Over the course of this year, Russia’s international behavior reached new heights of aggressiveness, and talk of the return of the Cold War is on the lips of knowledgeable analysts. Perhaps the most egregious act was Russia’s response to the loss of MH17, the Malaysia Airlines jet that was shot out of the sky in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, killing everyone on board—close to 300 passengers and crew. Some hoped that this disaster would have a sobering impact on the Russian leadership, but the boldness and extent of its recent support for Ukrainian separatists unequivocally demonstrate that Russia has intentionally chosen a course of confrontation in world politics today. This must be countered.
How to match the Russian threat most effectively, however, is the big question. Observers of Russian foreign policy have been suggesting strategies in response to that state’s actions during the last several months, particularly regarding Ukraine and the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union, a new international body with Russia as its de facto leader. Russia’s continuing provocations in eastern Ukraine suggest to some that it is an emboldened state; its power is on the rise. The West, it is argued, must respond decisively. While those analysts are correct in noting the importance of checking aggression, they are mistaken in seeing Russian behavior as driven by confidence and a sense of power. In fact, Russia is responding aggressively to multiple internal weaknesses, but this strategy will not resolve its fundamental problems, and President Vladimir Putin’s chosen approach will only exacerbate the country’s challenges.
Russia’s concerns about Ukraine’s changing allegiances became headline news in November 2013, when under pressure from Mr. Putin, that country reversed its plans to enhance its relationship with the European Union. The Russian Federation was establishing its own supranational economic body, and for Mr. Putin, Ukraine’s membership in his Eurasian Union was essential. While the two international organizations have similar sounding names, the European project was originally an effort to overcome the violent Franco-German past, which dragged the rest of the continent into conflicts, and promoting economic development and liberal democracy in Western Europe, thereby shielding member states from Communist ideological and military encroachment.
Today, the European Union is an entity that undergirds peace and liberalism across much of the continent, as well as enhancing socioeconomic equality through market mechanisms and specific policies. Although Mr. Putin’s parallel creation is also rooted in history, his aim is less to squelch previous state rivalries than to address what he called, in a speech to the Russian Federal Assembly in April 2005, the “major geopolitical disaster of the century,” the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That historic upheaval left nearly 20 million Russians outside the territory of the Russian Federation. Moreover, the values of the Eurasian Union are far from liberal. Although this E.U. integrates members’ economies and reduces barriers to cross-border commerce, it lacks a commitment to political liberalism and unites deeply authoritarian polities. In fact, Mr. Putin aims to bring more like-minded states into the fold.
Regarding the origins of Mr. Putin’s union back in 2005, the Russian president was not worried only about the Russian diaspora; he also had concerns about (and had already benefited from) internal ethnic conflict within the states of the diverse post-Soviet space. During the Communist era, part of the U.S.S.R.’s method for maintaining unity among its many nationalities and diffusing hostility toward Russia was to create autonomous, ethnic enclaves in the union republics (like Tran-Dniester in Moldavia or South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia). This allowed those less numerous but geographically concentrated peoples to see the Soviet center as a protector against the titular nationality. After the end of the U.S.S.R., conflicts over authority, governance and sovereignty led to violence as well as Russian intervention in some places. Ethnic clashes emerged in the Russian Federation, too—most violently in Chechnya; therefore, Mr. Putin’s allusion in that same speech to the “drama for the Russian nation” was not simply a reference to developments beyond his state’s borders.
Thus, Mr. Putin’s effort to integrate former Soviet states emerged in response to both external and internal challenges. This strategy has evolved over time, but key considerations remain Russia’s continuing economic weakness, military strategic vulnerabilities, frustration with its treatment by the United States and concerns about the regime’s legitimacy in the aftermath of democratic upheaval in unexpected places. Beyond question, Mr. Putin’s first two terms as president ushered in the revival of the Russian economy. While the reforms of the early post-Communist years established a capitalist system in the Russian Federation, the 1990s were an unmitigated economic disaster for a large proportion of the population.
In the 2000s, with the help of high energy prices (fueled by the American-led conflicts in the Middle East), Russia was able to improve living standards. The world financial crisis, however, had negative impacts, as did the failure of the government to institute effective structural economic reforms. The Eurasian Union, then, is in part an effort to respond to Russia’s fiscal challenges by creating a larger open market and uniting the economies of its members. Ukraine, with its 45 million citizens, was always considered a necessary participant, but currently the union has only three members: Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Now the economic benefits to Russia of integration seem relatively small and the bargain costly because of the fuel subsidies Russia has guaranteed to secure its partnerships.
Consequently, many outside observers view the Eurasian Union as a military-strategic, not economic effort and a first step in reconstituting and expanding the Russian-dominated post-Soviet space. Despite its desires and its nuclear arsenal, Russia is no longer a superpower, as it lacks both a high quality economy and military. These weaknesses, however, do not mean that the Russian Federation—like any other regional power—cannot cause trouble in its own backyard, as the annexation of Crimea, active support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and previous efforts aiding ethnic minorities in other post-Soviet states demonstrate. By undermining independently minded former parts of the Soviet Union and increasing the areas with allegiance to the Russian Federation, Mr. Putin is seeking to rebuild Russia’s power in the region and make it a credible strategic rival to the European Union and China, as well as the United States.
In addition to reconstituting Russian influence and geographic span, Mr. Putin’s Eurasian Union responds to the grievances that he and other elites feel about how Russia has been treated since the fall of the Soviet Union. The president believes that while his country was observing post-Cold War norms of cooperation and problem-solving, the United States was weakening and challenging Russia by advising former Soviet states regarding economic reform, moving to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, acting against Serbia in Kosovo, withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, intervening in Iraq and using force in Libya. Repeatedly, the United States acted unilaterally and without consideration of Russian interests or status.
