Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
If the world stage is the UN Security Council—and some would argue that—then of course Russia never left it but simply took over as the successor state to the Soviet Union. And as a permanent member of the council, Russia has a veto power, which it has occasionally exercised. The country’s ability to shape the policies of the UN Security Council has never been impressive, but its powers to block them have always been there.
But if the world stage is the dynamic development of globalization in the direction of a hyperconnected world of new possibilities, then Russia is nowhere to be seen. And one might argue that this is the stage that really counts for the future of the world.
In between, Russia is certainly somewhere, demonstrating its growing military powers and its renewed willingness to use those powers on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine and on the airfields of western Syria.
And what has been seen during the last two or three years is indeed worrying. The Russian leadership in the Kremlin has a far lower threshold for using its military powers in its near abroad than most in the West had thought. Western observers should have learned that lesson after the Russian-Georgian War in 2008—it has certainly been demonstrated in Ukraine since March 2014.
Now, the Kremlin is throwing military resources onto the battlefields of Syria in a way that few, if any, had expected—and with considerable risks. This is a far less predictable Russia than the West thought it was dealing with.
Back on the world stage? Hardly. But Russia is certainly present on stages that are uncomfortably close. The West had better take note.
The end of Communism was perceived differently in Russia and in the United States. That misunderstanding caused the two countries to progressively drift apart, with each successive international crisis widening the gap. In the United States, 1989 was seen as a victory against the Soviet Union. On the contrary, Moscow portrayed the end of the Cold War as its political decision to recognize the independence of its former republics and the full sovereignty of its former satellites.
Moscow was less than thrilled about these states joining NATO but, at the time, had no option but to accept it. With Russia out of the picture, the United States perceived itself as the world’s only superpower, with a right and a duty to intervene.
When Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, he committed to regaining Russia’s status as a great power: first by strengthening the country politically and economically, then by restoring Russia’s international status. Unlike the United States, Russia still believes in the principle of spheres of influence.
Embedded in two opposite conceptions of world affairs, Moscow and Washington have had a hard time cooperating. Yet, today’s most dramatic international challenges can only be solved jointly by the United States and Russia. This is particularly the case in the Middle East, where U.S.-Russian cooperation made the July 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program possible. Russia is key for the international community to have a chance at stopping the so-called Islamic State before it is too late.
It is time for the West to acknowledge that Russia is back on the world scene and to use Moscow’s influence to pacify Middle East before the region’s flames destroy the West.
In a 1999 publication for the Carnegie Endowment entitled “A World Without Russia,” analyst Tom Graham wrote that “in a radical departure from the past three hundred years, Russia matters increasingly more for the nature of the territory it occupies than for Moscow’s ability to mobilize the country’s resources to project power abroad.”
For all of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts, Graham’s analysis is surely still correct. Russia is not a model for other nations or a source of technological innovation. Alongside the rest of the BRICS countries, it is an old-aged pensioner among teenagers.
Russia can project military power only in its immediate neighborhood. The country’s UN seat is held more by default than by merit. Its nuclear weapons bring no material benefit. National pride is strong mainly thanks to intense television propaganda aimed at illusory enemies in the West.
Russia’s decline would be more obvious if the other big global players—the United States, the EU, and China—did not have their own problems to contend with.
Even if, in the strict theatrical sense, Russia is making a showy performance on the stage of the Middle East, this is not a long-term global role.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a great tactician. Despite the fact that he challenged the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, undermined the post–Cold War order, and brought war back to Europe, Western leaders still want to talk with him.
Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on September 28 and his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama gave the appearance of a global leader. But there was nothing new: the Russian president repeated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the solution to the war against the self-styled Islamic State; that U.S. dominance brought instability to the world; that Yalta-style conferences are the way to organize the world order; and that everyone should forget about Ukraine and come back to the really crucial questions of international relations.
The irony is not that Putin is saying all these things but that Western leaders take them for granted. Because of the complete failure of U.S. policy in the Middle East and the growing flow of refugees to Europe, Western leaders clutch at every straw that might help solve the crisis—even if it is fake.
