Why 2013 Was Big for Russia

By Margot Light

President Vladimir Putin had the slightly smug look of a man who has had a good year when he was photographed at his annual press conference on19 December. Forbes had recently listed him the most powerful man of 2013. The performance of the Russian economy has been mediocre, so it was clearly Putin's foreign policy that impressed Forbes. Russian foreign policy was, indeed, very successful in 2013. What was particularly striking was that in a number of foreign policy encounters, Russia seemed to occupy the moral high ground, compared with the positions taken by most Western leaders. It was also remarkable that Russia's public relations machine which, in the past, has so often undermined Putin's foreign policy, seemed far more skilful in 2013.

In an interview with Interfax News Agency on 21 December, Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, listed Syria and Iran, and advances in Eurasian integration as exceptionally important achievements of Russia's foreign policy in 2013. But he also mentioned Russia's presidency of the G20 in 2013 as worthy of note.

Russia's G20 agenda concentrated on igniting a new cycle of economic growth in the world economy by fostering jobs and investment; improving regulation; and increasing ‘trust and transparency.' Perhaps the most interesting development was Russia's expansion of the traditional G20 dialogue with civil society: as well as the usual G20 meetings of working groups, Sherpas and ministers throughout the year, Russia also convened a G20 Civil Summit which took place in Moscow in June. The climax of Russia's presidency was the G20 summit in St Petersburg in September. However, a slight pall was cast by the US administration's cancellation in August of a bilateral meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin, which had been planned to take place in Moscow ahead of the summit.

Syria and Iran

In retrospect, it turned out that Obama and Putin did meet, not in Moscow but on the sidelines of the St Petersburg summit. Their discussion about placing Syria's chemical weapons under international control led to Russia's most significant foreign policy achievement of the year. For two and a half years Russia and the United States - and Russia and most of Europe - had been at loggerheads over what to do about the civil war in Syria. Now there was a breakthrough. The Russians persuaded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to avert a US military strike by handing over his chemical weapons to be destroyed, while Obama postponed a vote by the US Congress on military action.

On 14 September the US and Russia agreed a Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons in Geneva. On the same day Assad announced that Syria was acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This committed Syria not to use chemical weapons, to destroy its chemical weapons within ten years, and to convert or destroy all its chemical weapons production facilities. Within a week, Syria had handed over a complete inventory of its chemical arsenal. On 1 October a disarmament team arrived in Damascus to start work on destroying the weapons and production facilities. The weapons are scheduled to have been completely destroyed by the middle of 2014.

There is general agreement that Putin got Obama off the hook over Syria. The British House of Commons had already voted against military action; Obama felt constrained to act on a declaration he had made a year before that there would be military consequences if chemical weapons were used. However, there was little US public support for military action and, in any case, it was unlikely that a US military strike would end the war. So Putin did help Obama. It is equally true, however, that Assad's agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons let Putin off the hook - although he was adamant that Russia's stance on Syria was right, the impasse affected all his other foreign policy initiatives.

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Margot Light is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the Department of International Relations of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Originally published on openDemocracy. Republished under a Creative Commons license.

(AP Photo)

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