I was casting around for things to write on this week and I came across no shortage of possibilities. The Olympics are opening soon, the civil war in Syria drags on with no end in sight, the NSA continues to deal with demands for major reforms, Ukraine moves towards the brink of civil war and LGBT rights are under attack worldwide.
The more you think about it, you begin to see that those are not discrete stories at all. They are just the visible manifestations of the real story at hand: the return of Russia to the world stage.
Mitt Romney famously labeled Russia our “number one geopolitical foe” back during the campaign. Most people laughed at him. I will admit that I did too. What an idiot, not to realize that the Cold War was over. Increasingly though, I find myself wondering if he was right after all.
Everywhere you turn, you find Russia. The fighting in Ukraine is only the most recent example of the clear trend. The Russians, in particular President Vladimir Putin, feel that they can throw their weight around again and will not hesitate to do so if it is in Russian interests. That is why they support the Assad regime in Syria, why they offered asylum to Edward Snowden and why they are deaf to Western pleas over gay rights.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that the post-Soviet years of Russian retrenchment are over and “we can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests in the areas where we were absent for quite some time.” Areas he specifically mentioned included
Latin America, Asia and Africa. Lavrov’s comments should make us realize that a revitalized and assertive Russia is simply going to be one of the dominant features of world politics in the years ahead.
The catastrophic nineties should perhaps be viewed as a brief interruption to a long-term historical trend. Since Alexander I’s troops marched into Paris in 1814, Russia has always played an important role in world politics. There are certainly times it has fallen by the wayside (after the Crimean War, during the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution), but it always seems to return after a brief hiatus.
The good thing is that Romney probably picked the wrong word when he used “foe.” Anti-Americanism is a feature of modern Russian foreign policy to be sure, but it is not an essential one the way it was during Soviet times. No longer does Russian foreign policy need to be based on permanent antagonism to the capitalist world. Instead it is based only on what is good for Russia, which in some areas (anti-terrorism, arms control, etc.) will coincide with what is good for America. That means that a productive, if not overly friendly, relationship is possible.
The battle for Ukraine should remind us, though, that these interests will often diverge. When that happens Putin will likely be more than eager to remind us that the Russians are back.