There is an adage in Russia that a true leader can only be determined after he/she “crosses fire, water and the brass band”. We will come to the brass band later, but right now, in the context of the Syrian crisis, it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged with flying colours having braved fire and water.
The Russian proposal that Syria surrender its chemical weapons to international control has averted a costly and unpredictable military intervention in Syria. It has brought together countries the West led by the US and Russia that were seen as embarking on a journey of irreconcilable hostility. It has allowed, maybe temporarily, the reiteration of the importance of the United Nations in international relations.
Many western observers appear surprised by this transformation of Russia from a “spoiler” in international affairs into a positive force that is willing to work with the West towards a common goal. This surprise is an indication of how badly the Russians have been misunderstood.
Immediately after the disintegration of the USSR, the West expected Russia to acquiesce to playing second fiddle in international affairs. Initially, it appeared that Russia, dealing with economic ruin and erosion of Moscow’s control over its regions in the 1990s, would actually end up as a junior partner of the West. However, with the emergence of Putin at the helm, accompanied by the economic recovery, Russia’s evolution went in a different direction.
The West was deeply disappointed, leading to the vilification of Russia as a State singularly obsessed with its quest to regain its status as a global power. Any attempt by Moscow to project or protect its interests was attributed to the Kremlin’s “evil imperial designs”. On the other hand, Russia’s efforts seeking an equal status in its relations with the US and the West were ridiculed and dismissed.
But, discerning observers would have seen, from the beginning of the 21st century, Russia’s attempts to re-establish itself as a major global player. It started, paradoxically, with Russia giving up its military bases abroad — Cuba and Vietnam. Resources were re-directed towards consolidating power in Russia and re-establishing Moscow’s control over the Russian regions.
This was accompanied by a greater emphasis on the “near abroad” and rebuilding relations with countries like India and China. Putin, also, at that time pursued a policy of conciliation towards the West. For example, he was among the first international leaders to express support for the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Albeit reluctantly, he agreed to the United States plan to set up bases in Central Asia to wage war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
With Russia’s overtures to the West repeatedly rebuffed, however, Putin and his team appeared to reach the conclusion that the US believed in its own exceptionalism, considered itself above international law and was “incapable” of equal ties with anyone. They began to fear that the US would not restrict itself to changing regimes in small countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, but also later target bigger ones, like Russia. NATO’s expansion eastwards only exacerbated these fears.
Therefore, Moscow began to throw its weight behind the creation of a multipolar, or what Russians call “polycentric”, world. New groupings like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral came into being. Russia also wooed Europe, in vain, hoping to wean it away from the US. Moscow evolved “red lines” it was prepared to defend with force. For example, it persuaded the SCO to demand that the US withdraw its bases from Central Asia and Afghanistan and in 2008 launched military action against Georgia to prevent it from taking control of rebellious regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Twenty one years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, its inheritor state Russia has emerged as the only country in the world that is willing to take on the US in the international arena. Russia genuinely believes that constraining US unilateralism is beneficial to the world. It is aided at this stage by the relative decline of the United States, exhausted by two prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and beset by a financial crisis.
It is important to note that despite Russia’s determination in challenging the US, it is unlikely that it will be able to win this battle on its own. China, the world number two power, would appear better placed for this role. Interestingly, China, while backing Russia, seems to prefer avoiding the spotlight. Beijing keenly watches this “battle of titans” and builds good relations with the US and Russia at the same time.
Once again to quote Trenin, “Putin’s goals are not primitive. He isn’t just scoring points against the US or trying to humiliate Obama. Instead, he invites Americans to “right-size” their foreign policy and international stature, and offers Obama a way out of the difficult situation into which he has manoeuvred himself on Syria. Putin wants partnership, but not in the sense that he works on the US agenda and gets paid a commission for helping out. He understands the US is much stronger than Russia, but he, nevertheless, demands a relationship of equals... He is determined to turn the resolution of the Syrian conflict into a path toward equality in US-Russian relations.”
However, for Russia to re-emerge in the long-term as a great power, foreign policy victories alone are not enough. Putin’s most severe challenges are primarily internal — modernising the economy while reducing its dependence on hydrocarbon exports, overcoming the demographic crisis, and tackling corruption.
This is where the “brass band”, a simile for sycophancy, comes in. Right now, everyone around Putin is singing paeans to his sagacity. It is his ability to cut through the chaff, determine his priorities and then craft his policies fully cognizant of Russia’s current limitations that will see him emerge as a universally acclaimed statesman. Authoritarian he may be, but there is no reason to doubt that he is up to this task.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation