Special Report

The Roots of Russian Conduct

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The Roots of Russian Conduct


The Roots of Russian Conduct and Occasional Essays on Contemporary Russian Issues are two series of essays by Robert E. Berls, Jr., Senior Advisor on Russia and Eurasia at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Written for those interested in international relations and Russia specifically, the essays offer insights and information about a country that for many remains, as Winston Churchill famously said, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

The first series, The Roots of Russian Conduct, explores the challenges of Russian politics, societal development, and fundamental values and mores that have helped form the body politic of Russia through the ages. Berls wrote the essays—based on his many years of studying, working, and living in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia—between September 2018 and January 2021. They reflect events from that period with a focus on Russian national interests and their pursuit by Vladimir Putin’s regime.

The second series, Occasional Essays on Contemporary Russian Issues, will examine various topics that pose challenges to Russian leadership and society today.

These essays represent Berls’ personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nuclear Threat Initiative or its Board of Directors or the institutions with which they are associated.

About the Author

Robert E. Berls, Jr. serves as a Senior Advisor in NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. He joined NTI in 2001, the organization’s first year, and has directed or helped manage many of NTI’s projects in Russia that have addressed nuclear, chemical, and biological threats.

Berls opened NTI’s Moscow office in 2002 and managed it through 2009. Among other projects, he led the NTI initiative at Russia’s SarovLabs, part of a U.S.-Russian cooperative effort to find new commercial avenues for the former Soviet Union’s “Nuclear Cities” that supported the country’s nuclear weapons complex. NTI helped the lab develop international marketing capabilities, which led to a multifold increase in revenue and staff size, ensuring that the scientists and others who worked on the Soviet nuclear weapons program didn’t seek outside opportunities that could contribute to global proliferation. Berls also managed NTI’s project to support high-priority infrastructure development for the Shchuch’ye Chemical Weapons Destruction Facility in Siberia. This project helped Russia meet its goal to destroy all chemical weapons by 2012.

Berls represented NTI on the Carnegie Endowment’s Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI), a high-level international commission addressing Euro-Atlantic security needs for the 21st century. He served as executive director of an EASI working group on missile defense. NTI Co-Chair and then-CEO Sam Nunn served as an EASI Co-Chair.

Berls was instrumental in establishing and managing the Younger Generation Leaders Network (YGLN) on Euro-Atlantic Security, a capacity-building initiative established by NTI in 2014 that is designed to foster dialogue among young emerging leaders from Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States, on contemporary challenges facing the Euro-Atlantic region. He also is co-author with his NTI colleague Leon Ratz of a series of NTI Papers on Rising Nuclear Dangers.

Berls’ career spans military, government, academia, and business. He served 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of colonel. During the 1980s, he served as Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Energy for Russia/NIS programs during the first Clinton Administration.

His academic credentials include teaching positions at the National War College, National Defense University, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Before joining NTI, he was Vice President for Business Development and Government Relations for a U.S. oil company.

Berls holds a doctorate in Russian Area Studies from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in Soviet Studies from Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree in Russian Area Studies from Colgate University. He is fluent in Russian.

Chapter 1


In 1939, Winston Churchill uttered the now-famous adage, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He was not alone in being bewildered by Russia’s conduct. For centuries, Russia has been regarded as a mysterious land. In 1839, the French aristocrat and writer the Marquis de Custine traveled to Russia and wrote a popular “exposé” on the backwardness of Russian society and the appalling conduct of its aristocracy at the time of Emperor Nicholas I. Even Russians have struggled to define themselves and their country. The words of the 19th century Russian poet and statesman Fyodor Tyutchev perhaps best described this conundrum in a short poem, the essence of which is that Russia cannot be grasped by the mind; it can only be appreciated by faith.

Churchill’s words expressing his puzzlement about Russia have been repeated endlessly by statesmen, politicians, scholars, and journalists to explain and justify their frustration with Russia and its behavior in both the domestic and international arenas. But how true is Churchill’s remark? Does Russia, indeed, operate in mysterious ways that confuse and confound us in the West? Or can our failure to understand Russia be also attributed to our own shortcomings, ignorance, and propensity for mirror-imaging?

Any student in a basic political science course learns that countries pursue international policy objectives based largely on their national interests. Although governments change and strategies come and go, national interests remain fundamentally the same. This was just as true for Great Britain under Churchill as it was for the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The same can be said today for the United States and Russia.

The pursuit of national interests is the major motivating force of any country’s foreign policy. As Hans Morgenthau, a leading political scientist of the 20th century, describes it, “The meaning of national interest is survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states.” These basic interests are fundamental even as specific interests and goals vary from country to country.

Russia under Vladimir Putin, like any other country, has clearly defined national interests and identifiable factors that influence the pursuit of those interests. The number one priority for Putin and his regime is survival and retention of power—a particularly vital priority for any authoritarian regimes. The survival of the Russian state and protecting it from domestic and foreign threats also rank among the highest priorities. Another critically important priority is the preservation and expansion of Russia’s influence in the international arena. This is manifested in Russia’s drive to regain status as a world power and maintain influence over its neighbors after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lower on the scale of priorities, but still of great importance, are the preservation and expansion of Russia’s economy and its economic interests and the maintenance of the domestic social order.

Numerous factors influence the ability of Russia’s leaders to pursue these national interests and determine how they do so. Among them are geography, history, cultural heritage, religion, ideology, the power and role of the individual leader and his power structure, societal dynamics and pressures, and the impact of opposing forces—both internal and external.

In this series. I examine Russia’s primary national interests and how the Putin regime pursues them in order to provide insight into the riddle, mystery, and enigma that so troubled Churchill and others.

Washington, DC | September 2018

Chapter 2

Putin and Regime Survival: Part I

In Part I of this essay, I examine how Putin has succeeded for more than 20 years in balancing and controlling three essential relationships that are critical for his political survival and for that of his regime.

The most important priority for any authoritarian regime is the survival of its leader and the power structure that supports him. The degree to which this is a national interest shared by most of the population depends on the ability of the leader to meet certain basic societal needs. Society’s support can be active or passive. Although the regime encourages active support and works hard to garner it, a passive population that eschews direct opposition to the regime is acceptable.

At the extreme end of authoritarian regimes are those described as totalitarian. They rely on terror as their principal instrument of coercion of the population. During the first half of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin and his secret police imposed a regime of terror that resulted in the submission by all but a few brave souls to the will of the dictator. The idea that any form of dissent could play a role, much less flourish under Stalin’s rule, was inconceivable. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the eventual weakening of the Soviet regime, the relationship between the Soviet ruler and the ruled began to change.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, preceded by Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to save a dying regime and Boris Yeltsin’s efforts to create a new political structure on the ruins of the former Soviet state, new challenges arose as Russia faced the daunting task of cobbling together a new governing structure following a long tradition of authoritarian rule. It was a challenge the country was not able to overcome. With Vladimir Putin at the helm beginning in 2000, Russia, which many had hoped would proceed along a democratic path, would once again find itself struggling with a new identity and a new system of government. It soon became apparent that it was easier to rule Russia with an iron fist than to extend a hand to a population in search of a better future.

Since Putin assumed power more than 20 years ago, he has had to establish a workable balance between the power elite and the general population to maintain his rule and govern effectively. This has not been an easy task.

We have seen in recent years how certain authoritarian leaders have failed to establish a successful balance. Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Bashar al-Assad in Syria are examples of such failures. They have had to resort to intimidation, force, and terror in order to remain in power. Although Putin has not shied away from using more extreme means to maintain control, he has usually done so in a more measured, albeit at times clumsy and abusive, way as demonstrated by the violent attacks and arrests of demonstrators protesting the reform of the pension system in 2019. Putin has also pursued a relentless effort to suppress the activities of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, to limit his impact, and intimidate anyone who may oppose him.

For authoritarian leaders to maintain power, there are three important relationships that must be properly balanced and controlled. The first is the relationship between the leader and his power elite. The second is the relationship between the leader and the general population. And the third is the relationship between the general population and the authorities (local and national level bureaucrats and officials).

Putin and the Power Elite

In Russia, the most important and complex of the three relationships is the one between Putin and the power elite. Although this relationship can be described as symbiotic because each side needs the other for survival, Putin is the dominant force and has been successful over the years in maintaining the upper hand.

When Putin acceded to the presidency after a brief stint as prime minister, he inherited the power structure that had bolstered the Yeltsin regime for almost a decade. The “Yeltsin family” and the oligarchs who surrounded Yeltsin were either relegated to subservient positions in the new Putin regime or were replaced by Putin’s cronies from his earlier years in St. Petersburg or from his time in the KGB.

New oligarchs arose under Putin (a few also survived from the Yeltsin years) and became an important tool for Putin as he manipulated the diverse forces of the power elite. These oligarchs amassed great wealth, but they remained under Putin’s control and were obliged to do his bidding whenever so ordered. Corruption, which created a state described as a kleptocracy, became the most prominent feature of the Putin regime.

Putin has relied heavily on the government’s security forces and those who were close to him in the past to implement his policy decisions. Putin is intelligent in a cunning, Byzantine way and is very adept at manipulating others. Loyalty is the most important element in the relationship between Putin and his close subordinates, but fear and uncertainty are also powerful tools that Putin uses to manipulate the rival political groups or clans that make up what is called the “power vertical.”

As the clans struggle among themselves for influence within the power vertical, Putin stays above the fray. He represents only himself; he is not the head of a political party or a movement. He is the ultimate arbiter and decider—the only politician who matters. Putin has not indicated, at least to the extent that outsiders can discern, whether he is grooming a potential successor. To do so would weaken him and make him more vulnerable to pressures from the rival political clans.

Putin has been gradually removing many of the original members of his power elite, including some of those who were particularly close to him, and replacing them with younger technocrats. These new leaders owe their positions and allegiance totally to Putin; they do not have a personal power base, as many of Putin’s earlier close associates did. By renewing the power elite and keeping older members in a state of uncertainty, Putin manipulates the clans and maintains the upper hand in the power structure.

Although the power vertical serves the interests of Putin and his authoritarian regime, its future is in doubt, and it may not be able to sustain itself after Putin. Centralized power under one man without an effective horizontal infrastructure and power interactions that permeate the expanse of Russia at all levels of management make it exceedingly difficult for the country to effectively manage itself, modernize, or even deal with a serious crisis. The structure that Putin has built could collapse once he is gone.

The future of Russia’s political structure is uncertain. Putin’s future is uncertain. Will Putin postpone the need for Russia to develop a new governing structure by finding a way to hold on to power when his current term as president expires in 2024? Will the power elite accept any attempt to change the governing structure—a change that could jeopardize their power, their wealth, and even their lives? Or will Russia continue to muddle through as it so often does by eschewing significant change and accepting the least challenging path forward? The year 2024 could be a year of great significance for Putin, his power elite, and the Russian people.

Putin and the People

The relationship between Putin and the general population is the next key element in ensuring the survival of Putin and his regime. It is a relationship based on an unwritten social contract that offers both sides sufficient reasons to maintain the status quo.

Over the course of the past 20 years, this social contact has evolved into one in which Putin and his regime provide the population with a certain degree of economic stability and upward mobility; freedom of movement and travel abroad (previously greatly restricted by the Soviet regime); modest social and economic benefits, including health care and state pensions; and opportunities to express national pride in exchange for the population not getting involved in the political activities of the regime and accepting the corruption and various machinations of the power elite.

The degree to which this contract has been observed has ebbed and flowed as the economic and political conditions in the country have changed. Early on, Putin argued that the chaos and economic hardships that Russia endured in the 1990s was the fault of the West and Russia’s so-called Western reformers and only he could fix the problem. Putin was aided in this effort by the oil boom of the early 2000s that saw millions of Russians move into a growing middle class. When the global economic crisis hit Russia in 2008, the unwritten contract suffered a shock. The steady increase in living standards slowed down, but the level of corruption in the country and the impact it had on the daily lives of ordinary citizens continued unabated. Darker elements began to emerge following the almost fairy-tale years of the early 2000s, but then a new situation arose that recast the contract in a new light. Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008 launched a tidal wave of patriotism among the Russian people that pushed many of the unsatisfactory aspects of the contract into the background.

Just prior to the events in Georgia, Putin ended his second term as president and was replaced temporarily by his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin remained in the background as the new prime minister—a change the Russians called “castling” after the move in chess where the rook changes position with the king. But there was no doubt in everyone’s mind that Putin remained the supreme power in the country.

When Medvedev announced in September 2011 that he would not seek a second term as president in 2012 and that Vladimir Putin would be running again for president (the Russian Constitution did not at that time prohibit a former president from seeking another term after being out of office for a period of time), shock waves reverberated through segments of Russian society that were hoping for change. Following what many believed were rigged elections for the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) in December 2011, a series of demonstrations broke out in Moscow and other cities over the next several months that were unprecedented in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The largest and most violent protests occurred in Moscow on May 6, 2012—the day before Putin was inaugurated for his third term as president. The following day, Putin’s motorcade sped through totally empty streets on the way to the Kremlin for the swearing-in ceremony. The contrast could not have been starker. The country was in shock. The unwritten social contact appeared to be in tatters.

Putin was equally shocked by the protests. He took immediate action to crack down on the protesters and suppress the still-weak opposition movement. The social contract had to be reinforced with new elements that would satisfy the population as Putin and his power vertical reasserted control over the country.

The focus of the contract shifted to an emphasis on national pride, historical tradition, and patriotism. Tsarist and Soviet symbols were reintroduced into the Russian fabric. The Russian Orthodox Church returned to its preeminent position in Russian society—a position that it had not enjoyed since tsarist days. Victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II)—a monumental event in the lives of the Soviet people—was celebrated with even greater fanfare than previously. Legislation to promote conservative values and protect Russian society from the contagion of corrupt Western social norms was adopted and rigorously enforced. Except for a small segment of Russian society that identifies with the West, most Russians welcomed these steps and felt reassured that Russia was returning to its traditional roots and that Putin was defending Russian society and making Russia stronger. The unwritten social contract was reinforced, and the relationship between the leader and the led appeared again to be stable.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine were overwhelmingly supported by the Russian people. Putin’s approval rating, which had been in the 60s prior to the events in Ukraine, jumped to the high 80s. The sense of pride among the Russian people that Russia was again a power that had to be reckoned with soared to new heights.

But nationalism and pride in foreign adventures can sustain a high level of support for just so long until the reality of conditions at home sets in. The contract with society requires constant nurturing if it is to be sustained at an acceptable level. Economic conditions in Russia today are not getting better. Western sanctions are affecting Russian society. The ruble is getting weaker, and inflation is beginning to rise again. Infrastructure remains in an abominable state of disrepair in many parts of Russia. Although Russia spent billions of rubles to build a bridge connection Crimea with the Russian mainland, bridges elsewhere in Russia are crumbling and many roads remain nothing more than bogs of mud. Health care is in desperate need of investment, as are housing and education. Will Putin and his regime be able to respond adequately to the economic and social needs of the people, or will he resort to more forceful methods to maintain order?

In 2019, widespread protests broke out across the country against a government plan to raise the retirement age for men from 60 to 65 and for women from 55 to 63. This proposal posed a direct challenge to Putin and the social contract. A poll showed that 90 percent of the Russian population opposed pension reform.

Initially, Putin remained above the fray and let the government authorities deal with the discontent. As protests across the country became more vocal, Putin stepped in as the benevolent “tsar” to reassure the people that he was on their side. He delivered a speech to the nation in which he softened the plan by proposing that the retirement age for women should be 60, not 63. This did not calm the concerns of many people. On September 9, 2018, in response to calls by political activist Alexey Navalny (who had already been arrested for 30 days to prevent him from leading demonstrations), crowds came out onto the streets of many Russian cities to protest. The demonstrations were forcefully suppressed, and more than 1,000 demonstrators were arrested, including children as young as nine years old.

Following the protests against pension reform, Putin’s approval rating fell back to the 60s (a significant drop from the halcyon days following the Crimean annexation). The uproar over pension reform subsided, but its long-term impact will remain as a further sign of the fragile relationship between Putin and Russian society and their increasingly tenuous relationship. But this is just one of the more pressing socio-economic issues that Putin needs to address to maintain an acceptable balance of the social contract. Will Putin and his government make the investment necessary to bring about meaningful changes in the lives of the people? Will he engage in another foreign adventure to rally the population? Or will he resort to more authoritarian methods of intimidation and pressure?

The economic demands are indeed formidable. Major investment and modernization are requirements that Russian leaders have repeatedly promised to address but have largely failed to realize. Conditions do not augur well for new attempts given current internal and external economic and political pressures.

Is another foreign adventure likely in the cards? Russia’s foray into Syria has come at a significant cost—both economically and in terms of support from the Russian people who are increasingly questioning the wisdom of Russia’s involvement in the region.

Would a military adventure closer to home garner greater support for Putin and his regime? What about more active military engagement in eastern Ukraine? There are signs that both military and political activities are pointing in that direction. But perhaps they are just another attempt to pressure Kyiv to submit to Russia’s demands.

There is also the possibility that Putin might consider initiating a provocation against one or more of Russia’s neighbors that have a significant ethnic Russian population. Such a move would be extremely risky and could escalate into a larger confrontation. But Putin was able to successfully destabilize Ukraine. Could he get away with similar aggression elsewhere?

A crackdown on the opposition continues. Alexey Navalny—Putin’s “bête-noir” whose name Putin refuses to utter—is the most vocal opponent of the Putin regime. Although Navalny’s support among the general population is very limited, Putin and his regime rigorously stifle every effort Navalny takes to rally people against Putin and the corruption that so deeply penetrates his regime.

The state is also taking far-reaching steps to control and suppress voices of discontent and opposition on the internet. Charges of extremism and arrests of ordinary citizens who post memes online that the regime considers offensive are on the rise and are raising concern that further suppression of civil society can be expected.

Despite the challenges Putin and his regime face in maintaining an acceptable balance to the unwritten contract with society and the fluctuation in Putin’s ratings, the position of Putin and his power vertical is currently secure. Support for Putin remains solid among much of the general population. This support emanates not only from what Putin has done and is doing for Russia but also reflects a fear among many that life could be worse under a different leader.

The big question is how will the younger generation that has grown up knowing no other political leader than Putin respond to the challenges Russia faces. In general, many young people still support Putin, although far fewer that their parents and grandparents do. They are pleased that he has restored Russia’s place in the world as a power to be reckoned with, but they are becoming impatient with the stagnation that is growing in the economic and political spheres of the country. Many young people want change, and a vocal minority is participating more actively in protest demonstrations. If more young people begin to express their dissatisfaction with issues affecting their future, this will become a major problem for Putin. The social contract that the younger generation’s parents have had with the state may not be acceptable to them. Change is inevitable. The challenge will be how to manage that change.

As the Russian people look to the future and to what may happen in 2024 when Putin’s current term as president ends, there is much uncertainty. Russians have little experience with a smooth transition of power from one regime to another. What they value most is stability. For this reason, more than half the respondents in a recent poll indicated that they want Putin to remain in power beyond 2024. Until a determination is made about the future of Russia’s leader and the system of government post-2024, Putin and Russian society will continue to struggle to preserve their relationship and the unwritten contract that binds them together.

The People and the Authorities

The third and final component of the troika that holds the Russia polity together is the relationship between the general population and the authorities—officials and bureaucrats—at the national and local levels. This is the most contentious relationship because it is the one in which there is frequent tension and potential hostility.

Traditionally, the relationship between the Russian people and the authorities has ranged from indifference to outright disdain, and the feeling has been mutual. The gulf between them is wide. Russians remains largely apolitical. Few are willing to risk getting involved in political activities that could change the system. Most Russians eschew interactions with the authorities they view as corrupt, incompetent, and not interested in making their lives easier. The Russian people view themselves as separate from the state and are resigned to the fact that because they are unable to influence government policy, there is no reason even to try. A recent poll shows that 94 percent of the respondents believe that the only way their life can get better is if they rely on themselves rather than on the state for assistance.

There is, however, an age-old tradition in Russia that goes back to tsarist days: the appeal to the tsar (today: Putin) over the head of the boyars (today: the state bureaucrats) to solve peoples’ problems. Although the above-cited poll indicates that the overwhelming majority of the population has become more self-reliant, this appeal to the leader over the heads of the authorities still exists, but mainly in rural parts of Russia. This belief that “if only Putin knew” or “only Putin can fix the problem” comes alive every year during Putin’s highly orchestrated nationwide call-in show. Interspersed with questions about politics and policies posed by politicians and celebrities are pleas from ordinary citizens for Putin “to fix my roof,” “provide a sick girl with a doll,” and other mundane requests for assistance. Although this may seem trivial, it serves a useful purpose. It delivers the important message that among the fears and uncertainties of everyday life, even ordinary Russians can be assured that Putin will protect them, will assuage their concerns, and will solve their problems.

For the remaining years of Putin’s current term, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Putin and his power vertical will be at the helm as Russia navigates increasingly turbulent waters. As 2024 approaches and decisions are made about Russia’s future, the relationships among the three components of Russian polity will be crucial in determining the outcome of this process.

Washington, DC | September 2018

Chapter 3

Putin and Regime Survival: Part II

In Part II of this essay, I examine internal and external factors—including geography, history, religion, ideology, and national heritage—that have affected the nature and survival of Russia’s leaders and their regimes over the centuries and continue to influence the ability of Putin and his regime to survive. In some cases, these factors serve as guardrails that provide a natural channel for policy by keeping it within certain bounds. In other cases, they can either restrict or broaden policy options for the political leadership. Undoubtedly, they will play a role in the decisions affecting post-Putin Russia.


Geography has not been kind to Russia. Over the centuries Russia’s leaders have had to cope with challenges posed by their environment, and its leaders have been shaped by those challenges. It is hard to overstate the impact that geography has had on Russia’s history, on its development, and on how it is governed.

One of the biggest challenges Russia’s rulers have had to face is the immensity of a landmass that has few natural borders. The first east Slavic state of Kievan Rus and the Russian principalities that subsequently arose, including the Grand Principality of Moscow, were largely defenseless and were easily overrun by the Mongol Tatars in the 13th century. Beginning with Ivan the Terrible (reign 1547–1584), and pursued by his successors, the Russians undertook an aggressive expansion that eventually reached the Pacific Ocean, the Caucasus, and the depths of Central Asia. During this process, Russia fought off frequent invasions and launched numerous offensive campaigns as it absorbed diverse ethnic groups that had problematic relations with the ethnic Russians who ruled over them.

Despite the greatly enhanced landmass, Russia remained vulnerable; in fact, its vulnerability only increased as the size of its territory grew. Ruling this enormous country posed unprecedented challenges to its leaders.

The huge expanse, the diversity of a dispersed population, and the frequent threat of invasion demanded tight control from the central government to hold the country together. History has shown, whether during Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, or Putin’s Russia, that a strong central government that maintains a powerful internal political and security apparatus has been the only successful way to restrain the numerous centrifugal forces that seek to drive power away from the center and weaken central authority.

Like Russia’s rulers before him, Putin has learned the lessons of the past. Weakness releases those centrifugal forces. He saw this happen under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian people, who value stability over almost anything else, also fear that chaos and disaster will follow if weakness prevails. For this reason, they respect strong leaders who protect them from external and internal threats, and they are willing to forfeit certain freedoms cherished in the West to ensure stability and predictability in their lives.


The history of Russia has been a struggle between the centrifugal forces attempting to pull the country apart and the centripetal forces that seek to exert tight, central control over the country.

The history of the Russian state is also one of authoritarianism characterized by strong central power with little or no constitutional accountability. Political freedoms are limited and subordinate to the state. Although this type of rule is not predestined and there is no guarantee of its permanence, as witnessed by what occurred over the centuries in Europe, there are many factors at work in Russia that make it difficult to sustain any form of government that is not authoritarian. In large part, this is determined by the need to retain control over a vast territory with a diverse ethnic population, much of whom the central government views with suspicion and distrust. If, however, the country separated into smaller, more homogeneous components, there might be a better chance for democratic forces to surface, as witnessed after the breakup of the Soviet Union—mainly in the Baltic States, but also in Georgia, and to a lesser extent in Ukraine.

Democratic or semi-democratic entities have had some presence on Russian territory over the centuries. In Kievan Rus and Novgorod in the north, democratic popular assemblies called veche functioned from the 10th to the 15th centuries. These assemblies discussed issues of war and peace, adopted laws, and invited or expelled ruling princes. Any citizen could participate in these assemblies, be they boyars (nobility) or commoners, and could convene a meeting by ringing the city’s veche bell. Over time, the veche lost influence as Russia’s ruling princes assumed greater power. When Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow, conquered Novgorod in 1478, he removed the veche bell to indicate that the old way of running the city was over and that Novgorod was now subservient to Moscow and its ruler.

With the disappearance of this vestige of grassroots power, ordinary people had few ways to petition authorities or express their discontent. Their main option was to rise in protest, but those protests typically had little impact and were violently suppressed.

Kievan Rus’s early ties with Byzantium and, more importantly, the adoption of the eastern orthodox religion, had a profound influence on religious and secular life in Russia. The very close but often contentious relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s rulers reinforced tight central control and autocracy. In fact, during the height of the Russian Empire, the three pillars of the official ideology of the imperial government were orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism. This ideology was formally adopted during the reign of Emperor Nicholas I (1825–1855) and continued to dominate imperial rule until the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.

Under Vladimir Putin, we have seen a resurgence of elements of the former imperial ideology as Putin reaches back to Russia’s historical roots to build support for his regime. The Russian Orthodox Church is again flourishing after being suppressed and persecuted for seven decades under Soviet rule. It has not yet regained the position it occupied in imperial Russia, but it has achieved an increasingly influential status in Russian society in recent years and is a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin.

Autocracy has taken a different form under Vladimir Putin. It is arguably more efficient than its imperial ancestor and less oppressive than its Soviet predecessor, but it represents continuity with the past and the struggle Russia has faced over the centuries in dealing with the perpetual problem of how the country should be ruled.

Nationalism, as we have seen, has always been a useful tool for Russia’s rulers as they contend with threats both real and imaginary from outside the country. The prospect of a foreign enemy strengthens the regime by rallying the people in defense of the homeland. It is also a useful way to direct people’s attention away from weaknesses and failures at home. Putin has been adept at using nationalism to strengthen his position—a tactic employed most recently in his foreign adventures in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria.

Many important historical events and experiences have strengthened autocratic rule in Russia, but none was more important than the Mongol invasion from 1237 to 1242 and their more than two centuries rule over Russian lands. The ruthless Mongol Tatar domination, executed by subservient Russian rulers who paid tribute to their Mongol Tatar overlords and imposed Mongol Tatar rule over their own citizens, left a lasting legacy in Russia of cruelty, subservience, and harsh absolutism.

As Russia grew in size, its rulers struggled to reconcile their desire to transform Russia into a modern state with their need to maintain absolute control over the reins of power. Russia has struggled with this challenge for centuries, starting most notably with Peter the Great (reign 1682–1725) and continuing up to today.

In an effort to introduce Western technology to Russia, Peter the Great traveled “incognito” to Holland where he learned shipbuilding. When he returned to Russia, he founded the Russian Navy which significantly increased Russia’s capability to engage its foes in battle. Peter also sought to align Russia more closely with the Western way of life. In a very controversial move, he demanded that the Russian nobility adopt Western dress and that the men shave off their beards. Those who failed to comply were taxed.

Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia in the second half of the 18th century, corresponded with Voltaire, Diderot, and other famous European philosophers and writers and flirted with the ideas of the Enlightenment.

In their attempt to reconcile their desire to import Westers technologies and know-how with their need to maintain tight control at home, both of these imperial rulers, as well as their successors—including leaders of the Soviet Union—imposed strict measures to limit Western influence for fear that it would weaken their regime and their power.

During ­the 20th century, there were several attempts to break out of the mold of traditional Russian authoritarianism and introduce an element of democracy into Russian politics and life. The abortive revolution of 1905—a reaction to Russia’s disastrous loss to Japan in a naval battle in the Far East, workers strikes that culminated in the violent suppression of a peaceful march in St. Petersburg known as Bloody Sunday, and peasant uprisings—was an attempt to transform Russia from an autocracy to a constitutional monarchy. Political parties were permitted, a State Duma (parliament) was formed, and a constitution was adopted. Those changes, however, were not sufficient to prevent full-scale revolution in 1917—first in February, resulting in the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II and the formation of a provisional government, and then in November when the Bolshevik Revolution brought Vladimir Lenin and the Communists to power.

The attempts to move away from the traditional autocratic form of rule and replace it with a more representative form of government failed to overcome the complexities that had shaped and defined Russia for centuries. The Communists, led by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, were able to take advantage of Russia’s political, social, and economic weaknesses and to create a state that claimed to represent a bold, new model that would guide the world as it formed an egalitarian international community. In reality, they established a totalitarian state that terrorized its citizens, imprisoned and murdered millions in its network of concentration camps (the gulag), and spread its influence and dominance well beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was due mainly to its internal failures but also to external pressures, was followed by another attempt to create a government that would be more responsive to the needs of the people. This time it was more successful than in the past, but again the burden of Russia’s history weighed heavily on efforts to institute meaningful reforms.

When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to overcome the many inefficiencies and failures of the decaying Soviet system, he opened the floodgates that led to the end of that system and the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 independent countries—an outcome that Gorbachev and his supporters had neither wanted nor anticipated. A coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991 led by members of his government failed not only to remove Gorbachev from power but also could not stop the inevitable slide of the country into oblivion. The weakening of central control had again unleashed the centrifugal forces that threatened unity and cohesion. Four months later the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected President of Russia, emerged as the hero of a new era in Russia’s tumultuous history. He brought about change that shocked the country. Stability and predictability, which were the fundamental aspirations of the Russian people, were replaced by chaos and uncertainty. Many of the reforms that Yeltsin and his government introduced—in the name of bringing democracy to Russia—brought economic hardship and social and political turmoil to the lives of the Russian people. Democracy, rather than being viewed as a system of government that represented the people and their interests, was detested by a large segment of the Russian population and was blamed for declining living standards and all that was wrong in their personal lives. Central authority remained relatively weak and was challenged from the periphery (viz. Chechnya) and from the outside (viz. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enlargement, NATO bombing of Serbia, etc.). If Russia were to regain its internal strength and its position in the world as a great power, new leadership was needed that would reverse the policies that had weakened Russia under Yeltsin and would reassert control over government and society. Enter Putin onto the Russian stage and the return to a more traditional, a more authoritarian, rule in Russia.


Religion has played a dominant role in Russia since Kievan Rus adopted the Orthodox faith in the 10th century. Although Russia has been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state for centuries, the other major religions recognized by the Russian Government—Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism—are practiced principally on the periphery of Russia rather than at its core. Consequently, they have played a much less important role in Russian life, culture, and government than has Orthodoxy.

In 330, Constantine the Great split the Roman Empire into two parts—Rome in the west and Byzantium in the east, later named Constantinople. After the fall of Rome, Constantinople became known as the second Rome.

In 1054, a schism divided the Christian Church into the Western or Catholic Church under the Pope of Rome and the Eastern or Byzantine (Orthodox) Church headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. This schism led to mutual excommunications, which were not annulled until 1965.

The divisions between the two churches widened over the centuries and still exist today, although animosities have abated, and a respectable working relationship has been established.

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Russian Orthodox Church became independent of Constantinople, and the Duchy of Moscow, by now the center of the emerging Russian state, declared itself the heir to Constantinople. It called itself the third and last Rome. The metropolitan (a rank similar to a bishop) of Moscow became head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have had a turbulent relationship with secular authorities. In Europe, many changes took place in church-state relations over the centuries, culminating with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that delivered a shock to Western Christendom.

The Russian Orthodox Church had a very different history. Unlike Europe, Russia never experienced a reformation and therefore did not undergo reforms that could have modernized church-state relations as they did in the West.

The aura of Moscow as the Third Rome created a special relationship between the tsar and the metropolitan (later the patriarch when that position was established in Moscow). The Russian tsar was imbued in the minds of many with spiritual characteristics that were almost god-like. For its part, the church identified itself as an intensely national body. Together the tsar and the church created the sacred image of Holy Russia.

This image of Holy Russia was perpetuated for centuries; however, behind the scenes and often in public view, the state and the church struggled over power, influence, and control of territory and assets. Despite their differences, however, they were able to maintain a united front in order to propagate a state ideology of “orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationalism” that dominated the Imperial Court during the 19th century and provided a rationale for the autocratic state and the autocratic church.

1917 brought the iconoclastic Bolsheviks to power. They declared the separation of church and state, seized all church property, arrested, imprisoned, and murdered church leaders as well as parish priests and devout believers. The Soviet Union was declared to be an atheist state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church was not legally banned, it found itself for the first time in its existence to be without state backing and support.

During the seven decades of Soviet rule, the Russian Orthodox Church suffered significantly, but it managed to survive. Its relationship with the state was tenuous at best. During the Great Patriotic War (World War II), the state allowed the church to increase its activities because it represented traditional Russian institutions and Russia’s cultural heritage and could be used to rally the people behind the war effort.

Following the war, the relationship between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church again became strained. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that the church was liberated from communist oppression and was allowed to become an important institution and an influential factor in the life of Russian society and the Russian state.

Under Vladimir Putin, the close relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state has resumed. Each institution provides important support to the other. Putin and his government have passed numerous laws and regulations reestablishing church control over property that was confiscated by the Soviets. The Orthodox Church has once more become one of the wealthiest institutions in Russia.

The Russian parliament has passed legislation that promotes the more conservative values espoused by the Russian Orthodox Church. Laws that prohibit “gay propaganda,” restrict the activities of religions (mostly protestant religions and sects) that are not among the four recognized religions (Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism), and prohibit actions/language that are offensive to believers reflect the growing stature of the Orthodox Church in Russian society. In a manifestation of the resurgence of the influential role of the Russian Orthodox Church, the world was stunned by the official response to the Pussy Riot “concert” in Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012 that resulted in two-year prison sentences for two of the performers for “hooliganism inspired by religious hatred.”

Today, with the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church as a prominent force in Russian society and a willing partner supporting Vladimir Putin and his regime, the traditional relationship between church and state has been reestablished. But Putin, like many of his imperial predecessors, remains cautious as he manages that relationship. Putin’s support of the Russian Orthodox Church serves a useful purpose in garnering support among the Russian people—particularly among the more traditional rural believers. Putin is demonstratively present at church holidays and celebrations. Russian television focuses intensely on him standing by the altar in Christ the Savior Cathedral at Easter midnight mass and on him immersing himself in the frigid waters of a lake on the Feast of the Epiphany in January of each year.

This relationship also serves a useful purpose in Putin’s pursuit of certain foreign policy goals. His close association with the Russian Orthodox Church—the largest and most powerful of the eastern orthodox churches—enhances his relationship with other predominantly orthodox countries and provides him with additional leverage within those societies. Over the years (and in centuries past) we have seen evidence of these ties in Russia’s relations with such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and others. Currently, the split between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which I will discuss in a separate essay, has taken on major political implications, the impact of which could potentially be quite serious.


Ideology can be defined as a system of ideas that seeks to explain the world and change it to attain certain political, economic, and social goals. These goals may have geographical limitations, or they may have worldwide aspirations. The main purpose is to change society.

Totalitarian regimes usually rely on a specific ideology to justify their policies, actions, and goals. National Socialism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union are good examples. In those cases, ideology served as an umbrella under which myriad repressive techniques were used to maintain order and discipline in society.

Authoritarian regimes may or may not be based on ideological convictions. They may instead find their support through various other means: appeals to tradition, national heritage and legitimacy; bureaucratic-military cadres; patron-client relationships; personal loyalty; business-oligarchic patronage; pseudo-democratic institutions and processes; and repression (use of security forces and the military).

In the case of Putin and his post-Soviet regime, traditional ideology is not an active factor in their vision of Russia and the pursuit of their domestic and foreign policy goals. This does not mean, however, that Putin and his close advisors do not have a worldview that has been colored by the Soviet experience. Vladimir Putin and his contemporaries grew up in the Soviet Union. Their worldview was defined by their Soviet education, ideology, and way of life. Although they now live in a different world and the political and economic reality has significantly changed, Putin’s and his regime’s vision of the world and Russia’s enemies differs little from that of their early years. Little has changed to alter that vision. On the contrary, events over the past several decades have only reinforced Putin’s views and those of his regime, as well as of a significant percentage of the Russian population, that much of the outside world, and particularly the West, still has hostile designs on Russia, as it did during the Soviet period. Consequently, Putin’s view is that Russian foreign policy must be directed first and foremost toward countering those threats.

But is today’s Russia devoid of an ideology that seeks to explain the world and change it? Some would argue that there is an ideology and it is based on the ideas of a 20th century anti-communist Russian nationalist exile philosopher named Ivan Ilyin. His writings, which reflect his adherence to conspiracy theories and fascist leanings, have been quoted by Vladimir Putin and some of his propagandists, members of the Russian Orthodox Church, and even the leader of the Russian Communist Party who described Ilyin as someone who has “made a very significant contribution to the development of the Russian state ideology of patriotism.” Others, however, dismiss Ilyin as a fringe philosopher whose influence on Putin and his regime is not significant and should not be taken seriously.

Ilyin was a strong proponent of the view that traditional Russia was a unique historical entity and had a special mission to pursue in the world. He portrayed Russia as superior to the corrupt Western world and linked by a spiritual unity with the Euro-Asiatic nations. Ilyin further argued that the West was trying to weaken Russia with such ideas as “democracy” and “freedom” and that those concepts were alien to a country as large as Russia. The only way Russia could survive as a state with its ethnic and cultural diversity spread over an immense landmass was by maintaining strong centralized power under authoritarian leadership. Such a system, based on patriotism and a powerful leader, would protect Russia from anarchy and chaos.

Ilyin also argued in support of traditional Russian conservative values under the auspicious of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although he was not particularly religious, he spoke of a religious revival and saw the Russian Orthodox Church as closely connected with politics and the political leadership.

Aleksandr Dugin, a present-day anti-Western Russian philosopher, is also alleged to influence Putin’s worldview. He shares many of Ilyin’s ideas. He insists on the uniqueness of Russia and the need for a powerful, authoritarian state that is closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church and its traditional conservative values. He sees the West as Russia’s enemy and argues forcefully for Russia to expand its power in the world.

One can argue whether Ilyin or Dugin have influenced Putin and his regime. Regardless, one cannot deny that their writings have served as useful tools to reinforce government propaganda and justify certain policies of the Putin regime.

Russia has advanced significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Union—an event Putin described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. No longer does one ideology dominate society. Russians have access to the world’s philosophers, writers, political scientists, journalists, and other thought leaders and can formulate their views of the world. Ilyin and Dugin are just two of many whose views have earned certain notoriety in recent years. The advantage their views have is that they appear to correlate closely with the policies of the Putin regime. Although ideology can be a useful tool for Putin, and the views of Ilyin, Dugin, and other conservative thinkers appear to reinforce Putin’s policies, it is power and the manipulation of power that matter most for the Russian leader.

National Heritage: The “Other Russia”

This final section on internal and external factors that contribute to the survival of Putin and his regime examines how certain traditions and historical ways of life play a role in Russia and how it is ruled. This is a very rich subject and one that will appear often in other essays on Russian national interests and how they are pursued.

For centuries, Russians have been deeply divided between those who represent traditional Russian values and those who identify themselves as modernizers and pro-European. In the 19th century, this division was argued philosophically and politically between those who were called Slavophiles and those who were labeled Westernizers. The essence of this debate is fundamental to understanding Russia, and it continues to this very day.

From the political perspective, a pendulum has been swinging back and forth over the centuries between two Russias, with the traditionalists (Slavophiles) embodying the essence of authoritarianism, and the modernizers (Westernizers) seeking to align Russia more closely with Europe and the outside world.

For those in the West, it is easier to understand and relate to Russia’s modernizers who are more individualistic, optimistic, and open to change and innovation. Those who have engaged with Russian modernizers have usually felt comfortable in that engagement, although they recognize certain differences in conduct and thinking that can be confusing and perplexing. Nevertheless, they are often able to work together and achieve mutually desired results.

The “other Russia,” which some describe as embodying the “Russian soul,” is more alien to the Western mind, and even for some Russian modernizers who see it as backward and even bordering on barbarian. The “other Russia” is represented by traditionalists who personify centuries of harsh life and claim to represent the essence of the “real” Russia and true Russian values. It is this Russia—the “other Russia”—that I will explore in the final section of this essay.

The “other Russia” is the Russia of the village: the village that is surrounded by an inhospitable forest or an endless steppe; the village that is isolated and accessible only by a dirt (very often, mud) road; the village that suffers through the extremes of a long, frigid winter and a hot, insect-infested summer; the village that is dying off as young people flee to the cities, leaving the old people there to die; the village with no expectation that life will ever get better; the village with no future; the village of despair and sorrow.

This is the “other Russia” that has existed for centuries and still exists today. But despite the harsh, depressing conditions, people have managed to survive. In so doing, they have found ways to cope and to interact with others that have allowed them to persevere under very difficult conditions.

