Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama seems to have all but abandoned his four-year effort to "reset" the bilateral relationship with Russia. He faces a difficult scenario as a plethora of incidents has soured the relationship in recent years. Among these are Russian chagrin over the West’s "deceptive" use of a United Nations (UN) resolution to impose a no-fly zone to launch a military bombardment of Libya; disagreement over human rights; arms control; installing a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) missile defence system in Central Europe; Russia’s temporary asylum to intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden; and imposition of sanctions against Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses (the Sergei Magnitsky Act).

Most critical is the disagreement between Russia and the US about the use of military force and respect for national sovereignty. Like most nonwestern leaders, Russian president Vladimir Putin is particularly irked by US unilateralism and self-proclaimed "exceptionalism", which seem to put it above the law. At a Munich conference on security policy in 2011, he upbraided the US for its disdain for the basic principles of international law by imposing its policies on other nations. He strongly objected to the US-led air campaign against Serbia, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and military enforced regime change in Libya. His indignation is fully justified when arguing that only the UN Security Council can authorise the use of military force except in clear cases of self-defence.

The US turns a deaf ear to all of these complaints. No wonder the chemistry between the two presidents is not good.

In recent weeks, Syria was on the verge of becoming the latest target of US unilateralism and Rambo-style diplomacy. A major catastrophe was averted when Obama’s "red line" ultimatum was pre-empted by Putin’s sensible alternative plan that Syria must hand over its chemical weapons stockpile under UN supervision. A Security Council resolution to this effect was unanimously adopted on September 27. This was a face-saving compromise for both presidents: a US air strike would have required huge Russian military assistance to Damascus, risking a direct standoff between the two powers, which would simply have confirmed Russia’s relative weakness. On the other hand, Obama ordering air strikes without congressional or UN backing, would have created a long tail of untoward circumstances, relegating him to the same category as George Bush. Putin’s was a smart diplomatic move, outwitting Washington and was driven home to the American people by his well-crafted letter in the New York Times lecturing Obama on the futility of armed intervention, the arrogance of claiming exceptionalism and the importance of rule-based international relations.

Does the diplomatic compromise on Syria give reason to be optimistic about a "reset" in US-Russian relations? Is Putin after all, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, someone the US "can do business with"? Or is his stern defence of international law and national sovereignty nothing but a clever strategic ploy to obscure his real objectives?

It is fairly obvious that Putin’s agenda goes much further than being a campaigner for international law and national sovereignty. Early in his presidency, he remarked that the collapse of the Soviet Union was probably the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a tragic and traumatic experience, not only for this former KGB officer, but also for the Russian national consciousness. Particularly painful for the well-ensconced nomenklatura of Putin’s ilk were the loss of the Soviet Union’s superpower status and the deference and prestige that it brought.

One of Putin’s main objectives since becoming president in 2000 has been to restore Russia’s greatness as a respectable nation and world power. This was, and still is, the raison d’être of his foreign policy. His seemed to be an impossible mission when he took over from Boris Yeltsin with Russia teetering on the brink of catastrophe. However, much against the odds, this hugely underestimated "man from nowhere" became an instant success story. A mixture of shrewd leadership, brutally rational strategic and tactical thinking and a good measure of luck, helped him to pull Russia from the jaws of a national disaster.

His luck was that Yeltsin was unpopular and, fortuitously for him and Russia, the price of oil and gas went sky-high when he took over. It did not take Putin long to establish himself as a highly popular leader among the vast majority of Russians. They welcomed his "strong hand" (much like they were used to under the Romanov tsars and communist bosses), fighting the obdurate Chechen rebels, his uncompromising defence of Russian interests in its "near abroad" (the previous Soviet republics) and the blitzkrieg on Georgia (over South Ossetia) in particular.

But he also needed an external enemy to whip up domestic patriotism, especially during elections. For this purpose, he singled out the US as Russia’s bogeyman.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and basking in the glory of the collapse of "the evil empire" (as the Americans called it), the West tried to shape Russia after its own image. This was a diplomatic and strategic miscalculation, which Putin cleverly exploited. Yeltsin had leaned towards the West in the early 1990s, but the relationship turned sour when it became clear that the West was seeking a "weak and compliant" Russia. No meaningful western assistance, like Marshall Aid, was forthcoming to a suffering Russia in the midst of transforming from communism to capitalism. Rubbing further salt in the wounds, Nato and the European Union expanded, without consulting the Kremlin, to include former Soviet republics, while plans were afoot to deploy medium-range US missiles in Poland. These developments rendered Russia vulnerable and isolated and Putin stepped in as defender of the motherland. He used the opportunity masterfully to reshape Russia’s future, to bring it back to respectability and into mainstream international politics.

Logically, his new foreign policy ruled out any possibility of Russia joining the western solar system. The West simply "lost Russia". The hope is that both sides realise that national interest and global order demand co-operation in areas of mutual concern.

Putin’s Syrian initiative will test his diplomatic and strategic acumen; the world will closely watch whether he will be able to deliver. If Damacus fails to comply with all the demands of the UN Security Council resolution, it will be back to square one and his diplomatic feat may become a mere footnote in diplomatic history.

The smart move for Putin, using his present moral high ground, is to take the initiative to resuscitate the "reset" with the US, to work towards common ground for a sensible strategic partnership.

Outdated Cold War suspicions and grudges (the undertones of the present standoff) should be buried once and for all.

Common objectives, such as fighting global terrorism, eliminating weapons of mass destruction, ensuring China’s peaceful rise, ending nuclear proliferation, working towards peace and stability in the Middle East, cybercrime and climate change, should be tackled. These problems can be resolved only by way of bilateral/multilateral co-operation, with the US, China and Russia taking the lead. The world is waiting.

Olivier is an extraordinary professor in the department of political sciences at the University of Pretoria and a former South African ambassador to Russia.