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Russia Against the West and with the Rest
By Angela Stent
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In July 2018, Russia showed its best face to the world as it hosted the World Cup. The spirited opening ceremony featured bears, dragons, and picturesque onion domes. The Russian team—ranked at the bottom of all those competing—defeated Saudi Arabia in the first game and went on all the way to the quarterfinals, when Croatia defeated it. But even that loss did not diminish the pervasive—and unexpected—atmosphere of good feeling. For a month, Russia welcomed fans from around the world with enthusiasm and camaraderie. Russians and foreign fans partied all night in cities from Kaliningrad in the west to Ekaterinburg, 1,500 miles away in Siberia. Even the normally dour Russian policemen had only smiles for those celebrating. As Russian president Vladimir Putin put it, “People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country, a friendly one for those who come here.” He added, “I’m sure that an overwhelming majority of people who came will leave with the best feelings and memories of our country and will come again many times.”1
The World Cup represented a major success for President Putin. Before the games opened, there were questions about whether Russia would be able to build the facilities in time for the games, about corruption involved in the bidding for the construction, and about how international visitors would be received. Moreover, the games were held in a politically charged atmosphere, when Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had been since post-communist Russia emerged in 1992. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in Southeastern Ukraine, its cyber interference in the US and European elections, its support for Bashar al-Assad in the brutal Syrian Civil War, and its domestic crackdowns on opponents of the regime—and the US and EU responses—all this had intensified the already adversarial relationship between Putin’s Russia and the West.
The World Cup left foreign fans with positive views of their hosts. Many had arrived in Russia with stereotypes about unfriendly Russians living in a backward country. But they reported being surprised by how “normal” Russia and its people seemed. The US sent the largest number of spectators, even though the American team did not qualify to compete. Western journalists emphasized that it was important to differentiate between the Russian government, which they criticized, and its people, who were hospitable. For their part, the Russians seemed surprised by how approachable the foreign fans were. Russians were used to seeing westerners constantly vilified in their state-run media, but a poll conducted after the games ended showed that Russians’ view of Americans and Europeans had significantly improved.2 The games left an afterglow of positive feelings, even though the Russians realized that, once the foreigners departed, they would no longer be able to celebrate all night in the streets. The Russia team may have lost, but the World Cup was clearly a victory for Vladimir Putin.
The World Cup represented a culmination of Putin’s project, which had been nearly two decades in the making: the return of Russia to the world stage as a great power to be respected, feared, and—as the World Cup showed—liked and even admired. Russia’s reemergence as a major player capable of projecting power well beyond its immediate neighborhood was unexpected and quite remarkable, given its limited economic resources: a GDP smaller than Italy’s, demographic decline, decaying infrastructure, and the negative impact of successive waves of Western sanctions in response to its actions. A few years before, President Obama had described Russia as a “regional power.”3 But Putin proved otherwise. Russia’s reach is now clearly global.
This is the new Russian reality that has developed since Putin entered the Kremlin in 2000. At that point Russia was emerging from a decade of political chaos and an economic meltdown. Some went as far as to opine, “Russia is finished.”4 When an ailing Boris Yeltsin handed over the reins of power to a virtually unknown former KGB case officer, it was unclear how the fledgling post-communist Russia could move forward. In retrospect, it is clear that Putin was from the start determined not only to restore firm state control over the Russian polity but also to resurrect Russia as a great power. Remarkably, he has been able to accomplish both of these goals, despite Russia’s economic and military constraints.
It is important to understand how and why Russia has returned to the world stage. It is now active in areas from which it withdrew after the USSR collapsed, and its reappearance has affected the ability of the United States and its allies to conduct their own foreign policy effectively. The new reality of Putin’s world necessitates a rethinking of how to deal with Russia going forward.
Putin’s world is one in which relations with the United States and much of Europe are adversarial. It is also a world in which Russia has a deepening partnership with China, an increasingly influential role in the Middle East, and has returned to areas of the world from which Russia was forced to withdraw after the Soviet collapse. Moreover, Russia’s seat and veto on the United Nations Security Council have enabled Moscow to exercise influence well beyond what its current capabilities would suggest. Russia’s ability to thwart Western interests has also enabled it to advance its own interests internationally. Western attempts to isolate Russia after the seizure of Crimea have failed. Moreover, the increasing disarray in the transatlantic alliance since Donald Trump came to power, plus Brexit (Britain’s decision to leave the European Union) and a European Union beset by new challenges, all these have provided Putin with unanticipated opportunities to advance Russia’s interests, which he has skillfully utilized.
