Memo to Vladimir Putin: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

by Matthew Rojansky | June 26th, 2007 | |Subscribe

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.


  1. Michael Lieberman wrote,

    As ever, Rojansky offers a plethora of salient thoughts, and I heartily agree with his prescription. Russia should indeed do all the things that he says. I cannot help but wonder, though, if it should, could or would, why it has not done so already? Could it be that Russia does not have the goal of earning the respect of the world’s leading democracies, winning the most valuable friends or gaining access to prestigious international circles? Or that its leadership spurns liberal values, already has the friends it needs and wants, is able to sufficiently deal with the rest, and is a member of the groupings in which it has an interest in being a part? I need not recite the litany of unfortunate recent alliances, actions and choices Russia has made lately; Rojansky has amply done so above (okay, I can’t help but mention the cyberattacks on Estonia and weapons sales to Syria, horrendous actions that further paint a portrait of quiet, destabilizing aggression).

    It is critical to have an idea of where we want Russia to go. But this is not so much in dispute. What we still need, despite a raft of think tank reports, editorials and speeches, is a clear, realistic idea of how to conceive of and manage this relationship, mitigate the damage of its offenses, and advance our interests and values in the context of the bilateral relationship.

    Putin will visit Bush next week in the Bush family bunker in Kennebunkport; let’s hope that on this front at least (statistically, we should see some progress somewhere, sometime, no?), Bush will put one forward and into practice.

    Comment on June 28, 2007 @ 6:29 pm

  2. Daniil Gorbatenko wrote,

    As far as your creative and insightful article is concerned I have probably but one major comment. It’s great that you are trying to put forward the list of things on which I fully agree with you that the US and its G7 allies should demand from Russia as a responsible stakeholder in the realm of international affairs. However, Russia does not have any coherent and far-sighted, let alone responsible foreign policy. This phenomenon partly stemms from the fact that the Putin’s regime’s foreign policy is torn apart by two opposing trends. On the one hand, the fully state-controlled television is constantly trying to create an atmosphere of distrust towards the US, of a sieged fortress, propagating “sovereign” democracy and unique historical mission of Russia as the Third Rome if you will. At the meantime Putin does not want to be viewed internationally as Mugabe, Kim Jong Il or Lukashenko. Moreover, the majority of new siloviki as well as old oligarchs keep most of their money on foreign namely US and UK accounts.As for the Stabilization fund the principle decision has already been made to restructure it and establish the so-called Future Generations’ Fund. Any attempt of Russia to help for example African countries even in spirit of MDGs is doomed to be viewed extremely negatively by the majority of people given the Soviet experience of reckless support of Kommunist regimes worldwide.

    On Iran you are quite right. The majority of russian politicians and experts do not envisage any threat from a nuclear Iran despite its location next to the Russian “soft underbelly”. What they fear, however, is the regime change to the one of the Shah’s kind.

    Comment on June 29, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

  3. dan wrote,

    Russia’s oil boom is an interesting issue. The U.S. is one of many countries that will be interested in the production of oil in the Russian province. Here is a list i found of the companies involved, as well as some other info that i hope you find valuable…

    Russian Oil Production


    Comment on July 3, 2007 @ 9:08 am

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