What’s Russia’s Game?

Obama’s cancellation of the Putin summit makes sense: They have nothing to talk about except a renewed “Cold War.”

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 Summit, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. 
Michael Hirsh
See more stories about...
Michael Hirsh
Aug. 7, 2013, 11:54 a.m.

Cas­u­ally, and in the un­like­li­est of places—a com­edy show—Pres­id­ent Obama gave voice this week to what many Rus­sia ex­perts have been say­ing for some time: Mo­scow nev­er fully left the Cold War be­hind.

The real ques­tion, and even Obama seems some­what mys­ti­fied by this, is why. “There have been times where they slip back in­to Cold War think­ing and a Cold War men­tal­ity,” he told Jay Leno in a To­night Show ap­pear­ance Tues­day. “What I con­tinu­ally say to them and to Pres­id­ent [Vladi­mir] Putin, ‘That’s the past. We’ve got to think about the fu­ture.’ “

Makes sense. The United States and Rus­sia share enorm­ous in­terests: an­ti­ter­ror­ism, glob­al sta­bil­ity, in­ter­na­tion­al trade. They no longer are guided by op­pos­ing ideo­lo­gies, or at least one would think. And yet Putin’s seem­ingly am­bi­val­ent de­cision to grant refugee status to Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency leak­er Ed­ward Snowden—the prox­im­ate reas­on why Obama can­celled a planned sum­mit with Putin be­fore the G-20 meet­ing in St. Peters­burg next month—was only the latest un­mis­tak­able step in what is emer­ging as a clear Rus­si­an policy to op­pose U.S. ini­ti­at­ives and in­flu­ence around the world. Putin has been the chief obstacle to Wash­ing­ton in the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil (with China of­ten fol­low­ing his moves), back­ing Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad against the U.S.-aided rebels and block­ing too-strin­gent sanc­tions on Ir­an. He has re­fused to dis­cuss nuc­le­ar-weapons re­duc­tion with Obama, and he pres­sured the U.S. pres­id­ent to to re­treat from a mis­sile-de­fense sys­tem, an­ger­ing Pol­ish and Czech Re­pub­lic lead­ers.

Polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists might call this sort of be­ha­vi­or “geo­pol­it­ic­al bal­an­cing,” and per­haps the most note­worthy fact about the post-Cold War world is how little of this bal­an­cing has oc­curred, un­til now. In the nearly 22 years since the So­viet Uni­on dis­ap­peared, none of the ma­jor powers — the European com­munity, Ja­pan, Rus­sia — has stepped up to re­place the USSR or en­gaged in a ma­jor mil­it­ary buildup and the geo­pol­it­ic­al power games of yore. Even China does not ap­pear to be build­ing up a “blue-wa­ter” navy or glob­al mil­it­ary struc­ture the way the So­viet Uni­on once did.

Putin isn’t quite go­ing there yet either, and he has war­ily de­scribed Wash­ing­ton as “our U.S. part­ners.” But let’s not kid ourselves: This is no part­ner­ship. Some of Putin’s ag­gress­ive­ness may be Obama’s fault. Des­pite step­ping up drone and cov­ert war­fare, he has demon­strated an eager­ness to with­draw U.S. forces abroad, and to ex­er­cise mil­it­ary power only when NATO, France, and Bri­tain are tak­ing the lead, as in Libya. That could be per­ceived as weak­ness, or a va­cu­um, by the KGB-trained Putin. A good part of it may be the fault of Obama’s pre­de­cessor, George W. Bush. The United States re­mains, tech­nic­ally, the world’s only su­per­power. But Bush’s in­va­sion of Ir­aq a dec­ade ago, in­ten­ded as a demon­stra­tion of this power, achieved the op­pos­ite: It mainly ex­posed our eco­nom­ic and mil­it­ary vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. The suc­cess of in­sur­gents in both Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan has only de­mys­ti­fied U.S. power in the eyes of oth­er geo­pol­it­ic­al play­ers like Putin.

And yet Putin may also be re­spond­ing to a per­cep­tion of U.S. ag­gress­ive­ness, es­pe­cially in ex­pand­ing NATO east­ward in the two dec­ades since the Cold War.

