Putin resets compass for voyage ahead

Russia’s foreign policy trajectory has not only survived the two years of conflict in Ukraine but its underlying thinking actually stands vindicated.

4 mins read
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a solemn welcome ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping at the St. George's Hall at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023. (Xinhua/Xie Huanchi)

For the historic occasion at the hallowed St Andrew’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, as Russia is poised at a tumultuous juncture of sculpturing and moulding its tryst with destiny, President Vladimir Putin made a remarkably brief speech at the inaugural ceremony held on May 7. 

There was so much to say, given the poignancy of the completion of Putin’s two decades in power and the commencement of a new six-year term in the Kremlin until 2030. It has been a truly extraordinary political career of a man of history who choreographed both his country’s rebirth and renaissance as well as navigated Russia’s return to the centre stage of world politics. Truly, there is great anticipation that Putin’s six-year term ahead will be coterminous with the making of the 21st century world order.  

Putin had a single profound message to convey to the Russian people, namely, the criticality of national unity for the recent past and the times ahead — sans unity, everything is lost, while with unity, everything is possible.

Putin’s characterisation of the present as “this difficult pivotal period” in Russia’s history catches attention. Evidently, he does not harbour unrealistic hopes that the war in Ukraine will end anytime soon. In fact, the West is not at all ready for peace. The ex-Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland admitted as much publicly, bluntly in an interview with Politico last weekend.  

Putin has made two key appointments in his new government — nomination of Mikhail Mishustin, who has been a brilliant technocrat to steer the Russian economy in conditions under sanctions and war,  for continuing in office as prime minister and secondly, the replacement of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu with First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov. Each signals the professional demands expected, given the crucial importance of the management of the economy that a long drawn out war would inevitably entail. 

Putin stands committed to a hugely ambitious social and economic programme during his forthcoming term, the success of which demands pubic investments on a massive scale. Putin also set a benchmark for himself that his goal is to hoist Russia to the position of the fourth largest economy in the world behind the US, China, Japan and India — a formidable feat. 

On the other hand, Russia’s defence budget has galloped away during the two years of Ukraine war to touch 6.7% of the GDP nearing Soviet-era levels. This is where Belousov comes in. He is an experienced economist who served for over a decade as Putin’s trusted economic advisor. Belousov is a Keynesian statist and a rare advocate of state control in the “post-Soviet” economy with a clean record in public life, who is now being inducted for fine-tuning Russia’s military-industrial complex. 

The change in defence leadership is particularly interesting in terms of its timing. Russian troops have been making incremental gains in eastern Ukraine in recent months but last weekend launched a new offensive in the northeastern Kharkov region. 

The western narrative is that Moscow is about to order a major military offensive in Ukraine aimed at crushing the Ukrainian army. However, clearly, Putin senses the need for adaption and development while the Russian forces try to make as many territorial gains as possible before the new $61 billion US aid package clicks in. 

Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov explained that the appointment of a civilian defence minister is rooted in a need for “innovation.” Tass quoted Peskov as saying, “On the battlefield today, the winner is the one who is more open to innovation … Therefore, at this stage, the president has made a decision for a civilian to head the Defense Ministry.” 

Peskov’s remark signals a big message that Putin is circling the wagons preparing for the long haul. Six years is a long time and there is every likelihood that the proxy war with the US may escalate far beyond Ukraine or Europe. 

Thus, the complex situation today of the Russian presence in the US airbase in Niamey, Niger, reflects the geopolitical issues developing in Africa. In the past week alone, Russia had intensive high-level contacts with west African countries facing the Atlantic coast.

The idea seems to be that actual military strategising is likely to be done by General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of general staff, under strict oversight of Putin himself. A former adviser at Russia’s central bank Alexandra Prokopenko wrote on X, “Putin’s priority is war; war of attrition is won by economics.” Plainly put, Putin intends to win the war by grinding down Ukraine in a protracted arms race on industrial scale.

Meanwhile, the visit by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kiev on Tuesday is highly symbolic as a vote of confidence for President Vladimir Zelensky whose presidential term ends on May 20, which of course puts question marks on the legitimacy of his regime. Blinken’s visit comes in direct response to the new offensive by the Russian forces in the sensitive Kharkov Region beginning last Friday where the Ukrainian defence lines are cracking. 

Bloomberg reported yesterday that the US administration is working to supply Ukraine with an additional Patriot air defence battery along with radars to help the country repel Russian aerial attacks. Blinken claimed that the $61 billion aid package in the pipeline is going to “make a real difference” on the battlefield. He emphasised that “Ukraine can count on its partners for sustainable, long-term support.”

The intention behind Blinken’s surprise visit to Kiev intention is to highlight to Moscow that any assumption that the US will abandon Ukraine sooner or later, especially if this year’s U.S. presidential election returns Donald Trump to the White House, will be deeply flawed. 

The hawkish narrative that is struggling to be born in the DC is that “Regardless of the results in November, a failure by Congress to build on the latest aid package in words and deeds will undermine U.S. leadership and credibility around the world, emboldening our enemies,” to quote Liana Fix, an expert on Russian and European foreign and security policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  

In the above scenario, Russia will only look to consolidate ties with China, Iran, etc. Russia sees the co-relation of forces working in its favour. The Russian world view is in harmony with that of the Global South. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said yesterday at a public forum in New Delhi, “No country today is dominant enough… This is a transition period with old order running out of gas but the new order has not come.” Jaishankar also flagged that Russia is endowed with natural resources such as oil, coal and metals of various kinds that India can obtain. 

Russia’s foreign policy trajectory has not only survived the two years of conflict in Ukraine but its underlying thinking actually stands vindicated. This is best captured in the total confidence reposed by Putin on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who has already been at the helm of affairs for 20 years, which makes him the longest serving top diplomat in Smolenskaya Square after Andrei Gromyko.   

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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