Tyrannies are fragile things and when the fear upon which they are based crumbles, they collapse. The protests in Russia over the past weeks may be a sign of the growing fearlessness of some Russian citizens and the resulting weakness of Putin and his gang. There is good reason, therefore, to be hopeful that the Putinist kleptocracy may end. Who, or what type of regime, will follow the two decades of Putin’s rule is another matter. We can hope that it will be more lenient and less authoritarian, but the future of Russia’s domestic system is anyone’s guess.
In any case, the inevitable end of Putin—after all, sooner or later through elections, revolt, or their own death, all political leaders lose power—will not bring a solution to the security problems Russia creates. The Kremlin can change its occupants, but there is more continuity than change in Russian foreign policy. Putin will leave and Russia will remain.
Geography imposes a consistent simplicity of conception on Russian foreign policy. In a nutshell, Russia wants to be in Europe, but not of Europe. While it cannot be an Asian great power, Russia has sought in the past (as it is seeking now) to be the key European potentate.
A massive continental power, with lengthy land frontiers, Russia is physically more in Asia than in Europe. But in Asia, it has never had the possibility to play a pivotal role. The Central Asian steppes and the Siberian lands proved difficult to conquer in the 19thcentury, in no small part due to the sheer distances involved. Once conquered, they were not easy to rule, and in the end they could never bring Russia the geopolitical heft it needed to be a global power. Being a potentate in the Caucasus or in Central Asia makes Russia only that: an important player in the Caucasus or Central Asia.
Moreover, China blocks Russian influence in Asia. Chinese growth over the past decades has shrunk the reach of Russia in much of Central Asia, clearly showing Moscow that there is little to be gained from opposing Chinese interests there (and elsewhere). Russia has been forced to acquiesce to the new situation in that region simply out of economic weakness. This is why, incidentally, Russia will never be a partner for the United States in its efforts to balance Chinese power. To expand in Asia, or even to counter China’s imperial ambitions, presents too many risks and insufficient rewards for Russia. In Asia, Russia is a second-rate power at best. It cannot compete with China, and all things being equal, it prefers to have a stable Asian frontier.
The relative stability on Russia’s southern and eastern frontiers allows Russia to destabilize its western one. Like any other state with multiple frontiers, Russia cannot afford to treat them as separate strategic challenges. Frontiers are linked, and in order to expand on one it is necessary to stabilize the others. Hence, Russia’s ability to expand on its western frontier was is dependent on the stability along the other frontiers.
It is only in Europe that Russia can strive to be a great power. Russia is a westward-leaning power, but not in the liberal sense of that phrase; namely, the idea of the rule of law as independent from the will of its ruler has never taken root in Russia. It is westward-leaning in the geopolitical sense: It pushes its frontiers toward Europe. It is there that it can disrupt and intervene and shape political life.
To be a European great power, Russia needs three things. First, a geographic foothold. Russia obviously is already present in the European theater but, in the past as right now, is on the geopolitical margins. To obviate this, it needs to control internal seas (the Black, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean) and the Central European continental core. This imperative explains in part Putin’s war in Ukraine and the military intervention in Syria: These are attempts to insert Russia into the European power dynamics, making it more capable of shaping the decisions in European capitals.
Second, Russia needs to have a divided Europe in order to function as a mediator of sorts. European unity has always been exceedingly delicate, and no supranational institution has succeeded in overcoming fundamental differences in economic and security interests among Europe’s states. Moscow has been very adept at exploiting these differences, in particular splitting Germany from its allies through economic means (e.g., Nord Stream gas pipelines) and corruption (e.g., former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been working for the Russian energy industry).
Third, Russia needs the United States out of Europe. Without the Americans, Europe is a geographically small peninsula in Eurasia torn by internal tensions and incapable of countering Russian imperial advances. The modicum of unity that Europe has achieved—and can continue to sustain—is fully dependent on continued U.S. presence and leadership. At least in part, anti-American sentiments in some European capitals arise because the United States forces European states to do what is in the best interest of all of Europe, and not just in their own narrowly conceived interest. Again, the current opposition in Washington to the Russo-German Nord Stream 2 project is a case in point: Greater dependence on Russian gas will make Berlin even more friendly toward Moscow to the detriment of Central European states (fellow EU and NATO members).
The simplicity of Russian foreign policy is matched by its persistent implementation. These goals—and in particular the three geopolitical requirements for Russia to be a European great power—have been the guiding lights of Russian foreign policy for a long time and are not the product of Putin’s imagination. Putin is not pursuing new foreign policy goals; he has merely implemented them with greater vigor and a keen sense of opportunism. His foreign policy is not a historical anomaly.
Putin’s successor may alter the timing, tweak the priorities, and adopt a different mix of means, but rest assured Russia will continue to be a competitor in the European theater.