Putin Returns to the Historical Pattern

Russia’s Perpetual
Putin Returns to the
Historical Pattern
Stephen Kotkin For half a millennium, Russian
foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that
have exceeded the country’s capabilities.
Beginning with the reign of Ivan the
Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia
managed to expand at an average rate of
50 square miles per day for hundreds
of years,
of the earth’s landmass. By 1900, it was
the world’s fourth- or fifth-largest industrial power and the largest agricultural
producer in Europe. But its per capita
GDP reached only 20 percent of the United
Kingdom’s and 40 percent of Germany’s.
Imperial Russia’s average life span at birth
was just 30 years-higher than British
India’s (23) but the same as Qing China’s
and far below the United Kingdom’s (52),
Japan’s (51), and Germany’s (49). Russian
literacy in the early twentieth century
remained below 33 percent-lower than
that of Great Britain in the eighteenth
century. These comparisons were all well
known by the Russian political establishment, because its members traveled
to Europe frequently and measured their
country against the world’s leaders
(something that is true today, as well).
STEPHEN KOTKIN is Professor of History and
International Affairs at Princeton University and
a Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford
History records three fleeting moments
of remarkable Russian ascendancy: Peter
the Great’s victory over Charles XII and
a declining Sweden in the early 1700s,
which implanted Russian power on the
Baltic Sea and in Europe; Alexander
I’s victory over a wildly overstretched
Napoleon in the second decade of the
nineteenth century, which brought Russia
to Paris as an arbiter of great-power affairs;
and Stalin’s victory over the maniacal
gambler Adolf Hitler in the 1940s, which
gained Russia Berlin, a satellite empire
in Eastern Europe, and a central role
shaping the global postwar order.
These high-water marks aside,
however, Russia has almost always been
a relatively weak great power. It lost the
Crimean War of 1853-56, a defeat that
ended the post-Napoleonic glow and
forced a belated emancipation of the
serfs. It lost the Russo-Japanese War of
1904-5, the first defeat of a European
country by an Asian one in the modern
era. It lost World War I, a defeat that
caused the collapse of the imperial regime.
And it lost the Cold War, a defeat that
helped cause the collapse of the imperial
regime’s Soviet successor.
Throughout, the country has been
haunted by its relative backwardness,
particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated
frenzies of government activity designed
to help the country catch up, with a
familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. Most
analysts had assumed that this pattern
had ended for good in the 1990s, with
the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism
and the arrival of competitive elections
and a buccaneer capitalist economy. But
the impetus behind Russian grand strategy
had not changed. And over the last
Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics
decade, Russian President Vladimir
Putin has returned to the trend of relying
on the state to manage the gulf between
Russia and the more powerful West.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union
in 1991, Moscow lost some two million
square miles of sovereign territorymore than the equivalent of the entire
European Union (1.7 million square
miles) or India (1.3 million). Russia
forfeited the share of Germany it had
conquered in World War II and its other
satellites in Eastern Europe-all of which
are now inside the Western military
alliance, along with some advanced
former regions of the Soviet Union, such
as the Baltic states. Other former Soviet
possessions, such as Azerbaijan, Georgia,
and Ukraine, cooperate closely with the
West on security matters. Notwithstanding the forcible annexation of Crimea,
the war in eastern Ukraine, and the de
facto occupation of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, Russia has had to retreat from
most of Catherine the Great’s so-called
New Russia, in the southern steppes,
and from Transcaucasia. And apart from
a few military bases, Russia is out of
Central Asia, too.
Russia is still the largest country in
the world, but it is much smaller than
it was, and the extent of a country’s
territory matters less for great-power
status these days than economic dynamism and human capital-spheres in
which Russia has also declined. Russian
dollar- denominated GDP peaked in 2013
at slightly more than $2 trillion and has
now dropped to about $1.2 trillion thanks
to cratering oil prices and ruble exchange
rates. To be sure, the contraction measured
in purchasing power parity has been far
less dramatic. But in comparative dollardenominated terms, Russia’s economy
amounts to a mere 1.5 percent of global
GDP and is just one-15th the size of the
U.S. economy. Russia also suffers the
dubious distinction of being the most
corrupt developed country in the world,
and its resource-extracting, rent-seeking
economic system has reached a dead end.
The geopolitical environment, meanwhile, has become only more challenging
over time, with continuing U.S. global
supremacy and the dramatic rise of China.
And the spread of radical political Islam
poses concerns, as about 15 percent of
Russia’s 142 million citizens are Muslim
and some of the country’s predominantly
Muslim regions are seething with unrest
and lawlessness. For Russian elites who
assume that their country’s status and
even survival depend on matching the
West, the limits of the current course
should be evident.
