Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, in May 2012, Russia’s relations with the west have been fraught. He has become increasingly authoritarian, thwarted US diplomacy on Syria and claimed that he is defending the Judaeo-Christian values abandoned by western countries. But now Putin seems to be softening his approach. This may be because of Russia’s mounting economic problems, the opposition’s surprisingly strong showing in local elections, and the convergence with Washington over Syria’s chemical weapons.
A new-look Putin was on display at this year’s “Valdai Club”, a group of international think-tankers, academics and journalists that meets once a year in Russia. As we gathered by the shores of Lake Valdai in northern Russia, Putin and his senior ministers had a clear message: Russia’s political system is evolving.
For the final session, which was broadcast live on Russian TV, a relaxed and confident Putin sat on a panel with European grandees, including Romano Prodi and François Fillon. They urged him to listen to young Russian protesters and to take seriously “the responsibility to protect” Syrians. In the audience were opposition leaders who questioned Putin about electoral fraud and the imprisonment of activists. He replied calmly that Russia was “on the way to democracy” and reminded everyone that the recent mayoral elections in Moscow had been free and fair.
Given Putin’s track record, one should treat his words with scepticism. But an earlier session with one of his chief advisers had surprised us: “The trend for fair elections will be more pronounced; there will be more political competition in future . . .” The adviser counselled the opposition parties to focus on municipalities, hinting that it was too soon for them to win regional governorships or national elections. I asked opposition politicians what they made of all this. Vladimir Ryzhkov (a liberal) and Ilya Ponomarev (a leftist) told me that the Kremlin did have a new approach – though it could still use the courts to clobber anyone considered a threat.
One reason for this modest political opening may be the economic slowdown, which could spur unrest. Having grown at about 4 per cent a year for the previous three years, the economy may not achieve 2 per cent this year, despite a favourable oil price. Foreigners and Russians are investing less. Brain drain and capital flight continue. The technocrats running the economy know that politics is holding it back. One former minister told the Valdai Club that “the keys to improving the economy are independent courts and the protection of property”. Investment would suffer so long as the courts remained subject to the whim of the executive, he said.
Putin and his ministers were uncharacteristically polite about Barack Obama, welcoming co-operation with him over Syria’s chemical weapons. Yet only a few weeks previously their relations with Washington had been toxic, with rows over Syria, Edward Snowden and missile defence.
The reasons for the shift in tone are unclear. Russians worry a great deal about Islamist extremists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan and then infecting Russia’s Muslim regions with terrorism. They want the Americans to help to manage the situation in both war zones. Perhaps the Russians think they can be magnanimous to those who misread the Middle East: they always said the Arab spring would end in tears and that Arab countries could not be democratic, and they feel vindicated by events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
In truth, Putin’s entourage is still hostile, if not paranoid, towards the United States. I asked a minister if Nato remained a threat to Russia’s security. “Of course. Why else does it try to creep as close as possible to our borders?” he answered. “It has punished regimes it dislikes – Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya – without any regard to the UN Security Council.” He accused Nato of deceiving Russia by enlarging after promising it would not (this is partly true) and said that Russia could not be a friend of Nato unless it renounced further expansion.
Most Russians share this suspicion of Nato. They also believe that Nato wants to absorb Ukraine – even though that idea has little support in Kiev or the major western capitals. It is the EU that would like Ukraine to sign a free-trade agreement in Vilnius in November, alongside Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, as part of its “Eastern Partnership”. Putin wants to stop these countries signing, as they then could not join the Customs Union established in 2010 by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Putin hopes that the Customs Union will expand into much of the former Soviet Union and evolve into a more powerful “Eurasian Union”.
The Kremlin uses bully-boy tactics to prise countries away from the Eastern Partnership. In August, it blocked imports from Ukraine for several days, saying this was a “dress rehearsal” for the measures it would have to take if Kiev went with the EU. It told the Moldovans that they would have their gas cut off, their exports blocked and their migrant workers expelled from Russia. What the Russians told Armenia is unclear, but in September it decided to join the Customs Union rather than the Eastern Partnership. Armenia is a special case: it cannot cross Moscow, because only Russian troops prevent Azerbaijan from invading the disputed frontier region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Besides Armenia, Russia cannot count any near neighbour as a true friend. It has been slow to understand that “soft power” – the appeal of a country’s social, economic and political system, and of its behaviour – may achieve as much as brute force. Russia’s leaders appear to see the value of treating the opposition, and possibly the Americans, with a little more courtesy. They should try the same with their neighbours.
Charles Grant is the director of the Centre for European Reform