Why Russia Pushes Back at the U.S.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Some U.S. officials reportedly suggested recently that the shame of being the odd man out when G8 leaders convene on his turf in July might help bring Russia's President Vladimir Putin on board over imposing sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program. But such misguided optimism harks back to the Boris Yeltsin era, when the newly democratic Russia played a subordinate role to the West. If anyone needed more evidence that times have changed — and perhaps retreating to the antagonism of the Cold War days — they only had to listen to Vladimir Putin's state of the nation address on Wednesday.

The Russian president make clear that he sees himself in command of a rising power, casting off the degradation of the 1990s and asserting its own interests even where those bump up against Washington's. He also called for expanded investment in Russia's arms industry, suggesting it was "premature to speak of the end of the arms race."

The speech was a clear rejection of Vice President Dick Cheney's recent scolding of Moscow on matters of democracy and the use of energy as a geopolitical weapon. For all its huffing and puffing, that address underscored how the Bush administration seems to be tailoring its message to a Russia that no longer exists.

The contrast could not be more marked between Putin's increasingly assertive stance vis-a-vis the U.S. and the pliant posture of Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was always more popular in the West than he was among his countrymen, especially as they felt the effects of his reforms on their standard of living and watched their country's geopolitical status plummet in as little as five years from that of superpower to that of a harmless family drunk.

It was under Yeltsin that Russia was first invited to join the G8, not because of any economic power on Russia's part, but as a symbolic gesture to help strengthen him at home against the communist opposition. Putin, on the other hand, will host the G8 in St. Petersburg in July as the leader of the world's second largest oil producer at a time when the game of international relations may be increasingly defined by competition for access to hydrocarbons.

Rather than seeing himself as inherently aligned with the West, Putin is willing to challenge the U.S. on issues ranging from Iran to Hamas. Nor is Russia's reluctance to support the U.S.-European strategy of threatening sanctions against Iran simply a byproduct of narrow concerns over its own investments there. Instead, it reflects a view that U.S. influence is inimical to Moscow's own interests, particularly in the former Soviet states. Curbing that influence has become a goal in and of itself — though aligning with Iran, another powerful oil producer, substantially increases Russia's potential influence, particularly in Asia.

Russia is not only blocking efforts to threaten sanctions against Iran; it is also planning to sell it advanced surface-to-air missiles that would help Tehran defend its airspace against any attack. Moscow has also evolved a stronger strategic partnership with Beijing than existed during the Cold War, when the two countries' differences were skillfully exploited by Washington. Energy and security cooperation has reached new heights, and it now appears that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a security forum created by Russia and China to cement their influence over smaller Central Asian nations to the exclusion of the U.S. — plans to welcome Iran as a full member in June.

The difference between the Yeltsin and Putin eras isn't simply based on the outlook of each leader: The 400% increase in world oil prices since Yeltsin left office has made a world of difference to the possibilities open to Russia's foreign policy. Yeltsin presided over a once great power reduced to penury and dependent on IMF handouts; Putin is running a booming oil state, which earned around $113 billion from oil exports last year (and a further $30 billion from natural gas exports). Which is why rising global demand for oil created by economic growth may be bad news for Russian democracy activists, Western-inclined politicians in former Soviet states and a Bush Administration seeking Moscow's support on Iran.