In recent weeks, relations between the U.S. and Russia have worsened considerably. Beginning with its decision to give asylum to Edward Snowden and culminating with its opposition to limited American intervention in Syria, Russia and its foreign policy have strained the already complicated relationship between the two geopolitical rivals. When considering the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, and taking into account both his international and domestic postures, his actions seem primarily political in nature.
Russia’s actions have not only made U.S. President Barack Obama look indecisive, but they have also forged Putin’s legitimacy as a leader. Russia’s role in the United Nations has largely diminished with the rise of China, whose government shares similar fundamental views and also has a stake in curbing Western influence. In the post-Soviet era, Russia has seen its role falter from a superpower in a bipolar world to a relative bystander with only moderate regional influence. China -— which now has the world’s second largest gross domestic product, largest consumer market, and a military comparable to that of Russia’s — has partially filled the vacuum created after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With China’s new president, Xi Jinping, taking a less antagonistic role towards the U.S., Putin jumped at the first opportunity possible to regain status as a world leader. When Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow, a situation unraveled in which American prestige was slightly tarnished by Russian contrarianism simply by granting the former NSA contractor temporary asylum. Later in the year, when the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war nearly prompted American military action, the Russian government’s various responses manipulated all involved parties into a deal they themselves mediated. These gambits, ranging from obstructing UN Security Council resolutions that undermine the Syrian government, to appealing the American people through an op-ed in the New York Times, effectively placed Russia once again in the center of global leadership.
Besides restoring legitimacy for international authority, these high profile actions have helped shift attention away from Russia’s domestic issues. Putin, plagued by a lagging economy and a populace embittered by governmental corruption, has found a way to distract the people from his government’s inability to deal with issues at home. Recently, the International Monetary Fund has reevaluated GDP growth in Russia and reduced its estimate from 2.4 to 1.2 percent for the remainder of 2013. Also, due to the reduced revenue that the government will receive from slower growth, Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued statements asserting that some federally-funded social programs will have to be reduced, if not cut altogether. Already, the federal budget for 2014-16 slashes education funding by 13 percent, health care by 9 percent, and housing and public utilities by 25 percent while increasing defense spending by 19 percent compared to the previous three years. This, in addition to recent shifts in the Russian military’s focus from external to one of internal policing, demonstrates the government’s shrinking compassion for (and growing fear of) its own people. If that isn’t enough to anger the Russian citizenry, the continuation of two decades of governmental corruption and election fraud very well might be. In the Moscow mayoral election last month, the voter turnout rate was less than 30 percent, signifying the realization of the people that politics in Russia is under complete control of the Kremlin. Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who was backed by Putin, was reelected among claims of falsified vote percentages, preventing a run-off round against opposition candidate Alexei Navalny. Still, this is only the latest example of election fraud in Russia’s post-Soviet history, whose first president, Boris Yeltsin, essentially disregarded 7 million votes during the 1993 presidential election to maintain his position in office. Considering these points, it’s not surprising that Putin would attempt to oppose American imperialism, which historically has always been a way of increasing public approval in Russia.
Practically speaking, however, there is now an apparent lull in the Syrian crisis, and the U.S. and Russia have jointly negotiated a deal ridding the Syrian government of chemical weapons. It may be time for a warming of Russo-American relations. Both nations can only stand to benefit from a new era of bilateral cooperation. Russia would gain an ally in counterterrorism by partnering with the U.S., and the U.S. would find a route of negotiation for dealing with nations such as Iran and Syria, who are close allies with Russia.
The two nations clearly have opposite positions on many issues, but the results are not necessarily zero-sum. Compromises can be reached that benefit both parties. If cooperation between Russia and the U.S. over the Syrian conflict, a wide range of issues large and small can be resolved as long as cooler heads prevail. After the last two months, any process that amends the relationship between the two nations will be long and difficult, but it would assuredly and exclusively bring beneficial implications to the global community.
Jake Sweely is a member of
the class of 2017.