In Slick! Russia’s ambassador to the Persian-Gulf sultanate of Moq’tar points out to Bobby Gatling that while Moq’tar is 3,700 kilometers from Moscow it is 11,000 kilometers distant from Washington. The message: Russia, too, has legitimate geopolitical interests. But today, those interests seem to matter very little. And Russia’s demise as a world power offers a valuable lesson for the United States.
Russia has always been concerned with its “near abroad.” But the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 left Russia in disarray. Since 1999 when Vladimir Putin became president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation—a position Putin still holds with time out for one term as prime minister during which power was transferred to that office—Russia has sought to regain power and prestige. Plentiful oil money boosted its economy. Oligarchs and mafia chieftains made billions in the new private-enterprise environment. An upper class emerged with incredible wealth. But economies built on commodities suffer inherent weaknesses. And those with autocratic governments stifle many of their best and brightest along with possibilities for an economy and a society that are more diverse, inclusionary and sustainable.
As to Putin: Although he won a five-year presidential term last March and can run for another in 2017—which would make him Russia’s most powerful man for 23 years—Putin’ has been poutin’. It seems that the rest of the world, observing Russia’s political, military, economic and health problems along with a population shrunk to 143 million—less than half that of the U.S.—doesn’t take the Russian bear seriously.
About the only authority Russia now exercises on the world stage is its veto in the United Nations Security Council. It regularly blocks positions against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and condemnations of the Assad government’s brutalization of the Syrian people. And why not? If the UN supports change in clerical Iran and dictatorial Syria, why not in authoritative Russia where dissidents are beaten and jailed, and journalists routinely killed?
Putin’s body language tells the story. He seeks to project the image of a man’s man symbolic of Russian might, walking with his arms held out from his sides like a muscle pumping schoolyard bully. Or think of the blowfish, which defends itself by inflating to three times its size. Photos show him riding horses shirtless, swimming with dolphins and firing weapons. Russia, he wants us to know, is still a player.
Not so, according to Ian Bremmer, president of The Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself. He points out that U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul openly sides with Russian dissidents. This angers Putin. But Washington doesn’t care. Yet the White House, Bremmer claims, would never let our ambassador to China speak that way. Russia, he asserts, has simply become irrelevant.
The lesson for us? The world changes. Power shifts. And we must adapt. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. is about to become irrelevant. But we have lost some power and influence, which we may never regain. We can accept our limitations and remain relevant. Or we can posture like Vladimir Putin and risk confrontations we may come to regret.
I’ll appear in the second half of CBS-5 TV’s “Mosaic” this Sunday morning (June 24) at 5 am. Talking about writing, of course. Easy to record for playback at a more convenient hour.
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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.