What is to be done about Russia? With US-Russian relations sinking to a new all-time low, for a while the crisis between the two major nuclear powers appeared to be barreling out of control. Then, unexpectedly the situation changed.
Soon after signing a small package on sanctions and diplomatic expulsions against Russia, president Biden picked up the phone. He called a hot line connecting the Oval Office to Novo Ogarëvo, the leafy, out-of-town gated community of Moscow for the seriously rich, where Putin now lives and works in isolation instead of the Kremlin– officially because of Covid and to avoid the diabolical traffic of Moscow.
“Mr. President”, said in essence Biden, “we cannot continue like this. Let’s have a proper one-on-one meeting and sort things out”. Russians– like Americans it must be said – have an exceedingly high opinion of themselves. Only a few days before, Putin’s foreign minister Lavrov had lamented the “lack of mutual respect” between the two great nations.
Putin, a past master tactician (albeit with no endgame strategy in sight), his pride mollified, immediately accepted Joe Biden’s proposal. As if by magic, in the smoke-and-mirrors world of high politics, all those non-negotiable “red lines” were swept out of the way. For the time being the Ukraine crisis, and even in part the outrageous persecution of dissident Alexei Navalny, must wait for better days.
The Russian president, from his Moscow retreat, ruled that the more than 100,000 troops ominously standing by at the Ukrainian border were no longer required in support of the pro-Russian armed militants of Donbas. They should just declare “mission accomplished” and go home.
Such is the way the cookie crumbles in autocracies. The Russian president is no fool. He knows that, in the run-up to the 2021 legislative elections, his popularity is falling. Several years ago, when the economy was booming, Russians responded with real patriotic enthusiasm to Putin’s “recovery” of Crimea.
The Crimean peninsula, largely populated by Russians since the time of Catherine II, and once–as medieval Italian towers and walls attest, an outpost of the republics of Genoa and Venice–had become part of Ukraine only in the Soviet era, as a political “gift” by Nikita Khruschëv.
Now the situation is different. Russians have no stomach for military adventures. They are deeply unhappy about widespread corruption and bad governance, economic stagnation and lack of freedom. Protestors, mostly young and well-educated, are difficult to control with old-style crude force. With surprisingly fast internet and universal access to cell phones, they improvise flash-mob demonstrations and quickly disappear in all directions.
In this climate Putin is anxious to shift the narrative elsewhere. A meeting between the two presidents, that the Kremlin instantly embraced jumping the diplomatic gun, even suggesting a tentative date before Washington could confirm, would clearly be good for Putin’s ego. But there is no way that Russia and America may go back to the 1980s, the Gilded Age of summitry, and not even to the beginning of the new millennium.
Realities, in the still undefined multilateral (dis)equilibrium of powers now emerging, have changed. Nuclear Russia today is no longer one of the two dominant superpowers. It is better described, perhaps, as an anomalous advanced autocracy with a stunted democracy. With a GDP smaller than Italy, in economic and military terms it is clearly no match for the US military-industrial behemoth. But with a huge territory and enormous natural resources, important areas of excellence in research and science including aerospace, and a nuclear arsenal second only to that of the United States capable of destroying the planet five times over, Russia is not simply, as former president Obama once flippantly said, just another regional power.
This is the potential adversary America will have to come to terms with in the forthcoming diminished summit. Both presidents Biden and Putin will have to contend with the changing reality of a world that, whether they like it or not, will not be a superpowers duopoly anymore.
Accepting this fact, for Washington and Moscow, is not going to be easy. But peace in the remaining decades of the century will largely depend on that.
Timothy Frye, professor of Post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia university, in his new book “Weak Strongman”, makes a sharp observation. Over the last 21 years, Putin has reigned supreme as a skillful tactician and manipulator of public opinion. But his tactics betray a lack of strategy. His ascent, buoyed by the oil boom that doubled living standards in his first decade, followed by a wave of patriotism on the “return of Crimea”, is already past history. Eventually it will hit a brick wall.
“Over the last 70 years” the author drily concludes, “personalist autocrats who lost power have tended to end up in exile, in jail, or dead”.
© 2021 Longitude Magazine and VNY La Voce di New York Syndication.