WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power” in remarks that were interpreted as not only a jab at leader Vladimir Putin’s ego but also justification for the administration’s reluctance to wade deeper into a conflict that’s worsening by the day.
In the three weeks since that presidential putdown, Putin’s military maneuvers along the border and apparent backing of rebellions in eastern Ukraine have drawn rebukes from the United Nations Security Council, triggered NATO warnings about the possibility of an impending invasion, raised the specter of “gas wars” that would disrupt supplies throughout Europe and alarmed the West into organizing crisis talks Thursday in Geneva.
Put another way: Not bad for a mere “regional” bully.
“That description was so ill-advised and delusional in so many ways,” lamented Adele Lindenmeyr, a Russia historian at Villanova University who in the 1990s helped the U.S. Agency for International Development on civil society projects in post-Soviet Russia.
There’s certainly opposition to Lindenmeyr’s take. Russia specialists are sharply divided on whether the “regional” label fits and how Moscow’s standing in the world should factor into Washington’s response to an ever-defiant Putin: Should he be mostly ignored as long as he doesn’t threaten NATO allies in the region, or should he be confronted by a more forceful U.S. response to dissuade from a wider conflict with dire implications for Western economies and national security interests?
That question is the latest challenge to Obama’s overall foreign-policy strategy of disengagement, which stresses diplomacy over intervention and reserves tougher tracks only for clear threats to U.S. security interests. Many professional Russia watchers contend that even if Obama can steer clear of Ukraine, the time has come for American policymakers to rethink relations with Moscow based on new ground truths rather than outdated views that European stability is a given and Putin should be regarded as a partner.
“Both of these assumptions have been deeply called into question by Russian behavior,” said Stephen Larrabee, a European security expert at the RAND Corp. who served as a Soviet-East European affairs specialist on the Carter administration’s National Security Council.
Obama’s preferred diplomatic route will be tested this week as delegates from Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union meet Thursday in Geneva. Analysts say the American side is praying for the Russians to show up with a genuine willingness to negotiate and stand down forces, because if Putin continues defying the West, Obama will be forced to pile on sanctions or take other actions he’d rather avoid.
So far the Obama administration has stuck to a three-pronged approach of boosting the interim authorities in Kiev, working with NATO to reassure nervous allies in the region and rolling out sanctions in incremental steps. But if the Russians don’t show up in Geneva with more flexibility, experts warned, it’s back to the drawing board for recalibrating the balance between harsh penalties befitting a global threat and the more hands-off approach that signals the United States views the matter as a contained, regional crisis.
“It’s too big to be named just a regional power, but at the same time the importance of Russia on the global situation is becoming less and less,” Alexey Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said by telephone from Russia. “For example, in Afghanistan. For example, East Asia. Even Europe. At the moment, Putin has high-level ambitions that are not the reality.”
Few would argue that Russia is a superpower on par with the United States or that it’s anywhere near as formidable as the former Soviet Union, but there are certainly voices questioning whether underestimating Russia is a foolish move for a U.S. administration that’s already been criticized for taking European security for granted.
Those who argue that Russia’s importance extends beyond its neighborhood point out that it boasts one-seventh of the world’s land surface, a 12,000-mile border, a nuclear arsenal and a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and is a key supplier of natural gas to a Europe with no ready alternative. The United States has relied on Russia on sensitive matters involving Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.
“Regional power of which region? East Asia? Yes. Central Asia? Yes. Is it a regional power for Eastern Europe? Yes,” said Lindenmeyr, the Russia scholar at Villanova, in suburban Philadelphia. “Well, one plus one plus one. Don’t three regional powers equal one international power?”
Then there are the counterpoints. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller than the United States’ and its economy is dwarfed by the combined U.S.-European trans-Atlantic economy. The same Russia that used its Security Council seat to insist on U.N. approval for military interventions — it took particular aim at U.S. actions in Iraq and Libya — seized Crimea to international outrage.
It’s only a matter of time, this camp asserts, before ordinary Russians get fed up with the high financial cost and international isolation that come with Putin’s provocations. He might want to reconstitute part of the Soviet Union or to build a counterweight to Western “imperialism,” but it’s unclear how long his constituents will support those causes, especially if the economy edges closer to recession.
“Putin’s approach has been, ‘I’m going to restrict your political space, but I’m going to give you in return a growing economy and a higher living standard.’ And from 2000 to 2008, he delivered on that big time. The Russian economy grew 6 to 7 percent per year,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who leads the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative in Washington.
That once-thriving economy took a hit with the global financial crisis and now faces a potentially protracted conflict that’s already bringing new territory to support and scaring off investors. And that’s in addition to the U.S. and EU sanctions. This week, Russia’s Finance Ministry projected zero domestic economic growth for 2014, citing geopolitical instability.
“Their economy, in terms of the export structure, is kind of Third World,” Pifer said. “Who do you know who goes out and buys a Russian television or a Russian car or a Russian computer? Other than weapons and nuclear reactors, they don’t build things the world wants to buy.
“If you take away the nukes and the U.N. Security Council,” he said, “they’re Brazil.”