Two schools have vied at center stage in recent years seeking to explain the foreign policy behavior of Putin’s Russia. One essentially places the blame almost entirely at the West’s door: The annexation of Crimea and the war on Ukraine were responses to the West’s insufficient sensitivity to Russian “national interests.” American and European mistakes and misreadings have “provoked Putin”, the line goes, instilling in him an overwhelming fear of, among other things, NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders.1 The other line of reasoning, while assigning the responsibility to the Kremlin, explains its actions as a sudden urge to retaliate, to punish, and to humiliate Ukraine after the revolutionary overthrow of a pro-Moscow regime.2
Both arguments are problematic, especially the former. Yet even if one or both explanations were flawless, the conceptual framework that emerges from such reasoning is clearly reductionist and hence of little predictive value to Western decision-makers. In these analyses Russia’s behavior emerges as almost entirely reactive, informed by exogenous factors. The only difference is whether these causes are of longstanding concern—as in NATO’s posture toward Russia—or not—as in a revolution in Kiev.
Certainly it is reasonable to think that Putin’s tactics, like those of many dictators or generals, are shaped by the contingencies, pressures, and emotions of the moment. But his strategic direction may nonetheless be traced by marking the nodal points in the evolution of domestic imperatives—economic, ideological, political—that have molded his behavior and will almost certainly continue to do so. There is sufficient evidence to trace the development of Putin’s strategy to a Weltanschauung, a set of tenets and convictions, that have coalesced into policymaking guidelines. What is this credo?
There is for all practical purposes a Putin Doctrine that postulates the recovery of some key political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state.3 Putin is not interested in an all-out restoration: He does not want to revive the state’s complete ownership of the economy nor fully re-create the Soviet Union in the post-Soviet space. But after his first term, from 2000 to 2004, in which liberal economic reforms combined with a gradual repossession of state control over the media, politics, and the legal system, he has rarely if ever deviated from three key objectives: re-occupying what Lenin called the commanding heights of the economy; establishing firm control over the political process, the justice system, and mass communications to prevent any significant challenge to the regime; and affirming veto power over the foreign and security policies of the post-Soviet states, with (at least until now) the exception of the three Baltic states.
At first, Putin displayed patience in his pursuit of these objectives, even during his second term from 2004 to 2008. He even countenanced Potemkin-style “liberalization” during the presidential interregnum of Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012. But since his re-assumption of the presidency in May 2012 the regime has undergone a transformation from a “softer”, largely non-ideological, corrupt “electoral authoritarianism” with no revisionist ambitions into the Russia we see today. The Putin Doctrine has become radicalized, expanded, and had its implementation accelerated—and the question is why?
Concurrence is not causality in political analysis any more than correlation is causality in science. Yet one may point to key choices Putin has made that seem indicative of deeply held motives. In every case his choice corresponds to a major domestic discontinuity.
The first of these shocks was the 2008–09 world financial crisis, which affected the Russian economy more than that of any other G-20 country: Russian GDP shrank by almost 8 percent in one year. At that time, a consensus emerged among leading experts both inside and outside the government that Russia’s dependence on and thus vulnerability to fluctuating commodity prices required urgent correction. The economy needed to be diversified away from its dependence on hydrocarbon exports as the key condition of the “modernization” of the economy, which was declared the highest priority during Medvedev’s presidential term. In turn, the “modernization” was to lead to a dramatic improvement in what was, and still is, known by the euphemism of “the investment climate.” That means, in normal language, at last some tangible progress against corruption and bureaucratic racketeering, the stifling of competition and innovation by state-owned or state-controlled corporations, the lack of the rule of law and the enforcement of property rights, and courts that are for sale or readily bent by fiat from above.
It was well understood, however, that addressing these well-known ills required institutional reform, including freer media (first and foremost, the relaxation of government control over national television), a return to a measure of local self-rule and accountability through freer and fairer elections for governors and mayors, and, eventually, free and fair national elections in which a real opposition would be allowed to participate.
