Over the last six months Vladimir Putin has changed Russia’s international role significantly. After being considered an international pariah and fading superpower after the annexation of the Crimea, the international community is now lauding Putin for his realpolitik diplomacy in the Middle East.
By combining Russia’s military power and strong-arm diplomacy, Putin has catapulted Russia back into the role of an indispensible world power, returning the international order to a multiplayer system, much to the chagrin of America.
America has declared that Russia is one of the greatest threats to the international system, according to the United States Secretary of Defence Ash Carter, who said:
“Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling, raises questions about Russian leaders’ commitment to strategic stability, their respect for norms against the use of nuclear weapons, and whether they respect the profound caution nuclear-age leaders showed with regard to the brandishing of nuclear weapons.”
Secretary Carter went on to state that:
“We do not seek a cold, let alone a hot, war with Russia. We do not seek to make Russia an enemy. But make no mistake; the United States will defend our interests, our allies, the principled international order, and the positive future it affords us all.”
Challenging America or playing by the rules?
The problem with the United States overtly aggressive stance is that it makes Putin look calm and rational. Quite simply he appears to be the elder statesman arguing that everyone must play by the agreed-upon rules. In his most recent address to the United Nations President Putin highlighted the danger he saw in arbitrary actions among the international community.
“Russia stands ready to work together with its partners on the basis of full consensus, but we consider the attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations as extremely dangerous. They could lead to a collapse of the entire architecture of international organizations, and then indeed there would be no other rules left but the rule of force.”
In a later speech Putin also pointed out that the United States is trying to keep itself as the only hegemonic power in the world, in order to support its economy. Arguing that the United States keeps its allies as vassals he declared the Americans desire to democratize the world is unattainable. Explaining how Russia had already attempted that route with socialism and failed to achieve anything other than bring itself into conflict, Putin argued that we need to accept governments for what they are instead of seeking change.
Pistols at dawn?
So does all this posturing mean that Russia and America are preparing for a global game of Risk, where Russia and America divide the world between themselves competing constantly for military, political, and economic supremacy around the globe. Certainly the return of Russia from its isolationist foreign policy has meant that the international system as we know it is now in a state of flux. As America has already identified, many nations are already acting outside of the American world system to further their own sphere of influence.
For the past year and half China has been advancing its interests in the South China Sea and in Eurasia. Iran, by supporting the Assad and Iraqi government, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has long seen its role in the international system as a global player. Turkey in Syria, Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and Japan in the northern pacific see themselves in a similar light.
The reality then is that the new world order is really just a return to the multiplayer world order that existed prior to World War II. The question now is how will the world cope?
A Putin world order
Vladimir Putin, in his address to the United Nations last year, provides a hint of how he would like the system to work. In his address he stated:
“The key decisions on the principles guiding the cooperation among states, as well as on the establishment of the United Nations, were made in our country, in Yalta, at the meeting of the anti-Hitler coalition leaders.”
For those not aware, the 1945 Yalta Conference in the Crimea was the meeting between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt where the three leaders attempted to reorganize Europe so that peace could be maintained. While each leader had an agenda for the conference, it was where it was decided that the USSR could have a sphere of political influence in Eastern and Central Europe, to protect them.
By basing his address on the foundation of Yalta, Putin is signalling that he would like to return to a world divided by spheres of influence. In such a system Russia could demand a free hand in the former soviet territories of Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and in each of its former allies like Syria. The implications of which have been illustrated by the recent conflict in the Ukraine.
Given the tragedy that the Yalta system created in Eastern Europe and Central Asia when they were annexed to the Soviet Union, it appears the west may need to be aware of any further rhetoric from Putin about dividing and zoning the world.
Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.