This week, Presidents Putin and Bush will meet in Slovakia. Mounting authoritarianism in Russia and Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" seem to have ended the honeymoon the two men had enjoyed. Russia now has deepening foreign policy problems.
Two years ago, Russians could look at the world with satisfaction. We appeared stronger in the diplomatic arena than our economic and military power might warrant. Not anymore.
There were some successes last year, the most important being that our foreign debt, which restricts our economic sovereignty, is close to being paid off. Otherwise, although Russia's objective strengths remain unchanged, our influence in international affairs has declined. From the Middle East to the war on terror and efforts to curtail the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Russia should be a valuable partner. Yet no clear Russian "footprint" on these issues can be discerned. Indeed, even the growing split between Europe and America has not stemmed Russia's loss of standing.
This turn of events is confusing. President Vladimir Putin remains a fairly effective international communicator. Yet Russia suffered several obvious defeats last year that tarnished its image and undermined its standing in the world. In our immediate neighborhood, Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko ignored warnings from Russia and went ahead with a referendum that enables him to remain president for life. Russia then focused almost all of its foreign policy attention on Ukraine, only to lose there, too.
In the Far East, paying for past broken promises appears to have forced Russia to accept China's terms for resolving a border dispute. Of course, settling this long-festering dispute is to be welcomed, but the cost is that ceding territory has become a precedent.
Moreover, Russia's dialogue with the European Union reached a dead end last year. One reason is that the supposed resolution of the "Kaliningrad problem" -- the Russian enclave cut off from Russia when Lithuania and Poland joined the EU -- turned out to be no solution at all. This is not entirely Russia's fault; but now the dialogue will have to be restarted, practically from scratch.
Indeed, a chill is settling over Russia's relations with the West more broadly. So far, this is not disastrous, though it is difficult to read what the Western media have to say about Russia and its leadership. Almost all of the coverage is negative, and they have even started mocking us.
Events in Belarus and Ukraine have made the Euro-Asian Economic Community project appear increasingly unrealistic. Our partners in the Commonwealth of Independent States have inevitably drawn conclusions from Russia's demonstration of weakness and incompetence.
I could add more to this list, but that would merely be to rub salt into our wounds, which are my own as well. Russians should not lose heart; but unless we understand the reasons for these failures, and make drastic corrections to our foreign policy, we are doomed to continue suffering defeats and losing status and influence, if not worse.
The major cause of what has happened is the systematic intellectual weakness of Russia's foreign policy. Our knowledge and understanding of the rest of the world continues to deteriorate; on many counts, we lack any system of foreign policy planning and forecasting.
For example, the Ukraine debacle could have been avoided had we evaluated the political situation in a timely manner and backed the candidate who was practically certain to win. But we placed amateurs in charge of dealing with Ukraine -- amateurs with far-reaching commercial interests. When Putin was dragged in to cover up the mess, an ordinary failure turned into a total fiasco.
In fact, Russia's foreign policy is Putin personified: the president decides and executes almost everything. The Foreign Ministry, home to the state's best personnel, has been largely cut off from diplomatic planning. The Security Council is practically invisible.
As a result, even good decisions are incompletely planned. So the risk of error is rising. Moreover, responsibility for foreign affairs is often given to whichever "commissioner" happens to turn up. This approach accounts for the failure of Dmitri Kozak's plan for resolving the situation in Moldova's breakaway Trans-Dniester region, as well as for the ludicrous state of affairs that has arisen in Georgia's separatist Abkhazia region.
The fundamental weakness of Russia's emerging political system, with its excessive centralization, its reliance on individual personnel rather than institutions, and the declining quality of its management, is starting to show. Russia's ruling elite is increasingly failing to measure up to Russia's capabilities and needs.
As our failures mount, we snarl and blame others, or construct imaginary plans for countering the great powers. Thus far, we have been half-forgiven for doing so. Russia is tactically necessary. But the outside world's assessment of Russia's policies and prospects are visibly changing for the worse.
This is not due solely to our foreign policy, or even to dubious economic policies. Few believe it is possible to strengthen Russia by creating an almost Soviet-style political system, but without that system's main state-forming component -- the Communist Party and its ideology. As a result, the past 12-18 months have seen a shift in perceptions of Russia: from a strengthening partner and potential ally to a weakening rival.
Russia needs a serious discussion, within the elite and among the public, about national strategy, just as it needs to create an effective planning and coordination mechanism for foreign policy. Substantial corrections will be required to the entire political agenda, which, multiplied by the astonishing ideology of building national capitalism in one country, is currently too reminiscent of the policies that led to the Soviet Union's disintegration.
As it is, Russia is moving towards becoming a bigger version of Venezuela or Nigeria -- oil-rich and dysfunctional -- rather than towards becoming a great European or Eurasian power of the future.
Sergei Karaganov is chairman of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense
Copyright: Project Syndicate http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/edit/archives/2005/02/21/2003224012