Russians have always had an abiding
sense of living in a providential country with a special mission-an attitude
often traced to Byzantium, which Russia
claims as an inheritance. In truth, most
great powers have exhibited similar
feelings. Both China and the United
States have claimed a heavenly mandated exceptionalism, as did England
and France throughout much of their
histories. Germany and Japan had their
exceptionalism bombed out of them.
Russia’s is remarkably resilient. It has
been expressed differently over timethe Third Rome, the pan-Slavic kingdom,
the world headquarters of the Communist
International. Today’s version involves
Eurasianism, a movement launched
among Russian 6migr6s in 1921 that
imagined Russia as neither European
nor Asian but a sui generis fusion.
May/June 2016 3
Stephen Kotkin
The sense of having a special mission
has contributed to Russia’s paucity of
formal alliances and reluctance to join
international bodies except as an exceptional or dominant member. It furnishes
Russia’s people and leaders with pride,
but it also fuels resentment toward the
West for supposedly underappreciating
Russia’s uniqueness and importance.
Thus is psychological alienation added
to the institutional divergence driven
by relative economic backwardness.
As a result, Russian governments have
generally oscillated between seeking
closer ties with the West and recoiling
in fury at perceived slights, with neither
tendency able to prevail permanently.
Yet another factor that has shaped
Russia’s role in the world has been the
country’s unique geography. It has no
natural borders, except the Pacific Ocean
and the Arctic Ocean (the latter of which
is now becoming a contested space, too).
Buffeted throughout its history by often
turbulent developments in East Asia,
Europe, and the Middle East, Russia
has felt perennially vulnerable and
has often displayed a kind of defensive
aggressiveness. Whatever the original
causes behind early Russian expansionism-much of which was unplannedmany in the country’s political class
came to believe over time that only
further expansion could secure the
earlier acquisitions. Russian security
has thus traditionally been partly predicated on moving outward, in the name
of preempting external attack.
Today, too, smaller countries on
Russia’s borders are viewed less as
potential friends than as potential
beachheads for enemies. In fact, this
sentiment was strengthened by the
Soviet collapse. Unlike Stalin, Putin
does not recognize the existence of
a Ukrainian nation separate from a
Russian one. But like Stalin, he views
all nominally independent borderland
states, now including Ukraine, as
weapons in the hands of Western
powers intent on wielding them
against Russia.
A final driver of Russian foreign
policy has been the country’s perennial
quest for a strong state. In a dangerous
world with few natural defenses, the
thinking runs, the only guarantor of
Russia’s security is a powerful state
willing and able to act aggressively in
its own interests. A strong state has also
been seen as the guarantor of domestic
order, and the result has been a trend
captured in the nineteenth-century
historian Vasily Klyuchevsky’s one-line
summation of a millennium of Russian
history: “The state grew fat, but the
people grew lean.”
Paradoxically, however, the efforts
to build a strong state have invariably
led to subverted institutions and personalistic rule. Peter the Great, the original strong-state builder, emasculated
individual initiative, exacerbated inbred
distrust among officials, and fortified
patron-client tendencies. His coercive
modernization brought indispensable
new industries, but his project for a
strengthened state actually entrenched
personal whim. This syndrome characterized the reigns of successive Romanov
autocrats and those of Lenin and, especially, Stalin, and it has persisted to
this day. Unbridled personalism tends
to render decision-making on Russian
grand strategy opaque and potentially
capricious, for it ends up conflating
state interests with the political fortunes of one person.
Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics
Follow the leader: Peter the Great by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche, 1838
Anti-Western resentment and Russian
patriotism appear particularly pronounced
in Putin’s personality and life experiences,
but a different Russian government not
run by former KGB types would still
be confronted with the challenge of
weakness vis-a-vis the West and the
desire for a special role in the world.
Russia’s foreign policy orientation, in
May/June 2016
Stephen Kotkin
other words, is as much a condition as a
choice. But if Russian elites could somehow redefine their sense of exceptionalism and put aside their unwinnable
competition with the West, they could
set their country on a less costly, more
promising course.
Superficially, this appeared to be what
was happening during the 1990s, before
Putin took the helm, and in Russia a
powerful “stab in the back” story has
taken shape about how it was an arrogant
West that spurned Russian overtures
over the last couple of decades rather
than the reverse. But such a view downplays the dynamic inside Russia. Certainly,
Washington exploited Russia’s enfeeblement during the tenure of Russian
President Boris Yeltsin and beyond.
