Putin’s New Russia: Fragile State or Revisionist Power?

The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University held a September 2015 conference and subsequent talks about the New Russia of President Vladimir Putin. The journal South Central Review recently published a collection of articles from those events called "Putin's New Russia: Fragile State or Revisionist Power." Andrew Natsios, Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School, shares some of his thoughts on the topic. He also appeared on our podcast series to talk about the journal issue.

by Andrew Natsios
Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs
Bush School of Government, Texas A&M University

When Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin Acting President in December 1999, many in the western capitals hurriedly attempted to determine who he was and how he rose in three years from being an obscure municipal official to Acting President of Russia. In his earlier career, Putin served 16 years in the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police, as a Lt. Colonel assigned to East Germany. After retiring from the KGB, he went to work in St. Petersburg city government in several posts, including Deputy Mayor. The Yeltsin government then brought him to Moscow where he held several positions before being appointed as the director of the Federal Security Service, the new Russian name for the domestic KGB. He then became Prime Minister and Acting President, and then being elected in his own right in March 26, 2000.

European and U.S. policymakers were slow to acknowledge and react to the reality of Putin’s Russia, its revisionist policies, and the threat it posed to western democracies and its other neighbors. For the first six years of Putin’s Presidency when he was regarded as a economic reformer, Russia was treated as a great power and was one of the select countries included in G-8 meetings, but after the invasion of Ukraine Russia was expelled.    

Beginning in the mid-2000’s, Putin abandoned his economic reform agenda and shifted the direction of his government, ending Russia’s integration into the world economy, crushing civil society, gaining virtual control of the Russian electronic news media, and seizing the territory of neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine, while aggressively rearming.

Russia has had a history of surprising naïve outsiders who do not understand why the country and its leaders act as they do on the world stage or how the country functions internally. At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on July 9, 2015, Major General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked to identify the greatest global threat to the United States. He provided a one-word answer: Russia. At the time his observation surprised many in Washington whose focus had been on the radical Islamist State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or on China.

Putin’s Russia as an Outlier Nation

As the articles in this journal demonstrate, Putin’s Russia is an outlier nation in that it does not fit into the existing categories of other countries which make up the world order. Many of its unique characteristics are weaknesses, not strengths. Russia is not an advanced democratic capitalist state, nor does it have much in common with Brazil, India or China, with which it is often grouped as one of the so-called BRIC countries. These countries have growing industrially and technologically-based economies, and two are evolving democracies. Brazil, India, and China are all experiencing aggressive and very public anti-corruption campaigns, while the Russian government represents the embodiment of systemic corruption on a kleptocratic scale. If Putin loses power and a reform-minded government succeeds him, he, his circle of KGB agents and the Oligarchs who run the country, could end up in jail or worse. An article in the January/February 2018 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Julia Ioffe reports that Putin, obsessed with the violent demise of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, watched over and over again a video of his brutal lynching by his own people. It is the Russian people who Putin most fears, and thus ensuring his own survival may be driving his aggressive external behavior which has played on the Russian people’s nationalist impulses to boost his popularity.

Thus, the Russian foreign policy riddle may in fact be better explained, per some essays in this issue, as a response to the power dynamics within the country rather than by any particular national security doctrine. These dynamics are internal, not external threats to Putin’s rule, certainly not to Russia as a nation-state. Moscow’s policies may be driven by the insecurity and illegitimacy of the small circle of Oligarchs and former KGB agents surrounding Putin who fear their own people more than they fear any outside threat, a fear which is evidence of profound, if disguised, weakness.

Understanding Putin’s Foreign Policy

John Mearsheimer, the international relations scholar, argues Russia’s aggressiveness towards its neighbors stems from western efforts to extend NATO membership to former members of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. According to this view, traditional national interest drives Russia’s behavior, and NATO extension has been seen by Putin as a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. From this perspective, the western democracies helped create Vladimir Putin’s Russia by impinging on its “sphere of influence” along its borders; thus, Russia is not what international relations scholars call a “revisionist power”—one which seeks to overthrow the existing international order—but a traditional state protecting what it sees as its equities and vital national interests. Other analysts, such as Anne Applebaum, argue Putin’s policies are not part of a grand strategy, but are evidence of an improvised foreign policy. Thus, Russia’s aggression in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and its threats to the Baltic States, may be seen not as a carefully designed and executed strategy of conquest, but as symptomatic of Putin’s ad hoc, opportunistic foreign policy. He probes for Western weakness, irresolution, and indecision, and then, if there is no resistance, he intervenes to extend Russia’s reach by absorbing more territory.