Putin rejected this option. Most likely two central convictions accounted for his choice. First, as he wrote in his Ph.D. dissertation, hydrocarbons were to remain the backbone of Russia’s progress for fifty years and Russia’s destiny (and pride) was that of an “energy superpower.” The other article of faith turned on the fear that political and economic de-centralization presaged the unraveling of the regime. That, Putin thinks, is what happened under Mikhail Gorbachev—the politician whom Putin openly despises for precipitating the end of the Soviet Union, which Putin has called “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.”
The second instance in which fateful choices appear to have been made occurred during the six-month period between the December 2011 Duma election and Putin’s re-election campaign and inauguration in May of 2012. Although oil prices had rebounded to around $100 a barrel, Russian economic growth had been visibly slowing down anyway. As diagnosed a year later by Alexei Kudrin, an “institutional wall” blocked the Russian economy, a wall still standing because Putin had vetoed any significant modernization effort three years earlier. Kudrin was not just any expert adviser. He was Putin’s most trusted adviser, the man who brought him from St. Petersburg to Moscow in the 1996 and who, until he resigned in 2011, served as First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. The key event in this six-month period was not Kudrin’s diagnosis, however, but the fact that during the winter and spring of 2011–12, tens of thousands of Russians in over one hundred cities and towns turned out to protest publicly against electoral fraud, corruption, and, most of all, against Putin himself.
Thus, when Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, he found what in many respects was a different country. Russia was restless, far less enamored of his leadership and, most importantly, beset by an economy no longer capable of generating the kind of growth and rise in real incomes that were key to Putin’s popularity—and thus the regime’s legitimacy—during the previous dozen years. Yet again Putin chose to reject the path of institutional reforms necessary to diversify and modernize the national economy. Instead, he embarked on the most portentous change of political direction in his 12 years in power: As even historically high oil prices seemed incapable of producing more than at best middling growth (compared to an average of 7 percent in 2000-2008), Putin began to shift the base of his regime’s legitimacy away from economic growth and rising incomes and toward patriotic mobilization. (Today, under similar circumstances, China’s Xi Jinping might be considering a similar option.)
The regime’s policies changed accordingly to produce what Russian observers called “the conservative wave.” This wave included greater repression of the opposition and of civil society, the consolidation of blanket censorship (or self-censorship) of national television, and the emergence of monopolistic propaganda accompanied by the emergence of a new ideological framework. This new framework, in turn, consisted of five elements: emotive nationalism; intrusive social conservatism; the retrieval of the Soviet legitimizing mythology (most of all about World War II and Stalin); the Russian Orthodox Church as arbiter and enforcer of national mores; and Russian ethnicity as the backbone of the Russian state. Following the spirit and, often enough, the letter of his favorite philosopher, Ivan Ilyn, Putin festooned this ideological makeover with the notions of Russia as “a unique civilization” with an equally unique historic mission, the moral superiority of “Russian values” over “European” ones, and, most of all, assertions of relentless, perennial, and unassuageable Western hostility toward Russia.
The third fateful shock driving Putin’s foreign policy occurred during the six months between the victory of the Ukrainian revolution in February of last year and the late summer, when sharply lower oil prices set in and their dire effect on the Russian economy became fairly certain. Two political corollaries of the gathering economic crisis must have looked especially troubling to the regime. The first one was the very uncertain prospect of an economic recovery now projected well into the future. According to Russian experts, Russia needed oil priced at least at $100 per barrel to avoid recession. Worse yet, as calculated by now private citizen (and leader of the very, very loyal opposition in the form of the Committee for Civic Initiatives) Alexei Kudrin, in the absence of structural reform, for the Russian economy to grow “substantially” the price of oil has to increase by between $10–17 annually.
The other potential threat loomed in the news delivered by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development: Real wages were projected to decrease by 9 percent this year. For the first time in the 15 years since Vladimir Putin came to power, a majority of Russians were going to experience a very significant and likely lasting drop in their standard of living.