This book explains how Putin’s Russia has managed to return as a global player and what that new role means. It examines why Moscow’s relations with the US and much—although not all—of Europe have deteriorated, and why so many other countries have a positive view of Russia and are working with Moscow productively in a variety of fora. The book also traces the origins and development of the Russian national idea that has been consolidated in the nearly two decades Putin has been in power and that drives policy today, highlighting how important it is to understand how and why Russia has reemerged and how best to approach Moscow in this turbulent new global reality.
It is customary to describe Russians as talented chess players with a grand strategy, but Putin’s sport is judo—and that has given him a unique perspective on dealing with competitors and adversaries. Growing up poor in postwar Leningrad, martial arts transformed his life because it was a way of defending himself against larger, tougher boys who tried to beat him up. “It was a tool to assert myself in the pack.” The Leningrad evening paper in May 1976 introduced the 24-year-old master “judoist” to the city as “not well known so far amongst specialists or fans” but predicted that that would soon change.5 In judo, a seemingly weaker practitioner can rely on inner strength and force of will to defeat a larger, more aggressive foe. Putting an opponent off-balance and taking advantage of their temporary disorientation to strike a winning blow is a basic technique. Putin has proven to be adept at seizing opportunities presented to him by the disarray in the West and the indecisiveness of some of its leaders.
Putin’s world also has been facilitated by the fraying of the transatlantic alliance. The initial euphoria over the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War has given way to a sober realization that the consolidation of a Europe “whole and free,” the mantra of the 1990s, has been elusive. Democratic backsliding in Central Europe, a renewed challenge from Russia to its neighbors, the persistence of a “post-Soviet syndrome” in all of the former Soviet states, and waves of migrants landing on Europe’s shores have led to a rise in populism and a questioning of the European project—the creation of a European Union that would ensure that Europe would eschew conflict going forward—that was such a postwar success. The election of Donald Trump and the pursuit of “America first” economic and political goals have called into question the durability of the seventy-year-old NATO alliance and of the US commitment to Europe. This has played into the hands of a Russian leader who, like most of his predecessors, has sought to profit from transatlantic tensions and prefers dealing with a disunited West.
But Putin’s world is also a product of deliberate Russian policies. Russia has focused on building up its military since the 2008 war with Georgia and on using a variety of means to project power. It has also exploited vulnerabilities in open Western societies and seized opportunities presented by the rise of social media. Russian interference in Western elections and support for anti-EU and separatist movements in Europe, and for groups on both extremes of the US political divide, have caught the West off guard. So far there has been no adequate response to the deployment of these “hybrid” tactics in what has become an unending information war.
In exploring the making of Putin’s world, this book focuses on the areas that are priorities for Russian foreign policy: the United States, Europe, the post-Soviet states, China, the Middle East, and Japan. Russia is also returning to Latin America and Africa, but until now these areas have represented a lower priority for the Kremlin.
Foreign policy in Russia, as in any country, is driven by domestic considerations. For the current occupants of the Kremlin and their close associates, foreign policy serves their overriding goal to remain in power. As Putin enters what is constitutionally his last term in office amid increasing speculation about a possible succession in 2024, foreign policy could play a key role either in helping to consolidate the system he has created or in what could become a future struggle for power among the different groups of contenders.
How should the West respond to the new Russia—which in many ways still resembles the old Soviet Union? In 1961, George Kennan—the twentieth century’s most gifted and knowledgeable American diplomat-scholar and Russia hand—published Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin. As he surveyed the troubled legacy of the interwar years, he criticized the West for failing to understand both what drove the Kremlin’s foreign policy and the militant, universalist Soviet ideology that threatened Western security. He concluded that “the relationship we have with the Soviet Union has to be compared, if we are to determine its real value, not with some nonexistent state of total harmony of interests but with what we might call the normal level of recalcitrance, of sheer orneriness and unreasonableness, which we encounter in the behavior of states anywhere and which I am sure we often manifest in our own.”6
Today one can argue that the West has been slow to understand the mindset of the Kremlin’s occupants determined to restore Russia to what they believe is its rightful place in the world. For Russians, the economic and social dislocation of the 1990s is closely associated with what they view as a misguided Western agenda designed to reshape post-communist Russia. The assumption made in the 1990s—that post-communist Russia was eager to join the West—turned out to have been erroneous. Putin’s Russia seeks to offer a different model. Unlike in the Soviet era, the Kremlin no longer promotes a universalist ideology designed to convert other states to its cause. Rather, Putin has cultivated the idea of Russian exceptionalism, of Russia’s unique Eurasian destiny, a country bestriding both Europe and Asia, the center of a new, multipolar world in which Moscow deals with governments of all political persuasions.
