By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

What makes out Putin’s Russia

While the Polish president says talking to Putin is like negotiating with Hitler, a more revealing issue was when Putin on Thursday compared himself to Peter the Great, drawing parallels with the tsar who waged war on Sweden and said the campaign in Ukraine stems from Russia’s ‘fundamental values while drawing parallels between Peter’s founding of St. Petersburg and his own government’s annexation of territory saying: We will undoubtedly succeed in solving the tasks that we face. Putin says Russia aims to acquire new territories. More revealing because this is a pattern that goes back many years.

For example, after a ceremony commemorating the 1,030th anniversary of Russia’s conversion to Christianity when he was in Saint Petersburg, he celebrated Navy Day with an impressive military parade. He complimented Russia’s powerful fleet that “defends the Motherland.” He did so standing in front of the statue of Peter the Great. 

Peter the Great, however, is known for strengthening Russia by throwing it open to the outside world and inviting European experts to help build and modernize it. He is said to have opened a “window on Europe,” while Putin has deeply alienated nations to the West and united Ukrainians against Russia by launching a war that isolates his country and harms its economy, with potentially massive long-term consequences.“Putin’s Ukraine invasion, many Russians fear, has slammed that window shut,” a news article in The New York Times said.

In a new era of strongmen, Vladimir Putin stands out as one of the strongest. During his time in power, Russia has reasserted itself on the world stage, a remarkable feat for a country that experienced such rapid decline in the 1990s, only to accomplish an unexpected resurgence after Putin entered the Kremlin. He has made it his mission to relitigate the end of the Cold War and renegotiate its terms. As he embarked on his fourth term, Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had been since the last years of the Brezhnev period in the early 1980s, with an escalating arms race and mutual ideological invective. Thirty-five years ago, a succession of aging, infirm Soviet leaders faced Ronald Reagan, a self-confident US president who denounced their country as an “evil empire.” Today, the mutual mistrust, rhetorical invective, and steady military buildup are strongly reminiscent of the Cold War, as is the dissonance between the way America and Russia see each other.

But Cold War 2.0 is different. There is no universal ideological competition between the West and Russia. Russia’s ideological appeal is to “compatriots” in the post-Soviet space, to left-and right-wing populists in the West, and to a diverse group of countries and people worldwide who dislike the United States. The United States is much stronger militarily than Russia, and it viewed Moscow more as a regional than a global strategic competitor. However, Russia believes it has recently become a greater global competitor to the United States, thanks to Putin’s accomplishments. Moreover, unlike the USSR, Russia is integrated into the global economy, which gives it leverage the Soviets never had. It also gives it vulnerabilities.

This is no longer a bipolar world, for China has emerged as the key rising power that holds many big global cards. And there is another difference. During the Cold War, the USSR and the West engaged each other through established political and military government-to-government channels with game rules that they both accepted. In the system of personalized rule that Putin has created, these channels are moribund or primarily gone, and there are fewer avenues for communication and hence more opportunities for miscalculation and consequential mistakes. So the West has returned to the familiar dual-track Cold War prescriptions for dealing with an antagonistic Russia: deterrence and engagement.

Viewed from the Kremlin, however, Putin has achieved his major objectives. Russia has restored itself to its “rightful” place on the world stage. It has, once again, joined the global board of directors. The world can no longer ignore it. It is respected—and feared. Even as Russia’s relations with the West deteriorate, the West must deal with it. At a major defense and security conference in Moscow, the Chinese defense minister jolted his audience when he vowed that China would come to Russia’s assistance if the West attacked it. In 2018 China joined Russia in its massive Vostok military exercises. Western commentators may describe Russia as a “pariah state” or a “mafia state.” But Beijing, as we have seen, aligns with Moscow in international fora, and much of the Middle East views Russia’s role in the region as that of a pragmatic mediator and broker. In Central Asia, Russia is also recognized as a great power with which to be reckoned.

