Don’t blame Putin

Blame attempts to change the balance of power in Europe

Much of the commentary in the Western media over Russia’s aggressive reaction to the placement of American missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech republic revolves around the authoritarian nature of President Putin’s government. But it is wrong to conflate the type of regime in Moscow with Russia’s geopolitical behaviour: a Russia under a different type of government is unlikely to behave differently.

Here’s the rub: despite what America thinks or says, Russia perceives the expansion of NATO and America’s strategic proximity as a threat to the balance of power in Europe. America’s decision to unilaterally abrogate strategic arms control arrangements undermined the stability in Europe during and since the Cold War. Some academics have even argued that the United States is close to, or has already achieved nuclear primacy—the ability to wipe out all nuclear weapons directed against it. It should come as no surprise then, that the decision to place missile defences in countries in its former backyard is being seen by Russia as a red line, warranting the delivery of a direct nuclear threat.

In today’s multipolar world, America’s attempts to extend its hegemony across the world is matched by other great powers using their own strategies to counter it. China, the master of indirectness, continues to use its proxies—North Korea and Pakistan—to keep the United States embroiled in its region. Russia, on the other hand is taking a more direct, though nuanced, approach.

The main development in Russian foreign policy under President Putin has been its ability to cooperate in areas of common interest, and take an aggressive position in others. Driven by a desire to keep Iranian gas out of the European market, it has generally co-operated with the West over Iran. At the same time, it has been clear in its resistance to what it sees as the West’s encroachment in its near abroad. With India, it has continued defence supplies and technology cooperation, while playing hardball on commercial terms, intellectual property, overflight rights and now, rice imports. And it has agreed to sell RD-93 engines for JF-10 fighter a China-Pakistan joint venture, even while being in the race to supply India with multi-role fighter aircraft.

What the world missed in the last few years is that Russia is re-emerging as a great power: it is the “R” in BRICs and one of the world’s major energy suppliers. Even if it does not enjoy a demographic dividend—unlike India—it is quite possible that it will receive a “climate change dividend”, as global warming makes greater parts of Russia’s vast expanse habitable. If it invests its energy windfall wisely, it is possible to envisage a Russia stronger than the Soviet Union ever was. All this suggests that the West, and India, re-examine their relations with Russia in this new context.

Should we prefer a less authoritarian, more democratic Russia? Well, yes. Not least because democracies will deal with each other along familiar lines. But will democracy change Russia’s perception of its national interests? That’s unlikely. Russia is not a small Eastern European state but a pole in the multipolar world. So blaming a lack of democracy for Russia’s ‘bullying’ misses this important point. Russia has just given some very high profile notice that it seeks to be treated as great power that it perceives itself to be.

Related Links: Zorawar Daulet Singh’s article on why Russia is still a great power. Update: They are discussing this at PostGlobal

13 thoughts on “Don’t blame Putin”

  1. It’s not really a surprise to a lot of Russia watchers here in the States, either. For a long time analysts (I am among them) have been warning that expanding NATO too aggressively and too broadly would make Russia feel cornered. Translated Duma speeches from the late 90s and early 2000s bear this out, with prominent members describing the contemporary decline in Russian influence in strong terms like “a geopolitical Stalingrad.”

    In that sense, it’s no real surprise Russia is trying to flex, and reassert a measure of control over its near abroad. In that, both Bush and Putin are correct: Russia is asserting itself to balance the U.S., and the U.S. is right that Russia has abandoned democratic reforms to do so. The tete-a-tete over missiles and BMD is just another front of this.

    I dislike the term “New Great Game,” as it implies the contest between the U.S. and Russia is limited to Central Asia (which is a continuation of an outside discussion with other people from some time ago, but you get my point). How about the New Cold War? Russia, China, and the U.S. are less likely to outright attack each other than ever before, but more likely than ever to seek creative and ingenious ways of undermining each others’ interests. It’s a very delicate balance, but I don’t see it being upset anytime soon.

  2. Russia is no great power. It’s economy is small ($ 1 trillion after a giant bump from oil revenues this year), distorted, and critically dependent on oil and gas revenues – a civilized Saudi Arabia. A few thousand nukes does not a great power make. They have no demographic dividend headed their way (as Nitin pointed out) and the gains from global warming are a long, unpredictable shot.

    Classifying them in the same bracket as China and India is flattery for them. They are currently punching way above their weight – mostly for historical reasons. Putin is just Ahmedinejad with a little class. He can flatter himself with his current leverage (mostly due to nukes, oil and gas). But the source of his power is shaky and will not last too long. He should grab what he can while the going is good.

  3. @libertarian: In international diplomacy, your weight is what you punch.. not what you actually weigh. If the latter mattered much, India would not be stuck in the current scenario with her neighbours. Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan.. all of them punch India as equals. How much do you think they weigh relative to India?

