Russian President Vladimir Putin has started his fourth term on May 7, extending his almost two-decade rule by another six years. Encouraged by an influx of petrodollars that saw living standards soar in the country, Russia has risen on the international stage to wrest back its position and restore the balance of power.
For supporters, Putin is a saviour, who restored pride and traditional values to a nation, which was humiliated after the breakup of the Soviet Union at the hand of its archrival about three decades ago. According to his foes, democracy has further eroded under his rule and the state is being run by a new elite of former secret police cronies. To his credit, Putin has dealt with three US presidents, started a new rivalry with the West by snatching Crimea from Ukraine and launched a pivotal intervention in Syria, which helped defeat Daesh and improve its image. According to analysts, his biggest problem at home is that he has failed to groom his successor and competitor and without constitutional reform, he will not be able to run for a fifth time as the Russian Constitution bars serving more than two consecutive terms. He will turn 72 in 2024, when his term expires and age would also be not on his side. He still can revisit his 2008 move, which saw him put forward Dmitry Medvedev as president while he himself became prime minister before returning to the Kremlin in 2012.
The highest point of his political career came when the US accused the Russian government of interfering in its 2016 presidential election, to increase political instability in the United States and to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by bolstering the candidacies of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership had favoured presidential candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Clinton’s electoral chances and “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” On October 7, 2016, the ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that the US Intelligence Community was confident that the Russian government had directed hacking of e-mails with the intention of interfering with the US election process. According to the ODNI′s January 6, 2017 report, the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) had hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Google email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks. According to the US media, there was strong forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations. In January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Russia had also interfered in the elections by disseminating fake news that was promoted on social media. On October 31, 2016, President Barack Obama warned Putin via the “red phone” to stop interfering or face consequences. It could be called a great achievement of Russia and Putin if even one percent of the allegations are true.
According to experts, Russia’s relations with the United States and the UK are worse than in the 1950s, and the chance of a direct conflict is higher than at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Given the complexity of today’s strategic nuclear weapons and the systems designed to neutralise them, one cannot rule out the possibility that some actor on either side, or a third party, could provoke escalation. Making matters worse, communication between US and Russian leaders is nonexistent, owing to the lack of trust on both sides. This psychological backdrop to the bilateral relationship truly is worse than during the Cold War. But that does not mean that today’s tensions amount to a sequel. Such a confrontation would require an ideological component that is decidedly lacking on the Russian side. Russia has no intention of waging another Cold War. Although some degree of confrontation with the US does help President Vladimir Putin unite the public while the burnishing Russian elites’ nationalist credentials, Russia is not an ideologically motivated state.
Analysts say that the US establishment is using the scarecrow of Russian interference to regain its lost political control, particularly in the realm of social media, where a discontented population and maverick politicians have finally found a voice. But even if American elites do manage to wrest back control, the deeper source of Western angst will remain. For at least the past decade, the world has been witnessing the endgame of the West’s 500-year hegemony. For a few decades in the second half of the twentieth century, the West’s dominant position was challenged by the Soviet Union and China. But after the Soviet Union imploded, the US emerged as the sole hegemon, and the world seemed to return to its historic status quo. Soon enough, however, the US overextended itself by plunging into geopolitical misadventures like the invasion of Iraq. And then came the 2008 financial crisis, which exposed the weaknesses of twenty-first-century capitalism. At the same time, the US has long pursued military superiority. In 2002, it unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And, more recently, it has embarked on a massive build-up of conventional forces and a large-scale modernisation of its nuclear arsenal. Still, Russia, China and the rest of the world will not allow a return to US hegemony. Putin recently made this clear by unveiling a number of new, cutting-edge strategic weapons systems, as part of a strategy of “preemptive deterrence”. The message was that the US cannot hope to regain absolute military superiority, even if it decides to bleed itself dry in an arms race, as the Soviet Union did.
Even if the US decides to wage a unilateral Cold War, its chances against Russia, China and other emerging powers would not be very good. The balance of military, political, economic and moral power has simply shifted too far away from the West to be reversed. Putin has made the West realize it. When Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats last month in response to an alleged nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, Moscow not only evicted an equal number of British diplomats, but also ordered the closing of the British Council. It also expelled 59 diplomats from 23 countries. Russia’s image and influence has increased in the world during Putin’s rule and his critics believe he will stay put in politics, one way or the other, to torment the US and its allies.