As the West wrestles over how to deal with Putin, it is essential to remember that in many parts of the world, Russia is viewed as a sizeable authoritarian country ruled by a successful leader who is pursuing his country’s legitimate national interests as he defines them. Moreover, much of the world’s view of Russia is colored by how the world regards the United States. In the unpredictable age of Donald Trump, Russia’s attractiveness has grown for some countries. As this book has shown, going back to 2014, China has upgraded Russia as a partner, taking advantage of the West’s attempts to isolate Putin. It has also sought to recruit Russia to its version of a post-West global order. Some of Russia’s neighbors, especially Ukraine, view Russia as an antagonist. But Russia has created several functioning multilateral institutions in the post-Soviet space, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Union. Key Middle Eastern countries—Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—look to Russia to support their interests in the region, even though these countries are on opposite sides of ongoing conflicts and, in some cases, are deadly enemies. And the West itself is fragmented; it has no unified view of Russia as a hostile actor. For instance, after the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain, the United States and more than two dozen other countries supported England in expelling Russian diplomats suspected of spying. But these were nearly all NATO or EU members, plus Australia and Ukraine, and some EU members, such as Austria and Slovakia, refused to follow suit. Under Putin, Russia’s former allies in the Warsaw Pact, notably Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, have moved closer to Moscow.

Vladimir Putin won his 2018 reelection by an unprecedented margin. True, no credible opponents challenged him, and many reported voting irregularities were reported. But it is undeniable that he remains popular, particularly outside the major urban centers. The Kremlin controls virtually all electronic media and skillfully uses television to persuade the population of its narrative of world events. Many young people, who have known only Putin as their president, support him. They believe that Russia needs a strong leader and, like so many generations of Russians before them, are willing to give him the authority to make decisions for them. During his election campaign, Putin appealed to the people by warning them of the danger the United States and its allies posed to Russia and by reminding them that he had restored Russia to greatness. According to the respected Levada polling organization, many Russians believe the annexation of Crimea forced the West to respect Russia, and more than 70 percent say that Russia has achieved superpower status. Russia now can project power well beyond its neighborhood and is venturing back into Latin America, Africa, and other places from which it withdrew after the Soviet collapse. Its return to Latin America has been particularly striking, focusing on Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela, where it continues to prop up the failing Maduro regime both economically and militarily.1 Despite its economic weakness, and an economy smaller than Italy’s (Russia’s $1.3 trillion GDP as opposed to the United States’ $18.6 trillion, and per capita income in 2017 of $11,440 as compared to the US’s $ 53,528), its global influence is spreading.2


What drives Putin

The core driver of Putin is the quest to get the West to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union. A review of his words and actions suggests his foreign policy has been shaped by seven key propositions—a sort of bill of rights in Moscow’s view—for Russia on the international stage. These are all designed to reverse the consequences of the Soviet collapse and renegotiate the end of the Cold War: Firstly, he believes Russia has a right to a seat at the table on all major international decisions and will insist on inclusion. The West should recognize that Russia belongs to the global board of directors. Second, Russia’s interests are as legitimate as those of the West, and it will press for the US and Europe to acknowledge and accept this fact of life even if they disagree with Russia.

Third, Russia has a right to a sphere of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. It defines its vital security perimeter not as the borders of the Russian Federation but as the borders of the post-Soviet space. Russia will work to ensure that its former Soviet neighbors do not join any alliances deemed hostile to Russia. Hence, Moscow will seek to guarantee that no Euro-Atlantic structures—primarily NATO and the EU—move any closer to Russia than they already are because they threaten Russia’s vital interests.

Fourth, some states are more sovereign than others. Great powers like Russia, China, India, and the United States enjoy absolute sovereignty, meaning they are free to choose which alliances they join. Smaller countries, like Ukraine or Georgia, are not fully sovereign, and Russia will insist that they respect its wishes. Russia does not seek allies in the Western sense of the word but mutually beneficial instrumental partnerships with countries, such as China, that do not restrict Russia’s freedom to act or pass judgment on its internal situation.

