EDMONTON -- Remember the days when the newly "democratic" Russian Federation was a political, economic and military punchline in international-affairs discussions?
If you don't, take a look at the 1992 60 Minutes interview conducted by Leslie Stahl with then-president Boris Yeltsin about Russian democracy and the future of the post-Soviet nation. The slurred speech, strange tennis match Yeltsin was playing during the interview and the temper tantrum that ended the interview all served to exemplify popular perceptions at the time -- that the U.S. had won the Cold War and that the Soviet threat was gone forever.
Oh what a difference time makes.
The events of the last week have demonstrated quite clearly Russia has regained its place among the world's great powers and is here to stay. Many have pointed to the rise of China and India as the emerging powers to watch, but Russia has gradually grown in power over the last two decades without nearly as much fanfare as the other so-called great powers that were supposed to rival the U.S.
While it should come as no surprise Russian power has increased, any remaining doubt has been erased with Putin's handling of the ongoing dispute over what to do about the Syrian civil war and use of chemical weapons. Russia again has used its veto at the United Nations Security Council to dismiss the notion there is any general acceptance of a "responsibility to protect," it has sold arms to the Syrian government throughout the civil war, it has kept Syrian President Bashar Assad in power long enough regime change was taken off the table, and it is now helping to save U.S. President Barack Obama from his own foreign-policy dithering. On top of it all, Russia has again committed to assisting Iran in building nuclear reactors and has moved naval assets of its own into the eastern Mediterranean Sea to remind western nations this is not a purely diplomatic problem.
If we rewind to the early 1990s, Russia's economy was an utter disaster, its political system was rampantly corrupt, and Russia's military was in complete disarray. Some of this changed with the first election of Putin in 2008, as he aggressively sought to overcome both the domestic realities of Russia's ruin along with the foreign stereotypes about Russian weakness.
Prior to the 2008 global recession, analysts typically discussed the fact China was growing economically at around 10 per cent and India at around eight per cent, but few seem to mention Russia's economy was growing at approximately six per cent at the same time. Putin's Russia is markedly different than the Russia of the early '90s, primarily because he has returned the country to an authoritarian state where elections are fixed, dissenters are punished, military spending is up, and there is a domestic economic infrastructure in place that is not solely reliant on foreign investment.
What the world has seen from Russia more recently is a state quite interested in reminding the Americans they are not alone in the world and not everybody agrees with them. Due to Russia's size, power capabilities and influence, the U.S. has appeared lost as to how to cope with a reemerging Russia.
Selling nuclear technology to states unfriendly to the U.S., blocking humanitarian interventions in various regions at the UN, passing domestic anti-gay laws less than a year before the Olympic Games, drastically increasing military presence in the Arctic region and now outfoxing the Americans at every turn over Syria all speak to one thing -- Russia needs to be taken far more seriously in the daily affairs of international politics and those perceptions of a failed Soviet state are a thing of the past.
The sooner the West recognizes it the better.
Robert W. Murray was previously an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Alberta.