As the G20 Summit convenes in the ornate 18th century Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg – a meeting full of pomp and pretense, leavened with some functional talks on taxes and exchange – Russian President Vladimir Putin has the option of taunting Barack Obama or helping him. Putin’s choice will have a vital impact not only on Russian-American relations but also on Syria, the Middle East, and the international system itself.
That Russian-American relations have descended to a new low, that the vaunted “reset button” has failed from the American prospective, and that American disillusionment with the Russian government is growing, is now a considerable understatement. The Kremlin not only decided to grant Edward Snowden a one-year temporary asylum, despite the most strenuous American objections, but more substantively has blocked all effective action against its client Syria at the United Nations Security Council – despite the fact that the Assad regime bears responsibility for the deaths of over 100,000 of its citizens and the creation of two million refugees. Moreover, in the face of growing and indeed overwhelming evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, to kill several hundred Syrians, Mr Putin and his government have again obstructed meaningful Security Council action.
On the contrary, Mr Putin has characterized the accusation that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own people as “utter nonsense.” In a statement oozing with contempt and dripping with sarcasm, he lectured Mr. Obama, taunting him that the latter, as a Nobel prize winner, should think carefully about any action and particularly one without UN approval.
Some will argue that Russia has been merely, and rightly, pursuing its national interest and that it is unreasonable to expect Moscow to just do Washington’s bidding. There is no dispute, of course, that all countries, including Russia, are entitled to pursue their national interests. How the latter is understood, however, is prime.
It seems indisputable that for the past 13 years that he has been in power, Mr. Putin has single-mindedly pursued Russia’s national interest, as he understands it. After this much time though, post-Cold War and 22 years after the fall of communism in Russia it is also fair to ask: where has Mr. Putin’s quest left Russia?
The answer is that Mr. Putin’s particular pursuit of national interest has not worked out very well for his country. A nation that boasts brilliant scientists, creative artists, and virtually unlimited natural resources has become a country with superpower pretensions but an economy that in nominal terms is the size of Italy’s (minus the latter’s sophistication, flexibility, and competitiveness).
Russia has a unidimensional economy, as even Prime Minister Medvedev has readily and repeatedly admitted, with exports consisting almost exclusively of energy and arms. And despite the glitter of Moscow, Russia remains backward with outward investment flows oftentimes exceeding those coming in. The dazzling wealth of the oligarchs is all the more striking when contrasted with a population that has been left for the most part in developing state-like poverty.
Russia has also become an increasingly repressive state. Under Mr. Putin, civil society is continuously under attack; opposition leaders are sent to jail on trumped-up charges and NGO’s are chased out. The judiciary is ever more politicized, elections have become exercises in political narcissism rather than political representation, and the country is now saddled with draconian anti-gay laws. Further, Mr. Putin has re-centralized Russia’s corrosive corruption rather than diminished it.
In foreign policy Mr. Putin pursues the fantasy of superpower status, tying the country to horrific dictatorships like Syria and Iran and fruitlessly and wastefully seeking to impose Moscow’s will on the “Near Abroad”. In the process he has managed to alienate even Ukraine and Belarus. These foreign policy fantasies are matched by unrealistic attempts to “levitate” the economy rather than reform it by a macho president who, at times comically, tries to “float” above Russian politics in a combination of the repressive and the ridiculous. It is a bizarre, if unintended, blend of Marquez’s literary use of the fantastic and Macchievellian power politics, resulting in a kind of political magical realism (PMR) that is denying Russia the chance to become a modern and successful state.
In St. Petersburg, President Putin has an enormous opportunity to get back to reality. President Obama is desperate for a solution in Syria as his rather incoherent and confused policies have lost him allies and domestic support. Russia, as Amos Yadlin (former director of Israeli military intelligence) has suggested, can offer the American president a lifeline. If Moscow pressured President Assad to hand over Syrian chemical weapons for storage in Russia, for instance, this might lead to a political solution and likely would earn enormous gratitude from the current American administration. This, or some similar gesture, would indeed help Russia’s national interest. It is President Putin’s choice.