DENVER, Colo. — Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has fallen from grace and power, and been derided as “upper Volta with nuclear weapons.”
Gone are the glory days of historic victories in World War II, followed by four decades as a superpower challenging the United States for world leadership.
In its place came the dour 1990s under a buffoonish Boris Yeltsin. That decade was marked by the loss of 50 percent of the Soviet Union's population and 2 million square miles of territory, economic bankruptcy in 1998, the military disaster of the First Chechen War (1994-1996), and demographic decline.
While the economy improved with the rising price of oil under the authoritarian leadership of Vladimir Putin, the second decade after the fall from grace brought further declines in Russian global influence: the loss of Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011, and several mass terrorists attacks, including a Moscow theater in 2002 and the Beslan school massacre in 2004.
Now, suddenly in the Middle East, Russia has regained some of its lost stature and a place in the sun. It has relentlessly backed the seemingly hopeless Bashar al-Assad in Syria with billions of dollars of weapons, including the recent shipments of the S-300 missile defense system and the Yakhont anti-ship missile, and the placement of warships off the coast of Tartus.
In Iran, again bucking the tide of Western disapproval, Russia allowed hundreds of its scientists, technicians and engineers to aid the Iranian nuclear program, build the Busheir nuclear reactor and provide Iran 70 percent of its imported weapons. It has used the power of its UN Security Council veto to protect both countries.
For now, both Syria and Iran look like winners. After numerous defeats, Assad’s army seems to have turned the tide and be winning the battle. Iran is sending Revolutionary Guard troops and Hezbollah troops into Syria as part of Assad’s winning effort.
Also, with the West limiting its actions, Iran is closing in on producing nuclear weapons and is actively cyber-attacking American oil and gas installations with little response. Indeed, a containment strategy of a nuclear Iran seems more likely than a strong American response.
The Americans are praising Russia for co-hosting a United Nations conference in Geneva on Syria later this month, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week rushed off to Sochi to discuss the situation with Putin. Russia is being implored by the Europeans and Americans to do what it can, beyond the cancellation of the delivery of its S-300 system to Iran two years ago, to stop an Iranian nuclear program.
The sudden revival of Russian influence in the world also reflects the fact that Russia retains important aspects of a major international player: an arsenal of more than a thousand strategic nuclear weapons, the global reach of its intelligence services, a long history in the Middle East (1955-1985), geographic proximity to the region, and the world’s second largest exporter both of oil and gas and weapons.
The United States, in contrast, is grappling with significant economic difficulties, hyper-partisan Congress, weariness over American involvement in two Middle Eastern wars, and President Obama’s reluctance to use its great military power to stop Syria or Iran.
The European Union, given its deep economic crisis and lack of long-range transports, bombers and aircraft carriers, has neither the will nor the means to act decisively. China and India have neither the desire nor the military capability to make a difference. This void allows Russia to play a significant and public role.
Yet, the Russian moment in the sun is likely to be brief. If either the United States, Europe or, for that matter Israel in regards to Iran, were to deploy their military power, the Russians would almost certainly head for the sidelines.
And, in the next several years either the Americans or the Europeans are likely to overcome this “Middle East syndrome” and begin to use their greater economic and/or military power to resolve these issues without Russia.
Finally, within 5 to 10 years China for sure and possibly India will also be significant international actors, not necessarily on Russia’s side.
In the meantime, Moscow has done something no one anticipated: a return to the limelight as a major actor in an important region of the world. Its time may be brief and possibly even harmful for Russia but clearly the Putin/Lavrov elite is basking in the warm glow of world attention that Russia has not known for almost 25 years.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, the University of Denver.