putin-assad

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Russia has succeeded in changing other major nations’ calculus in Europe and in the Middle East. Russia is now a force to be reckoned with. But whether it is a force to be relied upon for any of the parties involved in multiple regional conflicts – the way the Soviet Union was – is still an open question.

Russia should be accepted as an equal, as a partner, as one of the poles in a multipolar international universe: president Putin has been repeating this like a mantra. But it has only led to misunderstanding because “recognition” and “acceptance” are vague words. Various U.S. administrations, whether rightly or wrongly, sincerely or not, have thought Russia has been accepted enough. The Kremlin, increasingly, has been seeing the level and terms of such acceptance as inadequate.

This is the core of our problem. One can hardly stipulate the definition of a “pole” in an international treaty. Others view a country as a “pole” as a result of it being a reliable player that is entangled in a multiplicity of formal agreements. This sort of credibility that is gained through honoring one’s obligations constitutes the texture of the world order. Some years ago, the Kremlin began indicating that it felt entitled to a better status, but had trouble communicating what exactly such a status would mean. And rightly so: what Moscow wanted was apparently something people do not normally say aloud in the presence of the press.

Russian leaders were probably more articulate during private meetings with their Western counterparts. But we have no way of knowing exactly how those advances were worded. It is clear, though, that they have been declined.

The deeper the misunderstanding, the larger the Kremlin’s sense of entitlement grew over time. Angry at insufficient recognition and fearful of being thwarted by a “Western-led color revolution” (because, in the Kremlin’s view, they were all orchestrated events aimed at Russia), Moscow decided to force its way out of what it saw as a state of disallowance imposed by the West.

The thinking behind the latter move could have been very straightforward: seize the day and fill the power vacuum that is forming in Europe and the Middle East with any sort of force, whatever is easiest to deploy. An important factor in these designs was not just the U.S. reluctance to intervene in any of the problematic regions, but a divisive and distractive U.S. election that, from Moscow’s standpoint, is a showcase of everything that is wrong with democracy. The Kremlin saw a window of opportunity and rushed to grab as much territory—in every sense of the word—as possible. If this logic is true, it means that the Kremlin expects the U.S. (or, more likely, China, as the other contemporary power) to turn to Europe and the Middle East as central players in the future.

The path Russia took to re-impose itself on Europe was Ukraine. The path Russia used to return to the Middle East was Syria. Neither of these has been a graceful or well thought-out affair. Both were done in a rush. It is tempting to see Russia’s moves as strategy, but they are probably more like a breakthrough, an attempt to claim a terrain in expectation of some future infighting, whose exact character is still unclear.

The Kremlin has been successful in changing Russia’s perceived stature. Moscow’s credibility when it threatens to use force is now widely recognized, and Europe is busy deliberating its responses (see our piece on Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO prospects).

In the Middle East, Moscow is also playing a newly acknowledged role. “In the summer of 2015, Russia sent its armed forces to Syria,” Shmuel Rosner, political editor at the Jewish Journal wrote recently for the New York Times. “And while President Obama was still contemplating his response, Mr. Netanyahu boarded a flight to Moscow to meet with the Middle East’s new sheriff.”

Israel is not particularly happy with the new “sheriff,” but it is ready to deal with him. The U.S. is still the preferred “special partner,” but “Russia’s return to the Middle East is a fact of life that Israel has to live with,” Yuri Teper, a political scientist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told me. “Israel tries to live with the Russians on the best terms it is able to get. Would Israel prefer that the Americans had taken care of all regional business? Well of course it would, but right now this does not look very realistic.”

Does this mean that the Kremlin has been able to get its coveted prize by doing the opposite of what conventional wisdom would dictate? As recently as 10 years ago, many in Russia (this writer included) thought that our country was capable of re-entering the world as a protagonist. It just needed to place the individual citizen at the center of its policies, revamp its economy, and learn to project confidence as a major destination for talent and capital. Russia could have built new political and economic alliances over the wreckage of the Soviet bloc. But these rational and complex strategies were, after some half-hearted attempts at implementation, abandoned. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has placed a bet on the use of force as a shortcut to getting in the game.

The Kremlin, apparently, decided that taking up painstaking development policies and efforts to establish new relationships was too heavy a lift and too long-term a project in the face of a fast-ticking clock. Instead, it escalated old conflicts to call dibs on territories and roles (like that of a “Middle East sheriff”) that some stronger but slower players, i.e. China, might want to claim in the future. China is, of course, active in the Middle East and is interested in building, in a slow-paced tempo, a relationship with Israel.

This is a risky gamble. Russia has essentially sacrificed its development goals, its schools, hospitals, and universities to some over-arching imaginary agenda that has not even been spelled out in public. The veracity of the sheriff theory remains, of course, in question. But if it is true, how exactly one can base the country’s development on it is even a bigger question.

Czar Peter the Great famously set himself the goal of “cutting a window through to Europe” (that is, to conquer Western territories, reform the state machine, and found a new capital) to make sure Russia was present as a powerful force on the old continent. Other Russian leaders who were also global players of their times, Alexander I or Stalin, had major military victories to their names. This time, a Putin-led Russia seems to place a huge bet on its ability to be the fastest and the most furious in a race for an unknown prize.

Maxim Trudolyubov
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Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Fellow at Kennan Institute
Maxim Trudolyubov, Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti, has been following Russian economy and politics since the late 1990s. He has served as an opinion page editor for Vedomosti and editor and correspondent for the newspaper Kapital. He is the author of Me and My Country: A Common Cause (2011) and People Behind the Fence (2016). He won the Paul Klebnikov Fund’s prize for courageous Russian journalism in 2007, was a Yale World Fellow in 2009, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2010-11.
Maxim Trudolyubov
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A Race for an Unknown Prize