Since the end of the Cold War, the relationship between Russia and the West has revolved around a perpetual “reset” that never seems to arrive and attempts to do so are typically based on mutual suspicion and of course, a perceived self-interest. For the past decade, Russia has seen considerable growth under President-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has presented himself as a stable figure that provides ordinary Russians with a greater standard of living. Russia continues to be inflicted, however, by internal and external problems including: persistent and endemic corruption, a myopic political establishment, crumbling infrastructure, limited trade outside oil and gas, an often erratic foreign policy, and denied civil and political rights to particular segments of the Russian population. How Putin will tread the treacherous road ahead will determine Russia’s role and influence in the international arena for years to come.
In response to the late 2011 legislative elections, which were marred by irregularities, a series of unprecedented demonstrations threatened the legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s rule as well as the oligarchic state that has endured under his watch. The official reaction to the protests was unsurprisingly harsh as the assumed longevity of Mr. Putin was placed under intense scrutiny by domestic and foreign observers. Putin has become increasingly more assertive in his efforts to consolidate his power after the flawed elections. Little hope for reform was held when Putin replaced the majority of his cabinet, which is now staffed by loyalists, thus ensuring the continuity of his near dictatorial style as he begins his third term.
Instead of a blanket crackdown, the Russian state allowed some protests to continue relatively unobstructed, but now there are signs of potential censure and governmental hostility toward freedom of expression and individual civil and political rights. The parliament is currently considering a bill that will dramatically increase fines for those involved in unauthorized protests, in an attempt to halt the recent spate of non-traditional (and nonviolent) demonstrations that seek to preserve the momentum of last year’s groundswell. What is clear from the protests, and Putin’s response, is that Russia needs to “reset” its relationship with its own people by respecting their right to freedom of speech and assembly, and work toward shaping a political system that is more inclusive and transparent.
In addition to the political malaise, Russian society is plagued by rampant corruption. Freedom House labels Russia as being “not free,” and Russia ranks pitifully low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The public has little choice but to succumb with deep resentment and fervent frustration towards the corrupt system, which governs many aspects of their lives. Seventy percent of small business owners have reported paying a bribe, and only 17 percent believe the court system treats everyone in an equal manner. Despite the massive wealth that has been created, the state of Russian infrastructure is a shameful reminder of how corruption robs the Russian people of their rights and well-being. Unless the pervasive corruption is dealt with concretely, Russia will languish behind other global powers while resorting more often to flexing its muscles domestically instead of engaging in real reforms and creating a more democratic and just society.
Economically, Russia has had remarkable success in the past decade; GDP has skyrocketed and the state was able to make effective use of its bulging oil export revenues. In stark contrast to the instability of the Yeltsin years, Putin was able to ride a wave of strong economic development and cultivate an image of a strong leader that was respected or, at the very least, tolerated by the general public. Under the surface, however, Russia’s supposed economic success failed to reach ordinary people. In an ironic twist, Russia’s poor had more purchasing power in the 1990s and as their real income declined, the top few percent of Russian society doubled their wealth. Furthermore, Russia’s overreliance on a small range of exports, which mainly include oil, natural gas, chemicals and military hardware, is unsustainable given the volatility of the oil and gas markets in particular. For a country that enjoys a growing economy, the prospect of future growth in Russia will not be realized unless the Russian economy diversifies and begins a systematic clean up of its corrupt economic practices to give small businesses a fair stake in an environment of economic growth. Indeed, there is no reason why Russia cannot become an industrial powerhouse; it is entirely conceivable that items labeled “made in Russia,” which are a rarity nowadays, could one day be rolling out of Russian factories for Western consumption.
As I have noted before, Russian foreign policy has been largely self-defeating and reminiscent of an antiquated Cold War style of state relations. Russia’s muscular approach to foreign policy originates from its massive nuclear stockpile, which outnumbers that of the United States albeit considerably less modernized, and its riches in oil and gas, the price of which is subject to supply and demand. Other than that, Russia enjoys a unique position in international affairs: as a member of the Quartet that deals with the Israel-Palestine conflict, a member of the P5+1 negotiating team with Iran concerning its nuclear program, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power and a member of the G-8.
These characteristics enable Russia to exercise a significant diplomatic influence over the course of many international issues. That said, Russia’s abominable position on Syria paints Moscow in a terrible light in the eyes of the Arab world and puts it at odds with the wider international community. Although it is understandable that Russia wants to preserve its regional influence and augment that by maintaining its naval base in Syria–its last bastion in the Middle East from the Soviet era- there is no excuse for its blind support of President Assad, which makes the Kremlin an accomplice to the ongoing massacre of the Syrian people. In fact, Russia’s stern opposition to force President Assad out of power may well precipitate an all out civil war that the Kremlin is, presumably, trying to avoid. Russia could still maintain its influence in the region by working with the Syrian opposition. There should be no doubt, however, that Russia’s contemporary foreign relations are based on an unsustainable path that is destined for failure, to which the Syrian tragic development attests.
The announcement made at the recent NATO summit that the European missile shield program was “up and running” was interpreted by Russia as a clear and unambiguous provocation and a sign that NATO was seeking to blunt Russian ambition. Putin responded in kind by successfully testing a new intercontinental ballistic missile, which followed a previous statement from a top Russian general which suggested that a pre-emptive strike against NATO launch sites was possible if an agreement on missile defense could not be reached. This brinkmanship has significant political and geostrategic overtones and it may backfire. Moscow knows that an expanding NATO places further limitations on its ability to carve out spheres of influence, in which it hopes to create a “Eurasian union” that ensures Russian regional dominance.
The Cold War may have ended twenty years ago, but not much in the way of Russian policy substance has changed since then. Given all of Russia’s wealth, its immense resources, the endurance of its people, and its unique diplomatic role, Putin can further enhance Russia’s international standing by changing course now instead of continuing to slide backwards. Unless Russia resets itself, it will miss a rare opportunity to become a responsible and respected global leader.