Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian strategic flights would permanently resume. Every day, a dozen missile- carrying aircraft, accompanied by support and tanker planes, take off with the mission of protecting Russian territory. Protect it from whom? Although Putin has never identified the enemy that sparked the resumption of these flights after a fifteen-year hiatus, implicitly the antagonist is the only other country with a similar air capability—the United States.
Russian bomber flights are among several new demonstrations of Russian military might. Also last summer, Georgian officials reported that Russian planes had entered Georgian airspace and launched a missile (which failed to explode). In the same month, Royal Air Force jets followed a Russian bomber as it approached British airspace, and U.S. pilots exchanged glances with their Russian counterparts near Guam. Putin also proudly presided over a joint military exercise in Russia of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a new club of autocratic and semiautocratic regimes that includes China and most of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Earlier in 2007, Putin approved a seven-year, $200 billion re-armament plan for new planes, missiles, and ships.
Did the Cold War sneak back while everyone was focused on Iraq? Thankfully, no. Should the United States be worried about Russia’s assertive new posture? Yes.
THE KREMLIN’S NEW REALPOLITIK
The Cold War is not back and has no prospect of returning. Those who invoke this historical analogy forget that a central drama in that era was the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism. Today, Putin is not promoting an alternative to either markets or democracy. Rather, he practices a peculiar form of free enterprise that has included a massive redistribution of property from one set of Kremlin insiders close to Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, to a new set of cronies, most of them former KGB officials. Putin practices an even stranger form of democracy, which his aides call “sovereign democracy” but which is in fact a soft form of authoritarian rule. Neither Putin’s domestic activities nor his public defense of them offers other countries a legitimate countermodel to Western ideas of democracy and markets.
A second feature of the Cold War that has not returned is war between Russia and the United States. Those nostalgic for the “stability” of Soviet- U.S. bipolarity forget that roughly 20 million people died in more than a hundred conflicts around the world during the Cold War. Moscow and Washington did not start all these conflicts, but through their proxies they certainly helped prolong many of them. And it was not only Koreans, Vietnamese, Hungarians, and Afghans who died, but tens of thousands of Soviet and American soldiers. Today, the prospect of military combat between Russian and American soldiers remains remote.
Acknowledging that the Cold War has not reignited does not mean that U.S.-Russian relations are harmonious. In the past twenty years, they have never been worse.
Integration with the West is no longer a goal of Russian foreign policy. Instead, Putin seeks to balance his and other nations’ power against that of the West and the United States in particular.
Early in his tenure as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev took a radical first step toward reversing decades of Soviet isolation from the rest of the world. He made integration into the West his central foreign policy priority. Throughout the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin pursued the same objective but with even greater vigor. In his first years in power, Yeltsin not only did not fear Western multilateral institutions such as the G-7, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and NATO but actively sought to join them. Even Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, began his term as Russian president with a clear proclivity for integration.
Today, however, integration is no longer a goal of Russian foreign policy. Rather than joining the West, Putin now sees balancing against the West, and the United States in particular, as the central objective of Russian foreign policy. Resuming strategic bomber missions, conducting military exercises with the Chinese, and threatening pro-American countries such as Georgia reflect this fundamental shift in Kremlin thinking about global politics.
Three things triggered this change. First, Putin has rebuilt autocracy at home. He has undermined the power of Russia’s regional leaders, the independent media, both houses of parliament, independent political parties, and genuine civil society. At the same time, he has increased the role of the Federal Security Service (the FSB, the successor to the KGB) in governing Russia and arbitrarily wielded the power of state institutions such as the courts, the tax inspectors, and the police for political ends. Putin’s regime has also made it increasingly difficult for American businesspeople and nongovernmental organizations to work in Russia. Integrating autocratic regimes into Western institutions is much harder than integrating democracies.
Second, as Russia has drifted toward autocracy and away from Western norms of governance, Putin and his government have increasingly portrayed the United States as Russia’s number one enemy. Americans, if they watched Russian state-controlled television, would be shocked to learn that the United States is surrounding Russia with military bases, fomenting pro-American revolutions in countries neighboring Russia, and seizing Russian natural resources. Putin himself describes these purported American schemes, suggesting in September 2004 that the United States directly supported terrorist organizations seeking to weaken Russia, and claiming in May 2007 that threats to Russia from the West “are not diminishing. They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats, as during the time of the Third Reich, are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.”
The probability of direct military conflict between Russia and the United States is very low. At the same time, an autocratic, anti-Western Russia poses serious trouble for America and its allies.
A third force driving Russian assertiveness is American weakness. In the 1990s, the United States emerged as the world’s undisputed superpower, while Russia looked weak in the aftermath of Soviet collapse and subsequent economic depression. Today, according to the Kremlin, the tables have turned: the United States is bogged down in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and discredited in the eyes of the world as a unilateral actor and violator of human rights, while Russia looks stronger and more respectable.
HARD POWER AND ITS SEEMING REWARDS
As long as the U.S. prison at Guantánamo remains open and Iraqi civilian casualties mount, intermittent American laments about democratic erosion inside Russia do not resonate with Russian elites or citizens. Instead, the current Russian leadership points to giant inflows of foreign investment, Russia’s victorious bid to host the 2012 Winter Olympics, and Bush’s continued courtship of Putin as evidence that only hard power—not values— matters in international politics.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this affirmation of nineteenth- century thinking is a terrible and wrong lesson for Kremlin officials. Russians should study the bitter American experience of the past several years to realize that military might has real limits today as a tool for shaping international politics. Unilateral coercive actions—turning off the gas to Ukraine, launching a cyberwar against Estonia, or imposing sanctions against Georgia—may fuel the illusion of Russia as a great power in the short run, but they serve to undermine Russia’s long-term influence. In the long run, only a democratic, cooperative Russia can be a respected great power on the international stage.
Those who truly care about enhancing Russian power would do well to spend more time restoring democracy at home and rebuilding cooperative relationships with neighbors and less time marveling at the reach of Russia’s strategic bombers.
This is an expanded version of an essay that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 2, 2007.