Mitt Romney and Vladimir Putin share a hankering for the past. The Republican candidate for the White House says Russia remains America ‘s principal geopolitical foe. This flatters a Russian president who wants to sustain the hollow pretence that the international order is still shaped by superpower rivalry between Moscow and Washington.
If Mr Romney wins the presidency he will discover soon enough that the world is not quite as he described it on his recent visit to Europe and Israel. The unipolar moment, if it ever existed, has passed. George W. Bush discovered that during his second term when he swapped wars for diplomacy.
Mr Putin’s regime is unpleasant and destructive -mostly towards its own people. It has a wholly negative approach to global order. But for the US the relationship with China is the consequential one. The facts of geopolitical life, as Barack Obama has understood, demand a Pacific president.
As for playing the tough guy, a President Romney would find that the US military has had enough of fighting wars of choice. It would much prefer its commander-in-chief to devote his energies to sorting out the country’s fiscal mess. Debts and deficits are the biggest threat to America’s national security.
Mr Putin will not be budged from his nostalgia. Casting the west as the enemy is vital to his pretence that Russia has held on to superpower status. When Russians protested in their tens of thousands about the rigging of last December’s Duma elections, his reaction was that it was all a plot cooked up by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. To many westerners Nato looks pretty much an enfeebled alliance, a relic of the cold war. In the Kremlin, Nato’s plans for missile defence are proof positive of its aggressive intentions towards Russia.
Mr Putin has made two big strategic decisions since returning in May for a third term as president. Both have diminished Russia. The first has been to continue to back Bashar al-Assad in the face of the Syrian president’s escalating slaughter of his own people; the second to crack down on internal dissent against the corruption and lawlessness of his own regime.
The civil war in Syria is unlikely to have a happy outcome. Western governments are discovering that non-intervention carries costs. But what seems absolutely clear is that the present regime will fall. Russia will have lost its most important regional ally and, by stubbornly thwarting efforts by the Arab League and United Nations to engineer a political solution, will have surrendered any claim of influence in the Arab world. So much for his policy of “standing up” to the west at the UN.
Mr Putin’s response to the popular protests that have marked his return to the Kremlin has been an array of measures to stifle dissent. NGOs that accept overseas support are now obliged to describe themselves as “foreign agents”; new measures have been introduced to censor internet websites; and, in an echo of the treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent internet blogger and campaigner against state corruption, has been accused, of all things, of stealing large quantities of lumber.
There has been as much an air of paranoia as a demonstration of power about the clampdown. Most Russians would probably deprecate the actions of the three members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot in choosing a Moscow Cathedral to lampoon Mr Putin. But their trial for “hooliganism incited by racial hatred” has said more about the mindset of the Russian president than about the alleged transgression.
Like many autocrats, including those who have been toppled in the Middle East, Mr Putin underestimates the importance of legitimacy. When he elbowed aside the more liberal-leaning Dmitry Medvedev to return to the presidency, Mr Putin imagined 12 trouble-free years in the Kremlin. That hope has dissolved. Neither supporters of Mr Medvedev nor opposition leaders have the strength to overturn him, but the protests have undermined him, especially among a Muscovite middle class increasingly frustrated by the regime’s corruption.
Mr Putin still has revenues from oil and gas, but the economic tides are increasingly running against him. As anyone living in London can tell you, capital flight continues apace. The absence of the rule of law leaves foreign investors increasingly wary, demanding ever higher risk premiums for projects in Russia. The country’s infrastructure is rotting and it’s population falling fast. It has forgotten how to build space rockets and how to win Olympic medals.
The west should not take comfort in any of this. Its interest lies in a Russia prosperous and confident enough to see a role for itself on the international stage beyond propping up nasty dictators such as Mr Assad. There are plenty of people in Russia who see the benefits of political liberalisation at home and engagement abroad.
The sensible approach for the west is to be as robust as necessary when necessary and to engage where possible. To demonise Mr Putin, as Mr Romney suggests, is to lend credibility to the Russian president’s warped conspiracy theories and his efforts to snuff out opposition at home. There are areas where the US and Russia can and should co-operate. Iran is one, Afghanistan another. Efforts to further reduce the US and Russian nuclear arsenals are vital to the broader goal of sustaining an international non-proliferation regime.
Co-operation does not assume support for the Kremlin’s repression or ignoring the nature of the regime. Rather it is to acknowledge that change belongs to Russians. Mr Putin will not let go of the past, but he will discover sooner or later there is no future in it.