Is Putin Stuck in the Cold War Era?

With support for dictators and an interest in natural resource domination, Russia doesn't seem interested in embracing modernity.
Lately, Putin and Obama's relationship has been especially strained. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Casually, and in the unlikeliest of places--a comedy show--President Obama gave voice this week to what many Russia experts have been saying for some time: Moscow never fully left the Cold War behind.

The real question, and even Obama seems somewhat mystified by this, is why. "There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," he told Jay Leno in a Tonight Show appearance Tuesday. "What I continually say to them and to President [Vladimir] Putin, 'That's the past. We've got to think about the future.' "

Makes sense. The United States and Russia share enormous interests: antiterrorism, global stability, international trade. They no longer are guided by opposing ideologies, or at least one would think. And yet Putin's seemingly ambivalent decision to grant refugee status to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden--the proximate reason why Obama cancelled a planned summit with Putin before the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg next month--was only the latest unmistakable step in what is emerging as a clear Russian policy to oppose U.S. initiatives and influence around the world. Putin has been the chief obstacle to Washington in the U.N. Security Council (with China often following his moves), backing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against the U.S.-aided rebels and blocking too-stringent sanctions on Iran. He has refused to discuss nuclear-weapons reduction with Obama, and he pressured the U.S. president to to retreat from a missile-defense system, angering Polish and Czech Republic leaders.

Political scientists might call this sort of behavior "geopolitical balancing," and perhaps the most noteworthy fact about the post-Cold War world is how little of this balancing has occurred, until now. In the nearly 22 years since the Soviet Union disappeared, none of the major powers--the European community, Japan, Russia--has stepped up to replace the USSR or engaged in a major military buildup and the geopolitical power games of yore. Even China does not appear to be building up a "blue-water" navy or global military structure the way the Soviet Union once did.

Putin isn't quite going there yet either, and he has warily described Washington as "our U.S. partners." But let's not kid ourselves: This is no partnership. Some of Putin's aggressiveness may be Obama's fault. Despite stepping up drone and covert warfare, he has demonstrated an eagerness to withdraw U.S. forces abroad, and to exercise military power only when NATO, France, and Britain are taking the lead, as in Libya. That could be perceived as weakness, or a vacuum, by the KGB-trained Putin. A good part of it may be the fault of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. The United States remains, technically, the world's only superpower. But Bush's invasion of Iraq a decade ago, intended as a demonstration of this power, achieved the opposite: It mainly exposed our economic and military vulnerabilities. The success of insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan has only demystified U.S. power in the eyes of other geopolitical players like Putin.

And yet Putin may also be responding to a perception of U.S. aggressiveness, especially in expanding NATO eastward in the two decades since the Cold War.

On the face of it, Putin's lack of cooperation makes no sense at all--especially for Russia. Today, for the first time ever, most of the world is democratic, and most nations embrace similar ideas of open-market capitalism. No country, not even would-be rogues such as Iran, has yet found a way around the iron operating laws of the global trade system: In order to be influential or powerful, a nation must be prosperous; in order to be prosperous, it must engage the international system of open trade (rather than conquer territory, as it might once have done); and in order to engage, even countries with different political and social systems, like America and Russia, must act according to the set of norms governing trade and conflict (if not yet, sadly, human rights). China, still nominally communist, has grown vastly rich playing this game. As Obama put it on a trip to China in 2009, the American and Chinese economies are so integrated that to disentangle them would mean a kind of "mutual assured destruction."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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