The notion of “re-Sovietization” has been on the lips of many Russia-watchers, and now US State Secretary Hillary Clinton has spelled it out after a rather disappointing meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, December 7). Russian foreign policy slipped into confusion during the weeks of President Vladimir Putin’s reduced activity, but in the last few days the reinvigorated Putin has taken a series of determined steps to take it further into a limbo resembling self-isolation. There is not that much new substance in these steps. Putin has just been accentuating his particular style of poignant criticism of Western hypocrisy and interventionism (Gazeta.ru, December 7). This readiness to challenge the United States–centric global order, often overstepping diplomatic niceties, earned him certain respect among peers when his grasp of domestic affairs was firm. Now that his leadership is diminished by issues far more serious than his back pain, this trademark arrogance looks less convincing.
Putin has started his comeback with a trip to Turkey seeking to reignite the personal chemistry with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and to add a nuclear project to the value of extensive economic ties. The visit was postponed from September, but the cordial atmosphere was spoiled because it coincided with a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decision to deploy batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border, and Putin could not refrain from expressing disapproval of this “mistake” (Kommersant, December 4). Erdogan was polite and political enough not to elucidate that Putin’s reservations are of no significance whatsoever, but Lavrov received this message in no uncertain terms in Brussels where he partook in the NATO-Russia ministerial lunch looking rather tattered, which his spokesman explained as a “minor sports injury” (Newsru.com, December 4). No rapprochement of views on missile defense was achieved, and the program for expanded NATO-Russia cooperation in 2013 looks far from promising (RIA Novosti, December 4).
From Istanbul, Putin traveled to Ashgabat for the postponed Commonwealth of Independent States summit, which was traditionally low on substance of declared commitments to economic integration, but provided Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov with an opportunity to demonstrate the opulence of VIP-palaces built from Turkmenistan’s gas revenues (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 6). Putin used the occasion to lash out against the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which irritates many post-Soviet leaders with its critical reports on blatantly manipulated elections. Putin had a long chat with President Victor Yanukovych instructing him to curtail this pesky monitoring as Ukraine assumes the OSCE chairmanship for 2013 (Newsru.com, December 6). Clinton expressed disappointment in Ukraine stepping backward from democracy and warned that the common goal of strengthening the OSCE “means empowering the institutions we already have to function free from interference, not curtailing them” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 6).
Ukraine is indeed in deep economic trouble—S&P and Moody’s slashed its credit ratings, and Transparency International moved it down to the level of Syria and Congo in the 2012 Corruption Perception Index (RBC.ru, December 7; Gazeta.ru, December 5). Putin has shown no intention to aid Yanukovych, and the Russian president’s extra-tough position in the dragging negotiations on gas prices and pipelines has added heavily to Ukraine’s troubles. In desperation, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov rushed to sign a contract for constructing a terminal for importing LNG and even declared that occasion Ukraine’s day of energy independence—before discovering that the deal was a fraud (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 30). The embarrassment was so acute that Yanukovych disbanded the whole government. But that has not helped find a gas compromise with Russia that would not involve Ukraine joining the Custom Union at the expense of a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 7). A major blow to Ukraine’s strength as a gas-transit country was delivered by Putin last week when he inaugurated the construction of the South Stream pipeline across the Black Sea, despite the strong reservations from the European Commission (Kommersant, December 8).
It is not energy geopolitics that determines Moscow’s commitment to this hugely expensive project but elementary and vulgar greed. The construction is certain to enrich dozens of predatory bureaucrats. In the current Corruption Perception Index, Russia sits just above Ukraine, on the level with Iran and Honduras, and the well-grounded concerns about the export of dirty money are a major factor in Russia’s growing international isolation (Novye Izvestia, December 6). Putin’s attempts to harvest political dividends from assuming the chairmanship of the G20 in 2013 are undermined by the plain fact that Russia is by far the most corrupt country in this club (Kommersant, December 4). Accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) could have given a boost to economic interaction, but in fact it has entangled Russia into a series of trade disputes with the EU and US, particularly due to the suddenly imposed ban on imports of meat (Newsru.com, December 9). This ban appears to be part of Moscow’s promised “asymmetric response” to the US Senate’s approval of the “Magnitsky act,” which strikes at the heart of the corrupt bureaucratic machine and is hailed by the “white opposition” as a strong vote for Russia (Novaya Gazeta, Polit.ru, December 8).
One friendly word Putin heard against the backdrop of quarrels in every international organization from the OSCE to the WTO, not to mention NATO, was from Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who paid a short farewell visit to Russia. This meeting reminded, however, about the Chinese elite’s understanding of the need to periodically change a country’s leadership, thus illuminating Putin’s plight. On the one hand, few among the feuding Russian elites regret that Putin did not allow Medvedev to take a second presidential term. Illustratively, last week, Russian bloggers assigned to Medvedev’s press-conference the hash-tag #жалкий (pathetic), which climbed to the top of Twitter’s trending words (Besttoday.ru, December 8). But nevertheless, Medvedev’s obvious irrelevance only proves that for Putin there is no way out even as he increasingly becomes the focal point of mutually reinforcing discontents. Russia may not be facing a fiscal cliff, but Putin is wandering toward a political one; and Russia has a poor track record of crashing downhill.