Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on Friday with His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The session, which saw the signing of a cooperation agreement to stabilise energy markets, comes amidst an intensive period of diplomacy from Putin since his re-election as he seeks to boost relationships across the globe.
Some two decades after first assuming power, Putin has restored Russia’s geopolitical prominence, including through gambits such as the annexation of Crimea. And this has — so far — played well domestically for him, helping him earlier this year win a new six-year term of office.
Extraordinarily, by the mid-2020s he will have been in office for a longer period at the top than all the Soviet Union’s supreme leaders, except Joseph Stalin. This underlines the breadth of his popularity, currently, in much of Russia despite the significant criticism he gets abroad.
Yet, domestic popularity has been mirrored by frostier ties with leaders in multiple key countries, especially in the West. And a key question — now that Putin has won power till at least 2024 — is how much weight in coming years he wants to put on re-booting these relationships.
Early signs are that he recognises the need to double down on diplomacy, and in the space of ten days alone last month Putin met with four leaders from the top 10 world economies. Namely: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi.
And there are signs of renewed foreign interest in Russia too. Take the example of last month’s St Petersburg International Economic Forum which enjoyed the biggest international line-up since before 2014 — when Russia was hit with sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine — with keynote speakers including not just Macron and Abe, but also Chinese Vice-President Qishan Wang, and Managing Director and Chair of the IMF Christine Lagarde. According to Russian authorities, some 500 new business agreements worth around $38 billion were signed at the event.
The question of rebuilding Russian’s foreign relations is especially pressing with Europe after years of sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea; concerns over Moscow’s alleged extensive meddling in a suite of western elections; plus the recent attempted murder in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter which has been widely blamed, internationally, on Moscow. To this end, Putin met last month with Macron and Merkel to try in the French president’s words to work “hand-in-hand [to end] one of the most difficult periods of our history”.
While the mood music between Russia and Europe is still tense, there are some signs that there may be a political window of opportunity to partially rebuild relations. In part, this comes in the context of US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which is opposed by Putin, Macron, Merkel and other European leaders, and this issue therefore provides a new platform for constructive engagement between them.
Outside of Europe, Putin is also cultivating enhanced ties with key Asia-Pacific countries from China to India and Japan. In his meetings with Abe at the end of last month, Putin agreed to foster joint economic activities in the disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido which were seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. These islands are now controlled by Moscow, but claimed by Tokyo, and both appear to want to see progress toward a peace treaty settlement on this issue.
In coming years, perhaps the biggest area of continuing Russian foreign policy uncertainty is over US relations. Putin and Trump had hoped for a rapprochement, yet developments in 2017 and 2018, including the pressure the White House is under over the congressional and FBI investigations into alleged collusion with Moscow during the 2016 US presidential campaign, may have destroyed the potential window of opportunity for this to happen.
Putin said late last month that he has had little contact with Trump and that “we are hostages to internal strife in the United States. I hope that it will end some day and the objective need for the development of Russian-American relationships will prevail”.
However, it is not only the domestic US pressures Putin referred to that are complicating ties. There have also been tensions between Moscow and Washington over the Middle East, including after US missile strikes targeted at Syria this year and last year following alleged poison gas attacks committed by the Damascus regime which is propped up by Putin.
Last year, US Defence Secretary James Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were especially forceful in their criticism of Moscow with the latter saying that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” in Syria. And the spike in Washington-Moscow tensions then even saw Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying the two countries were “one step away from war” and had “totally ruined” relations.
Taken overall, Putin’s re-election has seen Moscow doubling down on diplomacy to try to reboot relationships, especially with Europe. With the proposed US-Russia rapprochement looking increasing uncertain, Putin may now place greater emphasis on Asia too, including Japan, China, and India.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.