The twin crises—a geostrategic one in Ukraine and an economic one at home—coincided with another phase of ideological evolution. Much of the articulation was rendered by Putin himself, most notably in his stem-winding March 18 speech to the joint session of the Federal Assembly on the occasion of the Crimea annexation; his annual address to the Federal assembly; an end-of-the-year press conference; and a New Year’s Eve address.
In language eerily similar to that of the early Mussolini and Hitler, Russia was imagined as never wrong but perennially wronged by the Western democracies. The end of the Cold War became for Russia what the Treaty of Versailles was for Germany: a never-ending source of externally imposed hardship and humiliation. Raising the rhetorical pitch to levels unheard since World War II, Putin insisted that the Motherland was under siege and Russia’s very sovereignty was endangered. As he put it in his end-of-year press conference this past December, Ukraine was “NATO’s Foreign Legion.”
The geostrategic corollaries of this darkened Weltanschauung included the redress of these historical injustices through the “in-gathering of Russian lands” and the creation of the “Russian World.” Also included was the recovery of the former Soviet Union’s status as the other “pole” in the currently “unipolar”—that is, U.S.-controlled—world. Russia was to be not just a Eurasian superpower but the world’s only counterbalance to the alleged global supremacy of the U.S.-led West. Closer to home, in Europe, the new doctrinal tenor dictated a revision of not just the post-Cold War order (including the abandonment or de facto violation of some key arms control agreements—INF and CFE) but even of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, with its bedrock foundation of the inviolability of European borders.
Finally, for the first time, Putin’s personal role in the implementation of the new Russian agenda was no longer implied but codified as central. His spokesman has declared the Russian President “the defender of Russians wherever they live”, while the Deputy Chief of Staff has rendered “Putin” synonymous with “Russia”: “There is no Russia without Putin”, he declared.
Does Putin believe his own rhetoric and what his propagandists say on his behalf? In the case of transformational political leaders of a nationalist, revisionist, or revolutionary ilk, the preponderance of historical evidence counsels accepting much of what they say in public as sincere. Based on archives opened and memoirs revealed following their demise, we know that Stalin believed what he said, as did Hitler and Mussolini, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Slobodan Milosevic. Fidel Castro will probably not disappoint on this score either. Although their tactics could be omnivorous, prone to sudden shifts and contradictory twists, their tenets tended to coalesce into a fairly coherent and consistent motivational framework that informed their goals and strategy.
If this analysis is correct—if indeed domestic economic concerns, the need to secure legitimacy, and a deeply held and relatively coherent ideology lie at the root of Putin’s foreign policy—three provisional conclusions may be of use to Western policymakers.
First, Putin’s strategy reflects an evolution in his convictions as well as domestic political and economic imperatives. He is not merely reacting to Western policies or guided by spontaneous anger over political setbacks in neighboring countries. If that is so, the West will need to deal with an unprecedented geostrategic challenge for as long as Putin is in power—and it is increasingly likely that he will stay in office until death or ouster.
There is nothing unprecedented, of course, about revisionist (or even revanchist), nationalist, ideologically inflamed, messianically minded and highly personalistic autocrats bent on righting imaginary historical wrongs. There is nothing new even about deepening madness in high places, as the story of Caligula illustrates well enough. But there is something unprecedented about an autocrat of that description being in possession of 1,643 strategic nuclear warheads on 528 strategic nuclear delivery systems. At one point the Soviet Union possessed far more such weapons on many more delivery vehicles, but—controlled by the “collective leadership” of a cautiously calculating and generally risk-averse gerontocracy—they were not as dangerous as a smaller number may be now.
Second, Ukraine is closer to Russia ethnically and historically than any other country. A stable, democratic, and Europe-bound Ukraine is inevitably a challenge to the Russian regime’s new ideological framework, its domestic legitimacy, and, of course, its geostrategic agenda. Thus, Putin is not likely to settle for anything short of victory in Ukraine. This does not require the re-absorption of Ukraine into Russia, but it does demand more than just a de facto dismemberment of the country and the creation of a Russian proxy state in the southeast. The end goal likely entails the economic and political destabilization of Ukraine aimed at replacing the current pro-Western regime in Kiev with a pro-Russian one.
