In a January 8, 1962 speech that remained secret for more than forty years, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev announced to his Kremlin colleagues that the Soviets were so thoroughly outmatched in the superpower struggle that Moscow’s only option was to seize the initiative in international affairs. Some decades hence future historians may unearth a similar speech delivered by President Vladimir Putin to his inner circle in February 2014, when he decided to annex Crimea in order to obscure the humiliating fact that Russia had just lost Ukraine. Such a speech would have made clear that, behind the bluster of “two weeks to Kiev!”, Russia’s geopolitical adventures are driven largely by its leadership’s deep anxiety about the country’s domestic weaknesses. Russia is bereft of soft power, its economy is uncompetitive, its petrodollar-subsidized living standards are plummeting, and its population is aging and dwindling.
Moscow’s relative weakness as a global power does not mean that Russia should not be taken seriously, or that it will not achieve some tactical successes in Ukraine. But if the regime’s spasms of aggression reflect its uncertain domestic footing, the West’s response should be adjusted accordingly.
Admittedly, relative power is frustratingly hard to measure these days, due to what David Brooks has intriguingly called “the revolt of the weak.”1 According to a remarkable Harvard study, the weaker side in asymmetric wars waged between 1800 and 1849 achieved its strategic goals only 12 percent of the time. (Strength was measured by number of soldiers and extent of firepower.) In the wars that erupted between 1950 and 1998, by contrast, the weaker side prevailed a startling 55 percent of the time.2 The explanation most commonly given for this discrepancy is that, especially in the second half of the 20th century, the weaker side need not defeat or destroy an enemy but only hold out, usually on home turf. It need merely sabotage the gears of the enemy machine and wait for its nominally superior adversary to lose appetite for the conflict or the political wherewithal to prosecute it further.
In its confrontation with the West, Russia is undoubtedly the weaker party but, taking advantage of the West’s relative passivity and disengagement, it has seized the initiative and managed to define and shape the conflict in line with its own interests and worldview. Moscow’s hybrid war has successfully blurred two borders: between war and peace as well as between Ukraine and Russia. The Kremlin’s dizzying game of escalation and de-escalation in the Donbass region has also bamboozled EU leaders into misunderstanding the kind of challenge Russia poses.
A distracted Europe has proved incapable of reading Moscow’s signals correctly. It fails to appreciate the intensity of Russia’s opposition to the post-nationalist European order, in large part because it thinks of relations with Russia as a win-win game and of itself as a benevolent, vegetarian power that no reasonable Russian leader could possibly view as an existential threat. Until the Crimean annexation, the European Union, and the United States as well, assumed that Russia could only lose if it tried to challenge the post-Cold War international order—and especially if it questioned the inviolability of internationally recognized borders on which control of its own exposed southeastern flank seemingly depends. European and most American leaders had persuaded themselves that, behind closed doors, what Russia really fears are China and the spread of radical Islam, and that Russia’s interminable complaints about NATO enlargement or America’s anti-missile defense system in Europe were simply a form of popular entertainment aimed at a domestic audience for television news. These Western assumptions were wrong.
Most Westerners failed to understand that, after 1989, Russia suffered the double humiliation of being a loser in a world that the triumphant West had defined as a world without losers. European leaders, in particular, failed to realize that while few Russians longed for a return to Soviet communism, most were nostalgic for the USSR’s superpower status. Russia considered the post-Cold War status quo unfair; and what the West saw as order, Russians saw as disorder. Similarly, when the Russian government engineered or reinforced “frozen conflicts” in the Caucasus, Transnistria, and elsewhere, Western leaders thought Moscow was fomenting disorder; Russian leaders saw things differently and still do. They view “frozen conflicts” as defensive buffers created to preserve order by preventing pernicious Western influences from edging ever closer to Russia’s borders. In 1989, only 13 percent of Russians believed that their country had external enemies; now 78 percent of Russian respondents say they do.
Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was never a bestseller in Russia, but Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations was. Russian intellectuals enthusiastically endorsed the late Harvard professor’s claim that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” Thus, a “civilizational state”—a hard-shell state that can be integrated into the global economy only if its domestic politics are sealed off hermetically from external influences—has been the principal goal of Putin’s state-building project ever since he acceded to power.