How Russians relate to nature is one way that has helped to define their character and their relations with each other. Isolated as many of them were in early days in small peasant communities that were called a mir (defined as “world” or “universe”), and threatened by the vagaries of nature—harsh weather, disease, wild animals from the forest—or by enemy attacks, the huddled masses of the mir had to rely on each other for protection and survival. This created a strong sense of community and a collective mentality. Individualism was not a part of the Russian psyche. Individual interests had to be sacrificed to ensure the safety of the community.

A prominent feature of the Russian way of life has been the supremacy of the interests of the community over personal interests. This feature is deeply rooted in peasant culture and was exploited by the Communists through the collectivization of agriculture and the organization of the workforce into collectives. Even to this day, the term kollektiv (collective) is used by Russians to define a group of people united for a common purpose, such as in an office or another work or leisure environment.

The collective nature of Russian society has had positive benefits in achieving certain results, but it has also had negative consequences. It has retarded individual initiative and impeded innovation.

When Mikhail Gorbachev took the first steps to loosen the economic reigns in the dying days of the Soviet Union and allowed small groups of individuals (frequently just two or three people) to establish private businesses—referred to as “cooperatives”—small cafes, restaurants, and shops sprang up in cities throughout the Soviet Union. What often happened, however, particularly in the early days of this experiment, was that Russians, often neighbors of these “cooperatives,” would sabotage them and even burn them down in resentment over the success of others.

There was a Russian anecdote popular at the time that best describes this attitude: God, who had been observing farmer John in Iowa for some time, spoke to him one day and said: “John, I have been watching you and would like to reward you for your hard work. What would you like?” John replied: “God, my neighbor has a cow, but I don’t have a cow. I would like to have a cow.” God said: “John, I will give you a cow.” God had also been watching peasant Ivan and was pleased with his work on the collective farm. God said to Ivan: “Ivan, you have been doing a good job on the collective farm. I would like to reward you. What would you like?” Ivan quickly responded: “God, my neighbor has a cow. I do not have a cow. I want you to kill my neighbor’s cow.”

Resentment of the success of others as a feature in Russian life still exists, but it has been moderated in recent years, especially in urban areas, as a result of the changes that have taken place since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Other features of Russian culture that have evolved over the centuries due to the harsh conditions of life have been a sense of patience, risk avoidance, sacrifice, and suffering in the expectation that such behavior would lead to stability, security, and predictability in people’s lives. Russians tend to be conservative, pessimistic, fatalistic, and try to avoid change and uncertainty. Change, when it has come, has generally been imposed from above rather than initiated from below.

Russians commonly exhibit a deep distrust of the authorities. They have little respect for laws and rules and seek ways to work around them. They try to remain as detached as they can from the authorities and generally prefer to accept the existing reality rather than seek to change it. Such views and behaviors contribute to supporting the status quo and the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

With the industrialization of Russia and mass migration to the cities, the “other Russia” expanded to urban areas. The “other Russia” can be found in the dilapidated towns and cities that once drove the Soviet industrial machine but are now rusting away. The “other Russia” can be found in the remnants of communal living (communal apartments and workers’ dormitories) and the mammoth apartment complexes on the outskirts of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities.

The Russian media also perpetuates elements of the “other Russia” when it seeks to serve the traditional interests and values promoted by the Russian state. But such propaganda is increasingly running into conflict with the reality of the outside world as more and more people, particularly the younger generation, get their information largely from the internet.

The changes brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union have been dramatic and have affected people’s lives in ways outsiders have difficulty understanding. A new reality and a new national identity have been thrust upon the culture of the past, creating confusion, distrust, and a sense of loss of the “other Russia” for many as a new way of life emerges. The relationship between the dominant role post-Soviet changes now play in the Russian political and cultural fabric versus the traditional, steadfast influence of the “other Russia” will be important as the country approaches 2024 when critical decisions about Putin, his regime, and Russia itself need to be made.

Washington, DC | November 2018

Chapter 4

Survival of the Russian State: Protecting It from Foreign and Domestic Threats, Part I

In the first essay in this series on “The Roots of Russian Conduct,” I examined Putin and regime survival as Russia’s most important national interest. It is debatable how important that is for the general population, but it is indisputably priority number one for those in power. Survival of the Russian state, however, is without question a priority national interest shared by virtually the entire Russian population. In this essay, I will examine how Russians assess the complex issues of survival of Russia and the policies the leadership pursues to protect Russia from foreign and domestic threats.

Defining the Russian State

In addressing this critical national interest, the first task is to define the Russian state. The obvious definition is that Russia is the geographical entity that was declared an independent state when the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of 1991. But the answer is more complicated than that.

The Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union were multi-ethnic states that included vast non-Russian regions that had been conquered and colonized by the Russian ethnic majority. When the Soviet Union collapsed, large numbers of ethnic Russians found themselves in newly independent countries. Many of these new countries were independent for the first time and had no experience with self-government. They had to deal with the potentially explosive problem that many of their inhabitants did not identify with their new country and either tacitly or openly expressed a closer affinity to Moscow. Although a significant number of Russians migrated back to their ethnic homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union, many others remained in what Moscow calls “the near abroad.” This ethnic displacement caused significant turmoil in these newly independent countries and became a major foreign policy challenge for Moscow. It also raised the question of whether the Russian state, as determined in 1991, would forever be limited to the borders established at that time or was destined to reclaim some or all of what it considered its legitimate historical territory. Events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, as well as previous aggressive moves by Moscow, indicate that Russia has not yet fully accepted the geographical boundaries set in 1991. Thus, the issue of how Moscow will proceed to defend its interests to secure the survival of the Russian state is much more complex and challenging for Russia’s leaders than it initially appeared.

The Soviet Union was not the first contiguous empire to break apart into separate independent states; it was just the most recent. Two great empires that were contemporaries of the Russian Empire—the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman—ended violently with their defeat a century ago at the end of World War I. They left legacies that still resonate today. The turmoil that continues in the Middle East owes its origins in large part to the way the Ottoman Empire was arbitrarily divided into new states by the victorious European powers. The ethnic and national problems in the western Balkans can also be partially attributed to the heritage of the Ottoman Empire. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire also had negative consequences for parts of its former territory. But 100 years have passed and most of the problems that arose after 1918 have been satisfactorily resolved or reasonably managed. Ethnic rivalries still exist, but they are less likely to flare up. Thus, it is not surprising that the breakup of the Soviet Union, which occurred only 30 years ago and not as a result of a defeat in war, would be rife with ethnic and national challenges that will take more time to resolve, or at least peacefully manage.

Besides Russia’s historical heritage, there are important conceptual and linguistic concepts that contribute to defining the nature of the Russian state. There are two words in Russian to express the concept of the state—gosudarstvo—which is the more concrete term and is translated as “government,” “state,” or “nation.” The other word—gosudarstvennost’—is more abstract in its meaning. It is usually translated in one of two ways: “governance” (governmental organization) or “statehood” (the quality of being a state). Because of the ambiguity of the latter term, its use in official documents or speeches can be misinterpreted or can be used to purposely create confusion or doubt as to the actual intent of certain official pronouncements or policies. Such a case arose several years ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin, in referring to the Ukrainian region of Donbas, used the word gosudarstvennost’. Many interpreted it as referring to “statehood” for the region, when, in fact, according to Putin’s spokesman, the Russian president was only referring to its “governance.” This controversy raised quite a political storm and was seen by many as Russia preparing to change the status of Donbas.

In addition to two words for “state,” there are also two names for the Russian state: Russia and the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation is the official name of the country. It is so named as a federation because the country consists of 85 territorial divisions that have varying degrees of autonomy and governmental functions separate from those of the center. The name Russia is recognized as equal to the Russian Federation according to the Russian Constitution, but it is often used to refer to that part of the Russian Federation that is occupied by ethnic Russians, as opposed to such areas as Chechnya or Tatarstan where other ethnic groups predominate. It is also used to refer to the former Russian Empire. In general, however, these two names can be used interchangeably.

Finally, in addition to the two names for the country, there are two words for Russians. The word russkii is used to refer to a person of Russian ethnicity. The word rossiyanin refers to a citizen of the Russian Federation regardless of ethnicity. So anyone called russkii can also be called rossiyanin but not necessarily the reverse.

Given the ebb and flow over the centuries of peoples, borders, and the nature of the state itself, it is inevitable that defending the Russian state, however it may be defined, from foreign and domestic threats is a complex challenge that embraces not just military might, but also political prowess, economic strength, and social and cultural/linguistic soft power. This is clearly stated in law. Article 1 of the Federal Law of May 31, 1996, “About Defense” (revised on February 3, 2014), defines defense as “the system of political, economic, military, social, legal, and other measures to prepare for armed defense and the armed defense of the Russian Federation, the integrity and inviolability of its territory.”

In the first essay in this series, I defined the nature of the Russian state, as it exists within its current legally defined borders (Crimea not included), as authoritarian that survives through the acceptance of the status quo by three elements—the leader, the power elite, and the masses. The assertion that Russia is an authoritarian state comes not just from Western observers. It is accepted by Russians themselves. Sergey Karaganov, one of Russia’s leading defense experts, concludes that “Russia is genetically an authoritarian power.” He adds, “Russia’s authoritarianism was not imposed from above but is the result of our history which has formed our genetic code.”

I will use the more concrete definition of the state (gosudarstvo) in this essay to examine concepts and policies that the Russian state pursues to ensure its survival. In a later essay, I will explore the more ambiguous concept of statehood (gosudarstvennost’) because it can be conceived as a national idea or a means of self-identification in looking at the broader concept of the nature of the Russian state. I will include the potential impact on countries with significant Russian populations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, other East Slavic peoples who are closely identified with their Russian “brothers,” such as Belarusians and Ukrainians, and the broader Russian diaspora that is often referred to as the “Russian World” (Russkii mir). It is Russia’s relationship with these groups that poses challenges and contributes to instability in the region.

Defense of the Homeland

It is often said that Russia feels secure only if its neighbors feel insecure. This is a reflection of Russia’s historical sense of vulnerability, weakness, backwardness, and inferiority. Russia has traditionally compensated for its insecurities by building a strong offensive and defensive military capability matched by an equally offensive and defensive foreign policy. Domestically, it has created a strong authoritarian regime that rules over a subservient society subjected to state-controlled propaganda that portrays Russia as surrounded by enemies and vulnerable to domestic discord and instability resulting from anyone who dissents from official state ideology and policies.

For centuries, the outsized role of “the enemy” and a siege mentality have been essential to Russia’s determination to defend itself and ensure its survival. They serve as a source of legitimacy for the regime by rallying the public against both possible external threats and any internal dissent that could weaken tight central control. Convinced that the United States is pursuing regime change in Russia, the Kremlin pursues an active propaganda campaign through state media to convince the population that Russia is under siege. Moscow fears that the penetration of Western ideas, mores, and values will weaken Russia and warns that they are hostile to Russia’s interests. The regime also uses siege mentality as an excuse to deflect from its shortcomings and its failure to improve living conditions and prosperity for the general population.

This strategy has also been used quite successfully by Putin and his regime—as it was during the Soviet period and even earlier—to instill a sense of pride among the populace in Russia’s achievements and its sacrifices. The best illustration of this tactic is the way the Kremlin manipulates for its own purposes the horrible losses and sacrifices of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their participation in World War II.

The Great Patriotic War was a catastrophe for the Soviet people. More than 26 million people perished, and the losses affected almost every family. It left an indelible mark on the entire population. For decades, the Soviet leadership made a concerted effort to keep the memory of the Great Patriotic War alive to bolster patriotism and loyalty to the Soviet Union. Military parades and associated events were held every May 9 to mark the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. In the early post-Soviet years, the nature of the parades changed. While still honoring the heroism of the Soviet people, the display of military equipment became less prominent, and in some years, no military equipment appeared at all. Under Putin, however, military hardware was reintroduced, and the parades reached a size that surpassed any of the largest parades during Soviet times.

With the rise of social media and a much more sophisticated propaganda network, Putin’s regime has been successful in maintaining a high level of patriotism by playing on the emotions of a nation that was traumatized and decimated by a war that ended more than 75 years ago. As new generations replace those of their parents and grandparents, the effort to sustain the memory of the past and to use it to continue to identify the regime as the guarantor of peace and security of the Russian people becomes increasingly challenging. Consequently, the Putin regime has increased its efforts and dedicated more and more resources to ensure that it keeps the memory of past sacrifices and victories alive in the hearts and minds of every Russian citizen. Recently, a new television channel called “Victory” was launched that exclusively shows films and programs about the “Great Patriotic War.”

The Kremlin’s efforts seem to be successful. Although young people are much more connected to the outside world and surveys indicate that the siege mentality concept is gradually losing its appeal with them, many members of the younger generation appear to be as patriotic as their parents. They share the conviction that Russia must remain strong and resolute if it is to be respected in the world and recognized as a great power.

A fundamental element of Russian, as well as Soviet and Tsarist, strategy has been to expand Russia’s borders as far from the center as possible until Russian forces reach natural barriers or run into countervailing forces. This has resulted in the creation of the largest country in the world but also one that contains numerous non-Russians who potentially represent a destabilizing factor. We saw what happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart into 15 independent states. The threat of further disintegration still exists, resulting possibly in a smaller, post-Soviet Russian state. The Kremlin is acutely aware of this potential threat and is ready to respond with force, if necessary, to any effort to weaken central control and the Russian state.

Russia’s expansionist policies over the centuries have included efforts to create a buffer zone along its borders to enhance its pursuit of strategic depth. The most recent successful attempt was the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the creation of a military alliance in the form of the Warsaw Pact. The “Iron Curtain,” which separated the Soviet-dominated part of Eastern Europe from Western Europe, helped to maintain a relatively stable, though hostile, environment based on a delicate balance of military forces. Although the “Iron Curtain” provided a relative degree of security for the Soviet Union, it did not eliminate undertones of discontent in many of the countries that were dominated by the Soviet Union. Eventually, Soviet domination began to unravel. Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia broke away from Soviet control as early as 1948. Uprisings in Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s showed that the Soviet Union’s hold over Eastern Europe was tenuous at best and survived only because of the Soviet military presence. With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his efforts to reform the decaying Soviet system, political reins on Eastern Europe were eased. Aspirations in Eastern Europe for freedom and independence from Soviet domination intensified and were graphically manifested in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. For the Soviet Union and Russia as the successor state, a sense of vulnerability returned to threaten the stability, and potentially the survivability, of the Russian state.

In the initial years of the new, independent Russia there was little Moscow could do to ameliorate this sense of vulnerability because it had been drastically weakened militarily, politically, and economically. The new regime headed by Boris Yeltsin was incapable of resisting steps taken by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to consolidate their influence over the former Soviet satellite states and even a portion of the former Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Moscow could only protest as its former client states become members of NATO and the United States emerged as the only global superpower.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has regained much of its lost power as it has taken steps to restore what it views as its rightful place as a dominant world power. This means, inter alia, addressing its perceived vulnerability and threats to its survival from abroad.

At the same time, as Russia attempts to reassert its sway over what it considers to be its legitimate sphere of influence that is essential to ensure its security, it contributes to instability in the region. As Russia pushes forward, its neighbors resist, and each vies for supremacy even as its sense of vulnerability increases as it perceives a growing threat from the other. Amid this psychological push and pull, a delicate balance of forces must be maintained to avoid an outbreak of hostilities.

By joining NATO, the former members of the Warsaw Pact have sought the protection of the alliance to strengthen their position vis-à-vis Russia. Russia has seen this as provocative and threatening to its own stability and survival but has reluctantly accepted this new reality.

However, Russia has drawn a red line as far as former Soviet republics are concerned (the Baltic States being the exception). Any encroachment—political or military—into the former republics’ territories is considered a direct threat to Russia. We have seen how this played out in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014. Russia pushed back vigorously against what it believes to be (1) dangerous steps to change regimes considered friendly, or at least non-threatening, to Russia, and (2) further inroads by the United States into Russia’s sphere of influence as part of Washington’s ultimate goal of regime change in Russia.

Emperor Alexander III—the father of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II—used to say that Russia has only two allies—the army and the navy. This statement has been repeated by Russian leaders over the centuries and is even cited today by some Russian pundits. It reflects the preeminence of the siege mentality and the realization that Russia has few real allies. Those it has are fleeting at best and are mandated by situations that pose existential threats to Russia. Joseph Stalin’s alliance with the Allied forces during World War II is such an example. In less extreme circumstances, the Kremlin is convinced that it alone can guarantee its defense and survival.

In a future essay I will address in detail the current state of relations between Russia and its neighbors, including efforts by the Kremlin to influence other countries, exacerbate their weaknesses, support opposition forces more favorably disposed toward the Kremlin, and take other measures to weaken neighboring states and thereby reduce the perceived threat to Russia.

Addressing External Threats

The bulwark of Russia’s defense against external enemies has been its armed forces. Under the Soviet regime, the armed forces were a formidable rival to the United States and NATO. Their overwhelming superiority in the number of conventional forces and the might of their nuclear arsenal became the cornerstone of East-West relations throughout the Cold War. In support of the Soviet Armed Forces was an enormous military-industrial complex, a highly skilled cohort of scientists and defense experts, a nationwide civil defense program, and a militarized civil society that focused on installing young boys and girls with ideological and practical training in military affairs. All of this came at a very high cost—a cost that over the years the Soviet system could not sustain. In the end, this huge economic burden contributed significantly to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, Russia went into an economic tailspin that affected all sectors of society, including the military. Deprived of significant investment and shattered by the loss of personnel and equipment that were now spread over 15 independent countries, the new Russian Armed Forces became a mere shadow of its Soviet predecessor. It took more than a decade for Russia to begin the process of restoring the armed forces to a position worthy of a global power. Investment was significantly increased, reforms were undertaken to modernize the command structure and personnel throughout all ranks, and new weapon systems were developed and deployed. The practice of hybrid warfare and a more prominent role for the armed forces’ intelligence organization (GRU) brought new prominence to the Russian military. Russian society could once again claim pride in the military as the defender of the homeland.

Parallel with the buildup of the armed forces, the Kremlin has reintroduced historical patriotic symbols, traditions, institutions, and practices to rally the population around Russia’s foreign and defense policies and to strengthen support for the powerful state. There has even been a resurgence of the militarization of certain aspects of Russian society, particularly the expansion of military training among Russia’s youth.

Addressing Internal Threats

Internally, the Kremlin relies increasingly on its security forces to defend against, and weed out, elements of Russian society that threaten the stability and survival of the Russian state. The flagship of Russia’s security service is the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is a direct descendent of the notorious Soviet KGB. Its mandate is counterintelligence, internal and border security, counterterrorism, surveillance, and fighting against organized crime and drug smuggling. Its headquarters is on Lubyanka Square in Moscow in the previous KGB building complex, which also houses the infamous Lubyanka prison. Since Putin (a former KGB officer and later a director of the FSB) became president, a Russian Orthodox church has even been built among the FSB buildings to serve the “spiritual needs” of Russia’s secret police.

The FSB is just one of several security organizations operating in support of the Russian state. The Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) focuses on foreign intelligence, much like the CIA does in the United States. The Main Directorate of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GU, but still commonly called by its previous name—the Main Intelligence Directorate, GRU) is reported to be the largest of Russia’s foreign intelligence organizations with covert agents spread around the world. Most recently it figured prominently in the news over the bungled poisoning attempt of former GRU agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. The Federal Protective Service (FSO) is charged with protecting the president of the Russian Federation, several other high-ranking officials and certain federal properties. Finally, there is the National Guard of the Russian Federation. This organization, which was recently established, is directly subordinate to the President of the Russian Federation (the Commander-in-Chief) and combines both security and military functions within its mission. It has often been referred to as Putin’s private army.

These security organizations and their networks of agents throughout Russia and abroad serve as vital state institutions working to protect the regime and ensure the survival of the Russian state. They follow in the footsteps of their odious predecessors who trace their history back to Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Although the current state security agencies do not have the same grisly reputation as the Soviet KGB and the Okhrana of the Russian Empire, they remain a powerful and highly effective force within Russia and in Russian operations abroad.

Is Russia’s Future in Peril?

The greatest fear among the Russian leaders as well as the population is disintegration of the Russian Federation. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and all the hardships it brought is not a distant memory for large segments of the population. If the Russian Federation were to fracture into an unknown number of separate states, the fear is that it would not be as peaceful as the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We saw what happened with Chechnya when it sought independence in the 1990s. There is little doubt if another region were to follow a similar path that Putin would resort to military force to prevent succession.

Much more likely than a political declaration of independence is the economic deterioration/disintegration of some of Russia’s poorest regions and the gradual replacement of Moscow’s control by an outside power, most likely China. This might be possible for sections of Siberia and Russia’s Far East that are already experiencing growing economic hardships and are increasingly relying on investment and assistance from China, including a mounting influx of Chinese companies and workers. Over time, China could take economic control over certain parts of Russia which could eventually lead to de facto and maybe even de jure loss of control by Moscow. If this were to happen, it would mean the further shrinking of the Russian Federation politically and economically. Of gravest concern to the world would be the fate of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. If Moscow were to lose control of some of these weapons, the outside world might need to step in to prevent a possible catastrophe, as the United States and others did after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister, and perhaps the most prominent and influential Russian economist, has been warning for years that if the Putin regime does not change course and devote more resources to the economic and social needs of the country, Russia, like the USSR before it, could disintegrate. As Putin appears to be more tightly squeezed than ever in his ability to manipulate his policy options and maneuver his resources, the prospects for implementing the changes Kudrin speaks about do not look good. Economic and social pressures are increasingly affecting Russian society in a negative way, the economy is stagnating, the people are feeling more detached from the authorities, and the prospects for a better life seem more remote. These domestic imperatives are realistically much more of a threat to the survival of the Russian state than is possible aggression by an external enemy, although you would never know it by listening to Russia’s leaders and state media.

How long the siege mentality and the threat of the “external enemy” can be perpetuated with the expectation that they will cover up for the regime’s weaknesses and failures to provide for the needs of the people will be increasingly tested in the months and years to come. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the survival of the Russian state, as it is currently constituted, could be in peril if Russia’s leaders and the Russian people fail to take appropriate measures to address the negative trends that could weaken the unity of the Russian state.

Washington, DC | February 2019

Chapter 5

Survival of the Russian State: Protecting It from Foreign and Domestic Threats, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I examined how Russians assess the complex issues that help to ensure the survival of the Russian state and the policies the leadership pursues to protect Russia from foreign and domestic threats.

In the second part of this essay, I dig deeper into the underlying internal and external factors that influence efforts to protect Russia from those threats. In some cases, those factors serve as guardrails that provide a natural channel for policy by keeping it within certain bounds. In other cases, they can either restrict or broaden policy options for the Russian leaders.

Russia, I posit, is and has always been a relatively weak state. Unbalanced in its development, Russia has managed to survive through a combination of factors, including sacrifices—often enormous and devastating—by the Russian people who in general share a sense of fatalism and indifference; the cunning deception of government leaders, despite episodic ineptitude; a large reserve of resources, both natural and human; and weakness, lack of vigilance, and vulnerability on the part of Russia’s adversaries, both domestic and foreign. Russians believe that they are a superior civilization. Despite their economic and technological backwardness, Russians are convinced they are unique and exceptional—a reality, in their view, that the West has long failed to recognize.

Outsiders often are baffled by Russia’s ability to survive after having experienced traumatic shocks that would likely devastate more economically and socially developed countries and might shake to the core the very foundations of their state structures. In the introduction to this essay series I quoted Winston Churchill who said in 1939 that “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” More than 80 years later that statement is still relevant. Despite the immense trauma it has experienced over the centuries, Russia, albeit with altered borders and a transformed political system, has survived.

The factors I am about to discuss have contributed significantly to Russia’s ability to survive and have helped to maintain an equilibrium in Russian society that is fundamental to its survival.


In the first essay in this series, I examined how Russia’s place on the map exposes it to external threats but also offers Russia opportunities to expand its frontiers until it either reaches natural barriers or confronts the countervailing forces of its neighbors. Geography also contributes to how Russia defends itself from its adversaries.

Russia is essentially a landlocked country. Although it does border on seas in the northwest, southwest, and east (the Arctic Ocean in the north is frozen much of the year and offers limited access to the world’s maritime network, although global warming is changing that), much of the access to those seas is controlled by foreign powers. This means that choke points in the hands of other countries could block Russian ships in the event of elevated tensions or hostilities.

One of the first measures Peter the Great took when he founded St. Petersburg and “opened a window to the West” at the beginning of the 18th century was to start building a Russian Navy to gain access to the world’s seas. Catherine the Great and her successors pursued Peter’s dream by sending Russia’s military forces south in search of a warm water port on the Black Sea. In so doing, Russia engaged the Ottoman Empire in frequent conflicts until it succeeded in conquering the territory bordering on the northern and eastern shores of this important body of water.

Despite its territorial conquests, Russia was hindered for centuries in its ability to develop a maritime capability that rivaled that of other world powers due to a combination of geographical restrictions and domestic constraints. This maritime weakness exacerbated Russia’s vulnerability and prompted leaders to compensate through other military means.

Although geography complicated Russia’s efforts to become a global sea power and secure a strong maritime defensive perimeter, its position on the eastern half of the European Plain with few natural barriers facilitated its expansion across the broad terrain that extends beyond the Ural Mountains (the dividing line between Europe and Asia) through sparsely inhabited Siberia to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. This expansion was followed by Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus region in the first half of the 19th century and of Central Asia in the latter half of that century. In many instances, expansion into these territories was motivated by explorers, merchants, and trading companies in pursuit of their economic interests. They were followed by Russian military forces and the establishment of political administrations subordinate to the government in St. Petersburg.

Russia’s location on a vast plain made it vulnerable to invading forces from both the east—most consequentially by the Mongol Tatars in the 13th to the 15th centuries—and the west by the Poles, Swedes, French, and twice by the Germans. Those frequent invasions greatly enhanced Russia’s sense of insecurity and played a major role in how Russia’s leaders approached the challenges of ensuring the survival of the Russian state.

At the same time, Russia’s vast expanse also worked in its favor by allowing Russian forces, as well as critical elements of its industrial base, to retreat into the heartland (during World War II the Soviets moved key industrial enterprises east of the Urals), thereby creating the strategic depth needed to outwait their enemies and eventually force their retreat or defeat them in battle. The wars that Russia fought over the centuries helped shape the nation, and geography and climate played a key role in how those wars were fought and ended.

Russia has historically employed massive ground forces and an extensive intelligence network to provide for the defense of the homeland and to undertake offensive operations against its weaker neighbors to secure and control a buffer zone, particularly along Russia’s western border that is home to much of the country’s population, agriculture, and industry. The extensive use of force has traditionally compensated for Russia’s economic and technological weakness and has played a major role—though often at a terrible human price—in defending Russia against invading forces, including those led by Napoleon and Hitler.

Geography also has played a key role in several traumatic shocks that Russia experienced over the centuries—most recently the loss of large parts of its territory at the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The geopolitical imperative for Russia has been to recover from the damage done by the loss of buffer zones on its western frontier and strategic depth for the homeland, which are vital components of Russia’s traditional defensive posture. That imperative has been a driving force behind Soviet and Russian foreign and defense policies. It remains so today as Putin’s regime assesses and reacts to current challenges it perceives from Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States.

Historical and Contemporary Challenges

Writing recently in Nezavisimaya Gazeta about the future of Putin’s state, one of Putin’s ideological advisors at the time, Vladislav Surkov, argued that “the great internal tension caused by the need to control huge, heterogeneous geographic areas, and by the constant participation in the thick of geopolitical struggle make the military and policing functions of the government the most important and decisive.” This tension is not unique to Putin’s Russia; it has been a challenge that has plagued Russia for centuries.

Domestically, as I noted in a previous essay, the history of Russia has been marked by a struggle between the centrifugal forces attempting to pull the country apart and the centripetal forces that seek to maintain tight, central control over the country. This struggle is exacerbated by Russia’s geographical challenges.

Concerning its defense posture, Russia has struggled for centuries how to balance the allocation of resources to build up and maintain the armed forces and defense industries with the need to develop the civilian economy and improve the standard of living of the population. With rare exception, the former has been the dominant priority, while the latter is left with the remaining budgetary scraps. The reason for this is quite clear. The devastating impact of military conflicts, and most importantly of World War II, on the Russian state and the Russian psyche has been the fear of weakness and the overwhelming conviction that Russia must never again be defeated. This fear has been amplified over time by the strong belief that the West, and most importantly the United States, is pursuing a policy aimed at destabilizing Russia, with the ultimate goal being regime change. Consequently, the driving force behind Russian policy for centuries has been the defense of the Russian state above all else, and that remains the case for Vladimir Putin’s Russia today.

In examining Russia’s contemporary challenges, it is most useful to compare how the Soviet Union provided for the defense of the homeland in contrast with how Russia has addressed this challenge in the post-Soviet period.

Soviet Defense of the Homeland

The Soviet Union’s staggering military power was the leading indicator of its strength and the justification for its status as a superpower. From a ragtag band of partisans and poorly trained and equipped recruits, the Red Army emerged from the battle over the remnants of the tsarist army and other opposition forces to claim victory and to form the basis for what was to become a formidable fighting force that defended the Soviet homeland and served as the key vehicle by which the Soviet Union projected power throughout Eastern Europe and around the globe.

However, the path to emerging as the world’s most powerful military force after the United States was a costly one. It required the massive transformation of a country that was overwhelmingly a peasant society with only a nascent industrial base, and it required the induction of a large number of young men, mostly from rural regions with minimal education and skills, into what would become a massive army that drained the country’s resources but was justified by the perception of an international threat to the very existence of the Soviet Union.

The sacrifices made by the Soviet people were enormous. The transformation of Imperial Russia into the Soviet Union demanded a total restructuring of the economic, political, military, and social structures. In the years leading up to World War II, Joseph Stalin forced intensive industrialization upon the country’s largely peasant society to build a base for the modernization of the Red Army. Fearing, however, that a strong military could become a rival to the political leadership, Stalin took steps to ensure political loyalty and subservience of the Red Army to the Communist Party. Political commissars were attached to every military unit to instill the party line and monitor and report on the political reliability of the officer corps and the troops. The secret police also penetrated the armed forces and controlled special counterintelligence units that existed in all major military units.

Despite these efforts to control the military, Stalin remained suspicious of his military leadership. In 1937, on the eve of World War II, he ordered the arrest and execution of thousands of senior military officers. This purge of the Red Army’s most experienced and capable leaders severely impaired the Red Army’s capabilities in the initial years of World War II, or as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War.

The Great Patriotic War was the most momentous event in the defense of the Soviet Union and Soviet history. The losses were astounding. More than 26 million Soviet citizens—military and civilian—perished. The weaknesses of the Red Army following Stalin’s purge encouraged Hitler to launch a large-scale invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and to press his offensive deep into the Soviet heartland. Although Hitler’s forces were unable to occupy Moscow and Leningrad, they exacted a devastating toll. Leningrad remained under siege for more than 800 days, resulting in approximately 800,000 civilian casualties.

Hitler’s advance was finally stopped at the infamous Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and resulted in an estimated two million killed, wounded, or captured. It was the largest battle of World War II and marked the turning point in the war. Like Napoleon in the early 19th century, the invading forces suffered from overextended logistical lines, the severity of the Russian winter, and the tenacity of the defending forces. To this day, the Battle of Stalingrad is revered as the most dramatic example of the heroism of the Soviet people. A visit to the enormous monument erected on a hill overlooking Volgograd (the current name of Stalingrad) to commemorate the victory of the Soviet people is an exceptionally moving experience.

In the years following the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Armed Forces recovered from the devastating losses they incurred in battle. Under Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership, the Soviet Union invested heavily in the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. Party-military relations improved, and the military leadership was elevated to more prominence than under Stalin. Nevertheless, the Communist Party remained wary of the military and took measures to limit its role in decision making. Although the armed forces received significantly more resources during the decades following the Great Patriotic War, budgetary issues remained a frequent cause of strain in party-military relations. This tension was particularly evident during the early 1980s when the economy experienced a downturn and in the final years of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership. Gorbachev cut the military budget to invest more heavily in the civilian sectors of the economy. He also engaged the United States in arms control negotiation to reduce the military threat and strains on the Soviet economy.

By this time, the Soviet Union had amassed more conventional forces and nuclear weapons than any other power in the world, even the United States, and could project power beyond its borders, not just to Eastern Europe, but also to parts of the developing world. The Soviet Armed Forces were formidable and were the principal prop of the Soviet regime, no matter how much the Communist Party leadership sought to portray itself as the crux of Soviet power. The Soviet Armed Forces and the military-industrial complex, however, were also the Achilles heel of the Soviet system because of the huge drain they put on the country’s economy at a time when other factors, including political and social tensions, were threatening the very system they vowed to protect. In the end, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Soviet Armed Forces were unable to prevent its demise.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and Rebuilding the Defense of the Homeland

The breakup of the Soviet Union had a devastating effect on Russia’s defense capabilities. Not only did Russia lose huge swaths of territory and suffer devastating cuts to its defense budget, but it also lost a notable portion of its military cohorts and equipment, including nuclear weapons, and a significant share of its defense industry that was now located in newly independent countries. Nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were returned to Russia where they were dismantled and destroyed with assistance from the United States and the Nunn-Lugar program. Other assets were lost for good.

Russia thus became much more vulnerable to outside threats. Its traditional buffer zone in the west was gone, and former members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO. Ukraine and Georgia, which had been integral parts of the former Soviet Union, drew closer to NATO and aspired to become members.

The breakup of the Soviet Union also resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from their foreign deployments in Eastern Europe and socialist-friendly countries in the developing world, including Cuba, Vietnam, and Angola.

The 1990s were traumatic years of transition from the old Soviet system to something new. The future of the country was unknown. The economy and the political system were in chaos. Crime was rampant, and poverty overtook the country. The armed forces suffered a similar fate. Budgets were drastically cut, and manpower losses were extensive. The heroic Soviet Armed Forces were no more. What remained under Russian control was a mere shadow of a gallant past.

Vladimir Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The repercussions of that collapse reverberated across domestic, foreign, and security spheres of post-Soviet Russia. Ever since then it has been Putin’s highest priority to reestablish Russia as a superpower that parallels the influence and prestige of the former Soviet Union. Rebuilding the Russian Armed Forces into a modern, formidable fighting force has been one of his most urgent tasks.

Putin reversed the drastic cuts to the budget of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex and approved a major reform and modernization of the military. Sweeping changes were made to personnel policy, and a robust program was undertaken to upgrade Russia’s extensive nuclear forces and develop long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons systems. Russian military doctrine, strategy, and operational art underwent a makeover in response to important lessons the Ministry of Defense learned from the weaknesses revealed during the two Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s and Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008. The use of “little green men” in Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the expansion of other elements of hybrid warfare, including cyber warfare and the enhanced use of Russian military intelligence assets, reinforced the role of the Russian Armed Forces as a vital element in defending the Russian state and enhancing Russia’s great power aspirations. The projection of Russian military power abroad in places like Syria has further strengthened those aspirations.

Russia also has added paramilitary forces to its force projection capabilities. The Wagner Group is known as a Russian private military company whose contractors have taken part in conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine, but some believe that the Wagner Group is a unit of the Ministry of Defense. Currently, the Wagner Group is reportedly supporting government militias in the Central African Republic (CAR). Two years ago three Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of the Wagner Group in the CAR were ambushed and killed there. Two other Russian journalists who were looking into the Wagner Group suffered serious consequences for their work. One mysteriously fell to his death from a balcony in Yekaterinburg; the other was forced to go into hiding following threats to his life. There are rumors that the Wagner Group has already sent some of its mercenaries to Libya. Regardless of whether the Wagner Group is a private military organization or a unit of the Ministry of Defense, its role in conflicts is useful to the Kremlin when deniability is crucial.

Today, the Russian state remains strong militarily, despite deteriorating economic conditions and an increasingly problematic political future as Putin serves his fourth and perhaps final term as president. The likelihood of an external military threat is minimal. The Russian Armed Forces today have been transformed from the cumbersome, mass forces of the Soviet years into a smaller, more balanced, more mobile fighting force capable not only of defending the homeland but also of conducting the full scope of modern warfare. As Russia continues to invest heavily in building up its military to achieve military supremacy—a goal President Putin claims is possible with the development of new nuclear “superweapons”—there is a real danger that the heavy emphasis on the military, like in the Soviet Union before it, could put a serious strain on the socio-economic structure of the country.

Of equally grave concern to the defense of the state, as I pointed out in the first part of this essay, is instability and even possible disintegration due to the inability or unwillingness of the Russian leadership to address domestic challenges. This threat is not new. Previous regimes going back to tsarist times have also faced economic and social challenges. When reforms were undertaken to address them, they were usually minimal or ineffective. Consequently, regimes have often resorted to force and intimidation to control potential threats to the stability of the regime and the state. In a speech at the annual defense conference of the Russian Academy of Military Science on March 2, 2019, the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, claimed with no supporting evidence that the Pentagon was developing a new “Trojan Horse” strategy directed against Russia and elsewhere. Among the tools of this alleged strategy was the use of high-precision weapons mixed with “color revolutions” (a term the Russians use to refer to revolts against post-Soviet autocratic rulers in countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan and their replacement with democratic governments), and most interestingly, the active use of the “protest potential of a fifth column in the interest of destabilizing a situation.” Gerasimov claimed that this “Trojan Horse” strategy is being used now by the United States in Venezuela, and warned that Russia must be prepared, implying possibly by using the military, to suppress efforts to incite “fifth column protests” as part of the U.S. goal of effecting regime change in Russia. Thus, it could be argued that what the Kremlin fears is some of its people may side with the United States if it tries to bring about regime change. To the outsider, this may seem quite far-fetched. To the Kremlin, it is not. Although the military could conceivably play a role in suppressing internal dissent, whether as part of an alleged U.S. “Trojan Horse” strategy or some other expression of popular discontent, it is the security services and the police that have traditionally been used to maintain order and control the population.

The Role of the Security Services in Defending the Soviet Homeland

Russia’s security services have a long history of protecting the state from internal dissent and suppressing threats—real and potential—to the regime in power. Emerging centuries ago in Tsarist Russia, the security forces struggled to protect the royal family and government leaders from a growing threat of terrorists and revolutionaries. Tsar Alexander II was killed in 1881, and other prominent officials met similar fates at the hands of assassins. Repression and retaliation were severe and reverberated throughout Russian society.

The founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, promoted the use of terror and violence to solve political, social, and economic problems. In fact, without the widespread use of terror against its people, the Soviet Union would probably not have survived its formative years.

Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, elevated the role of the secret police, using them to eliminate all opposition—real and imagined—to him and his plans to consolidate his power and exert absolute rule over the entire Soviet system. The secret police exercised unprecedented cruelty, and their reign of terror penetrated all aspects of Soviet life. Stalin instituted one purge after another and exterminated millions of innocent people. The senior leadership of the Communist Party and the Red Army were decimated in the purges of the 1930s. Of the 1,961 members of the Communist Party who attended the 17th Party Congress in 1934, 1,108 were executed in the purges of 1937–1938. Three of the five marshals of the Red Army, more than 1,000 generals, and hundreds of lower-ranking officers were shot on the eve of World War II. Secret police agents and informers penetrated all sectors of society, striking fear among the entire population. People routinely betrayed friends and relatives to protect themselves from a similar fate. At the height of the purges at the end of the 1930s, more than 12 million people were arrested. Many were summarily executed; others were sent to the wide network of prison camps known as the gulag where they faced disease, starvation, and unbelievably harsh conditions. Only the heartiest and luckiest survived.

After Stalin died in 1953, the worst abuses by the secret police—renamed the Committee of State Security (KGB) by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954—were curtailed, and some political prisoners were released from the camps. The KGB, however, remained a powerful arm of Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov—the latter a former head of the KGB—and was particularly effective in suppressing more vocal political dissent in the 1980s. Dissidents were sent to prison camps in the gulag, committed to psychiatric hospitals where they were often tortured and administered heavy doses of psychotropic and other drugs, or forced into exile.

The Soviet secret police also played a leading role abroad. During World War II, Soviet agents conducted extensive operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. Following the war, the Soviet secret police were instrumental in the consolidation and maintenance of Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Soviet agents remained active throughout Western Europe and extended their activities in the postwar years to many third-world countries. Soviet agents even penetrated U.S. and British weapons programs and intelligence agencies.

The impact of the powerful Soviet secret police was devastating for the Soviet people. Millions were exterminated or subjected to years of torture and imprisonment in the gulag, and the overwhelming majority of the population suffered from the oppressive nature of the regime. People distrusted all but very close family members and friends. The psychological toll was deep, and generations suffered. Many are still coming to terms with the past. Others—younger generations who did not experience the horrors of the Soviet past—do not bear the scars of the terror, but they also do not understand the depth of suffering of those who went before them. There has never been proper official atonement for the sins of the past. Unless that occurs, there will be those who reflect on the past with nostalgia or seek the return of Stalin-like “iron-hand rule,” and Russia will not be able to move forward to a better place.

