“I shall be an autocrat, that’s my trade.” Thus quipped the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who stamped Russian authority onto the international stage, seizing vast swathes of territory and establishing Russia as a formidable power in the middle of the 18th century. It appears that Vladimir Putin has taken her example to heart.
Buoyed up by high energy prices, Putin has embarked on an aggressive foreign policy agenda which seeks to re-establish Russia as a pre-eminent international power in opposition to what it perceives to be American and European hegemony.
This foreign policy agenda is based around two primary goals, namely tightening Russian control over the former Soviet Republics and tightening alliances and friendships with like-minded states and in areas of strategic importance.
In Russia’s quest for international influence she has courted some of the most noxious regimes in the world and adopted methods which can only charitably be described as unscrupulous. These methods include arms sales to war-mongering regimes in the Middle East, the use of its energy resources as a diplomatic weapon - especially against its neighbours, and obstructionism in the UN on matters such as Darfur and Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The republics of the former Soviet empire or, as the Kremlin refers to them, Russia’s “Near Abroad” have been the most obvious targets of Russian assertiveness.
For example, Moscow has unabashedly promoted separatism in Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in response to Georgia’s pro-Western orientation and its attempts to join NATO. In September this year, after Georgia arrested and deported four alleged Russian spies, Moscow reacted viciously suspending all transport and postal links to Georgia, making it impossible for the thousands of Georgian migrant workers in Russia to send home remittances which account for 20 per cent of Georgia’s GDP.
Putin has also asserted Russian influence in Ukraine, openly supporting the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych against Victor Yushenko in the Ukrainian 2004 elections and exuding hostility ever since Yushenko took power in the “Orange Revolution”.
As in Georgia, Ukraine’s tightening relationship with NATO has been a major cause behind Russia’s antagonism. In January this year, Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian gas giant and world’s largest gas producer, turned off the gas supply to Ukraine after price-negotiations broke down.
This cut also caused the supply to Europe to drop by as much as 40 per cent since the main pipeline supplying Europe runs through Ukraine, reminding the continent of the importance of keeping the Russian taps turned on which provides Europe with over 30 per cent of its gas requirements. Gas prices have also been steeply increased for the Baltic states which all turned away from Russia’s orbit and joined the EU in 2004.
By contrast, Putin has also propped up Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ authoritarian ruler, with cheap energy, loans and political support, and the two countries have a loose agreement to form a political union. Support for Lukashenko, who won re-election in 2006 in a deeply flawed poll, comes precisely because Lukashenko is loyal to Moscow and has a similar anti-Western outlook to Putin.
Belarus’ panalopy of human rights abuses and poisonous foreign policies, like arms sales to Iran, are immaterial to the Kremlin (which indulges in much worse anyway) next to the importance of preserving its anti-Western alliance.
Moscow has also not shied away from military action to preserve Russian control of its dominions. The two devastating wars which Russia has fought in Chechnya, in which over 200,000 Chechen civilians have been killed, is the clearest and most brutal example of Moscow’s determination to maintain an iron-grip on its outlying regions and territories.
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