Friday, April 25, 2014
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Putin’s Rearguard Battle

MADRID – Russia’s recent diplomatic successes in Syria and Iran, together with foreign-policy missteps by US President Barack Obama, have emboldened President Vladimir Putin in his drive to position Russia as capable of challenging American exceptionalism and Western universalism. But Putin’s recent address to Russia’s Federal Assembly was more a reflection of his resentment of Russia’s geopolitical marginalization than a battle cry from a rising empire.

To be sure, with America exhausted from its fruitless wars in the Middle East, and Europe turning inward as it faces its own crises, the case for a multipolar discourse is more convincing today than at any other time since the Cold War. But this does not change the fact that Russia is a declining power, whose diplomatic triumphs are mere tactical achievements that do not add up to a strategic game changer for the world.

If, as Lenin put it, communism was, “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” Putinism can be reduced to nuclear weapons and oil extraction. In all other areas, the West retains a clear advantage: Russia’s demographic decline, antiquated military forces, one-dimensional economy, low productivity, and chronic internal unrest dwarf the challenges faced by the US and Europe.

In fact, Putin’s recent address was replete with references to Russia’s weaknesses – specifically, “interethnic tensions,” local-government authorities “constantly shaken by corruption scandals,” an incompetent administration, capital flight through economic “offshore activity,” and the inability to achieve “technology breakthroughs.” These traits certainly are not the makings of a dominant power in a globalized world. Like it or not, talk of Russia competing with the West is nothing more than sentimental nostalgia or meaningless rhetoric.

For Putin, the agreement reached in 1945 at the Yalta Conference is not dead; its limits on the Kremlin’s influence have simply shifted eastward, essentially to the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. While Putin managed to stop Georgia from joining NATO, his Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) is a poor replica of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), which included all of the countries of the Eastern Bloc and a few other socialist states. Likewise, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led Eurasian defense alliance, is a far cry from the old Warsaw Pact.

Moreover, although Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, have so far managed to derail Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union, they probably will not be able to block it for long. Despite having been cajoled by Putin with lavish financial support and cheap gas, Ukraine is unlikely to join a Russia-led EurAsEC, which is more a means of anchoring former Soviet republics to Russia’s sphere of influence than it is a vehicle to promote trade.

But the most serious threat to Russia’s global status is the coming obsolescence of its nuclear arsenal. Putin has been unable to counter America’s development of “prompt global strike,” which would render Russia’s nuclear deterrent irrelevant, by enabling the United States to hit targets worldwide with conventional weapons within an hour. Russia is no more able to compete with Western technology and capabilities today than the Soviet Union was when it collapsed under the stress of its arms race with the US.

In his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin positioned himself as a defender of conservative values against “tolerance, neutered and barren” (a euphemism for gay rights) and a champion of morality and traditional family values. Russia might not be a superpower anymore; but, according to Putin, it represents a morally superior civilization battling America’s foreign-policy recklessness, malevolent economic practices, and moral depravity.

Putin’s moral claims are, however, mired in politically unsustainable contradictions. “Today, many nations,” he warned, “are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures.” But Russia is a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and cultures, whose efforts to assert themselves were dismissed in the very same address as the criminal behavior of “ethnic mafias.”

Furthermore, the Western values that Putin rejects in the name of Russian nationalism (and anti-Americanism) are precisely those that many Russians endorse. More than a cultural statement, Putin’s description of Russia in Slavophile or Eurasianist terms reflects his aspiration to forge an alliance with China and other emerging economies to offset America’s global dominance.

But Putin cannot expect China to underwrite his pretentions. China may have joined Russia in opposing the West’s embrace of “humanitarian intervention” in other countries’ internal conflicts, but the Cold War premise that ideological affinity is an adequate basis for military alliance would not work for China today. Simply put, China has no interest in revolutionizing an international system from which it has benefited so much.

For all of his grandstanding, Putin’s ambitions are not new. Indeed, he represents a continuation of Russia’s centuries-old drive to be treated as a great power in a world order that it views as a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. But authoritarianism and ham-fisted diplomacy are not exactly a recipe for success in the twenty-first century.

Read more from "Putin's Risky Games"

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  1. Commentedhari naidu

    I recall when we're writing conference papers on Sino-Soviet Conflict...
    The entry of mainland China into WTO more or less led to globalization...Now Russia is (un)wittingly trying to follow China into WTO. Will it reinforce similar development within Kremlin? International trade law is demanding in terms of capacity to assimilate, as Beijing found out.

    Moreover, in Central Asia, Beijing is asserting its national strategic interest and expanding bilateral relations - ultimately at cost of Russia.

    Both Russia and mainland China are intrinsically linked to their historical antecedents and will invariably find difficulties in breaking-out from it. However mainland China is demonstrating a willingness to become a modern state on the global stage - although it has a long way yet to go. Russia is still bogged down in Kremlin bureaucracy.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Putin is one of the most recognisable figures on the international stage and was recently elected by Forbes as the most powerful man in the world.
    No doubt it is expected that a man of Putin's "grandstanding" wants to leave a legacy for posterity. As he is not a reformer, but a traditionalist, he sees the preservation of Russian values as his vocation. What could be more appropriate than the revival of pan-Slavism?
    Hadn't the tug of war two weeks ago between the EU and Kremlin over Ukraine kept the world in suspense? In the end Putin won, by reining Viktor Yanukovich in. Putin's ambition is to woe several former Soviet bloc countries to join the Eurasian Customs union, his brainchild of defending Russia's sphere of influence against the West. Unfortunately Viktor Janukovich is not a leader, who believes in realpolitik, but in personal interests shared by his cronies. Their businesses will have a lot to lose, should Ukraine sign the association agreement with the EU.
    As countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus are wrestling away from a troubled past to find their own national identity, a "Hobbesian struggle of all against all", will continue. Putin knows the rules of the game well. He will fight tooth and nail to keep this region as Russia's backyard.

  3. Commentedtemesgen abate

    masterpiece assessment.but i found beguiling the pretensions still allured in the American exceptional-ism .
    a lithe thesis a la f. zakaria divining the era as the postamerican world and the rise of the rest[ the G-0 world of i. Bremer] with a multipolar geopolitical corollary divests such grandstands their rational.

  4. CommentedNikita Litvinenko

    Lenin didn't have electricity in mind. What he actually had in mind was that communism could sustain only if the power of soviets (or bolshevicks in fact) made real efforts to transfer the Russian economy to the new era. Without real efforts there would be no economic power, and thus no influence to trigger a communist revolution. So, Lenin viewed Russia as a plattsdarm and not a country he really loved. In this context, Putin's Russia is "soviet power" without electricity - with no real efforts to fight corruption and trigger an economic growth.

  5. CommentedRichard S. Stone

    It's actually kind of sad, and pointless. The US and UK and EU and many advanced countries have systems where failure is punished by loss 0f power. When you fail in politics in those countries no one puts you in jail, or shoots you, but you can no longer tell other people what to do or (as in many faux democracies) continue to kill the opposition with impunity. Russia seems exempt from this kind of self-correction. It's as if the entire population wants to be punished, or engage in some sort of self-flagellation, as if a "strong" leader will save them from their own foolishness. Many in Russia still support him, and would even if it were proven as a fact that he committed crimes and stole from the people. Mere failure is no where near enough to get him to leave.

  6. CommentedDzhamil Faria

    All manipulations performing by Putin have only one goal: to save power for life and the onlY one most popular and loved leader in the history. He is sick,, with nuclear weapons.

  7. CommentedFetewei Tewoldemedhin

    The tragedy of Russia as i see it is that in terms of intellectual personnel capable of changing their nation they are no short of it .. but this is i am afraid where public and private administration and allocation of resources comes to mind .. and i case of Russia it is not there yet!!

  8. Commentedstanton braverman

    Russia today is in a much better position today that is was when the Soviet Union fell apart. They now have a resemblance of a free market economy that allows for more efficient allocation of resources which is not different than the west. The nuclear weapons they have still service a useful purpose in that they act as a military deterrent. As Lenin commented that at times it is necessary to take a step backwards in order to go forward, Russia has been doing that in recent years. But once they get various factors of production and other economic variables in line the will once again move forward. The Russians are still there and their dream of being a super power still exists.