The Russian Federation does not wield the type of tremendous power and influence in world affairs that its predecessor, the Soviet Union, held. It has not been able to keep up with the rapid economic advancements of the West, China, India, Japan, and Brazil. It has found itself increasingly vulnerable, and has lashed out sometimes to try and reassert itself--the most blatant incident being the invasion of Georgia a few years ago. Nonetheless, though its infrastructure is decaying and economy looking even more hopeless than ours in the near future, Russia remains a massively important country, not least because it is still the only country on the planet that poses an existential threat to the United States--Russia alone maintains the firepower necessary to destroy us. Additionally, the borders it shares with foreign countries, its veto-wielding seat on the UN Security Council, and the reserves of resources that it sits on and sells to Europe make it important. Thus, while many outside of Eastern Europe have seen fit to sort of discount Russia and just led it slide along its merry way to decline, we ought to be focusing a great deal on our former adversaries and what is happening within their borders.
The United States Senate is currently in the process
of confirming National Security Council Senior Director Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford and fellow at the Hoover Institution, to become our next Ambassador to Russia. McFaul is a brilliant mind who knows more about Russia than most people, already has a good working relationship with President Obama, and maintains a tremendous commitment to the promotion of liberty and human rights. It is no small thing that we are placing a smart man with such a commitment in this position at the same time that Vladimir Putin is planning to return to the Presidency of Russia after a few years of puppeteering from the office of the Prime Minister. It is also worthy of note that McFaul is not a career diplomat; if confirmed--and he ought to be confirmed--then he will be only the second American in over 30 years to hold the position and not be elevated from the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service (the other one was Democratic politician Bob Strauss, appointed by Bush Sr. to the post when the Soviet Union was collapsing). While not a perfect candidate (the New START Treaty, which he played a part in, is bad news for U.S. national security interests), he understands Russia and should, if allowed by his superiors, know how to handle Russia in this time of transition in a way that supports our interests.
Russia is a country that is at once declining and empowered. As Putin continues to tighten his grip over his country, things will continue to get worse. President Obama has lauded his "reset" policy with Russia, seemingly intent on embracing the inevitability of Putinism and the stability it may bring to Russia. However, autocracy breeds discontent, and when that is coupled with economic misery, we get something more like the Arab Spring rather than stability. Russia wields a tremendous amount of influence in our geopolitical strategy; we could use their help with Iran, subsaharan Africa, and China. We need to give our friends in Eastern Europe assurance that they do not need to fear their great neighbor. To do that, though, Russia needs true reform. America is in a position to try and exert pressure--both economic and moral--on Russia in an attempt to combat the solidification of Putin's cronyism and corruption. McFaul is the type of man capable of understanding how best to do that, and both the interests of the United States and Russia would be better served if the hand-wringers in Foggy Bottom and the White House let him work towards such a goal. Russia, for centuries trapped under the yoke of one form of oppression or another, is still capable of fixing itself and embracing true democratic reform--it may just need a little prodding to get moving along.