Putin has sought to return Russia to great power status by weakening other competing powers or annexing neighboring states rather than risking reforms that could be destabilizing in the short term, but would strengthen Russia as a nation state over the long term. The immediate objectives of Russian foreign policy are not mysterious if one examines Putin’s government’s public rhetoric, its published documents, and its actions. One of Putin’s greatest strengths has been the aggressive and systematic pursuit of these strategic objectives which include:

  • efforts to regain military parity with the United States (they are nowhere near achieving this)
  • the neutralization of the NATO alliance
  • the end of the European Union as one of the most powerful economic blocs in the world
  • the creation of an alternative anti-liberal, authoritarian, reactionary governance model of statehood for which Russia is trying to gain adherents among far right and far left parties wing in Europe
  • the reconstruction of the historic Russian sphere of influence through annexation of parts of neighboring states and the projection of Russian power to other regions of the world such as the Middle East and Afghanistan

If Putin’s strategic objective was to minimize or reduce external threats to Russia, the invasion of Ukraine was a major strategic blunder as it has slowly begun to mobilize the previous docile and distracted Western Alliance to counter the new threat. NATO officials have now begun publicly raising the alarm bells. Sweden and Finland, which never joined NATO, are now engaged in a public discussion about joining the Alliance, which has broad public support.

Putin’s Grand Bargain with the Russian People: Surrendering Freedom for Guns, Butter, and the dream of lost Russian Grandeur

Putin’s legitimacy as a ruler has been based on a tacit agreement with the Russian people that trades individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law for economic security. Since the severe economic contraction after mid-2014, that tacit agreement ended. Putin has now reformulated the grand bargain with the Russian people. He is promising to bring back the glorious days of the Soviet Union and earlier Tsarist Empires in exchange for the Russian public’s acceptance of his autocratic rule and a lower living standard.

Since the drop-in oil prices beginning in the summer of 2014 when they peaked at $128 a barrel, the central government has been shoring up the fragile banking system. Despite the balance sheet’s visual appeal, Russia under Vladimir Putin faces a much greater risk of internal implosion than many in Western capitals understand. This is due to the cuts in public services and pensions, growing unrest among the Russian elites with Putin’s policies, and the Russian military’s discomfort with Putin’s strategic gambling in Ukraine and earlier in Georgia.

Anne Applebaum argues in her essay that Putin has either infiltrated, co-opted, corrupted, intimidated, or shut down most of the nascent institutions of Russian democratic pluralism that developed during the 1990’s and early 2000’s such as non-governmental organizations, religious institutions such as the Russian Orthodox Church, think tanks, and universities. Russia has neither rule of law nor an independent court system, and its police are corrupt and a tool of repression rather than law enforcement. Russia has evolved into what Russians call a “managed democracy,” a democracy in appearance, not reality.

Russian institutional weakness may be found in the retarded level of internal development and the dysfunctional characteristics of its governance structure. Russia’s current social, health, demographic, and economic indicators show a country in what could be permanent and irreversible decline, as documented in Nick Eberstadt’s essay. These weaknesses suggest Russia is a declining power, and certainly not a rising power such as China.

Russia’s Military and Cyber Warfare Build Up

One of the few elements of Russian national power now on the ascendency is its military. Putin had been rearming Russia at a rapid rate until 2017 when revenues could not continue to support the increases. Putin has invested in the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the development of new and more advanced conventional weapons, even as Russia faces a depressing demographic future with high rates of drug addiction and alcoholism among young men.

Perhaps the greatest risk to Putin’s strategic buildup may be this dependence on oil, gas, and mineral revenues. To minimize the effect of declining revenue on the defense buildup, Moscow has made a series of strategic decisions to choose guns over butter: cutting back public services such as education, health, and pensions they had formerly funded. Disposable income for the average Russian family declined by 15% between 2014 and 2016, even as the military budget has been increasing. At the end of 2016, for the first time in seven years, Russian families were spending more than half their income on food and “the percentage of Russians who had any savings fell from 72% in 2013 to 29% in 2016,” reported The Washington Post.

The rising Russian military threat was on display in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, but he miscalculated in several critical respects. According to Moscow, a corrupt and illegitimate government had taken power through street demonstrations while Putin’s democratically-elected ally in Kiev was driven from office by mob rule funded by billionaire George Soros and western civil society groups. Putin expected to be greeted by at least half of Ukraine as a Slavic liberating hero because eastern Ukraine has historically been more oriented towards Russia. Instead, Russia met Ukrainian resistance, and united what had been a divided country now mobilized to oppose the Russian invasion.

