Russia today is rich and powerful. That’s the message from Vladimir Putin anyway.
In reality, whether Russia is rich depends on how you ask the question. It is among the poorest countries in Europe based on per capita GDP, yet it has the world’s second highest number of billionaires (after the US), and its government is awash in windfall revenue from high oil prices. In fact, Russia’s “Stabilization Fund,” an account set up to absorb “excess liquidity” from the recent plateau in world oil prices, is now estimated at well over $100 billion. So, certainly some in Russia, including the government, are very, very rich.
Whether Russia is powerful, likewise, may be in the eye of the beholder. Wealth makes power, of a kind, and Putin certainly envisions Russia using both “ruble diplomacy” and the ability to cut off oil and gas as tools to assert Russian influence in the former Soviet sphere. What’s more, Russia’s vast nuclear stockpile (roughly 20,000 warheads) remains the only military asset in the world capable of obliterating the United States, and Russia’s strategic doctrine has evolved to embrace nuclear first-strike as a remedy for its lagging conventional capacity. Thus, if we are the world’s sole superpower, Russia is the world’s only giant-killer.
Clearly, in several important respects, Russia is rich, powerful, and influential, and it consequently deserves its place in the UN Security Council, the G8 and a whole host of other elite international clubs. But with great power, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben would remind us, comes great responsibility. With its resurgent international clout, Russia should play the role of a responsible great power on the international stage if it wants to be treated like one. It should, for example, meaningfully contribute to the UN Millennium Goals, the Global Partnership for Nuclear non-proliferation, and the construction of robust international humanitarian and human rights enforcement mechanisms.
Instead, Russia is often a selfish free rider, a spoiler, or an indifferent opportunist, in far too many critical international organizations and processes. Unfortunately, many examples of Moscow’s irresponsible behavior can be found in the nuclear realm, where its status as the world’s second nuclear power gives it a special obligation to enhance, rather than obstruct, the global non-proliferation regime. For all his talk of global economic leadership and political influence, Putin does not seem to recognize any such duty of leadership in non-proliferation.
For instance, Russia consistently opposed UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for its defiant enrichment activity until Iran (inexplicably) suspended payments to Russia for its work on the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Only then, when Western pressure aligned with Moscow’s financial interests, did Russia grudgingly go along with responsible world opinion. Likewise, although Russia has permitted the US to pay for security at some nuclear facilities that were vulnerable to theft of sensitive material, the Russians themselves generally refuse to pay for security upgrades since they contend their sites are adequately protected. Moreover, Russia continues to deny international inspectors complete access to its nuclear facilities.
Though it should be noted that Russia has taken some productive steps, like joining the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative and backing Security Council Resolution 1540, it is hard to give much credence to those formal commitments at a time when Putin has declared that the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and other restrictions on Russian nuclear deployments “no longer serve Russia’s interests.” In sum, the message seems to be that since Russia is not the first choice target for terrorists or rogue states that could acquire nuclear weapons, preventing such an eventuality is not really Russia’s problem.
To this Russia watcher at least, it seems like a few billion dollars of Russia’s Stabilization Fund ought to go toward securing or closing down vulnerable nuclear facilities (and for that matter also chemical and biological warfare labs and stockpiles). If it’s not too much to ask, Moscow might also consider expending some its financial and political capital on (non-military) foreign aid and support for international human rights. In general, if Putin wants to win the most valuable friends and gain access to the most prestigious international circles, he should use Russia’s resurgent wealth and power to serve not just Russia’s “sovereign” interests, but those shared by the entire civilized world.
That’s what Uncle Ben would have wanted.