Russia and the West view each other as competitors, adversaries, and occasional partners. So far they have been unable to achieve a durable post–Cold War modus vivendi. The West remains torn between seeking engagement with Russia in the hopes this will moderate its behavior and trying to contain it. Neither strategy has worked so far. This is the unique challenge of Putin’s world for the United States and its allies.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Russia is a large authoritarian state ruled by a leader with whom one can do business. Other countries may be wary of the methods Moscow employs to achieve its goals, but they are unconcerned about its domestic situation, recognize that it seeks a sphere of influence in its neighborhood, and are content to pursue engagement without containment.
The first two chapters of the book examine the historical legacies that have shaped contemporary Russia’s understanding of itself and its role in the world. Putin’s Russia has increasingly focused on a reinterpretation of history that justifies how and why Russia has returned to the world stage as it reclaims what it views as its rightful status as a great power resisting Western attempts to weaken it.
The book then focuses on Russia’s relations with major players, beginning with Russia’s long and ambivalent relationship with Europe, to which it remains deeply connected, both politically and economically. Yet ties have become increasingly strained since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine. Europe is sharply divided over how to deal with Russia and Moscow has done all it can to derive benefits from these divisions. Nowhere are these tensions more evident than in Russian-German ties, a long and complex relationship that has traditionally fluctuated between amity and enmity. The combination of the Ukraine crisis and the advent of the Trump administration have caused Germany to rethink its policies toward both Russia and the United States. For the first time, Germany is struggling to develop an “America strategy”—something it has never needed to do before—as it reconfigures its ties to Russia. Meanwhile, Putin’s insistence that NATO is the “main opponent” continues to shape his relations with Europe and toward the transatlantic alliance. The West and Russia tried and failed to create a Euro-Atlantic security architecture in the 1990s in which Russia had a stake. This led to mounting uncertainty about Russia’s relations with NATO and, more recently, stimulated a new Western military buildup in Europe in response to Russian actions.
The next two chapters deal with the complex mosaic of Russia’s relations with the former Soviet states. The Kremlin does not regard these nations as distinctly foreign countries, but as part of its “near abroad” which, in its view, should only enjoy limited sovereignty. There is a separate chapter on Russia’s fraught ties with Ukraine. The war in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine highlights the roots of the Russian-Ukrainian dueling narratives over history, identity, and territory, and is the battlefield for a new type of conflict, hybrid warfare.
Russia’s increasingly close ties to China represent a major success of the Putin era and a remarkable development considering that the two countries have a long history of enmity. This section discusses the changing nature of a relationship that is not an alliance but an increasingly robust instrumental partnership that has enabled Russia to avoid the isolation the West sought to impose after 2014. Indeed, in 2018, Chinese troops participated in the largest Russian military exercises held since 1981. By contrast, Russia’s ties to its other major East Asian neighbor Japan remain constrained by the two countries’ inability to resolve their territorial dispute over four unprepossessing islands, dating back to the end of World War Two. The book examines why it has been so challenging to move relations forward.
The next chapter covers the Middle East, highlighting the other foreign policy success story of the Putin era. Russia has returned to the Middle East as the only major power that can talk to the protagonists and antagonists in all of the major regional conflicts—Iran, the Sunni states, Israel, the Palestinians, and the Kurds.
The final two chapters come to the great conundrum—the increasingly adversarial US-Russia relationship, which resembles a new Cold War that some fear could even deteriorate into a hot war. Why has it been so difficult to create a durable framework for productive ties between the two countries? Unrealistic expectations about the relationship on both sides and fundamentally different views of what drives international politics have created a downward spiral. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Russia has become a toxic domestic issue as never before.
What is the future for Putin’s world? The book concludes by discussing Putin’s seven pillars for restoring Russia as a great power, and the domestic constraints that will shape Russia going forward. It calls for a combination of realism, push-back, and strategic patience in the West’s response to Putin’s world.
THE WEIGHT OF THE PAST
Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation.… In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, continues today. [Western countries] are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy.
—Vladimir Putin, announcing the annexation of Crimea, March 14, 20141
We must start working to become self-sufficient, all the more so since Russia is one of the few countries to which God, nature, ancestors, and history have guaranteed this self-sufficiency.
