The selection of Vladimir Putin as Time magazine’s “person of the year” has proven to be a controversial choice that caught many Americans off guard. Used to thinking about post-communist Russia as a chaotic hotbed of corruption and thuggery, Americans for the most part have failed to take much notice of the dramatic changes in Russia since the beginning of Putin’s presidency in 1999. Indeed, American political leaders, the mainstream news media, and the general public have paid little attention to a nation that was once the heart of its decades-long Soviet nemesis. In the wake of September 11 and the advent of the global war on terrorism, it has been far too easy to think of Russia, when at all, as a now-minor player on the world stage, a fallen behemoth that is mostly irrelevant in the post-9/11 world.
This is unfortunate. People used to talk about Russia and the Soviet Union as a “sleeping bear,” but in 2007 it is not Russia that is sleeping. While the U.S. has been busy with attempts to end terrorism and simultaneously assure that it will remain the world’s only superpower, Russia has been on the move. The American public may not have taken much notice, but Russia is not prepared to sit idly by and watch the United States assert unilateral dominance in international politics. Rather, the still-new millennium finds Russia gathering strength and vigorously preparing to assert its position in what its leaders clearly think will be a coming post-unilateral world.
Although not an outright provocateur, Russia has recently made several decisions that have rankled American political leaders. It has shipped nuclear materials to its neighbor Iran; it has shown an ample willingness to use its vast oil and natural gas reserves to display its power to Europe; it has declared a desire to upgrade its military capabilities to be more on par with the U.S., at least in some respects. These and other actions have an underlying similarity. They all reveal a Russia that sees itself as a major player in world affairs.
Meanwhile, President Putin has played Russian politics with a virtuosity not unlike that which the great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter displayed in music. To the alarm of the Western world and a relatively small set of domestic political opponents, Putin remains wildly popular among the general Russian population. Although the Russian presidency has term limits and he must soon retire from that post, critics and political foes cannot even take solace in the coming end of his second term as president. He has endorsed—more like selected—a successor who will almost surely be elected. Should that happen, Putin has already been offered the job of Prime Minister, which he indicates he would accept. It certainly seems that Putin is not going away anytime soon.
In the United States, politicians such as John McCain and Mitt Romney have already voiced their disapproval of Time’s choice of Putin as “man of the year.” For the most part, however, they seem to think that the designation is meant to be an honor, which it never has been. (Hitler and Stalin have also held the designation.) Instead, it is simply a designation that is bestowed on a person whose influence has arguably been most profound over the course of the year. McCain and Romney seem to think that Gen. Petraeus, who was born about three weeks after Putin, was the obvious choice. Because the war in Iraq looms so large in American politics, there may be an argument for that.
Yet, there is no denying that under Vladimir Putin, Russia has reemerged as a potent force in world politics. For that reason alone, Time’s selection of person of the year may serve a useful purpose. American political leaders and news media organizations would do well to pay more attention to Russia than they usually do.
One day in the not-so-distant future Russia is determined to thwart America’s claim to a unilateral world by returning to the world stage with renewed power and influence. Whether it will be successful or not, nobody knows. Still, the time to more fully engage Moscow in meaningful and substantive dialogue and diplomacy is not then, but now.