Russia’s new cyberwarfare capabilities were used in 2016 in a highly visible way during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the Dutch and French elections, and German parliament hacking incidents. Putin interfered in the U.S. elections per the U.S. intelligence agencies, when the Russian cyber-warfare agencies hacked into the Democratic National Committee email system and accessed Clinton campaign advisor John Podesta’s emails.

The Ideology and Mythology of the Putin State

Putin has positioned himself and Russia as a reactionary alternative to western secular liberal democracies. This world view is described in Project Russia, which is a curious, if alarming, collection of essays published in five-volumes as a semi-official government publication that describes the political ideology of the Putin’s and his circle of oligarchs world view. These essays form a strange amalgam of anti-democratic and ultra-nationalist attacks on western democratic values, combined with an unhealthy dose of conspiracy theories, paranoia, xenophobia, and a defense of autocratic government. The five volumes of Project Russia may represent Putin’s blueprint for Russia’s grand strategy, evidence of a revisionist power seeking to overthrow the existing international order.

Destabilizing Russia’s Neighbors

General Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, in testimony before a United States Senate Committee in March 2016, said, “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.” Breedlove said that he could see no purpose behind the Russian bombing of purely civilian targets in Syria. He argued these bombing attacks were a tactic to increase refugee flows to Europe to destabilize the European political system and strengthen extremist political movements on the continent of the far left and right, many of which are pro-Putin.

Putin showed his diplomatic skills in turning the European migration crisis and terrorist attacks to Russia’s advantage. Putin may be creating, or at least contributing to, the very crisis to which he is trying to organize a European response. The refugee crisis and Paris massacres demonstrated to European publics their own vulnerability, and have already resulted in electoral gains for far-right wing parties in European elections. Many of these parties are vocal supporters of Putin and have received campaign funds from Moscow—such as Marine Le Pen in France—indirectly through a Russian bank in Cyprus (reportedly a front for the Russian intelligence service). These parties are also anti-European Union, anti-American, and anti-NATO.

U.S. Policy towards Russia in the age of Donald Trump

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States on November 8, 2016, sent shock waves throughout the U.S. alliance system around the world because of his dissent from the bi-partisan support for this alliance system and its centrality to American national security.

Even President Trump’s attempts at improving relations between Russia and the United States have bogged down in media exposes, congressional hearings, and a special prosecutor investigating whether his campaign cooperated with the Russian government during the Presidential campaign. While the interference in the U.S. elections may have made Putin look stronger than he actually is, it has also increased U.S. opposition, particularly among Democrats, to Putin and the threat Russia poses under his leadership. The Republican congressional leadership has been virtually unanimous in opposing President Trump’s attempt to cultivate Vladimir Putin. Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, even called the Putin government “gangsters” which the United States cannot trust.

Threats to Putin’s Rule

After the Russian economy began to unravel in mid-2014, Putin repeatedly purged KGB generals to eliminate any potential rivals or risk of a coup. On November 14, 2016, the Minister of Economic Development, Alexei Ulyukaev, who was one of the last remaining reform-minded technocrats in Putin’s cabinet and a potential rival, was arrested on contrived charges. While to the outside world Vladimir Putin may appear to be a towering figure of autocratic and decisive strength amidst a field of weak, diminished, and distracted western democratic leaders, in reality, his rule is tenuous, his power base unstable, and Mother Russia more fragile than it appears.

The evidence presented in these essays suggests Russia is an increasingly well-armed, declining power, but also a revisionist one which seeks to undermine or destroy the existing international order. A declining, revisionist power can be as dangerous and destabilizing as a rising power, particularly if it has a large land army, cyber warfare capability, new advanced conventional weapons, and a nuclear arsenal. Despite Putin’s short-term tactical victories against a weakened and distracted western alliance, the long-term prospects are not good for Russia, given its internal fragility

Thus, in response to the question posed by these essays—Is Russia a Fragile State or a 21st century Revisionist Power?—the answer is, it is both. The problem for Vladimir Putin is that the gap between his grand strategy and Russia’s capabilities and internal fragility is so great that he will eventually fail, and fail dramatically, but as Nicholas Eberstadt writes, a great many very unpleasant things can happen before this gap leads to Russia’s failure.

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