Being a hegemon comes with its advantages: your rules become everyone else’s world order, your political ideology the world’s moral compass, your President – the world’s police. But even a hegemon must face challenges – and in his 9 years in power, President Putin has never shirked that role.
The ups and downs of our old Cold War foes aside, the Biden administration has retightened the noose around Russia that Trump had thrown away. Back at G7, Biden was quick to emphasise that the US-Russia relationship "has deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years", pointing to Putin not "acting consistently with international norms, which in many cases he has not" as the wedge holding warmer relations at bay. Of course for Putin, ‘international norms’ are nothing more than arbitrary ploys of US control – and when it comes to domestic matters, those norms are as irrelevant as his citizens’ votes.
In any western liberal literature, a tighter stance on Russia is the most basic of diplomatic decisions for anyone with a rudimentary concern for human rights, democracy and freedom of thought. And with the US holding a monopoly on those ideals, one could hardly judge Biden for walking the walk and not just talking the talk when it comes to democratic values abroad.
But even with human rights at play, there is a point at which diplomatic pressure crosses the line to unwarranted domestic intervention. The recent proposal by US lawmakers to stop recognising Vladimir Putin as President past 2024, when his official Presidential term would have expired had not the constitutional amendments of 2020 been passed, crosses that very line.
Congressman Steve Cohen, a co-orchestrator of the resolution, has claimed that the constitutional amendments made in 2020 were illegal and should "warrant nonrecognition on the part of the United States". But illegal is a relative term – at least, relative to each country’s legal system – so Cohen has little ground to claim illegality simply because such amendments didn’t emerge from US-like democratic institutions. Sure, Putin may have manipulated the system. He may even have curtailed certain legal structures in order to get his votes. But whatever moral impetus there may be for democracy, as far as the global order is concerned, sovereignty still matters. Putin’s constitutional amendments in 2020 were fundamentally within his rights as President to pass, and the extension of his Presidential term is a purely domestic matter, however unsavoury it is to liberal systems of governance.
An ideological misdemeanour is hardly the biggest danger here. The diplomatic breakdown of relations that would ensue would be a black mark on an already fragile, cracking world order where liberalism is in the spotlight for its hypocritical, often nation-breaking obsession with democracy-building. Non-recognition of President Putin on the side of the US would preclude any further diplomatic engagement and negotiation at a time when the US is already teetering on the verge of military engagement in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or China’s reclaiming of Taiwan. US military might has already been reputationally damaged after Afghanistan, and not even a global power can balance both China and Russia on its back with equal aggression, especially when the two are not far from being allies.
The US should have no illusions about the EU, Britain or any of its UN allies following suit. Russia is too critical a partner (let’s not forget NordStream2 from Germany’s side) and too dangerous an enemy to leave outside the scope of diplomatic engagement, and international recognition or not, Putin’s Presidency is firmly set to continue well past 2024, making him a crucial global player for any key international security considerations.
Civil war after civil war has surely proven to the US that it cannot govern every nation whose leader it finds unsavoury. Russia is no exception – Biden and Putin may not be the next best friends in the world order, but the US should be wary of rejecting a, if anything, symbolically important leader to Russia. The US should take hold of its own governance before it tries to become the world’s government once again.