Putin's Great Gamble

The Sochi remarks confirm it: there can be no reset of the reset.

In some respects, Vladimir Putin's comments in Sochi to the Valdai discussion club were not particularly newsworthy. For more than a decade, the Russian president has consistently voiced his criticisms of both the domestic and foreign policies of the United States. But if the rhetoric echoed earlier Putin addresses—most notably his 2007 speech at the Munich security forum—there are some developments that are in fact noteworthy.

First, Putin has finally and definitely purged any illusions he may have retained from his early encounters with George W. Bush after 9/11 that a mutually beneficial, interests-based partnership with the United States, one that would recognize Eurasia as a zone of privileged Russian interests in return for general support of U.S. global leadership, will ever be possible or attainable. (He was willing to let Dmitry Medvedev make a second go of this after Barack Obama's election in 2009). The Putin vision of global governance—of the major powers comprising the world's board of directors, with Washington as the chairman, but obligated to find a consensus "corporate" policy that all directors would support—cannot align with either the expression of the United States as the indispensable nation, or calls for a revived trans-Atlantic partnership that would reaffirm Western leadership, norms and values.

The Sochi remarks confirm that, unless the president (Barack Obama or his successor in 2017) is prepared to make radical changes in U.S. foreign policy—or is forced by events (domestic economic difficulties coupled with the shift in global power towards the rising powers of the south and east)—there can be no reset of the reset. Instead, Putin now seems to accept the reality that no substantive partnership with the United States is possible or desirable under the terms proffered by Washington—especially those that would require surrendering his dream of the Eurasian Union or require further domestic political reform.

This does not automatically guarantee a return to the bad old days of the Cold War, but it does signal the death knell of concerted efforts over the past twenty-five years to forge a new cooperative security and economic relationship between Russia and the United States. It presages the disappearance of the term "partnership" from the diplomatic lexicon of the two countries for the foreseeable future.

Putin has thus committed his country to a gamble: that a post-American future for the global order, one where a concert of other powers could compel, limit and circumscribe the use of American power, is attainable in the near future. While there has always been a good deal of grumbling about U.S. dominance of the post–Cold War international system—the complaint of America as a hyperpower—none of the major centers of power and influence in the world have been prepared to risk their relations with Washington by seeking to completely displace the United States from its leadership position. Even those countries like China and Brazil, which have created or supported the emergence of new regional fora that exclude American participation (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, CELAC in the Americas), have used these groups as leverage to get better terms from the United States in other institutions (the United Nations, the G20, the OAS and so on) where Washington does participate.

Putin stops short of saying that the United States must go or that he is committed to creating an actively anti-American bloc. Russia, as well as China, continues to reap many benefits from the system created and largely maintained by U.S. action. But he is hoping to knit together a coalition of powers who will agree to fence in American power, and to be able to bypass the United States when necessary, particularly to ensure that the United States does not have a monopoly for determining the precepts of international law, what is in accordance with human rights (hence the other portions of his remarks dealing with lifestyle choices and the rights of societies to make moral determinations for themselves without outside interference) and so on, and to ensure (especially important as sanctions begin to exact a toll on the Russian economy) that the United States cannot choke off all the access points to the global economy for any other nation (hence the discussions with the Chinese about handling trade in yuan and rubles to bypass the need for dollars). His policy in Ukraine is designed to showcase that Moscow is capable of reimagining the global order and to be able to sustain its policies even against concerted Western pressure—in the hopes that other rising powers will see that it is possible to amend and revise the international system.