Kerry, during his visit, also planned to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, just ahead of Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates
the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. U.S. officials tend to see the shared experience of fighting Hitler in a benign light as well, coming after the
Cold War. Yet here too the Americans have been naïve. Putin and other senior Russian officials and state-sanctioned academics are recasting history in ways
that elide Stalin's cynical giveaway of Poland to Hitler in 1939 (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) and emphasize Russia's already considerable role in
defeating Nazism almost on its own. According to some Russia scholars such as Eltsov, this is part of Putin's ongoing effort to remake Stalin's historical
image from that of a murderous monster--reversing the official debunking that started with Nikita Khrushchev and ended with Mikhail Gorbachev--into that of
an "effective manager."
While China's military is decades away from being able to project force beyond East Asia, Russia is still in possession of thousands of nuclear weapons and
a still-active military and arms industry. While China and the U.S. are still financially and economically interdependent, Putin's Russia is trying to
become a "natural-resources superpower" that vies with the U.S. and Europe for global influence. (In the mid-'90s, after 15 years in the KGB, Putin
attended graduate school in St. Petersburg and wrote a dissertation titled "Toward a Russian Transnational Energy Company." The topic: how to use energy
resources for grand strategic planning. This underlines how, to a remarkable degree, Russia has failed to turn its scientific and technological advantages
into competitive global industrial might and still relies largely on its natural resources.) And while China has proved rather ambivalent about asserting
its way--outside of East Asia--Putin has not been shy about seeking to stymie, at nearly every turn, America's influence around the world. As John Arquilla
of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School wrote last fall: "In classic geopolitical
terms--that is, by giving attention to territory, resources of all sorts, and their influence on beliefs, behavior, and policy--it is quite clear that
Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence."
So Mitt Romney actually had things right in 2012, when he inartfully labeled Russia "America's No. 1 geopolitical foe." The Obama administration appeared
to offer up a belated recognition of Moscow's importance before Kerry's two-day visit, when a senior State Department official described it as part of
"more intensified dialogue with the Russians at the highest levels."
But as we follow the diplomacy in Washington and Moscow this week, don't be surprised if Kerry fails to make much headway with Putin and Lavrov over Syria
in the aftermath of reported strikes by America's chief ally in the region, Israel, on Assad's weapons depots. For the Russians, the issue will likely be
much more about a clash of allies than a commonality of interests.