In 1993, the Russian classicist and amateur grand strategist, Vadim Tsimbursky, wrote an influential article titled “Island Russia.”3 Russia’s geopolitical destiny, he argued, was to be an island that could best survive by cutting itself off from Europe. Russia had to break with the legacy of its “three European centuries” and realize that its attempts to copy Europe (which is how Tsimbursky sees Russian imperialism) or to join Europe will inevitably culminate in tragedy. Writing at a time when globalization was destabilizing most of the world for the benefit of only a few, he believed that Russia’s only viable option was to focus on its Far East and more broadly on its internal development. Russia, he concluded, was too weak and fragmented within to succeed in a globalized world.
Today it is fashionable to interpret Putin’s policies as an attempt to restore the power ambit of the Soviet Union, if not the Soviet Union itself, and to emphasize Russia’s role as a conservative power seeking to re-make Europe in its own self-image as a crusading opponent of modern decadence. Alarming statements by Alexander Dugin, the pop star of Russian Eurasianism, are frequently recycled in Western media. This is all very misleading. In reality, Putin’s policies have almost nothing to do with Russia’s traditional imperialism or expansionism, nor is cultural conservatism such a decisive factor as some commentators allege. Putin does not dream of conquering Warsaw or re-occupying Riga. On the contrary, his policies are an expression of aggressive isolationism. They embody his defensive reaction to the threat to Russia posed not so much by NATO as by global economic interdependency. In this sense, Kremlin policy reflects a general trend that can be observed in the self-insulating behavior of several other global actors in the wake of global financial crises as they have unfolded since the 1980s. Superficially, it’s true that Putin’s actions resemble 19th-century Russian imperial politics, but they are actually part of a worldwide 21st-century resistance to unfettered, open-for-business but under-governed globalization.
Realists such as John Mearsheimer are not wrong to assert that the West’s policies of enlarging both NATO and the EU eastward have contributed to Russia’s sense of insecurity. But the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine is best explained not by Russia’s geopolitical interests but by the aforementioned internal weakness of Putin’s regime. This underlying weakness was dramatically exposed during the protests of winter 2012. Until that time, public support for the system had been periodically demonstrated by the absence of public protests in the wake of rigged elections in which incumbents were able to choose hopeless challengers against whom to run. The impressive street demonstrations in Moscow that winter destroyed this legitimacy formula. Asked if the large protests that greeted the legislative and presidential elections of 2011–12 had surprised the Kremlin, senior United Russia member Yuri Kotler vividly captured how Russia’s rulers viewed the new reality: “Well, imagine if your cat came to you and started talking. First of all, it’s a cat, and it’s talking. Second, all these years, the government fed it, gave it water, petted it, and now it’s talking and demanding something. It’s a shock.”4
The frantic search for a substitute legitimacy formula began immediately after Putin returned to the presidency in the spring of 2012. This search led directly to the Crimea annexation, which filled the streets of Moscow with cheers, not protests, and subsequently to the bloody proxy war in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin may have feared that, if it failed to occupy Crimea, angry crowds of ethnic Russian nationalists were ready to occupy Moscow. In the autumn of 2013 the independent Levada Center registered a dramatic upsurge of nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments among the Russian public, crowding out and replacing anger at the regime.
Putin’s improvised Ukraine gambit had more to do with his fear of remote-controlled street protests than with his fear of NATO expansion. The surprising and disconcerting developments inside Ukraine, which led to a problematic Russian client being chased from office only to be replaced by an unabashedly anti-Russian successor, suggested that Western ways of thinking, not NATO tanks, were the most threatening forces advancing on Moscow. After the fall of Yanukovych, preventing Moscow street protests from spiraling out of control, as they had done in Kiev, became a priority for Putin. He and his extravagantly domiciled billionaire friends were also appalled, presumably, as ordinary Ukrainians ogled Yanukovych’s luxurious mansion in Mezhyhirya. Formulated differently, “Occupy Crimea” was an impulsive response to both “Occupy Maidan” and “Occupy Abai”, the anti-Putin protest staged by Muscovites a year earlier under the shadow of the Kremlin.
