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.