Regardless of the outcome of the Putin-Obama meeting to discuss Syria, Ukraine and other matters, one thing is clear --the meeting demonstrates the sudden, even shocking, rise to power of Russia in the last several years.
In a world full of surprises--the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the weakness in the Chinese economy, the battles within the European Union, the making of the Iran deal, the slide in the American stock market--the greatest surprise of all has been the sudden rebirth of Russian power under Vladimir Putin.
This is amazing given that Russia has withdrawn from Eastern Europe, lost half its population, lacks modern consumer, agricultural and hi-tech sectors and suffered a 50 percent drop in the price of its oil exports. Russia’s economy is smaller than that of England, France or Germany and has not moved towards Western democratic capitalism.
Putin is repeatedly pilloried by Western leaders. President Obama, denigrating Russia as only a regional power, proclaimed that Putin resembled a bored kid slouching in the back of the classroom. German Chancellor Angela Merkel scathingly derided Putin’s machismo, saying “I understand why he has to do this--to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing…”
Yet, Russia has re-established itself as a great power courting authoritarian and often corrupt regimes all over the world. Its reacquiring Crimea, Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia and part of Left Bank Ukraine in the last decade is secretly welcomed by conservative nationalist leaders with their own aspirations.
Alone among the major global powers, Russia is on the offensive and willing to intervene to help its allies. The Europeans are no longer the great powers they were before World War II. Japan and Germany found their power seriously reduced by defeats in World War II. China is decades away from becoming a superpower. The United States under President Obama is staging a semi-withdrawal from key areas of the world.
The Sunni Arab leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are all going to Moscow this year. Saudi King Salman will even welcome Vladimir Putin to Riyadh! Retired Saudi Major General Anwar Eshki said recently, “Saudi Arabia needs Russia in the Middle East, not to destabilize countries but to be a friend.”
Even democratic Israel increasingly looks to Russia. Israel and Russia have two billion dollars in trade while Israel sells drones to the Russians. Whether Russia finally will or won’t sell its S-300 surface to air missile system to Iran is of vital interest to Israel.
Syrian President Bashar Assad owes his survival to 4-5 billion dollars of Russian military aid as well as Iranian help. Russia played a key role in ensuring a lenient nuclear deal for Iran. Russia is the main weapons supplier to Iran and will build more nuclear power plants like Busheir.
With its strong military capabilities, Eurasian geographic location, capable leadership, conservative nationalism and resuscitation of old Cold War relationships, Russia has again become a major player in the world.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Adelman has written several books on Russia and was Condoleezza Rice's doctoral adviser.