But what is most fascinating to me is that Aron precisely diagnoses why the United States and Russia are fated to have such tense relations and why they will always be at loggerheads when it comes to foreign policy regardless of how democratic or authoritarian the Russian government is: Russia wants to be the hegemon of its region.
Put another way, the reason for relatively poor U.S.-Russian relations over the last twenty years is that the U.S. considers Russia’s desire to be a regional hegemon to be unacceptable and has sought to oppose it as often as possible. As long as Washington holds this position, Russia could be as free and democratic as possible and it wouldn’t change very much in the relationship. Any major power as large as Russia is very likely to be the hegemon of its region, and it will normally seek to remain one regardless of the form of government that it has. One of the reasons that U.S.-Russian tensions seem so unnecessary and readily reducible to me is that the U.S. has no need to oppose Russian regional hegemony, and most of our recent efforts to oppose it and to roll it back in the last decade have failed badly. The U.S. doesn’t need to do this, and our government doesn’t seem to be particularly good at doing it, so why continue?
To the extent that past NATO expansion has created a permanent irritant in the relationship, that is confirmation that at least the last round of NATO expansion was obviously a mistake whose consequences now have to be managed as best they can. It would be no less foolish to make the economic integration of Central Asia into another irritant between the U.S. and Russia. After all, why does it matter to the U.S. if there is increased economic integration in the former Soviet Union? In almost every other part of the world, greater economic integration is what the U.S. usually tries to support. As it happens, this is also what the nations in the region want, because they naturally understand that reduced barriers to trade and migration with Russia are to their benefit. What possible constructive purpose is served by trying to thwart this?
I want to focus more narrowly on something Aron says in his article. Aron writes:
Moreover, Moscow’s use of the UN Security Council to weaken or block U.S. initiatives has steadily risen: in the 1990s, Russia cast two vetoes in the Security Council; between 2000 and 2012, it wielded its veto eight times.
There is no mystery here. One doesn’t need to appeal to the invention of a “Putin doctrine” to understand this increased Russian use of the veto at the Security Council. Between 2000 and 2012, Russia used its veto more often mostly because there were more Western attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of other states. Three of the eight vetoes Aron cites have come in the last two years alone, and all of them over resolutions on Syria. Russia was usually voting against proposed Western-backed resolutions that sought to use the Security Council to penalize various pariah states for their internal repression. As everyone knows, Russia takes a very different view of state sovereignty and its limits than the U.S. and its allies do, and it isn’t likely to agree that it is the business of the Security Council to police the internal behavior of other governments.
Russia has moved to block more U.S.-backed initiatives because the U.S. has been proposing more initiatives that are guaranteed to provoke Russian opposition. In other words, Russia became more intransigent at the Security Council because Western powers were becoming more activist and interventionist in their handling of other states’ internal political crises. Even when Russia was weaker than it is now, it still used its veto when there were proposed Western interventions (e.g., Kosovo) that it found intolerable, so it is hardly surprising that a somewhat more stable and wealthier Russia would be even more inclined to use its veto in response to intensified Western activism. I focus on this because it is a useful example of the overall reactive and fairly predictable nature of Russian foreign policy. Exercising its veto at the Security Council is a relatively low-cost way for Russia to play the part of a major power without committing itself to much of anything, and Western attempts to use the Security Council as a mechanism for interfering in other states’ internal affairs are always very likely to irk Moscow.