New Russians

After years of seeking superpower status, Russia is finally settling into its role in the new world order.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It’s not immediately clear why Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are meeting next month in Moscow. In Cold War times, Washington and Moscow were locked, boxerlike, in a sweaty, awkward embrace, and the whole point of any U.S.-Russia summit was to make sure that the fight didn’t spill out of the ring. Meetings between heads of state were brakes, or institutional curbs, meant to ensure that the system persisted. Sustaining the status quo, however costly it may have been, was assumed to be preferable to its violent breakdown.

But now there is no system to sustain. And though both countries have overlapping interests, and though both have things to talk about (Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, missile defense in central Europe), it’s not apparent why they need to talk about them now, with no wars or arms agreements on the table. Granted, there’s the pact that’s meant to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, but replacing an antiquated treaty feels stilted, as if the purpose of the talks is to talk rather than make the world a safer place. So why is this meeting taking place?

The basic answer is that Moscow, after years of trying unsuccessfully to reclaim its superpower status, has concluded that a new system is needed. Of course, a greatly weakened Russia is in no position to coauthor, with the United States, a new geopolitics. But it can initiate a conversation meant to transcend the asymmetries and tensions of the past two decades — tensions that were manageable until recently but no longer appear so.

The shift, which no Russian leader has publicly articulated, is really a change in disposition that has yet to be felt concretely. But given various internal developments — including the financial crisis, which has ignited anti-Kremlin demonstrations in Moscow, Vladivostok, and elsewhere; military reform, which is transforming how military and civilian leaders view the West; and the ascension of Medvedev himself, who shows few signs of being a force for change but seems uncomfortable with the status quo — there is clearly something happening in Russia.

The krizis, more than any other turn of events, has had a devastating impact on the country’s sense of self. The nationalistic, anti-American harrumphing of former President Vladimir Putin’s reign has subsided, replaced by a deep skepticism and a fear that Russia is on the verge of a 1998-style disaster that will destroy the ruble and wipe out personal savings. Moscow’s nightclubs reflect these fluctuations nicely. A decade ago, American men were in great demand. Sometime about five years ago, there was a palpable shift, and expatriates acquired a reputation for being leeches preying on the city’s oversupply of beautiful women. Now, Americans are popular again, and where it was once considered imprudent to speak English, it is thought to be chic.

The idea of "managed democracy," as Kremlin ideologists call it, is now open to question. Although there have been repeated attempts to blame the crisis on the United States — to hear it from state-controlled television, you’d think the Lehman Brothers collapse single-handedly derailed the Russian economy — there is a new understanding that Russia is now very much woven into the international, commercial fabric (the Kremlin’s withdrawal from World Trade Organization talks notwithstanding).

"Russia cannot afford anymore to have bad relations with the United States in the middle of a financial crisis," Nikolai Zlobin of the Washington-based World Security Institute told me. "The Russian situation is not as good as the government expected. Russia is going to have a hard time in the next year or two." And there have been renewed calls, particularly by the oligarchs, for Russia to diversify its economy away from oil and gas. This diversification can only be achieved, as Medvedev has noted, by enforcing the rule of law and protecting private property.

But it is the quest to revamp the military — led by Medvedev, chair of Russia’s Security Council — into a highly mobile, Donald Rumsfeld-style, fighting force that focuses less on massive tank battles in Western Europe and more on Islamic fundamentalists in the Caucasus, arms traffickers on the Silk Road, and pirates off the Somali coast that is likely to have the longer-term impact. Economic figures wax and wane. The strategic goals of a country, reflected in its military planning, show how that country imagines itself vis-à-vis the rest of the world. This is particularly true in Russia, where military culture and the Great Patriotic War, i.e., World War II, remain at the center of the national discourse, on television, in newspapers, in movies, and in the way Russians talk about Russia.

Reforming the military, says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, "is founded on the idea that there is not going to be a wide-scale war with the United States or China. That could be a major change. It’s not just the armed forces. It’s the entire country that, until today, has lived under the assumption that there’s going to be a major war just like the Second World War."

"That is now being carted away into the archives," Trenin says. "If that’s done then you’re going to have a totally different military organization in this county, one that’s focused on small-scale engagement, one that will look progressively more to the south where there will be more military engagements."

Finally, there’s Medvedev. Widely thought to be a marionetka Putina (Putin’s puppet), the Russian president is actually a complex figure. Since taking office in May 2008, Medvedev has portrayed himself as an ally of his mentor Putin, now prime minister. But there have been comments that suggest a growing tension between the two men. Medvedev, for instance, has complained about the pace of economic reform, and he has signaled a desire to replace the Putin-era apparatchiks who run the bureaucracy with his allies.

In remarks that were widely discussed in Russia, Medvedev noted earlier this year, "We can’t move forward because the personnel reshuffle, the emergence of new people, has been very slow. We keep shuffling the same deck of cards." Many have noted that Medvedev, at 43, is 13 years Putin’s junior and does not descend from the siloviki, the KGB-niks, defense officials, and other security personnel who comprise Russia’s intelligence agencies and have resisted Western-style liberalism. Medvedev is an attorney and a former university lecturer, a man who, one imagines, has given some thought to the importance of the law, and he has made it clear that he appreciates the need for change.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January 2007, nearly a year and a half before he became president, Medvedev acknowledged the need to curb corruption and diversify the economy — this at a time when few, if any, Russian leaders felt compelled to acknowledge anything that conflicted with the prevailing bullishness. It would be wrong to portray Medvedev as a reformer.  Above all, he’s a technocrat. But it would also be wrong to view him as the gray-faced executor of someone else’s five-year plan. He is a man — in some sense, like his counterpart in Washington — who cares a great deal about what works.

Granted, there are many reasons to doubt that Russia is poised to forge a more constructive relationship with the United States: Putin remains (presumably) the most powerful man in the country, and the underlying systemic problems that have inhibited U.S.-Russian cooperation persist. No matter how many niceties Obama and Medvedev manage at their joint press conference, the United States and Russia will continue to butt heads about the future of Ukraine and Georgia. "The Obama administration has made clear that ‘resetting’ relations with Moscow does not mean accepting a Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space," says Steven Pifer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

But there is a sense that something must change. This sense is reflected in the everyday behaviors of ordinary people worried about their pensions and their jobs; it is felt in the increasingly combative press; it is evident at the highest levels. (Putin’s recent very public spanking of oligarch Oleg Deripaska, in which the prime minister called the metals tycoon a greedy cockroach to his face, contrasts sharply with the chumminess of just a year or two ago, when optimism and consensus were the norm.) This development is not simply emotional, as if after eight years of worsening relations a sudden weariness has set in.

What is happening is historical, almost dialectic, a function of the sways and perturbations of global plate tectonics. For centuries, Russia has swung, with a metronome-like consistency, between a westernizing, outward-looking pole and an Oriental, inward-looking one. These swings have been demarcated by varying periods and intensities, but they are a constant; they are the constant. The signs of this most recent swing, or thaw, are there. The question for U.S. foreign policymakers is whether they take advantage of it.

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