Russia Abandons Superpower Quest?

This is all news to me, but in an article in Foreign Policy, Peter Savodnik argues that Russia has given up on its quest to build itself back into a superpower, and is instead settling for the push for “a new international system” and other institutions and coalitions of multilateralism.  The rub of it is that Russia can’t afford to keep up the confrontation status quo with Washington in the midst of an economic crisis.  If Russia wants to get more involved in rule-based international institutions, that can only be a good thing, if they are willing to follow the rules.

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 Russianleader has publicly articulated, is really a change in disposition thathas yet to be felt concretely. But given various internal developments– including the financial crisis, which has ignited anti-Kremlindemonstrations 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 aforce for change but seems uncomfortable with the status quo — thereis clearly something happening in Russia.

The krizis,more than any other turn of events, has had a devastating impact on thecountry’s sense of self. The nationalistic, anti-American harrumphingof former President Vladimir Putin’s reign has subsided, replaced by adeep skepticism and a fear that Russia is on the verge of a 1998-styledisaster 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, therewas a palpable shift, and expatriates acquired a reputation for beingleeches preying on the city’s oversupply of beautiful women. Now,Americans are popular again, and where it was once considered imprudentto speak English, it is thought to be chic.

The idea of “manageddemocracy,” as Kremlin ideologists call it, is now open to question.Although there have been repeated attempts to blame the crisis on theUnited States — to hear it from state-controlled television, you’dthink the Lehman Brothers collapse single-handedly derailed the Russianeconomy — there is a new understanding that Russia is now very muchwoven into the international, commercial fabric (the Kremlin’swithdrawal from World Trade Organization talks notwithstanding).

“Russiacannot afford anymore to have bad relations with the United States inthe middle of a financial crisis,” Nikolai Zlobin of theWashington-based World Security Institute told me. “The Russiansituation is not as good as the government expected. Russia is going tohave a hard time in the next year or two.” And there have been renewedcalls, particularly by the oligarchs, for Russia to diversify itseconomy away from oil and gas. This diversification can only beachieved, as Medvedev has noted, by enforcing the rule of law andprotecting private property.