A Cornered Bear
In addition, American efforts to promote democracy have been perceived as having encouraged the color revolutions (the 2003 “rose revolution” in Georgia, the 2004 “orange revolution” in Ukraine, and in 2005 the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon and the “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan). Russia viewed the effort as undermining its friends and regional influence. Perhaps most galling was American encouragement of activists who protested the irregularities of the 2011-12 Russian elections and demanded changes in Mr. Putin’s system.
Russian leaders also blamed American and European money and organizations for the movement that ultimately brought down the Ukrainian president in 2014. In sum, then, Russians are tired of what they see as a double standard in world politics, by which the United States can repudiate international law and promote its brand of political change wherever it seeks while rejecting the Russian Federation’s right to behave similarly.
Global concerns are not the only factors influencing Russian policy here, however. Important, too, are domestic political considerations. In today’s Russia national assertiveness and anti-Americanism play well among the populace. A decade ago, Russians were happy to trust Mr. Putin’s leadership, trading freewheeling politics (with more than 40 parties competing in relatively fair elections), a vibrant media scene and human rights protections for improvements in living standards and a perception of restored international status. Today, however, fiscal challenges threaten one element—economic conditions—in the president’s formula for legitimacy; so Mr. Putin has emphasized the other part of his legitimacy equation—global reputation—and added another one—traditional values.
By embracing Russian Orthodoxy and positions against what he sees as tolerance run amok (including but not limited to homosexuality and feminism), which he identifies with Western decadence, Mr. Putin puts forward a conservative-values agenda that plays well with his core constituency at home. These are citizens who have not benefited much from the nation’s recent economic successes and were also not out in public squares protesting against the regime a few years ago. These positions also resonate with the extreme right wing in Europe, with their anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant views.
Although Mr. Putin has railed against fascists in Ukraine, he has found Western European far rightists to be politically expedient. They seek to weaken the European Union and Europe’s ties to the United States. Thus, Mr. Putin earns extra bang for his “values” buck: he woos supporters at home and promotes a foreign policy goal of hurting his Western rivals. Weakening European unity could undermine the economies of some former East Bloc states (like the Baltics and Poland, for instance). Eroding the Atlantic Alliance would further undercut central and eastern European opponents as well as significantly reduce American influence throughout the region.
Mr. Putin’s behavior brings him back full circle to the Eurasian Union, a creation made to place the Russian Federation in a privileged position among friendly integrated economies and whose membership he hopes to expand. These wishes, for now, appear misplaced. Russia’s economic problems, authoritarianism and ham-fistedness regarding the organization itself have driven potential members away. Russia’s insistence that Ukraine join its union to the exclusion of association with the European Union launched the crisis that provoked the revolution and toppled President Yanukovych.
That abdication opened the door for the rise of separatists and more Russian meddling, which ultimately brought about the annexation of Crimea and conflict in eastern Ukraine. While Russia and some in the Western media have trumpeted these developments as a sign of American impotence, a more accurate read is that Russia took advantage of an opportunity in its backyard with the help of sympathetic local extremists, its propaganda machine, a belief in this part of Ukraine that it must remain economically linked to the Russian Federation to survive and the infiltration of Russian special forces.
In seizing this chance, however, Mr. Putin will exacerbate his legitimacy problems. In the short-run, the Crimean annexation along with the success of the Sochi Olympics revived his personal popularity to a stratospheric 80 percent level. But integrating Crimea will be very costly (even without calculating the impact of Western Crimea-provoked sanctions), and taking more Ukrainian territory will also be fiscally difficult.
All Kennanesque Now?
Territorial expansion will require Russia to devote more of its increasingly scarce funds to these new areas to the detriment of regions in Russia that are also struggling and whose loyalty has been bought by resource transfers, as in Chechnya. Thus, Mr. Putin’s path will feed into a cycle: he will seek more nationalist victories to maintain domestic political support, since he will not be able to establish legitimacy through Russian economic performance. That approach will worsen economic conditions and complicate Russia’s internal cohesion. Thus, we can expect in the short term more Russian assertiveness to boost the president’s approval ratings, which will create increased economic challenges for typical Russian citizens. It will also cause non-Russian ethnics within the Russian Federation to become both more concerned about Mr. Putin’s calls for reconstituting Russian ethnic pride and angry about their declining living conditions, additionally threatening the formula for rule. Thus, the Eurasian Union and Mr. Putin’s recent foreign policy aggressiveness are not signs of an empowered Russia. They are emblems of weakness, reflecting Russia’s poor economy, military-strategic inability and difficulty in satisfying its diverse peoples.
Managing relationships with Russia during this period will be complex because Mr. Putin will behave provocatively, and the West will be under pressure to respond in ways that insult Russia’s status, resulting in more aggressive behavior. The West’s recognition of the sources of Russian assertiveness can help it address these challenges.
A return to Kennanesque policies of focusing on building the West’s internal strengths, meeting threats effectively and illuminating the truth about Mr. Putin’s rule is the best approach to counter Russia’s new assertions of power. As in the 1980s, change in the Moscow regime can most effectively emerge from internal sources, and demand for transformation will develop as more citizens and elites come to realize that a vibrant economy and stable society are more likely to follow from a system that is governed by the rule of law and in which state power is limited.
Back in December of 2011, Russians in 95 cities across the federation realized this truth and took to the streets. Harsh measures sent them home, and nationalist pride has temporarily drowned those voices out, but Mr. Putin’s recent policies provide the seeds for the opposition’s return and perhaps his downfall. The challenge for the West is to behave in a manner that is consistent with its liberal principles and those of international law (eschewing intervention and power grabs for its own purposes) while holding off challenges and watching patiently as Russia’s transformation unfolds.