Since returning to office in 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued a course of action that has enabled him to significantly enhance Russia’s position on the global stage. Putin’s growing assertiveness, and importantly the West’s failure to adequately respond to his moves, have allowed him to accumulate substantial geopolitical momentum during the last five years.
Putin has thwarted Ukraine’s ability to pursue a westward political trajectory in the short-term, even if Russian hostility has hardened Kyiv’s long-term commitment to the West. In Syria, Russian airpower altered battle field dynamics and shored up President Assad’s power. He has also used Syria as a spring board to project Russian influence throughout the Middle East, notably in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt – two long-standing U.S. partners. Additionally, Putin has won Moscow a seat at the table discussing responses to global hotspots such as Afghanistan, Libya, and North Korea. Public opinion polls reflect the growing international role that Russia is playing. In a 2018 Pew Research Poll, 42 percent of respondents across 25 countries agreed that Russia plays a more important role in the world today than it did ten years ago.
In addition to these direct actions, Putin has benefitted from changing dynamics in Europe and the United States. The polarization and division within Western societies – which Putin actively seeks to amplify – feed Russian (and Chinese) narratives that Western democracies are dysfunctional and cannot deliver on their promises. In Europe, Putin observes division and dysfunction in the United Kingdom preparing to exit the European Union, Hungary and Poland testing the resilience of E.U. institutions, the Yellow Vest protests plaguing France, a government in Sweden that took 130 days to form after elections this past Fall, and a populist government in Italy vocally supporting the lifting of sanctions on Russia. With respect to the political environment in the United States, Putin is likely satisfied with the return on investment he received with the election of Donald Trump: Trump’s degradation of America’s international reputation outweighs any blowback Russia has faced for its actions in the 2016 U.S. Election.
While dysfunction rises in the U.S. and Europe, Putin is working to deepen ties with his fellow autocrats. The infamous image of Putin high-fiving Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G-20 Summit in early December – just weeks after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – captures the sense of growing camaraderie among autocrats. These strong relationships have allowed Russia to offset the isolation that the West has sought to impose on it through sanctions. For instance, Putin has used the growing alignment between Russian and Chinese views of the international order to forge deeper relations with Beijing. Russian-Iranian relations are at an historic high, as well. Although their divergent objectives in Syria will likely generate tension, a shared commitment to counter U.S. unilateralism in the Middle East provides a solid foundation for pragmatic cooperation. Putin has also sustained a steady flow of high-profile visits to the Kremlin by authoritarian leaders, including the first visit to Moscow by a ruling Saudi monarch in 2017 and, more recently, a visit by embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
How He Built It
Putin’s current geopolitical momentum stems from a change in his foreign policy outlook that occurred when he returned to power in 2012. Indeed, the Putin we know today is markedly different than the Putin of his first two terms in office (2000-2008). This is largely the result of international and domestic changes that occurred between his presidential terms. The Putin that returned to office in 2012 could no longer rely on high oil prices and popularity garnered from the successful containment of insurgency in the North Caucasus to maintain political control. Moreover, just before Putin’s return, Russia experienced its most significant protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The proximity of these protests to the Arab Spring, which toppled four of the world’s longest-serving dictators, reinforced Putin’s anxiety about Western-backed attempts to unseat hostile regimes.
Diminished domestic popularity and a growing conviction that the United States was out to topple his regime pushed Putin to pursue a riskier and more assertive foreign policy. That being said, Putin did not radically revise Russian foreign policy. The broad contours of Russian foreign policy – including the belief that Russia possesses the sole right to a sphere of influence in the former Soviet states and a desire to restore Russia’s great power status – are long-standing. However, as Russia scholar Brian Taylor notes, the Putin that emerged in 2012 pursued a foreign policy that placed a greater emphasis on conservatism, militarism, and efforts to counter Western democratization and U.S. unilateralism.
