Russia’s options are narrowing. Putin is not stupid but the strong-man tactics will only gain the country so much leverage with his neighbors such as Ukraine. The economy of Russia is smaller than Britain’s, and the basis of Russia’s economic power is weakening.
Even diplomatically, a series of hardline actions towards protesters (Greenpeace, Pussy Riot) have paradoxically hurt Russia by making it look unduly repressive and authoritarian. It’s a shame. The losses suffered by Russia during WWII make it difficult for the outside world to understand the motivations of the country. It’s as if Russia tends to read too many events as threats (gay rights, a desire for reform in Ukraine). Nonetheless, in recent years, this trend of seeing the world through a prism of coercion has led Putin to being unnecessary coercive.
No one disputes that China is in a stronger position than Russia. Even if the economy is wildly unbalanced, the rapidly development of its economy, and the expansion of its trade ties outpaces anything Russia can achieve. But it’s not certain China will achieve actual superpower status, given the amount of disorder and factionalism masked by its system. Outsiders ascribe grand strategies to China’s actions in geopolitics (East China Sea) for example, but it’s possible its military hardened its stance toward the US and Japan precisely because of internal pressures. Likewise, a modern country wouldn’t want to suppress foreign media – and yet again internal sensitivities that go straight to the legitimacy of the ruling elite, are likely behind the crackdown on foreign media. This trend is more in line with a large developing country, rather than an emerging superpower. In a model where the Communist Party stays in power and tries to enforce its rule on a more modern and restive population, China could emerge as a super-economy, rather than super-power. Besides, capable countries don’t link genetic code theft from the US to state visits by their leaders.
It’s been a chaotic decade for the US. After the post-9/11 hysteria helped usher in the War on Iraq, the brains behind the war for Middle East oil conquest must be asking themselves if was worth it, given the impact of the fracking revolution today. For many years the US will be coping with the bad PR generated by that War of Adventure. It was the clearest sign of a superpower out of control. The diplomatic effect of the Snowden disclosures should help to further isolate the country, giving all allies reason to question the pros and cons of the American-way and American-leadership. Finally, the ideological battles and gridlock between the parties have hurt the country in the global public’s eyes, generating appetite for a counterbalance like China.
If the US succeeds in emerging from the domestic chaos that arguably began with the Monica Lewinsky scandal – or better yet, the result of the 2000 election (both of which undermined its credibility) the US will have an altered role in world politics. Soon it may no longer be the biggest economy. But the sense of a political realignment within the US may mimic a geopolitical realignment. There may once again be space for the US near the center, as a counterbalance to China and Russia, among other things. But it depends if the US can successfully make the transition.
One last thing
…And recall, China’s ascent has occurred during a period of US decline. Should the US reverse that, China may find a much different trade and diplomatic party to contend with. Russia, for now, will be man in the middle.