It is a sign of the West’s incapacity that Western leaders have no policy on the Middle East, Afghanistan, or the refugee crisis, and that they don’t want to understand that Putin is part of the problem but not the solution. Yes, Putin is back on the world stage. Poor world.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on September 28, Russia is certainly back on the world stage in the eyes of his followers. In one fell swoop, he not only shored up a longtime ally—the clan of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—but also established a Russian stronghold in the Middle East and delineated his own redlines concerning the world order. His message was: No more adventures like the 2011 intervention in Libya, and no more abuse of UN Security Council resolutions.
In Moscow, the effects of the address on the home stage were quick to show: “Putin’s speech was a call for a duel,” said a sycophantic commentator. But on the world stage, the effects will be more serious. Putin’s intended objectives regarding Syria and the world order are clear, and Moscow has already called meetings of a new coalition against international terrorism.
Western leaders are divided about the appropriate response—whether or not they should talk to Assad, who has been called a “tyrant” by U.S. President Barack Obama and an “executioner” by French President François Hollande.
More than ever since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, what is unfolding right now is a proxy ideological war, with Syrian civilians as real-life victims.
Absolutely. And Ukrainians are rejoicing, because when Russian President Vladimir Putin is strutting on the global stage, he isn’t strutting on the stage of Ukraine’s Donbas.
At first, they suspected that Putin’s overture to U.S. President Barack Obama might lead to appeasement on Ukraine, with the West lifting its financial sanctions on Russia if Putin stopped his new mischief making in Syria.
But then they realized that when Putin started his macho game in the Middle East, he also suspended his eighteen-month-long macho game in eastern Ukraine. (Think avoidance of overstretch.) He ordered his separatist proxies in Ukraine to stop their year-long daily shelling of the Donbas truce line with Grads and Smerches. And he topped this off by agreeing to supply Ukraine with gas for the coming winter at competitive prices, halting overnight the drumbeat of Russian propaganda about supposed Ukrainian fascists and letting babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave walk over the frontlines to reach Ukrainian-held towns 4 miles away to buy salo, butter, and eggs at far cheaper prices.
Suddenly, Moscow’s Syria gambit looked less like a potential sellout than a way to shift the focus to Russia’s Middle Eastern hyperactivity so Putin could pull back from his failure in Ukraine without the world noticing the retreat.
Yes, and with a vengeance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be a mediocre strategist and lack what former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger calls a “grand strategy,” but when it comes to tactics, he has no rival in the West. Despite the slump in oil prices, Putin bullied Europe and America in Crimea, sending a chilling message to the old capitals of the Soviet empire from the Baltics to Warsaw.
Then, he reinforced Russia’s naval base in the Syrian city of Latakia and established a serious military bridgehead. The Russian air force will soon follow. In a single stroke, Putin emboldened his puppet, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sidelined Europe, and showed Iran who is boss.
French President François Hollande’s late entry into the war was isolated and not planned with other EU leaders—a postmodernist act of grandeur that made things even worse. Now, Putin is calling the shots in Syria, and U.S. President Barack Obama will try to salvage what he can in their next meeting.
Putin’s gamble will not last. Eventually, China, the United States, and a fast-moving world will see all of his well-crafted bluffs. Right now, he huffs and puffs. All the pundits keep harrumphing “Engage Putin!” They are wrong. Putin will never be engaged in a positive way. He is the world’s punk, happy to break windows and spray-paint graffiti just to annoy the local bobby. He wants to survive and be feared. You do not engage his kind; you just try to reign him in and avoid too much trouble in the hood.
No, Russia is not back on the world stage. The country has never really been a fully fledged global power in the same way that the UK and United States have. Russia is, however, back on the European stage, but only because some Europeans have continued to daydream that they could help Russia become a better European actor.
Far from reaching the end of history, Russia has descended back into authoritarianism. And autocratic governments have one key objective: to hold on to their own power.
Moscow is terrified of influential Western democracies. In particular, Russia seeks to combat not only the United States, the UK, and Germany, with their liberal cultures, but also the prosperous Baltic states, which stand as exemplars of democratic and economic reform. Together, these nations are deeply attractive to other countries, especially those around Russia, as well as to Russia’s own (albeit now downtrodden) liberal forces, which the Kremlin seeks to suppress.
Yet, the ruling elites in Moscow know their country lacks the material wherewithal to confront the Western powers directly. What Russia can do, however, is act like a spoiler, preventing surrounding nations from choosing their own destiny either by pursuing democratic reform or by seeking admission into Euro-Atlantic structures.
