Many contemporary writings on Russia tend to paint the years between 1991 and 2000 as uniformly bad, while painting the events which transpired between 2000 and the present day as uniformly good. I am personally the first to agree that the 1990s was a uniformly hellish time for Russia and that while the over all trajectory of the years since 2000 has been largely positive, people forget that late into the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia was in a very different geo-political place than it is today.
2011 was a year of reckoning for the wider world, but particularly for the Middle East. It was in 2011, when the western powers unleashed a war on Libya and simultaneous proxy ‘regime change’ conflicts in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
Medvedev who has always been accused of harbouring some latent liberal tendencies, famously allowed the western bloc to pass UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which allowed NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya while authorising NATO the powers to “protect civilians in any capacity”. At the time, alarm bells should have rung the world over and in many parts of the Russian press, they most certainly did. But under Medvedev, Russia merely abstained from voting on the resolution when the use of Russia’s veto would have not only been appropriate, but necessary in terms of offering a peaceful alternative to NATO’s disastrous war on Libya, an innocent country that had gone out of its way to meet western demands.
Many in the west felt duped. A generation of leaders who campaigned vowing not to repeat the mistakes of the Bush-Blair war on Iraq, did the same thing to Libya only with the slightest amendments to the language used to justify their atrocity. For Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy, it was 2003 all over again and yet another prosperous Arab state was reduced to rubble as a result. Unlike Iraq, Libya shows no signs of recovery. The country with the highest living standards in the history of Africa, is now a failed state with several competing governments and many more terrorist groups running wild.
It was in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 global recession that many in Russia seemed to lose confidence in Russia’s own ability to create prosperous and economically sound conditions for its people. In an age before the unveiling of One Belt–One Road and a Chinese leadership under Hu Jintao that was markedly less assertive than today’s China under the towering figure of Xi Jinping, many in Russia felt that playing ball with the neo-liberals was the only road to salvation.
In reality, Russia’s careful management of fiscal and monetary policies led Russia to weather the storm of the global financial crisis far better than most European states. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now possible to say that the fears surrounding Russia’s ability to recover were all fatuous. In reality, the financial crash of 2007/2008 has led to the rise of multiple anti-neo-liberal parties and movements in Europe and the United States, whilst in Russia, a broadly conservative style of economic management has been roundly vindicated.
Returning to the fateful year 2011, Russia’s influence in the Middle East was space. Traditional allies were left largely to their own devices and the idea of cementing partnerships with traditional US allies in the region was unthinkable to many.
Today, the story has changed and the turning points were in the years 2014 and 2015. In 2012, Vladimir Putin once again became President and since then, Russia has not looked back to the comparatively indecisive Presidency of Medvedev whose only major accomplishment was preventing blood-shed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, early into his Presdiency. As it stands, most people have concluded that then Prime Minister Putin and his colleagues were largely responsible for the effectiveness of the security operations against the ethnic-cleansing of the Georgian regime.
In 2014, many fears among Russian politicians, notably those of Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the opposition LDPR, were vindicated when the US brought its ‘projects regime change’ to Kiev in the historic heart of Russian territory and on the doorstep of the modern Russian Federation.
Those like Zhirinovsky who warned that the US would use proxy conflicts on Russia’s borderlands to foment a larger conflict against Russia were once dismissed as mere purveyors of hyperbolic doom and gloom. Many in Russia, particularly those of the Medvedev style of politics, let alone out-and-out liberals, never thought the US would ‘actually do it’.
In 2014, when US proxies in the Ukrainian neo-Nazi right overthrow the Ukrainian government, Russia acted decisively to recognise the democratic vote among Crimeans to re-join Russia. While many in Russia believe the same settlement should have been offered to the Donbass republics, in the eyes of the wider world, there was a point of no return, nevertheless.. The US hit out at Russia directly by engineering a coup in Kiev and as a result, Russia allowed the peaceful return of part of its historic territory, rather than allow the US backed fascist regime in Kiev to wage war on Crimea.
The following year, Russia decided to heed the request of its long-time Syrian ally and conduct military operations against terrorism in Syria.
Two years later, Syria stands on the verge of total victory while its alliance with Moscow is stronger than ever. Moreover, Russia is now the de-facto problem solver for most of the Middle East. Russia has strengthened its partnership with Iran, revitalised an historic friendship with Iraq, continues to become more engaged in partnerships with Lebanon, re-booted relations with Egypt, all while establishing historically good ties to all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Russia’s rise in Eurasia, the Middle East, East Asia and South East Asia has directly parcelled the inauguration of China’s One Belt–One Road in 2013. Where in 2013, many were sceptical of how lasting and strong Russia’s post-Cold War partnership with China could be, today, Russia and China are both superpowers and form the most important bilateral partnership in the world. For most countries outside of the EU, US and scant parts of the white majority states of the former British Empire, China’s One Belt–One Road is not just a preferred economic and development model but the model. Russia of course is the largest participating member in One Belt–One Road.
Today, Russia has important partnerships with not only Turkey and Iran, two historical adversaries, but also with Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, while retaining historically good ties with Vietnam and in many respects, also with India. Relations with Japan are also far better than at any time in late-modern history.
Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union looks to further intensify partnerships with South East Asia in a manner that is harmonious with the leg of China’s One Belt–One Road that looks to cover this economically dynamic region.
Russia has come a long way since 2011. In 2001, many Russians felt that while it was possible to restore the internal economic order, improve living standards and protect Russian citizens under attack in places like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that Russia did not have a wider role to play in the world.
Today, the opposite is happening. Russia’s dynamic, pragmatic and anti-ideological diplomatic model has put Russia into the geo-political driver’s seat in, a vehicle powered by the Chinese economy. That being said, Russia’s economy is becoming increasingly diversified and powerful while China is becoming increasingly assertive in global diplomacy.
At the same time, the US is losing many of the allies it once took for granted, at the same time that such countries pivot east. Turkey, Pakistan and Philippines are just three large countries that the US once took for granted. It is not able to do so anymore. Many other countries in the Arab world and South East Asia may soon join this list.
While many continue to speculate on whether President Vladimir Putin will seek another term in office, his legacy is already solidified one way or another. His initial period in office was devoted mostly to fixing the domestic and economic problems of the Yeltsin years. During his current term, Russia has gone from a country focused on solving its own problems to a country invited by the rest of the world, to solve global crises.
Between 2012 and the present day, Putin’s current term in office, Russia has gone from a tentative re-emerging superpower to an undisputed superpower that is not only rivalling but eclipsing the United States in many areas.
In the year 2000, many people thought Russia’s best days were behind her and that all a good leader could do was control the speed and severity of the decline. Today, similar statements are being said, only in another geo-political giant of modern history. Sentiments about managed decline being more realistic than global dominance are now on the tips of tongues among the more rational observers of and in US politics.
The tables have turned radically in a very short period of time.