The recent U.S. government shutdown was widely discussed in the Russian media. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, notes that the general tone of the comments was markedly less anti-American than usual.

 

The October 2013 U.S. government shutdown lasted for 16 days.

 

The Kremlin seems to oppose the United States whenever it has a chance, but during the recent budget crisis in Washington, its public attitude was more measured than usual. As ordinary Russians kept a wary eye on the shutdown—many were concerned the ripples from the crisis might eventually affect them—their officials offered assurances that a congressional deadlock that left the U.S. federal government without money would not affect the issuance of U.S. visas, joint cancer research, or support for cosmonauts at the International Space Station. Russians were also doubtless troubled by memories of their own bloody government shutdown twenty years ago this month, as well as of the trauma of their country’s debt default in 1998.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said on October 16 that a U.S. default would not hurt the Russian economy. Ksenia Yudaeva, first deputy chair of the Russian Central Bank, estimated the likelihood of a default to be “very low.” In any event, she said, the effect on Russia would be indirect. RT, the Kremlin-funded English-language television network, occasionally carried stories during the crisis about the dislocations the shutdown caused, sometimes suggesting that the United States stop being quite so critical of Russia, but this response was atypical of overall press coverage. One Russian expert even called the drama in Washington less a political crisis than an example of democracy at work.

Despite the comments of Siluanov and Yudaeva, the debt standoff, like the 2008 global financial crisis (for which Putin himself has blamed the United States) was a reminder of Russia’s vulnerability. Since the United States is the heart of global financial system, a meltdown could destabilize the international economic system and the world’s oil prices, on which Russia so strongly depends. In addition, argued Professor Yakov Mirkin of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Washington’s inability to tackle the debt ceiling problem could force other countries, especially China, to use their national currencies in order to save their gold reserves.

For many Russian officials and commentators, the debt crisis was the latest proof of U.S. imperial overstretch—prime evidence that Washington has exceeded its ability to maintain or expand its global commitments. The scenario of a potential U.S. default for the second time in two years, combined with the inability of Congress to approve a budget as a result of partisan squabbles, sent a clear message: the United States has problems and is unable or unwilling to fulfill its traditional role as global leader.

A diminished U.S. role on the international stage is not inevitable, but if such a shift did come to pass, it would leave a vacuum that at present Russia is unable to fill.

Russian officials said they regretted President Obama’s cancellation of his Asian trip to deal with the Washington crisis. The recent Indonesia and Brunei summits, which were widely seen as diplomatic triumphs for Chinese leader Xi Jinpeng in Obama’s absence, may have contributed to Kremlin concern that China may be striving to become the world’s hegemon. For this reason, Moscow probably was as interested as Washington in the quick resolution of the debt crisis and a return to the status quo. Although Russia often counters and resents U.S. influence in the world, American influence is at least familiar and predictable, especially when compared with Russia’s relationship with Beijing. Amid growing doubts in Russia about U.S. power, says Viktor Kremenyuk of Moscow’s Institute of USA–Canada Studies, the United States needs a strong Russia just as Russia needs a strong United States.

Many Russian observers also claim that the crisis showed that the American political system is dysfunctional and can no longer meet the demands of global leadership. One expert blamed the crisis on the U.S. system of separation of powers, which is “negatively exceptional” for a democratic country and hinders agreement on important issues. He argued that such an institutional arrangement, invented by Locke and Montesquieu, has become obsolete in the twenty-first century. The issue of American exceptionalism was also raised by Vladimir Putin recently in his op-ed in the New York Times. Foreign policy specialist Fyodor Lukyanov has argued, “It is true that the United States holds a unique place in the world order, which is why the international community fears the impact of internal U.S. squabbles. The fact that many countries are striving to achieve a multipolar world is not an indication of anti-Americanism, but a desire to reduce dependence on the U.S. as the world’s sole power.” Another commentator noted that American exceptionalism is extremely difficult to reconcile with the changing dynamics of geopolitics.

Russian officials insist that despite the debt crisis, Moscow is willing to work with the United States. Surprised by Obama’s postponement of his summit with Putin two months ago, Russian officials have sought to use the momentum from the recent agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons to reengage with Washington and show that it can be an occasional, but useful, partner. In general, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, “there is an unconditional necessity for the continuation of the top-level dialogue, a great number of questions on the bilateral agenda, and also, first of all, the international issues headed by Syria.”

At the same time, the crisis in Washington has no doubt reinforced the Kremlin’s determination to turn away from the United States and Europe. Russia’s new foreign policy concept seeks to build relations with its immediate neighbors and focus more attention on the Asian-Pacific region in order to become the dominant Eurasian power. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have said they do not share Western values.

For now at least, the Obama administration has emerged victorious in its struggle with the Republicans in the House of Representatives. But it will be much more difficult to repair the damage to the United States’ international prestige. A diminished U.S. role on the international stage is not inevitable, but if such a shift did come to pass, it would leave a vacuum that at present Russia is unable to fill. Since Russia, in terms of both its economy and geopolitical position, would be the first to feel the consequences of any global instability, Lukyanov reminds us, it is important that Russia make good on its constructive rhetoric during the Washington debt crisis and stop playing the international provocateur.

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