Were the Soviet-era tools of terror and violence necessary to ensure the security and survival of the Soviet state? Certainly, it could be argued that they were essential for the Communist regime in its effort to consolidate and maintain power during very adverse conditions. But necessary for the survival of the state? Historians and political scientists have wrestled with this question for decades. I would argue that terror and violence failed over the long term to sustain the Soviet state. We saw what happened in the dark days of the Great Patriotic War when Stalin had to turn to the Russian Orthodox Church and the faith of the people in “Mother Russia” for support in the battle against the Nazi invaders. We also saw that in the final days of the Soviet Union there was little the secret police could do to prevent the collapse of the system. By that time, they were suffering from the same ills that affected all of society—bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and the inability to bring about change to a decaying political and economic system. In the end, although the KGB played a role in a failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, the security forces were unable to save themselves or the Soviet state. By that time, collapse was inevitable.

The Role of the Security Services in Defending the Russian Homeland

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was transformed. Its functions were divided between the newly formed Federal Security Service (FSB), which became responsible for internal security, and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which was tasked with foreign intelligence. Together with the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU), these three intelligence agencies became a formidable force in Russia’s struggle with its internal and external foes.

President Vladimir Putin is a product of the KGB. He spent his formative adult years as a KGB officer. From 1984 to 1990 he was stationed in Dresden, East Germany. Upon the collapse of the Soviet empire, he resigned from the KGB and returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg where he worked as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of the city. Later, President Boris Yeltsin selected Putin to head the KGB and then made him prime minister shortly before he resigned. Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president on January 1, 2000. Putin’s years in the KGB shaped his mentality and molded his worldview, and as president, Putin has surrounded himself with like-minded men from his days in the KGB and his years working in St. Petersburg.

Putin relies heavily on the intelligence services to defend the Russian state. In the international arena, the GRU has become one of Putin’s most important tools although the SVR and increasingly the FSB are also very active in the international arena. The SVR, for example, was responsible for managing the 10 Russian sleeper agents, including the infamous Anna Chapman, who were expelled from the United States in 2010.

The GRU was founded a century ago and has continued to function as the main military intelligence agency. Its operations extend worldwide. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian mafia and Russian intelligence agencies described in an interview several years ago on National Public Radio, “The GRU is basically a war-fighting organization. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, Russia is at war. It’s a political war, but it’s at war with the West.” The GRU has played a prominent role in Russia’s cyberattacks around the world and notably in the United States presidential election in 2016. The GRU also was instrumental in carrying out Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and it continues to be involved in the war in Ukraine’s Donbas.

The GRU is also an active player in so-called “wet affairs,” a euphemism for assassinations. For years assassinations were quietly carried out by Russia’s security agencies with few if any claims of responsibility. In 2006 the Kremlin became more open about the use of this deadly tool when Putin signed a law legalizing targeted assassinations abroad. Two GRU agents were identified in the West as the perpetrators of the attempted assassination of former GRU agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England in 2018. Other GRU agents are suspected of numerous attempted or actual murders around the world. The Kremlin views the use of offensive cyber operations, disinformation, interference in foreign elections, hybrid warfare, assassinations, and spies and agents as critical to its efforts to disrupt and weaken the democratic process in the West, and particularly in the United States, which it sees as its main enemy.

The FSB today is the primary agency protecting the state against internal dissent and threats. As the main heir to the KGB, the FSB, in cooperation with special police units of the National Guard of Russia known by the acronym OMON, ferrets out activities it deems threatening to the state and the Putin regime and enforces the increasingly draconian laws the Russian legislature adopts to restrict political activists and discourage public protests. Recent laws adopted by the legislature and signed by Putin, for example, prohibit online “blatant disrespect” of the government and dissemination of “fake news.” Violation of these laws can result in hefty fines or imprisonment.

Although most public protests in recent years have been motivated by grassroots dissatisfaction with local conditions (environmental problems, corruption, and inept governmental policies) and Kremlin policy decisions (the return of Putin to power in 2012, changes to the pension system in 2018, and current plans to cut off Russia from the internet), authorities attribute many of these protests to either direct foreign involvement or encouragement by foreign governments and non-governmental organizations. On December 20, 2018, Russia marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police, known at that time as the Cheka. In commemorating that event, the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, praised Stalin’s vicious secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, and warned that “the destruction of Russia is still an obsession for many” foreign powers. Speaking on March 6, 2019, at a meeting of senior FBS officials, Vladimir Putin reinforced the point that foreign intelligence services have stepped up their activities in Russia by stating that they were “doing everything they can to obtain access to political, economic, scientific, and technological information.” He claimed that in 2018 Russia’s security services had uncovered almost 600 operatives and agents of foreign intelligence services and urged Russia’s intelligence agencies to “be efficient” and use techniques “based on modern methods of work.” Putin did not mention any foreign powers or intelligence agencies by name, but the United States most certainly figured prominently in his mind. The arrest of two Americans, one of whom—Paul Whelan—has been charged with espionage, is cited in the Russian state media as evidence of the continuous effort of the United States to damage the Russian state.

Dissent in Russia manifested by public protests has been tightly controlled by the security forces and the police and has been largely ineffective. Leaders of the opposition are constantly monitored and are often arrested on the eve of demonstrations they have organized.

There was a wave of popular demonstrations in major cities in late 2011–early 2012 against a corrupt election to the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian legislature) and Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012. Harsh action against those demonstrations put a severe damper on attempts to turn a nascent protest movement into a more meaningful expression of popular discontent. For the next several years, those who sought change and tried to spread an anti-Putin message found little support among the population. People were either afraid or indifferent. It was only the government’s plans in 2018 to raise the pension age that brought many people—both opposition forces and ordinary citizens—out onto the streets to protect. Those demonstrations were not principally political; they were focused on pocketbook issues and the ability of ordinary citizens to deal with what they considered to be a threat to their economic well-being. The demonstrators represented all economic and social layers of society. Not only did senior citizens come out to protest, but young people did as well, some as young as pre-teens. The police did not discriminate in cracking down on the protestors. Pictures appeared on the internet of police arresting pensioners and children as young as nine years old.

What is different now from the public protests of 2011–2012 is that ordinary citizens (admittedly, still a small segment of the population) feel that government policies are hurting rather than helping them. Protesters today tend to represent a poorer cohort of the Russian population as distinguished from the largely middle-class protesters of 2011–2012. With a stagnant economy, declining living standards, and little prospect for improvement in people’s lives, the Kremlin has every reason to be concerned. Although the overwhelming majority of the population remains strong supporters of the Russian state and believes Russia is a great nation, the Kremlin and its security forces remain suspicious and vigilant.

On more than one occasion in world history, political explosions have occurred in societies that on the surface appeared calm and under control. Russia’s leaders have reason to worry. The North Caucasus region remains a breeding ground for insurgency and terrorism, and historical animosities among various ethnic groups still exist. The mass deportation to Siberia and Central Asia of non-Russian ethnic minorities by Stalin during the Great Patriotic War has not been forgotten. Discrimination against Muslims, particularly against those from poorer parts of Russia and migrants from Central Asia, is not uncommon. Russia’s so-called “Muslim problem” will become even more acute in the coming decades. Russia’s grand mufti recently predicted that within the next 15 years, one-third of the population of Russia will be Muslim. For the Kremlin and its security services, this raises the question of loyalty among certain segments of the population. In the minds of some, General Gerasimov’s bizarre claim about the Pentagon’s “Trojan Horse” strategy serves as a serious warning that the Russian state is imperiled and it must be prepared to repulse any possible threats from enemies, both domestic and foreign.

A Note about China

I concluded Part I of this essay with a warning that perhaps most threatening to the cohesion of the Russian state in the long term was not a physical attack from the West, over which the Kremlin excessively obsesses, but the gradual erosion of Moscow’s control over parts of Siberia and the Far East as a result of Chinese intrusion into the economic and eventually the political life of the region. I would like to expand on this point.

Russia’s relations with China are much more complex than what is portrayed in their respective media. The growing friendship and strengthening economic, political, and even military ties cannot hide the fact that this relationship is being increasingly dominated by China, with Russia, despite its military superiority, emerging as the weaker of the two partners. China as an economic powerhouse sees Russia not only as a source of much-needed resources and investment but also as potential Lebensraum for a burgeoning population that could benefit from expansion into the sparsely populated, resource-rich territory. We must remember that unlike European countries that do not lay claim to any Russian lands (Crimea excluded), China has a long history of territorial claims and disputes with Russia. The Treaty of Aigun of 1858 transferred more than 600,000 square kilometers to Russia and defined much of what is the present-day border between Russia and China. The most recent violent manifestation of their territorial dispute occurred over seven months in 1969. Military skirmishes erupted along the border, but the most serious one occurred in March over the Damansky (Zhenbao) Island in the Ussuri River—one of the rivers that marks the boundary between the two countries. The issue was not resolved until the Sino-Soviet Border Agreement was signed in 1991, by which Zhenbao Island was recognized as Chinese territory. Other territorial issues, however, remained unresolved until they were settled in additional border agreements in 2003 and 2008. Some in China still consider the Treaty of Aigun an unequal treaty and retain irredentist claims that large portions of Siberia and the Russian Far East rightfully belong to China.

From a practical perspective whatever territorial claims China may still entertain, there are few, if any Chinese who would suggest that these claims be resolved militarily. On the contrary, China’s interest in the region and its strategy for extending its influence are economic.

Chinese economic investment into Siberia and the Russian Far East has mushroomed in recent years. With investment come Chinese workers. Currently, there are an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Chinese workers in Russia. Although the influx of workers and investment can be economically beneficial to the relatively weak local Russian economy, the presence of the Chinese can breed resentment and stir ethnic animosity among the Russian population. This is further exasperated by the fact that Russian businessmen are often in collusion with their Chinese partners and are gaining profits at the expense of Russia’s national interest, the local economy, and the local inhabitants.

A case in point is the furor several years ago over a Chinese project in the Lake Baikal region of Siberia. Lake Baikal is considered part of Russia’s sacred patrimony. A Chinese project, in partnership with Russian businessmen, which had been seeking to bottle Lake Baikal’s water and then build a pipeline to transport the lake’s water to China, outraged the population across Russia. Chinese press reports further exacerbated the situation by suggesting that Lake Baikal was a Chinese lake. Russian environmentalists warned that the Chinese were attempting to turn Lake Baikal into a swamp. Anger among Russians reached a fever pitch. The project was put on hold after a Russian court ruled that local authorities had illegally issued a construction permit for the bottling plant.

This is an example of how foreign investment projects, if not properly managed, can go wrong. But what does this kerfuffle mean for the future of Chinese investment in Russia and Russo-Chinese relations? Much depends on Russia. It is clear to even the most ardent Russian patriots that Moscow has been lax, if not corruptly negligent, in investing its resources into improving the infrastructure and quality of life of large sections of Russia, particularly rural areas, towns, and cities far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The contrast between what China is offering and what Russia is failing to do, or is doing at an inferior level, is stark. Russians cannot fail to take notice. There comes a point in the struggle between patriotism and a better life when people may be willing to sacrifice the former for the latter. Unless Russia steps up its investment and undertakes serious economic reform, including getting control over rampant corruption, Chinese influence in Siberia and the Russian Far East will continue to grow. How this will play out politically is yet to be determined. There are clear warning signs that the Kremlin needs to step up its game if it does not want to lose out to China.

There is another scenario that some analysts cite about how the future of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and by analogy other regions of Russia, could develop. They argue that local authorities could reject both Moscow and Beijing and decide to go it alone and try to build regional power centers. Although it is commendable that they would want to take responsibility for bringing major improvements to their region, they would most likely struggle to find sufficient investment to make that possible. Private companies would be reluctant to commit the necessary resources to projects without proper government approval. Given the way Moscow and Beijing do business, this scenario is not realistic. If it were, significant changes way beyond what has already been accomplished in Russia would have already occurred. Instead, the vast area of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and other regions of Russia remain vulnerable to China’s growing influence and the weakening of Moscow’s control. This is a serious, long-term problem and one that requires the Kremlin’s immediate attention before it affects the security and stability of the Russian state.

Washington, DC | April 2019

Chapter 6

Strengthening Russia’s Influence in International Affairs, Part I

The Quest for Great Power Status

This essay will appear in two parts. In Part I, I examine Russia’s efforts to regain its influence in international affairs and pursue its quest for great power status. I will explore Russian relations with major power centers in the world—the United States, Europe, China—and with what has been traditionally referred to as the third world. In Part II, I will discuss Russia’s relations with its neighbors, focusing on countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact, including what was once Yugoslavia.

In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the repercussions it has had on Russia’s position in the world, Russia’s leaders have been intensely focused on repairing the damage and regaining a position of influence in the world that it considers worthy of a great people and a great nation. Put simply, the Kremlin wants Russia once again to be viewed as a great power.

Russia’s Perception of Its Place in the World

In assessing Russian foreign policy, it is essential to understand the struggle over fundamental questions that have plagued Russian rulers, policymakers, and analysts for centuries: What is Russia’s place in the world? Is it part of the West? Or does it occupy a special place in the world that reflects its unique cultural, religious, and ideological heritage, and its geopolitical position straddling Europe and Asia? Should Russia strive to be a partner with its Western neighbors and follow Western approaches to the development of its society? Or should Russia seek its own path based largely on innate features of the Slavic heritage and the Russian historical tradition?

Until Peter the Great opened the “Window to the West” and attempted to modernize Russia by importing Western technology and know-how, Russia had remained largely apart from Western civilization, its innovations, and its development. Russia did not experience the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution. Even feudalism and accompanying serfdom, which played a major role in both Europe and Russia, had a different impact in Russia. In Russia, feudalism lasted much longer, took an alternative form, and had a more damaging impact on the advancement of Russian society.

Peter’s initiatives, which were continued by his successors, sought to import Western technology and know-how to modernize Russian society, promote economic development, and build up Russia’s armed forces. At the same time, Russia’s leaders were wary of importing Western ideas and ideologies that might threaten despotic rule and, consequently, took measures to restrict foreign influence.

For the most part, the “westernization” of imperial Russia remained limited to the nobility and the upper layers of the professional classes while the rest of Russian society remained mired in abject poverty and bound by the backwardness of traditional Russia.

Russia’s elite adopted much of the veneer of Europe. They became versed in European languages, literature, art, architecture, and dress. French became the dominant language among members of the upper class, many of whom had poor knowledge of their native language, Russian. The latter was viewed as the language of the peasants, while French was considered the language of the educated. Nothing illustrates this better than the opening dialogue at an evening soiree in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace that was written entirely in French.

By the mid-18th century, the Russian upper classes considered themselves Europeans. In fact, within the ruling Romanov dynasty, many members of the royal family were foreigners. Catherine the Great was a low-level German princess; other spouses and rulers that followed were foreign-born or were direct descendants of foreign nobility. By the time of the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, who was of German and Danish descent and was a first cousin of Great Britain’s King George V and a second cousin of German Emperor Wilhelm II, the Russian royals had little real Russian blood coursing through their veins.

This great divide between the rulers and the ruled during Russia’s imperial era was a key factor in defining Russia’s identity and still plays a role in Russian domestic and foreign policy today. Vladislav Surkov, one of Vladimir Putin’s ideological advisors, has described Russia as having a “mixed breed” culture, one that contains elements of both the east and the west, like “someone born of a mixed marriage.” This has complicated the task of determining how best to pursue Russia’s foreign policy objectives and provide for the growth and security of the Russian state.

In the 19th century, the struggle to define Russia’s place in the world was waged through an intellectual and political debate in Russian literature and politics between the so-called Westernizers and the Slavophiles as they sought to promote their respective Weltanschauung and offer policy prescriptions to guide Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. Proponents of both ideologies agreed that Russia was unique and endowed with a special mission in the world. Where they differed was how best to manage Russia’s development to ensure it would rise to a preeminent place in the world.

The Westernizers believed Russia must learn and adopt from the West to modernize and prosper, and they supported importing Western technology and liberal ideas to modernize Russia’s government. At the same time, there was disagreement over the extent to which Western political thought and practice should be adopted by Russia. It was generally agreed that Russia should borrow as little as possible to maintain the essential nature of the Russian state.

The Slavophiles were more mystical in their approach and believed that Russia was superior to the West despite its economic and technological backwardness and that it had a special destiny and unique mission in the world. That mission was closely tied to the Orthodox Church and had both a spiritual and secular nature. For many, Russia was defined not so much by geography as by metaphysics. As one of the most famous Slavophiles of the 19th century, Fyodor Tyutchev, wrote in one of his poems: You cannot understand Russia just using the intellect / You cannot measure her using the common scale / She has a special kind of grace / You can only believe in her. In other words, you cannot know Russia by your mind; you can only feel Russia in your soul.

Belief in Russia’s uniqueness can be traced back to the early years of Russian Orthodox Christianity and the conviction that after the center of Orthodoxy in Byzantium was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Russia became its successor and was now the leader of the Orthodox world as the “Third Rome.” In later years, this central, messianic role of Russia was manifested in other forms centered on ethnic identity, such as the pan-Slavic kingdom, a 19th-century movement that sought to unite the Slavic-speaking world with a focus on the Slavs of the Balkans who were being liberated at that time from Ottoman rule. Displays of Slavic brotherhood and identity continue to exist today but in a less obvious form.

Slavophiles did not just believe in Russia’s superiority to the West; they generally viewed the West with suspicion and disdain. They believed that Russian values and morality were superior to those of the West and that Russia should not allow itself to be corrupted by the social, moral, religious, and political ethos of the West.

The conflicting views raised in this debate did not begin and end in the closing years of Imperial Russia; there were manifestations of it going back to the time of Peter the Great, and ideological differences have continued up to the present day. Both perspectives play a prominent role in guiding and directing contemporary Russian foreign policy. Sometimes the struggle plays out for all to see; at other times, it plays out behind the scenes until one side eventually emerges victorious, and then the next struggle begins. We can identify Boris Yeltsin and Dmitry Medvedev as more aligned with the views of Westernizers, and Vladimir Putin as pursuing policies more in common with the traditional Slavophiles. Although all three leaders have interacted closely with the West, there have been discernible differences in the extent to which they have sought to align Russia’s interests with those of Europe and the United States. All three leaders, however, share a deeply held belief in Russia’s special mission in the world. That belief has never faltered, and it instills pride in the Russian people and evokes resentment toward the West for failing to properly appreciate Russia’s uniqueness and its “rightful” role in the world.

In examining Russian foreign policy in both theory and practice, it is important to keep in mind these fundamentally different visions of Russia’s place in the world and how these views have been reflected in the policy arena.

What Does This Mean for Russia Today?

The 20th century—the century of the Soviet Union—was to a significant extent a battleground over the ideas and policies of the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.

Marxism was a Western philosophy that analyzed the ills and abuses of an industrializing Europe. Vladimir Lenin adopted this Western ideology for Russia, creating a new model that combined Western thought with the reality of traditional Russia. The result was a system of rule that proved to be a disaster for the Russian people. Although the Soviet system transformed a peasant society into an industrialized state that emerged in its closing decades as a military superpower, the price it paid in human lives was appalling. The Soviet Union was not able to overcome much of its traditional backwardness even as it struggled over more than 70 years to balance its need for technology and economic support from the West against autarchic policies that promoted the uniqueness and superiority of its system.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created challenges for the Kremlin. For the next decade, Russia struggled to redefine its identity and its relationship with the West. Under President Yeltsin, Russia sought to define, together with the West, new “rules of the game” that would determine how the two worlds would interact in the years and decades to come. Many of those close to Yeltsin hoped to build a new world of peace and cooperation with the West that would extend from Vancouver to Vladivostok. They sought a world in which Russia would cooperate with the West as an equal but would set its own policies and would have a voice in determining global policies and priorities. Unfortunately, neither Russia nor the West was able or willing to forge a new relationship. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, the bombing of Serbia, support for an independent Kosovo, regime change in Iraq and Libya, and other events convinced the Kremlin that the West was pursuing policies that pose a direct threat to Russia’s sovereignty. The West, for its part, tried to convince Russia that these events were not a threat to Russia. The West hoped that Russia would change and would follow the United States’ and NATO’s lead as a junior partner in the new post-Cold War era.

As a result, the 1990s turned out to be a decade of disappointment, disillusionment, and deceit. The West failed Russia, and Russia failed the West. Even Vladimir Putin, who is known for his anti-Western views, was initially favorably disposed to try once again to reset relations with the West. Those expectations were short-lived, however, and led Putin to abandon his outreach to the West and his attempt to establish a new path forward for Russia.

Leading Russian analysts offer varying opinions and insightful comments about Russia’s efforts to build a positive relationship with the West. Sergey Karaganov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, writes: “Already at the start of the current millennium, we had almost completely exhausted all that we could and needed to take from Europe considering the general level of our development and the special features of our national character which is the striving to preserve independence and sovereignty.” Vladislav Surkov, an ideological advisor to President Putin, shares this view. He writes that Russia has abandoned its centuries-long hope of integrating with the West and is bracing for “100 years of geopolitical solitude.” This “solitude” does not mean complete isolation, but it does mean that Russia’s openness to the West will be limited in the future. Surkov attributed Russia’s historical interest in being part of the West to “excessive enthusiasm” by Russia’s elites, but that fervor, he argued, is now all but gone.

Others see the failure of Russia to establish closer ties to the West as inevitable given Russia’s great-power pride and its sense of a special mission. Some argue that it is time for Russia to reassess its great-power aspirations. They maintain that Russia will not be a “normal” country until it properly aligns its aspirations with reality. Still, others insist that Russia will never abandon its vision of itself as a great power and must strive to attain this status. They argue that Russia cannot survive other than as a great power. They see conflict with the West as inevitable because neither side is willing to compromise. Although many Russians view some elements of the West as a model to be emulated, they consider that the West remains a threat to Russia.

How Does Russia See the World Today?

Russia and the West have fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy. Since the end of World War II, the United States and democratic Europe have pursued a liberal foreign policy that has championed the promotion of democratic institutions, individual liberty, human rights, liberal values, and economic liberalism. Russia has resisted this approach and has now openly rejected it, as Putin forcefully stated in his interview in the Financial Times on June 27, 2019. Instead, the Kremlin adheres to a “realist” approach that stresses the supremacy of the state over the individual, the pursuit of national interests, and the protection of sovereignty, which ensures the right of each regime to rule its territory without the fear of foreign interference. This is an extremely important point because it helps to explain Russia’s support for some of the most notorious authoritarian regimes in the world, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. In the final analysis, Putin is most concerned about the threat of regime change that could overturn his rule in Russia. Failure to support sovereignty elsewhere, even of the most despotic regimes, could, by implication, weaken Putin and make him more vulnerable to a similar fate at home.

Russia and the West differ also in the conduct of foreign policy. The United States and its allies traditionally prefer to pursue small, modest steps to advance foreign policy objectives, particularly when dealing with adversaries and to use them as building blocks to increase trust that they hope will lead to broader understanding and agreement. Russia follows a very different approach. It prefers to begin by establishing broad principles and developing strategic direction at the highest level that will serve as guidance for lower-level officials to work out agreements. Thus, while the West favors a bottom-up approach, Russia is more comfortable with a top-down approach.

These noticeable differences in both foreign policy objectives and execution as well as stark differences in perceptions and understanding of the opposing side have compounded the difficulty in achieving an acceptable working relationship that is not excessively vulnerable to being derailed by domestic squabbles or isolated incidents. We have seen how the misunderstandings and misguided policies of the 1990s and early 2000s led to the collapse of well-intended but naive and misinterpreted efforts to put relations between the West and Russia on a more solid footing. We have now reached the point where both sides are locked into inflexible positions, and neither is willing to explore how the sides might defuse tensions and cooperate on issues of common concern without jeopardizing their national interests. The gulf between them appears at present to be unbreachable.

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 marked a turning point for Russia and for the more than 300 years of Russia’s efforts to establish a compatible relationship with the West. There were warning signs as early as 2007 when Putin delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference damning the West for all its affronts to Russia. Today, Putin appears to have changed course, seeking instead to build an alternative global civilization with Russia working in partnership with other non-Western powers (China, India, etc.).

Senior Russian policy officials have elaborated on the shift in Russia’s foreign policy approach. Speaking on April 12, 2019, at the annual meeting with students and professors at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the Western liberal model is being replaced by a new world order:

The Western liberal model of development, which particularly stipulates a partial loss of national sovereigntythat is what our Western colleagues aimed at when they invented what they call globalization—is losing its attractiveness and is no more viewed as a perfect model for all. Moreover, many people in the western countries themselves are skeptical about it.

Note Lavrov’s reference to the partial loss of sovereignty and its equivalence to globalization. The protection of sovereignty, as emphasized above, is a cardinal principle that Russian foreign policy has been defending since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lavrov continued:

The US and its allies are trying to impose their approaches on others. They are guided by a clear desire to preserve their centuries-long dominance in global affairs, although from the economic and financial standpoints, the US—alone or with its allies—can no longer resolve all global economic and political issues. In order to preserve its dominance and indisputable authority, the West uses blackmail and pressure. They do not hesitate to blatantly interfere in the affairs of sovereign states.

Surkov supports this position. “When everyone was still in love with globalization and made noise about a flat world without borders,” Surkov argued, “Moscow pointedly reminded them that sovereignty and national interests are important.” To cap off this argument, Surkov concluded: “Nobody is happy with America, including the Americans themselves.”

Leading Russian analysts recognize that the power relationship between Russia and the West, and specifically the United States, is undergoing a gradual but inevitable tectonic shift. Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that “the quarter-century-long period of Pax Americana is coming to an end.” Igor Ivanov, President of the Russian International Affairs Council, maintains that: “The Yalta-based global political system has been all but destroyed in the two decades since the end of the Cold War. Yet nothing has been devised to replace it.” He acknowledges that, “The traditional centers of global politics are unable to play a leading role in establishing a new world order.” Ivanov sees the United States as “deeply politically polarized,” which prevents it from providing a “long-term, balanced, or consistent foreign policy…any time soon.” As for the European Union, it is “…struggling with a fundamental internal crisis of its own.” Only Russia and China, despite their historical differences and the fact that their “…current priorities are not entirely aligned,” Ivanov asserts, “…enjoy a substantial advantage over the other global centers of power.” It is to these two powers—the center of Eurasia—that Russian leaders and many pundits look to establish what Ivanov calls “global governance at a new level.”

What Is Russia’s Strategy toward the West?

In his annual press conference in December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the United States’ global influence had come to an end. He rebuked the United States for having a “sense of impunity,” stating, “This is the result of the monopoly of a unipolar world.” “Luckily this monopoly is disappearing,” he added. “It is almost done.” This provides the opportunity, he added, for Russia to fill the void left by the United States and again become a great power with a decisive voice in the international community. This “declaration of victory,” however, does not mean Russia can ignore the West in its quest to build a new world order centered on Eurasia. On the contrary, even if the Russian President’s optimistic assessment is to be believed, the task of managing major challenges posed by a declining power center and world order will remain a high priority for Moscow. How, then, is the Kremlin approaching its relations with the West?

Resistance to the U.S.-led liberal world order and restoration of Russia’s position as a great power has been the Kremlin’s dominant foreign policy and national security objective since Russia overcame the initial shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. These have been daunting tasks, given that Russia today is a shadow of the power and influence of the former Soviet Union. Its economic and political clout is significantly diminished, but it has been able to retain and grow its military might to a level where Russia is once again a formidable force in the world with military power and force projection capabilities that ensure Russia’s interests cannot be ignored. In other areas, such as financial and economic influence and its role as a model for less developed countries, Russia lags behind the West. Although Putin has been adept at playing a weak hand against the West, he recognizes that unlike the Soviet Union that strove to “catch up and overtake the West,” Russia today lacks the means to achieve that goal. Instead, it is focusing on fending off potential aggression from the West while building an alternative world order.

The latest Russian National Security Strategy, which was issued in December 2015, identified the United States and its NATO allies as Russia’s main threat. It repeated the frequent accusation that the West is seeking to dominate the international order and deprive Russia of its rightful place in the international arena. This document stresses the importance of building up Russia’s military might to deter Western malevolent intentions toward Russia.

The sharp deterioration of relations between Russia and the West became undeniable following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin has been pursuing a more aggressive military posture and has been publicly touting the latest achievements (real or projected) of its weapons development program. Pavel Felgenhauer, a prominent military analyst, describes Putin’s approach to dealing with the increasingly bitter confrontation with the West as: “…based on a kind of internal logic: scare everyone with an array of fancy nuclear superweapons, and the West will yield or at least some key countries may waiver under duress. This strategy is not that different from what North Korea has been doing for some time.” Indeed, some of the public statements Putin and his defense minister have made about Russia’s latest technological developments in “super weapons,” including a graphic image of missiles attacking Florida that has been widely broadcast on Russia’s most popular television talk shows, have reinforced the message to both domestic and international audiences that Russia is standing up to the West and will no longer compromise its national interests and its influence in the world.

There is no reason to believe that the Kremlin’s message or its confrontation with the West will change any time soon, and there will be no return to the relationship between Russia and the West that existed in the early years of post-Soviet Russia. How the relationship will evolve in the future is unclear, but the two sides must maintain military-to-military communications and high-level dialogue to avoid an accident or miscalculation that could have unintended, catastrophic consequences.

Such risks are magnified by a new and dangerous element that has been introduced into the growing confrontation between Russia and the West in recent years: cyber warfare. Russia’s attack on the American democratic system through its interference in the 2016 elections as well as similar attacks in numerous European countries serve as the most vivid example, but Russia’s offensive actions go way beyond election interference. They go to the broader strategic competition between Russia and the West and reflect Russia’s efforts to sow discord and confusion and weaken democracy in Western societies. Surkov, writing in early 2019 in the popular Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, was very blunt about Russia’s use of the cyber tool: “Foreign politicians accuse Russia of interfering in elections and referenda throughout the planet. But in reality, the situation is even more serious. Russia interferes with their brains, and they don’t know what to do with their own transformed consciousness.”

Although the use of cyber warfare is a new weapon in the rivalry between Russia and the West, there are similarities with the old Soviet practice of “active measures.” A U.S. Government Interagency Intelligence Study published in 1982 entitled, Soviet Active Measures, stated that

the Soviets had multiple goals in conducting active measures, such as undermining support in the United States and overseas for policies viewed as threatening to Moscow, discrediting U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, weakening U.S. alliances and U.S. relations with partners, and increasing Soviet power and influence across the globe.

Among the efforts the Soviets undertook was to disrupt elections in Western countries. This sounds very similar to what Russia is doing today.

Russia’s aggression in the cyber domain, as well as its increasingly brazen espionage activities, are consistent with Russian behavior described by George Kennan, the prominent American diplomat who advocated for the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. In his famous “long telegram” of 1946, Kennan warned that Russia operates on two planes—an official plane and a “subterranean plane of actions undertaken by agencies…for which [the government] does not admit responsibility.” Russia’s poisoning of Sergei Skripal, its cyberattacks on the 2016 U.S. elections and other western elections, and its disinformation campaigns around the world are all examples of Russia’s behavior on this subterranean plane that Kennan presciently described more than 70 years ago.

Vladimir Putin and his supporters are not the only ones who have a pessimistic view of the future of Russia’s relationship with the West. Many prominent Russian analysts and observers share this negative assessment. Felgenhauer argues that

Russia will do its best to humiliate the United States and undermine the latter country’s credibility to further strain Western alliances and isolate the U.S. as much as possible. In the future, as Putin has indicated, the time may come for substantive negotiations, when the U.S. is already significantly weakened and after Russia has increased its military power by deploying new superweapons.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, states that the United States is “…widely portrayed [in Russia] as a country governed by a ‘deep state,’ and an entrenched elite guided by profound antipathy toward Russia and intent on marginalizing Russia on the world stage, destabilizing its domestic politics, and undermining its economy.” Trenin believes that the current state of confrontation will probably continue for years. He warns against steps, including attempts to influence U.S. domestic affairs, that could further exacerbate tensions and urges both sides to focus on maintaining high-level communications between military and security personnel. He sees little value in trying to work directly with President Trump and does not believe that reviving U.S.-Russia arms control talks would help. Trenin argues that the U.S. and Russia “will have to wait at least five to six years, and possibly more”—that is until both Trump and Putin have left the scene—before they can begin a comprehensive dialogue.

At the end of 2018, Putin held his annual press conference during which he summarized Russia’s foreign policy and Russia’s relations with the United States. Prominent Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya highlighted Putin’s remarks. It “was clear,” she wrote,

that if Russia wants to remain sovereign and self-sufficient, it’s destined to live with sanctions. This belief reflects a certain degree of resignation and the conviction that it’s pointless to seek an understanding with the West. Further, Putin is preparing for the inevitable deterioration of the balance of nuclear forces and the growing risk of a nuclear war. Putin made it clear that Russia is not ruling out worst-case scenarios and warned that the threshold for a nuclear strike has been lowered (he blames the United States for this, but under Putin’s logic, Russia needs to respond). The main takeaway from Putin’s press conference is that he has less and less room to maneuver on foreign policy.

Trenin has also expressed his deep concern about the state of the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship. Trenin wrote that in

…the 21st century, nuclear deterrence—with all its contradictions—continues to be the primary stabilizing factor in relations between the nuclear powers. However, the global strategic environment has become much more complex than it was during the Cold War. The accelerated development of technology, the substantial decrease of psychological barriers, and doctrinal changes have effectively lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.

He notes the arms control system that was established between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s has all but broken down and argues that “arms control mechanisms will need to give way to conflict prevention mechanisms, confidence-building measures, transparency, consultations, and dialogue” to properly manage the strategic nuclear relationship. He is particularly concerned about the threat cyber weapons pose and stresses the importance of protecting “…nuclear arsenals and their associated control, communications, and intelligence systems from the effects of cyber weapons as a crucial condition for stability in the 21st century.” Unfortunately, neither side appears ready to address these existential threats in a meaningful way.

What Is Russia’s Worldwide Strategy?

Given that Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated to the point that the best each side can do is avoid direct military confrontation, how does Moscow pursue its foreign policy objectives of maintaining its sovereignty and promoting the development of a new, multipolar world order that is not centered on the traditional liberal views and policies of the West? Trenin tells us that, ideally,

the overarching goal of Moscow’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future should be turning Russia into a modern, developed country while avoiding excessive dependence on leading players in Greater Eurasia, such as China, the European Union, and the United States. Russia must act abroad pragmatically, primarily to promote or protect its interests. It should not impose its values on others or engage in nation-building abroad, and it must respect others’ established values and customs and tolerate all religions. Finally, it should renounce any claim to domination, be it of individual states or regions or the world as a whole.

Considering the historical record of Russia’s conduct on the world stage and its declaratory policy as enunciated by Putin, Lavrov, and other senior Russian officials, it is doubtful that Russia will soon be able or even willing to pursue the broad goals proposed by Trenin.

Russia is treading a very thin line between seeking to disrupt and destroy the existing world order, to create new alliances, and to fill voids left by the West to build a new world order that is more responsive to Russia’s interests and influence. Russian foreign policy expert Alexander Lukin explains that “the course to transform Russia into an independent Eurasian center of power and world influence has today become the official policy of the Kremlin and the main direction of thought of the majority of Russian experts on foreign policy strategy.” The Kremlin recognizes that Russia is proceeding from a relatively weak and vulnerable state and therefore is buffering its position by projecting an image of strength at home and flexing its muscles around the world.

Moscow tends to view the world as a zero-sum game and seeks out weaknesses to exploit among its adversaries. In recent years, Russia has increased its efforts to widen cracks in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, disrupt the process of European integration, fuel ethnic tensions in the Balkans, and prevent closer relations between that region and the European Union and NATO. Neither Russia nor the West appears ready to accept any form of compromise to improve relations. The West believes that over time economic sanctions and growing social and political discontent within Russia will drive the Kremlin to seek accommodation with the West. Moscow believes that divisions within the European Union and among NATO partners will continue to grow and further weaken Western solidarity and resolve, thereby strengthening Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West. Russia must be careful about how far it allows its alienation from the West, and especially from Europe, to progress. Russia needs to preserve its strong trade links with the European Union and maintain its political and economic ties with Europe to serve, at a minimum, as leverage against an increasingly powerful China that will exploit Russia’s weaknesses to its economic and strategic advantage.

At the same time, Russia continues to seek zones of “privileged interests” in parts of Europe and Asia. Elsewhere in the world, Moscow tries to increase its influence in countries that have poor relations with the West and in regional conflicts, not necessarily as a serious problem-solver but to have a voice in any possible future settlement. Moscow’s efforts to inject itself into the intractable effort to find a peaceful solution to the war in Afghanistan is a case in point.

In recent years, Russia has emerged as an influential power in the Middle East. Its close ties with Syria and Iran have provided Moscow with leverage in the region that it has not had since the Soviet days. But unlike its Soviet predecessors, the Putin Administration is not tied to an ideological agenda. Russian foreign policy is quite flexible and pragmatic. Moscow has established good working relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—countries that the Soviet Union viewed with wariness and mistrust. Moscow seeks leverage and influence not only to serve as a counterweight to the United States and Europe but also to be in a better position to contain the danger of radical Islamic terrorism. The Kremlin is particularly concerned about the spread of radical Islam to the North Caucasus and other Muslim areas in central Russia, and its backing of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is in keeping with its belief in the strong role of the state, national sovereignty, and the need to keep the contagion of radical Islam from spreading beyond the region.

Russia’s presence in Africa has expanded significantly under the current Putin Administration. Unlike China, which is investing in infrastructure projects across the continent, Russia is increasing its influence in less expensive ways by establishing relationships with the political and military elites, providing arms, and signing deals on military cooperation. Most recently, Russia has increased in involvement in the civil war in Libya, which has raised particular concerns in NATO.

Russia is actively training local security forces in various African countries, often using so-called “private military contractors” such as the Wagner Group, which is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to President Putin. This is the same Prigozhin who set up the St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was responsible for much of the Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 elections.

The Wagner Group has established a presence in at least 20 African countries, but little is known about the activities of these Russian “contractors.” Three Russian journalists who went to the Central Africa Republic in 2018 to investigate what the Wagner Group was doing there were killed in an ambush by unknown assailants.

In addition to providing military training to various forces, including allegedly to some rebel groups, the Wagner Group is providing direct support to some of the worst dictators in Africa, including making direct financial payments and serving as unofficial advisors to governments. According to reports from the BBC, Russian “technical specialists,” allegedly funded by Prigozhin, “bribed several leading candidates in the 2018 presidential elections in Madagascar in an effort to influence the outcome.” Similar allegations of election interference have been made against Russian operatives in other African countries and the Seychelles.

For several years the Wagner Group considered Sudan to be its most important power center and “home base.” With the overthrow of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, the Wagner Group suffered a major loss. Commenting on this, Sergei Kostelyanets, the head of the Center for Sociological and Political Science Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Khartoum is Moscow’s foothold in Africa. “It is important not only in itself. It is a springboard for further penetration into Africa.” The Wagner Group’ however, proved to be powerless in countering the coup, which undoubtedly sent a message to other Africa leaders who may question how helpful these Russian “private contractors” might be to them at a critical juncture.

Russia will likely continue to expand its influence throughout Africa to enhance its image as a great power, but its degree of success will depend in large part on the resources it is willing to commit to the region. Unless it increases its current level of commitment, it will probably remain noticeably less effective than China, which is significantly outpacing Russia for influence in the continent.

Russia’s renewed interest and involvement in Latin America has raised alarm bells in Washington. In addition to its increasing support for Cuba and Nicaragua—traditional client states of the Soviet Union—Moscow has ramped up its involvement in Venezuela and has positioned itself as a bulwark for the Maduro regime.

For years Russia has been an important investor in Venezuela’s oil sector and has acquired a major share of the state-run oil company, PDVSA. Since 2010, it is reported that Russia has invested about $9 billion in PDVSA and Venezuelan oil projects. Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company controlled by Putin’s close associate Igor Sechin, and the Russian government have also provided more than $17 billion in loans to Venezuela since 2006. Therefore, any effort to topple Maduro would be viewed by Moscow as jeopardizing billions of dollars in investments.

The same concern applies to the extensive sale of Russian military equipment to Venezuela. According to the Russian press, Caracas purchased about $11 billion in armaments between 2005 and 2013. This includes SU-30 fighter jets, T-72 tanks, S-300 air defense systems, and smaller weaponry, for which the Maduro regime has not yet fully paid. Moscow would certainly want to avoid the loss of this valuable strategic client.

Most concerning for the United States and Venezuela’s neighbors was the deployment of a small contingent of approximately 100 Russian military personnel headed by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-General Vasily Tonkishkurov. According to Russian security analyst Felgenhauer, this limited deployment of Russian troops was sent to Venezuela to serve as a deterrent against the U.S. and to mobilize and prepare the Venezuelan armed forces “…to inflict heavy casualties and repel the Americans.” In addition to sending regular armed forces, Russia has reportedly also sent private Russian military contractors from the Wagner Group to Venezuela. According to some press reports, they are serving as an elite guard force for Maduro and his inner circle.

