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Can Russia Get Respect?

Russian President Putin at the recent G8 summit. Photo courtesy of AFP.
By Mark N. Katz
Washington (UPI) Jul 21, 2006
At the recent G8 summit in St. Petersburg, President Putin and other Kremlin officials went to great efforts to convey the message that Russia is now, once again, a great power. The Western press is increasingly describing Russia as a great power too. This new view was summed up on the cover of the July 15 issue of The Economist with the words "Living with a Strong Russia," next to a picture of a dour Putin in front of an enormous Russian flag.

This growing Western press acknowledgment of Moscow's re-emergence as a great power is undoubtedly quite gratifying to Putin, and to Russians generally. But leaving aside the question of whether it actually is one, what does being acknowledged by others as a great power actually do for Russia?

Putin and many of his fellow Russians seem to think that this will greatly benefit them. America and the West, they strongly believe, ignored Moscow's interests when they saw Russia as weak. Against Moscow's wishes, for example, NATO expanded into Eastern Europe and the Baltics, and militarily intervened against Serbia. Further, America has backed democratic "color revolutions" that have brought to power anti-Russian leaders in Ukraine and Georgia. Indeed, there is a long list of Russian grievances against the West, especially the United States.

But if America and the West did all these things because they thought Russia's weakness allowed them to, Russian reasoning seems to be, the knowledge that Russia is once again strong will bring about a change in their behavior. Indeed, there seems to be a growing Russian expectation that Russia's acceptance as a great power will lead America and others to behave with great circumspection and not do anything to annoy Moscow. Being acknowledged as a great power by others, Russians seem to expect, will allow Moscow to get its way in international affairs to a much greater extent than when it was regarded as weak.

How realistic is this expectation? Russia and every other country acknowledge America as a great power. But this has not led Russia or many other countries to carefully avoid doing or saying anything that might annoy Washington. Putin in particular seems to enjoy defying the United States. Indeed, the very fact that America is a great power has induced many countries, including Russia, to resist it.

What this suggests is that the more others acknowledge Russia as a great power, the more likely it is that they will act to resist it, if they can.

Indeed, the anti-Russian trend in many countries neighboring Russia can be attributed less to American machinations (the explanation favored in Moscow) than to a natural reaction to Russia's own heavy-handed policies. The more that Putin insists that others should or should not do this, that, or the other, because Russia -- the great power -- says so, the more others are likely to fear Moscow and seek to resist it.

Complying with Moscow's wishes because Russia is once again a great power, however, is exactly what Putin seems to expect. But if this is his expectation, he -- and Russia -- is likely to be disappointed. Putin is right in thinking that Russia has a difficult time getting its way if others do not regard it as a great power. But as the American experience shows, even a country that is unquestionably a great power does not always, or even usually, get its way. A country's whose claim to being a great power is more questionable is likely to experience even greater difficulty if it tries to behave like one.

The hard truth is that it is difficult for countries to get their way whether they are great powers or not. The real difference between actual and aspiring great powers that are more successful at this and those that are not is that the former pursue goals that meet the interests -- and hence receive the cooperation -- of others. The latter, by contrast, pursue goals that are not in the interests of others, and hence are resisted by them.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

Source: United Press International

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