—Sergei Lavrov, speaking to a youth forum, August 24, 20152
On February 7, 2014, a beaming, self-confident Vladimir Putin strode out onto the stage and welcomed thousands of athletes and spectators to the first Winter Olympics in Sochi. It had been a tough and controversial competition for Russia to win the games for this picturesque Black Sea resort with a subtropical climate. Rumors abounded about everything from how Russia had won the Olympics to their price tag to shoddy workmanship on the facilities and new hotels. Following a terrorist bombing at a regional railway station, and threats of more attacks, security precautions were extraordinarily tight. No Western leaders were in attendance at the games because of Russia’s domestic clampdown, but the Chinese and Japanese leaders were there. The head of the United States delegation was a former cabinet secretary, now chancellor of the University of California. Nevertheless, on this first night the athletes were excited, and television viewers around the world eagerly anticipated the opening ceremony and Russia’s chance to present its unique history. This was the Kremlin’s opportunity to showcase its view of the world.
Expertly produced, the opening ceremony was a riveting ride through Russian history, notable both for what it included and for what it omitted. The narrator was a young girl, Liuba, who flew through time and space and presented the highlights of Russia’s past through the alphabet, each letter representing a major figure in Russia’s one-thousand-year history. The heroes she met included Tsar Peter the Great, who built the capital Saint Petersburg on a swampland; Catherine the Great, the German princess during whose rule Russia greatly expanded its borders; the composer Peter Tchaikovsky; the poet Alexander Pushkin; the exiled artist Marc Chagall, who painted fiddlers on the roofs of his native Vitebsk; the film director Sergei Eisenstein; the literary titans Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; and the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Russia’s vast spaces, its beautiful snowy landscapes, and its hardworking peasants and scenic villages featured prominently, as did music by Russia’s great composers. The Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet Young Pioneers with their distinctive red scarves and motto “Always prepared” made appearances. There was Soviet-era nostalgia in the form of the great exploits in space and curious 1960s-era Hipsters. But what was missing was also notable. The Gorbachev era with its perestroika and the eventual Soviet collapse were entirely absent, as were the difficult 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. The opening ceremonies for the Sochi Olympics were extravagant, a paean to Russian history, to its triumphs and tragedies. This was Russia at its grandiose best, overcoming difficulties and always returning to its great natural endowments and hardy citizens, who endure and triumph over all adversity with no help from the outside world. This was the Russia Vladimir Putin presented both to his own people and to the outside world.
But even while the games were taking place, and far away from the enthusiasm and sportsmanship, the Kremlin was making plans that would soon drastically undermine the Olympics goodwill. Three days after the main games ended, “little green men”—unidentified military personnel from Russia—began to appear in Sevastopol and other cities on the Crimean Peninsula. Only 315 miles northwest of Sochi and also on the Black Sea, Crimea had belonged to Russia since Catherine the Great wrested it from the Ottoman Empire and the indigenous Crimean Tatars in 1783.
Crimea had occupied a unique place in the Russian imagination for more than two hundred years. It was a popular vacation destination for Russians, immortalized in Anton Chekhov’s short stories. For many outside the Soviet Union, its most famous city was Yalta, where Joseph Stalin met Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill just before the end of World War Two in the Livadia Palace to negotiate over the postwar world. Sevastopol was a major warm-water port for the Soviet navy. Crimea had been part of the Russian Empire and, after the establishment of the USSR, part of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. In 1954, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s union with Russia, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to “give” Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As Putin said in October 2014, “In 1954, Khrushchev, who liked to bang his shoe at the UN, decided for some reason to transfer Crimea to Ukraine.”3 At that point the gesture had limited meaning, since both republics were part of the USSR. But this administrative maneuver had major repercussions once the Soviet Union fell apart at the end of 1991. By an accident of history, Crimea became part of an independent Ukraine. But Russians and their leaders had resented what they considered a historical travesty. Moreover, the Black Sea Fleet was still housed there, but only on a leasing arrangement. By 2014, the Kremlin was determined to right this wrong. A few weeks after the little green men began to appear, Russia organized a referendum in which the majority of Crimea’s citizens voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.4 A little more than a month after the opening festivities in Sochi, Russia had officially annexed Crimea, violating agreements signed in 1994 and 1997 to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the new Ukraine. Russia’s relations with the West began their descent into their worst phase since the communist red hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from over the Kremlin on Christmas Day in 1991 and replaced by the red, white, and blue flag of the new Russian Federation.