Fifth, Russia will continue to present itself as a supporter of the status quo, an advocate of conservative values, and an international power respecting established leaders. According to the Kremlin, the West promotes chaos and regime change, as happened during the Arab Spring—without thinking through the consequences of its actions. (Of course, in its sphere of privileged interests, Russia can act as a revisionist power and upend the status quo when it considers its interests threatened, as the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Georgia and Ukraine show.)

Sixth, Russia believes a fractured Western alliance best serves its interests; hence it will continue to support anti-American and Euroskeptic groups in Europe and populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

Finally, Russia will push to jettison the post–Cold War, liberal, rules-based international order driven by the US and Europe in favor of a post–West order. This order would resemble the nineteenth-century concert of powers for Russia, with China, Russia, and the United States dividing the world into spheres of influence.

Putin can take satisfaction that he has successfully achieved his goals. After Ukraine, the West unsuccessfully sought to isolate Russia. But Russia has deepening partnerships in various multilateral fora, such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and it works with China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Iran. The list of fifty-eight countries abstained in 2014 from condemning Russia for its annexation of Crimea in the UN General Assembly reveals that a variety of countries—both democratic and nondemocratic—do not want to antagonize Russia or impose sanctions on it.

Yet, in reality, Putin’s foreign policy record is decidedly mixed. His clashes with the West—caused by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, its support of a military campaign in Syria that ignores the humanitarian catastrophe there, its ongoing election interference in the US and Europe, and the poisonings in the UK—came at a high cost and have further alienated the US and Europe. Moreover, the Ukrainian intervention has created a situation where there is no obvious way out for Russia short of a total withdrawal, which Putin has refused to contemplate so far. And despite formally leading two of Eurasia’s major multilateral organizations—the CSTO and EEU—Russia does not have real allies as the concept is understood in the West. Partners from China to Belarus may support Russia in the United Nations and other fora, but, as this book has shown, these partnerships are wary and partial. There are no countries with which Russia is allied where the partnership involves a set of shared values and a commitment to a common strategy in the way NATO or the EU do. Russia’s partnerships are ad hoc and largely instrumental with limited common interests. Perhaps this is what Putin prefers, but the result is a Russia that operates in its orbit, largely depending on its resources, while seeking to exploit and benefit from the existing divisions within the West. And despite talk of a post-West order and the current global turmoil, there are few signs that anything resembling a new order is emerging.

Moreover, it is important to distinguish between appearances and reality in Russian foreign policy. For instance, despite the impressive show of military might in the 2018 Vostok military exercises with China, observers questioned what these troops and tanks were doing. Putin wanted the world to see the 300,000 troops and 36,000 armored vehicles on display and to raise concerns in the West, but the results of their maneuvers may have been less consequential than initial appearances might suggest. Similarly, leaders from the Middle East and elsewhere may travel to Russia and sign memoranda of understanding for multibillion-dollar projects. Still, it is unclear how many of these MOUs will be implemented. Putin’s world is designed to project an external image of military might, forward movement, and economic dynamism. But the reality may well be different. The extravagant rhetoric and external shows of strength in Putin’s world mask severe domestic weaknesses.


Domestic realities in Putin’s Russia

Foreign policy successes may have helped him win reelection. Still, the domestic reality of Putin’s world is rather different, given the state of the economy, demographic decline, and questions about succession. In nearly two decades in power, Putin has successfully crafted an economic system whose main accomplishment has been preserving state power and authority and its projection abroad. From 2000 to 2008, when oil prices rose from $25 to as high as $147 a barrel, GDP grew at an average of 7 percent per year, and individual household incomes also rose after the doldrums of the late 1990s. Putin was a beneficiary of rising oil prices. The 2008 financial crisis hit Russia hard, but GDP growth recovered—until 2014. Since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, GDP growth has been sluggish, below 2 percent.

