The dying Russian bear strikes again
Vladimir Putin sounded like the saber-rattler of old last week, when he accused the so-called historical West of trying to claw back its waning economic influence by waging “missile-bomb diplomacy” and “unilateral moves in violation of international law.” His stonewalling continued as he again refused to support further action on the Syrian crisis: Kofi Annan was greeted in Moscow this week with accusations of Western “blackmail,” and left without Russian backing for a future U.N. vote to sanction Syria. Putin even seems to be losing interest in the niceties of being a foreign leader, telling fellow G8 members, future Chinese premier Xi Jinping, and the Olympic opening ceremony that he was “too busy” to meet with them.
Only two months after its end, Dmitry Medvedev’s conciliatory presidency seems a distant memory. The ruling United Russia party (of which he is the ostensible chair) has passed a slew of authoritarian laws rolling back his liberal reforms. The most recent of these reintroduces criminal penalties for libel only a little more than half a year after they were dropped on Medvedev’s personal initiative.
Diplomats fear Putin’s return to the Kremlin means the “reset” of relations with the West under Medvedev will be lost along with it. During his election campaign, Putin accused Hillary Clinton of organizing anti-government protests. His party recently passed a law declaring any NGO that receives funding from outside Russia a “foreign agent.”
What sets Putin 3.0 apart from the man who in 2007 fueled talk of a “new Cold War” is that he now leads a country widely considered to be in terminal decline. The last bellicose phase of Russian foreign policy saw Time name Putin its man of the year; “the Bear is back,” the magazine declared, hailing the new juggernaut Russian petrostate. But now policymakers question whether Russia is even worth classifying as a major developing nation. A recent European Council on Foreign Relations report warned Russia “clearly cannot keep pace with the dynamism and the growth perspective of the other BRICs.” The IMF projects a 4 percent growth rate for Russia in 2012, far below that of all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Generous spending promises Putin made during his campaign mean Russia’s budget will only balance if the price of oil stays above $100 a barrel, where it has spent most of the last six months.
These paradoxical narratives hold that Russia wallows in isolation and decline while frustrating Western powers single-handedly – the dying Russian bear strikes again! But that would be giving short shrift to Moscow’s growing influence on the world stage.
The Kremlin is more integrated with Western liberal democracy today than ever before. Russia will join the WTO this year, recently signed a visa facilitation agreement with the U.S. (negotiations over a similar agreement with the EU are ongoing) and, despite the threat of sanctions against officials involved in human rights abuses, is closer than ever to becoming a full American trade partner.
Putin is also far more willing to cooperate with the West on key security issues than five years ago, when he accused the U.S. of wanting to be the world’s “sole master.” Last month, Russia gave its approval for NATO to use a base in the Urals for the Afghan war effort, over local protests and nationalist objections. And though Russia’s top general has threatened to “use destructive force pre-emptively” if the alliance builds a missile shield in Eastern Europe, Russia continues to push for an integrated system that would share all sides’ capabilities.
Putin’s foreign policy is clearly more subtle than his fiery rhetoric would suggest. Russia is successful at using its pragmatic, hard-nosed diplomacy to its advantage. Understanding its role “situationally,” as former presidential adviser Igor Yurgens terms it, allows Russia to play the international stage as it lays.
And it gets results. In Syria, for example, Russia has successfully defended its non-interventionist principle and kept Western forces in check, while putting relatively little at risk save its reputation. Much-vaunted supplies of Russian weaponry to the Assad regime only made up 3 percent of Russia’s total arms exports in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Moscow pledged to suspend future sales indefinitely last week. Russia’s strategic interest in having a friendly power in the Middle East or maintaining a base there is far less than, say, the U.S.’s in Bahrain. Whatever ties may linger from its Soviet-era partnership with Syria pale in significance compared with, for example, wooing Ukraine into the suggested post-Soviet common economic space Putin calls the “Eurasian Union.”
“Everyone looks at Russia’s relationship with Syria through its interests in the Middle East, but what Russian diplomats are doing has more to do with how they understand Russia’s role in the world,” Fedor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, told me recently. “There are no illusions about whether Assad’s going to go or not. All this game is about showing the whole world that Russia is an important country and people can’t do anything without it.”
That’s not to say Russian intransigence on some issues prevents fruitful partnerships elsewhere. When Putin visited Israel last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed him to take a stronger line on the Iranian nuclear program, which Russia supports through fuel sales and watering down sanctions in the U.N. But Israel’s chagrin over Russian support for Iran and Palestine has done nothing to prevent the rapid development of commercial and cultural ties between the two: Russian tourists in Israel are outnumbered only by Americans, while Russian-speakers make up a fifth of Israel’s population.
This has done little to calm Russia hawks. Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini have called for Russia to be “blackballed” from Western institutions; Edward Lucas’s recent book Deception claims Russian espionage is leading Western countries into the same downward spiral he diagnoses in Moscow. But reports of Russia’s demise seem premature when one considers it has achieved most of its major foreign policy goals in the past several years. The nearby “color revolutions” that so rattled the Kremlin circa 2004 have been rolled back. Russia’s economy is all the more intertwined with the West’s, as European countries become major destinations for elite assets and major investment banks sign on to a Kremlin plan to make Moscow a global finance hub. And for all the problems inherent in Russia’s reliance on petrodollars, new gas pipelines to China and Germany – which are likely to remain the dominant powers on their respective continents for the foreseeable future – should help ensure Russia remains a major part of the world economy for some time.
If Western powers want Russia to cooperate on Syria, they will have to avoid the hubristic approach exemplified by a British diplomat quoted in Angus Roxburgh’s book The Strongman: that “even if they weren’t a superpower anymore, you had to pretend that they were.” The West would do well to drop the pretense and realize Russia is still a serious global power that can get what it wants and frustrate it partners when it suits its purposes. Russia merits being dealt with on its own terms.
PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with United Nations envoy Kofi Annan at the Kremlin in Moscow July 17, 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin