It's hard to look on the bright side of the dismemberment of a sovereign state by force of arms. But because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing threat Vladimir Putin intends to pose to eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration must now face international reality free of one of its more cherished illusions: that Russia is a partner in the pursuit of commonly desired outcomes.
Obama scoffed mightily in his reelection debate with Mitt Romney when the GOP candidate described Russia as America’s biggest strategic challenge. Called out on the remark in light of Russia’s move on Crimea, Obama was once again dismissive of the Romney perspective. He referred to Russia as merely “a regional power,” implicitly rebuking his defeated opponent even in light of current circumstances for overstating the danger Russia poses. The president’s point dovetailed into broader Democratic criticism of hawkish Republicans for the supposed desire of the latter to revive a Cold War mentality in dealing with Russia.
It’s certainly true that Putin’s Russia isn’t Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. In a way, that’s Putin’s point: In its hour of dire weakness, the Soviet Union and then Russia lost an empire. There is no likelihood of a global resurgence of Russian influence and proxy contests between Moscow and Washington ranging from Central Asia to Africa to Latin America. The United States has no need to return to a Cold War footing.
Nevertheless, Obama’s “regional power” remark is telling. For what exactly is a regional power? Well, if the term means anything, it’s a state that wields considerable influence over its neighbors—and not influence of the “soft power” sort. A regional power gets its way with less powerful states in its region whether the other states like it or not. A regional power practices coercive diplomacy based on the preponderance of its power. It makes demands in the name of its “national interest” that impinge directly on the perceived national interests that neighboring states have—demands to which the others accede.
Russia’s regional power includes not just its manifestly revivified military capability but also its economic power, in the form of the reliance of its neighbors on Russia for energy resources. Moscow can turn out the lights and turn off the heat, and although this capability as such would mean little in the hands of a state just interested in enriching those lucky enough to be participants in its oil and gas sector, in the case of a state seeking to reassert its regional influence, the ability to exercise economic coercion is a serious asset as well.
True, its economic power is a double-edged sword: The Russian economy depends heavily on a market for its energy resources. But would anybody today rule out as unworthy of consideration the possibility that come winter 2014, Russia might credibly threaten to curtail exports in the absence of concessions?
Nor is the energy sector the totality of Russia’s economic power. Russia has considerable trade flows with Europe, and to the extent anyone in Europe has considered decisions about policy toward Russia in light of business interests, that too indicates the reality of Russian economic power. Such trade flows don’t amount to an element of power when the trading partners don’t see themselves as having serious conflicts over national interests. There’s no point in wasting analytical resources on consideration of the economic power of the United States over Canada. But Putin’s Russia, qua “regional power,” now demands exactly such analysis.
Moreover, it seems clear from Obama’s characterization that the American president understands and accepts that Russia is a regional power—with all the perks that regional power entails. The palpable disappointment in the White House and in Secretary of State John Kerry’s office over Russia’s decision to take a “19th-century” approach to international politics rather than embrace a cooperative “21st-century” perspective also entails acknowledgment that there is nothing the United States can do to prevent Russia asserting itself in this fashion. That’s what being a regional power does for you: It ensures that a much bigger but far-away power isn’t in a position to stop your exercise in self-assertion in your neighborhood.