The Kremlin has pushed back against strong U.S. complaints about its increased military presence in Venezuela and its support for Maduro. On March 25, 2019, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow, “Russia has the right to be where it is and what it does [in Venezuela]. The US deploys where it wishes in the world and no one tells them where to be and where not to be.”

Moscow is taking a risk in projecting power in the United States’s backyard, but it apparently believes the risk is worth taking, given what Felgenhauer describes as a “…politically dysfunctional and split United States.” If it can avoid a direct confrontation with the United States and strengthen its foothold in the region, Moscow would enhance its status as a great power, reinforce its reputation of support for “legitimate” political regimes, and “pay back” the United States for its involvement in Russia’s backyard in Ukraine and Georgia.

But this is a risk that could fail. Recent warnings from Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, who told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the “continuation of [U.S.] aggressive actions [directed toward Venezuela] may result in the gravest consequences” might be just bluster, but his comments could be a sign of a more aggressive Russian posture.

Russia may be wagering that its assertive stance against the United States will work similarly to its offensive military operations in Syria. If this is the case, Moscow could be in for a surprise. The two situations are not analogous. The United States has the upper hand regarding Venezuela in terms of national interests, geographic proximity, logistical advantages, and military superiority. If Moscow retreats and its client Maduro falls, its losses would be tolerable. In addition to the loss in investment, the principal blow would be to its reputation. It would not, however, significantly alter the Kremlin’s long-term strategy; it would just require tactical adjustments.

In mid-2019, reports circulated that Russia was withdrawing a significant number of defense advisors from Venezuela and that it had telegraphed this information to President Trump. The Kremlin denied this report. The initial reports indicated that the personnel drawdown was being made by Rostec, the Russian state defense contractor that trains Venezuelan troops to use Russian weapons. Allegedly this was being done because the Maduro government did not have the funds to pay Rostec for its services. Rostec told the media that there was a frequent rotation of personnel in and out of the country and some personnel had returned to Russia upon completion of their mission, but the reductions reported in the press (up to 1,000 workers), was a gross exaggeration. The Russian Foreign Ministry affirmed this point and asserted that Russia would consider sending more troops if needed. At the same time, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin America Department, Alexander Shchetinin, emphasized, according to a TASS report, that any additional personnel sent to Venezuela would be related to contract requirements and the normal rotation of specialists.

Indeed, Maduro’s inability to pay for Russian military equipment and training could become a factor in Russia’s calculus regarding its commitment to Venezuela. Any major decision by Moscow to maintain and perhaps enhance its position as a prop for this important ally in Latin America would likely be a political decision that would be based on Russia’s long-term strategy and its ability to manipulate the more powerful United States.

The Russia-China relationship is fundamental to Russia’s foreign policy strategy of creating a new world order that no longer depends upon the U.S.-led liberal world order and places Russia and China at its center. Moscow presents this burgeoning relationship in very favorable terms, and, indeed, there is much that Russia and China share in common. They both favor a multipolar world and oppose the primacy of the United States in world affairs. More often than not, they support each other in votes in the United Nations and other international bodies. Yet, there remain clear differences and areas of rival interests in various parts of the world. Central Asia, for example, is becoming a region of increasing competition as China expands its economic and political investments into this important part of the former Soviet Union. China also fails to support Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its efforts to dominate its neighbors. Instead, China remains neutral politically, at best, but at the same time is increasing its economic involvement in countries that have been within Russia’s sphere of influence. China is willing to cooperate with Russia in the international arena when it is in its national interest, but China will not blindly support Moscow in its anti-Western pursuits if such pursuits do not fit with China’s foreign policy strategy.

It is in the economic realm that differences between Russia and China are most apparent. Although that relationship is rapidly expanding, it is doing so in an asymmetrical way. Russia mainly supplies China with natural resources and military equipment, while China sells finished products, including consumer goods, machinery, and electronics to Russia. Russian expert Leon Aron explains the relationship in the following manner: “The nature of this exchange corresponds quite closely to Karl Marx’s and Vladimir Lenin’s description of colonial trade, in which one country becomes a raw material appendage of another. It is rare for metropolises to ally themselves with their colonies.”

Previous essays in this series have explored some of the traditional pitfalls and weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of the Russia-China relationship. Perhaps the strongest element in that relationship is the close personal ties between President Putin and President Xi Jinping. Those ties are very important to the two countries, especially as they map out their positions in a new world order. But many other factors—historic, geographic, economic, and political—are impediments to a true and equal alliance. For the foreseeable future, it appears Russia and China will continue to work together in areas of common interests, but China will remain wary of being dragged into issues that do not relate to its national strategy. For Russia, the main concern will be avoiding the appearance, and certainly the fact, of being the junior partner in the relationship. This may be unavoidable, however, because China is on the rise politically and economically, and Russia is in decline. It is only Russia’s superior military might that serves as a counterweight to China’s strength in other areas. Russian scholar Alexander Lukin reminds us that “Russia’s military might is fully in keeping with its Eurasian ambitions, but its economic development still noticeably falls short.” How long Russia will be able to use this advantage effectively to maintain balance in its relationship with China is a challenge that will be a high priority for the Kremlin over the coming years.

In assessing Russian foreign policy challenges, one is confronted with the critical question: Will Russia succeed in treading the thin line between trying to destroy one world order and building another in which it plays a dominant role? There are many powerful forces—both internal and external—working against the Kremlin’s efforts. Russia’s internal weaknesses, which have repeatedly proved to be its Achilles’ heel, may again be a significant barrier to the successful implementation of the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals. In this regard, one is reminded of the famous aphorism of Viktor Chernomyrdin, a prime minister under President Yeltsin, who said: “We wanted the best, but it turned out as it always does.”

Is Russia a Great Power Today?

Russia’s leaders have come a long way in rebuilding the country and reasserting the country’s role and authority in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaotic years of the 1990s. Russia has not, however, nor will it likely ever, achieve the status of the USSR. Although it retains much of the Soviet military arsenal, it has lost a large part of the territory of the former Soviet Union and is significantly weaker economically. Nevertheless, its achievements in regaining strength and influence are impressive.

President Obama once referred to Russia as a regional power. This statement infuriated the Kremlin because it contradicted Russia’s image of itself and mocked Russia in front of the rest of the world. If the purpose of Obama’s statement was to diminish Russia’s role in international affairs, it had the opposite effect, and it was not borne out by reality. Russia at that time was on the pathway to pursuing a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy in numerous parts of the world that extended far beyond Russia’s “region.”

Systemically, there are factors that retard, and perhaps may even prevent, Russia from reaching the stature in the world where it can be called a great power. Definitions differ as to what is a great power, but most political scientists agree that to be a great power a country must have sufficient military, political, economic, scientific-technical, ideological, and cultural power that has worldwide influence. Russia meets many of these criteria, but with varying degrees of success. Certainly, its military might, manifested most prominently by its powerful nuclear arsenal, is a major factor in elevating Russia’s stature in the world. In other categories, its influence is less successful. The fact that Russia is not a country with which much of the world strives to be allied, other than certain neighbors out of geopolitical necessity or authoritarian regimes that are generally reviled, is a testament to the limits of Russia’s “great power” status.

Russia’s greatest weakness is the lack of a dynamic economy. For Russia to compete for influence on the world stage and restore its historical power and dynamism, it must undergo major reform and modernization of its economy and political system. There have been numerous efforts to do so, but they have been half-hearted at best. Those reform efforts have been dragged down and defeated by powerful internal forces that refuse to release their tight grip on the reins of power. Russia cannot have it both ways: It cannot modernize its economy and society without changing its political dynamic. It cannot retain a corrupt authoritarian political structure and expect to be economically and politically competitive in the world. To prosper, Russia cannot be known just for producing oil and gas and stacking dolls; it must diversify its economy, create a more conducive environment for investment, and most importantly, encourage and reward, rather than stifle, initiative among its very talented and educated population. Russia must cease being a country known for its brain drain, and become instead a country that attracts the best and the brightest minds.

Russia has always had great potential, but it has largely been its own worst enemy in trying to reach that potential. Russian society, along with the power elite, wants Russia to be a great power. A recent Lavada Center poll revealed that 88 percent of the population seeks this goal. But to do so Russia will need to take critically important steps that it has been unwilling or unable to take in the past.

Great power status also is a matter of perception. Although a country’s strength and influence in the world can be judged against a certain set of criteria, acknowledgment of a country as a great power depends to a large extent on consensus and circumstances. As for Russia’s status, the conclusion one comes to in countries like Tajikistan or Belarus may be very different in Chile or Benin. In the final analysis, great power status is subjective until it becomes objective. By this, I mean that when it is overwhelmingly clear that a country meets all the criteria specified above and is recognized as doing so worldwide, and not just regionally or only in limited parts of the world, then there is little doubt a country has attained great power status.

The United States has enjoyed this status since the second half of the 20th century. So did the Soviet Union. As for post-Soviet Russia, the jury is still out. Russia under Vladimir Putin has satisfied many but not all of the criteria, and its influence is significant but not all-encompassing. Is Russia an ascending power or a declining power? Will its increasingly close relations with China work to solidify and strengthen its position in the world, or will it weaken Russia and relegate it to being China’s junior partner with limited room to rise to the position in the world that the Kremlin seeks to attain? Perhaps President Obama was prescient when he called Russia just a “regional power.” Or perhaps he failed to fully grasp the changes taking place in the worldwide “correlation of forces,” to use a Soviet term, and underestimated Russia’s forward trajectory. The next decade may provide answers to these critical questions.

Washington, DC | July 2019

Chapter 7

Strengthening Russia’s Influence in International Affairs, Part II

Russia and Its Neighbors: A Sphere of Influence or a Declining Relationship?

In Part I of this essay on Russian foreign policy, I examined the Kremlin’s quest for great-power status from a global perspective. For those far from Russia, both geographically and politically/diplomatically, the country’s status as a great global power may be questioned.

In Part II of this essay, I examine Russia’s relations with those living in its shadows—neighboring countries that over the centuries have had a special relationship with Russia and view its intentions, capabilities, and policy objectives from the perspective of a geopolitical environment dominated by Moscow. For them, the reality of Russia’s power and influence is undeniable.

Defining Russia’s Sphere of Influence: An Historical Review

As I explained in previous essays, Russia—whether Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, or post-Soviet Russia—views the security of its frontiers as essential for the security of the homeland. In Moscow’s view, security can be ensured only if Russia maintains a reliable sphere of influence over bordering countries. Although Russia’s western frontier has been the most important bulwark against foreign aggression—real or perceived —the south and the east have also played an important role in assuring the security of the Russian state.

Over the centuries, Russia’s sphere of influence has ebbed and flowed as geopolitical confrontation and diplomacy have either favored or disadvantaged Russia. Those countries that have been victims, finding themselves pawns in great power politics, have often sought the protection of Russia’s adversaries. Few have willingly and readily accepted Russian domination for they realized that security for Russia often meant insecurity for them.

A study of the map of Eastern Europe during the centuries reveals a hodgepodge of states, ethnic groupings, and rising and falling empires that cover a wide expanse of territory with few natural frontiers. Power determined the landscape and the fate of millions. Imperial Russia was one of four empires—along with Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—that vied for control over this valuable real estate during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Borders shifted, countries emerged and disappeared, and allegiances shifted from empire to empire, which eventually led to the emergence of independent countries, but many of those states remained within the sphere of influence of the most dominant neighboring power.

During the last 100 years, Europe has experienced three geopolitical tectonic shifts that have had a colossal impact on the power relationships in the region—World War I, World War II, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes of Eastern Europe. World War I resulted in the disintegration of the four powerful European empires (the Ottoman Empire—or as it was referred to at the time as the “Sick Man of Europe”—had been gradually weakening during much of the 19th century; its death knell came with its defeat in World War I).

For the Russian Empire, the impact of defeat reverberated within the homeland and throughout the region. Russia lost huge swaths of territory, and with the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, its political system underwent an upheaval that was to threaten the entire world. Many countries and regions that had been absorbed into the Russian Empire over the centuries broke away from Moscow’s control. Finland and Poland regained their independence; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania emerged as sovereign countries. Even Belarus and Ukraine succeeded in briefly separating from Russia, as did the states of the South Caucasus—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—and Turkestan (present-day Central Asia) before they were reabsorbed by the Soviet regime as it formed a new empire in the 1920s—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

World War II brought immense devastation to the lives of millions of people and turmoil to Europe’s geopolitical structures. The notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Protocol of August 23, 1939, divided much of Eastern Europe between Adolph Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. What appeared on paper became a reality almost immediately as Hitler invaded western Poland on September 1, 1939, and Soviet forces moved into eastern Poland two weeks later. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as part of Romania, were conquered by Soviet forces shortly thereafter, and Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in what became known as the Winter War of 1939–1940.

The fruits of the Soviet and Allied victory over the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and its collaborators were codified at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin. Although arguments abound about the real intentions of the three leaders and their ability to follow through with their commitments, Stalin’s brazenness and the reality of geographic proximity won out and resulted in the reestablishment of Soviet control over previously lost territory—the Baltic States, parts of Finland and Romania (present-day Moldova)—and the subsequent subjugation of most of Eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Moreover, it resulted in the installation of Communist regimes that, except for Yugoslavia and Albania, were subservient to Moscow.1  Although cracks in this compliant relationship appeared over the years (Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980–1981), Stalin and his successors were able to secure and control a large arc of territory adjacent to the Soviet Union that provided a sphere of influence that to a large extent assuaged the Kremlin’s concerns about the imminent vulnerability of the Soviet heartland to foreign aggression. But this fixation on threats to the homeland was not mitigated just by territorial expansion and the installation of compliant regimes. Soviet leadership’s obsession with the expansion of their military capabilities and the militarization of Soviet society itself was eventually to become a major factor that led to the demise of the Soviet Union—the third and most recent geopolitical tectonic shift in Europe.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was preceded by the fall of the Communist system and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe two years earlier. The sphere of influence that the Kremlin had fought so hard to establish and maintain shattered. Not only did the outer perimeter of the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe cast off their Communist rulers, but they joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—something that was inconceivable just a few years earlier. Even worse for Moscow was the fact that the once-mighty Soviet Union—a country consisting of 15 union republics—was no longer, and in its place, 15 independent countries emerged. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been independent between the two world wars, and their incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 had never been recognized by the United States and many European countries. Therefore, their reemergence as independent nations was easier for the Kremlin to accept, although it was still a bitter pill to swallow. The separation of the other republics, most of which had enjoyed only brief moments of freedom in the past and had been conjoined to Russia for centuries, was inconceivable to most Russian leaders. Russia’s weakness and vulnerability were exposed to all. In the ensuing years, Moscow worked hard to maintain formal and informal relationships among the former constituent republics of the Soviet Union to preserve the complex, interconnected economic, political, and social ties that were critical to the functioning not only of Russia but also of the newly independent countries themselves.

The history of the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the establishment of new relationships is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, I will focus on how Russia views its ties with its neighbors whom it often refers to as “the near abroad”—a term implying not true independence—and how it views those ties through the lens of its perceived sphere of influence.

Defining Russia’s Sphere of Influence—Words Matter

Speaking on Russian television several weeks after the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, spoke about Russia’s spheres of “privileged interests” and the obligation of the Russian government to defend Russian citizens residing abroad. Medvedev said,

Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had friendly cordial relations, historically special relations. We will work very attentively in these regions and develop these friendly relations with these states, with our close neighbors.

When asked if these “priority regions” were those that bordered on Russia, Medvedev replied: “Certainly the regions bordering [on Russia], but not only them.” Several months later Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a statement about the “unique relations” that bind Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. He spoke about the “civilizational unity” of the territory that comprised the former USSR and, previously, Imperial Russia.

“Spheres of privileged interest” and “sphere of influence” are terms that appear to be synonymous. Although the former may be a slightly milder, more acceptable diplomatic variant than the latter term, which has a negative connotation, there is little doubt—particularly from the perspective of those who are within Russia’s “sphere of privileged interest” or “sphere of influence”—that their freedom and independence may not be assured and may depend on the whims and policy decisions of their more powerful neighbor.

It has been one of the Kremlin’s highest priorities to preserve as much influence and, where possible, control, over its immediate neighborhood as it can. It has done so through formal institutions and various informal mechanisms—one of which is setting the terms by which it and the outside world define that neighborhood.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, a new, looser organization was established under Moscow’s tutelage—the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS). Although this organization, made up of former Soviet republics minus the three Baltic States, never achieved the goals its founders had set for it, it nevertheless established a framework for Moscow and the outside world to continue defining that part of the world as a closely interrelated and mutually advantageous entity. This reinforced Moscow’s efforts to see itself and to be seen by the outside world as the dominant power in the region.

The international community has also struggled with how to define the post-Soviet world. Although it tried to avoid the most odious term the Kremlin employed in referring to the other former constituent parts of the Soviet Union—“the near abroad,” it commonly used “the former Soviet Union” or the CIS as a reference term, thereby maintaining a collective concept of the region. The exceptions were the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which, because of their previous independent status, were regarded as having completely separated from Moscow.

A new term—“Newly Independent States (NIS)”—was popularized by the U.S. State Department and others in an attempt to remove the implication of Moscow’s domination. Nevertheless, the name still encompassed the region as a collective entity and did not fully break with past relationships. Another problem with the term was how long one could refer to those countries as “newly independent”—five years, 10 years? Over time, the term outlived its usefulness and made little sense.

As the West’s concept of the region evolved, NIS was replaced with “Russia and Eurasia,” or just “Eurasia.” This showed progress in moving toward a new concept for the region, but it continued to have flaws. Russia was still closely tied to the other countries included in the term “Eurasia.” In reality, the only country that could be called “Eurasian” was Russia itself since it straddled both continents. Furthermore, why should other countries of the former Soviet Union still be viewed collectively as part of “Eurasia” when they had increasingly little in common, viz., Moldova and Kyrgyzstan?

Finally, decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, the outside world has reached a point that it now views the former Soviet republics as separate entities not tied to Moscow. If they are grouped at all, it is geographically: the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine), Transcaucasia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan).

The outside world’s difficulty defining the region that replaced the former Soviet Union helped to reinforce the Kremlin’s view of its sphere of influence and may have strengthened Moscow’s claim to its domination of the region. When the Soviet Union was on the verge of breaking apart, President George H.W. Bush in his famous “Chicken Kyiv” speech on August 1, 1991, cautioned against “suicidal nationalism” and urged Ukraine not to declare itself independent. Despite the president’s warning, Ukraine did so three weeks later. During the Clinton Administration, as aid and technical assistance poured into the countries of the former Soviet Union, deferential treatment appeared to be given to Russia over other former Soviet republics. This was visible, for example, in the preference the West showed Russia in some of the early decisions on the exploitation of energy resources in the countries of Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Although the Clinton Administration developed a more balanced approach to the entire region over time, its early decisions set a tone that strengthened Moscow’s hand among its “lesser partners” in the former Soviet Union. In fairness, it could be argued that there were expectations that heavy investment in Russia could turn the former Communist giant into a democratic state that would be integrated into the West. The smaller countries would be less of a challenge and would not require investment on a scale commensurate with what was being made in Russia. As time passed and it became apparent that Russia was not going to meet the West’s expectations, other countries of the former Soviet Union became more important as possible counterweights to Russia. Consequently, Western interest and investment in them increased.

Many in the Kremlin believed that the West’s early policy directions and certain concrete steps were signs that Russia’s interests in the region would be respected and that there would be no serious resistance to Moscow’s efforts to maintain hegemony over what it considered to be its vital regional interests. This proved to be wrong. It would not be long before Russia and the West resumed their confrontational relationship. Whatever mutual trust had been built in the initial post-Soviet years evaporated. Russia once again found itself in an adversarial relationship that threatened its security and reinforced the need to maintain and strengthen its sphere of influence along its periphery and beyond.

Challenges to Russia’s Sphere of Influence

Moscow has traditionally preferred security arrangements in Europe and beyond as something that resembles the 19th-century division of the continent into spheres of influence. In this context, President Vladimir Putin (and his temporary replacement Dmitry Medvedev from 2008–2012) insisted that the international community recognize the post-Soviet space as within Russia’s sphere of influence and that any attempt to bring countries like Ukraine and Georgia into the West—particularly into the Western security structure (NATO)—would be met with fierce resistance. Putin’s Russia, like previous Russian states, sees itself surrounded by enemies, particularly by NATO in the west. For this reason, any effort by states within what Russia considers its sphere of influence to strengthen their ties with the West is viewed as a hostile act that requires appropriate countermeasures.

Russia’s position is motivated by a paranoid siege mentality, by regional economic and social relationships, and by the need to maintain economic prosperity and domestic social stability. The collapse of the Soviet Union significantly weakened all of these elements and disrupted, and in some cases destroyed, the traditional relationships needed to maintain them. During President Putin’s tenure, a concerted effort has been made to repair the damage done by the destruction of the Soviet system and to build new relationships. Much progress has been made, but in the past few years new threats have appeared. A declining economy, growing social dissatisfaction, and a changing international political environment pose new challenges to the Kremlin and its ability to maintain its traditional sphere of influence in a way that reinforces rather than detracts from efforts to provide for physical security, economic prosperity, and social stability of the country.

Post-Soviet Russia has been confronted with two serious challenges to its hegemony over its self-declared sphere of influence—Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In both instances Russia used military force to confront the real and perceived threats that emanated from those challenges, namely that the countries were colluding with the West, posing a direct threat to Russia. Although the Kremlin was able, at least temporarily, to put the brakes on Georgia’s and Ukraine’s efforts to embrace the West and join Western institutions, the repercussions on Russia’s relations with its neighbors and across its sphere of influence were shattering. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Dmitry Trenin put it, “A process of disintegration—of not only the empire but also the historical core of the Russian state—has become irreversible. Ukraine’s break with Russia in political, economic, cultural, and even spiritual terms precludes any possibility of their integration.” Even Russia’s closest allies—Belarus and Kazakhstan—have drawn lessons from the Kremlin’s actions and have begun gradually and cautiously to seek a more independent role for themselves.

Other events during the past year have put further strain on Russia’s relations with its neighbors. The so-called “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia in spring 2018, the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine at the end of 2018, and the failure to advance real political integration of the “Union State” between Russia and Belarus have further weakened the Kremlin’s hold over its sphere of influence. Nevertheless, Moscow remains a formidable force—politically, economically, militarily, and culturally—within the region.

Russia maintains military bases in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and in Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, and it plays an active role by serving both as a “peacekeeper” and fostering instability within zones of so-called “frozen conflicts” or “managed conflicts,” such as Donbas (Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan), and Transnistria (Moldova). Russia’s outright annexation of Crimea demonstrates Moscow’s determination to maintain and expand its sphere of influence, particularly when it believes that its vital national interests are threatened by the West or powerful internal forces. This message has not been lost on Belarus and Kazakhstan. Moscow remains convinced that it can still intervene militarily and politically without risking a direct military conflict with the West, although Moscow would expect a serious political and economic reaction. The exception is the Baltic States, which are NATO members. Any Russian attack on these three countries would automatically trigger Article 5 of the NATO Treaty and the intervention of NATO forces.

In Pursuit of Influence

Russia seeks to apply pressure on the countries it considers to be in its sphere of influence through regional organizations, international cultural and ethnic suasion, and most importantly, bilateral relations.

Institutionalizing Russia’s Sphere of Influence

Over the years, Moscow has established several regional and international organizations designed to promote closer cooperation and enhance Russia’s economic, foreign, and security objectives. Designed in some respects to mirror Western international institutions, the regional organizations the Kremlin has created have largely fallen short of expectations. The reasons are many, but one of the most glaring is that the heavy hand of Moscow aimed at promoting integration under Moscow’s tutelage has retarded the full and unencumbered development of these organizations.

Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)

The CIS was established immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The original members included 12 of the former republics of the Soviet Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan (associate member), Ukraine (associate member),and Uzbekistan. The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declined the invitation to join. Georgia resigned after its 2008 war with Russia, and Ukraine quit the organization in 2014 after Russia seized Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region. CIS headquarters was established in Minsk, Belarus. The CIS was charged with promoting cooperation on political, economic, military, and environmental policy and law enforcement. Attempts by Moscow to reintegrate the former Soviet republics have had only limited success. With the loss of Georgia, and particularly of Ukraine—the strongest economic and military power after Russia—the CIS, to quote Dmitry Trenin, has “turned into a mechanism for post-imperial dissolution….” Although the CIS has fallen short of Moscow’s expectations of maintaining a dominant role in the post-Soviet space, Russia has not abandoned its aspirations to pursue aggressive integration plans. Recently, the Kremlin appointed its former ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, as Deputy Minister for Economic Development tasked with coordinating Moscow’s efforts to oversee the integration process. This does not come as good news to Belarus and other CIS members. As Russia’s former ambassador in Minsk, Babich had aggressively sought to promote the subordination of Belarus to Russia’s interests and domination. In so doing, he alienated the Belarusian senior leadership. This created such a tense situation that the Kremlin had to recall Babich back to Moscow.

Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)

The Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union was signed by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan on May 29, 2014, and entered into force on January 1, 2015. The EEU has since expanded to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. It has one observer-member (Moldova) and several free-trade partners (China, Iran, and Vietnam). Mongolia, Syria, and Tajikistan are being considered as prospective members.

The EEU grew out of a Customs Union among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan that aimed to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff barriers and establish a common external tariff policy. The EEU was later developed in part as a response to the growing economic and political influence of the European Union (EU) and to prevent encroachment of the latter, as well as of China, into a market dominated by Russia.

The EEU has had some success in promoting Eurasian economic integration among the members, and the organization does enjoy broad support in all EEU countries. The organization, however, has gone through frequent trade disputes, not all of which have been settled in Moscow’s favor despite the Kremlin’s frequent heavy-handed attempts to dominate the proceedings of the EEU’s Commission and its court.

But for all its usefulness, the EEU, according to Carnegie’s Trenin, “has not become the center of power in Eurasia that Moscow had hoped would emerge.” As China expands its role in the economic development of many of the member states of the EEU, Russia, as the leading power in the Union, finds it increasingly difficult to compete with its powerful neighbor to the east. Consequently, the EEU, as Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment describes it, remains “an unhappy union of coerced members and frequent trade spats.”

Over the years there has been considerable discussion about establishing relations between the EU and the EEU, but they have failed to materialize. Yauheni Preiherman, a noted Belarusian expert explains why:

The attitude toward the EEU in the West is still based on the perception that this is “an attempt to recreate the USSR.” As a result, the EU refuses to start substantive negotiations with the EEU. Brussels considers it to be a Russian project that threatens the sovereignty of other countries. But if the EU representatives meet with colleagues from Belarus (and Armenia) more often and at a higher level, they will hear the opposite argument more: If you really care about our sovereignty, then let’s develop relations between the EU and the EEU. After all, the more successful the EEU is, the stronger our economics will be and the better it is for our sovereignty.

Despite its shortcomings, the EEU remains an effective tool for Russia to maintain its influence, particularly economic, in the other member states—and they, in all fairness, benefit as well. In some respects, the EEU can be compared to some former Soviet organizations in which Moscow dominated, but the periphery often benefited more than the center did.

Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did the Warsaw Pact—the military and security alliance the Soviet Union established as a counter to NATO. Now the member states of that alliance, except for Russia, are members of NATO. Russia has lost its military allies (although many were reluctant allies at best) and is facing a strong and expanding military alliance to its west.

To create a collective defense system to support Russia and some of the newly independent states and to address new threats that arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin created a new security alliance. On May 15, 1992, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed the Collective Security Treaty. Ten years later, on October 7, 2002, they institutionalized this arrangement by establishing the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The main tasks of the CSTO were the collective defense of the member states against internal and external threats, particularly international terrorism and extremism, illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, organized transnational crime, illegal migration, and other threats that the member states identified. In 2005, the CSTO added “color revolutions”2 and hybrid war as new threats to the region.

Membership in the CSTO has fluctuated over time. Currently, its members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, with Afghanistan and Serbia as non-member observers. Uzbekistan was a founding member of the CSTO but later quit as Tashkent became increasingly concerned over Moscow’s dominance of the organization. Azerbaijan and Georgia joined the CSTO after it was founded but subsequently left the organization. Ukraine—the most important state of the former Soviet Union from Russia’s perspective—refused to join the CSTO. This left a significant void in Russia’s effort to have an effective security pact that could serve its interests vis-à-vis the West and NATO.

The CSTO is frequently criticized in the West as being nothing more than a security instrument Russia wields to impose its hegemony over the post-Soviet space and to recreate, at least partially, the defense and security structure that existed during the Soviet Union. This is not a fully accurate assessment. Although it would be naive not to consider the CSTO as an important tool in Russia’s geopolitical machinations, particularly within its neighborhood, and that the other member states of the CSTO do not defer to Russia and see it as the dominant force managing the defense and security of the region, the “correlation of forces,” to use an old Soviet term, is not moving in Russia’s favor. Without a doubt, the CSTO has become an important multilateral defense and security structure under the Kremlin’s leadership and has strengthened Russia’s authority and capabilities with the other member states. Nevertheless, there are both internal and external challenges to the organization and especially serious divisions among its members that, despite Russian domination, restrict its effectiveness.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is worth mentioning because it is an important multilateral security organization, but it should not be characterized as a tool that Russia principally uses to manipulate its neighborhood and enhance its sphere of influence. Certainly, Russia is a major player in the SCO, but unlike the CSTO, Russia must compete with its principal partner, China, for authority and influence. In addition, both India and Pakistan are permanent members, together with the Central Asia states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, thereby making the SCO a more diverse organization. Furthermore, the SCO has four observer members: Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia, and six dialogue partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. This diversity inevitably precludes a strong, unified organization.

The SCO was established in Shanghai in 2001 and has both a security and an economic agenda. In the security realm, the goal is to promote military and counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing. In the economic arena, the CSTO focuses on trade and regional economic cooperation initiatives, such as supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (discussed later) and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. The SCO supports cooperation on culture, education, energy, and transportation. The SCO has been plagued by chronic underfunding and has limited power to operate independently, often focusing on the agendas of the twin-engine driving forces of the organization—Russia and China—though they have different visions of the SCO.

Both Russia and China have hosted military “antiterrorism” exercises that have involved other members of the SCO. In 2019, Russia invited member states from both the SCO and the CSTO to participate in the Russian Armed Forces’ annual strategic operational exercise called Tsentr (Center) 2019, which was held on September 16–21, 2019, and included forces from China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. According to a report by Roger McDermott, a noted expert on the Russian Armed Forces, this exercise was focused mainly on counter-terrorism operations and was designed to defend Central Asia against an Islamist insurrection; it was not allegedly aimed against a third-party country. It took place mainly in the Orenburg region of Russia but also spilled into other central parts of the country. It reportedly involved 128,000 military personnel, 20,000 pieces of equipment and weaponry, 600 aircraft and helicopters, and 15 warships. According to McDermott, some Russian analysts noted that Tsentr 2019 “looks less like preparing for counter-terrorist actions, than for inter-state war; this has been a feature of all Russian strategic exercise in recent years, though not an exclusive dimension….” McDermott questions the circumstances “in which Beijing, Delhi, and Islamabad would all join forces with Moscow, given the differences between these powers. Yet, by staging its annual strategic-level exercises to include SCO members in this way, Russia clearly wants to raise the specter of alliance building.”

“The Russian World” (Russkii Mir): A Concept for Ethnic, Spiritual, and Cultural Unity

The “Russian World” is not an institution; it is, instead, a common cultural, religious, and sometimes political concept designed to reconnect the Russian diaspora with its homeland. It is an important instrument in the Kremlin’s toolbox and is frequently used to rally Russian public opinion and Russian expats throughout the “near abroad” and beyond to serve the interests of the Kremlin and reinforce Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence. With some 30 million Russian compatriots now living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation—most in Belarus, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, —the concept of the “Russian World” has proven to be a useful vehicle in pursuit of the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives.

The “Russian World” has frequently been used by Moscow in countries with a significant Russian population to garner support for its compatriots in their struggles with what they consider discriminatory policies in the host countries, such as restrictions on the use of the Russian language, “unfair” requirements for citizenship, or “disrespect” for Soviet war memorials and other monuments to former Soviet and Imperial Russian rule. Protests by members of the Russian diaspora against such policies have the full support of the Russian Government and its propaganda outlets. Vladimir Putin has spoken out repeatedly in support of Russian protestors in other countries. According to Paul Goble, a long-time Russia-hand and a one-time special advisor to former Secretary of State James Baker, “last October [2018] Putin told the Congress of Russian Compatriots that Moscow will increase its efforts to defend Russians living abroad, something that he hopes will lead to an expansion of the “Russian World” (“Russkii Mir”).”

The Russian Orthodox Church is an active player in the “Russian World” concept. In the words of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who was imprisoned for 10 years and is now a prominent, outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin,

[T]he Kremlin relies on the Orthodox Church as the main unifying force in the country and provides it with generous financial support. In return, the church has been the key promotor of a ‘Russian World’ concept that casts the Kremlin as a defense of Russians outside of Russia. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has gone so far as to call the Putin era “a miracle of God.”

The Russkii Mir Foundation, which was created by a decree signed by Putin in 2007 to promote this concept in Russian civil society, is supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and several Russian governmental agencies. Its official founders are the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science. Funding for the Foundation comes from the federal budget, voluntary contributions and donations, and other unnamed sources.

Although much of the focus of the “Russian World” has been on promoting Russian soft power, the concept has also been used in the service of more aggressive pursuits—most notably in the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Separatist forces and their Russian supporters seized upon Russian nationalist sentiments among certain segments of the population to claim that parts of eastern Ukraine were historically part of Russia; they referred to the region as “Novorossiya” (New Russia)—a term used to designate part of southern Russia during Tsarist days. In spring 2014, this idea was supported directly by Putin who said in referring to Donbas: “I’ll remind you, this is Novorossiya: Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa were not part of Ukraine during Tsarist times. These were all territories given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government.” Although Putin did not say that Russia should reclaim these regions, he encouraged the separatist cause and those who sought to recreate Novorossiya. Following Russia’s initial involvement in hostilities in eastern Ukraine, excitement over establishing Novorossiya peaked. But the hope of reconstituting Novorossiya was short-lived as political and military efforts failed. Nevertheless, the concept remains alive as an element of the “Russian World.”


The Euromaidan Revolution

No country of the former Soviet Union is more important to Russia than Ukraine. This has been true for more than 300 years and remains true today. However, the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013–2014 caused a cataclysmic rupture in that relationship and has shaken Russia’s view of the world, its security, and its future to the very core.

The Euromaidan Revolution was marked by months of protests in the streets of Kyiv that became increasingly violent as riot police and unknown shooters opened fire on demonstrators, resulting in over 130 deaths. The events culminated during the week of February 18–23, 2014, in the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the collapse of the Ukrainian Government.

The spark that ignited the revolution was the controversy over Ukraine’s future ties with the European Union. Several Ukrainian governments, including that of Yanukovich, had sought to achieve an association agreement with the European Union that would have provided Ukraine with much-needed loans in return for Ukraine adopting liberalizing reforms—a position that the protesters strongly supported. Yanukovich indicated that he intended to sign the agreement but then started to waiver and delay, apparently under pressure from the Kremlin. Russia was Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. If Ukraine signed the agreement with the European Union, Moscow feared that it would have complicated their trade relationship.

As tensions rose and the protests became more violent, Yanukovich decided that his safety was at risk. On February 22, 2014, he fled Ukraine for Russia. The Ukrainian Rada (parliament) immediately relieved him of his duties as president by a vote of 328 to zero. The Euromaidan Revolution had triumphed, or so it seemed, with the removal of a corrupt, pro-Russian president. But the Ukrainian people were not ready for the immense challenges that lay ahead. Victory in revolutions is generally measured in the destruction of past evils, but the victors are usually ill-prepared for what to do the day after the revolution. That only comes with trial and error as the new authorities attempt to chart a path forward.

There was much jubilation in the streets of Kyiv and many other cities, but not everywhere. Ukraine has always been a divided country, with a history of multiple orientations and allegiances as well as cultural and linguistic differences. Not everyone welcomed Euromaidan. Many felt threatened and looked for reassurance elsewhere to ensure that their lives would not be thrown into chaos and despair. Russia was seen as their savior.

Russia was in shock. How could have the events in Kyiv and the overthrow of Yanukovich been possible? Had not Russia and President Putin personally taken numerous measures over the years to ensure that Ukraine would remain a reliable and trusted ally of Russia? Now not only Ukraine was in turmoil, but so was Russia.

The Importance of Ukraine to Russia

The history of Russia and Ukraine has been perceived by many as the history of one people. Kyiv was the birthplace of the first East Slavic state—Kyivan Rus—and the center of culture, religion, and trade for the region for centuries. Putin has spoken of “commonalities” of Russians and Ukrainians and stressed that they are the same people and speak the same language.

Ukrainians today have a very different view. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that “all that remains ‘in common’ between us is one thing, the state border.” Noted Russian commentator Gleb Pavlovsky described the Russia-Ukraine relationship since independence as a “geopathological embrace.” He sees them “not as sovereign entities but as an involuntary dyad in which each side sees the other both as a model and as an adversary.”

For Russia, the changes have been abrupt. Ukraine was for centuries an integral component of the Moscow-centric state, and it served as a key element in the county’s defense, security, and economic development. Ukraine’s post-Soviet aspiration to seek closer integration with the West and to strive for membership in NATO and the European Union is unimaginable for most Russians for it strikes at the very heart of the essence of the Russian state—its heritage, its culture, and most importantly, its security. Ukraine has always been a buffer between the Russian heartland and the West, but now that buffer has been severely weakened. This is an excruciatingly painful situation and one that the Kremlin cannot tolerate. The events of Euromaidan and the replacement of the pro-Russian government with the Western-oriented government of President Petro Poroshenko (2014–2019) demanded immediate action and led to Russia seizing the Crimean Peninsula—the home of a critically important Russian naval base—and materially and militarily supporting separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The Russian propaganda machine went into high gear at home and easily convinced an overwhelming majority of the Russian people as well as many Russian-speaking Ukrainians that the Euromaidan Revolution was not democratic, was a menace to the Ukrainian people and was a threat to Russia. The Kremlin quickly garnered nationwide support for its annexation of Crimea. Putin’s approval rate soared to more than 80 percent. On March 18, 2014, Putin made a jubilant address to the Russian Federation Council on Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia, asserting, “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” Others were more bellicose in their denouncement of Ukraine’s Euromaidan “treason.” Aleksandr Khramchikhin, the deputy head of the Moscow Institute for Political and Military Analysis, writing in the Russian weekly newspaper Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, expressed the opinion of many of his compatriots: “Ukraine is Russia’s mortal enemy and will continue to constitute a serious threat unless and until it is reabsorbed by Russia or broken up into a number of less-threatening mini-states.”

Moscow’s propaganda message was clear and simple. As Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council explained: “The Kiev authorities are doing everything to split Ukraine, implementing the West’s scenario to break Ukraine away from Russia, while ignoring the interests of its own people.” It was a message that convinced many that Ukraine had become Russia’s enemy and the West was responsible for making it so. It was a message that worked.

What Does Russia Want to Achieve in Ukraine?

The Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to ensure that Ukraine remains in Russia’s sphere of influence and that it serves Russia’s interests by, at a minimum, not threatening or damaging Russia’s security. Barring that, the Kremlin seeks to weaken Ukraine as much as possible, including by breaking up the country. As time passes, these goals become increasingly difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, since 2014 Moscow has been doggedly pursuing both objectives simultaneously.

Putin and his cohorts are pragmatic and are more responsive to tactical opportunities than to pursuing a long-term plan. Although Moscow continues to dominate events and military activities in Donbas, it is paying a price for its aggression. Western economic sanctions on Russia are taking a toll. Russia’s initial seizure of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine in support of the separatist-established statelets of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics brought some initial success. Now, however, the ground game has reached an impasse, unless Russia resumes major military action.3 It appears that the Kremlin is willing to play the long game and turn Donbas into another “frozen or not-so-frozen conflict.”

On the political front, the Kremlin continues to play a coy game. It presents itself as a peacemaker in the negotiations led by the West, although Russia is the principal belligerent. It actively participates in the war in Donbas, and it continues to integrate Crimea into the structure of the Russian Federation. It seeks to influence internal Ukrainian politics in its favor, to weaken the Ukrainian government and the will of the Ukrainian people. It conducts propaganda campaigns within Ukraine, Russia, and the West, and it engages in economic warfare, espionage, contract murders, and other nefarious deeds. It even recently began handing out Russian passports to Ukrainians from separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. President Zelenskiy has mocked the passport offer. He said,

We Ukrainians have freedom of speech, a free media, and internet in our country. Which is why we clearly understand what a Russian passport really offers someone: the right to be arrested for peaceful protest; the right to not have free and competitive elections; the right to forget about your natural rights and human freedoms.

