Originally Published 2013-09-24 05:06:33 Published on Sep 24, 2013
The war in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by its President, Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally, has turned out to be a perfect opportunity for Putin to reassert the role of Russia, 21 years after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Russia is back
"The one undisputed fact about the international tussle around Syria is the re-emergence of Russia as a major international player. The Russian proposal that Syria surrender its chemical weapons to international control has averted a costly and unpredictable military intervention in Syria. It has brought together countries -- the West, led by the US, and Russia -- that were seen as descending down the road of irreconcilable hostility. It has allowed, maybe temporarily, the reiteration of the importance of the United Nations in international relations.

Many western observers appear surprised by this transformation of Russia from a "spoiler" in International Affairs into a positive force that is willing to work with the West towards a common goal. This surprise is an indication of how badly the Russians have been misunderstood.

According to the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Dmitri Trenin, the western policy elite, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, expected that "...Russia would reform itself and become a junior partner to the U.S. in global affairs. Instead, the country was re-established as an authoritarian and fiercely independent state." (It must be noted here that as Russia was coping with the traumatic experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union - economic ruin and erosion of Moscow’s control over the regions -- it did appear through the 1990s that Russia would end up as a junior partner of the West. But the appearance of Putin at the helm, accompanied by the economic recovery, took Russia in a different direction.)

This western disappointment led to the vilification of Russia as a country singularly obsessed with its quest to regain its status as a global power. Thus any attempt by Moscow to protect its interests in its Neighbourhood was immediately attributed to the Kremlin’s "evil imperial designs". On the other hand, Russia’s efforts seeking an equal status in its relations with the US and the West were ridiculed and dismissed.

But discerning observers would have seen, from the beginning of the 21st century, Russia’s attempts to re-establish itself as a major global player. It started, paradoxically, with Russia giving up its military bases abroad - Cuba and Vietnam. Resources were directed at consolidating power in Russia and reiterating Moscow’s control over the vast Russian expanse. This was accompanied by a greater emphasis on the "near abroad" and rebuilding relations with countries like India and China. Putin also at that time pursued a policy of conciliation towards the West. For example, he was among the first international leaders to express support for the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Albeit reluctantly, he agreed to the United States plan to set up bases in Central Asia to wage war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

With Russia’s overtures to the West repeatedly rebuffed, Putin and his team appeared to reach the conclusion that the US believed in its own exceptionalism, considered itself above international law and was "incapable" of equal ties with anyone. They began to fear that the US would not restrict itself to changing regimes in small countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, but also later target bigger ones, like Russia. NATO’s expansion eastwards only exacerbated these fears.

And so Moscow began to throw its weight behind the creation of a multipolar, or what Russians call "polycentric", world. New groupings like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral came into being. Russia also wooed Europe, in vain, hoping to wean it away from the US.

Moscow evolved "red lines" it was prepared to defend with force. For example, it persuaded the SCO to demand that the US withdraw its bases from Central Asia and Afghanistan and in 2008 launched military action against Georgia to prevent it from taking control of rebellious regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Twenty-one years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, its inheritor state Russia has emerged as the only country in the world that is willing to openly take on the US in the international arena. Russia genuinely believes that constraining US unilateralism is beneficial to the world. It is aided at this stage by the relative decline of the United States, exhausted by two prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and beset by a financial crisis.

However, it is important to note that despite Russia’s determination in challenging the US, it is unlikely that it will be able to win this battle on its own. China, the world number two power, appears to be better placed for this role. But, interestingly, China, while backing Russia, seems to prefer avoiding the spotlight. Beijing keenly watches this "battle of titans" and builds good relations with the US and Russia at the same time.

The war in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by its President, Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally, has turned out to be a perfect opportunity for Putin. Once again to quote Trenin, one of the finest commentators on Russian foreign policy: "Putin’s goals are not primitive. He isn’t just scoring points against the U.S. or trying to humiliate Obama. Instead, he invites Americans to "right-size" their foreign policy and international stature, and offers Obama a way out of the difficult situation into which he has manoeuvred himself on Syria. Putin wants partnership, but not in the sense that he works on the U.S. agenda and gets paid a commission for helping out. He understands the U.S. is much stronger than Russia, but he nevertheless demands a relationship of equals.... He is determined to turn the resolution of the Syrian conflict into a path toward equality in U.S.-Russian relations."

(Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy : Nai Duniya, September 24, 2013

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Nandan Unnikrishnan

Nandan Unnikrishnan

Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation New Delhi. He joined ORF in 2004. He looks after the Eurasia Programme of Studies. ...

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