What the last year tells us: Russia is still a key player in international affairs, by Ab Ramaswami

Prevailing thought from scholars, policy makers, and international affairs enthusiasts alike is that Russian influence and importance is waning in the world. While Moscow might not have the “superpower” status of the Soviet Union any longer, it is still a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Although the emphasis is on the countries with rising economic might, such as China, India, Brazil, or Turkey, it is imperative not to understate the power of Russia to influence the world. As the last year has demonstrated, Russia is very much alive and relevant.

In mid-April of 2013, America was victim of a tragedy. The bombing of the Boston Marathon was the first jihadist terrorist attack on U.S. soil after 9/11. The perpetrators of the attack, the Tsarnaev brothers, had links to both Russia and Chechnya. The elder brother, Tamerlan, had visited Russia for six months the previous year. In investigations by U.S. intelligence after the attack, there were questions about what Russia knew about the man and whether they withheld information. The FSB (Russia’s security service) frustrated the FBI during the process and questions arose again about whether cooperation between these two vaunted security agencies were as stable as once believed.

Next comes a man by the name of Edward Snowden. Snowden, the NSA leaker who revealed the indiscriminate spying on millions of Americans by the U.S. government, was immediately searching for a new home after revealing this scandal in Hong Kong. Only a few countries were willing to offer him asylum – naturally, those countries against the ‘Washington Consensus’. However, Russia also ended up offering Snowden asylum, to the surprise of many. Russia’s rationale, that it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S., was not a sufficient excuse to continue to harbor him. Snowden represented a piece of symbolism for Mr. Putin. While questions remain about whether or not Russian authorities extracted information from Snowden, he clearly held little strategic value to Russia beyond that. If anything, continuing to keep him in Russia represented a foreign policy headache that unnecessarily aggrieved the U.S. However, Snowden also represented an opportunity for Putin to lend support to the hypocrisy of the U.S. For a country that lectures to others about transparency, accountability, and civil liberties, the behavior of the NSA (and by extension, the U.S. government) certainly was contradictory to that. It was an easy way for Putin to support the cause that Snowden was championing.

The Syrian Civil War had been going on for over two years, with the fighting accentuating with each passing day. From April of 2013 on, the fighting had intensified to the point that the U.S. had to take notice. President Obama, earlier that year, had even made the comments of his “red line” being Assad’s use of chemical weapons. While he was accused of using them in the Spring of 2013, it was not conclusive enough for the U.S. to act. However, later that summer, the U.S. had concluded that Assad had crossed the line and was pondering how to respond. Obama, an anti-interventionist, clearly was under pressure to respond and back up his words from earlier in the year. With each day passing, he looked worse and worse on the world stage. Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, vetoed any resolution authorizing military intervention, along with China. This again demonstrates Russia’s authority in the world affairs, as a member of the “P5”. However, in September, Putin threw Obama a lifeline to resolve the Syrian crisis. In the end, it bailed out Obama and made Russia and Putin look like saviors for salvaging a crisis. Russia always had the power to act, as an ally of Assad, and they leveraged that into their plan to aid in the removal of chemical weapons. While Obama happily accepted not having to intervene in Syria, he couldn’t have helped but be slightly embarrassed at the prospect of Putin saving him and basking in the glory of doing so.

Finally, we have the crisis in the Ukraine. Though Russia’s stakes are clearly high in this matter, much higher than those of the U.S. or EU, the latter two powers still attempted to exert their power to convince Putin not to intervene. They launched preemptive threats at Putin, which he naturally ignored. After Russia put boots on the ground, the U.S. and EU again threatened Putin with sanctions, removal of the G-8, trade/travel embargoes, etc. Again, Russia has acted in its own interests despite these threats, as Putin has demonstrated he is not going to acquiesce to the requests of the West.

What do all of these key international affairs stories tell us? Of course, that Russia marches to the beat of their own drum and still possesses the political clout to do so, despite “waning” influence. They still make noise on the world stage and get the world to focus their attention on them. They still possess power to use their soft and hard power to influence the most critical of world events. Had that reputation been declining since the end of the Cold War, the past year has certainly reawakened the concept.

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