Putin's Foreign Policy: The Quest to Restore Russia's Rightful Place

By Lukyanov, Fyodor | Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016 | Go to article overview

Putin's Foreign Policy: The Quest to Restore Russia's Rightful Place


Lukyanov, Fyodor, Foreign Affairs


In February, Moscow and Washington issued a joint statement announcing the terms of a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria-a truce agreed to by major world powers, regional players, and most of the participants in the Syrian civil war. Given the fierce mutual recriminations that have become typical of U.S.-Russian relations in recent years, the tone of the statement suggested a surprising degree of common cause. "The United States of America and the Russian Federation . . . [are] seeking to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis with full respect for the fundamental role of the United Nations," the statement began. It went on to declare that the two countries are "fully determined to provide their strongest support to end the Syrian conflict."

What is even more surprising is that the truce has mostly held, according to the un, even though many experts predicted its rapid failure. Indeed, when Russia declared in March that it would begin to pull out most of the forces it had deployed to Syria since last fall, the Kremlin intended to signal its belief that the truce will hold even without a significant Russian military presence.

The cease-fire represents the second time that the Russians and the Americans have unexpectedly and successful cooperated in Syria, where the civil war has pitted Moscow (which acts as the primary protector and patron of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) against Washington (which has called for an end to Assad's rule). In 2013, Russia and the United States agreed on a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, with the Assad regime's assent. Few believed that arrangement would work either, but it did.

These moments of cooperation highlight the fact that, although the world order has changed beyond recognition during the past 25 years and is no longer defined by a rivalry between two competing superpowers, it remains the case that when an acute international crisis breaks out, Russia and the United States are often the only actors able to resolve it. Rising powers, international institutions, and regional organizations frequently cannot do anything-or don't want to. What is more, despite Moscow's and Washington's expressions of hostility and contempt for each other, when it comes to shared interests and common threats, the two powers are still able to work reasonably well together.

And yet, it's important to note that these types of constructive interactions on discrete issues have not changed the overall relationship, which remains troubled. Even as it worked with Russia on the truce, the United States continued to enforce the sanctions it had placed on Russia in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and a high-level U.S. Treasury official recently accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personal corruption.

The era of bipolar confrontation ended a long time ago. But the unipolar moment of U.S. dominance that began in 1991 is gone, too. A new, multipolar world has brought more uncertainty into international affairs. Both Russia and the United States are struggling to define their proper roles in the world. But one thing that each side feels certain about is that the other side has overstepped. The tension between them stems not merely from events in Syria and Ukraine but also from a continuing disagreement about what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant for the world order. For Americans and other Westerners, the legacy of the Soviet downfall is simple: the United States won the Cold War and has taken its rightful place as the world's sole superpower, whereas post-Soviet Russia has failed to integrate itself as a regional power in the Washington-led postwar liberal international order. Russians, of course, see things differently. In their view, Russia's subordinate position is the illegitimate result of a never-ending U.S. campaign to keep Russia down and prevent it from regaining its proper status.

In his annual address to the Russian legislature in 2005, Putin famously described the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a "major geopolitical disaster. …

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