Putin’s Russia: The Pretend Great Power

Putin has tried to portray Russia as having re-emerged as a great power. As Syria reveals, this is a façade.

The New York Times is out with an article this morning discussing how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s silence about the imminent U.S. military strikes against Syria illustrate that he’s resigned himself to them. That isn’t to suggest that he doesn’t still oppose America’s military intervention in the country, only that he understands that, short of initiating a nuclear exchange that would eliminate Russia as a national entity, he cannot do anything to prevent it.

This touches on a broader point: namely, that states can’t pretend to be a great power, at least not for long.

Especially since returning as president earlier this year, Putin has worked tirelessly to create the impression that Russia has re-emerged as a great power on the world stage, something of a co-equal of the U.S. He has done this mainly be publicly defying Washington on high-profile issues that were of limited strategic importance to the U.S., such as the Syrian civil war or the Edward Snowden case. Thus does he wish to show other countries that they can turn to Russia for help in countering the U.S. if they ever find themselves in America’s crosshairs.

But this façade can only be maintained for so long, as Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union both found out to their dismay. For all the attention soft power has received in recent years, ultimately great powers are built first and foremost on hard power assets like military power and wealth. These are tangible, concrete resources that cannot be faked; one cannot pretend to have a powerful military for long, because at some point they’ll be called to the test and their weakness exposed.

This is essentially what Russia faces with the U.S. military intervention in Syria. In the U.S., many are saying the U.S. must intervene to maintain its credibility given President Obama’s past statements about chemical weapons being a redline. There’s a lot of social science that says that leaders don’t calculate another country’s credibility by looking if it upheld past threats in similar situations, and America’s own reactions to North Korea and Iranian threats certainly don’t follow this logic.

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But Russian credibility is certainly on the line in Syria. Russia has made it a point of trying to protect the Assad regime from international sanction since the civil war began over two years ago. The U.S. has complained about Moscow’s actions in Syria, but largely done little in response. This helped perpetuate the myth that Russia could be a great power protectorate again.

Now the U.S. is gearing up to take action against Assad and has paid almost no heed to Russia’s position at all. This is the ultimate mark of a lack of credibility. The fact that the U.S. doesn’t feel at all compelled to consider Russia’s position before intervening, and that Russia can do little to stop or impede Washington from proceeding, underscores Moscow’s weakness. Such a development would have been unthinkable during the Arab-Israeli conflicts during the Cold War, for instance, when Russia could still claim the great power mantle.