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COMMENTARY

Russia re-asserts itself internationally in Putin charm offensive

VLADIMIR Putin capped off on an intensive period of Russian diplomacy at the weekend agreeing with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe to renew efforts to sign a post-World War II peace treaty and accelerate economic cooperation. Within a week, the Russian president has met four leaders from the top 10 world economies, underlining a key goal of the newly re-elected Mr Putin is re-energising relationships across the globe.

Some two decades after first assuming power, Mr Putin has restored Russia's geopolitical prominence, including through gambits such as the annexation of Crimea and the Syria intervention. And this has - so far - played well domestically for him, helping him 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 Mr Putin has won power till at least 2024 - is how much weight in coming years he wants to put on rebuilding these relationships.

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Early signs are that he recognises the need to double down on diplomacy, and in the last 10 days he has met not just Mr Abe, but also 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 week's St Petersburg International Economic Forum which enjoyed the biggest international lineup since before 2014 - when Russia was hit with sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine - with keynote speakers including not just Mr Macron and Mr Abe, but also Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan and International Monetary Fund managing director and chair Christine Lagarde. According to the Russian authorities, some 500 new business agreements worth around US$38 billion were signed at the event.

REBUILDING FOREIGN RELATIONS

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, Mr Putin met not just Mr Macron last Thursday and Friday, but also Mrs Merkel the week before to try, in the French president's words, to work "hand-in-hand 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 Mr Putin, Mr Macron, Mrs Merkel and other European leaders, and this issue therefore provides a new platform for constructive engagement between them.

Outside of Europe, Mr Putin is also cultivating enhanced ties with key Asia-Pacific countries from China to India and Japan. In his weekend meetings with Mr Abe, he agreed to foster joint economic activities in the disputed islands off Japan's northern-most main island of Hokkaido which were seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of the World War II. These islands are now controlled by Moscow, but claimed by Tokyo, and both appear to want to see progress towards a peace treaty settlement on this issue.

In coming years, perhaps the biggest area of continuing Russian foreign policy uncertainty is over US relations. Mr Putin and Mr 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.

Mr Putin said at the weekend that he has had little contact with Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr Putin's re-election has seen Moscow doubling down on diplomacy to try to rebuild relationships, especially with Europe. With the proposed US-Russia rapprochement looking increasing uncertain, Mr Putin may now place greater emphasis on Asia too, including Japan, China, and India.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics