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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.