Despite optimism in the United States that the Russian peace initiative may offer a way out of the Syrian crisis, the pattern of Russian foreign policy shows that Russia can envisage nothing better for itself than the role of world-wide antagonist of the U.S.
The difference in values between the U.S. and Russiaand the subordination of Russian foreign policy to the personal interests of the members of a corrupt regimeshould have been obvious to the Obama administration from the beginning. But it did nothing to forestall the policy of “reset.” At the 2009 Moscow Summit, Mr. Obama praised the “extraordinary work” that Vladimir Putin, who was then officially the prime minister, had done for Russia. Mr. Obama described Mr. Putin as “sincere, just and deeply interested in the welfare of the Russian people.”
The praise was never reciprocated, in part because Russian leaders fear and distrust their own population, and they understand that Western advocacy of the rule of law and human rights is a potential threat to their rule. In recent years, U.S. officials have often said that it is difficult to solve the world’s problems without Russia. Unfortunately, it is often even harder to solve them with it.
The U.S. needs three things from Russia: understanding in defense matters, assistance in the war on terror, and help in curbing the ambitions of rogue states. In each case, the record of the Putin regime is one of relentless obstruction.
One source of conflict has been Russian objections to U.S. plans to construct an antimissile shield in Europe to protect U.S. allies against an attack from Iran. Russia has treated the shield as a threat to its nuclear deterrent, despite the opinion of Russia’s own experts that the missiles pose no threat to the Russian ICBM force and are intended for a completely different purpose.
In 2009, Mr. Obama canceled plans for antimissile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, in part to improve U.S.-Russian relations. But the U.S. is now preparing to station interceptors in Romania. In response, Russia is demanding legal guarantees that the missiles will not be used against Russia and is threatening to target U.S. missile-defense sites if there is no agreement.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the Russian position as “You can’t in any rational way think that NATO constitutes a threat against Russia” he told the AP in February 2012. “It’s a complete waste of money to deploy offensive weapons and capabilities against NATO territory.”
Russia has also undermined U.S. efforts to combat terror. Two striking recent examples are the cases of the Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden.
Tsarnaev spent six months in the Dagestan region of Russia in 2012 before the attack on April 15. Two of his contacts, Mahmud Nigal, a suspected link with the Islamist underground, and William Plotnikov, a Russian-Canadian Islamic radical, were killed by Russian forces while he was there. Yet the Russians insist that Tsarnaev was not under surveillance in Dagestan and never questioned. If this is true, it is in complete contradiction to all known Russian practice. Tsarnaev left Russia freely through Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport and the Federal Security Service never warned the U.S. about his contacts in Dagestan.
Russia also showed little concern for efforts to protect U.S. civilians in its decision to shelter Edward Snowden. In light of the quantity and quality of what Mr. Snowden stole, an adequate damage assessment depends on getting him back to the U.S. Until that happens, the efforts of the NSA and other agencies to defend the U.S. against terror are going to be crippled.
Aware of this, Mr. Putin seems to be mainly concerned with subjecting the U.S. to ridicule. The Russian media have published articles about Mr. Snowden’s “new life,” “proposals of marriage” and a future career defending human rights. At the same time, although Mr. Putin said that a condition of Mr. Snowden’s asylum was that he “stop harming our American partners,” the leaks of NSA information have continued.
Russian obstruction of the U.S. has had its gravest consequences, however, in interstate relations. Russia has defended Iran against Western economic sanctions, arguing that they are “a violation of international law.” Moscow also has been unswerving in its support for Bashar Assad in Syria, from voting to block three U.N. Security Council resolutions on sanctions against Syria to insisting that the chemical-weapons attack on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 Syrians was carried out by the rebels.
The U.S. will now try to enforce a U.S.-Russian agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons under conditions in which Russia and Syria can use delay, obfuscation and disinformation to string out the process indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition, which has endured chemical-weapons attacks without seeing a serious response from the civilized world, is likely to continue to radicalize.
Russian anti-Americanism is likely to intensify. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has no universal ideology capable of inspiring loyalties that transcend national boundaries. Anti-Americanism is a kind of substitute. It allows Russia to carve out a prominent role for itself in world affairs that it could never have if it were concerned only with acting positively.
At the same time, and probably more important, anti-Americanism can be used to distract Russians from the corruption of the Putin regime and the pillaging of the country. Mr. Putin and his associates stand at the apex of a corrupt system and, according to some estimates, control 15% of the national wealth. During protest demonstrations last year over the falsification of elections, Mr. Putin was openly referred to as a “thief,” a serious development in a society where the charge is widely believed but usually not made publicly.
At the same time, the regime is threatened by a deteriorating economy. In the second quarter of this year, growth fell to 1.2%. During the 2000s, the rate was 7.2%. Because of its immense corruption, Russia is critically dependent on high oil prices, and these are supported by Middle East instability.
Under such circumstances, the U.S. is not only a helpful distraction but a convenient scapegoat. Mr. Putin is losing support in Moscow, but his defense of the Assad regime evokes nostalgia for the Soviet empire and strengthens his support among the conservative and provincial part of the population. As Mr. Putin’s political position weakens further, his antagonism toward the U.S. will almost certainly increase.
In the wake of the Russian initiative over Syria, the U.S. is now much more reliant on Russia than it should ever have permitted itself to be. In our fixation with “deliverables,” we forgot that what really matters in relations between states are intangibles, such as good faith. That’s something Mr. Putin has not shown toward America in the past, and U.S. policy makers would be unwise to rely on it in the future.