MOSCOW – NATO soldiers marching in Red Square on V-E Day; Moscow agreeing on a compromise resolution of the 40-year-old sea-boundary dispute with Norway; the sight of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin kneeling at the memorial to the Polish officers murdered by Stalin at Katyn: these are a few glimpses of what a European newspaper described as a kinder, gentler Russia. But three questions immediately arise: Is this real? Why the change? And how to respond to Russia’s new foreign policy?
In this case, what you see is what you get. Russia’s tone, especially toward the United States, began to change last year, but the Kremlin’s support for a fourth United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran demonstrates that, today, there is real substance. Moreover, surrendering territorial claims in the Arctic – the stakes in the dispute with Norway – is no small matter.
Putin’s joint visit to Katyn with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in April was, of course, symbolic. But serious conversations between the two men started last September, during Putin’s visit to Gdansk to mark the 70th anniversary of WWII’s start. The kneeling act was also followed, just three days later, by Russian officials going out of their way to help investigate the air crash in Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and scores of Polish dignitaries, and to pay respects to the victims.
In May, an apparently genuine internal Foreign Ministry document made it clear that the Kremlin now prioritizes relations with America and Europe. All of this is a far cry from using the Red Square platform to compare George W. Bush’s policies to those of the Third Reich, resuming air patrols along the Norwegian coast and into the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, or threatening Poland with deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.