The highly personalized nature of Putin’s regime also grants him considerable latitude to implement his foreign policy vision. Since 2000, Putin has systematically eliminated many checks on Russian executive power. He has installed loyalists in key positions, ensuring that high-level regime officials share his foreign policy views and do not stand in his way. In addition, Putin controls the Russian media and through it, is able to shape the public narrative about his foreign policy. This makes it incredibly difficult for Russians to gauge Putin’s foreign policy performance, giving him a great deal of room to act as he pleases. Moreover, the lack of institutional checks on Putin’s power allows him to seize international opportunities as he sees them emerge. Indeed, political science research shows that highly personalized dictatorships like Putin’s pursue the most aggressive foreign policies relative to all other regime types.
Putin has also generated momentum by exploiting the asymmetry of interest between Russia and its adversaries. More specifically, he pursues his riskiest actions when he calculates that Russia cares more about a certain country or issue than the United States and Europe. For instance, when calculating his foreign policy toward Ukraine, he was willing to act more aggressively because he understood that Russia was more invested than either the U.S. or Europe. In fact, he regularly probes and tests U.S. interest and resolve in order to calibrate his risk-taking calculus. That is why it is critical for the United States and Europe to mount a firm and coherent response to events like those which took place in the Sea of Azov this past November. Absent of a clear Western response, Putin will either continue on his current path unabated or gradually escalate his transgressions.
Political observers often wonder how a declining power like Russia can continue to pose such a challenge to U.S. foreign policy. The Russian economy is stagnant – it is projected to grow at less than two percent annually until at least 2025 – its aging population is declining, and many of Russia’s brightest are leaving to pursue careers elsewhere. Yet despite these trends, there are few signs that socio-economic constraints alone will slow Putin’s assertive approach. Instead, Putin is increasing Russian influence on the cheap – limited military interventions, cyber operations, and influence campaigns are relatively inexpensive. In Ukraine and Syria, for example, the Kremlin has employed just enough force to achieve its goals, costing Moscow a small percentage of total Russian GDP. In other words, despite limited growth, Putin will have the resources to sustain an assertive foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
Putin is also likely to sustain this assertive approach because he has learned through his actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria that it works. These conflicts have reinforced Putin’s confidence that military action serves as an effective means of achieving his foreign policy objectives. Putin has seen that the use of military force enhances Russia’s bargaining position with the West, and in particular, that these types of actions are the most effective way to gain the attention of the West. Moreover, Russia has modernized its military over the past decade, successfully creating a highly capable force. In this respect, modern military instruments – such as cyber weapons – have become a far more critical part of Putin’s foreign policy toolbox, suggesting that he will sustain a more assertive and militaristic approach going forward.
Stepping In and Up
As the U.S. steps back from international affairs, Putin is relishing the chance to step in. Some argue that Russia should be pulling more of the weight in dealing with global issues like counter-terrorism. But as Putin fills the space the U.S. is ceding, he is building influence and momentum that he can ultimately use to undermine U.S. foreign policy interests. Russia’s growing presence in the Middle East and the Balkans, for instance, has diluted U.S. leverage to encourage anti-corruption, democracy, and human rights reform. Putin’s assertiveness also gives Russia a first mover advantage, which if left unchecked could allow Russia to significantly reshape international norms. Because Russia adheres to different values and approaches issues like counter-terrorism differently than the United States does, giving it the reigns to the international order would dramatically reshape America’s way of life in the long-run.
Putin is acutely aware that Russian power will decline – the writing is on the wall. But by building geopolitical momentum now, he is calculating that he can influence the rules of the game while he still has the ability to do so. Furthermore, the momentum that Putin has built does not stem from his masterful maneuvering or outsized influence. Putin is prone to miscalculating, and Russia is a middle-income country with a nominal GDP about the size of Spain. Instead, Russian momentum is largely the result of Washington’s reticence to lead and the West’s failure to mount sufficient opposition to its moves. The time is now for the United States and Europe to step in and up to blunt Putin’s momentum and protect the future we envision.
Dr. Andrea Kendall-Taylor is Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for New American Security. She previously served in the U.S. intelligence community, including as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.