A quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, authoritarian rulers such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are showing they can and will defy international norms, suppress dissent and use military force. American policymakers are struggling with how to respond, Reuters reports:
“It’s a big philosophical question about how to deal with a strong state with anti-Western and autocratic proclivities,” said Michael McFaul, the most recent U.S. ambassador to Moscow and a former NED Reagan-Fascell fellow. “I would say on that score we are kind of confused as a country.”
A 16th-century Machiavellian truism is re-asserting its dominance: The party most willing to decisively use force will prevail over a noncommittal opponent, analyst David Rohde asserts.
“What we’ve seen with Assad and Putin is a willingness to smile at international norms and pursue power politics regardless of the cost,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “And if the West is not united and America’s interests are not immediately threatened, the response immediately becomes attenuated.”
Putin outlined his ideological paradigm in a newspaper article published on New Year’s Eve of 1999, notes analyst Jonas Grätz in a paper for the Center for Security Studies:
The Russian idea should be some combination of patriotism, “great power-ness” (derzhavnost), statism, and solidarity rather than individualism. But his key proposition was that no political campaigns should be allowed to destroy this “nascent consensus”. Thus he had to rein in rival power centres at any cost in order to turn Russia into a strategic actor again.
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution and a former National Intelligence Council official, said those who believed the Soviet collapse signified the triumph of democratic capitalism were deluding themselves as many Russians remained deeply skeptical of Western norms.
“It was only a very small elite around Yeltsin who were buying this,” she said. “Too many people (Westerners) saw what they wanted to see, rather than what was happening.”
Then the global financial crisis strengthened a perception in parts of the world that Western democracy was failing, Hill added.