‘Putin’s World’ Gains Traction as Alternative to West.
Richard Gowan |Monday, July 13, 2015
Who wants to live in a world designed by Vladimir Putin? The number of people who answer “yes” to that question may be rather higher than American and European officials might like to imagine. The Russian president has crafted a narrative about his nation’s revitalization as a global power that many of his countrymen clearly appreciate. Chauvinist nationalist leaders elsewhere, such as Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s National Front party, admire his success. But Western policymakers typically comfort themselves that Putin’s mainstream appeal remains limited. Moscow has not been able to offer a positive vision of a new international system that can compete with, let alone surpass, what the West offers.
Yet over the past week, Putin and his advisers have done a rather good job of outlining the fundamental principles of the world they would like to live in. In this world, sovereign states would not have to deal with irritants such as Western sanctions or international justice. Leaders willing to turn to Moscow for protection could bank on Russian support in moments of crisis. China would bankroll Russia’s geopolitical goals, rather than restructure the international system on its own terms.
Russian officials have been pushing these principles in New York, Vienna and the central Russian city of Ufa. In New York, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moscow’s man at the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, argued that the text drafted by Britain would stir up renewed political tensions in Bosnia. Both Bosnian Serbs and Serbia itself had asked Russia to block the resolution, and Churkin could hardly let down Moscow’s most significant remaining allies in the Balkans.
Russia’s loyalty to its old friends was also on display in Vienna, where talks on Iran’s nuclear program repeatedly stalled last week. Though a deal is widely expected to be announced today, a key sticking point down the homestretch of negotiations was a 2006 U.N. resolution barring conventional arms imports and exports to and from Iran. While the U.S. and its European allies have fought to keep the ban in place, Russia and China sided with Iran in a last-minute push to cancel it. Western officials claim that Moscow has lined up huge arms sales to Tehran. But Moscow is sensitive to sanctions regimes and embargos of all kinds, as Russia is under U.S. and European sanctions itself over its behavior in Ukraine. It could hardly let the Iranian case go by unchallenged.
Putin made this link explicit in Ufa, where he hosted summits of the BRICS group—comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—and the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO) last week. He not only called for all sanctions on Iran to be lifted, but also added that the very word “should be excluded from the international economic vocabulary” completely.
Western leaders are well-accustomed to such barbs from Putin. But they could not claim that he was isolated last week. The Ufa summit, featuring leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, looked like a credible non-Western riposte to the G-7. At the U.N., nobody joined with Russia in voting outright against the Srebrenica resolution. Yet Angola, Nigeria and Venezuela joined China in abstaining on the text, making it hard for the U.S. and Europeans to argue that Moscow’s position was illegitimate.
These countries did not necessarily abstain out of love for Russia. Rather, Angola was entangled in an appalling civil war of its own at the end of the Cold War, and Nigeria is locked in a bloody battle with Boko Haram that has involved serious abuses: Neither have any interest in creating precedents for the U.N. to revisit old war crimes. Nonetheless, Russia has clearly touched a chord with its opposition to the West in multilateral institutions.
As the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argues in a paper released last week, Russia’s approach dovetails with those of China and India, which aim to establish “a new, low-cost and incentive-driven international order.” In China’s case, the goal is an order that “minimizes norms and legal enforcement while enshrining trade and capital flows from the protected vantage point of a self-styled developing economy on track to being the world’s number one.” From Beijing’s perspective, and indeed New Delhi and Brasilia’s, Western efforts to recall Srebrenica or punish Russia economically over Ukraine detract from these economic priorities.
Putin has been able to harness the other BRICS member states’ general suspicion of Western policymaking to limit international pressure over his role in Ukraine. When the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Crimea last year, all of the other BRICS countries abstained. China has also stuck close to Moscow over both Iran and Syria. “Western diplomats say that once the Russians have delivered their position on a sensitive position at the U.N.,” I noted in an earlier ECFR paper, “their Chinese counterparts often follow through with identical talking points a few hours later.” Observers split over whether Beijing is tougher with Moscow behind the scenes or is simply happy to let the Russians bear the brunt of most arguments. Either way, the net effect is that Moscow has increasing latitude to throw its weight around in multilateral negotiations ranging from the largely symbolic debate over Srebrenica to the acutely sensitive negotiations with Tehran.
Over time, this is liable to lead to a slow transformation and degradation of the international system. International cooperation will not become impossible. But it will be increasingly hard for the U.S. and Europeans to wield tools like sanctions, at least with U.N. authorization, and appeal to liberal norms of human rights and justice. Multilateral diplomacy will trend toward unvarnished big-power bargaining of the type we have seen over Iran in the past week. That in turn will benefit those diplomatic players who care little for international norms but care a lot about winning. Vladimir Putin is just the sort of leader who will thrive in this brutal game.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.