On the face of it, Putin’s lack of co­oper­a­tion makes no sense at all—es­pe­cially for Rus­sia. Today, for the first time ever, most of the world is demo­crat­ic, and most na­tions em­brace sim­il­ar ideas of open-mar­ket cap­it­al­ism. No coun­try, not even would-be rogues such as Ir­an, has yet found a way around the iron op­er­at­ing laws of the glob­al trade sys­tem: In or­der to be in­flu­en­tial or power­ful, a na­tion must be pros­per­ous; in or­der to be pros­per­ous, it must en­gage the in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem of open trade (rather than con­quer ter­rit­ory, as it might once have done); and in or­der to en­gage, even coun­tries with dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al and so­cial sys­tems, like Amer­ica and Rus­sia, must act ac­cord­ing to the set of norms gov­ern­ing trade and con­flict (if not yet, sadly, hu­man rights). China, still nom­in­ally com­mun­ist, has grown vastly rich play­ing this game. As Obama put it on a trip to China in 2009, the Amer­ic­an and Chinese eco­nom­ies are so in­teg­rated that to dis­en­tangle them would mean a kind of “mu­tu­al as­sured de­struc­tion.”

A re­formed post-So­viet Rus­sia should have been part of this pro­cess too. Had post-Cold War Rus­sia opened up its eco­nomy com­pletely, there’s every reas­on to think its tech sec­tor would be huge, an en­tre­pren­eur­i­al gi­ant of the In­form­a­tion Age. Con­sider all the tech­no­lo­gic­al and en­gin­eer­ing tal­ent and know-how that Mo­scow de­veloped dur­ing the Cold War in or­der to be­come a nuc­le­ar su­per­power; com­pare what Is­rael did to con­vert its own de­fense prowess in­to a second Sil­ic­on Val­ley.

But Putin doesn’t ap­pear to see things that way. Rather than lead­ing a ma­jor ef­fort to join Rus­sia’s eco­nomy to that of the glob­al sys­tem, he is still crudely try­ing to make Rus­sia in­to a “nat­ur­al-re­sources su­per­power” that vies with the U.S. and Europe for an an­ti­quated no­tion of glob­al in­flu­ence. He has al­lowed Rus­sia’s eco­nomy to be­come an eco­nomy of fear in which “white-col­lar crime” is whatever the Krem­lin de­cides it should be, and in which cor­rup­tion goes un­checked. In his first years in power, Putin earned kudos for tak­ing on the post-Cold War “ol­ig­archs” who had grabbed up So­viet as­sets dur­ing of­ten fraud­u­lent privat­iz­a­tions in the 1990s. But rather than re­dis­trib­ut­ing the as­sets fairly, all the Rus­si­an lead­er did was to al­low many of his former KGB as­so­ci­ates to seize the busi­nesses for them­selves. And he 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. He is also stand­ing be­hind tra­di­tion­al al­lies like Syr­ia’s As­sad as a way of main­tain­ing his in­flu­ence in oth­er parts of the world.

Rus­sia is still suf­fer­ing the hu­mi­li­ation of hav­ing lost the Cold War, and watch­ing its former satel­lite states wel­comed in­to NATO or the West­ern sys­tem, while most Amer­ic­ans have long since left that peri­od be­hind. Putin’s pos­tur­ing ap­pears to have fed the psy­cho­lo­gic­al need of many Rus­si­ans for pay­back, which is one of the reas­ons he re­mains so pop­u­lar at home. And Putin of­ten puts on a good show. In a state­ment pri­or to the St. Peters­burg sum­mit, he said that “Rus­sia has iden­ti­fied stim­u­lat­ing eco­nom­ic growth and job cre­ation as a primary ob­ject­ive of its G20 Pres­id­ency. We con­sider these tasks a pri­or­ity for the de­vel­op­ment of a mod­ern so­ci­ety.”

But if one looks at what Putin does, rather than what he says, he ap­pears to be head­ing in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion of a “mod­ern so­ci­ety.” And there doesn’t seem to be much that Barack Obama or any U.S. pres­id­ent can do about that.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4377) }}

What We're Following See More »
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
1 days ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
3 days ago

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
3 days ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
3 days ago
California: It’s Not Over Yet
3 days ago

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.