Putin seems never to have doubted that the 2011–12 anti-government street demonstrations in Moscow, like those that took place in Ukraine in 2013–14, were sponsored and orchestrated by the West and that their ultimate goal was, if not thoroughgoing regime change, at least his personal removal from power. He was also bothered by the unseemly readiness of his own elite, some of them Kremlin insiders, to collaborate openly with the protesters in 2012. Putin concluded that his regime was vulnerable and that the West was malevolently plotting to exploit that vulnerability.
Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine, properly understood, reveals a paradox. Putin’s regime is strong in the sense that it can crush weak and isolated domestic resistance and make a divided Europe look impotent in its moral outrage. It is simultaneously fragile, however, because it lacks any agreed-upon succession mechanism, because personal networks remain more important than impersonal institutions, because the decade of hydrocarbon-fueled economic growth is over, and because the Kremlin cannot impose serious discipline on its bloated and predatory bureaucracy. Kleptocratic schemes can only be stopped from the top, after all; those in the middle ranks and below have no choice but to continue because they must deliver for their protectors above. These weaknesses are deeply rooted in the system and cannot be traced solely to personal peculiarities of the curent President. “It is impossible to say when the system will fall”, observed Putin’s former adviser Gleb Pavlovsky, “but when it falls, it will fall in one day, and the one to replace it will be a copy of this one.”5
From Putin’s own perspective, his regime’s vulnerability lies in the Russian elite’s cultural and financial dependence on the West. Putin controls everything in Russia except the things that really matter: the price of oil and gas, and the loyalty of the rich. His sway over an economic elite that does so much of its business offshore is very limited. This is why the re-nationalization of the country’s globe-trotting business classes became one of Putin’s major objectives, especially after 2012. The open confrontation with the West over Ukraine should be understood in this context as a strategy adopted well before the fall of Viktor Yanukovych. Crimea and Donbass are meant to scandalize the West in order to increase Russia’s economic, political, and cultural isolation from the world. Putin’s war on sexual minorities and his annexation of Crimea are taken from the pages of the same aggressive isolationist playbook.
We can, of course, speculate about historical parallels. Whenever Russia opens itself to the world, there seems to be a point when panic sets in and the country’s authoritarian leaders hysterically return to isolationism with a vengeance. Something of this sort happened after Russia’s victory over Napoleon in the 19th century. In 1946, Stalin launched his infamous campaign against cosmopolitanism, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were sent to the camps because the regime feared that they had seen too much of Europe. Perhaps we are witnessing something similar, though less murderous, today.
Speculations aside, Putin’s efforts to reconsolidate power after the protests of 2012 strongly suggest that instability within states, rather than rivalry among them, is the leading cause of international crises today. The behavior of many influential global actors, including arguably the United States, is shaped less by their strategic security interests narrowly defined than by their need to manage a domestic backlash against globalization. Russia is perhaps the most spectacular example of this disturbing pattern. Although the Kremlin wants to increase Russia’s insulation from the world, it lacks the capacity to do so on its own. That is arguably why it has provoked a crisis that could induce the West to slam the door not only on it but also for it. In the tidy world of academic realists, governments mobilize domestic resources in order to project power abroad; in today’s untidy reality, some governments leverage global resources to stabilize shaky situations at home, while other governments, including Russia’s, try to strangle domestic opposition by cutting them off from the global resources that could embolden resistance to the ruling power.
This brings us naturally to the question of Western policy. Do economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis make sense in light of Putin’s strategy of provoking the West into doing what he cannot do on his own? He seeks, after all, to unravel the connections that Russia’s economic elites have woven with the rest of the world over the past quarter-century. Are economic sanctions the most efficacious response?
Sanctions are commonly understood as a non-violent alternative to military intervention. They seem to be a low-risk way for the sanctioning powers to signal their resolve to overturn an intolerable status quo, and to remind the sanctioned country of its dependence on them. New technologies in the financial sector also enable sanctions to target those members of the country’s elite who are presumably responsible for the policies in dispute.