Consequently, the Kremlin has enacted a geostrategy predicated on anti-access and area denial: by using the tactics of hybrid warfare to stoke manageable chaos in surrounding countries, Moscow is engineering new frozen conflicts. It believes these will make such countries both politically unstable, thus retarding democratic development, and unattractive as potential members of the Euro-Atlantic structures.
European history is littered with revanchist geopolitical projects. They always end badly, normally in a heap of corpses. Russia may be back on the European stage, but it is a bad actor. Europeans may now be unable to take Russia off the stage, but they can certainly pull some strings to contain it.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
When did Russia leave the world stage? Equating Russia’s role with one belligerent appearance by the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, at the UN General Assembly is an overly narrow conception of global politics, particularly in view of the internationally reverberating standoff between the West and Russia over the war in Ukraine.
In today’s world, there is simply no neat distinction between Russia as a regional and as a global power, however much the West tries to classify Russia’s power as regional. Putin clearly used his September 28 speech at the UN General Assembly to project his ambition to shape international policy in the Middle East.
Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama, who addressed the assembly on the same day, could not have been further apart in the style and content of their speeches. Both used the occasion to spell out their positions on Syria, its President Bashar al-Assad, and the self-styled Islamic State to a global audience.
The fact that Putin chose to address the UN General Assembly for the first time in a decade indicates his ambition to turn Russia’s presidency of the UN Security Council during September 2015 into policy outcomes. A UN resolution on combating the Islamic State could be a first joint step toward an international Syria policy, even if it is highly unlikely that Putin will drop his support for Assad in the near future. The West has few other options if it wants to ensure UN involvement in Syria and the Middle East more generally.
Russia’s Syria gambit is a reminder of its obsession with its own importance. But it is more than that. Moscow seeks to show the West that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is irremovable and that Russia holds the key to its evolution. Moscow also aims to expose the bankruptcy of what it sees as the West’s punitive policy over Ukraine and shift the discussion to supposedly more fundamental interests.
Yet Russia’s actions are a gamble as much as a gambit. The country’s military investment might prove insufficient to arrest Assad’s dependency on Iran, which has its own game to play. Russia is also gambling on Western gullibility. Moscow has not come to Syria to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It is the more moderate Islamist and nationalist groups that threaten Assad in his littoral strongholds.
Russia’s intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran, and Syria was made behind the back of the United States, not in partnership with it. The West’s legitimation of Assad is more likely to enhance the humanitarian disaster than to diminish it. Accepting Assad might also exhaust the respect of those whom the West claims to support in Syria and in the Gulf as well.
Russia’s latest confidence game with the West will probably unravel. The questions are when and at what cost.
Even before the Ukraine crisis, Russia was active in trying to create a world disorder in opposition to the Western liberal order. Moscow strove to do this through its energy-driven policies toward China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as its menacing actions in the countries between Russia and the EU.
U.S. President Barack Obama famously labeled Russia a “regional power” and likened his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to a recalcitrant school boy. It is clear that the Obama White House has underestimated Putin’s resolve to prove that he and Russia count—or, at least, cannot be ignored.
Unfortunately, Russia continues to play a spoiler role and is unlikely to be a constructive partner for Europe and the United States. Russia can cause problems or exacerbate them but is not likely to be helpful in solving them.
In fact, Russia has been back on the world stage for some time: in the BRICS group of nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—without even mentioning Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia or the role Moscow played in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The problem is that for the last few years, Western nations have been largely ignoring Russia’s interests and influence. What Russia has perceived as a very dismissive Western attitude, particularly during the immediate post-Soviet years, has raised the feeling in Moscow that the United States and Europe are trying to keep Russia out of the mainstream of international affairs.
The brutal outburst of Russian military intervention in Georgia, more recently in Ukraine, and today in Syria has been a strong reminder of what Russia still represents in terms of military power and the country’s determination to protect its interests when these are under threat.
The question today, then, should be how to avoid this single-minded use of military might and how to convince Moscow to play a more constructive part in bringing more stability to today’s globalized world. From that point of view, Syria offers an opportunity to work with Russia in a more positive way.
The difficulty here is that, in the case of Syria, the West is walking a very delicate path: it needs to avoid being too naive on Russian intentions while keeping out of more military escalation, which will only accelerate the definitive breakdown of the whole Syrian nation.
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