Russia's Only Way to Stay Relevant: Play the Pest

Is there any word in the Kremlin's vocabulary besides nyet? It seems to be the only phrase heard by U.S. officials negotiating with Russia on sanctions on Iran, plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe, and nuclear-arms reductions—even when the American plan has little or no bearing on Russian interests. Once upon a time, the two powers bargained in good faith. Back in the Boris Yeltsin years, for instance, Russia allowed U.S. operatives to enter the region and help bring nukes back from Ukraine and Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union—an act Moscow would now certainly see as an intolerable breach of sovereignty. Today, obstructing the United States is Russia's main diplomatic gambit, and it's not hard to see why. It no longer commands a train of satellite nations, competitors in the region (notably China) are gaining ground, and its economy is tanked. As Moscow's power wanes, it clings to relevance the only way it knows how—by playing the nuisance card.

To remain important, Russia has to be seen as an obstacle. "Russia's policymakers are totally lacking strategic vision of the world," says Nikita Zagladin, a senior analyst at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "They are neurotic about other countries ignoring Russia, consigning her to the status of a former superpower." That is why, in a vain grasp at international clout, Moscow has allied itself with pariah regimes like Venezuela, Syria, and even Iran. (Now, the road to cutting off those baddies runs through Moscow.) At the same time, it has made a point of vetoing any and every U.S. security initiative in Europe.

Exhibit A is Russia's continued obstruction of U.S. missile-defense plans. The original system—to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, and designed to intercept missiles from Iran—elicited endless hand-wringing from Russia. Nobody could quite figure out why, because the flight paths of most of Russia's intercontinental ballistic missiles to the U.S. go from stations in north Russia right over the North Pole—nowhere near Eastern Europe. What's more, the system didn't even work.

Still, Moscow was holding every other bilateral issue hostage to its crocodile tears. So last year, as a gesture of good will, President Barack Obama bowed to Kremlin objections and scrapped plans to base the shield in those Eastern European nations that Russia once considered its own sphere of influence. Washington furnished a less-threatening alternative last week: SM-3 interceptors to be deployed in the Black Sea territorial waters of Romania and Bulgaria, 400 miles from Russia—a solution that the Kremlin itself suggested a year ago during talks with Hillary Clinton. But suddenly that's "just as bad or even worse," according Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.

In fact, there's nothing Washington could propose that Moscow would agree to, and it has nothing do with the missile shield (SM-3s have a range of 300 miles and it takes 10 of them to shoot down a single advanced missile). It's because opposition is an all-purpose diplomatic lever to bargain for what Russia needs. Keeping NATO's influence out of Russia's front yard is probably the most important Kremlin objective. But staying at the table of top nations is important to Moscow's pride too—and making problems is an effective, if not very constructive, way to make the world take you seriously.

That is why every time one of Russia's former satellite states finds reason to look West (by electing a reformist, for example), the Kremlin retaliates. Gas wars in Ukraine and real wars in Georgia are only the most extreme examples. More subtly, Russia has been working to scupper a peace deal between Moldova and the breakaway province of Transdniestria, largely because it suits Russia to keep peacekeepers on the border and thereby reduce the chances of Molodova growing closer to its EU member neighbor, Romania. (Looking East is a problem, too, as hydrocarbon-rich former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan—once providers exclusively to Russia—have begun selling oil and gas directly to China.)

Moscow's paranoia about diminished clout has bred such a deep distrust with Washington—even as Obama has labored to "reset" relations—that the governments are struggling to reduce their nuclear stockpiles. This is a self-evident good on both sides because reducing nukes by 1,000 (as the plan calls for) would relieve them of the burden to maintain them, saving an estimated $500 million per year. For Russia, whose economy shrank by 7 percent in the wake of the crisis, it's a no-brainer. Instead, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stalled negotiations with worries about how "our American partners are building an antimissile shield, and we are not."

The nuisance pose is also Moscow's main approach to Iran. As Western powers grow increasingly desperate to sanction Tehran before it produces a nuclear weapon, Russia has wielded its Security Council veto as a trump card. It's the old Soviet philosophy of the zero-sum game taken to its logical conclusion: the U.S. needs something, therefore we oppose it and extract the maximum concessions for our consent. Never mind that the United States and Russia have a clear common interest in avoiding a nuclear armed Iran (something the Russians have repeatedly admitted). Moreover, for all its bluster about opposing sanctions, Russia has in fact always complied in the end, voting for the last three rounds of sanctions against Iran. The point is that Moscow, diplomatic hardball player to the end, has always charged as high a price as it can for a decision that it would probably have made anyway.

Finally, this game is also about internal politics. It plays well to create an imaginary threat—U.S. missile hegemony, U.S. nuclear hypocrisy—in order for Putin to be seen standing up the Yankees. It's a sign of weakness rather than of strength, of course. But the Kremlin has fewer cards to play than it once did. With the economic crisis, European gas demand, once a key element of the Kremlin's soft power in Europe, has fallen—along with the clamor for new pipelines. Russia's military is a shadow of its former self and, though they trounced tiny Georgia in 2008, it was also clear that the small operation was about the upper limit of Russia's ability to project hard power. So obstruction is one of the few things left in Moscow's diplomatic arsenal. That's why Moscow will never be the ally Obama wants it to be.

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