The Endless and Frustrating Attempts to Outflank American Power

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, and more urgently since President Putin came to office in 1999, the issue in international relations was how to make what had now become a unipolar world dominated by hostile American interests and preferences into a multipolar world.

While Boris Yeltsin was in charge this was by no means the first priority, which was how to get the Russian economy on its feet. It was, however, always a priority for those who believed that the EU should become a Power in its own right (dominated by Germany and France, of course). Hence the natural confluence of interests between the SPD under Chancellor (and ex-Chancellor) Gerhard Schroeder and Vladimir Putin in enhancing German dependence on Russian natural gas to the point of total dependancy. And it was, of course, always a priority for the ever-ambitious state capitalist China to reduce American power and influence to a more manageable level.

Progress was, however, severely interrupted by disagreeable democratic revolutions in the Arab world and Ukraine; as they appeared to presage a precipitous trend towards political systems that  would instinctively align more closely with the leading democracy than the old authoritarians. The Russian response under Putin was to crack down on what was deemed US subversion of the natural order at home and that, in turn, led to the invasion of Georgia by regulars and of Ukraine by special forces and annexation of Abkhazia and the Crimea. No more ‘orange revolutions’ would be permitted along the Russian periphery.

But Putin had originally pinned his hopes for Russian economic growth since 1999 not upon military power – the Soviet gamble – but on the leverage its natural resources, mainly energy, would give Moscow over its near and more distant neighbours. However, growth was never what Putin had hoped for, the refurbishment of military power has been slower than expected and with the discovery of shale gas and oil deposits in the United States and Canada, Russian hopes to dominate the European natural gas market and to piggy-back on Middle Eastern oil dominance have run aground. The United States is no longer dependant on anyone and can make or break international oil prices.

The balance between American and Russian military power is still not what it once was. So Putin is once again pinning hopes on the exploitation of energy resources. Now he is opening up the Arctic to liquefy natural gas, which is much more plentiful than the limited oil reserves that Russia has been rapidly depleting to stoke up on much needed foreign exchange. The Saudis need assured supplies of natural gas for the future as they drain their reserves at lower than market prices. Saudi Arabia and Russia thus find a new common interest beyond OPEC’s artificial restrictions on oil production. But one should never forget that the Kremlin’s fixation lies still with the containment of American power.