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Defending red lines: What challenges Russia and Putin faced in 2021

The fight against COVID-19 continues, although the international political landscape has changed significantly

MOSCOW, January 1. /TASS/. Predictability and stability are the most crucial factors in world affairs, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated this several times. However, the world obviously lacked both in 2021.

The United States kept threatening Russia with sanctions. An energy crisis engulfed Europe and Asia. The Taliban, outlawed in Russia, seized power in Afghanistan, while the situation in and around Ukraine went from bad to worse. The Southern Caucasus and other hot spots across the globe saw hostilities flare up now and then. And the already well familiar backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic completed the landscape.

On the global political scene, two political heavyweights stepped down to give way to their successors. In the United States, Joe Biden moved into the White House to replace Donald Trump, and in Germany, Angela Merkel vacated the post of federal chancellor as Olaf Scholz took office.

In this brief digest, TASS examines some of the major foreign challenges that Russian President Vladimir Putin had to contend with in 2021.

New counterpart in the US

“Let’s sit down and talk about compromise solutions,” the Russian head of state said in an interview ahead of the June summit with Biden in Geneva. “That’s the way of achieving stability.”

Before that, the US leader, shortly after his inauguration in January, took the liberty of using rather strong words regarding the Russian president. For one, he answered in the affirmative to a TV interviewer’s question if he regarded Putin as a “killer.”

The Russian president, speaking on television, responded to Biden’s accusation with a Russian children’s playground chant “He who said it, did it.” Later, Putin said he had received his US counterpart’s explanations.

Apart from the face-to-face summit in Geneva, Putin and Biden held several telephone conversations and negotiations on a video call in December 2021. They are not friends, but the tone of their conversation was constructive, very business-like and keynoted by mutual respect, the Kremlin said afterwards.

Biden mentioned Washington’s readiness to introduce more sanctions against Moscow, if Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Putin replied that Moscow’s policy was a policy of peace, while the US sanctions were a shot fired wide and even had a backlash effect.

Security guarantees

Putin declared that Russia needed firm guarantees to be sure NATO would not proceed with its eastward expansion. He made unequivocal statements to this effect on many occasions. The West, he recalled, had made such verbal promises to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev only to go back on them.

At the end of 2021, Russia drew its “red lines” in public by inviting the United States and NATO to ink European security pacts. Negotiations on these drafts, which the media was quick to dub “The Putin Doctrine”, may commence as early as January.

“There have been some hints that the partners may be prepared to work on them. But likewise, we see the risk of attempts to drown out all our proposals in rhetoric,” Putin said.

The outlook for a new face-to-face Putin-Biden meeting depends entirely on how the United States and its partners react to Russia’s latest initiatives, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said. For his part, Biden said that he counted on further contacts with Putin.


“Sooner or later - the sooner, the better - we will restore full-scale relations with Ukraine,” Putin said in September.

For now, this remains a remote possibility, though. As Putin remarked, Ukraine continues to be governed by a belligerent nationalist minority, which leaves no chance for people to form bodies of power that would reflect their interests. Alongside this, the process of what the Kremlin has described as NATO’s “creeping invasion” of Ukraine is afoot.

“This is happening on our doorstep,” Putin said. “They should realize that we have nowhere further to retreat.”

In July, Putin’s article on Ukrainian affairs was uploaded to the Russian presidential website. The Russian leader warned that the West was trying to turn Ukraine into Russia’s antagonist, but Moscow would never reconcile itself with this. In 2021, Putin stressed several times that he regarded the current Ukrainian leadership as unfriendly, and not the Ukrainian people.

“I believe that Ukrainians and Russians are one people,” he said during the Direct Line Q&A program in June, reiterating this notion on numerous previous occasions.

Germany, Nord Stream 2 and the energy crisis

“We will always be glad to welcome Frau Merkel in Russia as a dear guest,” Putin said in August, when Germany’s outgoing chancellor visited Moscow in this capacity for the last time toward the end of her 16th year in office.

