Russia and the New World “Order”
-Tara Marie Andronek-
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in a new era of geopolitics, international relations and to the many who study it – history itself. Whether or not the cold war really ended, or has been festering underground ready to re-emerge more fully once again, remains to be seen and continues to be debated. What is clear is that it’s impossible to ignore the spectre of Russia in the news today. From Olympic doping scandals, to the Arctic, overt military actions in Crimea and Syria, and even to cyber war – its reach is omnipresent.
Photo credit © Knowledge@Wharton
This brings us to the event I attended held by the Canadian International Council’s National Capital Branch this past winter: Putin’s Russia: Inside Or Outside The International Order? Speaker Stephen Kotkin, a highly sought after Russian specialist (currently Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, director of its Institute for International and Regional Studies and co-director of the Program in the History and Practice of Diplomacy) led a fascinating analysis of where Russia may be headed. Commentary was provided by Piotr Dutkiewicz, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Governance and Public Policy at Carleton University with a specialization in Russia and member of the Valdai Club, a Russian think-tank of international experts founded in 2004, whose members President Putin has met with every year since to discuss Russia’s place in the world. The event was chaired by Robert Hage, a Canadian diplomat for 38 years, serving most notably as Canada’s Ambassador to Hungary and Slovenia.
Professor Kotkin asserts that Russia has become more authoritarian under his leadership. Having entered politics after leaving the KGB in 1990, Putin later joined President Boris Yeltsin’s administration in 1996, rising quickly through the ranks to become Prime Minister in 1999, and holding the position of Acting President on 31 December 1999 when Boris Yeltsin resigned. He then ascended to the Presidency in 2000. What is essential to understanding Russia under Putin’s leadership, is to understand Russia itself: its view of itself as special, with a special mission. While Russia is not the only country with this view of itself (this calls to mind the concept
of American Exceptionalism), for Russia, despite its ambitions, its capabilities have often proven no match for its aspirations.
Kotkin begins with the theme of recurring patterns in Russian history rooted in its location and place in the world as it strives to constantly overcome this discrepancy. Forced modernization attempts to put Russia on par with its G8 counterparts, but this is rarely sustainable in all sectors. Economic growth spurts are often followed by stagnation which creates a conflict between the survival of the personal regime – Putin’s – and the national interest. The person will often act in the name of national interest but the results are at odds with the interests of the population. This is important since Russian society has differing ideologies and we have more recently seen the emergence of political pluralism.
There is deeply emotional connection to the land – including what Russia used to be under the former Soviet Union, which appears to be ascribed to a sense of a national pride; a potential reason for conflict with the Ukraine. Bordering the EU and China, it is still vastly different from its neighbours and for its size and population, its GDP is only about 1/10th that of the US. As with many nations, there are socio-economic differences between its urban and rural populations.
The second theme is Russia as a paradox. Russia has one of the few influential seats in the UN with a permanent spot on the Security Council holding a powerful veto ability. It has incredibly valuable potential and capability, evidenced from the early days of the space race, nuclear power and abundant natural resources. Nevertheless, it is a country in decline with an exodus of human expertise, and a lack of both investment and infrastructure. Clearly, having a strong hand doesn’t necessarily mean one plays it well. Recent interventions in Syria, the UK poisoning, and possibly the US election, fail to translate into strategic gains as the results are often economic sanctions and a decline in diplomatic relations. To be superpower, Kotkin asserts, is also to exercise restraint.
Former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg 16 June 2016.
Photo credit © UN Photo Continued on page 4