Russia is increasingly asserting itself as the foil to the United States, similar to the relations delineating the Cold War. Putin’s government is supporting everything that the United States doesn’t: impeding efforts to subdue the Assad regime, banning US adoptions of Russian children, granting asylum to Edward Snowden, denying freedom of expression, and passing incredibly harsh and discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community.
Putin wants to seem immune to pressure by the United States government in order to prove Russia as a force to be reckoned with. This is perhaps part of the reason why Edward Snowden is still enjoying asylum, despite Putin’s clear distaste for the entire situation. Putin has made it clear he doesn’t want Snowden to stay, saying “As soon as there is an opportunity for him to move elsewhere, I hope he will do that.” (USA Today “Putin says the U.S., by revoking Snowden’s passport, has kept him stuck in Moscow.” 07.16.13) Returning Snowden would make Putin and the Russian government seem malleable to the needs of the United States, which is not something Putin will readily accept.
It’s also possible that the persecutions of LGBTQ individuals, the denial of freedom of expression, freedom of political opinion and other oppressive laws all distract from Russia’s economic failings and give the image of a very powerful political sphere. Despite recent economic successes due to new natural gas and oil endeavors, long-term economic growth will be impeded because of a very inefficient legal framework and rampant corruption. Private sector growth is also discouraged because of numerous overbearing restrictions and regulations. A growing focus on these weaknesses would certainly make Russia look frail, and Putin is good at diverting our eyes from these flaws.
Much of what Putin expresses follows his goal of promoting a decline of America’s power alongside the return of Russia as a world power. He wants to seem tough and invincible, and he’s certainly not afraid of President Obama, given Obama’s rather meek foreign policy stance.
Russia is a longtime ally of the Assad regime, and any efforts until recently to condemn the use of chemical weapons have been far from realized. Now, Russia might pressure the Assad regime to hand over their weapons. Why so friendly, all of a sudden?
While experts disagree over whether or not this is a tactic for Russia and Syria to buy time, Putin’s regime blocked all efforts to punish the Assad regime, using its great veto power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. With the help of China, Russia has blocked three draft resolutions condemning the Assad government. The act of friendliness seems fishy.
The cat-and-mouse game between the two countries was further intensified after Putin’s article was published in the New York Times. At first glance, the article actually seems convincing, with Putin presenting himself as the voice of moderation and rational thought. Many people were disappointed by Obama’s unsatisfying speech on September 10, where he gave his case for a targeted military strike in Syria. Putin’s article, which condemned military intervention, sounded more compelling in comparison. After thinking about what I read, however, I almost laughed—Putin is a very good propagandist; he got me.
The article is actually littered with problems. First, he chose to criticize American exceptionalism on September 11, which is distasteful to say the least. He also talks about the importance of not interfering in the affairs of other nations without UN consent. This seems like a very reasonable argument, until we think about Russia’s permanent spot on the Security Council. Naturally, he wants all foreign affairs to pass through the United Nations so he can monitor decisions, and block any resolutions he doesn’t like.
Additionally, Putin asserts that the rebels are deploying chemical weapons and not Assad’s regime, which experts have proven otherwise. And in his conclusion, he says that God created everyone as equals. This rhetoric is notably American, and is also immensely hypocritical due to the incredibly oppressive laws against LGBTQ individuals that include punishment for “gay propaganda.”
The point of the speech was clearly to make Russia sound like a strong nation with the best interests of the global community at heart. It was nothing more than an attempt to one-up Obama’s address, further reducing foreign policy between the two countries into a spectacle.
Both Russia and America say they are trying to work together, yet are tied up in an incredibly tense political rivalry. America and Russia need to put aside this notion that they are opposing countries, with opposite goals, and find a way to cooperate. Relations between America and Russia have been tense for decades, and it’s far too idealistic to hope that all tension can be ever resolved. However, this game between the two countries, each trying to one-up the other and posit respective superiority , should not be overshadowing serious foreign policy issues that need resolution. There is much to be done on Putin’s end for this to be made possible. This is not the time for Putin to concern himself with becoming a symbol of greatness that rivals America. Obama hasn’t been perfect either. He skipped his trip to Russia due to frustration about the Snowden affair, which led to further agitations. On both sides, the competitiveness and bitterness, name-calling and accusations all under the façade of a promise to work together is immature. Particularly with the current crisis in Syria, it’s essential that the peace talks in the coming week are constructive and yield positive outcomes in the eyes of both countries. Both countries certainly want to contribute to a solution, but need to find common ground and work together. While I would like to be optimistic and say that Putin’s sudden friendliness marks his decision to put the fighting behind him, I’m far too wary.
—Sara Lobo ’16 is a prospective political science major. She is Secretary of the Amnesty International chapter of Vassar College.