There are plenty out there who are pissed about Vladimir Putin giving Edward Snowden asylum, but only a few who are noticing it as part of the wider pattern of Russia under Putin. Since winning election in 2000, Putin’s Russia has been slowly positioning itself back to an aggressive great power, ready to expand empire at the expense of neighbors. Putin’s resume of kicking asses is pretty impressive.
Russia’s state has always been pretty paranoid
Since Ivan the Terrible, governments based out of Moscow have all had to deal with the fact that Russia is both huge and easy to attack. The open plains and steppes provided invader after invader with a quick route to the capital. Yes, Russia’s had General Winter to save it. But no strategic planner ever likes to rely on the weather to win wars.
So the Russian state has always wanted to push the borders further and further back. There’s been a long history of great powers invading, corralling, or manipulating Russia, and so Russian leaders have learned their most secure position is when they have a series of buffer states surrounding them. The Soviet Union in the 1950s, esconced by the eastern bloc and a still friendly China, was perhaps the most secure Russia’s ever been. This ideal weighs heavily on Russian leaders, especially Putin.
Putin draws power from Russian myth-making and his image as a super man
Who can rescue Russia from its Cold War doom? Putin can! So goes the United Russia party line. Putin is the natural result of a security-obsessed state with deep feelings of inferiority and a driving suspicion the world is out to get them. Putin reinforces this mentality as it concurrently empowers him. Only a big fish catching, treasure finding, bare chested super president can save Russia.
The problem for the international community is Putin
Putin himself believes that Russia can only be safe when it’s great again. To achieve this, he’s taken to good old fashioned quality power politics. Russia doesn’t gain much from supporting Iran except a tiny toehold of influence. Yet it does so to remind the world – and especially the United States – that it’s support is still critical. It accepted Edward Snowden for the same reason. Putin could give a shit about digital freedom and the like. Being able to spit in America’s eye was enough.
Ordinary Russians do not benefit much from Putin’s aggressive leadership style. If anything, things have gotten worse under him. The Russian people would be wealthier and safer under a leader more likely to play ball with the United States (and by extension, the international community). But Putin’s leadership style demands confrontation, escalation, and him just being a dick in general towards outsiders.
He’s far more vulnerable than he looks
Russia’s elections still work (sort of). Putin must stand for president again. His electoral base is shrinking. This provides a distinct advantage to unseat him peacefully and replace him with a candidate better positioned to work with the West and to make the regular Russian on the street a bit happier. The next election is set for 2018. That’s five years to undo the Putin legend.
Making him look dumb will reduce his support at home
Obama’s snub to Putin is a good first step. Obama’s wasted a lot of time on Russia, believing that, simply because he wasn’t Bush, he’d get positive results. Bush exacerbated problems with Russia, but was not the root cause of it. Russian state psychology as embodied by Putin is the problem.
The United States can start to corral Russian power back to its borders. One of the biggest thorns in Russia’s side was the European missile defense program. Restarting that will piss Putin off and force him to divert military resources to counter it. Much like in the Cold War, Russia will find this more expensive than it likes.
On Syria, the U.S. should forget Russia even exists. Whatever the final settlement, it should be made without a Russian in the room. This too will humiliate Putin. After all, it’s Iran, not Russia, that’s the primary backer of Assad.
And speaking of Iran, the U.S. should be more open to a dialogue between just the U.S. and Iran. Shutting the Russians out yet again will make Putin look weak.
Overall, American strategy should focus on ignoring the Russians, much as it did during the 1990s. America should pursue its natural interest in establishing world security and brush aside Russian concerns except in places where Russia might actually go to war. Meanwhile, America can keep expanding NATO, and perhaps even float the idea of Russia joining, post-Putin.
Over time, new challenges in Russia will emerge to offer different solutions
Intelligent Russian politicians will realize that Russia can’t fight a second Cold War. They’ll offer voters the better alternative of integrating with the U.S.-led world order. As long as America keeps humiliating a man whose reputation is based on being a tough guy, these alternative parties will gain traction. By 2018, they may even be strong enough to oust him. It’ll be important not to support any of them openly, of course. The West can just sit back and watch the natural results of its policy.
No, it’s not a new Cold War
It’s an anti-Putin one. It ends with him. That much should be clear as blame is heaped on him personally by world leaders. Russia can be brought in as a productive and secure member of the world community. Putin’s in the way. Ditch him, and things get a lot easier.
2018 is five years away. Game on.