Last month the US magazine Forbes named the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the world’s most powerful person. In part, this reflects long-standing right-wing dismay over Barack Obama’s lack of leadership. But what is more remarkable is the magazine’s claim that “anyone watching the chess match over Syria has a clear idea of the shift in the power towards Putin on the global stage”.
It is true that Mr Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov played a blinder by averting US military strikes and brokering a deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. Moscow also sought to occupy the moral high ground on the National Security Agency spying scandal by granting asylum to the whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
A resurgent Russia is striding the international stage with the sort of swagger that the world has come to associate with America. For a former superpower in demographic decline that is ruled by an ex-KGB colonel, this is nothing short of an astonishing turnaround.
However, recent weeks have also seen the other face of Russia – the bullying bear that forced neighbouring Ukraine to suspend negotiations with the European Union over an association agreement that would pave the way for Kiev’s integration into the West. There is little doubt Moscow would have resorted to all kinds of punitive action had Ukraine signed up.
Thus we are seeing two faces of Russia: a 19th-century “great power” that is exercising neo-imperial domination and a 21st-century “smart power” that skilfully deploys diplomacy.
Critics will say that Mr Putin’s foreign policy is entirely self-serving, aimed at shoring up support at home and projecting Russian influence abroad. To be sure, offering Mr Snowden a lifeline went down well with anti-western factions in Russia that want the country’s leader to stand up to the former Cold War foe. Crucially, the UN agreement on Mr Al Assad’s chemical weapons has consolidated Russia’s control over its Syrian ally and boosted its role in the region.
However, some of Russia’s recent reactions have been critical and constructive. Moscow’s repeated warning over the de facto partition of Libya and the rise of both extremism and tribalism has come true. Moreover, Russia has been the only major power to defend religious pluralism and to call for a proper protection of the persecuted Shia and Christian minorities in Syria and elsewhere across the Middle East.
Similarly, the EU-brokered deal between Serbia and its breakaway region Kosovo in April this year would have been impossible without major Russian support behind the scenes. As a world power straddling the East-West divide, Russia’s role was pivotal in securing a nuclear deal with Iran last month. All this shows that Moscow can behave responsibly and be a force for good.
Yet at the same time, it is hard to deny that Russia has been guilty of intimidating neighbours, engaging in provocative military manoeuvres in the skies over Scandinavia, issuing veiled threats to the unity of Ukraine as well as propping up dictators in Syria and beyond.
Perhaps most worryingly, there is fundamental contradiction in Russia’s foreign policy. On the one hand, the country’s leadership professes to defend international law, especially the twin principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. That is why Moscow wields its veto power against western military adventures such as the proposed “drive-by shooting” in Syria.
On the other hand, Moscow is determined to consolidate and expand Russia’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, especially vis-à-vis neighbours such as Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan. But Russia’s neo-imperial power projection extends further into Central Asia and the wider Middle East. Besides Syria and Iran, Moscow is seeking to forge closer ties with Turkey and Egypt.
In a polycentric world that needs collective leadership, Mr Putin and his ruling regime have an opportunity to choose the power of persuasion over the threat of coercion. Indeed, there are plenty of pressing problems on which Russia can make a crucial difference.
With good links to both Israel and Palestine, it might even help clinch a peace settlement. As a nuclear power that firmly opposes proliferation, the Russian leadership will be key to a great bargain with Iran. And following the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan, Moscow will do whatever it can to prevent another Taliban takeover while also trying to stabilise the wider region.
As the US pivots from Europe and the Middle East towards the Asia-Pacific space, Russia can be one of the main powers to fill the strategic void. But Moscow’s current Cold War methods will hurt rather than help Russia’s interests. If the country’s leadership wants to maintain and increase global influence, it needs to learn how to combine “hard” military with “soft” cultural power.
The country has an impressive cultural legacy and maintains close social, linguistic ties with the vast Russian-speaking diaspora across the globe, including in Israel. What it lacks are the institutions and practices to instil trust and promote cooperation with other states. That is the real test for Mr Putin’s leadership, not one coming in Forbes magazine’s annual contest.
Adrian Pabst is a senior lecturer in politics at Britain’s University of Kent and visiting professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, France