Third, domestic political imperatives will require the regime continuously to bolster the “besieged fortress” propaganda narrative central to patriotic mobilization—in other words, a Russia under an acute threat from NATO, with Putin the only one capable of defending the motherland. Reinforced by (and reinforcing) other elements of the new ideological credo, this narrative will require the maintenance of tensions with the West. The increased frequency of the intrusion of Russian warplanes and submarines in EU airspace and waters, and massive all-Russian military exercises in European Russia, may well be part and parcel of the future. If the domestic situation deteriorates further, as seems likely because of low commodity prices, sanctions, and, above all, that persisting “institutional wall”, an even sharper escalation—another “hybrid war” against a neighboring state with a significant Russian-speaking minority, for example—is likely.
If these predictions seem plausible, how might Western governments act on them? First, Western leaders need to understand that Putin is motivated by deeply entrenched and centrally held convictions that are all but certain to prove impervious in the short or perhaps even medium term to economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The only strategy with a reasonable chance of proving effective is a patient, firm, and persistent policy aimed at increasing the domestic political costs of the regime’s behavior. Raising costs will force Putin to make difficult choices between modifying his policies or risking political instability. Thus, denying credit to top Russian companies and banks forces Putin to choose between bailing out Rosneft or Sberbank on the one hand, and raising pensions and salaries (to keep up with double-digit inflation) for his political base—the tens of millions of Russian pensioners, teachers, doctors, and military personnel—on the other.
In the same vein, providing defensive weapons and timely intelligence to the Ukrainian military may deny Putin a quick and decisive victory and regime change in Ukraine. That in turn may force him to choose between reaching the same goal through a longer war with greater casualties and an almost certain domestic backlash, or scaling down his objectives in Ukraine and settling for less.
Finally, the contest that Russia is forcing on a reluctant West will become all the more wrenching for us because it poses an extreme disjuncture of goals: The West wants peace, but Putin needs victory.
There is little new in the asymmetry of these objectives—or in the alarming portents it heralds. Since at least the end of World War I, for liberal capitalist democracies, where political power is usually a reward for securing ever-increasing prosperity and higher standards of living, foreign confrontation of any kind is a distraction to be avoided at almost any cost. It took World War II (and the Munich Accords that preceded it) for the West, reluctantly and only in part, to abandon appeasement as the strategy of first recourse in dealing with revisionist powers. Hence the Cold War in which the liberal democracies forged defenses credible enough to deter aggression (at least in Europe) for over forty years. With the lessons of Munich virtually gone from living memories, the temptation to secure “peace” by pretending that there is no aggression may again prove hard to resist.
By contrast, the present Russian regime, which cannot modernize and for which a modicum of institutional reform might prove fatal to its hold on power, has staked its legitimacy on patriotic mobilization. Putin has saddled this tiger with remarkable ease and had it trot steadily. Yet among the many dangers of such a ride is the necessity of feeding the beast with an ever increasing supply of fresh meat, the bloodier the better—especially if the Russian economy, expected by Kudrin to contract at least 4 percent this year, is not soon rescued by a sharp upswing in oil prices. Victory (or, more precisely, victories large or small in the imagined war with the West) become the foundation of political survival and thus must be pursued relentlessly.
This might not end well.
1See John J. Mearshimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin”, Foreign Affairs (September/October 2014).
2See, for example, Ivan Krastev, “Russian Revisionism: Putin’s Plan for Overturning the European Order”, Foreign Affairs, March 3, 2014; Reuben F. Johnson, “Dismembering Ukraine: The Putin Invasion”, Weekly Standard, March 24, 2014; and Lynnley Browning, “What Really Keeps Vladimir Putin Up at Night”, Newsweek, March 17, 2014.
3See Leon Aron, “The Putin Doctrine: Russia’s Quest to Rebuild the Soviet State”, Foreign Affairs, March 8, 2013.