2009, the whole process had lost momentum. It was viewed by many Europeans as an attempt to legitimise Russia's veto over future enlargements of NATO or other regional security groupings in its neighbourhood.
For some time it looked as though Medvedev's proposals could have inadvertently reinvigorated the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE): the 56-member regional security grouping had previously been struggling to assert its relevance, not least because of Russia's opposition to the operations of its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which acts as an election monitor and supporter of democratic processes. Several European leaders suggested that Medvedev's proposals should be discussed within the framework of the OSCE. However, the OSCE failed to build sufficient consensus on framing a new treaty. Even Russia's closest partners subsequently turned their backs on Medvedev's proposal.
The arrival of a young and apparently reform-minded Russian president without a KGB past created a strong political rationale in Washington for the reset in bilateral relations, particularly in the aftermath of the war in Georgia. President Barack Obama met Medvedev over a dozen times and the two men enjoyed a more trusting, constructive relationship than any other post-Cold War presidents, far removed from the low point that George W. Bush and Putin had reached.
The signing in April 2010 of the New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START) with the US was a key moment of Medvedev's presidency, and owed a great deal to these restored ties. Coming just weeks before the May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, agreement on New START also helped to pave the way for successful interactions at the November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon at which proposals for Russia-NATO cooperation on a missile-defence shield in Europe were discussed.
Further milestones that could be put down to Medvedev's improved relations with Washington included Russia's approval of UN sanctions on Iran in June 2010 and agreement in 2011 on admission into the World Trade Organisation after 18 years of negotiations.
However, while New START should survive the Putin-Medvedev role swap, the prospects for missile-defence cooperation look increasingly unpromising. Though it may be in Putin's interests to enter into the spirit of the reset on most issues, missile defence is re-emerging as a source of tension and mistrust between Russia and the US, and NATO as a whole. Days before Putin's inauguration, the Russian Ministry of Defence hosted a high-profile international conference, presenting the European missile-defence system as a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent and threatening pre-emptive strikes against facilities in Poland and Romania.
Europe and Asia
Some Russian commentators argue that a key element of Medvedev's legacy is the re-orientation of Russia's foreign policy towards Asia. This may not have been his original plan, but the global financial crisis and the rise of China have made it imperative for Moscow to look east for new opportunities, even as it perceives new challenges and threats. Medvedev paid numerous visits to China and Southeast Asia, and became the first Russian leader to visit the Kuril Islands, which are the subject of a territorial dispute with Japan.
Yet among Medvedev's 129 foreign trips as president, the Euro-Atlantic region dominated the list of destinations. Despite his many visits, Medvedev cannot claim to have achieved any significant improvement in EU-Russian relations, not least because of Europe's preoccupation with its own economic crisis. His EU-Russia 'partnership for modernisation', in common with his agenda for domestic reform, was heavy on rhetoric but lacking in substance.
For his part, Putin seems likely to shift his foreign-policy priorities away from Europe and the US, where his return to the presidency received a lukewarm welcome. The first visit he paid after announcing his comeback as president was to China, while on 10 May he announced that he would not attend the 18-19 May G8 summit hosted by Obama at Camp David because he would be too busy finalising his cabinet, and would send Medvedev in his place.
Global and regional governance
Medvedev revitalised Russia's participation in the G8 and other international groupings. He paid considerable attention to Russia's role in the informal set of emerging nations known as the 'BRICS' (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), pushing for the BRICS to become a more political grouping with regular summits and attempts to coordinate policies.
Though Russia's support for sanctions on Iran and its abstention from the Libya resolution improved its image abroad, at home these moves were poorly received - many Russians resented NATO's intervention in Libya's civil war that toppled Muammar Gadhafi from power. Indeed, Russian leaders felt that NATO far exceeded the mandate of the UN resolution by engineering Gadhafi's removal. Moscow would, therefore, be unlikely to allow a repeat of the Libya scenario in Syria (though the West as yet shows no appetite for such an intervention). Russia and China both vetoed UN resolutions calling for an end to the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. For Moscow, it was important not to back a UN resolution that would give Western powers legal cover to remove Assad, or that would place preconditions - such as Assad's departure - on negotiations within Syria. However, Russia's veto undermined its reputation not only on the Arab street, but also among some of its traditional friends in the Arab League, as well as Turkey.
Despite Medvedev's rhetoric and limited attempts at democratic reform, it was remarkable that the 2011 Arab Awakening passed the Russian political establishment by. Convinced that Arab uprisings were orchestrated by external actors - in line with Russian perceptions of the 'colour revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine - they failed to foresee that Putin's comeback for a third presidential term would encourage protests among Russia's own middle class.
Countries in Russia's traditional sphere of influence have long formed a key part of Putin's agenda, and this focus seems set to be renewed. Some steps were taken during Medvedev's term: a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan was established, and institutions were set up to promote the Eurasian Common Economic Space. But Putin signalled more ambitious intent with a decree signed on the day of his inauguration, declaring the integration of post-Soviet Eurasia to be a foreign-policy priority. Eurasian leaders - particularly those in Ukraine who would be reluctant to be drawn back into Russia's orbit - will be watching anxiously to see what this might mean in practice.
Staying the course
Though Medvedev achieved key foreign-policy successes, such as the New START and Russia's WTO accession agreement, and had a positive image abroad, it cannot be said that he altered the course of Russia's post-Soviet foreign policy. He made little real progress in dismantling Cold War legacies in Russia's relations with the West, and particularly its attitudes towards the US and NATO. Putin capitalised on anti-American sentiment to boost his popularity during his presidential election campaign. Under Putin, building new relationships will be difficult, given the long-standing narrative, fuelled by Putin himself, depicting NATO as a conspiracy that seeks to exploit, undermine and encircle Russia.
Under Medvedev, Russian foreign policy remained reactive: his only original initiative - the proposed Euro-Atlantic security treaty - was poorly executed and will leave no lasting legacy. Though he began the process of re-orienting Russia's policy towards Asia, progress was limited. Moscow will see the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok as an opportunity to enhance its influence, and it is expected to increase oil exports to Asia.
In addition, the constraints on Russia's ambitions in the post-Soviet space became more evident under Medvedev. Many of the region's authoritarian leaders resented Medvedev's declared agenda of reform and questioned why, unlike many of them, Putin had not changed the constitution so as to lift all limits on how long he could stay in office, as well as the parameters of his influence.
Putin's return to the presidency will raise questions as to how Russia's foreign policy will evolve with a leader whose support base is somewhat diminished. Compared with his previous two terms, Putin faces higher expectations among the population, but lower economic growth - in addition to more vocal opposition among the urban middle class. Unlike Medvedev, Putin carries full responsibility for the country's future trajectory in both domestic and foreign affairs. Russia's foreign relations, which were already becoming more prickly, are unlikely to be any less so.