The year 2014 was in many ways a watershed for the West in its relations with Russia. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent launch of a war in Southeastern Ukraine led the United States and its allies to question the basic premises of their assessments and expectations of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Obama administration had realized that the “reset” policy it had pursued with Russia after 2009 ended once Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, after the four-year interlude during which he had traded places with Dmitry Medvedev. But Russia’s other major Western partner, Germany, reacted differently. After all, Germany had extensive business ties to Russia and imported significant amounts of Russian gas. Moreover, Berlin felt a strong historical responsibility to maintain close ties to the Kremlin both because of the twenty-seven million Soviet casualties inflicted by Germany during World War Two and out of gratitude for Mikhail Gorbachev allowing East and West Germany to reunite peacefully. But the Ukraine crisis changed all that for Chancellor Angela Merkel. She grew up in East Germany, conversed with Putin in both Russian and German, and was his chief Western interlocutor. She concluded that he frequently misled her about what was happening in Ukraine. This was especially true after the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane over the Donbas region of Ukraine in July 2014, in which the Kremlin denied any involvement. Russia’s actions in Ukraine caused Germany to rethink its Ostpolitik—the policy of engaging Russia—and produced much greater solidarity between the United States and many of its key European allies. This surely was not the outcome Putin had sought when he sent his troops into Crimea and Southeastern Ukraine.
Most Western leaders had to admit that the expectations they had harbored after the Soviet collapse had been misplaced. They had hoped a post-communist Russia would eagerly cast off the shackles of a dysfunctional twentieth-century ideology—communism—and would embrace joining the democratic, capitalist modern world. That would also mean they would eschew an assertive foreign policy directed against Western interests. President Bill Clinton and his administration believed that democracies did not go to war with each other, and they focused on promoting democratic change inside Russia to help it become a less aggressive state that would work with the West.
But Americans, and to some extent Europeans, failed to understand the humiliation that millions of Russians felt at suddenly losing their “inner” and “outer” empire—the post-Soviet states and Eastern Europe. It was difficult for Russians to accept that they no longer had a natural right to dominate their neighborhood and exercise influence beyond their borders. Certainly the Germans understood this better than the Americans, given their dark twentieth-century history, and they warned the United States that it would take many decades for Russia to accept the loss of empire and status. From the Russian point of view, there was a double humiliation: the loss of the post-Soviet states and the fact that the United States and its allies had created a global order to which they expected Russia to conform. It was indeed a unique unipolar movement with a dominant United States and a Russia that had lost its ability to project power globally. No wonder it sought to recoup its power and influence as soon as it could.
- "Informed by its author's distinguished career in government and academia, this account of Russian President Vladimir Putin's worldview provides an important window into one of the key geopolitical challenges of our time. Casual observers and seasoned experts will benefit from Dr. Stent's brilliant exploration of Putin's strategy and its disturbing implications for the West."—Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
- "Like the judo player he once was, Vladimir Putin has figured out ways to assert Russian power despite his nation's weakness. Understanding how he does it is crucial to America, and Angela Stent's deeply knowledgeable and readable book provides brilliant insights."—Walter Isaacson, New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo Da Vinci and Einstein
- "PUTIN'S WORLD offers a timely 21st century update on George Kennan's Long Telegram. Russians understand their country through history, geography, empire-and stories of 'great men.' Angela Stent deftly explains how Putin's version of Russian exceptionalism has been redrawing maps of power in Eurasia and beyond. In an era of strongmen who are seeking a new concert of power, Stent offers the wise perspective that we should consider Russia as it is, not as we might wish it to be."—Robert B. Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, US Trade Representative, and US Deputy Secretary of State
- "From one of the leading experts on Russian foreign policy, PUTIN'S WORLD is a highly engaging, comprehensive overview of Moscow's international relations. Angela Stent deftly explains Russia's complex role at a fraught moment in history, drawing deeply on the country's history, culture, and other key factors determining Russians' conceptions of themselves and the world."—Gregory Feifer, author of Russians: The People Behind the Power
- "PUTIN'S WORLD is the definitive guide to understanding the tangled history of post-Cold War Russia and its place in the world. Angela Stent offers a thoughtful, sober, and elegantly-written perspective that could not be more timely."—US Ambassador William J. Burns
- "[Stent] counsels strategic patience and preparedness -- and suggests that it would be wise to expect the unexpected."—Foreign Affairs
- "Stent expertly walks readers through Moscow's relations with every region in the world, avoiding the hysteria that warps discussion of the country. Aware that too many books about Russian foreign policy arrive instantly obsolete because they lack a foundation in history or political culture, Stent opens with those subjects...and the book culminates in a clear-eyed portrayal of the inescapably troubled U.S.-Russia relationship."—Washington Post
- "An incisive exploration of 'how and why Russia has returned to the world stage'...[Stent] offers a deeply informed look at why Russia, directed by President Vladimir Putin, persists in behaving in what the West regards as an exceedingly maddening, paranoid, and often aggressive manner...A compelling historico-psychological work delineating how the West should respond to Russia going forward."—Kirkus (Starred Review)
- On Sale
- Feb 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 496 pages