According to Germany’s Spiegel, a chill has fallen over German-Russian relations even as summer reaches the far north. The Kremlin’s recent snubbing of German President Joachim Gauck and Putin’s absence at the G8 summit have led to suspicion as to how much swagger the Russian leader will exhibit in the coming months as his EU neighbors struggle.
From the German perspective, leaders in Moscow still don’t understand that Russia is no longer a global power and that it needs Europe as a reliable partner. The administration in Berlin views the Russian crusade against NATO’s planned missile-defense system in Europe as a last, desperate effort at power-posturing — Russia pretending to be strong because it is actually weak.The Kremlin sees the situation differently. Not without some schadenfreude, Putin and his advisers view the West’s influence on global politics as waning. They point out that, over the last 30 years, the EU member-states’ share of the global economy has been steadily sinking. “Putin is convinced that the Western model already has the zenith of its global allure behind it,” says political scientist Nikolai Slobin.
We can expect Putin to exploit the current weakness of that Western model, and to feel more emboldened to challenge it. One of his most popular campaign promises last winter was the creation of a new “Eurasian Union,” the next stage in the customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. As the eurozone crumbles and the limits of continental cooperation are tested, Putin has promised to inaugurate “a new political and economic basis and new system of values” in Europe.Putin is certainly likely to enjoy some geopolitical benefits as the European Union writhes in its currency woes. But it takes more than weakened neighbors to make a great power. Putin’s Russia is essentially a limited and secondary power in the sense that its own wealth depends large on the prosperity of others. If the world economy slows, the price of oil and gas fall, and the position of whoever rules Russia weakens. The EU might suffer in such a scenario but Russia’s ability to capitalize on its neighbors’ distress will be limited by its own financial weakness. On the other hand, Russian power is greatest when the rest of the world is doing well and the price of oil is high. At those times, Russia is full of beans and ready for new initiatives, but its neighbors are also in a strong position to counter its plans.Putin’s biggest ally in this situation is inertia. There are a lot of places in his immediate neighborhood — think of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus — where political and economic arrangements have a natural tendency to slither downhill toward authoritarianism and crony kleptocracy. Absent a strong West willing and able to help reformers and modernizers in those countries push uphill, Russia can hope that many of those countries will respond to Moscow’s gravitational pull.The Kremlin wishes Central Asia would also work this way, but the trouble there is that in much of the region, China, heroin producers and radical Islam are more likely to be the winners in any long term process of inertia and decay than Russia would be.The Germans are basically right about Russia’s long term interests. It benefits more from building stable and reliable relations with the EU than from threatening it. But Putin’s Russia is still trying to defy history and work against it rather than going with the flow. It is far likelier to try to take advantage of various short term EU vulnerabilities than to think wisely and magnanimously about building long term relationships.Russia’s domestic political economy is based on short termism, as businesses try to make fortunes quickly and get the money out of the country before the crash that many fear; its foreign policy is also focused on the short term. In foreign policy, Russia’s leaders want and need the prestige and legitimacy that comes from short term foreign policy too much to think about what is in the long term best interests of the Russian state.