The Russian president earlier said Merkel and he shared a businesslike relationship. “I hold her in high esteem. She is a very experienced politician, a straightforward person and a very reliable one, as well,” Putin said, adding that Merkel’s resignation made him feel a sense of loss.

Moscow hopes for the continuity of Germany’s policy towards Russia under the country’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz.

The future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project may serve as an indicator. Putin stressed that Merkel and he proceeded from the assumption it was a purely economic project, and certainly not a politically-motivated one. Washington, Kiev, Warsaw and a number of other capitals stick to an opposite viewpoint. The United States argues that the pipeline’s launch would allegedly harm the energy security of Ukraine. Putin dismissed such speculations as nonsense. Many experts stressed that the US authorities were in pursuit of their own economic aims.

Last summer, when Merkel was still in office, the United States and Germany eventually achieved consensus on the project. Nord Stream 2 was finalized, but some bureaucratic procedures have postponed its launch.

The situation became particularly complicated in the autumn, when the energy crisis struck Europe and Asia. The Russian president blamed the rocketing gas prices on the European authorities’ ill-considered policies and advised Western politicians to avoid laying their own blame “at somebody else’s doorstep.” Russia has invariably honored its obligations under the gas supply contracts and is prepared to build up its export, he stressed.

Nagorno-Karabakh: War and peace

Issues related to the West were not the sole concern the Russian president had to take care of. After the New Year holidays in early January 2021, Putin began his international contacts with a face-to-face meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The three men discussed Karabakh, where hostilities had died down shortly before that, in November 2020, and a further settlement in the region was in play.

Putin thanked his partners, adding that Aliyev and Pashinyan displayed sufficient political wisdom to put an end to the bloodshed. However, tensions in Karabakh and the border districts of Armenia’s Syunik Province fired up again in November. Several armed clashes causing casualties took place.

At the end of the same month Putin, Aliyev and Pashinyan held another trilateral meeting. The Russian leader expressed regret that problems continued to emerge in Nagorno-Karabakh from time to time, but noted that a great deal had been accomplished this year for the sake of a settlement.


Last summer, the Russian president intensified contacts with foreign counterparts, primarily from Central Asian member-countries of the CIS, in the light of the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban came to power without waiting for the completion of the US troop pullout.

“There should be no rush with the official recognition of the Taliban. We do understand that they should be cooperated with, but any haste would be wrong,” Putin said later. He stressed it was essential to judge Afghanistan’s new leaders by their real actions, adding that the Taliban were expected to move forward along a positive track.

Russia’s key neighbor and ally

Against the backdrop of these and some other alarming global developments this outgoing year yielded positive results on several foreign policy tracks.

Putin held telephone conversations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko almost every month (sometimes several times a month). Also, they met face to face in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi.

On November 4, when Russia marked Unity Day, the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus held a virtual session by video linkup, which connected Sevastopol and Minsk. Putin and Lukashenko approved 28 union programs. The Russian leader remarked this should have been done a long time ago, emphasizing that the economic bedrock should have been created first, instead of the political superstructure. The next steps will follow soon.

“I am certain that we are on the right track,” Putin said.

Putin’s Asian policy

In 2021, Russia and South and East Asian powers pushed ahead with bilateral cooperation. At the beginning of December, Putin paid a visit to India. It was his second foreign visit for the entire year. The two sides adopted a joint statement on cooperation in various fields and spoke highly of bilateral relations. Putin said that Russia regarded India as a “great power with a friendly people and a remarkable history” of mutual relations. “Our countries have a very considerate attitude towards one another,” India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said.

Also, in December, the Russian leader held a video summit with China’s President Xi Jinping. In his opening remarks, the Chinese leader recalled that it was their 37th meeting since 2013. Xi addressed Putin as “my good old friend,” adding that he was looking forward to a personal rendezvous with the Russian leader during the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Living in a time of change?

By and large, the situation on the world stage during the outgoing year often gave Putin a chance to cite Chinese wisdom. One proverb, as you may know, says, "God forbid living in a time of change." However, we are there already, whether we like it or not, and these changes are becoming deeper and more fundamental," Putin said while speaking at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in October.