But it is not necessary to have supported
every aspect of Western policy in recent
decades to see Putin’s evolving stance less
as a reaction to external moves than as
the latest example of a deep, recurring
pattern driven by internal factors. What
precluded post-Soviet Russia from joining
Europe as just another country or forming an (inevitably) unequal partnership
with the United States was the country’s
abiding great-power pride and sense of
special mission. Until Russia brings its
aspirations into line with its actual capabilities, it cannot become a “normal”
country, no matter what the rise in its
per capita GDP or other quantitative
indicators is.
Let’s be clear: Russia is a remarkable
civilization of tremendous depth. It is
not the only former absolute monarchy
that has had trouble attaining political
stability or that retains a statist bent (think
of France, for example). And Russia is
right in thinking that the post-Cold
War settlement was unbalanced, even
unfair. But that was not because of any
intentional humiliation or betrayal. It
was the inevitable result of the West’s
decisive victory in the contest with the
Soviet Union. In a multidimensional
global rivalry-political, economic,
cultural, technological, and militarythe Soviet Union lost across the board.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin chose to
bow out gracefully rather than pull
the world down along with it, but that
extraordinarily benevolent endgame did
not change the nature of the outcome or
its causes -something that post-Soviet
Russia has never really accepted.
The outside world cannot force such
a psychological recognition, what the
Germans call Vergangenheitsbewdltigung- “coming to terms with the past.” But
there is no reason it could not come
about organically, among Russians
themselves. Eventually, the country
could try to follow something like the
trajectory of France, which retains a
lingering sense of exceptionalism yet
has made peace with its loss of its external empire and its special mission in
the world, recalibrating its national
idea to fit its reduced role and joining
with lesser powers and small countries
in Europe on terms of equality.
Whether even a transformed Russia
would be accepted into and merge well
with Europe is an open question. But
the start of the process would need to be a
Russian leadership able to get its public to
accept permanent retrenchment and agree
to embark on an arduous domestic restructuring. Outsiders should be humble as
they contemplate how wrenching such an
adjustment would be, especially without a
hot-war defeat and military occupation.
It took France and the United Kingdom decades to relinquish their own
Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics
senses of exceptionalism and global
responsibility, and some would argue
that their elites have still not fully done
so. But even they have high GDPS, toprated universities, financial power, and
global languages. Russia has none of
that. It does possess a permanent veto
in the UN Security Council, as well as
one of the world’s two foremost doomsday arsenals and world-class cyberwarfare capabilities. These, plus its unique
geography, do give it a kind of global
reach. And yet, Russia is living proof that
hard power is brittle without the other
dimensions of great-power status. However much Russia might insist on being
acknowledged as an equal to the United
States, the European Union, or even
China, it is not, and it has no near- or
medium-term prospect of becoming one.
What are Russia’s concrete alternatives
to a European-style restructuring and
orientation? It has a very long history
of being on the Pacific-and failing to
become an Asian power. What it can claim
is predominance in its region. There is
no match for its conventional military
among the other Soviet successor states,
and the latter (with the exception of
the Baltic states) are also economically
dependent on Russia to various degrees.
But regional military supremacy and
economic leverage in Eurasia cannot
underwrite enduring great-power status.
Putin has failed to make the Eurasian
Economic Union successful-but even
if all potential members joined and worked
together, their combined economic capabilities would still be relatively small.
Russia is a big market, and that can
be attractive, but neighboring countries
see risks as well as rewards in bilateral
trade with the country. Estonia, Georgia,
and Ukraine, for example, are generally
willing to do business with Russia only
provided they have an anchor in the West.
Other states that are more economically
dependent on Russia, such as Belarus
and Kazakhstan, see risks in partnering
with a country that not only lacks a model
for sustained development but also, in the
wake of its annexation of Crimea, might
have territorial designs on them. A ballyhooed “strategic partnership” with China,
meanwhile, has predictably produced
little Chinese financing or investment
to compensate for Western sanctions.
And all the while, China has openly and
vigorously been building its own Greater
Eurasia, from the South China Sea
through inner Asia to Europe, at Russia’s
expense and with its cooperation.
Today’s muscular Russia is actually
in structural decline, and Putin’s actions
have unwittingly yielded a Ukraine
more ethnically homogeneous and more
Western- oriented than ever before.
Moscow has tense relations with nearly
every one of its neighbors and even with
its biggest trading partners, including
most recently Turkey. Even Germany,
Russia’s most important foreign policy
counterpart and one of its most important economic partners, has had enough,
backing sanctions at a cost to its own
domestic situation.
“It looks like the so-called ‘winners’
of the Cold War are determined to have
it all and reshape the world into a place
that could better serve their interests
alone,” Putin lectured the annual Valdai
Discussion Club gathering in October
2014, following his Crimean annexation.
