by Kaleb Warnock
The tumultuous political climate of 2013 has provided Russia the opportunity to manifest an identity that has been maturing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has begun to redefine itself – not as the successor of the Soviet Union – but as the Russian Federation: a young and capable emerging global power. Within a period of a year, Russia will have hosted the Winter Olympics, begun its first international development agency, solidified its regional dominance and peacefully contributed to WMD reduction in Syria. Russia is distancing itself from the Cold War identity and rhetoric in the wake of the Snowden affair, and increasingly showing that the United States isn’t the only country capable of exerting its influence in the international sphere.
Russia took the lead in negotiations with Syria, as President Vladimir Putin brokered an agreement with Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to peacefully destroy chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities. Putin sought a peaceful alternative to President Barack Obama, who positioned the United States as the arbitrator of the Syrian conflict by drawing a ‘red line’ and threatening intervention should chemical weapons be used. However, the US-led coalition dissolved, and in spite of his hard line, Obama decided against air strikes when Syrian forces called his bluff and used chemical weapons in Ghouta, a city outside of Damascus last August.
Putin caught the Americans off guard when he voiced his opposition to US-led air strikes in an op-ed directly to the American people, published on the anniversary of 9/11 in the New York Times. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force,” he wrote. “Cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’ ”
This showed that Russia was willing and able to be the negotiatior and stand up to what had become American unilateralism vis-à-vis Syria by brokering a rational and peaceful solution. Putin greatly increased his credibility in the US, and capitalized on his popularity among American conservatives and young adults that hail him as an intrepid outdoorsman akin to Theodore Roosevelt, “the Real Most Interesting Man in the World” and even “the World’s Craziest Badass” evidenced in articles in Outdoor Life, Cracked, and theChive.
It isn’t just through conflict in which Russia is taking steps to play a more prominent role. Russia was formerly the only G8 country that didn’t have an international development agency, but now, it is looking beyond the former Soviet states, or its Near Abroad, and is greatly expanding its educational exchange programs as well. Putin recently approved a national concept to create a government agency to promote international development.
“It would mean a tremendous change in Russia’s foreign policy, public diplomacy and international development policy,” writes Alexy Dolinskiy, director of Ward Howell Talent Equity Institute in his white paper, Russia Soft Power 2.0. “If all goes according to plan, Russia would have a new lever to significantly alter its international standing as well as improve its image in the geopolitical regions of greatest importance for the country.”
The upcoming Winter Olympics has also served to raise Russia’s profile in the cultural sphere. Sochi, a small Russian city on the Black Sea coast, is slated to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in February, which will be the first Olympic Games hosted by the Russian Federation. The Russian bid was accepted in 2009, and the massive construction project for the Olympic Village is the first of its kind in the country. Sochi will be the center of the world for a few weeks, and will dominate the social media sphere as the events will be actively promoted through both Russian and western social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.
However, the Games’ image is suffering from the fallout of recent domestic legislation banning distribution of materials promoting same-sex relationships to minors. Many advocacy groups condemn the seemingly draconian legislation that could affect openly-gay athletes who will compete this February. However, Putin stated that no one will suffer discrimination at the games. “We are doing everything, both the organizers and our athletes and fans, so that participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation,” Putin told RIA Novosti. However, how or to what degree the laws will be enforced remains to be seen.
In its Near Abroad, Russia is actively asserting independence from European and American influence, as Putin has instated his own Monroe Doctrine, of sorts, by taking on the role as the leading security and economic actor in the region. This included standing up to NATO encroachment, as Putin extinguished efforts to establish missile defense cooperation. Russia also recently pressured Ukraine to cancel talks on the EU Accession Agreement (AA) in favor of the regional Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. This has essentially barred Ukraine from joining the EU at any time in the near future and initiated what could be a gradual slide toward the Russia-dominated Union.
“Ukraine stands to gain from the AA in many ways; among them, easier access to a big export market, economic assistance, credit lines from the IMF, and reduced dependence on Russia,” writes Rajan Mehnon in the National Interest regarding Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to cancel AA talks that were met with immense protests in Kiev. “Yanukovych has pretty much put the kibosh on Ukraine’s chances for a journey, however long, uncertain, and slow, toward the EU.”
Finally, Russia will soon see itself as a major player in the Arctic Circle that is becoming increasingly more important as shipping routes open up due to melting ice. Russia is leading the dialogue, as it recently hosted a conference to discuss cooperation and environmental concerns in the region drastically affected by global climate change. This is a promising area for Russian leadership, as it has the most significant land and resource claims at stake in its Siberian north.
“On the whole, we cannot expect the two sides to reach mutual agreement on many strategic matters in the near future,” Michael McCormick said in Russia Direct, regarding US-Russia relations in the arctic. “Nonetheless, multinational efforts in responding to Arctic climate change in recent years — as well as structures being created for the near future — have given reason to hope that this is an issue where the two sides can build lasting cooperation.”
Both countries are also interested in maintaining stability in Central Asia following the withdrawal of NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan in 2014. They also will want to retain stability in the middle eastern countries affected by the Arab Spring, according to Dmitrial Sulsov, Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University in Moscow.
“The choice is very simple: either the two sides start to cooperate on the future of Afghanistan and contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region or they stick to their current strategies, and thus, contribute to the accelerating deterioration of the country and the region in general,” he writes. “Such a deterioration would lay the groundwork for the region becoming a new contested region in the US-Russian geopolitical rivalry at the edges of the former Soviet Union.”
Although the country has made significant headway in its public diplomacy, overall perception of the country’s influence remains “slightly negative”, according to GlobeScan, and Putin’s recent treason and propaganda legislation has hurt Russia’s image abroad. The controversy surrounding the Olympic Games, and recent arrests of members of Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists have sparked outcry from human rights advocates who continue to be critical of the Russian Federation’s human rights standards. Despite these setbacks, Russia continues to raise its international profile, and the evolving political climate will continue to present fresh opportunities to step away from its Soviet past.