As President Obama welcomed South Korea’s “Iron Lady,” recently elected President Park Geun-hye, to the White House on Tuesday, his attention may have been focused elsewhere. The daughter of former military strongman Park Chung-hee, tough-talking Park is a living embodiment of Seoul’s remarkable progress from Cold War dictatorship to ultra-modern democracy—just as South Korea itself, along with the surrounding Asian “tiger” nations, is the best evidence of why backward North Korea remains largely irrelevant, if still noisy, in East Asian affairs.
But while full of glamor, Park’s visit had far less gravitas than one taking place across the globe. The real diplomatic action on Tuesday was not in Washington but in Moscow, where John Kerry held his first meetings as secretary of State with President Vladimir Putin and Kerry’s counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Kerry, predictably, sought to make the case that the United States and Russia share common interests in Syria, in terms of stabilizing the situation and preventing the spread of extremism, as well as in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, including post-NATO Afghanistan. Kerry hopes to move Putin and Lavrov marginally in the direction of backing, perhaps, a stronger U.N. Security Council resolution against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
You would think Kerry has a case: As the Boston Marathon bombing incident demonstrated, Washington and Moscow do share intelligence and high concern over Islamist radicalization. Neither nation particularly wants Iran or North Korea (both of which sit just off of Russia’s vast borders) to have a nuclear bomb.
So why is Putin so recalcitrant? Because to a degree that U.S. policymakers have not really acknowledged publicly, Russia under Putin has become the chief countervailing force to U.S. power and influence around the world, even more so than China (which often follows Moscow’s lead in the U.N. Security Council). Mulishness toward Washington is not just an attitude; it is today Russia’s foreign policy. And this goes well beyond recent tit-for-tat, including Putin’s suspension of U.S. adoptions and barring of nongovernmental organizations after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Russian lawyer under which the U.S. government can penalize Russian human-rights abuses.
Washington, in fact, has been getting Putin’s real aims largely wrong since George W. Bush infamously declared that he had “a sense of his soul” after their first meeting in 2001, naively adding that "the more I get to see his heart and soul ... the more I know we can work together in a positive way." In truth, in Putin’s and Moscow’s eyes, America has been screwing up the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq, creating more extremism around the world, and has been an especially poor steward of the international system in the aftermath of the Wall Street-generated crash of 2008. That comes after an era when Russians went from being friendly acolytes after the Cold War to a people increasingly suspicious that America’s often errant free-market advice in the 1990s was largely designed to turn Russia into a second-rate power. Beyond that, Putin is clearly trying to recreate some semblance of a sphere of influence in his region that resembles that of imperial Russia and the USSR—much to the approval of the Russian public.
This is especially true when it comes to the Middle East, which will be foremost on Kerry’s list this week. As Peter Eltsov, a Washington-based political analyst and a scholar of Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, wrote recently, Putin’s carefully calibrated fence-sitting approach to Syria is not just a way of maintaining one of Moscow’s few allies in the region (and his somewhat imaginary sphere of influence). For Putin, who by many accounts has become quasi-tsarist in his policies and views, it is also a statement of political preference. “The Russian president is trying to convey his conviction that monarchies and dictatorships are not necessarily worse than democratic forms of government,” Eltsov wrote. “When asked by a Danish journalist why he called the West’s involvement in Libya ‘a crusade,’ Putin answered didactically: ‘Look at the map of the region. Are there democracies like the one in Denmark there? There are monarchical states there all over the place. It reflects the mentality of population and the customs that they have formed there.’ ” Eltsov added: “Nostalgia for both the USSR and czarist Russia play an increasingly important role in Russian politics.”
Kerry, during his visit, also planned to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, just ahead of Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. U.S. officials tend to see the shared experience of fighting Hitler in a benign light as well, coming after the Cold War. Yet here too the Americans have been naïve. Putin and other senior Russian officials and state-sanctioned academics are recasting history in ways that elide Stalin’s cynical giveaway of Poland to Hitler in 1939 (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) and emphasize Russia’s already considerable role in defeating Nazism almost on its own. According to some Russia scholars such as Eltsov, this is part of Putin’s ongoing effort to remake Stalin’s historical image from that of a murderous monster--reversing the official debunking that started with Nikita Khrushchev and ended with Mikhail Gorbachev--into that of an “effective manager.”
While China's military is decades away from being able to project force beyond East Asia, Russia is still in possession of thousands of nuclear weapons and a still-active military and arms industry. While China and the U.S. are still financially and economically interdependent, Putin’s Russia is trying to become a “natural-resources superpower” that vies with the U.S. and Europe for global influence. (In the mid-'90s, after 15 years in the KGB, Putin attended graduate school in St. Petersburg and wrote a dissertation titled "Toward a Russian Transnational Energy Company." The topic: how to use energy resources for grand strategic planning. This underlines how, to a remarkable degree, Russia has failed to turn its scientific and technological advantages into competitive global industrial might and still relies largely on its natural resources.) And while China has proved rather ambivalent about asserting its way--outside of East Asia--Putin has not been shy about seeking to stymie, at nearly every turn, America’s influence around the world. As John Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School wrote last fall: “In classic geopolitical terms--that is, by giving attention to territory, resources of all sorts, and their influence on beliefs, behavior, and policy--it is quite clear that Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence.”
So Mitt Romney actually had things right in 2012, when he inartfully labeled Russia “America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe.” The Obama administration appeared to offer up a belated recognition of Moscow’s importance before Kerry’s two-day visit, when a senior State Department official described it as part of “more intensified dialogue with the Russians at the highest levels.”
But as we follow the diplomacy in Washington and Moscow this week, don’t be surprised if Kerry fails to make much headway with Putin and Lavrov over Syria in the aftermath of reported strikes by America’s chief ally in the region, Israel, on Assad’s weapons depots. For the Russians, the issue will likely be much more about a clash of allies than a commonality of interests.