The war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. Many are growing weary of it and are more earnestly considering how to bring it to an end. Ukrainian President Zelenskiy appears to be more flexible than his predecessor. Recently, Ukraine and Russia exchanged 35 prisoners on either side. Many see this as a win for Russia since those released by Ukraine are considered actual criminals, but those freed by Russia are simply Ukrainian hostages. Moreover, Russia continues to hold other Ukrainian hostages in Russia and Crimea. Nevertheless, this move is viewed in Ukraine and Russia as a possible first step in reducing tensions.

Others are less sanguine. Most concur that the agreements achieved so far—Minsk I and II and the so-called Normandy process—have benefited Russia. They fear that the resumption of negotiations will put pressure on Ukraine to agree to conditions that are not in its favor. A recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Ukraine and Russia and an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron to move the stalled peace process have reinforced this concern.

The most recent controversy over bringing peace to Donbas centers on the so-called Steinmeier Formula—a proposal advanced in 2016 by then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (now president of Germany) to get Ukraine and Russia to agree on a sequence of events outlined in the Minsk accords that will allow for the special status of Donbas after elections are held in the separatist-held territories based on Ukrainian law and under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). After lying dormant for three years, the Formula was signed by Ukraine and Russia on October 1, 2019, raising much consternation in Ukraine and leading to protests on the streets of Kyiv and elsewhere. The timing of the withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of Ukrainian control over the border with Russia are not clearly defined. There is fear in Ukraine that signing on to the Steinmeier Formula will result in capitulation. Nevertheless, President Zelenskiy’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula has opened the door to the next round of negotiations by the Normandy Group—France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—a precondition that Russia insisted on before the group could resume consultations.

President Zelenskiy has addressed the concern of his fellow citizens about the sequence of steps that need to be agreed upon before Ukraine will implement the Steinmeier Formula. He insists that “there won’t be any elections under the barrel of a gun. There won’t be any elections there if the [Russian] troops are still there.” As in the past with other proposals, this one could collapse. Ukrainians are nervous that their new president, who is inexperienced in the complexities of diplomacy, could surrender the negotiating upper hand to Putin.

The United States has not been a direct participant in the peace process and is currently sending mixed messages regarding its position on Ukraine. President Trump has been encouraging Ukrainian President Zelenskiy to work out a deal with President Putin. Putin, however, appears to be playing the long game. Although Russia is suffering from isolation from the West and the sanctions that have been imposed on it, the Kremlin is willing to outwait the West and the relatively inexperienced new Ukrainian president and his government. Too much is at stake for Russia—its national security and what it considers to be the jewel in the crown of its sphere of influence, Ukraine—for it to agree to measures that will seriously jeopardize its national interests.

But will Russia succeed in bringing Ukraine back into the fold? Few believe it will. Instead, they believe that Russia will have to adjust to a new reality, one in which its traditional sphere of influence will be weakened and will seek compensation in other forms. As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Kremlin may decide that the best option is to create as much chaos in Ukraine as possible to thwart its aspirations for closer integration with the West. As for further compensation, the Kremlin may attempt to strengthen its influence in other states that border the West and Ukraine, most notably Belarus and Moldova, to maintain a strong security posture along its western frontier.

How Have the Events Following Euromaidan and Russian Aggression Impacted Ukraine?

Ironically, Russian aggression against Ukraine has achieved the opposite of its intended goal. It has pushed Ukraine closer to the West and brought about Ukraine’s exit from the Russian-dominated post-Soviet world. It has turned a once-friendly, dependent neighbor into an enemy that no longer relies on Russia economically or strategically. Any Russian hope that Ukraine would become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union is dashed. Informally, many Ukrainians and Russians still maintain close personal bonds, but Ukrainian aspirations and ties increasingly are shifting westward. Ukrainians today are less likely to live and work in Russia, moving instead to Poland and other Western countries. More than ever before, Ukrainians are identifying themselves as Europeans.

In addition, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has declared itself independent of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its autocephaly has been blessed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nominal senior patriarch in the Orthodox world. This means not only the loss of millions of parishioners for the Russian Orthodox Church but also a large loss of church property and revenue. Moreover, it delivers a major blow to the concept that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, one church, and one culture and that they all belong to the “Russian World.”

The Ukrainian language is experiencing a resurgence. It has become the lingua franca in the public space, mass media, and education. Ukrainian culture—always a distinct and proud aspect of Ukrainian society—has become a very prominent part of life.

Ukraine’s goals to join NATO and the European Union have been enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution. Ukraine has established a strategic partnership with the United States, which hopefully will survive the stress placed on it by the current political scandal involving the Trump Administration. Ukraine has built a capable army, is successfully holding its own in the war in eastern Ukraine, and is participating in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

The Ukrainian “Threat” to Russia

The transformations taking place in Ukraine pose a direct threat to the Kremlin and its rule. Because most Russians view Ukraine as virtually indistinguishable from their own country, significant changes in Ukrainian society and movement toward European integration could inevitably lead to calls for similar developments inside Russia. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently tweeted:

The contrast between Ukrainians voting in free and fair elections…and Russians getting arrested for wanting free and fair elections…is striking. The challenges posed by Ukraine’s democratic changes to its political system, the emergence of a vibrant and influential civil society, and the battle against corruption (still a formidable task) pose a direct threat to the autocratic and increasingly repressive regime in Moscow.

There is no indication that the conflict with Ukraine will end anytime soon. It will most likely persist for years, if not for decades. Even if a modus vivendi is found, and Russia and Ukraine end their overt confrontational relationship, the age-old relationship between Ukraine and Russia will never be the same. Although they share a common border and a history from which they cannot escape, Ukraine has now chosen a very different path. It sees its future tied to Europe, and it will no longer tolerate the heavy hand of the Kremlin in its political, economic, social, and religious life. Today, Ukraine is no longer part of Russia’s sphere of influence and will not tolerate—if it is able—any attempt by Russia to reassert its dominance over Ukraine.


Belarus is one of those small European countries few people know much about. For centuries it was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. When it gained independence in 1991, it remained so closely associated with Russia—politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically—that it could, without much exaggeration, be called Russia’s “mini-me.” But such an appellation may be unfair. Although much of it emanates from policy decisions taken by Belarus’s leaders and supported by a large majority of the population, part of Belarus’s close connection to Russia is dictated by geography and history over which Belarusians have no control. From the Russian perspective, Belarus is the linchpin in its sphere of influence along its western periphery and has gained enhanced importance since 2014 as a consequence of Russia’s “loss” of Ukraine.

A Victim of Geography and History

Belarus is a landlocked country wedged between Russia and Poland, bordering also on Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia. Throughout most of its history, Belarus has been controlled by different states, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Belarus enjoyed a very brief period of independence before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus regained its independence and started on a path toward freeing itself from its Soviet past and associating more closely with the West. In 1994 Alexander Lukashenko—a former Soviet collective farm director—was elected president. He quickly cracked down on the opposition forces and their attempts to introduce democratic reforms and returned Belarus to the Russian fold. Lukashenko’s autocratic rule earned Belarus the label of “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

Belarus plays a critical role in Russia’s defensive calculus. Due to its flat terrain with few natural impediments to the movement of military forces across its territory, Belarus has been a natural invasion route into Russia from the West over the centuris—most recently during World War II. Therefore, maintaining a friendly regime in Belarus that is deferential to Russia’s interests and agrees to play a key role in supporting Russia’s security policy is of paramount importance to the Kremlin.

For its part, Belarus has been a willing and subservient partner. It recognizes the overwhelming power of the Russian state and Belarus’s dependence on Russia for many of its economic and development needs. Since independence in 1991, Belarusians have accepted the inevitability of this relationship—one that is enhanced by the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic affinity of the Belarusian and Russian people. The Russian language and culture predominate in Belarus, and most Belarusians, although proud of their heritage, accept the reality of Russian domination in everyday life. Svetlana Alexievich, the noted Belarusian Nobel Prize-winning writer, described her and her countrymen’s quandary this way: “Of course, I am Belarusian and my mother tongue is Belarusian—though I don’t speak it because the whole practice of my life has been the Russian language and Russian culture. But I feel myself Belarusian; I am Belarusian; and this is my land.” This close identification of Belarus with Russia has traditionally diluted Belarusians’ sense of community apart from Russia and has facilitated Russia’s ability to manipulate and use Belarus as an essential ally in its foreign policy pursuits.

But will this tight relationship continue unchallenged? Are cracks already appearing? Have events in Ukraine affected Belarus’s view of, and relations with, Russia? Is President Lukashenko able to manipulate the Kremlin to Belarus’s advantage? And is the Belarusian President attempting to move his country closer to the West, thereby evoking fear in Moscow that Belarus, if left unchecked, could pose a threat to Russia’s sphere of influence? These are some of the questions I will address below.

The Nature of the Russia-Belarus Relationship

Although the Russia-Belarus relationship remains the most extensive and closest one Russia has in the post-Soviet space, it is increasingly plagued by challenges posed by a less compliant and more assertive government in Minsk. This tight relationship has come at a heavy price to both parties: for Russia, it has meant committing large financial resources and subsidies to Belarus; for Belarus, it has meant largely subordinating its geopolitical interests to those of Russia. Over the years this bilateral relationship has been perceived as generally beneficial to both parties. Below the surface, however, the partners have often been at odds. When disagreements have erupted into public disputes, Presidents Putin and Lukashenko have managed to tamp down the worst aspects of their differences.

Since Russia seized Crimea and incorporated the peninsula into the Russian Federation—a move that Belarus has not recognized—and engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine that resulted in the drastic deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, Belarus has been feeling increased pressure from Russia to be more accommodating to Russia’s strategic interests. There is a concern in Belarus that Russia might take some drastic steps, including military action, to ensure that Belarus remains steadfastly within Moscow’s orbit.

Feeding that concern is the fact that Moscow has recently increased its economic, political, and security pressure on Minsk in what Belarusian security analyst Arsen Sivitsky describes as “a quite aggressive and unfriendly manner toward its chief ally.” One important element of this pressure is Russia’s attempts to establish a military base in Belarus. Russian officials have repeatedly stated that they consider any attack on Belarus as an attack on Russia, and they use this argument as justification for a permanent military presence in Belarus. So far Lukashenko has successfully fended off those Russian efforts. Many Belarusians fear that the establishment of a Russian military installation in Belarus could serve as a base for the Kremlin to annex Belarus, just as it did with Crimea.

Russia’s increased aggression in the region has not only affected Belarus’s political and security concerns but has also awakened Belarusian civil society and pride in their own identity. Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, President Lukashenko delivered a speech for the first time in Belarusian, instead of Russian, which most Belarusians use as their first language. Lukashenko said: “We are not Russian—we are Belarusians.” This speech, followed by other measures to instill pride in Belarus’s history and culture, has had a positive impact on Belarusian society. Even some of the most ardent Belarussian opposition figures see Lukashenko less as “the last dictator in Europe” and more as the strongest guarantor of Belarus’s independence.4

Lukashenko has survived in large part because of his cunning and manipulative skills and by being an astute student of the Russian scene and Kremlin intrigues. He recognizes that Belarus holds the weaker hand and that his country’s economic dependence on Russia limits his options. He is also well aware of Russia’s weaknesses and knows how to exploit them to his advantage. He understands that Russia’s isolation on much of the international stage offers him new opportunities. Russian political analyst Kirill Rogov offers a Russian perspective:

[Belarus] is the last bastion. Considering the sharp conflict with the West, Moscow understands that at any moment the West could start pulling Belarus toward its sphere of influence and this creates some uncertainty. In the isolation that Russia is now experiencing, it is losing some of its influence, including over Belarus.

The Kremlin is well aware that “its last bastion,” the linchpin in its sphere of influence that serves as a buffer between Russia and the West, may no longer be as pliant as it has been in the past. This is a troubling development and one that the Kremlin is attempting to address through one of the original mechanisms that was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union—the Union State of Russia and Belarus.

The Union State

Russia and Belarus have had a close relationship since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. On December 8, 1999, they signed five documents to create what is now called the Union State of Russia and Belarus. This agreement, which was based ostensibly on the principle of parity, sought to integrate the two countries by creating a single economic space, a single currency, and a Union State legislature sometime in the future. Despite plans for certain integration, the two states were to remain independent and maintain sovereignty over key governmental functions. Since the Treaty was signed, many discussions and negotiations between the parties have taken place, but little progress has been made in implementing the agreement. The issue of parity has been a major stumbling block. As Belarusian analyst Yauheni Preiherman explains, “Moscow would not agree to parity-based decision-making in key economic areas, whereas Minsk would not go for anything else.”

In December 2018, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev declared that Moscow wanted to revise the 1999 Treaty and take steps to fully implement it. One can assume that Moscow is seeking to prevent Minsk from straying from its orbit, resolve some of the vexing economic problems in its favor, and perhaps solve the problem of what happens to Vladimir Putin after his final term as president ends in 2024. There is speculation that he could become president of the Union State and continue to rule not only Russia but also Belarus—a situation that Belarus would reject. For this reason, according to Belarusian analysts, any discussion of revising and implementing the Union Treaty would be acceptable to Belarus only if its scope is limited to an economic union.

Few experts believe that Russia will attempt to annex Belarus outright. It would be too steep a price to pay, even for Vladimir Putin. Rather, analysts are more inclined to predict that Russia will increase pressure on Belarus, seek to coerce it into following a more subservient role, and reduce its sovereignty so that it resembles the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet days. President Lukashenko has reaffirmed Belarus’s determination to remain independent. In a statement to the press in 2019, he said,

They [the Russians] would like to tie Belarus to Russia in a guaranteed way. I understand that. They cannot lose Belarus. But it is a different matter as to how this is being done. I told Putin, if there is any thought that we are ready to become part of Russia, just get it out of your head.

In response to Medvedev’s call, negotiations on a roadmap for integration between Moscow and Minsk began in 2019, but they failed to meet their deadline of June 21, 2019, and deferred the projected completion date to the end of the year. Minsk is focused on economic issues and seeks to stabilize and extend the fiscal advantages it currently enjoys from Russia. Moscow is aiming to consolidate and enhance its political influence over Belarus. This dispute does not seem to have a solution.

On September 17, 2019, Russia and Belarus announced that they had initialed a roadmap to form “an economic confederacy” by 2022. The document does not address integration between the two countries’ defense, security, and legal bodies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that this document is just a preliminary plan of action. Much negotiation still needs to take place before the end of the year. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Belarusian President Lukashenko said that the roadmap does not threaten Belarus’ sovereignty and independence.

There is little expectation that this attempt to implement the Union Treaty will be any more successful than previous ones. Presidents Putin and Lukashenko may sign an agreement, but the parties will likely run into the same roadblocks as in the past—mutual distrust and an inability to share power. There is also the possibility that negotiations will fail and the initialed documents could be torn up. In that case, the sides may decide to pull back and proceed at a slower pace, taking a step-by-step approach.

As a sign of Lukashenko’s growing concern that the Union State may represent a real threat to Belarus’s independence and sovereignty, or, more likely, as a negotiating ploy, Lukashenko said in a conversation with journalists on November 17, 2019, that Russia tries to impose more and more conditions on Belarus every year and that “we constantly lose something in the economy—lose and lose.” Then he asked rhetorically: “Sorry, but who the hell needs such an alliance?” It is hard to imagine with such sentiment expressed openly that an amicable resolution of the negotiations over the Union State will be achieved any time soon.

Lukashenko’s Delicate Balancing Act

Belarus’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States, have been strained for over a decade because of Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, his violent crack-down on his political opponents, and the resulting sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. In recent months, clear signals emerged from Minsk that Lukashenko wants to improve relations and increase investment in his country. China has already established a sizeable financial and commercial presence in Belarus. Lukashenko would like to see the same from the West and recognizes that an improved political relationship is a prerequisite. This will not be an easy task given the historical lack of trust between Belarus and the West, but it is a growing imperative for Minsk. Belarus is under increased pressure from Russia, which is using its economic leverage to get Belarus to comply with its political demands. Furthermore, Russia’s own economic decline has repercussions for Belarus because, even under the most favorable conditions, fewer Russian resources are now available to Belarus. Thus, Lukashenko understands that he needs to develop economic and political opportunities elsewhere, while at the same time maintaining a good relationship with Russia. It is a delicate balancing act—one that Lukashenko must execute carefully because Moscow takes a dim view of any signs of a pro-Western direction or even neutrality by Minsk.

Signs of a more independent Belarusian foreign policy have been more apparent in recent weeks and months. Late last year President Lukashenko reportedly told a group of visiting U.S. analysts that “the U.S. military and political role in Europe was crucial to regional security,” and he emphasized that he did not want a Russian military base in his country. On August 29, 2019, Lukashenko told former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton that he wanted to reset ties with Washington. Less than three weeks later, on September 17, 2019, the United States and Belarus announced that they had agreed to exchange ambassadors after diplomatic relations were downgraded 11 years ago. In making this announcement, U.S. Undersecretary of State David Hale emphasized that “we are not asking Belarus to choose between East and West. The United States respects Belarus’ desire to chart its own course and to contribute to peace and stability in the region.”

Recent steps by Belarus to improve relations with Washington cannot be viewed by Moscow as anything but troubling. Moscow is displeased that its most loyal ally is taking more independent positions and may be attempting to transform itself into a normal East European state and a possible intermediary between Russia and the West. Minsk has already carved out a diplomatic niche for itself as a host of negotiations on Ukraine. Further steps to play a more neutral role in helping to resolve East-West issues could impact Russia-Belarus relations in a negative way, especially in view of Moscow’s growing anxiety over the fact that, as Dmitry Trenin notes, “virtually the entire western border of Russia, from Norway to Ukraine, has turned into a new line in the military standoff between Russia and NATO countries and their partners and wards.”

Prospects for the Future of Russia-Belarus Relations

Prospects for Russia-Belarus relations appear to be more tenuous than at any time in recent history as Russia’s key ally and the linchpin in its sphere of influence along its western frontier increasingly shows signs of independence and change. It is not clear how much longer President Lukashenko will remain at the helm in Minsk, and what will follow when he leaves office is impossible to predict. How much Moscow will try to orchestrate his succession is a fundamental question and one that troubles the authorities in Minsk.

Prominent Russian think tanks closely aligned with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are already offering forecasts for the next several years. Some experts warn that in the event of further deterioration in relations between Russia and the West and the possibility that the United States may deploy a permanent military contingent in Poland, the Kremlin will insist on greater integration of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus and the establishment of a permanent Russian military base in Belarus. Others advocate applying more pressure on Belarus to gain concessions that would undermine Belarus’s independence and force greater integration with Russia. Still other analysts suggest that to prevent Belarus from withdrawing from Russia’s sphere of influence, Moscow should orchestrate regime change in Minsk, replacing Lukashenko with a more pro-Russian president, or even annex Belarus as it did Crimea in 2014. The latter scenario is least likely, but it could become more actual if the Kremlin fears it is conclusively losing Belarus.


Moldova is the third and smallest component of what Russia has traditionally considered its sphere of influence along its western frontier. It is also the home of the longest “frozen conflict” in Eastern Europe.

Moldova, known as the poorest country in Europe, is situated between Romania and Ukraine. Over the centuries what is modern-day Moldova has been controlled by the Ottoman Empire; Romania, when Moldova was known as Bessarabia; the Russian Empire; and the Soviet Union. Like other former Soviet republics, Moldova became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart. A small tract of land known as Transnistria bordering on Ukraine and inhabited largely by a Russian-speaking population declared its independence from Moldova in 1990. A civil war broke out, and a cease-fire was declared in 1992. Russian troops, who were stationed in Moldova during the Soviet days, occupied Transnistria as “peacekeepers” and guard over an old Soviet munitions base. Although negotiations over Transnistria have been conducted intermittently for decades, no resolution to this “frozen conflict” has been found. Many believe that Russia does not seriously seek an end to the conflict for fear of losing its influence and leverage over Moldova.

Romanian-speaking Moldova struggles to define its identity. The population is divided between those who are pro-Russian and those who are pro-Western. The younger generation predominantly sees its future tied to the West. The older generations—the ones that grew up as part of a Soviet society that was dominated by Moscow—have a more ambiguous view. The ruling elite has been largely pro-Russian. Even those who are Western-oriented understand that they cannot ignore the views of the Kremlin. The leadership in Chisinau (Moldova’s capital) has little flexibility. Moldova is poor and has few sources of revenue other than remittances for Moldovans working abroad (many in Russia) and its agricultural exports—principally wine. When the Kremlin decides to apply pressure on Moldova, it often declares a boycott of Moldovan goods. This can have a devastating effect on Moldova’s weak economy. Furthermore, the presence of Russian troops and the political control the Kremlin exercises over separatist Transnistria put Moldova in a very weak position vis-à-vis Russia. In addition, Moscow periodically stokes another potentially explosive ethnic issue—that of the Gagauz, an Eastern Orthodox Turkic people living in southern Moldova. A provision in a 1994 agreement between the Moldovan government and the Gagauz specifies that the latter has the right to pursue independence if Moldova decides to unite with Romania, as some Moldovan officials have proposed in the past. Consequently, Russia’s hold over Moldova remains for the most part steadfast.

Transnistria: A Frozen Conflict

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been leading an effort to resolve the Transnistrian conflict for over twenty years. In 2011, the 5+2 group—Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, Chisinau (capital of Moldova), and Tiraspol (capital of Transnistria), with the United States and the European Union as observers—was established as the “Permanent Conference for Political Questions in the Framework of the Negotiating Process on the Transnistrian Settlement.” According to an OSCE statement, the goal of the 5+2 talks is “… to work out the parameters of a comprehensive settlement based on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova within its internationally recognized borders with a special status for Transnistria within Moldova.”

In 2016, the OSCE developed a “small steps” package when German Foreign Minister Steinmeier was chairman of the OSCE. This Berlin Package, as it is called, proposed eight small steps to build confidence and advance the settlement process. Most of the steps addressed relatively minor economic and societal issues between Chisinau and Tiraspol. On the broader political front, the OSCE seeks agreement according to which Transnistria would enjoy a “special status” (a euphemism for federalization—a word that is anathema to Moldova) in a unified Moldovan state. Russia demands the “permanent neutrality of Moldova under reliable guarantees” and refuses to withdraw its troops from Transnistria until a final political resolution is found and is agreed to by all parties. The parties are still far apart from reaching an agreement, and it is clear that Russia has the upper hand in these talks. Russia is not only a direct participant, but as a member of the OSCE, it can exercise veto power over anything the OSCE proposes. There is little doubt that Russia plans to stay in Transnistria for the long haul.

A Political Crisis in Chisinau and an Unusual Resolution

The Moldovan government went through a political crisis in 2019 that was resolved in an unusual way—by the intervention of the United States, the European Union, and Russia supporting the same forces.

For years Moldovan politics were dominated by a notoriously corrupt oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who has been described as the richest man in the poorest country in Europe, and his Democratic Party that claimed to support integration with Europe and the fight against the “Russian threat.” He enjoyed support from the West because of his battle against pro-Russian forces in the country and his efforts to prevent them from coming to power in Chisinau. Nevertheless, in December 2016 Igor Dodon—head of the pro-Russian Socialist Party—was elected president.

Following a political crisis in June 2019, the Socialists united with a new pro-Western democratic alliance—ACUM—to oust Plahotniuc and form a new government. The leader of ACUM, Harvard-educated Maia Sandu, became the prime minister, and Dodon remained as president. Plahotniuc’s resistance was brief. Representatives from the United States, the European Union, and Russia met with Plahotniuc and convinced him that it was time to leave. Moldova’s oligarchic regime, which had seemed to be indestructible, collapsed under outside pressure.

There is little doubt among Moldovan politicians and analysts that the Russia-West cooperation over Moldova will last. Moscow still maintains the predominant leverage over the country, supported by increasingly assertive measures undertaken by pro-Russian President Dodon who has received a wide foreign policy mandate from the new governing coalition. This further strengthens Moscow’s belief that it can contain the pro-Western orientation of the new prime minister. As Carnegie’s DmitryTrenin has said, with the oligarch Plahotniuc out of the way, “the West and Russia have no compelling reason to cooperate” any further. Although Moldova will continue its efforts to seek a more balanced position between Russia and the West, there is little doubt that Chisinau will remain largely within Moscow’s orbit for the foreseeable future.5


Although the vulnerability of Russia’s western frontier has been Moscow’s most important security concern since it has been the main route for invasions over the centuries, Russia’s southern border has also posed unique challenges. During the heyday of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, wars were frequently fought for control of the valuable territory around the Black Sea and to its immediate east. Once Russia defeated the Turks and conquered the local populations, it established its authority over large swaths of territory. Areas with predominantly Slavic populations, such as southern Ukraine, were incorporated into the Russian Empire relatively peacefully. Other areas, notably the very ethnically diverse lands of the Caucasus, posed unique challenges to Russian domination.

The Caucasus region is divided in half by the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The area on the north side of the range is home to a multitude of nationalities, both Muslim and Orthodox. Known as the North Caucasus, it has been part of the Russian Empire for several centuries and has a history of turmoil and conflict. Even today the Kremlin must devote considerable attention to maintaining control and peace in the region.

Transcaucasia, or the South Caucasus, is home to three countries—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—with long histories of both independence and subservience to stronger powers in the region, namely Russia, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), and Iran (Persia). Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are ethnically, linguistically, and religiously very different. Georgia is predominately Orthodox, as is Armenia. Its two peoples speak languages that are distinct and unique to the region. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. The population speaks a Turkic language, and the people and government have close ties to Turkey. Azerbaijan also has a special relationship with Iran, which has a large Azeri population in northwestern Iran.

All three countries were incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century and became part of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. When the USSR collapsed, they regained independence but struggled to emerge from the Soviet legacy and Russian domination. Each country has followed a unique path, and each has developed its formula for dealing with Russia and the pressures the Kremlin applies to keep them within its sphere of influence.

Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia in August 2008 over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia and immediately thereafter broke off diplomatic relations with Moscow. Armenia has remained a loyal ally of Russia, and the two have a close economic and political relationship. Russia has a military base in Armenia and provides arms to the country, which is locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated area located in Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1988, resulting in a bloody conflict that lasted until a ceasefire was declared in 1994. Azerbaijan is an oil-and-gas rich country on the Caspian Sea. Despite Russia’s military support to Armenia, Azerbaijan has been able to maintain friendly relations with Russia, owing in large part to the powerful economic role the country plays in the region.

In the three decades since independence, each of the three countries has gradually restructured its relations with Russia. Significant changes have occurred in all three countries, and the legacy of the Soviet Union is disappearing. The Russian population in each country has decreased to an insignificant level, as has the use of the Russian language. Today, other countries—including China, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, and the United States—vie with Russia for economic, political, and social influence in the three countries

Russia, however, has not given up its attempts to influence the countries of Transcaucasia. It remains the most powerful neighbor in the region and has a closely interwoven history with all three countries. Widespread poverty and corruption still plague the region, which make the countries vulnerable to Russian manipulation and exploitation. Although the three countries are determined to map out independent paths for their future, they recognize the need to deal with a Kremlin that is increasingly uneasy about a region that once was firmly in its sphere of influence but now poses a serious challenge to its domination.


The Republic of Georgia has a long and proud history as an independent kingdom, but it has also been repeatedly occupied by its more powerful neighbors—the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires. In 1801, Georgia became part of the Russian Empire and remained subservient to Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Over almost two centuries, Georgia and Russia enjoyed a relationship that was in some ways unique. Georgians and Russians share the Orthodox faith, which has played a prominent role in both societies and has helped the two peoples to coexist generally on friendly terms. Georgians held positions of prominence in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The most notorious Soviet Georgians were Joseph Stalin (his real name was Djugashvili) and Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s last KGB chief. Eduard Shavardnadze was the Soviet Foreign Minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. Previously, he was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and returned to his homeland after the Soviet Union collapsed to rule as Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003. Georgia was also unique in that it was the only republic within the Soviet Union that was allowed to retain its native language as its official language. All other Soviet republics had to adopt Russian as their official language. Georgia also was known for its air of “independence” and unique way of doing things (often bordering on the illegal) that were not considered “Soviet.” It was often said that if one wanted to escape from the drab existence of Soviet life, one went to Georgia.

After Georgia regained its independence in 1991, a civil war erupted that led to the secession of two formerly autonomous regions—Abkhazia and South Ossetia that comprise approximately 20 percent of the territory of Georgia—and internal turmoil that subsided only after Shevardnadze regained control over the country.

In recent years, particularly under the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili (2004–2013 and 2015–2016), Georgia has pursued pro-Western foreign and economic policies, aspiring eventually to join NATO and the European Union. Georgia has established close ties with both organizations and has committed troops to NATO operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.

Georgia’s Western orientation has drawn the ire of the Kremlin, which frequently exerts pressure on the Georgian government and the Georgian people. Moscow has been successful in blocking Georgian membership in NATO (Georgia continues to cooperate with NATO, but membership discussions are no longer active), and has made clear that if Georgia were to join NATO, this would be a red line for Moscow that would result in disastrous consequences for Georgia. Although Georgia and its Western partners insist that Georgia, as an independent country, can pursue its foreign policy as it wishes, they realize that Georgia must tread carefully so as not to totally alienate Moscow. Georgia learned this bitter lesson in August 2008.

The August 2008 War and Its Consequences

On August 7, 2008, in an attempt to restore Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia, a brief war broke out between Russia and Georgia. Russian troops moved into Georgian territory and advanced on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. A ceasefire was declared on August 12, 2008, followed by successful negotiations led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Two weeks later South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their independence, which Moscow immediately recognized. Georgia and Russia broke off diplomatic relations, and they have not yet been restored.

Today, Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and relations with Georgia are still tense. On numerous occasions Russian and South Ossetian forces have provocatively moved the border fence between South Ossetia and Georgia deeper into Georgian territory, often dividing villages and even homesteads. Some Georgian farmers have gone to bed in Georgia and woken up in South Ossetia. Others have found their livestock suddenly in another country and have had to milk their cows through the border fence. There is little that Tbilisi can do. The Georgian government issues protests and raises the issue at a negotiation forum established in Geneva after the declaration of the ceasefire in 2008, but to no avail. Russia remains nonresponsive.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia eased somewhat after the departure of President Saakashvili, who was abhorred by Moscow. The Kremlin publicly blamed Saakashvili for starting the war and claimed that he was vehemently anti-Russian. Subsequent Georgian governments have sought some accommodation with Moscow, but with limited success. The Russian and Georgian people have tried to maintain normal contact (Russian tourism in Georgia has thrived), but the Kremlin is hypersensitive to any moves in Tbilisi that it interprets as anti-Russian.

In June 2019, a protest erupted in Tbilisi over the presence of a Russian legislator who sat in the speaker’s chair of the Georgian Parliament during a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy hosted by Georgia. The protest, led largely by Georgia youth, turned violent and resulted in numerous injuries. The Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili described it as a “manifestation of the very strong, deeply entrenched feeling of the Georgian population that is not accepting the status quo,” meaning the consequences of the 2008 war with Russia.

The Kremlin and Putin himself, who many believe was embarrassed and angered by the incident, reacted quickly to the protesters, whom they described as Russophobic and warmongering. Moscow issued a ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia that was allegedly done “to ensure Russia’s national security and protect Russian nationals from criminal and other unlawful activities.” The ban, which occurred at the height of the tourist season, had an immediate, negative effect on the burgeoning tourist industry in Georgia.

Tensions further escalated when a Georgian TV anchor went on an obscenity-laden rant against Putin. The Russian Duma threatened to introduce additional sanctions, including renaming the famous Georgian cheese pie khachapuri with the Russian name pyshka, which does not at all resemble the Georgian delicacy. Wiser heads prevailed, and the ban was not adopted, although the flight ban remained in place.

Current Status of Georgia’s Relations with Russia

Russia remains intensely concerned about the future direction Georgia may take. Georgia is key to Russia’s southern security perimeter and, together with Armenia and Azerbaijan, plays an important role in Russia’s ability to remain a strong player in the region. Russian policy and Georgian aspirations are in direct conflict and affect the ability of both countries to effectively realize their objectives. Russia still has considerable leverage that it can exercise over Georgia. Embargoes, travel bans, and restrictions on Georgian workers in Russia have hurt the Georgian economy. Russia has been less successful in using soft power to influence Georgians, particularly the younger generation, which sees its future tied to the West rather than Russia. English and other Western languages have largely replaced Russian as Georgia’s second language, and soft power efforts through the Russian media have been largely ineffective. In commenting about Russia’s attempts to use soft power in Georgia, President Zurabishvili said: “It [Russia] just doesn’t know how to exploit that. It’s probably a legacy of empires.”

Russian troops are deployed about 50 miles from Tbilisi, and only a mile or so from Georgia’s strategic transportation networks of rail, roads, and pipelines. Europe and the United States are far from Georgia, and in the event of a conflict with Russia would most likely be unable to respond in time to prevent another successful Russian incursion. Although the chances of a direct military conflict have been reduced, the situation remains volatile and could change rapidly and unexpectedly.

Russia has lost Ukraine. It has also lost Georgia. The prospects for repair to the latter relationship seem remote. As Russian analyst Andrei Sushentsov explains,

This long-standing conflict [between Russia and Georgia], which has lasted two decades, is so profound and irreconcilable that the parties have abandoned looking for a compromise.…The parties have accepted the fact that in the near future, there will be no solution. They have even stopped making attempts to approach it creatively, as they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

With the loss of these two key countries, Russia’s sphere of influence has suffered severe damage.


Like its northern neighbor Georgia, Armenia has a rich and proud culture and history, but it is surrounded by powerful neighbors—Iran and Azerbaijan, and Turkey, the latter of which was responsible for the genocide of an estimated one million Armenians during World War I. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of war for more than three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh (called the Republic of Artsakh by Armenia)—an Armenian-populated region within Azerbaijan that is now occupied by Armenian forces who also control seven Azeri-populated provinces that they seized during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has been a steadfast ally of Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia. Thus, Armenia is wedged in between two hostile neighbors.6

Given Armenia’s precarious geopolitical situation, it is no surprise that Armenia has been a staunch ally of Russia on whom it relies for defense (Russia has a military base in Armenia and provides arms and equipment to the Armenian Armed Forces). Russia also provides much-needed economic and financial support to Armenia and is a principal supplier of Armenia’s energy needs—critical to Armenia because it is resource-poor in a region dominated by its energy-rich enemy, Azerbaijan.

Politically, Armenia has been a compliant and dutiful ally of Russia. It is a member of the various multilateral organizations Russia dominates in the region and largely supports Moscow’s political positions in the international arena. This does not mean, however, that Armenia does not try to maintain good relations with the European Union and the United States. Relations with the West have generally been positive and have given Armenia opportunities to expand its support and seek new prospects for financial and economic development.

Since independence in 1991, Armenia’s political elite has been dominated by former Soviet functionaries and ideological conservatives who are more comfortable with authoritarianism than with western democracy. Moscow has benefited from this system and has found the entrenched political elite in the capital city of Yerevan to be acquiescent and supportive of its policies in the region. Armenia has been a reliable partner and has not challenged Russia’s sphere of influence, that is, until 2018 when opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan led a successful, peaceful revolution that forced out the old elite. On December 8, 2018, Pashinyan’s victory was capped by a landslide victory in parliamentary elections that resulted in the formation of a new government headed by 43-year old Pashinyan and filled with many young, exuberant men and women who are determined to build a new Armenia. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment cites an Armenian analyst who describes how different Pashinyan and his supporters are from those who have ruled Armenia for decades. Pashinyan, the analyst explains, “… is of a generation that is not so much Soviet, anti-Soviet, or post-Soviet, but simply un-Soviet.” What we are witnessing is not just a change in political leaders, but a major shift in the ideological, historical, and cultural underpinnings of the new leaders of the country.

Moscow has viewed the changes in Yerevan with caution and suspicion. It did not try to directly interfere in events in Yerevan but is deeply concerned that Yerevan could pursue a more western-oriented policy, further weakening Moscow’s influence over Transcaucasia and beyond. Pashinyan has been careful not to take steps that would result in a serious reaction from Moscow. Russia still holds formidable economic, political, and military leverage over Armenia, thereby limiting the flexibility Pashinyan and his supporters have in pursuing European-style democratic reforms. The challenge Pashinyan faces is balancing the aspirations and expectations of his supporters with the geopolitical and economic reality Armenia faces. No matter how impatient western-oriented Armenians may be in their push for fast-track changes, they must still contend with a formidable Russia that can, and most likely will, affect the course of events in Armenia for some time to come.


The third and strongest country economically in Transcaucasia is Azerbaijan. It is also the most corrupt and the most authoritarian. It has been led since before the demise of the Soviet Union by one family—the Aliyevs. Haydar Aliyev was the leader of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1987 and a member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo. In 1993, he became president of independent Azerbaijan and ruled the country until he died in 2003. He was succeeded as president by his son Ilham Aliyev in 2003 who was reelected in 2008, 2013, and 2018. Future succession is unclear, but the Aliyev family will undoubtedly seek to retain power. There have been rumors that Ilham’s wife Mehriban, who currently serves as First Vice President, might eventually take over the reins of power.

Azerbaijan derives its wealth from generous oil and gas deposits that the world’s major petroleum companies have vied to develop. Pipelines have been built across the Caucasus through Georgia (avoiding Armenia) that transport oil and gas to Black Sea ports, Turkey, and Russia. Azerbaijan’s elites have benefited enormously from the exploitation and sale of oil and gas. The capital city of Baku has been transformed into a showy, modern city, but the majority of the population still lives in poverty. Corruption is rampant, and autocratic rule dominates the country. Advocates of democratic reform and freedom of the press are systematically arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. Although the West protests the political abuses and lack of democratic processes in Azerbaijan, its leverage is limited. Azerbaijan plays a very important geopolitical role in the region, and its rich oil and gas resources benefit powerful western companies that do not want to lose access to these important revenue streams.

Both Russia and Azerbaijan have played a coy game in pursuing their respective national interests. Both sides recognize the leverage the other possesses, and they have been successful in managing and manipulating economic and political resources to take advantage of available opportunities. Although Azerbaijan possesses great wealth in oil and gas, it has been challenged in developing export routes, particularly in the early years following independence when Russia actively impeded this process.

Russia also remains an important factor in managing and eventually resolving the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is a powerful force that can influence the political and military outcome of that peace process not only as a supplier of arms to Armenia but also—along with France and the United States—as co-chair of the OSCE’s Minsk Group that oversees a so-far ineffective peace process. Moscow is adept at using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a pressure point against both Armenia and Azerbaijan whenever it chooses to do so, causing anxiety in both countries that the Kremlin could tip the scales in the other’s favor if they do not comply.

Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran. Like Iran, Azerbaijan is an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, although, unlike Iran, it is a secular country and is tolerant of other religions. Historically, Azerbaijan has had an influential Jewish community and maintains good relations with Israel.

Azerbaijan borders on the Caspian Sea. Together with the other literal states—Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan, —Azerbaijan shares a common interest in the equitable exploitation of resources and the economic development of this important body of water and the surrounding region.

Thus, Russia and Azerbaijan have important reasons to maintain good working relations. Azerbaijan has been able to establish a central, independent role in the region. It recognizes the power that Russia still wields and is deferential to Russia’s national interests. It is strong enough, however, to pursue its objectives without being seen as part of Russia’s traditional orbit. Azerbaijan has emerged into its own, but not to the detriment of Russia. Both countries seem to have found a modus vivendi.

Central Asia

The five countries of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—have been closely integrated with Russia since the region was conquered over the course of the 17th through the 19th centuries and incorporated into the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union. This region, situated on Russia’s southern frontier, separates the Russian heartland from South Asia and the Middle East. It is a critically important region for Russia from security, economic, and political perspectives. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of these countries in 1991, relationships with Russia have changed significantly. The challenges today are even greater than in the past. Russia no longer has direct control over the region, but it is still the dominant military and political power. Economically, however, China is emerging as a new force and is vying for influence. How these two great powers and the five countries of Central Asia adjust to new conditions and realities in the region will have a significant impact on Russia’s relations and influence over what has traditionally been an important link in its sphere of influence.

Security of the Russian homeland is the Kremlin’s paramount concern, and Central Asia is a key component in Russia’s defense strategy. Terrorism represents a real threat to Russia, and Central Asia serves not only as a transit point for potential terrorists coming from the south, but it also hosts its own home-grown terrorists—all of whom could threaten Russia. For this reason, Russia works closely with the Central Asian states on counterterrorism and training their security and armed forces. Russia also maintains military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Russian and Central Asian law enforcement units also work closely together to interdict drug trafficking coming from Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Russia has important economic interests in Central Asia. It relies heavily on guest workers from the region who provide much of Russia’s unskilled labor. Russia has joint energy projects throughout Central Asia and is strengthening the work of the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members.

Russia sees the United States and the European Union as threats to its interests in Central Asia and its sphere of influence in the region. Although it welcomes the reduced U.S. presence following the closure of a U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan, it is concerned about the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO troops from Afghanistan and the potential consequent increase in instability in the region.

The degree to which Russia maintains a significant presence and influence in Central Asia depends not so much on the United States and the European Union, but on China, which is rapidly and extensively expanding its activities in all five Central Asia states.

