In his annual state of the nation address last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to make it as plain as possible that Russia is determined to be a major world power, and that it will not be restrained — by America or any other nation. But especially America.
In a televised speech, Putin called out the U.S. for taking advantage of Russia’s manifest weakness in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when Russia’s economy was at a standstill, its borders were changing, and it went from being a world power with enormous global influence to a humbled and chastened country. Meanwhile, America pursued U.S. primacy and led the international community in what was becoming, at least for a time, a unipolar world.
Putin aired his grievances over the expansion of NATO ever closer to Russia’s border, America’s “unilateral” withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treat in 2002, and the establishment of missile-defense systems around the world. These provocative actions, according to Putin, have forced Moscow to try to restore the balance of power in order to preserve the peace. To do that, says Putin, Russia must develop new weapons and nuclear technologies:
“I deem it necessary to emphasize (and it is very important) that Russia’s growing military power is a solid guarantee of global peace as this power preserves and will preserve strategic parity and the balance of forces in the world, which, as is known, have been and remain a key factor of international security after WWII and up to the present day.”
In this narrative, America is the provocateur and Russia is merely trying to play by the rules of the international order (Putin even went so far as to say that Russia “believe[s] in the inviolable central role of the UN.”)
So, what exactly, is Moscow doing to guarantee global peace? According to Putin, Russia has developed a battery of new weapons that are capable of reaching any target around the world, and which are “absolutely invulnerable to any air or missile defense system.” If America builds a defense system based on intercepting missiles that use ballistic technology, Russia’s answer is to develop missiles that don’t use that technology and can therefore evade being blown out of the sky on the way to their target.
But don’t worry. Putin wants you to know that Russia is just doing all this to preserve peace on earth. Vladimir Putin, international peacemaker.
Before you start building a nuclear bunker in your backyard, you should know that some of these weapons were already on the U.S. radar, while others may merely be bluffs. What’s more, many analysts doubt that these weapons, if real, would significantly shift the balance of power between the U.S. and Russia. So, given all that, what are we to make of Putin’s speech?
Domestic Politics or Cold War Rhetoric?
Some commentators and analysts have argued that Putin’s speech was directed to a domestic audience and wasn’t meant to inflame U.S.-Russia relations. Its target was the Russian people, not Americans, and therefore we shouldn’t be too worried, nor should we overreact. This is an election year in Russia, after all, and Putin is up for re-election in two weeks. He’s in campaign mode — despite the fact that he’s all but guaranteed to win. He wants to shore up support at home, especially because Russia’s economy continues to falter. National security chest-thumping is a great way to do that.
There is, no doubt, some truth to this theory. Putin has carefully crafted an image of being a strong, virile leader (see the staged photo ops of him firing a huge crossbow at a whale, or riding a horse bare-chested, or dominating a judo match) and he similarly wants to portray to the Russian people that their country is strong and important, and especially that it isn’t going to be humiliated or cowed by America.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the heart of Putin’s revanchist message. It is, after all, consistent with what he has been saying for years now.
Consider something Putin said back in 2005 about the break-up of the Soviet Union. He called it “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” This quote has been tossed about a lot of in recent years, and analysts have debated what he really meant by it (some say he was merely pointing to the sectarian fighting that ensued after the Soviet collapse). But while he may not be pining for a reconstituted U.S.S.R., he regrets the loss of influence and power that Russia once wielded on the world stage.
Putin saw the break-up of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, a painful moment in the history of Mother Russia. And he still does. Just last Friday, at a forum in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea where earlier this month Russia deployed its nuclear-capable Iskander missiles, Putin was asked what incident in Russian history he would prevent if he were a time traveler. His response was, the break-up of the Soviet Union.
As the last few years have shown, these weren’t — and aren’t — just words. A careful observer in 2005 might have speculated that we should expect to see Russia move to reclaim some of its former Soviet territory in the old Warsaw Pact countries, and generally seek to wield influence in eastern Europe once again. One can easily imagine naysayers at the time accusing such an observer of hysteria and war-mongering. But then Russia invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008, and after that, Crimea in 2014.
Of course, none of this would be possible if Russia weren’t expanding its military capabilities, and giving its troops some place to train. That’s where Syria comes in.
Putin only briefly brought up his country’s involvement in the civil war in Syria, where Russia has been fighting alongside the government of Bashar al Assad for years. But what little he did say, in the first sentence of the national security section of his speech, was telling: “The operation in Syria has proved the increased capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces.” Here was a moment of naked truth without any spin or bluster. Russia’s purpose in Syria has been, above all else, to test its forces and weapon systems and equipment in preparation for fighting elsewhere.
Did the U.S. Fail to Restrain Russia?
Toward the end of his speech, Putin said that “no one has managed to restrain Russia.” Despite years of U.S. sanctions, which he called “illegal,” Putin said that that everything those sanctions were intended to prevent “has already happened.” And he’s not entirely wrong.
For years, America convinced itself that the end of the Cold War meant that great power competition was over, never to return. America’s foreign policy establishment even convinced itself that all major conflicts were over — until the morning of September 11, 2001, when the U.S. woke up to the reality that global jihad was real and alive and that it had America in its sights.
But even that real and present threat distracted the U.S. from the threat posed by the rising, revisionist powers of China and Russia. We instead became obsessed with the threat of Islamic terrorism from groups like al Qaeda, and for good reason. Those groups had been allowed to metastasize through the 1990s so that by the time the 9/11 attacks came around, we had been caught totally unawares. Yet, we let those threats crowd out others that were on the rise.
This is what Mitt Romney meant in 2012 when he told President Barack Obama in a presidential debate that Russia was America’s biggest national security threat, and Obama quipped that the 1980s called and wanted their foreign policy back.
Putin certainly turned up the rhetorical heat between the U.S. and Russia last week, but it’s important to remember that by and large, he means what he says. Russia’s economy might be weak, Russian society might have massive demographic and public health problems, but when it comes to international standing and regional influence, Putin came to play. We should take him seriously.