Russia Watch: Russia’s choice – power balancer or China’s Canada?

The reset between the Kremlin and the White House is dead.

Now, the question in Moscow is: what will replace it?

With the cancellation of President Obama’s visit here next month, it is unlikely that the president of the United States will devote much of his second term to dealing with President Putin. The White House will relegate the relationship to a second level – as seen by Friday’s meeting Washington of the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers.

Obama will not waste more time on trying to work up personal chemistry and goodwill with Putin. At his news conference Friday, the U.S. leader said of the Russian president: “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”

The relationship will be transactional and largely behind closed doors. Many analysts in Washington see Moscow as less useful on several fronts. With the American withdrawal, Afghanistan may become, once again, a Russian problem. The new president of Iran may decide to freeze his nation’s nuclear bomb program, for his own reasons, regardless of Russian influence. On Syria and nuclear disarmament, Russia shows little interest in cooperating with Washington.

Given that Putin may run Russia for another 5 or 10 years, he now has to decide which road to take:
Continued anti-Americanism and gluing Russia to China?
Or aspiring to the triangular, balancing position that Moscow played between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s?

The “reset” – now seen as a lost era of good feelings – was a product of the new Obama administration and the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

But after Putin returned to the Kremlin 15 months ago, he gave Russia a hard right turn. He jailed opposition leaders, curbed civil society, closed human rights groups, and purged the Duma to make for unanimous votes in the style of the old Supreme Soviet.

To prepare and sustain public opinion, his government launched an anti-American campaign – accusing the State Department of funding opposition rallies, closing USAID and other aid programs, banning American parents from adopting Russian orphans and, most recently, granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the fugitive leaker from the National Security Administration.

Creating a straw enemy out of the United States had an extra bonus, giving the Kremlin political cover for a $700 billion military rearmament program. (No matter that virtually all US tanks have been shipped out of Europe. No one in Moscow dares to associate the military buildup with the country that shares 3,645 kilometers in land borders with Russia).

The anti-American campaign was created largely to bolster Putin’s conservative, TV-viewing, domestic audience.

But it turns out the wrong people were listening.

According to an annual world attitudes survey commissioned by the BBC, the percent of Russians with a negative view of the United States world influence actually dropped over the last four years, from 65 percent in 2009 to 53 percent in 2013. This year, about 20 million Russians are expected to spend about $40 billion this year on travel to the West. It seems that the nation’s best educated and best paid citizens are voting with their feet, tuning out their president’s anti-West campaign.

But during almost the same period, the number of Americans classifying Russia’s world role as “mainly positive” has dropped by half – from 45 percent in 2008 to 23 percent today.

In the United States, Putin’s campaign managed to unite the editorial boards of The Wall Street Journal (conservative) and The New York Times (liberal) in writing anti-Putin editorials. The Snowden affair sparked angry comments in Congress from Republicans and Democrats alike. The favorite image was “a poke in the eye.”

Putin’s recent anti-gay legislation has stirred up a hornet’s nest of blogs, petitions and protests – all aimed at next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

With the cancellation of the Obama-Putin summit, Kremlin analysts now may realize they overplayed their hand. The Obama administration is pushing back.

If Kremlin analysts take the long view, they may realize that they need to rebuild relations with Washington. But doing that, takes the courage to look economic and demographic trends in the eye.

Given these sobering trends, Russia has a short window to restore its former balancing role between Washington and Beijing.

At present, the America’s $16 trillion economy is double the size of China’s $8 trillion economy. And China’s economy is four times larger than Russia’s $2 trillion economy.

Despite China’s current “slowdown” to 7.5 percent growth in the second quarter of 2013, it is still growing six times as fast as Russia’s second-quarter growth of 1.2 percent.

Conservative economists forecast that the Chinese and U.S. economies will be roughly equal in size in 10 years, around $18 trillion. If growth flattens in Russia, that would give China an economy nine times the size of Russia, its northern neighbor.

In terms of economic size, that is the same ratio seen today between the United States and its northern neighbor, Canada. The American population is also nine times the size of Canada’s – the same ratio seen today between the populations of China and Russia. The implication for Russia’s ambitions to remain an autonomous world power are clear.

On Sept. 5, Obama will travel to Russia, to the annual meeting of the G20 nations, held this year in St. Petersburg. Kremlinologists will once again study Putin’s body language at the public sessions – this time when he encounters Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.





James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.