  4. Blog Owner Knows: In international diplomacy, your weight is what you punch.. not what you actually weigh.
    Up to a point. You can do for a while till someone calls the lilliputian in you. In Russia’s case, they’re trying to use their nukes to make up for their serious economic and political deficiencies. Much like Pakistan.

    India is in a class by itself. We are the definition of “roll over and play dead” in the political arena. The punching metaphor does not apply to us because we just “offer the other cheek”. We’re past masters of slamming the adversary’s fists with our face 🙂

  5. @libertarian: “Power” comes in various forms – economic (supply side, demand side), military, political, technological and sometimes countries have power merely by virtue of their geographical location.

    Any objective assessment of Russia (as it stands today) would have to admit that Russia has a lot of power. Whether it fits your definition of “great power” is entirely up to you. But that does not change the ground reality.

    As you can see from the emerging news stories, Russia has completely changed the discourse on the latest missile issue. Nobody is eager to call Putin a lilliputian 🙂

  6. Blog Owner Knows: agree that Russia is powerful (currently). Agree that the source of power comes in various forms. But, far and away, the size of the economy will be the key determinant of “power” or leverage. Holding a nuke to someones head (and not using it) suffers from diminishing returns. It’s an outmoded and coercive way to demand power. That leaves oil and gas. Oh yes – Russia certainly has all of us by the cojones right now. But between global warming concerns, and the revulsion at having to lay prostrate before Russia, Saudi Arabia and their ilk, the energy problem is well on its way to a greener solution. This party’s over in 20 years. It’s Lilli-Putin right now – we just his oil and gas too much.

  7. libertarian,

    I’d like to believe that the energy problem will yield to a greener solution in the next few decades. Even so, it does not mean that the Russian economy will remain static, and reliant on energy exports. In my post, I wrote:

    If it invests its energy windfall wisely, it is possible to envisage a Russia stronger than the Soviet Union ever was.

    I can’t recall off-hand, but Putin has received moderate praise for the way the energy windfall is being invested. The Russians seem to be keen to avoid a ‘resource curse’. I’d argue that the energy windfall (and climate change) provides Russia with an opportunity to move to a different economy. Prudence requires our strategy to take into account Russia’s potential to succeed, rather than underestimate it.

    Update: Energy behind the power; Energy windfall investment in stabilisation funds—this helps maintain strong public finances; Putin’s push to diversify. Still can’t find The Economist article on this.

  8. Nitin: the RFERL article essentially makes the opposite case: that Putin will not be able to make the necessary changes; that he’s too control-freaky to allow any modicum of free-enterprise (exclude their robber-baron billionaire “free-enterprisers” of course). It also makes a strong case for the fall of the Soviet empire being inextricably linked to the tanking of energy prices in the ’80s. So Putin may instinctively know what he needs to do – but, if past record is any indication of future performance, he (and Russia in general) appear highly unlikely to pull it off.

    Their “stabilizing investment strategy” is well-founded. The power derived from such investment is much more subtle and indirect – and is a good thing. It won’t help them much in their “great power” quest though. While we cannot write them off – seems safe to say they’ll be a marginal economic player if oil ceases to be a strategic commodity just as salt did a century ago. (Woolsey, ex-CIA director said in part, “oil is a strategic commodity today insofar as we are in near-total dependence on it for transportation – not merely a commodity. Until a little over a century ago salt was such a strategic commodity as well (I am indebted to Anne Korin of IAGS for pointing out this analogy). Wars were fought and national strategies driven in part by salt, because it was the only generally-available way of preserving meat, a major portion of our food supply.”)

  9. Libertarian, I am not sure I’d write-off Russia so easy. It has been written off many times in history, but Russia always creates history – it surely is no lilliputian, in the past or in future. Russians are extremely smart, creative, aggressive. The soviet technical intellectual power was solely from Russia – other countries such as India and China were socialists too (self-reliance motto) for about the same period of time, but they have little to show for it.

    Putin is trying really hard to keep Russia from becoming just another bureaucratic entity of EU that US can push around. And I am not sure he is using the oil/gas money wisely. Beyound the big cities on European side, Russia is very much a poor country. And it still doesn’t export anything other than weapons and natural resources (and tennis players). But the downward spiral of Yeltsin years just ended 7 years ago. Give it couple of decades. The Russians are wary of US false promises (ie lies) of Yeltsin era about NATO and other strategic issues of central Asia and former soviet states. They will always fight back, Putin or not, and they will never be just another European country. I won’t count Russians out any day.

  10. Chandra: you may be right. I’m betting they will reach border-line irrelevance before they reach true prominence.

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