When a soft-spoken ex-KGB operative named Vladimir Putin took the helm of Russia on the eve of the new millennium, the country was in a tailspin. Its economy was anemic and its influence, once far reaching, was fading.
When Putin steps down in March to become prime minister, his likely successor, Dmitry Medvedev, will inherit a Russia in a radically different position.
Flush with oil money and brimming with confidence, Russia under Putin has moved to reassert itself as a major global power while seeking to re-establish its influence on key global issues, especially the Middle East. This can be seen on matters ranging from Iranâ€™s nuclear program to ties with Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Several of Russiaâ€™s positions, including its construction of a nuclear plant in Iran, have brought the country into direct conflict with the West. That is no accident, says Steven Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
â€œMoscow is trying to balance the psychological benefits of nose thumbing with an effort to protect its reputation as a responsible member of the great power club,â€ Sestanovich said.
While experts expect Medvedev to continue the policies of his predecessor, steering a course between a Russia commanding international respect and exorcising the demons of post-Soviet inadequacy through anti-Western posturing, a quiet debate is under way in the country about what changes Medvedev might make if he asserts his independence from Putin.
Russia watchers say it is too early to tell whether Medvedev will usher in change or whether Putin will continue to steer Russian foreign policy from his new post as prime minister.
Part of the uncertainty stems from a debate over Putinâ€™s power as president the past seven years.
While the news media generally portray Putin as a steely-eyed autocrat, one school of thought in Russia views Putinâ€™s real strength as that of a mediator between powerful Kremlin cliques, each with its own power base.
Without Putin at the helm to mediate, the consensus he has engendered among these cliques may fall apart, particularly given that Medvedev beat out many of the cliquesâ€™ candidates to succeed Putin. A struggle for power could ensue, leading to unclear ramifications for Russiaâ€™s foreign policies.
â€œThe question really is,” said Professor Carol Saivetz, a research associate at Harvard Universityâ€™s Davis Center and a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, “are there differing foreign policies between and among these cliques, and if one of them were to become ascendant if Putin were no longer the balancer in the middle, what would that portend for Russian foreign policy?â€
Even if Medvedev asserts powerful leadership and plots the course of the country his own way, it’s not clear which direction he will take it. Beyond his loyalty to Putin, little is known about the foreign policy positions of Medvedev, the chairman of the Russian state energy giant Gazprom and a former presidential chief of staff.
On Tuesday, at his first news conference since registering as a candidate for president, Medvedev, considered a moderate liberal, said, â€œRussia will openly and precisely explain its economic and political goals, and will find more and more allies in solving acute international problems.â€
Putin in his term has directed much of his energy overseas into counterbalancing the worldâ€™s only superpower, the United States. He repeatedly has cited U.S. dominance of a unipolar world as the cause of Middle East instability, from the war in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Putin has sought to bring stability to Russia by making sure no one country can drive the world to chaos, especially in his own backyard.
Evgeniy Satanovsky, the director of the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow, says the foreign policy discrepancies between Moscow and Washington have been driven by a fundamental difference in priorities.
â€œThe major difference between Russia and the Western world is that the priority of the Western world is democracy,â€ Satanovsky said. â€œThe priority of Russia is stability.â€
The Middle Eastâ€™s geographical proximity to Russia and its neighbors — especially the former Soviet republics in central Asia, where Russia buys large amounts of gas and exports it to Europe — has made that region a top priority.
Russia invited Hamas leaders to Moscow following their victory in last year’s Palestinian elections, signaling that Russia would play a more vigorous opposition role as a member of the Quartet group of nations backing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Along with China, Russia has blocked numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran. Russia has engaged in shuttle diplomacy with Tehran even as the United States talks publicly about military options against the Islamic Republic. Russia is also the largest supplier of arms to Syria.
Despite the characterization of Russia by some Western officials as an impediment to stability, Russia exerts a mostly stabilizing effect on the region, some analysts say.
Saivetz listed as examples a number of low-profile moves Russia has made to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue. These include Russiaâ€™s suspension of construction at the Bushehr nuclear plant over a relatively small payment dispute — $50 million in a project costing more than $1 billion — and its 2003 decision to delay construction at the plant until 2005 following a negative assessment of Iranâ€™s cooperation by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
These moves, made at key points, had the dual effect of slowing Iranâ€™s nuclear progress while providing more time for a diplomatic resolution, which Russia favors. Thus they helped stabilize the volatile Iran situation, Saivetz said.
Such actions demonstrate that Russia recognizes that a non-nuclear Iran and a stable Middle East are in its interest, she added. In all likelihood, Putin’s successor will arrive at the same conclusion.
â€œIt will be absolutely the same,” Satanovsky said. “Not because of Putin, but because of the Russian reality. Iran is our neighbor, Syria is our market. That is the only reality.â€