When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the leaders of post-Soviet Russia faced herculean challenges and fundamental questions of national strategy and direction. Would Russia continue on the Soviet path of hostility toward the West—or would it take a very different course? For Mikhail Gorbachev, the first president of Russia’s new era, the answer was clear. Russia would seek not just good relations with the West, but it also would seek to become a fully integrated part of Europe. Gorbachev spoke eloquently and sincerely of “a common European home.” He initiated twin transformations of the Russian economy away from Soviet-style socialism toward free markets and the political system from communist dictatorship to parliamentary democracy.
It was an extraordinary historical moment and the leaders in Europe and America knew it. Western governments launched a panoply of programs, including financial assistance (in the hundreds of billions of dollars), technical advice (e.g., how to create a stock market), educational exchanges, and corporate investment. Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, continued on the same path. Western powers opened up membership in their most exclusive club, the G-7, to include Russia in what became the G-8. There was serious talk of Russia joining the European Union and possibly even NATO. But despite all the good will, the sudden wrenching transition in Russia took a huge toll. Massive inefficient state factories lost their subsidies and went bankrupt. Pensioners lost their meager incomes as welfare programs collapsed. Rapacious “oligarchs” (well-placed government and party officials) acquired state assets for almost nothing. Suddenly, the Russian economy was controlled by a handful of newly minted billionaires that no one had heard of five years earlier. Collective farms disbanded, and rural populations sank into dire poverty. All of this was symptomatic of weakness at the center of power. Yeltsin was in poor health and often incapacitated by alcoholism. One of Yeltsin’s last official acts was a fateful one; he appointed an obscure official from St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, as his last prime minister.
Putin was a former KGB agent with a mindset to match. He quickly built a network of former KGB operatives who helped him centralize power in the Kremlin, bringing the oligarchs to heel. Putin’s rise coincided fortuitously with a dramatic rise in oil and gas prices—Russia’s sole major commercial exports. Suddenly, Russia (or at least the Kremlin) was awash in money. With the political situation stabilized and living standards rising, Putin enjoyed huge popularity validated by electoral landslides.
But Putin’s real obsessions lay outside Russia’s borders. He detested the effort to cultivate close ties with Europe and America seeing it as little more than capitulation to those responsible for the collapse of his beloved Soviet Union (and KGB). He was determined to rewrite the end of the Cold War and restore Russian dominance in the former satellites of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He wanted to destroy NATO and cripple the United States. He pursued those objectives with a combination of methods right out of the KGB playbook, including: (1) using oil and gas exports to extort foreign governments dependent on those commodities, (2) bribing influential foreign officials to act on the Kremlin’s behalf, (3) assassinating Russians living abroad who were seen as adversaries, and (4) using clandestine Russian military operations to infiltrate and destabilize small border states. In 2008, Putin demonstrated his desire to destabilize smaller neighbors when he invaded Georgia. Ukraine, then, became a particular focus as Putin sought to restore de facto Russian control over the former Soviet Republic. In 2014, these efforts backfired and triggered an uprising of Ukrainian youth demanding an end to corruption and subservience to Moscow. Putin responded by sending special operations forces into eastern Ukraine followed by an overt invasion and occupation of Crimea. Western governments reacted with punishing economic sanctions. Undeterred, Putin sent assassins to kill a former Russian agent living in London. More sanctions followed. Meanwhile, Russian intelligence agencies, at Putin’s direction, began to mount cyberattacks aimed at elections/referenda in Europe (e.g., Brexit in the UK) and the U.S.
In 2016, Putin won the proverbial lottery. Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. presidential elections intended to help Donald Trump succeeded beyond Moscow’s wildest expectations. Suddenly, the Kremlin had a willing puppet in the Oval Office. Putin’s initial reaction, understandably, was euphoric. But then it became clear that while Trump was willing to do Moscow’s bidding, the rest of the U.S. government was not. As a result, sanctions stayed in place.
This is a serious matter because sanctions cut off Russia from its natural markets and sources of investment and technology in Europe. At its core, Putin’s strategy calls for using oil revenues to buy technology and equipment from Europe to modernize and strengthen Russia’s armed forces. But now those assets are unavailable just as declining oil prices have reduced Russia’s financial leverage. Just one example of the impact occurred when Russia’s only drydock capable of servicing aircraft carriers suffered a catastrophic accident and sank. Russia has no maritime heavy lift cranes able to raise the drydock. Norway does, but sanctions foreclose asking for Norwegian assistance. In 2015, Putin assured the Russian public that by 2017 the sanctions would be gone and that oil prices would return to $110 per barrel. Today, sanctions are still in place, oil is at $53 per barrel, and the Russian economy is stagnating as poverty levels rise.
Putin’s hatred of the West is so all-consuming that he is incapable of taking the steps most Russian strategists recommend—compromise on Ukraine and Crimea, stop the cyberattacks and rebuild diplomatic ties with Europe and America as part of gaining sanctions relief. Instead, Putin has turned to China for new economic deals, joint military exercises, arms sales, and frequent diplomatic consultations. Putin has taken every opportunity to pose for the cameras with Xi Jinping, with the expectation that the photo will appear prominently in U.S. media.
But consider a few basic realities: (1) Russia and China have a history of enmity over centuries; (2) The two countries have a long common border and fought battles over it as late as 1968; (3) The Chinese economy is over ten times the size of Russia’s and the gap is growing; (4) The Chinese defense budget is about six times the size of Russia’s; (5) Most of the vast expanse of the Russian Far East is empty while Chinese populations press up against it from the other side; (6) Publicly displayed Chinese military maps show the boundary of China extending across Siberia to Lake Baikal; and (7) China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative involves huge infrastructure projects in Central Asia—a region Moscow has always viewed as its exclusive domain.
Russian elites have a deep natural affinity for Europe, not Asia. Russian billionaires buy penthouses in London, not Shanghai. Russian students want to study in Paris, not Beijing. Russian tourists flock to Rome, not Guangzhou. Russian military commanders distrust and fear China. [And a brief perusal of Chinese social media will reveal how much the Chinese dislike the Russians.] In sum, Putin’s obsessions are taking Russia in a direction profoundly at odds with Russian interests—and the sentiments of the Russian people.