Sanctions were of little use during the Cold War because the leverage they presuppose exists only in an economically interdependent world. They can be effective today, to be sure; but if perceived as a weapon aimed at splitting the sanctioned country’s elite, they guarantee that elite solidarity will be coercively enforced by dismantling the interdependent world that makes the sanction weapon so punishing. There is considerable evidence that the Russian leadership desires such a dismantling. In mid-November, the Duma passed new legislation criminalizing the concealment of offshore income from Russian authorities. At the end of September, Russia’s Security Council discussed the possibility of creating an independent Russian internet. Its attempt to sell oil for rubles, and its exotic idea of raising taxes on tickets for international flights while reducing taxes on the tickets for domestic flights are two further examples of a Kremlin-orchestrated de-globalization policy designed to shred connective tissue between Russia and the West.
Moreover, the damage inflicted by sanctions, however precisely targeted, cannot be limited to those on the sanctions list. “You [in the West] reason that the sanctions will split the elite and force Putin to change course, but that’s not what is happening”, a billionaire investor told the Financial Times. “On the contrary, you are destroying those in Russia who are friends of the West. The soloviki [“the heavies”] have been strengthened more than ever before.”6 The recent house arrest and pending indictment of pro-Western oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov makes this judgment sound prescient.
In effect, contrary to the stated intentions of Western policymakers, the sanctions being imposed on Russia may facilitate Putin’s plans for limiting Russia’s exposure to the West. They are helping him nationalize his elites by pushing them to close their bank accounts abroad and to limit their contacts with Western business partners. They may or may not re-orient Russia’s trade toward China, but they are certainly consolidating anti-Western public opinion inside Russia.
In the early 1960s, having decided to cut East Germany off from the West, the Soviets erected a wall through the center of Berlin. Putin obviously lacks the capacity to do anything of the sort. He also lacks an ideology capable of convincing Russians that, in their glorious isolation, they will own the future. And, of course, he is completely unprepared to undertake mass repressions. So what has he done? He has manufactured a crisis so that it is now Kiev that dreams of building a wall along the Russian border. Russian officials who initially disobeyed their President’s repatriation directives and kept their money in Western banks are now sending it back home in fear of account-freezing Western sanctions. And, not accidentally, the business that has suffered most from the carnage in eastern Ukraine has been Russia’s tourist industry. This summer, 30 percent fewer Russian tourists went to Europe than traveled there in 2013. The West has become an unwitting accomplice in Putin’s effort to disconnect Russia from the world.
A popular joke tells of the masochist who asked a sadist to torture him, but the sadist refused. The West has opted to torture the masochist. This is not a good idea. Putin’s strategic objective in Ukraine is not simply to destabilize Ukraine, turning a country of 45 million people into a massive buffer zone in which seething violence and chronic instability will discourage further encroachments by the West. Russia cannot “have” or control Ukraine, but Putin can make the country too unattractive and dangerous for the West to fully embrace. Putin’s larger aim, however, is to delegitimize the very idea of international security based on economic interdependency. Maintaining and deepening Russia’s integration in, and therefore dependence on, the world economy is the challenge now facing Europe and the United States—not containing some wholly imaginary plan to restore the Soviet empire. The West is not about to lift the sanctions, especially since it has not found the nerve to do anything more proactive; but we should resist falling in love with them or exaggerating their long-term strategic value.
Resisting Putin’s attempts to insulate his country from the world should be the principal aim of Western policy toward Russia. That doesn’t mean that the West’s political leaders should encourage Western banks to launder capital escaping from Russia, or otherwise act as accomplices to Russian kleptocratic habits. Countering Putin’s aggressive isolationism, however, means deepening Western engagement with all facets of Russian society, not helping him transfer wealth from Russia’s relatively pro-Western economic elites to its adamantly anti-Western economic elites. If at the same time we can manage to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Western power cannot by definition trouble others, so much the better.
1Brooks, “The Revolt of the Weak”, New York Times, September 1, 2014.
2Cited in Moisés Naím, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be (Basic Books, 2013).
3Tsimbursky, “Island Russia”, Polis Journal, Part I (December 2000), Part II (March 2001).
4Quoted in Julia Ioffe, “The Loneliness of Vladimir Putin”, New Republic, February 2, 2014.
5Quoted in Julia Ioffe, “Vladimir Putin Might Fall. We Should Consider What Happens Next”, New Republic, August 6, 2014.
6Kathrin Hille, “Sanctions extend influence of hardmen in Putin’s Kremlin”, Financial Times, September 18, 2014.