But what poses an existential threat to
Russia is not NATO or the West but
May/June 2016 7
Stephen Kotkin
Russia’s own regime. Putin helped rescue
the Russian state but has put it back
on a trajectory of stagnation and even
possible failure. The president and his
clique have repeatedly announced the
dire necessity of prioritizing economic
and human development, yet they
shrink from the far-reaching internal
restructuring necessary to make that
happen, instead pouring resources into
military modernization. What Russia
really needs to compete effectively and
secure a stable place in the international
order is transparent, competent, and
accountable government; a real civil
service; a genuine parliament; a professional and impartial judiciary; free
and professional media; and a vigorous,
nonpolitical crackdown on corruption.
Russia’s current leadership continues to
make the country bear the burdens of a
truculent and independent foreign policy
that is beyond the country’s means and
has produced few positive results. The
temporary high afforded by a cunning
and ruthless policy in Syria’s civil war
should not obscure the severity of Russia’s
recurrent strategic bind-one in which
weakness and grandeur combine to produce an autocrat who tries to leap forward
by concentrating power, which results in
a worsening of the very strategic dilemma
he is supposed to be solving. What are the
implications of this for Western policy?
How should Washington manage relations
with a nuclear- and cyber-armed country
whose rulers seek to restore its lost dominance, albeit a lesser version; undercut
European unity; and make the country “relevant,” come what may?
In this context, it is useful to recognize that there has actually never been
a period of sustained good relations
between Russia and the United States.
(Declassified documents reveal that
even the World War II alliance was
fraught with deeper distrust and greater
cross-purposes than has generally been
understood.) This has been due not to
misunderstandings, miscommunication,
or hurt feelings but rather to divergent
fundamental values and state interests,
as each country has defined them. For
Russia, the highest value is the state;
for the United States, it is individual
liberty, private property, and human
rights, usually set out in opposition to
the state. So expectations should be kept
in check. Equally important, the United
States should neither exaggerate the
Russian threat nor underplay its own
many advantages.
Russia today is not a revolutionary
power threatening to overthrow the
international order. Moscow operates
within a familiar great-power school of
international relations, one that prioritizes room for maneuver over morality
and assumes the inevitability of conflict,
the supremacy of hard power, and the
cynicism of others’ motives. In certain
places and on certain issues, Russia has
the ability to thwart U.S. interests, but
it does not even remotely approach the
scale of the threat posed by the Soviet
Union, so there is no need to respond
to it with a new Cold War.
The real challenge today boils down
to Moscow’s desire for Western recognition of a Russian sphere of influence
in the former Soviet space (with the
exception of the Baltic states). This is the
price for reaching accommodation with
Putin-something advocates of such
accommodation do not always acknowledge frankly. It was the sticking point
Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics
that prevented enduring cooperation
after 9/11, and it remains a concession
the West should never grant. Neither,
however, is the West really able to
protect the territorial integrity of the
states inside Moscow’s desired sphere
of influence. And bluffing will not
work. So what should be done?
Some invoke George Kennan and
call for a revival of containment, arguing
that external pressure will keep Russia
at bay until its authoritarian regime
liberalizes or collapses. And certainly,
many of Kennan’s insights remain
pertinent, such as his emphasis in the
“Long Telegram” that he dispatched
from Moscow 70 years ago on the deep
insecurity that drove Soviet behavior.
Adopting his thinking now would entail
maintaining or intensifying sanctions
in response to Russian violations of
international law, shoring up Western
alliances politically, and upgrading NATO’S
military readiness. But a new containment could become a trap, re-elevating
Russia to the status of rival superpower,
Russia’s quest for which has helped
bring about the current confrontation.
Once again, patient resolve is the
key. It is not clear how long Russia can
play its weak hand in opposition to the
United States and the EU, frightening
its neighbors, alienating its most important trading partners, ravaging its own
business climate, and hemorrhaging
talent. At some point, feelers will be
put out for some sort of rapprochement,
just as sanctions fatigue will eventually
kick in, creating the possibility for some
sort of deal. That said, it is also possible
that the present standoff might not end
anytime soon, since Russia’s pursuit of
a Eurasian sphere of influence is a
matter of national identity not readily
susceptible to material cost-benefit
The trick will be to hold a firm line
when necessary-such as refusing to
recognize a privileged Russian sphere
even when Moscow is able to enact one
militarily-while offering negotiations
only from a position of strength and
avoiding stumbling into unnecessary
and counterproductive confrontations
on most other issues. Someday, Russia’s
leaders may come to terms with the
glaring limits of standing up to the
West and seeking to dominate Eurasia.
Until then, Russia will remain not
another necessary crusade to be won
but a problem to be managed.0
May/June 2016 9

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