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Overestimating Putin

Forbes is out with its annual list of the world’s most powerful people, and the introduction leaves no doubt who tops the list this year: “Who’s more powerful: the autocratic leader of a former superpower or the handcuffed commander in chief of the most dominant country in the world?” The unsurprising list that follows puts Vladimir Putin at No. 1, with Barack Obama in second place.

But that description of the two leaders is a bit misleading. Putin is not, actually, the leader of a “former superpower.” He is the leader of one–albeit by far the most powerful–of the fifteen states that came into being with the dissolution of the former superpower, the Soviet Union. The Russian republic itself was not a superpower. It’s why stories like this New York Times piece from earlier this week even exist:

Mr. Rogozin, wrapping up a visit [to Moldova] last month, let fly a threat about the coming winter in this impoverished former Soviet republic, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas for heat. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.

The squeeze was just beginning. … Russian officials, citing vague health concerns, banned Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports.

The bullying, which the Kremlin denies, is not directed at Moldova alone. Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats, bluntly telling smaller neighbors that they would be better off joining Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The frantic push to retain influence, with its echoes of cold war jousting, reflects the still-palpable fury among Russian officials over NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere and a desire to halt a similar, eastward extension of European economic power. The heavy-handed tactics have wreaked economic chaos throughout the region in recent months.

Whatever influence Putin projects over the post-Soviet sphere, he has already lost some of the countries to NATO. And even among the nations on which he can still exert pressure, it’s doubtful Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, even in reduced form. What he wants is likely much smarter than that: as the CEO of “Russia, Inc.” Putin would love to have his cake and eat it too by lording over countries without having to govern them.

Because Putin’s quest is non-ideological–he has no interest in spreading some kind of Communist revolution abroad–it is also limited. Gone are the days when far-off governments install an ideological carbon copy of their Russian paymasters and take orders directly from Moscow. Yet it’s also difficult to argue with the proposition that the American president, too, has seen his influence deteriorate.

That’s the gist of Steve Forbes’s piece at the magazine’s website defending the list. Forbes has received plenty of criticism for ranking Putin over Obama. Steve Forbes has responded by accusing his critics of conflating these presidents with the countries they lead. Russia could not plausibly top a list of the most powerful nations in the world, and certainly wouldn’t be ranked above the United States, he noted. But that doesn’t mean Obama necessarily has to be ranked above Putin. After all, the American president doesn’t always top this list: in 2010, it was China’s Hu Jintao.

Though Forbes’s argument is not quite convincing enough on the matter of Putin v. Obama, he is on more solid ground when he writes:

Internationally, however, Obama is the weakest President of the post-World War II years. Even the in-over-his-head Jimmy Carter was more of a factor in foreign affairs than Barack Obama. Diplomats are still astonished, for instance, at how little prep work Obama engages in before international conferences. He doesn’t arrive with much of an agenda, nor does he interact with other leaders in advance to line up support. He more or less just shows up.

This is deliberate. …

And this gets to the real danger in President Obama’s deliberately weak overseas-power posture. He may wish he could take the U.S. off the world stage, but the world won’t let him; events will erupt that will force U.S. action. One such possibility is Iran reaching nuclear-bomb capability. Do you think Israel today, after Obama’s red line to Syria and his groveling before Iran, really believes that this White House has its back?

Even if Putin is not more powerful than Obama, the illusion that he is stems from Putin filling a vacuum in world affairs. Obama has made a choice about the proper role of the United States in the world. He has chosen the perception of weakness over the projection of power.

But I also think Forbes understates the degree to which we really can conflate presidents with their countries. When Putin protects and enables Iran’s nuclear program, it’s by using his country’s seat on the Security Council or exporting nuclear experts. Likewise, Putin isn’t personally fighting in the streets of Aleppo; he is aiding the Syrian regime’s war effort by mobilizing his country’s resources, not testing out his judo skills on the al-Nusra Front.

And that, in turn, should take Putin down a peg. In many ways the West has more to fear from a weak Russia than a strong one. The festering Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus; the vast swaths of abandoned or mostly ungoverned territory; the vulnerable borders; the astonishing corruption; the widespread health crises and epidemics; and of course the paranoid autocrat steering the ship. Putin doesn’t belong at the top of the list of the world’s most powerful people. But he does serve as a reminder of who steps forward when the American president steps back from the world stage.


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