China sees Central Asia as an important link in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—an ambitious vision to build a massive transportation infrastructure across Asia. The leaders of Central Asia enthusiastically support the BRI because of the prospects it brings to revitalizing their stagnant economies and attracting major investments into their countries.

Russia appears resigned to China’s economic penetration into Central Asia. With its own weak economy and China’s growing dominance, there is little Russia can do to compete.

Until recently, China has left Central Asian security issues to Russia as it pursues its economic interests. Now, however, there are indications that China is beginning to expand into the security sphere as well. China borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and is increasingly concerned about how security issues in the region could affect China. According to press reports, China is building a military base on the Tajik-Afghan border. It is also increasing its security assistance to Kyrgyzstan and is selling weapons to Turkmenistan, which is China’s main supplier of gas.

How long China will remain deferential to Russia in the security arena while undertaking its own initiatives is hard to say. Russia and China are expanding their political, economic, and military cooperation. Both countries value this cooperation and respect each other’s national interests; however, the pursuit of their own objectives may supersede deference to the other party. Russia, to a large extent, represents the past. China, on the other hand, is an economic powerhouse that represents the future. Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, like that along its western border and in the Caucasus, is undergoing a transformation and is weakening.


Kazakhstan is the largest state in Central Asia and is the only one that shares a border with Russia. In fact, the Russia-Kazakhstan border is the longest in the world—about 7,000 kilometers. Kazakhstan separates Russia from the other republics in Central Asia, where radical Islam is more prominent, and governments are less secure.

Russia and Kazakhstan have enjoyed a stable relationship since independence in 1991, although potentially serious tensions are brewing below the surface. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had a significant Russian population (38 percent of the population) that was concentrated in the north of the country, close to the Russian border. Over the years, there has been a large out-migration, so that by 2016 the Russian population dropped to 21 percent. This is still a significant portion of the population of the country and raises concerns, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, that Russia may instigate a similar action against northern Kazakhstan, either directly or indirectly through indigenous forces. This concern is amplified by the fact that the remaining Russian population has done little to integrate itself, at least culturally and socially, into Kazakh society. It is reported that only 2 percent speak Kazakh fluently, while 33 percent say that they do not know even one word in Kazakh. Mindful of the potentially dangerous situation in northern Kazakhstan, the government has launched a resettlement program to bring more Kazakhs from the south into the northern region which, although still dominated by Russians, is losing population as more and more Russians leave the country.

At the same time as concern about what might happen in northern Kazakhstan grows, nationalism is rising among the Kazakh population. This is fueled in large part by mistrust of the ethnic Russians, the rise of a new generation that has no ties to the Soviet Union, and changes that are taking place politically and economically within Kazakhstan.

One of the important changes underway that has both a domestic and an international impact is the Kazakh government’s decision to switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. This is viewed as an important step to modernize the Kazakh language and distance the country from Russia and its Soviet past. This move has not been well received in Russia, and the Kazakh government has been careful not to take further steps that might cause Moscow to increase pressure against Kazakhstan, particularly in the north of the country. The Russian language still retains its prominent position in Kazakh life. It remains an obligatory subject in the school curriculum, as is Kazakh, and now also English. Nevertheless, with changes in government policy and the rise of a new generation, de-russification is gradually spreading in Kazakhstan.

Throughout the post-Soviet period, Kazakhstan has pursued a multi-vectored foreign policy by maintaining and balancing a good relationship with Russia, China, and the West. Although it is a resource-rich country, particularly in oil and gas, it remains heavily dependent on Russia for security and economic activities. Kazakhstan is a member of the various multilateral security and economic agreements and organizations that Russia dominates and has a web of bilateral agreements with Russia that have proven to be mutually beneficial.

Kazakhstan seeks to benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative through investment in its dilapidated infrastructure and diversifying its economy. Expanding ties with China also serves as a counterweight to Russian pressure on the country; however, there are limits to the warming relations between Kazakhstan and China. Kazakh nationalism is an important factor. Many Kazakhs are very concerned about China’s crackdown and the detention of at least one million Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. Ethnic Kazakhs have also been swept up in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Xinjiang. This has caused a growing backlash against China in Kazakhstan.

In the years to come, Russia will continue to figure prominently in the political and security life of Kazakhstan. Its economic role will most likely diminish because it will not be able to compete with China. As a landlocked country, Kazakhstan has natural limitations that will continue to challenge the country’s leadership as it seeks to maintain a balance between the leading nations of the world. Barring any catastrophic military-political event in northern Kazakhstan, Russia’s relations with the country should continue to grow toward one of equal partners rather than one dominated by Moscow, as in the past.

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two of the most loyal allies of Russia and most dependent on Moscow for economic and security assistance. Both countries house Russian military bases and rely on Russia for military equipment and training. Although Kyrgyzstan has experimented with certain aspects of democracy, it retains, like all the Central Asian states, remnants of the Soviet legacy and its associated authoritarianism. Tajikistan has been ruled by the same person—Emomali Rahmon—since 1992, in what is considered a dictatorship. Much of Tajikistan’s economy is supported by remittances sent home by Tajik guest workers who perform a large share of the unskilled labor in Russia. Currently, they number over one million.

China is making significant economic inroads in both countries, which share a common border with the Asian powerhouse. China is the largest investor in Tajikistan. China has also been holding joint military exercises with Tajikistan. This is a direct challenge to the monopoly Russia has had until recently in the military/security sphere.

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan present unique challenges to Russia’s domination of Central Asia. Uzbekistan was ruled by a powerful autocrat—Islam Karimov—from 1989 until his death in 2016. Karimov was deeply suspicious of Moscow and avoided getting too close to Russia and Russia-dominated organizations. Uzbekistan is rich in natural resources, but it is a poor country and has had to rely on Russia and others for economic assistance and cooperation. Its current rulers are reportedly looking more favorably on improving relations with Russia and are considering joining the Eurasian Economic Union, which could be quite beneficial to the Uzbek economy.

Turkmenistan is officially a neutral country and for that reason does not participate in any organization that could compromise its neutrality. Turkmenistan is also one of the most oppressive countries in the world and has been led by some of the oddest dictators the world has ever seen. President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006. He was very erratic and severely damaged the Turkmen economy and society. As a sign of his infinite personality cult, he had a giant monument to neutrality erected in the capital, Ashgabat, topped with a 39-foot-tall gold statue of himself that rotated so that it always faced the sun. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has developed an equally bizarre cult of personality. He is frequently seen in videos engaged in feats of strength, demonstrations of sports prowess, and versatile musical performances—all to the joy and amazement of his faithful admirers who loudly and enthusiastically applaud his wondrous accomplishments.

Despite this absurd and depressing situation, Turkmenistan is important to the region because it possesses the sixth-largest gas reserves in the world and is a key supplier to the region, including to China. Turkmenistan’s challenge is to develop export routes—routes that must traverse hostile political and/or natural environments. Russia’s relations with Turkmenistan have been reserved, cautious, and have centered principally on issues related to gas: pricing, export routes, etc. Russia cannot count on Turkmenistan as a faithful ally, but it does not view the country as hostile or an impediment to its overall objectives in the region. The Kremlin’s military strength and political sway still dominate the region.

A Diminishing Sphere of Influence

Moscow’s sphere of influence over its immediate neighbors and in many parts of the Third World peaked during the Soviet era. The Soviet Union projected its power over half of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For decades the world knew only a bipolar world, with the United States and the Soviet Union vying for influence around the globe. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s ability to project power diminished precipitously, and its sphere of influence contracted drastically.

In this essay, I have outlined how the Kremlin still plays a significant role in the economic and political life of most of the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. In some cases, those relationships have undergone significant changes, viz., Ukraine and Georgia. In other countries, relationships with the Kremlin, although hardly static and are still evolving, have remained more stable.

But what about those countries that were formerly part of the Soviet empire but are now no longer under Moscow’s tutelage? In the final section of this essay, I examine how the Kremlin attempts to maintain influence over them as well.


Mongolia is a unique case. It was never a part of the Soviet Union, but Russians tended to view Mongolia as the 16th republic of the USSR. The Mongolian People’s Republic, which was established in 1924, slavishly followed Soviet laws, practices, and conduct, including the use of a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet and the widespread promotion of the Russian language in education and the media. The Mongolian economy was closely integrated with that of the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin exercised a dominant role in Mongolia’s political life.

In 1990, a peaceful revolution took place in Mongolia, and a multi-party system and a market economy were introduced. A new constitution was adopted in 1992, and the words “People’s Republic” were dropped from the country’s name. Mongolia adopted a more balanced approach to its two powerful neighbors—Russia and China. Although during most of the 20th century Mongolia was dominated by the Soviet Union, the Mongol nation has always had close ties with China, which has controlled Inner Mongolia for centuries. As relations between Russia and China warmed, the utility of Mongolia as a political tool became less important. Nevertheless, Mongolia remains a geopolitical pawn in the great game of power and influence in Asia.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and Mongolia have undergone a transformation. In recent years, Mongolia has introduced internal changes that have raised concerns in Moscow. The use of the Russian language has declined significantly. In 2003, English replaced Russian as the required foreign language in schools, and knowledge of the Russian language is no longer a requirement for admission into Mongol universities. Among the older generation, Russian is still the most widely spoken foreign language, but a generation that does not know Russian is now growing up in Mongolia. There is also a move underway to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the old vertical script that the Mongols used for centuries. This is troubling for Moscow because it means a loss of influence in Mongol society, and it could have implications for Russia’s own Mongols—the Buryats—who closely follow events across the border in Mongolia.

As part of the Kremlin’s effort to retain a close relationship and influence with Mongolia, President Putin visited the country on September 3, 2019, and signed a new intergovernmental accord on friendship and a comprehensive strategic partnership with Mongolia. Mongolia values its relationship with Russia, but it is also diversifying its ties with major powers around the world. It has signed accords on strategic partnership with India, Japan, and the United States. China, however, has now become Mongolia’s most important trading partner and serves as the principal transit route for Mongolia’s trade with the rest of the world. There is little doubt, given China’s economic might, that Russia will no longer be able to compete with China for dominant influence in Mongolia.

The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania

August 23, 2019, marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Protocol, which divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. It also was the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, when two million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joined hands to form a 400-mile-long human chain across the three countries to demand freedom and independence from the Soviet Union. These two events—the first cataclysmic, the second heroic—marked major turning points in the lives of the people of the three Baltic nations and their relationship with Russia.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania recently celebrated their 100th anniversary as independent countries, although they spent half that time as unwilling members of the Soviet Union. These three Baltic nations gained their independence at the end of World War I after centuries of Swedish, Polish, and Russian rule. The notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the ensuing occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union in June 1940 put an end to their independence until they regained it in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union, thereby affirming their commitment to become an integral part of the West, rejecting past ties with Moscow, and ensuring that the Kremlin would not be able to reassert its claim over the region without consequences. Nevertheless, concerns remain that Russia has not given up revanchist aspirations of regaining influence over these three small but strategically important countries. The Kremlin’s efforts to undermine, subvert, and destabilize these countries have not abated. Furthermore, how Moscow has treated the recent anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—officially known as the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—has reinforced the Baltic States’ concerns.

There has been much controversy over this agreement and its Secret Protocol, which allowed Russia to annex Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, seize eastern Poland, and grab territory from Romania. The Soviet Union denied the existence of the Secret Protocol until 1989 when Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev ordered that its existence be officially confirmed. This acknowledgment was reconfirmed by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who wrote in a letter to the Poles in 2009 that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was “immoral” and “without doubt, it is fully justified to condemn it.” Since then, Russian officials have wavered on condemning the agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued an official statement on the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that lacked Putin’s earlier denunciation. He blamed the Western powers for forcing the Soviet Union to reach agreement with Nazi Germany. He claimed that the Western powers “tried to steer Hitler’s aggression eastward. In those conditions, the USSR had to safeguard its own national security by itself.” Given those circumstances, Lavrov stressed, “…the conclusion of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was an urgent, forced and extremely difficult decision for the USSR.” A recent official Russian statement failed to mention the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland, which occurred on September 17, 1939, just two weeks after Hitler’s troops crossed into Poland from the west. At the time, the Kremlin blamed the Poles for refusing to accept a Soviet ultimatum to allow Soviet troops to enter Poland to protect their Ukrainian and Belarusian brethren who resided on territory “illegal seized by Poland.” This justification for the Soviet invasion of Poland is still propagated today by some Russian officials and commentators.

The current Russian revisionist narrative about this infamous agreement, which facilitated the start of World War II and led to the demise of the Baltic States’ independence, serves as a reminder of the power that still resides in the east. It is also a reminder that history in Russia is frequently rewritten to fit more conveniently with current policy imperatives. This can be illustrated by a popular Soviet joke: “The future is known. It is the past that keeps changing.” Similarly, George Orwell, writing about a dystopian future in his epic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, said: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

The struggle to recount and interpret history objectively is a universal challenge. “Alternative facts” and distorted interpretations abound. It is wise to recall the words of Orwell when studying historical events, particularly as they are expounded by political leaders and their supporters. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had such a devastating impact on the lives of millions of people, must be viewed objectively and not manipulated for political or other ulterior purposes.

One of the most significant problems the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have faced since independence is dealing with the sizeable Russian populations that remained in those countries after the Soviet Union collapsed. This problem is particularly acute in Estonia and Latvia, where Russians make up about 25 percent of the population in each country; in Lithuania, the Russian population is just 6 percent. Integration of Russians into those societies has not been easy. Controversies over citizenship requirements, limits on the use of the Russian language, the status of Soviet war memorials, and parades and demonstrations by small groups of local nationals who had ties with Nazi SS divisions during World War II are major irritants between the Baltic countries and Russia. Russia has frequently seized on these problems to enflame animosities and rile the native Russian populations. Unwise policies adopted by local and national governments have only exacerbated tense situations. Regardless, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have made remarkable progress in freeing themselves from their Soviet past and the Russian sphere of influence and anchoring themselves firmly in the West—in NATO and the European Union.

Former Soviet Satellite States in Eastern Europe

The democratic revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989 delivered a devastating blow to the most important component of the Soviet sphere of influence. Within months, Communist regimes were overthrown, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon ceased to exist. Poland; Czechoslovakia, which would separate into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Hungary; East Germany, which united with West Germany to form a unified state; Romania; and Bulgaria liberated themselves from Soviet domination and rushed to join the West. Over the ensuing years, these former Soviet satellite states became members of NATO and the European Union, thereby completing a rapid transition to a new and challenging future for millions of people.

The shift from socialism/communism to capitalism and democracy has not been easy. Both internal and external political forces have sought to undermine democratic efforts to transform these societies. Many of those efforts have been led by internal elements that have often received assistance from the Kremlin. Moscow has provided financial and political support to both right-wing and left-wing groups that seek to disrupt domestic politics and promote undemocratic movements.

The loss of the former Soviet satellite states that Moscow often relied on to do its bidding and served as a buffer between Russia and the West had a major impact on Russian foreign and security policies. It forced the Kremlin to develop new approaches to safeguarding its western security perimeter. In addition to strengthening the deployment of its armed forces along its western borders, Moscow has focused on political manipulation, propaganda, information warfare, and soft power to influence political and societal forces in Central and Eastern Europe to weaken democracy, undermine NATO and the European Union, and damage the cohesion of Euro-Atlantic security.

The Balkans

The Balkans have been a hotbed of intrigue, political and ethnic turmoil, and internecine warfare over the ages. Although the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires for centuries, the Russian Empire—and subsequently the Soviet Union—had a strong hand in shaping its destiny. Russia played a prominent role in liberating large sections of the region from the Ottoman Turks and was responsible to a large extent for the outbreak of World War I when it sided with Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia in Sarajevo.

Russia continues to insist that it has legitimate reasons for playing a major role in the Balkans. Besides the historical role it played in liberating and defending much of the region, it shares the Orthodox faith and a sense of Slavic brotherhood with many of the people of the Balkans who still view Russia as a friend, liberator, and co-religionist.

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, turmoil and civil wars broke out in the western Balkans. Yugoslavia, although a socialist state, had maintained its independence from Moscow and had been successful in protecting itself from Soviet efforts to control it. When the democratic revolutions spread across the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, they also reached Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the revolutions that took place in Yugoslavia erupted in violence and civil war. Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro eventually emerged as independent countries, some experiencing more violence than others. The worst situation arose over Bosnia-Herzegovina—a multi-ethnic state of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats. Longstanding religious and ethnic rivalries reached a breaking point, erupting in a fratricidal war that ended with the intercession of NATO and negotiations led by the United States. The result was the 1995 Dayton Accords—an agreement that provided a far-from-satisfactory solution to very complex problems.

The Bosnian War was followed by the succession of Kosovo from Yugoslavia in 1998–1999. At that time, a rump Yugoslavian state still existed, made up of only Serbia and Montenegro (the latter separated peacefully from Serbia in 2006). NATO provided air support to the Kosovars, which led to NATO bombing Yugoslav military units in Kosovo, military units in Montenegro, and the Serbian capital of Belgrade, including one bombing raid that mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy. War ended shortly thereafter. Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but a final settlement has yet to be reached. Moscow firmly supports Belgrade in its efforts to reach a final resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. Because Russia can exercise its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to influence negotiations and prevent full international recognition of Kosovo (many countries still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, including Russia), the Kremlin retains considerable leverage over Serbia. Some believe that Moscow does not want to see a final settlement of the Kosovo problem for fear that it could lose important influence over Serbia if this issue goes away.

The NATO bombing of Serbia and the role the West played in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia infuriated Moscow, but there was little it could do at the time, given its greatly weakened position after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It protested vociferously but was unable and/or unwilling to get involved militarily on the side of its Serbian ally.

These humiliating events in the Balkans left an indelible mark on the Russian leaders, and it honed their resolve never to find themselves in a similar situation again. It also strengthened the Kremlin’s determination and commitment to undertake whatever measures it could to prevent NATO and the European Union from expanding their influence further into the Balkans. This point was emphasized by General Curtis Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, when on March 13, 2019, he said: “Generally speaking, their [Russian] efforts are to undermine any movement toward integration within the Euro-Atlantic [structures]—EU, NATO, etc. That’s their general objective in every case throughout the Balkans.” As for the Kremlin’s tactics, Scaparrotti said: “[P]rimarily they do this through disinformation, they do it through funding and support for fringe parties—they don’t necessarily determine whichever side it might be on as long as it’s undermining the present government in any forward movement within those governments.” In pursuing its objectives, the Kremlin also makes use of various proxies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, prominent Russian oligarchs and businesses, far-right paramilitary groups, and authoritarian-style Balkan politicians.

Serbia is still the most important country in Russia’s strategy to maintain influence and disrupt other Balkan countries’ plans to increase their ties with the West. Serbia has generally been a compliant partner for Russia. It has been deferential to most Kremlin policies and has supported them whenever it can. At the same time, the Serbian government has expressed its intentions to eventually join the European Union. The younger generation supports more pro-Western policies, but it, too, still harbors resentment following the Belgrade bombing and the succession of Kosovo from Serbia. This has contributed, for example, to support Russian efforts to provide military-style training for Serb teenagers in Serbia and Russia. The aim appears to be to promote religious and cultural ties and emphasize military-patriotic solidarity between youth in Russia and Serbia.

Beyond Serbia, Russia sees opportunities to strengthen its influence and disrupt efforts by NATO and the EU to expand membership to countries in the region. Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been particularly vulnerable to Russia’s aggressive attempts to undermine their stability.

In 2016, Russia backed an abortive coup attempt and a planned assassination of the Montenegrin prime minister to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO. According to the plan, armed mercenaries from Serbia and Montenegro dressed as Montenegrin police officers were to storm the parliament and shoot at protestors. Two Russian military intelligence officers in Serbia were accused of organizing the failed plot. They fled the country as soon as the plot was revealed. This created an uproar in the region, and Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, had to fly to Belgrade to calm nervous officials. The following year Montenegro joined NATO.

For almost three decades Greece and Macedonia—or as it was provisionally called, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—were engaged in a dispute over the official name of Macedonia, which gained its independence after Yugoslavia broke apart at the end of the Cold War. Greece objected to the country being called Macedonia—a name the Greeks claimed for themselves. As a member of NATO and the European Union, Greece refused to approve consideration of Macedonia’s membership in either organization until the dispute over the name was resolved. Finally, in February 2019, after years of acrimonious negotiations, intense political battles, and a national referendum, the sides reached agreement and approved a new name for the country—North Macedonia.

Moscow did not want to see a resolution to this dispute for fear that it would lead to North Macedonia’s accession to NATO, so it undertook covert operations in both countries to prevent this from happening. Specifically, Moscow was accused of financing a campaign to dissuade voters from participating in the referendum to approve the name change. But Moscow failed to sabotage the deal, and its efforts backfired, contributing to an increase in anti-Russia sentiment in North Macedonia that damaged Moscow’s interests in the region. It also hastened North Macedonia’s efforts to seek NATO membership. In February 2019, North Macedonia signed a protocol of accession with NATO.

Although peace was restored to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 through the Dayton Accords, the country remains politically weak and divided. All three religious-political forces—Muslim Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—share power, with the Serbs maintaining their power base in their enclave of the Republika Srpska. All important decisions require unanimity through a collective presidency, but the Bosnian Serbs can and have exercised veto power over such important decisions as accession to NATO. Although NATO offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018, the Bosnian side has not provided NATO with the necessary documentation for implementation of the MAP due to objection by the head of the Republika Srpska—the Serb member of the collective Bosnian presidency.

The Republika Srpska depends heavily on Belgrade and follows its lead on major policy decisions. It also enjoys close ties with Moscow, which is currently providing security assistance to the Republika Srpska in contradiction to the Dayton Accords. Despite the non-Serbian population’s largely negative attitude toward Russia, Moscow can exercise significant influence over Bosnia-Herzegovina through the Republika Srpska and Belgrade, thereby frustrating the country’s efforts to move closer to the West.


For a continental power such as Russia, the importance of controlling the periphery based on an acute sense of vulnerability and insecurity has driven its leaders to pursue foreign and security policies that seek to dominate their neighbors. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Trenin calls this view

[A]n outdated mode of strategic thinking that assigns excessive importance to the factor of geography and strategic depth. The terrible trauma of June 22, 1941 [the date Nazi Germany launched its attack on the Soviet Union] demands that the forces of a potential enemy be kept as far away as possible from the country’s most important political and economic centers.

This dictated the need for the Soviet Union to create a buffer zone for itself in Eastern Europe, which became one of the key pillars of Soviet and Russian foreign and security policy for decades. But times have changed. The likelihood of NATO unleashing a massive ground offensive against Russia is unrealistic. Whatever threat Russia fears will come not from its neighbors, but most likely from its distant adversary—the United States.

In addition to changes in the external military-strategic environment, Russia has had to confront substantial changes in the political, economic, and social conditions of those states that were part of the former Soviet Union—states that Moscow still considers part of its inherent sphere of influence. We have seen this happen most strikingly in Ukraine and Georgia, but other states have also undergone changes that have affected their relationship with Russia. At the same time, Russia’s central role within the Eurasian landmass is changing. With the emergence of China as the most powerful force and Moscow’s growing ties with Beijing, Russia may be moving in a direction where “sphere of influence” as one of the pillars of its foreign and security policy is weakened to the point that it becomes a less significant determining factor—not so much because the Kremlin no longer considers it important, but because reality has changed the equation. If this is true, it may affect the Kremlin’s decision-making calculus and offer new opportunities to recast Moscow’s relationship with some of its neighbors. I do not expect this to occur any time soon—certainly not as long as Putin remains president or in a position to influence policy. But it does present an alternative to a foreign and security policy model that seems to have outlasted its utility and offers little prospect for the future, other than stagnation and the further decay of a revanchist power.

It will, indeed, be difficult for Russia to minimize its traditional fears and insecurities and to recast a foreign and security policy from one developed over centuries—often through painful experiences and cataclysmic events—into one motivated by a multilateral and multipolar environment centered on Eurasia in which Russia emerges as a mid-level power, deferential in some aspects to China, but still a powerful military force. It would be a seminal, consequential transformation, but one that could offer Russia new opportunities for development beyond the restrictions imposed by the shackles of the past.

Washington, DC | November–December 2019

Chapter 8

The State of the Russian Economy

Balancing Political and Economic Priorities

A strong and vibrant economy that addresses the interests and concerns of the entire population is a fundamental national interest of all countries. Russia is no exception. Meeting these goals, however, is not easy. The role of both government and the private sector is to work together to optimize each other’s potential and to strive to achieve the best possible results for the national economy.

In this essay, I will examine the state of the Russian economy and the challenges the Russian government and private sector face in building an economy that meets the needs of the state and the citizens of the Russian Federation.

Today’s Popular View of the Russian Economy in Two Memes

“We have no money, but you hang in there. Best wishes! Cheers! Take care!” These now-infamous words were uttered by former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a visit to Crimea on May 23, 2016, in response to questions from a crowd of pensioners complaining that their meager pensions did not match the rising cost of living. Since then, Medvedev’s cheery yet dismissive words—“you hang in there”—have gone viral as a meme frequently used to characterize the Russian government’s indifference to the needs of ordinary citizens, particularly those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

The second popular meme is an image of a huge, yellow “rubber ducky” floating on a duck pond at a sprawling, opulent estate allegedly belonging to Medvedev. “Rubber ducky” balloons and pictures appear at Russian protest rallies as a symbol of the widespread corruption of Russia’s elite. They reinforce the “you hang in there” meme about the huge gap in Russian society between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” and the blatant indifference of the elite toward what has become the greatest divide and potential cause of future unrest in Russian society today.

Russia is not the only country with sharp societal divisions based on differences in economic and social status. This problem plagues most countries, both rich and poor. For Russia, it is exacerbated by a period of impending political uncertainty as Vladimir Putin’s final term as president comes to an end in 2024. What will follow is unknown. Will Putin find a way to hold on to power? Will someone emerge as his legitimate successor who will ensure a smooth transition of power? Or will forces be unleashed in Russian society, intensified by its huge income inequality, that could disrupt the political, economic, and social structure of the country? This political uncertainty is coupled with ongoing economic stagnation and a society that is becoming more and more dissatisfied with their lives, particularly members of the younger generation who are increasingly demanding a voice in the future of their country.

An economy that meets the needs of the people will be a key determinant of Russia’s future. Russians traditionally have been more tolerant than most of hardships and have managed to divorce themselves from the political machinations of the elite to focus on their daily lives. But how long will this last?

In his early years, President Putin instituted an informal social contract with society: The state will provide a rising standard of living for the people, but the people must stay out of the political life of the country. That social contract worked for about eight years until the economic collapse of 2008. For a while, it was replaced with the Kremlin promoting conservative social values, rising nationalism, and increased use of the state’s instruments of intimidation and force. It appears now that society is less willing to accept the Kremlin’s propaganda. People are growing tired of an economy that on the macroeconomic level appears to be doing alright but on the microeconomic level is stagnating. Reminders abound of the stagnation of the Brezhnev years, and people—especially young people—are growing increasingly concerned about the future of the Russian economy. Many are expressing a desire to leave Russia to live and work abroad.

Finding a way out of this economic quagmire will be key to maintaining control and stability in a society that could become increasingly restive. This is a formidable task in a society where an overwhelming majority—86 percent, according to a recent survey—of people believe social tensions are growing. Russian society is fragmented, primarily due to economic inequality, making antagonism between the rich and poor a significant problem. This antagonism counterposes the “haves” (Putin’s political elite and closely associated oligarchs) against the “have-nots” (the overwhelming majority of the population) in a battle of interests in which the former have the overwhelming advantage. Establishing a more equitable balance will be critical for the future of the Russian economy.

The Roots of Today’s Economy: The Soviet Experiment and Its Heritage

The German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx was one of the most influential thinkers of the past two centuries. His theories and call to action, based on his analysis of the worst abuses of the capitalist system in a rapidly industrializing 19th century Europe, had a cataclysmic impact not only on Europe but throughout the world. Marx’s vision of capitalist society was one of exploitation, abuse, and great inequities at the hands of the power elite and the owners of the means of production. The masses—principally the downtrodden, impoverished industrial workers—were seen as victims of an abusive system that would only change if the workers rose up against the tyranny of exploitation and created a new socialist society that would enable the workers to control the means of production. But this process would not be complete until society reached its final stage of development—the attainment of communism under which, according to the Marxist dictum, each member of society would be given free access to and distribution of goods, capital, and services based on the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Although Marx’s description of capitalist society and his call to arms were aimed at industrialized Europe, it was in peasant-dominated Russia where Marxism achieved its greatest success. This was due primarily to the efforts of the skillful and shrewd revolutionary, Vladimir Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin. Lenin transformed and applied Marx’s doctrine to the backward, weakly-industrialized, largely-peasant society of Russia and created a new doctrinaire set of teachings called Marxism-Leninism. The October Revolution of 1917 under Lenin’s leadership overthrew the vestiges of Imperial Russia and set the country on a course of development the world had not yet experienced. A new country emerged: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Under Lenin and his successor Joseph Stalin, the Communists, as Lenin’s revolution party was called, launched an experiment in building a new society and economic system that would send shockwaves around the world.

The regime established by Lenin and Stalin was transformational. Over a relatively short time, it created a major industrial power with a centrally planned economy out of a backward, peasant society. But change came at an enormous price. The upper levels of Imperial Russian society—the nobility, the political and social elite, the intellectuals, the industrialists, the clergy, even the more successful peasants—were largely wiped out, either through forced emigration or physical extermination. Meanwhile, as war, famine, and forced collectivization of agriculture devastated the country, huge demographic shifts occurred as millions of peasants were forced to flee the countryside to the cities in search of work.

A state-led campaign of terror took a tremendous toll on the elite, as it did on average citizens as well. The country lived in mortal fear under the brutal regime of Stalin as terror, pressure, and propaganda created short-term results for Soviet society and the Soviet economy. As a result of the enormous pressure imposed on the population, economic statistics were impressive. The Soviet Union grew rapidly and became a development model for third-world countries, rivaling the models of the industrialized West. The Soviet leaders devoted immense resources to the military-industrial sector of the country and developed a military potential that challenged that of the United States and its NATO allies.

Although the Soviet Union presented an image of a powerful, industrialized country with an economy that appeared to have the potential for long-term internal growth and expanded influence around the world, the domestic picture presented a different reality. The burden of building the Soviet economy was borne by the Soviet people at great cost and pain. Investment in the wellbeing of the population was minimal. Housing shortages were rampant, and what existed was often substandard. Many urban dwellers were forced to live in communal apartments with other families. Healthcare was universal but far from adequate. Food shortages were frequent, and long lines for even the basic items were part of daily life. Soviet propaganda worked overtime to convince the Soviet people, who were largely isolated from the outside world as a result of restrictions on foreign travel and the jamming of foreign broadcasts, that they lived in the most developed, the most progressive country in the world. Many believed the state’s lies, but as time passed and conditions worsened, Soviet propaganda began to spring leaks and the people grew increasingly more cynical and frustrated. However, there were few outlets for the citizens to express their discontent. The overwhelming majority were apolitical. Demonstrations were rare, and on the few occasions when they took place, there were quickly suppressed.

A small dissident community expressed their views through self-published samizdat that were circulated surreptitiously among those brave enough to share “anti-Soviet” writings. If one was caught writing, circulating, or even reading samizdat, the price was usually prison or exile to the gulag—the Soviet network of labor camps located in the most inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union.

For the average citizen, the most daring means of expression of discontent was through humor and popular Soviet jokes that captured the essence of the abuses and absurdities of the Soviet system. One such joke that became popular in the closing days of the Soviet Union explained the difference between capitalism and socialism this way: “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Under socialism, it is just the opposite.”

Despite the many negative aspects of the Soviet Union and the inefficiencies and inequities of the Soviet economy, there is a growing nostalgia today for the Soviet past, including among the younger generation that never experienced life in the USSR. According to a recent survey by the Levada Center, 66 percent of Russians are nostalgic for the Soviet Union. Part of this is due to an effective Kremlin propaganda machine that uses the past to build nationalism through pride in Russia’s heritage. This works well on members of the older generation who have suffered economic hardship since the Soviet regime collapsed.

Although Soviet citizens had few material possessions or financial resources, they took solace in the fact that almost everyone else was in the same predicament. There was a sense of equity and security that although Soviet citizens were given access only to the bare minimum to meet their needs at least these meager assets and services were guaranteed to them by the state.

At the same time, many people understood that they were accepting a myth. They knew that members of the elite lived different lives, that they were given special treatment, that they had access to special shops where they could buy foreign products. People simply accepted this as the reality of power. As long as their neighbors and co-workers were treated no better than they were, most people were satisfied with the “equality of privation” that pervaded much of Soviet life. It was ironic, but also typical of Soviet attitudes, that when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev tried to save the Soviet system in its dying days of the late 1980s and allowed for small private cooperative businesses—mainly cafes, restaurants, beauty salons—to be formed and run by private citizens, neighbors and agitated citizens at times became enraged and struck out against their entrepreneurial compatriots by sabotaging their businesses and even burning them down. They resented the fact that those who had taken advantage of the new law had dared to “leave the collective” to seek a better life. They preferred that everyone remain equally miserable.

This phenomenon, which was strongly reinforced by the Soviet system, has deep roots in a centuries-old peasant society tradition that if someone left a small peasant community that was struggling to maintain its existence against the forces of nature, wild animals, marauders, and evil landowners, it would weaken the ability of the community to defend itself. Although some of that tradition may still linger, hindering the encouragement of individual initiative and independence, particularly in the more rural, backward parts of modern-day Russia, it—along with the fundamentals of Soviet society, its ideology, and its political and economic foundation—was torn asunder by the relatively peaceful collapse in December 1991 of the failed, bankrupt Soviet system. What had started more than 70 years earlier as an experiment to create a new international order imploded under the weight of its failures and external pressures. A new era was to begin—one that rejected the Soviet past but could not avoid the burden of its legacy.

The Birth of a New Country and a New Economy: The Turbulent 1990s

The 1990s could not have been more unlike the early decades of that century, but ironically they bore certain, albeit restrained, similarities. The revolutions of 1917—first, the February revolution that overthrew Russia’s imperial rule and made an abortive attempt to move toward a more democratic system; then the October revolution that brought Lenin and his ragtag band of radical socialists to power and ended the feeble attempt of “democrats” to find a more equitable replacement for centuries of imperial rule—brought civil war, devastation, and turmoil to Russia. The death toll from war, as well as government-forced exile and extermination, was high. Emigration—voluntary and forced—of Russia’s former elite classes, intellectuals, business leaders, and entrepreneurs drained the country of valuable resources and decimated society and the economy. For the new regime led by Lenin and Stalin, this was not only desirable but necessary if they were to build a new international socialist order—first at home, and then around the globe—and to create a new Soviet man—the model for Soviet citizens of the future.

The demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia under the leadership of President Boris Yeltsin in 1991 also sought radical change, but it occurred under very different circumstances. With the stroke of a pen, not the shot of a rifle, the Soviet Union came to a peaceful, ignoble end. The Soviet system had exhausted itself and had exhausted the Soviet people. Many wanted change. Gorbachev had attempted to preserve and reform the Soviet political and economic structure of the country but failed. The system was unsalvageable. A coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 by a small group of hardliners failed. Demonstrations on the streets of Moscow and other cities grew in size and demand for change. Those demonstrations were largely peaceful, and the government avoided force with a few exceptions. Change was in the air, but not revolution. A different path from the one taken in 1917 was the goal.

Yeltsin, a pragmatic and popular Communist Party leader, was elected as the first president of Russia in June 1991—six months before the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. One month later, he quit the Communist Party and embarked on a radical reform program that would transform Russia from the Soviet model of a centrally planned economy to a market economy. Like Lenin’s revolution of 1917, the transformation of the Russian economy Yeltsin and his government sought to bring about was unprecedented in scope and dimension. Yeltsin’s administration sought to build a new system in a country that attempted to emulate western practices and experiences but that did not have the foundation necessary to support the transition. Unlike the Soviet experiment, Yeltsin and his small army of reformers sought to do this peacefully and eschewed force and compulsion. What Russia lacked in knowledge and skills, it hoped to gain support from the West, and, indeed, Western help was forthcoming. But whether it was the right support and advice, and whether it was adequate is still hotly debated. The biggest challenge was to attempt to build a capitalist system in a country that had never had one and was burdened by relics of the Soviet economic behemoth and the attitudes and convictions of government officials and ordinary citizens that were still anchored in the Soviet past.

Yeltsin instituted some economic reforms similar to the “shock therapy”7 that had been introduced with some success in the smaller, more manageable economies of Eastern Europe several years earlier. In retrospect, the goals were unrealistically high, and the implementation was very painful for ordinary Russians. In the end, the Russian government did not fully implement “shock therapy” as practiced in Eastern Europe because it feared that massive unemployment and bankruptcies would result. Among the measures it did undertake were the lifting of Soviet-era price controls, large-scale privatization, and efforts to stabilize the ruble. However, even these measures were devastating for most people. When price controls were lifted, the prices for basic foodstuffs like bread and butter skyrocketed by as much as 500 percent in a matter of days. Large sections of the population sank into deep poverty almost overnight.

By 1994, about 70 percent of the Russian economy was privatized, which was a significant accomplishment because one of the keystones of the Soviet system was state ownership of all branches of the economy, including industrial enterprises, land, small shops, and even living space.

Many of the worst abuses of the privatization of the major industrial enterprises were tied to President Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in 1996. Facing strong opposition from the Communist Party candidate and fearing a return of the Soviet system, Yeltsin was determined to use all possible resources to bolster his campaign, including a major infusion of financial resources. To do so, he instituted a program called “loans for shares” that transferred ownership of some of Russia’s largest and most valuable natural resources enterprises to powerful businessmen called “oligarchs.” For their part, these oligarchs were obliged to help finance Yeltsin’s re-election campaign using their newly obtained wealth. Yeltsin was re-elected, and the oligarchs became wealthier and more influential in the economy and political life, which increasingly operated on a system of bribery and coercion.

At the same time, crime was rampant. Gangsters owned the streets, demanding bribes and protection money from even the smallest private business owners. Lawlessness and corruption on the part of government officials made life for Russian citizens a battle for survival. Many Russians had fallen into abject poverty and were reduced to selling their family heirlooms on the streets. The life of the average citizen was in stark contrast to a vulgar, ostentatious display of wealth by the new ultra-rich. Inequality had become—and still is—the major grievance in Russian society. This was particularly painful for older Russians who had suffered the most after the demise of the Soviet Union and who recalled with nostalgia the “myth of equality” perpetuated under the Soviet regime. In capitalist Russia, the concept of “equality” was turned on its head. As the economy went into free-fall, and oligarchs, gangsters, and corrupt officials set the rules, the impoverished majority found itself increasingly helpless and depressed.

Despite citizens’ suffering and the overall poor performance of the Russian economy, Yeltsin’s reforms did produce some positive results. Most importantly, sufficient progress had been made by the mid-1990s in transitioning to a market economy that made a return to Soviet-style central planning unlikely.

For the Russian people, however, this was of little concern, and they struggled to survive in a chaotic environment. During the first seven years of the Yeltsin regime, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country fell by almost 40 percent, and numerous bouts of hyperinflation wiped out the savings of many Russian citizens.

By the end of the 1990s, the Yeltsin government was unable to manage an economy that was rapidly spiraling out of control. The government’s problems were exacerbated by a mounting international economic crisis. As the Asian economic crisis of 1997 spread around the globe, and oil prices on which Russia heavily depended as its main hard currency earner fell, the Russian economy was no longer able to sustain itself. In 1998, the Russian government defaulted on $40 billion of short-term government bonds, devalued the ruble, and declared a moratorium on payments to foreign creditors. This catastrophic default crippled the Yeltsin government and led to Yeltsin stepping down as president just over a year later.

The Putin Economy: From Chaos to Stability

On New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin—in ill-health and exhausted—addressed the nation and announced that he was stepping down immediately as president of the Russian Federation. Putin, a former KGB officer who has only recently become prime minister, became Russia’s next president. The nation was shocked but welcomed the change. The people were desperate for order to be reestablished and for stability to return to their lives. This became Putin’s mission, and he delivered on it. He restored discipline and order to the government; made the State Duma—Russia’s parliament—subordinate to his will; ended elections of regional governors and turned them into appointed officials; seized control of the media; and cracked down on the oligarchs, exiling or imprisoning many of them. Putin was helped by a surge in oil prices from a low of $10 a barrel to a peak of $150 a barrel, and he used this huge influx of money into state coffers wisely to build up the Russian economy and bring stability back to the country and the lives of the Russian people. As a consequence, large segments of the Russian population that had been at the lower end of the economic spectrum moved into the middle class. An informal social contract was established between Putin’s administration and the people: If the people stayed out of politics, Putin would ensure stability and prosperity. For the next eight years, this social contract produced positive results. But economies are fickle; they depend on many factors over which government officials do not have full control. 2008 proved to be a year that would drive this point home, not only for Russia but for much of the world.

