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. 
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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.