However, Putin’s economic system may prove inadequate for Russia seeking to strengthen its international role. Although its economy recovered from the combined blows of falling oil prices and Western financial sanctions in 2014, Russia remains largely dependent on its revenues from oil and gas, which constitute 50 percent of its national budget. Putin has yet to implement economic reforms—from raising the retirement age to diversifying the economy away from oil and gas, supporting small and medium-sized businesses, and modernizing the economy. These reforms have been recommended to him by a succession of advisers since the early 2000s, most notably by the former finance minister Alexei Kudrin. It is unclear whether he will introduce these reforms in his fourth term. In 2005, Putin abandoned pension reform when senior citizens took to the streets to protest. In 2018 he also modified his subsequent attempt to raise the retirement age after protests. Still, he did raise it to age 60 for women and age 65 for men—in a country where the average male life expectancy is 66.5 years and female life expectancy 77.5. Economic reform could adversely affect the vested interests of many people and groups who support Putin in the patrimonial rent-seeking system that prevails in Russia. If there is no far-reaching structural modernizing reform, Russia will increasingly lag behind many of its neighbors, including China. The Russian economy can and will continue to muddle through. Still, without all of the effective institutions of a modern state, and given the pervasiveness of corruption from the top to the bottom of society, Putin’s Russia will perpetuate the historical pattern of projecting military might as the major source of its power and influence. At the same time, it remains economically far behind many of its competitors.

The United States’ April 2018 sanctions against twenty-four businessmen and officials close to Putin and twelve businesses haD adversely affected the billionaires’ domestic and international holdings. But the sanctions will, if anything, make them more dependent on the Kremlin’s largesse, and their companies are more likely to be bailed out by the Kremlin and de facto nationalized. Western sanctions may impose penalties but also strengthen Putin’s ability to increase state control over the economy.

Demographics are another major challenge. Despite a mini baby boom in recent years, the Russian population is declining, and life expectancy lags behind most industrialized countries. The figures for mortality among young men aged eighteen to thirty are particularly striking: they resemble those of sub-Saharan Africa rather than those of advanced industrial countries. This has significant implications for the future workforce and military recruitment. However, while the Slavic birthrate is falling, Russia’s Muslim population continues to enjoy high birth rates, and by 2020 Muslims will constitute one-fifth of the population of the Russian Federation, potentially challenging the tenuous ethnic peace that Putin has promoted.6 Many of the best and brightest young people have emigrated, and the brain drain shows no signs of abating. Moreover, a combination of neglect and systemic corruption has left Russia with a decaying physical infrastructure that requires concerted attention. The question is whether Putin will continue to replicate the pattern of the late Brezhnev era: domestic stagnation because reform is considered too destabilizing politically, combined with foreign policy activism that appeals to the population’s patriotism and renewed nationalism that antagonizes the West.

A key question for the future is succession. According to the Russian constitution, this is Putin’s last term in office, and he is obliged to step down in 2024; he will have been in power for one year less than was Stalin. Historically, several models for succession exist in a millennium of Russian history. The most common succession mechanism in the tsarist and Soviet times was death by natural causes. There were also several instances of death by unnatural causes when tsars were assassinated. Rulers have also been overthrown in palace coups, in both the tsarist and Soviet times, when Khrushchev was ousted by his erstwhile comrades. Rulers have been overthrown by popular revolutions, too, as in 1917. In the post-Soviet era, there have been only two managed transitions: when Boris Yeltsin chose Putin to succeed him and when Putin picked Medvedev—in the latter case, only to switch places with him four years later and return to the Kremlin.

On 20 September 2021, one Moscow pensioner, who gave his name only as Anatoly, told Reuters news agency he voted for the ruling party as he appreciated Putin’s efforts to restore Russia’s influence on the world stage.” Countries like the United States and Britain more or less respect us now like they respected the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. The Anglo-Saxons only understand the language of force,” he said. But with official turnout reported to be about 52%, there were signs of widespread indifference.” I don’t see the point in voting,” said one Moscow hairdresser named Irina. “It’s all been decided for us anyway, see: “Russia election: Putin’s party wins election marred by fraud claims.



For updates click hompage here





shopify analytics