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.