Since the end of the Cold War, relations between Russia and the West have
revolved around a perpetual “reset” that never seems to arrive, and attempts to
hasten it are typically based on mutual suspicion and of course, a perceived
For the past decade, Russia has seen considerable growth
under President-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has presented himself as a
stable figure that provides ordinary Russians with a greater standard of living.
Russia continues to be afflicted, however, with internal and external problems
including: persistent and endemic corruption, a myopic political establishment,
crumbling infrastructure, limited trade outside oil and gas, an often erratic
foreign policy and the denial of civil and political rights to segments of the
Russian population. How Putin will tread the treacherous road ahead will
determine Russia’s role and influence in the international arena for years to
In response to the 2011 legislative elections, which were marred by
irregularities, a series of unprecedented demonstrations threatened the
legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s rule as well as the oligarchic state that has endured
under his watch. The official reaction to the protests was unsurprisingly harsh
as the assumed longevity of Mr. Putin was placed under intense scrutiny by
domestic and foreign observers.
Putin has become increasingly more
assertive in his efforts to consolidate power after the flawed
elections. There was little hope for reform after Putin replaced the
majority of his cabinet, which is now staffed by loyalists, thus ensuring the
continuity of his near dictatorial style as he begins his third
INSTEAD OF a blanket crackdown, the Russian state allowed some
protests to continue relatively unobstructed, but now there are signs of
potential censure and governmental hostility toward freedom of expression and
individual civil and political rights.
The parliament is currently
considering a bill that will dramatically increase fines for those involved in
unauthorized protests, in an attempt to halt the recent spate of non-traditional
(and nonviolent) demonstrations that seek to preserve the momentum of last
year’s groundswell. What is clear from the protests, and Putin’s response, is
that Russia needs to “reset” its relationship with its own people by respecting
their right to freedom of speech and assembly, and work toward shaping a
political system that is more inclusive and transparent.
In addition to
the political malaise, Russian society is plagued by rampant corruption. Freedom
House labels Russia as being “not free,” and Russia ranks pitifully low on
Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The public has little
choice but to succumb with deep resentment and fervent frustration to the
corrupt system, which governs many aspects of their lives.
percent of small business owners have reported paying a bribe, and only 17%
believe the court system treats everyone in an equal manner. Despite the massive
wealth that has been created, the state of Russian infrastructure is a shameful
reminder of how corruption robs the Russian people of their rights and
well-being. Unless the pervasive corruption is dealt with concretely, Russia
will languish behind other global powers while resorting more often to flexing
its muscles domestically instead of engaging in real reforms and creating a more
democratic and just society.
Economically, Russia has had remarkable
success in the past decade; GDP has skyrocketed and the state was able to make
effective use of its bulging oil export revenues. In stark contrast to
the instability of the Yeltsin years, Putin was able to ride a wave of strong
economic development and cultivate the image of a strong leader that was
respected or, at the very least, tolerated by the general public. Under
the surface, however, Russia’s supposed economic success failed to reach
ordinary people. In an ironic twist, Russia’s poor had more purchasing power in
the 1990s and as their real income declined, the top few percent of Russian
society doubled their wealth.
FURTHERMORE, RUSSIA’S overreliance on a
small range of exports, which mainly include oil, natural gas, chemicals and
military hardware, is unsustainable given the volatility of the oil and gas
markets in particular. For a country that enjoys a growing economy, the prospect
of future growth in Russia will not be realized unless the Russian economy
diversifies and begins a systematic cleanup of its corrupt economic practices to
give small businesses a fair stake in an environment of economic
Indeed, there is no reason why Russia cannot become an industrial
powerhouse; it is entirely conceivable that items labeled “made in Russia,”
which are a rarity nowadays, could one day be rolling out of Russian factories
for Western consumption.
As I have noted before, Russian foreign policy
has been largely selfdefeating and reminiscent of an antiquated Cold War style
of state relations. Russia’s muscular approach to foreign policy originates from
its massive nuclear stockpile, which though it outnumbers that of the United
States is considerably less modernized, and its riches in oil and gas, the price
of which is subject to supply and demand. Other than that, Russia enjoys a
unique position in international affairs: as a member of the Quartet that deals
with the Israel-Palestine conflict, a member of the P5+1 negotiating team with
Iran concerning its nuclear program, a permanent member of the United Nations
Security Council with veto power and a member of the G-8.
characteristics enable Russia to exercise a significant diplomatic influence
over the course of many international issues. That said, Russia’s abominable
position on Syria paints Moscow in a terrible light in the eyes of the Arab
world and puts it at odds with the wider international
Although it is understandable that Russia wants to preserve
its regional influence and augment that by maintaining its naval base in Syria –
its last bastion in the Middle East from the Soviet era – there is no excuse for
its blind support of President Assad, which makes the Kremlin an accomplice to
the ongoing massacre of the Syrian people.
In fact, Russia’s stern
opposition to forcing President Assad out of power may well precipitate an
allout civil war that the Kremlin is, presumably, trying to avoid. Russia could
still maintain its influence in the region by working with the Syrian
opposition. There should be no doubt, however, that Russia’s contemporary
foreign relations are based on an unsustainable path that is destined for
failure, to which the Syrian tragic development attests.
made at the recent NATO summit that the European missile shield program was “up
and running” was interpreted by Russia as a clear and unambiguous provocation
and a sign that NATO was seeking to blunt Russian ambition. Putin responded in
kind by successfully testing a new intercontinental ballistic missile, which
followed a previous statement from a top Russian general which suggested that a
pre-emptive strike against NATO launch sites was possible if an agreement on
missile defense could not be reached.
This brinkmanship has significant
political and geostrategic overtones and it may backfire. Moscow knows that an
expanding NATO places further limitations on its ability to carve out spheres of
influence, in which it hopes to create a “Eurasian union” that ensures Russian
The Cold War may have ended 20 years ago, but not
much in the way of Russian policy has changed since then. Given all of Russia’s
wealth, its immense resources, the endurance of its people, and its unique
diplomatic role, Putin can further enhance Russia’s international standing by
changing course now instead of continuing to slide backwards. Unless Russia
resets itself, it will miss a rare opportunity to become a responsible and
respected global leader.
The writer is a professor of International
Relations and Middle East Studies at New York University.