Until 2008, Russia prospered, due largely to the economic reforms Putin instituted with the help of his Minister of Finance, the well-known liberal economist Aleksey Kudrin. They increased income from taxes by simplifying the tax code and introducing a flat 13 percent rate on personal income that brought more people on the tax rolls. They also tightened enforcement against those who did not pay. They modernized and instilled greater discipline in the budget process at the federal and regional levels. And perhaps most importantly, they established a stabilization fund to protect the state and the economy from fluctuations in the prices of oil and gas, Russia’s biggest source of revenue. During Putin’s first two terms as president (2000–2004, and 2004–2008), the Russian economy prospered, and the people shared in this economic boom. According to the noted Russian economist Sergey Guriyev, “in the ten years from 1999 to 2008, Russian GDP grew by 94% and per capita GDP doubled. This is the most outstanding decade in modern Russian economic history.”

But another group benefited even more. A new elite emerged that replaced many of the oligarchs of the Yeltsin years. These were individuals close to Putin dating back to his days in the KGB or when he served as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Because of their close ties to Putin, they were able to gain control over important sectors of the Russian economy and became heads of state companies that grew following the nationalization of assets of many of the former Yeltsin-era oligarchs. Step-by-step Putin created a state of crony capitalism that was bolstered by the so-called siloviki—powerful figures from the security and military services—who were active participants in Putin’s increasingly corrupt system.

Factions and rivals emerged and fought over assets. Under this system, Putin rewarded some over others, but those who reaped rewards were obliged to deliver on projects with major political and/or economic benefits for the country. Today, it is clear who Putin’s favorites are, but it is an oversimplification to call Putin the puppeteer. Much of what transpires at the upper echelons among Putin’s cronies now occurs without Putin’s direct intervention as the system, though cumbersome, continues to function as the fundamental pillar of the Putin regime. Although it delivers certain results, it is not healthy for the growth of the Russian economy in the long run. It retards the development of grassroots initiative and entrepreneurship and threatens prospects for the type of reform that is so necessary for the future of the Russian economy. The current system functions on favoritism, corruption, and bribery—three aspects of Russian life that are not just confined to the elite but permeate society. The system places a heavy burden on ordinary Russians and is particularly painful whenever the economy enters a downturn.

The Putin Economy: From Stability to Stagnation

In May 2008, Vladimir Putin stepped down as president after two terms, as limited by the Russian Constitution. He handed the presidency to his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who occupied the post for the next four years. Putin, in turn, assumed the position of prime minister, but in reality, remained the power “behind the throne,” as regents had done for young, inexperienced tsars during Russia’s imperial years.

Medvedev had a reputation at the time of being a liberal reformer. As president, he launched a bold plan to modernize the Russian economy and to shift its reliance away from oil and gas toward technology. The cornerstone of this program was the development of a sophisticated, grandiose technology center called the Skolkovo Innovation Center, located on the outskirts of Moscow and headed by Viktor Vekselberg, one of Putin’s cronies and a “new” oligarch. Although Skolkovo has contributed to Russia’s technology development, it failed to meet expectations of becoming Russia’s Silicon Valley. This is due in part to the overall lack of critical entrepreneurial spirit and initiative that is stifled by corruption, lack of sufficient protection of property rights, weak enforcement of the rule of law, and an overall unattractive business environment. Russia has immensely talented scientists and engineers, but many of them move to more attractive positions abroad rather than stay in Russia.

President Medvedev also promised to strengthen the rule of law, protect civil liberties, and introduce reforms to promote economic freedom and development. But these aspirations were short-lived. The economic crisis that struck Russia in 2008 wiped out all reform plans, and Russia was forced into damage-control mode. Many of the economic gains of the previous years suffered setbacks from which they would not fully recover. The Kremlin’s focus was on helping state companies weather the economic storm. Small companies that could not rely on the state for assistance went bankrupt or suffered severe damage. The state was not living up to its end of the informal social contract with the Russian people. The Kremlin’s promise of continued prosperity and economic growth was no longer realistic.

In May 2012, Putin returned to the presidency, and Medvedev once again assumed the post of prime minister. This swap, which the Russians referred to as “castling,” to use a chess term, was made possible by a change to the Russian Constitution introduced during Medvedev’s presidency that allowed Putin to serve another two terms and extended the term of the president from four to six years.

The return of Putin to the presidency angered significant segments of the Russian population who turned out onto the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities to protest. The most violent demonstration at which many were beaten and arrested took place at Bolotnaya Square across the Moskva River from the Kremlin on May 6, 2012, the day before President Putin was inaugurated for his third term. The images on television and in the world media were graphic. They contrasted dramatically with the empty streets of downtown Moscow the following day as Vladimir Putin rode in his limousine to the Kremlin for his inauguration. The message could not have been more clear: The Russian people—at least a vocal segment of them—did not want another six, and maybe 12, years of Putin’s rule.

President Putin, according to numerous reports, was shocked by the demonstrations against him and vowed to crack down on opposition to him and his regime. Physical force could deliver a powerful message, but Putin needed more than just an intensification of his authoritarian rule and a demonstration of the state’s might. He also needed a message that would be attractive to the majority of Russians who had not actively protested but who were dissatisfied with their lives.

When Putin returned as president in 2012, the economic development model, which had suffered a mortal blow in 2008, was exhausted. The prosperity of the first eight years of Putin’s rule and the informal social contract had ended. In its place, the regime fashioned an ideology based on conservative social and religious values and resurrected the traditional threat to Russia from a hostile West. Putin’s rule became more authoritarian, and political opposition led by a small but vocal minority was increasingly suppressed.

What was needed was an acceleration of political and economic reform. What transpired was a deceleration. Although the regime continued to speak about the need for reform, little was done. The growth rate began to decline rapidly. According to the Russian economist Sergey Guriyev, the average annual growth rate from 2010 to 2019 was less than 2 percent. Russia had entered a period of stagnation and showed no signs of economic recovery. Foreign investment declined precipitously, and capital flight accelerated. By the period 2014 to 2018, Sergey Guriyev projects that losses from Russian money leaving the country totaled $320 billion, or approximately 4 percent of GDP per year.

2014 marked another critical year for Russia and sparked political and economic crises from which Russia has yet to recover fully. During much of his third term, Putin continued to divert attention from the weak economy by attacking his foreign and domestic enemies and by promoting massive projects, such as the 2014 Winter Olympics, which cost more than $50 billion—the most expensive Olympic Games ever. Much of the funding came from Putin’s billionaire buddies, including Viktor Vekselberg who also funded Skolkovo. But pride in such projects was not enough to keep the Russian people distracted from their increasing economic woes. Furthermore, the emphasis on conservative values and the nebulous threat from the West no longer evoked the same interest and enthusiasm as they did during the previous few years. This was reflected in Putin’s approval rating, which had fallen to the low 60s. Something more spectacular was needed.

This need was satisfied by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and active support for, and involvement in, a war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Putin rallied the nation behind him. Through his actions in Ukraine, he instilled national pride in the overwhelming majority of the Russian people. In return, he gained their loyalty and support. Concerns over economic growth were put aside for the time being. Putin won over the Russian people, and his approval rating skyrocketed.

But this euphoria did not last long. Economic sanctions imposed by the West and Russia’s countersanctions against European food products8 began to bite. Russia soon entered another economic crisis from which its recovery has been slow and uneven.

In 2014 oil prices fell again. Westers sanctions increased and reached deeper into the Russian economy. Investors, both Russian and foreign, looked for more attractive markets. On November 5, 2014, the Russian Central Bank announced that it would no longer underwrite the value of the ruble.

Within two years, the Russian state budget showed signs of suffering from the economic downturn. Defense spending, which had an ambitious growth projection, was cut back as was spending on social welfare programs. Manufacturing levels declined, as did the overall quality of life in Russia. By 2019, five years after the latest economic crisis began, Russia’s growth remained weak and below the growth rate in most developed countries. When adjusted for inflation, the average Russian was making less money in 2019 than in 2014.

During this tumultuous time, however, the Russian government and the Russian economy adjusted to the sanctions and reaped some benefits from them. According to the International Monetary Fund, sanctions have only cut into Russia’s economic output by between 1.0 and 1.5 percent. Certain sections of the economy have grown. One important sector is agriculture, which is now booming as a result of the sanctions and countersanctions on foodstuffs. In his annual press conference on December 19, 2019, President Putin pointed to these gains. He also touted the growth in defense manufacturing. “Russia never had helicopter engine-manufacturing. Now we do….We did not have engines for sea-going ships. Now we do.… Our economy … has adapted to external shocks, while the national currency has, by the way, become much more stable in relation to possible fluctuations in energy prices.”

Russia also has adjusted its financial sector to sanctions. It has unloaded most of its U.S. Treasury Bonds and is stockpiling gold. It has also developed its own independent bank transfer system in case it is blocked from using SWIFT—the worldwide interbank financial telecommunication system.

Oil prices, until just recently, have risen, and the Russian budget is in much better shape. The economy is growing again, but slowly. The Kremlin is focusing now on what it calls “national projects” to improve Russia’s infrastructure, thereby stimulating economic growth. From a macroeconomic perspective, the Russian economy is improving, albeit very slowly. Russia is now running a budget surplus and has set conservative budget targets.

From the microeconomic view, however, the Russian economy is not in good shape despite a slight increase (0.8 percent in 2019) in the growth of real disposable income. The Russian government has not restored spending on social welfare programs to the pre-crisis level. Moreover, additional burdens have been imposed on the Russian people in the form of an increase in the age for eligibility for state pensions and a rise in the Value Added Tax (VAT) from 18 to 20 percent—a burden that hurts the Russian consumer. Russian citizens feel that their lives are not getting any better and hold Putin responsible. According to the independent polling agency Levada Center, about 65 percent of Russian households have no savings, and bankruptcies are on the rise.

One of the key factors that affects the growth of the Russian economy is private investment. The government argues that conditions for investment are good right now. It points to record low inflation, budget surpluses, and a stable ruble. But investors remain leery. They worry about the unpredictability of the rules of doing business in Russia, the politicization of the judiciary and the difficulty of obtaining fair judgments from the courts, the ongoing interference and pressure on businesses by the security forces, the lack of incentives and reform of the economy needed to stimulate investment and growth, and the all-pervasive, entrenched corruption which, according to some polls, is getting worse.

As a result of sanctions, the state budget and state-owned banks are the primary sources of investment. Consequently, the economy has put significant emphasis on large-scale state-funded projects that are run by state-run corporations headed by some of Putin’s richest cronies who, ironically, are under international sanctions. As a result, these state-run companies are getting bigger and richer, owing indirectly to the sanctions—the purpose of which was to punish these businessmen for their involvement in Russia’s illegal activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

An important aspect of any healthy economy is the contribution made by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In Russia, an SME is defined as a business employing fewer than 150 people, having annual revenue of fewer than two billion rubles (about $31 million), and meeting certain rules of ownership and governance. For years SMEs have been struggling with a sluggish economy, widespread corruption, the lack of an effective rule of law, and arbitrary and rapidly changing regulations. According to Rosstat, the state statistical agency, SMEs make up just 20.2 percent of the Russian economy. This is a decline from 22 percent in 2017. To sustain growth in the Russian economy much more needs to be done to promote the expansion of the role of SMEs. By contrast, the three Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—that were also part of the former Soviet Union, have successfully advanced the role of SMEs in their economies. They now account for more than two-thirds of their respective GDPs.

Although the Russian economy is growing, it is not growing fast enough to keep pace with the rest of the world. What this means over time is that the Russian economy, as it is currently constituted and lacking major reform and restructuring, will inevitably experience declining standards of living and economic stagnation. Growth in 2019 remained at about 1.0 percent—a figure that has been fairly constant since the economic crisis of 2014 began. Economists are hopeful that growth will improve in 2020, but opinions differ on how fast it will accelerate. The Russian government is pinning its hopes on the “national projects” to revitalize the economy, and officials continue to talk about economic reform. Progress in these two important measures to stimulate the Russian economy is critical for its growth and the prosperity of the country.

The Curse of the Russian Economy: Wealth Inequality and Poverty

At the beginning of this essay, I cited two popular memes that Russian people often repeat as they confront the major problem they face in their daily lives—huge wealth inequality and poverty. According to joint research by the Higher School of Economics and the state-run VEB Bank, “the wealthiest 3 percent of Russians owned 89 percent of all financial assets in 2018.” The Moscow Times reports “the number of billionaires in Russia grew from 74 to 110 between mid-2018 and mid-2019, while the number of millionaires rose from 172,000 to 246,000.” Although Russia’s rich did suffer losses during the worst years of the latest financial crisis (2014–2015), they recovered quickly. According to Forbes’s rating, the total wealth possessed by Russia’s top 200 in 2019 was $15 billion higher than it had been in 2014.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, Rosstat reported last year that 14.3 percent of the population (21 million people) are poor. This is an increase since 2018 when the figure was 12.9 percent. These people did not recover from the latest financial crisis. According to Yale economist Christopher Miller, Russians keep getting poorer and poorer. The year “2018 marked the fifth straight year in which Russians’ inflation-adjusted disposable incomes fell.” Rosstat further reports that “almost two-thirds (63.5%) of Russian households only have enough money to buy food, clothes and other essential items.” The Russian Central Bank reports that 75 percent of the population is not able to save anything each month, and almost one-third of those who manage to put some money into savings do so by skimping on food.

Russians are very worried about the state of the economy. The independent Russian polling agency, Levada Center, reports that “72 percent of Russians say they worry about rising prices, 52 percent cited growing impoverishment, and 48 percent say one of the nation’s biggest problems is unemployment.” These concerns go beyond those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and have spread well into the middle class. As the economy stagnates and the purchasing power of the Russian consumers decreases, growing socio-economic discontent threatens to increase instability and raises the risk of popular demonstrations against the Putin regime, something that has been occurring with increased frequency over the past year. The popular Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets has been reporting on growing social tension in Russian society. According to a recent Russian Public Opinion Research Center survey, “86 percent of the population say that antagonism between the rich and poor has become the main problem today. Society is fragmented, primarily due to economic inequality.”

The response of the Russian government to the growing dissatisfaction with the economic plight of a large segment of the Russian population is to continue to promise reform, exert pressure when needed, and suppress—often with increased violence—popular demonstrations against deteriorating economic conditions. Most glaring, however, is the government’s overall disregard for the plight of its low-income citizens. Recently, a news anchor in Russia’s eastern region of Kamchatka burst out laughing as she was reading a report on an increase in certain social security payments. According to the report, recipients will get a little more than 1,500 rubles ($23.50) a month to help with payments for medicines, health resort packages, and “international travel” to the resorts. It is no wonder that there is so much cynicism among the population about the government’s interest in their needs.

Yale’s Miller cites a Russian narrative that illustrates the quandary both the Russian consumer and the authorities face. Miller says that,

the population is in a tug of war between their refrigerators and their televisions. The fridge is empty, but the television says everything is great. And for those who don’t believe the television, there is the police baton…[S]o long as Russians sit at home, the Kremlin has no reason to keep their fridges full.

Despite Russia’s more successful macroeconomic indicators, the ramifications at the microeconomic level of a stagnant economy for the consumer and the population, in general, pose a serious challenge to the future of the Russian economy and its political system. The promise of reform, which has been repeated ad nauseum over the years, as the panacea for Russia’s ills, contains within it an inherent threat to the political system itself—a system that is largely responsible for Russia’s ills. Will the Russian economy be able to continue to stumble along without significant changes? Will the implementation of reform be inevitable? Decisions made in the next few years may well determine the fate of the Russian economy.

The Imperative for Reform

There is little doubt that Russia cannot continue along its current path and wallow in economic stagnation if it is to regain its status as a great power, become a stronger player on the world economic stage, and provide a better life for its people. Russia must modernize and institute meaningful reforms to move forward. Without change, the Kremlin risks growing social unrest and further degradation of living standards.

President Putin acknowledged this challenge in his State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly on January 15, 2020, in which he said that raising the income level of Russian citizens is “… the most important task of the government and the Central Bank.” He stressed that “we need structural changes in the national economy and an increase in efficiency.” He also promised a higher GDP growth rate and increased investment in the economy. Such promises are well and good, but without sustained, aggressive government programs and private entrepreneurial initiatives, these are just empty words.

Russia’s most prominent liberal economist and former Minister of Finance Kudrin has expressed concern over the direction of the Russian economy. In June 2019, he issued the following assessment: For the past six years, the country has not taken advantage of the opportunities, and our share in the global economy has fallen. We have not become more competitive and efficient. We are in a state of economic stagnation that doesn’t lend itself to optimism.” He added that there is a “decline in real income. And when so many young people live below the poverty line in 2019, this worries me, and many citizens could begin expressing their concerns.” By this, he means there is a greater chance now that young people will come out on the streets and protest despite the threat of government suppression and violence. Frustration is mounting, but a satisfactory course correction is not imminent.

Impediments to reform are formidable. The largest impediment is the state itself. The state and its top leadership, its bureaucracy, and its subservient oligarchs have benefited immensely from the current system and have gotten rich because of the strict controls they exercise over the economy. They have no intention of abandoning these controls and the symbiotic relationship among these power centers from which they derive their sustenance and strength. Therefore, they will continue to rely on state-sponsored projects, natural resource exploitation, and restrictive regulations to maintain their dominance and to impede competition and initiative from below. Consequently, such important elements of a free and fair economy as the sanctity of private property, personal freedom, fair and equitable implementation of the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an effective and persistent war against corruption are eschewed as anathema to sustaining the current political and economic regime.

Because of oppressive governance and growing economic stagnation, which are increasingly resembling some of the worst features of the Brezhnev regime of the 1970s–1980s, there is a decreasing capacity for the economy to diversify and grow. Putin periodically talks boldly about change, raising living standards, and erasing the worst abuses of his corrupt regime, as well as undertaking meaningful reform and investing in human capital and the next generation of leaders. Such steps, however, if pursued, could threaten to dismantle the very structure of control on which his authority is built. The result could be chaos.

Are the “National Projects” the Hope for Economic Prosperity?

Frustration is not just an emotion shared by a large segment of the general population; it is also the sentiment of many talented economists, business executives, and government officials who would like to see Russia pursue a different course. They are frustrated that their voices are not heard, that they are not able to effectuate positive changes and make a real difference in the lives of their compatriots. Many keep trying, but others can longer tolerate the inequities of the system and the lack of opportunity for professional development. They opt instead to hone their knowledge and skills and develop their careers outside of Russia. Although the outside world benefits from these talented young men and women, Russia loses, the future of Russia loses.

In the meantime, the Putin regime continues to look for ways out of its economic maze without surrendering the levers of control that it so religiously guards. The latest hope for building a “bright future”9 is the so-called “national projects.”

The 12 “national projects” program, which the Kremlin initiated in 2018, is an attempt to create a new economic model based on supply-side investment. The program focuses on massive infrastructure development, major boosts to health and education, and large-scale economic modernization over six years at a cost of $400 billion, one-third of which is to come from the private sector. This program includes major road-, bridge-, rail- and airport-building projects, substantial revitalization of urban housing, expansion and modernization of oil and gas pipelines, and large-scale investment in developing the “Northern Passage” Arctic sea route between the Far East and Europe.

Criticism of the national projects is widespread, not only among the general population but also among many economists. They argue that the program is overly ambitious and will fail to turn the economy around, that it will benefit big business, not the Russian consumer. The Economic Development Ministry claims that investments in the national projects will result in an 85 percent increase in the rate of growth over six years. But economist Yevgenia Sleptsova of Oxford Economics argues that: “The National Projects are no breakthrough for Russia’s growth model, as long as institutions continue to constrain productivity and the working-age population declines. Russia is still looking for growth in the wrong places.” Russian economist Guriyev is also highly critical of the national projects. He claims that they will cost the Russian taxpayers trillions of rubles, but they will increase Russian GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund, by an average of only 1.4 percent through 2023, which, Guriyev points out, will bring Russia back to the level it stood at in 2008.

Guriyev summarizes the criticism of the national projects this way:

It is not surprising that experts and investors have little faith in the effectiveness of large-scale public investment in a country notorious for corruption. The solution to Russia’s problems lies in precisely the opposite direction—in implementing the long-promised reforms: protecting property rights, respecting the rule of law and competition, reducing the state’s role in the economy, fighting corruption, reintegrating Russia into the world economy, and investing in human capital.

Other critics recognize the problems of the national projects and admit that they will most likely fail to deliver results as promised, but they argue that these projects should be viewed not just in economic terms but also through a political lens. Even if only limited progress is made, the Kremlin will spin this as a sign of its commitment to improving life in Russia for everyone. With elections coming up—2021 for the State Duma and 2024 for president—this can be a powerful tool for the politicians.

Technology and Reform

One of the major challenges Russia faces is insufficient diversification of its economy. Its principal source of revenue over the years has come from the exploitation and export of its natural resources, primarily oil and natural gas. The Kremlin recognizes this challenge, acknowledges the need to increase investment in technology and digitalization of the economy, but struggles with implementing the necessary measures to meet this challenge. Former Prime Minister Medvedev was known for his fascination with technology. He was one of the first Russian senior government officials to own an Apple iPhone. He was a great admirer of Silicon Valley and sought to replicate its development of innovative technology by building the Skolkovo Innovation Center. The new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, is an economist and is known for promoting digital technologies in the workplace. There is hope that Mishustin will be a more successful promoter than Medvedev in expanding Russia’s development of innovative technologies.

Unfortunately, advanced technology and digitalization, and its commercialization, face the same problems and roadblocks as most other aspects of the economy. The predatory practices of the government, the lack of rule of law, the stifling of initiative, arbitrary government regulations, and a poor investment climate have a chilling effect, particularly on private Russian companies that have the talent but not the resources to overcome the multiple hurdles the government places on their path to success. Until and unless the state changes its traditional concept that the people serve the state to one that empowers the people and provides the economic and political resources to pursue initiatives that benefit society and the state, Russia will remain far below the world’s leading countries in the areas of technology development and innovation. According to Russian scholar Andrew Kuchins, Putin has said that “whichever country dominates artificial intelligence will rule the world.” Kuchins argues that “maybe he is right, maybe not. What is clear, however, is that his policies for nearly 20 years now have for the most part hurt rather than helped Russia’s technological competitiveness and prospects for long-term sustainable economic growth.”

Prospects for Meaningful Reform

Putin has made several attempts at reform during his 20 years in power. Most of those attempts have failed. Is there any expectation that implementation of the national projects, a change in government leadership under a new prime minister, or the anticipation of upcoming elections will bring about sufficient policy changes that could lead to a revitalized economy that serves the interests not just of the elite but of the ordinary citizens as well?

Most experts take a pessimistic view. At a minimum, they argue that because of the upcoming elections the authorities will not attempt to make any drastic changes that could hurt either their constituents or jeopardize the power elite. Key to Putin’s 20-year-long reign has been maintaining a fragile political balance among the various factions of power and wealth in the country. As Leonid Bershidsky, a columnist for Bloomberg View, explains: “The Russian president would rather sit on his hands than risk disturbing the fragile political balance that ensures his power.”

Bershidsky further explains why reforms pose a threat to the Kremlin. Reforms, Bershidsky argues, that reduce

the state footprint would undermine the most important pillar of the Putin regime. The employees of various branches of government and state companies are Putin’s more reliable support base. Putin’s billionaire friends have gotten rich from state procurement…and it remains the only source of their continued prosperity. And Putin needs to keep his cronies happy if he wants to avoid a stab in the back. Given the regime’s political constraints, it’s hard to see how Russia can defuse economic time bombs like falling investment, chronic capital outflow, and a frightening structure of household debt.

In his book The Putin System, Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal political leader and economist, argues that “the prospects [for economic reform] are grim. Inability to reform the economy condemns Russia to tightening authoritarianism and slow collapse.” “The only solution,” Yavlinsky says, “is to educate enough citizens so that when the next ‘fork in the road’ comes, they can change the system.”

That next “fork in the road” may come in 2024 with the presidential election, or it might come earlier if Putin decides his future is already safely assured. A change in the system could mean, inter alia, a new economic model and policies for Russia. This could come about by creating a more positive climate for foreign and domestic investors, pass and implement appropriate regulations and enforcement mechanisms to attract more investors, and encourage rather than discourage initiative from below.

As we have seen in the past, the Kremlin and its allies see such changes as a threat to their control and power, despite the benefits to the country. The Russian Government sent a chill through the international investment community when, in February 2019, it arrested on dubious charges a major American investor in Russia, Michael Calvey. After months in prison, Calvey was remanded to house arrest where he still awaits trial and a decision on his fate. That decision will not only determine the fate of Calvey; it may also impact the fate of future foreign investment and the course of the Russian economy.

It will take a long time for the negative clouds that hang over the Russian economy to dissipate, even if Russia seeks a different direction at a future “fork in the road.” Until then, it appears that the Kremlin will continue to hunker down and avoid any steps that could threaten the status quo of the power elite, their powerful business partners, and the system that sustains them.

What Do Leading Experts Predict for the Russian Economy?

The future direction of the Russian economy is unclear, and predictions among experts differ greatly. They range from the mildly optimistic (the view of some Russian government officials) to dire. Most analysts see continued stagnation at the microeconomic level, with some small improvement in the standard of living, depending on how serious the authorities are about committing resources to this effort. Few experts doubt that the power elite will surrender their tight hold on the economy and their sources of income.

Some take a more radical view and predict a potential socio-economic apocalypse if radical political reform is not set in motion in 2024 when Putin’s term as president ends and a new president is elected. Most experts argue against such views, insisting that Russians are historically much more tolerant of authoritarian rule and are willing to accept certain hardships as long as they are left alone to manage their daily lives in a reasonably acceptable manner.

Instead of a predictive conclusion due to the uncertain path of the Russian economy, I offer a sampling of views of prominent experts on what to expect from the Russian economy over the coming years.

Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and an astute observer and analyst of the Russian scene, frames the issue in a broad political-economic context. He wrote on Twitter on January 21, 2020, the following: “In 1999, Putin inherited near-chaos; over the following 20 years, he managed to turn it into a conditionally stable—authoritarian and personalistic political regime. His ambition now is to convert the regime into a state. Hard job.”

Following the appointment of Mishustin as Russia’s new Prime Minister on January 15, 2020, Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russia Direct Investment Fund sovereign wealth fund, offered an unsurprisingly positive assessment. He said that he expects the Mishustin government to focus on “growth, attracting additional investments and increasing the pace of implementation of national projects—the task which was outlined by the president in his Federal Assembly address.” Dmitriev opined that these measures should help increase economic growth to 3 percent in 2021—a figure that Russia has not seen in quite a few years.

In an interview on August 8, 2019, with the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, Igor Nikolayev, an economist and professor at Moscow’s prestigious Higher School of Economics, offered a bleaker assessment. He predicted that Russia faces a new economic crisis and explained why:

There are four reasons why a new crisis is inevitable: structural imbalances in the Russian economy, sanctions and counter-sanctions, downward trends in oil prices, and slowing world economic development.… The crisis will definitely occur.… Most likely, it will come in 2020. At best, it may delay until 2021.… Should the sanctions be more severe, then the rouble will immediately react by dropping.… [This will] be followed by a price increase and consequently, inflation will rise.”

To avert such a crisis, he urged three measures that need to be taken: “… decreasing taxes, renouncing countersanctions, and establishing true freedom for entrepreneurs. However, our government, in any case, has so far acted in exactly the opposite way.”

Picking up on the threat a weak economy poses to Russian domestic and foreign policies, Stratfor, a prominent American geopolitical intelligence platform, published their assessment in Worldview, on December 14, 2019. They predicted that “ultimately, Russia’s economic challenges not only will contribute to internal political and social instability, but they also will continue limiting Moscow’s ability to project power internationally.” They note that “economic weakness restricts the resources available for Russia to pursue its interests abroad, and it’s also driving Russia to emphasize exporting and mineral resource extraction that can help drive the economy at home.”

Yale’s Miller offers the most widely accepted view of the future of the Russian economy. “Expect more promises from the state,” Miller tells us,

[B]ut don’t expect much to change. The Kremlin’s style of rule at home and confrontation with the West abroad have boxed it in. Over the next five years, Russia’s economy will barely grow, the country’s government forecasts predict. Given such dismal projections, in the absence of a new foreign crisis to rally around, Russians will probably judge the Kremlin’s policies to be stale. But stale can be stable, even if Putin’s approval rating slips further.… Russians are sadly used to economic stagnation and ineffective government—and they are unlikely to be offered an alternative anytime soon.

I conclude with the assessment of Jake Cordell, a business and economics reporter for the Moscow Times, who focuses primarily on macroeconomic issues, which on the surface present a more positive picture. In a piece in the Moscow Times on December 26, 2019, Cordell wrote:

2019 was an impressive year in the Russian business world. The Russian stock market was one of the best performing anywhere in the world—up more than 40% in dollar terms and setting new record highs in the process. Corporate profits soared—rising 12% and on track to pass the landmark 15 trillion-ruble mark ($340 billion). As a share of GDP Russia’s corporate profits come in around 14%—more than twice the level in China and compared with 8.5% in the United States. Businesses are expecting more of the same in 2020. However, scratch the surface and the optimism and opportunities quickly brush up against a not insignificant set of challenges. There are a lot of risks and concerns, and businesses aren’t sure about their futures. The risk of a decline in domestic demand continues to worry businesses—most of that is undoubtedly connected with the economic slowdown, the VAT increase, increase in the retirement age, the trade embargo [sanctions], and other trends such as the multi-year decrease in consumer income. An unresolved familiar set of problems—including government interference in private companies and an apparent lack of protections for investors—also lingers over the business community. “As the 2020s approach, Russia is caught between needing to find new growth drivers to spur moribund economic growth, and a political economy set to protect the vested interests of established players,” said [the British global risk and strategic consulting firm] Maplecroft’s [Daragh] McDowell. More restrictive conditions for the Russian internet and technology space will be a major trend in 2020. That business associations and investors are still raising the kind of concerns that were prevalent at the start of 2000 or 2010—criminalization of corporate disputes, bloated bureaucracy, government interference, outdated regulations, weak investor protection, a politicized judiciary—shows that change is a slow process in Russia. Surveys also reveal strong dissatisfaction with the modern business climate among Russia’s entrepreneurs. A PwC [PriceWaterhouseCoopers] poll found 52% of business owners think it was easier to do business in the turbulent 1990s than it is today. Stuart Lawson, a veteran British banker who came to Russia in the 1990s, said: “When it comes to Russia, I like to say: it’s never as bad as it feels, but never as good as you hope.”

“It’s never as bad as it feels, but never as good as you hope.” These words ring true for so many things in Russia, not just the economy. They also bring to mind the astute observation of Viktor Chernomyrdin, President Boris Yeltsin’s longest-serving prime minister who lamented: “We wanted the best, but it always turned out the same way.” For the sake of the Russian people and their future, let’s hope that the two memes cited at the beginning of this essay are eventually replaced by a more positive and promising outlook and the “bright future,” which the people have been promised since the Soviet days and has been so elusive, actually becomes a reality.

Washington, DC | March 2020

Chapter 9

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part I

The Nature of Russian Civil Society

A productive and dynamic civil society with active participation by a broad and diverse representation of the population is fundamental to the development of democracy and the growth and prosperity of any country. Ensuring the free and unfettered development of civil society should be a basic national interest of a democratic state.

But what about an authoritarian country? How does it see the role of civil society in a state that is dominated by a small ruling elite? Must the activities and role of civil society be suppressed in order not to interfere with autocratic rule? Or is the role of civil society—through manipulation or other means—to serve the interests of the rulers while maintaining control? What is the danger to an autocratic regime if it loses control over civil society?

In this essay on civil society in Russia, I will address these and other questions. I will explore this topic in three parts. In the first part, I will examine the nature of civil society in Russia and will include a historical perspective to better understand current issues. In the second part, I will explore life, opinions, and nostalgia in contemporary Russian society. In the third part, I will delve into leadership and dissent and offer some thoughts about prospects for a more active role for civil society and the possibility of a substantial protest movement developing over the next several years.

The Challenge of Managing Civil Society in Authoritarian Russia

In an authoritarian state, civil society10 is often perceived as an adversary rather than as a partner as it is in a democratic state. For this reason, authoritarian states strive to maintain firm control over the population. When the people are perceived as an autonomous political power, autocrats fear they could become a destructive force that could overturn the regime. In today’s globalized world, autocratic regimes face increasing pressure, not only internally, but also from external forces, be they foreign powers, non-governmental actors, or the international media that seek to promote and facilitate communication and interaction across borders in increasingly unrestrained and, at times, intrusive ways.

Controlling internal and external challenges from civil society has been a primary concern of Russia’s rulers over the centuries. For much of that time, the Kremlin has maintained control through intimidation, coercion, and force. On occasion, however, as civil society has felt egregiously abused by the authorities and the authorities have shown themselves to be weak in responding to legitimate demands from society or have acted cruelly and violently, elements of civil society have risen up against the authorities in protest and even rebellion.

Over the centuries, Russia has struggled between the centripetal forces of the central authority struggling to hold the country together under tight control, and the centrifugal forces represented by regional leaders, disgruntled elements of civil society, and anarchistic forces that want to weaken or destroy central control. Weakness in the center has led to strengthening forces in the periphery and a more prominent role for certain elements in civil society. A strong center has meant the supremacy of tight, autocratic rule marked by force, suppression of basic civil rights, and the demand that civil society strictly comply with the arbitrary rule of the Kremlin.

With very few exceptions, Russia has not known or experienced the benefits of what a vibrant, free civil society can bring to the country. Those few exceptions have either been marked by chaotic, anarchistic eruptions of popular discontent or short-lived expressions of freedom during which civil society and the national leaders appeared to share similar objectives. The first is best illustrated by the turmoil of the 1917 revolutions. The second case is exemplified by the transformation that occurred in the 1990s when the Soviet Union broke apart and a new Russia emerged. Otherwise, Russia has been dominated by autocrats, and civil society has been the hapless victim of arbitrary and oppressive authoritarian rule.

The problem in Russia is not that there is a lack of understanding about what the relationship should be between the leaders and civil society to benefit the country. The problem is that the people and the structures of civil society have been largely powerless to influence how that relationship should develop. Vladimir Inozemstev, a noted Russian economist and the founder and director of the Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies, is among those Russians—mainly intellectuals and opposition leaders—who argue that,

[T]he problem [in Russia] is the lack of recognition that it is the people who empower their leaders, and not the powers-that-be who determine the people’s degree of freedom. The problem is the lack of recognition that the state can and must be constructed from below, through democratic elections and the possibility of effective control over the authorities through meaningful local government and federalism.

Unfortunately for Russia, while this view is understood and has emerged to prominence at various times in the country’s past, it remains the view of the minority. Much more prominent is the ideology that supports the supremacy of the ruling elite over the general population.

Vladislav Surkov, who in recent years has occupied senior positions in President Vladimir Putin’s government and has been dubbed the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” for the leading role he has played as an ideologue and framer of the term “sovereign democracy” to describe the framework of Putin’s rule, has been blunt in defining the reality of Russia as an autocratic state. Although some have criticized Surkov’s views, others find much truth in them, particularly in his historical analysis.

On February 11, 2019, Surkov published an important article, entitled “Putin’s Lasting State” in the popular Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. In his article, Surkov describes the origins of the Russian state, which, in his view, determined the course of its evolution over more than 1,000 years. Surkov wrote:

The character of the Russian state has been central in shaping Russian strategic thinking. It has never been conceived as an emanation of society, instituted to protect the rights of citizens, temper the consequences of conflicts among them and advance the public weal. Rather, it emerges as an alien force invited to establish order over an unruly people. “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us,” as the Primary Chronicle, written in the 13th century, describes the creation of the Russian state. The new rulers were not kin of the local Slavic population, but Nordic Varangians, soldier-traders who moved through Slavic lands for commercial purposes.

In support of his argument, Surkov quotes the noted American historian Richard Pipes who opined that “the [Russian] state neither grew out of society, nor was imposed on it from above. Rather it grew up side-by-side with society and bit by bit swallowed it.”

In expanding on the role of the state, Surkov argues that

[T]he all-encompassing state has been the central and decisive actor in Russian history.… Loyalty to the state in the person of the sovereign lay at the core of Russian identity. It is not an exaggeration to say that, at least in the minds of the rulers, without the state, there would be no Russia.11 Hence, the preservation and progress of the state has been their central mission throughout history. It is the restoration of the state after the profound crisis of the first post-Soviet decade [the 1990s under President Yeltsin] that Russia’s current rulers [President Putin and his administration] count among their greatest achievements. Their mission requires defending the state from enemies at home and abroad.

Surkov recognizes that Russia has adopted certain political terminologies and institutions from the West that impart a veneer of democracy and democratic practices, but in reality are nothing more than a façade, a pretense of having institutions that in essence are alien to Russian political culture as practiced by the autocratic state. Surkov cynically described this situation as follows:

The multilayered political institutions which Russia had adopted from the West are sometimes seen as partly ritualistic and established for the sake of looking “like everyone else,” so that the peculiarities of our political culture wouldn’t draw too much attention from our neighbors, didn’t irritate or frighten them. They are like a Sunday suit, put on when visiting others, while at home we dress as we do at home.

We shall return to the nature of Russian concepts and institutions and their development within civil society throughout this essay. Although Surkov expresses a view that is undoubtedly shared within certain powerful circles of the ruling elite, there are competing views within civil society that are rising to challenge the conservative, autocratic ideology and policies of those in power. How the more influential views of the leaders of civil society, as well as those of the general population, are emerging and are challenging tradition will be explored below.

Putin Rebuilds the Authoritarian State, but Where Does Civil Society Fit In?

The 1990s was a transformative decade. The Soviet Union collapsed. Fifteen independent countries emerged from what was the world’s largest totalitarian empire. Each of those countries sought its own path of development and in so doing struggled to build a government and a civil society. Except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, most of the other former Soviet republics, including Russia, fell into the traditional pattern of authoritarian rule with a weak civil society.

Decades of living under the oppressive Soviet system in which people’s social behavior and relations with the all-powerful state were tightly controlled had so stifled individual initiative and the incentive to actively engage in social, much less political, activities, that when state controls were substantially relaxed, civil society struggled to develop into a meaningful, influential force. The free-for-all environment that emerged in Russia in the 1990s, in which bandit-capitalism, roaming criminal gangs, widespread corruption, chaos, and economic collapse dominated society—often in the name of “democracy” and “freedom”—drove both the Russian authorities and society toward the same goal: restore stability and predictability in the economic, political, and social life of the country. When Putin became president, this became his compelling objective—regain control over the economy, strengthen the state, re-centralize its power, and restore calm to the nation. These tasks were greatly facilitated by the weakness of Russian civil society and the people’s yearning at almost any price to see stability return to their lives.

Putin openly acknowledged the weakness of Russian society. In his “Millennium Manifesto,” which was published in the newspaper Izvestiya on December 30, 1999, Putin described Russian society as “split and internally disintegrated.” He returned to this theme on several occasions over the coming years for he strongly believed that if Russia were to develop and regain its position in the world, it needed civil accord. As prominent Russian analyst Maria Lipman noted, in Putin’s public addresses he favored the word “reconciliation” to describe how he wanted to see Russian society come together. But in fact, Lipman points out, Putin’s policy was one of demobilization and pacification.

During the first two terms of his presidency (2000–2004 and 2004–2008) Putin was able to achieve his goal of restoring order (“demobilization”) and calm (“pacification”) to Russian society. The state remained mainly aloof of controversial issues, and it eschewed the reestablishment of any official ideology. The people grew acquiescent, and stability was restored. Lipman cited the term “nonintrusive” that was coined by sociologist Boris Dubin to describe the Russian state of the 2000s. Aided by high oil prices, Putin was able to raise the standard of living for a large segment of the Russian population who, for the first time in their lives, moved into the middle class. Major cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, enjoyed an economic boom. Many of their citizens experienced a positive change in their lives. Urban society focused on the pleasures of an improved lifestyle, while the leaders in the Kremlin consolidated their power.

But this apparent tranquility, this apparent stable balance of interests between society and the authorities proved to be ephemeral. A series of shocks in 2008—a worldwide economic crisis, a major drop in oil prices, a change at the top of Russia’s political leadership, and growing discontent within Russian society—were to have a major impact on the Kremlin, on the nature of its rule, its relationship with civil society, and within civil society itself.

The consequences of these events did not appear immediately. They were moderated for a time by the rhetoric and half-hearted attempts at reform and modernization by Russia’s new president, former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who changed jobs in 2008 with President Putin because the latter could not constitutionally run for a third term. Despite the promising rhetoric and the appearance of Medvedev as a forward-thinking, iPhone-toting leader, conditions in the country did not improve. Recovery from the 2008 economic collapse was slow. Corruption from the highest levels down to local officials, abusive conduct by law enforcement officials, and arbitrary decisions by the courts created an increasingly depressed mood among the population. When President Medvedev announced in September 2011 that he was not going to run for a second term so that Vladimir Putin could run again for president (the legislature had amended the constitution to permit this), civil society erupted in a series of protests in the winter of 2011–2012 at a scale that was unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The reaction of the new Putin administration was swift, decisive, and ruthless. The police and special forces cracked down and arrested protestors and even innocent bystanders. The courts took corresponding measures to sentence minor offenders to unwarranted prison terms. Repression replaced “nonintrusiveness.” Russia was beginning to restore some of the more odious features of the Soviet Union while losing many of the hopeful, albeit chaotic, signs of progress toward a more open and democratic society of the Yeltsin years. The people suffered while the regime prospered. Gone was the balance between growing prosperity and society’s aloofness from politics. A recalculation and a readjustment in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled were inevitable.

The Kremlin responded in two ways: by tightening its grip over civil society and the population as a whole through repressive measures, and by developing an official quasi-ideology that was to become the foundation of a resurgent national identity in an effort to rally support for the regime. Neither of the two has provided more than temporary societal acquiescence.

Repression has been the default policy for Russia’s rulers over the centuries. Putin’s administration is no exception. Law enforcement agencies and the courts have been working in tandem to impose strict and speedy punishment on anyone participating in demonstrations against the authorities. Olga Romanova, a journalist and director of the civil rights organization Russia behind Bars, writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center in September 2019, identified several important trends in the Putin administration’s use of repression. “The first trend is that the authorities have completely stopped investigating (never mind opening criminal cases into) accusations of the unjustified use of force against detainees.” This became apparent following mass arrests at protests sparked by the authorities who refused to register opposition candidates for elections to the Moscow City Council that were held on September 8, 2019. “The second trend,” Romanova identifies, “is the outright refusal by judges to admit (or even view) what the defense claims is evidence that clears the defendant.” Moreover, Romanova notes that cases brought against political protesters that were previously classified as minor “administrative” violations were now being tried as more serious crimes for which the accused could be sentenced to years in prison. There have been several cases of protestors and even innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were charged with allegedly injuring policemen during arrest scuffles and were sentenced to several years in prison. Romanova notes that such strict repressive measures have not failed to resonate with civil society. She concludes that “what is clear is that the faction [within the Putin administration] urging for harsh repression currently has the upper hand. This will impact not just the prevailing mood of protest,” Romanova predicts, “but the entire state of the Russian justice system, which was already lamentable.”

The Putin regime has also taken legislative and administrative measures to clamp down on the activities of civil society when they run counter to official policy. The infamous law on “foreign agents” that was passed by the Russian parliament and signed into law by President Putin in 2012 is a case in point. Any non-governmental organization that receives funding from a foreign source and does not register as a “foreign agent” is subject to stiff penalties, including hefty fines. Perhaps most importantly, it labels such organizations as “foreign agents,” which in the historic Soviet and Russian context implies being agents of a foreign intelligence organization, that is, spies. This odious law has severely impacted the nongovernmental community in Russia, forcing many to close their doors, and has imposed draconian restrictions on others that have survived, such as Russia’s most influential civil rights organization, Memorial. Surkov, in his Nezavismaya Gazeta article, sets forth an argument in support of this law. He argues that it is the mission of the authorities to defend the state

[F]rom enemies at home and abroad. Under these circumstances, they firmly believe they have the right and obligation to severely restrict and closely monitor the activities of foreign and foreign-funded entities operating in Russia, and, at the extreme, to expel them or shut them down. They remain determined not to succumb to America’s form of hybrid warfare.

President Vladimir Putin addressed the state’s reaction to protests and to the motive for a “foreign agents” law in comments he made on March 2, 2020:

If you want to express your point of view,” Putin said, “then get a permit for a public demonstration and go to town. In some countries, unpermitted rallies can cost you five or even 10 years. Get a permit. And if you don’t, and you protest anyway, then you’re in for a buzzcut when they lock you up. Take a load off and relax a bit behind bars. And we aren’t the ones who invented foreign-agent status—that was the Americans. Comparing it to the yellow badges the Nazis forced on the Jews is unfair. The only goal of the law against foreign agents is to protect Russia from outside political interference.

The Russian parliament has imposed further restrictions on Russian citizens’ freedom of expression. On March 6, 2019, a law was passed that allowed courts to fine and even jail people for “indecent” online posts that “disrespect” government officials, including President Putin, and demonstrate a “blatant disrespect for society, the country, Russia’s official state symbols, the constitution, or the authorities.” Violators of this law are subject to fines up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300). Repeat offenders can be fined twice that amount or sentenced to 15 days in jail.

The second important step the Putin regime took after the wave of protests in the winter of 2011–2012 was to develop a quasi-ideology to strengthen national identity and rally the people around a set of values of which they could be proud. To do so, the Kremlin reached back to past glories and achievements of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union and a value system deeply rooted in Russian tradition and the Russian Orthodox faith. According to Putin’s quasi-ideology, the powerful, ever-vigilant state was protecting the nation against the omnipresent threat from foreign enemies who encircle Russia and want to destroy the country and seize its wealth. Internal enemies who were doing the bidding of foreign powers were portrayed as equally dangerous and had to be prevented from pursuing their evil schemes. Russian society was strengthened by relying on traditional, conservative family values and morals. Spirituality and the tenets of the Russian Orthodox Church were widely propagated. The immoral West was condemned for pursuing a licentious lifestyle. The word Gayropa was coined by the Russian propaganda machine to condemn Europe for its support for gay rights and other nontraditional (from the Russian perspective) societal changes. It has also been used mockingly by Russia’s youth as a cynical retort to Russian traditionalists and the authorities to demonstrate their opposition to the family values promoted by the state.

Russia’s exceptionalism and strong patriotism received a major boost with the seizure (or return, in the Russian explanation) of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s support for, and direct involvement in, the war in eastern Ukraine. Nationalist fervor and support for President Putin reached a fever pitch and helped sustain the Kremlin’s quasi-ideology for several years. But nationalism, patriotic slogans, and television images of Russian Orthodox priests blessing nuclear missiles, or public figures condemning the increasingly Western-oriented lifestyle of Russia’s youth cannot sustain for long a state-sponsored propaganda campaign in the face of a deteriorating economy, a decaying infrastructure, unaddressed social needs, and a growing civil consciousness among Russian citizens.

With the weakening of the Kremlin’s ideologic message and the state’s growing reliance on repressive measures, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the state is losing control over the social agenda and is no longer able to respond to the needs of society. As Tatyana Stanovaya of Carnegie Moscow Center states, “In its twentieth year, the Putin system is closing in on itself and self-isolating from society.” She further explains, “The government has simply forgotten how to empathize with the public and understand its demands, which it increasingly perceives as excessive and politically untenable. To understand the nature of Putin’s fourth presidential term [2018–2024] look to the government’s new maxim: ‘We don’t owe you anything.’”

A dialogue between the authorities and civil society does not exist. Putin and his cohorts are increasingly isolated from society—a society that is itself beginning to undergo its own transformation brought about by challenges forced upon it from within; by the devasting impact of the coronavirus;12 by the coming of age of a new, urban middle class; and by the failures of the Kremlin to pursue a bold and effective agenda. As for the future, Stanovaya sees it being set to a significant degree by society. “What happens next,” she argues, “will be determined much more by people’s political mobilization, by the effectiveness of new opposition leaders, and by the number of mistakes the government will make.”

Russian Society and Civic Activism

On December 4, 2019, Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old university student appeared before a Moscow court accused of extremism for posting videos on YouTube in which he talked about nonviolent protests, issues regarding political power, and his campaign for a seat on the Moscow City Council. At his trial, he read a bold and courageous statement that was an indictment of the Russian political system and the ills it causes to Russian society. His statement became a media sensation and a symbol of what is wrong with Putin’s Russia. In the end, Zhukov received a sentence of three years’ probation—an unusually light sentence based on current practices of the Russian judicial system, probably because of the public reaction to his statement.

Zhukov’s words were powerful. His message was not just political but also emotional. He spoke of love; he spoke of trust; and he spoke of the loss of both. Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, captured the essence of Zhukov’s statement in an article in The New Yorker on December 7, 2019. I quote the highlights of Zhukov’s poignant message.

An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. …

Now I would like to talk about love. Love is impossible in the absence of trust. Real trust is formed of common action. Common action is a rarity in a country where few people feel responsible. And where common action does occur, the guardians of the state immediately see it as a threat. It doesn’t matter what you do—whether you are helping prison inmates, speaking up for human rights, fighting for the environment—sooner or later you’ll either be branded a “foreign agent” or just locked up. The state’s message is clear: “go back to your burrow and don’t take part in common action. If we see more than two people together in the street, we’ll jail you for protesting. If you work together on social issues, we’ll assign you the status of a ‘foreign agent.’” Where can trust come from in a country like this—and where can love grow? I’m speaking not of romantic love, but of the love of humanity.…

The only social policy the Russian state pursues consistently is the policy of atomization. The state dehumanizes us in one another’s eyes. In the state’s own eyes, we stopped being human a long time ago. Otherwise, why would it treat its citizens the way it does? Why does it punctuate its treatment of people through daily nightstick beatings, prison torture, inaction in the face of an HIV epidemic, the closure of schools and hospitals, and so on? …

Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror. We let this be done to us, and who have we become? We have become a nation that has unlearned responsibility. We have become a nation that has unlearned love. More than two hundred years ago, Alexander Radishchev [widely regarded as the first Russian political writer], as he travelled from St. Petersburg to Moscow, wrote, “I gazed around myself, and my soul was wounded by human suffering. I then looked inside myself and saw that man’s troubles come from man himself.” Where are these kinds of people today? Where are the people whose hearts ache this much for what is happening in our country? Why are hardly any people like this left?

It turns out that the only traditional institution that the Russian state truly respects and protects is the institution of autocracy. Autocracy aims to destroy anyone who actually wants to work for the benefit of the homeland, who isn’t scared to love and take on responsibility. As a result, our long-suffering citizens have had to learn that initiative will be punished, that the boss is always right just because he is the boss, that happiness may be within reach—but not for them. And having learned this, they gradually started to disappear. According to the state statistical authority, Russians are slowly vanishing, at the rate of four hundred thousand people a year. You can’t see the people behind the statistics. But try to see them! These are the people who are drinking themselves to death from helplessness, the people freezing to death in unheated hospitals, the people murdered by others, and those who kill themselves. These are people. People like you and me.

These are the words not of a learned scholar of sociology, not of a political opposition leader, not of a popular media pundit. These are the words of a 21-year-old student; a young man who has lived his entire life under the regime of Putin; a man deeply concerned about his country, its people, and its future. His wisdom, his analysis, and his passion can offer inspiration to others, can inspire a shift toward more activism in civil society, or perhaps will just be drowned out by the cacophony of boisterous, undisciplined street protests and demonstrations, by the shrieks of baton-wielding police and the sirens of paddy wagons. Regardless of what transpires, Zhukov’s statement before a court that was to decide the fate of this very young man cannot help one not be deeply troubled about Russia’s future and the future of the Russian people.

Zhukov spoke about the atomization of society at the hands of the authorities. This, indeed, is a fundamental policy pursued by the Kremlin. It is also a natural phenomenon caused by the sharp divide within Russian society itself, which the Kremlin takes advantage of for its own purposes. Civil society is split. One component consists of organizations that cooperate closely with the government, pursue agendas approved by the Kremlin, and receive state support and funding. Some of them are attached to government ministries and other state agencies. The other component consists of totally independent non-governmental organizations that struggle to survive without government funding. Private philanthropy in Russia is not widespread and is risky because independent NGOs might pursue projects that the authorities oppose, thereby causing unease among domestic funders who do not want to be on the wrong side of the government. Foreign funding is also precluded because of the “foreign agent” law, thereby making it difficult for independent NGOs to survive. Many of them find themselves in conflict with the authorities because of the issues they take on. Only the most courageous, persistent, and lucky manage to survive.

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center describes the dilemma Russian civil society faces:

One option is to cut a deal with the state, and operate in full compliance with its terms, allowing organizations to continue their valuable activities, but de facto conferring political support on the Kremlin. The other option is marginalization, becoming outcasts destined to be in constant conflict with the state. In the meantime, the result is conflict and potential polarization within Russia’s civil society.

Within the broader spectrum of Russian society, beyond the realm of the activists—be they aligned with state institutions and policies, or operate independently, the chasm between those who are politically, socially, environmentally concerned about changing Russia for the better and the majority of the population, which is either indifferent or even hostile to the efforts of the activists, could not be starker. As Russian analyst Maria Snegovaya writes in a tweet, “Once again we have two Russias: One is beaten at demonstrations, the other actively votes for the KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation]. Neither of the two Russias believes the other.”

This dual nature of Russian society has deep roots that extend far back into Tsarist Russia as well as to Russia’s more recent Soviet past. Yegor Zhukov identified many of the traditional weaknesses and problems of Russian society in his statement before the court. Much of the population is reluctant to push for change that could improve their lives. They prefer to remain aloof from political involvement and social activism, adopting a more fatalistic approach to life, convinced that there is nothing that they can do against the forces of the authorities and the powerful state.

Although much has changed for the better in the daily lives of the Russian people since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people’s perception of, and relation to, the state and the authorities have been slow to change. As Maria Volkenstein, President and CEO of the VALIDATA Market Research Agency explains:

As soon as the state and the government begin to put greater pressure on society, as they have been doing in recent years, the old Soviet skills of hiding and subterfuge come in quite handy. This cat-and-mouse game with the government is habitual, and even if it had been forgotten in the 1990s and 20oos when the government was less intrusive, people remember it at the drop of a hat. I remember the moment—around 2006–2007, I guess—when people in focus groups suddenly became afraid to talk. They immediately remember that skill.

This aloofness from the political life of the country, this reluctance to get involved has been a traditional weakness of Russian society and has facilitated the authorities to rule arbitrarily. Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Russia’s most famous human rights activist who was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and one of the last Soviet dissidents active in modern Russia, blamed society for allowing such a situation to exist. Before her death in December 2018, she charged that “if [the rulers] conduct themselves badly, then we are guilty in this more than they are.”

Fortunately, there are bold and courageous individuals brave enough to carry on the civic activism of Alekseyeva and her contemporaries. These individuals are today’s leaders at the forefront of civil society who are willing to risk their private lives and personal freedom for a better life for the Russian people. Ironically, the political activism being waged by a small cadre of civil society leaders is helping the non-activists, the apolitical masses to begin, as Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Institute of Contemporary Development points out, to “slowly but surely, to rise up off [their] knees…and recognize [themselves] no longer as part of the faceless mass of people but as individual[s] with dignity and personal interests.” These interests include “doing what one wants,” having the “opportunity to earn a decent living for themselves and their families,” and being able to expect “protection from lawlessness and injustice in court.”

This does not necessarily embolden political activism, but it does help to raise civic consciousness. So when local issues arise as a result of the arbitrary actions of the authorities, such as locating a garbage dump near a populated area, planning to build a large church in one of the few remaining open spaces in a city, closing hospitals and clinics, or other actions that intrude into the lives of ordinary citizens, more and more people who have never before come out onto the streets to protest are willing to do so now. As a result of several recent successful efforts to halt the government’s intrusion into the lives of citizens, people are beginning to feel change and sense that the state’s impact on their private lives is weakening. Economic and environmental causes—causes that directly impact the lives of ordinary citizens—are gaining support among a much broader segment of the population than have the political demonstrations and protest movements of political activists. The challenge for the leaders of civil society who want a better Russia is to channel the energy of both social and political activism into a common cause.

This should be deeply troubling for the Kremlin. A recent headline in the Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets predicted that the Russian people will not come to the aid of the authorities “at the moment of their collapse.” The popular tabloid cited the fate of Tsar Nicholas II, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin and sent a warning that “the people will lend those in power their silent support—until they don’t.” Author and analyst Mark Galeotti, commenting on this article, tweeted: “[This is a] useful reminder…that even Russians are aware of the impermanence of power and are not willing to indulge any leader forever.” Russian society has more than once risen to prominence, either as a supportive element or a crucial player, in deciding the political fate of the country. Russia does not yet appear to be on the verge of significant change, but these are increasingly troubling times, and it is impossible to predict what might happen. The significance of the Moskovsky Komsomolets article should not be ignored by Russia’s rulers. If they do so, it is at their peril.

Washington, DC | May 2020

Chapter 10

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part II

Russian Society Today: Life, Opinions, Nostalgia

In Part II of this essay on Russian civil society, I explore life, opinions, and nostalgia in contemporary Russian society. I examine how family life has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the challenges demographic shifts bring to the country, emotional and psychological factors that impact Russian society, the influence of the media and the Russian Orthodox Church on people’s lives, and the growing nostalgia for the Soviet Union and what it means.

Family Life

Life in Russia has changed drastically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gone are the food shortages, shoddy products, long lines, cramped cooperative apartments, limits on private property, restrictions on moving about the country and foreign travel. Instead, Russians are now free to choose where they want to live, where they want to work, and when and where they want to travel. Consumerism is rampant, and Moscow and St. Petersburg have some of the best restaurants in the world. Life has, indeed, changed for the better for the urbanites and much of Russia’s youth. The market economy, the widespread use of the internet, and digitalization have transformed much of Russian life.

Not everyone has benefited from the new Russia, however. Rural Russia is rife with problems, poverty still abounds, and a growing number of Russians are expressing nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union. Amid the material and political changes to Russian society, there remains a strong desire, particularly among members of the older generation and those who do not feel an affinity for the West, to preserve much of the traditional way of life and the ideas and ideals that bolster it.

One area where both change and retention of more traditional attitudes is evident is in the position of women in the family. During Soviet times, the burden of housework and childrearing fell entirely on women—although most Soviet women did not have the luxury of staying at home. They had to hold jobs, often performing manual labor. The satirical magazine Krokodil had frequent cartoons of women performing backbreaking work while men stood by drinking vodka and giving them orders. Today, that unfair distribution of labor has largely ended. Women and men share household tasks and responsibilities, and with the availability of home appliances and the abundance of food and consumer products, life for women has become easier. They have more free time, family life is more balanced, and they have more independence. With the modernization of the banking system and the work environment, women can now have their own bank accounts and credit cards, which provides increased financial independence. Women no longer feel required to work outside the home. They feel free to make their own decisions about home and a career and can choose the way of life they prefer.

However, in provincial Russia and even among some high-income social groups in the major cities, the more traditional view of the role of women is still popular—men should provide for their families, but if women work, anything they earn can be spent for their own needs. In the 1970s, American journalist Hedrick Smith described Soviet women in his book The Russians as “liberated but not emancipated.” This assessment is not outdated. Despite changes that have given women more independence and choices, the traditional views of men and women—men should be masculine breadwinners and women should be feminine and responsible for child-rearing—prevails across much of Russian society. Such views are reinforced by age-old institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church. During the height of the coronavirus, a Russian Orthodox official advised Russian women not to reprimand their husbands during the lockdown to avoid domestic conflict, and if they did, they should punish themselves for doing so. The Moscow Times reports that Bishop Panteleimon, the head of the church’s department for charity, instructed women to say: “If I criticize, then I’ll make 10 bows in the evening … or I won’t eat chocolate or surf the Internet all day.” This statement suggesting the subservience of women to men comes three years after the Russian legislature decriminalized first-time domestic violence—a staggering setback for women, especially since as many as 36,000 Russian women face daily abuse at home, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report. Although there is discussion underway to reimpose criminal punishment for this crime, the coronavirus has delayed the work of the legislature.

Attitudes toward children have also changed. In the past, parents and grandparents had a strong influence on children’s lives from their early days until well into adulthood. Grandmothers were largely responsible for raising the children while the parents were at work. As children grew older, parents were more influential in selecting their future path. Even after they got married, children frequently remained dependent on their parents because housing was scarce, and they were often unable to find separate living accommodations.

That has changed. Most young people now live very different lives. Parents have less influence on their children, and children are freer to make their own choices and pursue the lives they want. Housing in most parts of Russia is no longer scarce and has been privatized. Young people, like everyone else, have access to mortgages and credit cards and are therefore able to live independently from their parents when they reach adulthood.

Life in Statistics

One of the more noticeable changes from the Soviet system is access to statistical information. The official Russian state statistical agency Rosstat frequently publishes data about various aspects of life in Russia, but because Rosstat is a government body, its data are considered by some to be suspect. There are also several independent polling organizations whose work varies in accuracy and reliability. The best known and most reliable of them is the Levada Center. Despite the dedication of the pollsters, there is still a reluctance on the part of many Russians, particularly those who grew up in the Soviet Union, to answer questions about their private lives, much less about their political views. More recently, however, as the younger generation has come of age and is not burdened with the fears and mistrust that their parents often have, data have become more available and more reliable.

A survey conducted on October 30–31, 2019, and published by TASS, the Russian News Agency owned by the Russian government, revealed information about Russians’ views of life and the future. According to this survey:

[A]bout 50% of Russians said that they are satisfied with their lives, while 22% said they were dissatisfied…. One-fourth of Russians are optimistic about the future, 25% are confident that their lives will improve in a year, about 41% believe that nothing will change, while 23% think that things will just get worse. Half of those polled (48%) are concerned and worried about their future, but their number is falling…. One in four respondents said they are optimistic about the future (26%) and almost the same number (23%) are neither optimistic nor worried about it.

A similar poll conducted on June 5 among 1,600 respondents—days before the coronavirus restrictions were eased—indicated that Russians believe that their personal situations have improved. Sixty-five percent had a positive outlook, but 32 percent said their personal situation was bad. When asked about the overall situation in the country, 56 percent had a negative view, but 38 percent had a positive view.

Other recent polls have looked specifically at living conditions and class structure. Analyst Paul Goble examines one such poll by Rosstat. The state statistical agency reports:

35 million Russians live in houses or apartments without indoor toilets, 47 million do not have hot water, 29 million do not have any running water inside their residences, and 22 million do not have central heating. In fact, only 62.7 percent of the Russian population13 has the usual accoutrements of modern existence—water in the house, plumbing, heating, and gas or electric ranges.

These are surprising statistics coming from an official state agency. They remind us that when we talk about life in Russia, we must not just judge the country by conditions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we must take a broader perspective that includes the living conditions of millions of Russians throughout the country.

Russians’ own perception of where they fit in the economic structure of the country is an important measure of the state of Russian society. According to a poll published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, “69 percent of Russians consider themselves to be ‘middle-income’ while 27 percent consider themselves to be ‘poor.’ Only 1 percent of respondents said they were ‘rich.’ The remaining three percent said they had difficulty responding.” A similar poll conducted by the state-owned Sberbank indicated that the percentage of Russians who consider themselves to be in the middle class is declining because of real income stagnation and the overall deterioration of the Russian economy.

Russia Beyond, which is an arm of the state media company TV-Novosti, recently compared how life has changed for the average Russian during the past 10 years. Among the noticeable changes are that Russians are traveling more and leading a healthier lifestyle. Of note is that the official poverty level (12.9 percent) is considerably lower than what the Russians themselves assess it to be (27 percent).

Table 1. Comparison of Key Demographics, 2009–2019

Table 1. Comparison of Key Demographics, 2009–2019


Demographic composition and corresponding trends are important tools for measuring the prospects for the development of any society. For Russia, this is a particularly challenging issue today. Throughout its history, Russia has been a multiethnic state. Even after the Soviet Union broke apart and 15 independent states were formed, the largest of them—Russia—still laid claim to more than 100 nationalities within its borders. The diversity of its ethnic groups, religions, and languages has enriched the country, but it has also imposed unique challenges on society and the government. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal,” has described Russia as “a kind of ‘mixed breed’ culture that incorporates elements of both the East and the West, like ‘someone born of a mixed marriage.’”

The Russian nationality is the largest ethnic group in the country and dominates politics and economic and social structures. The Tatars—descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde—are the second largest nationality and live predominantly along the middle Volga River region in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. There is also a significant Tatar population in Crimea and other parts of Russia.

The Crimean Tatars have been a source of political tension for Russia since it seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Many Crimean Tatars have refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of their homeland. The Kremlin has responded by arresting many of the Crimean Tatar leaders and dissolving the Crimean Tatar Mejlis—the representative body that existed when Crimea was part of Ukraine.

The Tatars share their religious faith with the Muslims of the North Caucasus who inhabit a patchwork of Muslim republics, among which are Chechnya, Ingushetia, and multiethnic Dagestan where more than 30 local languages are spoken. For centuries, the North Caucasus has been a hotbed of dissent and rebellion. Joseph Stalin exiled entire ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars, to Siberia and Central Asia during World War II under suspicion that they were not loyal to the Soviet Union. Those who survived were finally permitted to return to their respective homelands after Stalin’s death.

In the 1990s, Russia waged two wars against Chechen rebels who sought to establish their own independent country of Ichkeria. Although the rebellion was suppressed, pockets of resistance remained for years. There are still rebels representing various Muslim ethnic groups of the North Caucasus engaged in skirmishes with Russian troops in the very mountainous terrain of the region. Russia also continues to launch raids against rebel strongholds and has managed to eliminate most but not all the resistance forces.

In addition to Russia’s large native Muslim population, there are millions of Muslims from Central Asia living in Russia, either as Russian citizens who settled in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union or as temporary guest workers. These guest workers perform much of the menial labor most Russians eschew and provide an important source of revenue to their families in their home countries.

The Kremlin perceives two serious demographic challenges today. The first is the growth of the Muslim population of the country. The second is the decline of the ethnic Russian population. The birth rate of the Muslim population far outpaces that of the Russians. The ratio of Russians to Muslims is expanded further by an influx of Muslim immigrants and guest workers and an outflow of Russian emigrants to Europe and beyond. As the Kremlin sees it, the challenge is to maintain Russian dominance in a changing demographic environment.

The Muslim Grand Mufti recently predicted that within the next 15 years Muslims would account for 30 percent of the population. This has raised concerns among many, but particularly with some officials of the Orthodox Church who, according to The Moscow Times, fret that “there won’t be any Russians left in 2050.”

It is hard to take this dire prediction seriously. The Kremlin is not going to stand by and watch power shift into the hands of the leaders of the non-Russian republics of the middle Volga region. Nor are those leaders going to challenge the Kremlin directly. But the leaders of Muslim regions may assert themselves more and use their increasing leverage to attain more rights for their people and to slow down or even try to prevent attempts by the Kremlin to pursue efforts at Russification and homogenization of the country.

The decline in the Russian population has been a serious problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Millions of Russians found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation as 15 new countries were born. Many returned to Russia, but others stayed in the countries in which they were residing at the time the USSR ceased to exist. For Russia, this has meant the loss of a significant cohort of its compatriots. It also created major problems for the new countries with Russians who were now considered foreigners and many of whom refused to integrate into the societies of their new homelands. This was a particularly serious problem in Estonia, Latvia, and the Transnistria region of Moldova. Likewise, the large Russian populations in Ukraine and Kazakhstan have caused major political problems, particularly in Ukraine, but potentially in Kazakhstan as well.

Within the Russian Federation, the population has been decreasing for several decades as the number of deaths has been exceeding the number of births. It was not until 2013 that this trend reversed itself, but this development lasted only four years before it again shifted into negative population growth. According to Rosstat, in the first 10 months of 2019, deaths outnumbered live births by 259,600. This is the highest population decline since 2008, which until 2019 was considered the lowest point in Russia’s demographic crisis.

President Vladimir Putin has expressed concern about Russia’s demographic losses and has made “sustainable natural population growth” one of Russia’s national development goals. “Demography is a vital issue that will influence our country’s development for decades to come,” he said at an economics conference in 2017. There remains, however, a noticeable gap between Putin’s words and reality on the ground. Not only is the population declining because of the imbalance in the birth-death ratio, but there is also an outflow of population through emigration and the slow death of rural Russia. Both trends do not bode well for the development of the country and a healthy society.

Emigration has been a major factor affecting Russia’s demographic policies for decades. The Soviet Union’s ban on most foreign travel made it very difficult for anyone to leave the country, either for pleasure or for permanent relocation. International pressure on the Kremlin did allow for several waves of Jewish emigration and the departure of some prominent dissidents and so-called “refusniks”—Soviet citizens who wanted to leave the country but were denied permission.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia became an independent country, travel restrictions and emigration policies were relaxed. Foreign tourism flourished, and ordinary Russians sought opportunities for education and employment abroad. A “brain drain” of many of Russia’s brightest and most talented professionals occurred as they moved to Europe and North America in search of better jobs, higher pay, and more opportunities for their families. Children of the rich and mega-rich were among the outflow of Russian citizens seeking a better life for themselves. Their parents purchased plush apartments and villas in Europe and the United States for themselves and their children. Efforts by the Kremlin to get them to return to Russia, to repatriate their wealth, which had been deposited largely in foreign banks and properties, have met with limited success. Many of the most senior members of Putin’s administration, allegedly including the president himself, have actively engaged in such ventures and do not want to give up the privileges and luxury in which they have ensconced themselves and their families.

Many ordinary Russian citizens who do not have the financial resources or the connections to pursue opportunities abroad wish they could, according to recent surveys. The independent polling agency Levada Center polled 1,601 respondents in 50 Russian regions from September 26 to October 4, 2019. The poll found that 53 percent of Russian respondents ages 18 to 24 would like to emigrate. According to The Moscow Times, “this marks a 16 percent increase in five months and is the highest share of respondents since 2009.” The same survey showed that among 25- to 39-year-olds, 30 percent want to emigrate. Among all respondents surveyed, including all age groups, 21 percent expressed a desire to leave their homeland.

The German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, in analyzing this poll and similar surveys, attributes this desire to emigrate to low salaries and the difficulty paying for good, private health care and education. As far as young people are concerned, Deutsche Welle notes that they do not believe the state media’s propaganda about “great Russia versus rotting Europe.” On the contrary, many of them see more opportunities for themselves in the West than in Russia.

For centuries, rural Russia has been the heartland of Russian life, the provider of sustenance for the nation, and the root of Russian culture and heritage. Russian writers and revolutionaries alike have idealized rural life and have sought inspiration in it for the future of the country. But the image they portrayed and the ideological expectations they had defied the harsh realities of rural life. Neither the simplicity and purity of the peasant soul of the novelists nor the revolutionary fervor of some of the revolutionary leaders of the late 19th–early 20th centuries reflected the complexities and cruelties of life beyond the urban centers, the expanding industrial enterprises, and the country estates of the nobility and the gentry. It would take the Bolsheviks and the upheavals that followed the 1917 revolution to transform rural Russia into a tightly controlled agricultural complex of collective and state farms. Millions of peasants lost their lives as the Soviet authorities seized all private property; exiled, imprisoned, and exterminated millions of peasants; and transformed the naive, idyllic image of rural Russian life into a modern version of serfdom. Peasants left the countryside in droves for the cities and were conscripted into serving the burgeoning Soviet industrialization behemoth. Rural Russia as it had existed for centuries began a slow death. According to the Demographics Institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, “the USSR began with 85 percent of its population residing in the countryside and ended with 74 percent of them as city dwellers.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet system, many of the collective and state farms have been replaced by private farming. This has transformed the economy of the agricultural sector. Because farming can no longer rely on large-scale state financing and must succeed based on new economic principles of capitalism and technological modernization, employment in the agricultural sector has changed significantly. Only the most successful farmers can survive. The multitude of agricultural workers who were employed in the often-inefficient Soviet agricultural enterprises has had to abandon their villages as they searched for employment elsewhere.

Unemployment in rural Russia now ranges from 30 to 55 percent. Young people today typically abandon their villages as soon as they can. Consequently, most of the remaining residents are elderly. Russia now reportedly has more than 20,000 villages that are totally abandoned and another 36,000 with fewer than 10 residents each. Few of these villages have reliable food supplies or medical care. The remaining residents are living out their final days in villages where they have spent their entire lives. Once they are gone, these villages will join the ranks of the tens of thousands of ghost towns that were once a vibrant part of rural Russia.

President Putin sees this demographic crisis not just as a threat to the economy and social structure of the country but also to Russia as a distinct civilization, and he is turning to technology to address this problem. In an interview that aired on Russia’s main television channel on May 17, 2020, but was recorded in late September 2019, President Putin said that Russia was “more than merely a country, but truly a distinct civilization.” Being “a multi-ethnic country with many traditions, cultures, and faiths,” Russia must maintain its status and power by nurturing modern technology, he said. “If we want to preserve this civilization, we need to focus on high technologies and their future development.” Putin singled out the importance of Russia leading in artificial intelligence, advanced genetics, unmanned vehicles, and hypersonic weapons to maintain a competitive edge and defend its independence. Without maintaining a lead in such technologies, Putin said, “it would be impossible to secure the future of our civilization.”

It is puzzling why this interview was aired at a time when Russia has been struggling with one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus pandemic in the world and its economy has suffered major blows from that and a cataclysmic drop in oil prices. No new initiatives in the areas of science and technology have been announced, and Putin himself essentially went into isolation during the pandemic, leaving it to governors and other officials to deal with the deadly consequences of the disease. What has caught most commentators’ attention is Putin’s remark that Russia is not just a country but a “distinct civilization” and he sees a multi-vectored threat to Russian civilization. Whether technology advancements alone can provide the solution to Russia’s problems, including its demographic ones as well as other societal ills, is questionable. Without major policy changes and increased investment in social needs, health care, education, and other basic services, it is hard to see Russia maintaining itself as a “distinct civilization,” as envisioned by Vladimir Putin.

Life Measured in Emotions

The emotional state of a nation—the overall mood—helps to shed light on the nature of its society and how it might react to major policy decisions or political shifts at the highest levels of authority. Two contrasting emotions that Russian analysts focus on as important measurements of the emotional state of their society are suffering and happiness.

Russian literature is replete with emotionally tortured characters and depressing scenes of misery and despair. The works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky are illustrative of this aspect of Russian life. Although written in the 19th century, there are features of Dostoyevsky’s characters and plots that are still relevant today.

Oleg Yegorov of Beyond Russia offers a contemporary description of this aspect of the Russian soul. Yegorov argues that Russians have elevated suffering to an art form. He expands on this important point by arguing that

our ability to focus on the dark side gives us our national reputation.… If Russia is considered consistent in one thing, it is being a country of joyless, brooding people. Ours is a history of harsh winters and constant foreign invasions, coupled with frequently inhumane reforms by rulers such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin, to name a few. All of this contributed to a population living almost constantly on the brink. The levels of stress alone were not consistent with healthy living.

Yegorov references research conducted by American psychologists who investigated how Russians deal with stress. According to this research, the secret Russian weapon against stress is the “love of suffering.” “As it turns out,” Yegorov continues, “our habit of brooding, complaining, near-destructive levels of self-analysis and love of consuming tragic fiction all work together to rescue us from ‘actual’ suffering and depression.”

Evgeny Osin, Deputy Head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, explains that by doing so, Russians embrace sadness and pity instead of trying to block it. When faced with negative feelings, according to Osin, Russians do not feel despair and do not let these negative feelings break them. Instead, they take it as natural: “Okay, this sucks, whatever, screw it, let’s move on.” According to Osin, “this approach—embracing sadness and pity instead of trying to block it—shows that Russian culture is closer to Eastern ones, where pain is considered an inevitable part of life. After all, all of us have no choice but to move on.”

This explanation of what is often described as a Russian fatalistic approach toward life and toward the political situation in the country offers a different interpretation of how Russians react to stress and misfortunate than is usually perceived in the West. While many outside Russia see Russians as impassive, indifferent, defeatist, Russians view their behavior as an effective coping mechanism against stress and the many negative aspects of life they face.

At the opposite end of suffering, sadness, and pity is happiness. Are Russians happy? This is a very subjective emotion and not easy to measure. Certainly, there are many Russians who are kind, thoughtful, generous, considerate, and positive in their outlook on life. But what do pollsters and psychologists say?

The state news agency TASS reported at the end of 2019 that most Russians (84 percent) felt happy. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center published a similar poll in which 81 percent of the respondents claimed they were happy. The Moscow Times, however, reported very different survey results. According to their poll published on January 31, 2020, only 42 percent of the respondents were happy, which the newspaper noted was a decline from a similar survey in 2018–2019. Andrei Milekhin of the ROMIR research agency and vice president of Gallop International explains that a decline in happiness “… can most often be explained by two factors: no observable life improvement…as well as a sense of injustice toward yourself.”

Another factor that can affect happiness is rising nationalism and a sense of pride in the country. The level of happiness reportedly spiked after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. A similar surge occurred in 2008 after the five-day war with Georgia. The problem with relying on nationalism as a means of increasing happiness, which, in turn, tends to translate into support for the regime and its policies, is that it is a short-term phenomenon and must be frequently reinforced or it loses its effectiveness. We witnessed such a decline in the last few years as people lost their enthusiasm over the annexation of Crimea and realized the large burden it placed on Russian foreign policy and the increased economic cost it imposed at home.

An important gauge of the future development of any country is the attitude of its youth. In general, young people tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about the future and their own personal plans. This is a positive sign that youth will contribute to the country’s development and further advancement.

What about Russia’s youth? How do they view themselves and their place in the world? There have been many surveys and, as stated above, their results vary depending on the nature of the survey, the cohort questioned, and the phrasing of the questions. Undoubtedly, there are many young Russians who share the optimism, enthusiasm, energy, and excitement of youth in many other parts of the world. But there are also indications that segments of Russia’s younger population do not have the same views of the future.

Margarita Izotova, a psychologist at St. Petersburg Medical University, has studied the state of happiness among teenagers in St. Petersburg—Russia’s second largest city and one of the two major crossroads of international influence in Russia. According to Russian analyst Paul Goble, Izotova has found that “38 percent of that cohort say that they have never felt themselves to be happy. That is not a good sign for the future, she suggests. But perhaps an even worse one is that every eighth one of them when asked ‘do you want to be happy?’ responds by saying ‘I don’t know.’” Perhaps such a negative response reflects the Russians’ frequent focus on the dark side of life, as described above by Oleg Yegorov.

A more comprehensive survey of Russia’s youth and their views was conducted over a larger expanse of territory, covering 52 regions of Russia and including the opinions of 1,057 respondents aged 10 to 18. According to this survey by Mikhailov and Partners, a private Russian communications consultancy firm,

62 percent of youth say they are patriots. Sixty-seven percent say they are not interested in politics. Regarding views toward the LGBTQ community, 13 percent of Russian youth say they trust sexual minorities, 68 percent say they have normal views, and 17 percent say they have negative views. A total of 46 percent of Russian schoolchildren named ecological problems as an area of concern, though 9 out of 10 say that Russia needs new environmental protection laws. Only 31 percent named corruption as a problem that needs to be immediately addressed.

These views reflect a certain similarity to those of their parents, notably patriotism and political apathy. On other issues, however, younger generation Russians are more progressive than the older generations and share more in common with their European counterparts. This difference can be attributed in large part to the widespread use of social media by Russian youth, their exposure to alternative sources of information, and the concurrent loss of control over information by the authorities. It is interesting to note that the younger generation expresses less concern about corruption than their parents, 81 percent of whom regard corruption as a serious problem. This may be attributed to the fact that young people, by and large, have not yet experienced the all-pervasive corruption that their parents must contend with almost daily.

Interaction within the Body Politic

How people interact with one another and within the framework of the norms and institutions established by the state and society is another important guide in measuring the nature of society and the prospects for its growth and evolution. In the previous section, I discussed what I called “life in emotions” and focused on suffering and happiness as two predominant feelings experienced individually by most Russians.

Other features mark Russian society collectively that have been the subject of both foreign and Russian examination and analysis for centuries. The Marquis de Custine’s famous Journey of Our Time, written in 1839, or more recent works such as James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and Hedrick Smith’s The Russians offer penetrating analysis into the Russian soul and the strengths and weaknesses of Russian society. Russian writers, sociopolitical observers, and ordinary Russian citizens, such as Yegor Zhukov, who was profiled in Part I of this essay, offer equally if not more profound insights into the nature of Russian society, how it sees itself, and how it copes with its often-challenging environment.

One of the major issues in Russian society is how people relate to each other. Zhukov, the young blogger and political activist, spoke eloquently of this at his recent trial on charges of extremism and quoted Alexander Radishchev, who wrote of Russia’s social and political conditions more than 200 years ago and the suspicious and often harsh ways Russians treat each other. Yegorov, writing for Russia Beyond, which is associated with a state media outlet, offers a contemporary depiction of what he describes as Russian society’s greatest weakness: its indifference and lack of trust. Yegorov makes a sharp distinction between the inner circle of close ties with families and friends, which are deep, sincere, and intimate—often to a degree of intensity that we in the West do not experience—and the attitude toward those outside this circle.

Yegorov argues that “skepticism and indifference are a national trait. We certainly care a lot about our relatives and close friends. … The bad news is that, in Russia, altruism usually begins and ends within that circle of close friends and family.” Putting it bluntly, Yegorov says: “Most of us are cynical and extremely skeptical people, who don’t like each other, and frankly speaking, don’t give a rat’s ass about each other.” He draws on one of the rules by which inmates of Stalin’s gulag (the network of labor camps) lived and by which many Russians still live: “Don’t trust, don’t be afraid, don’t beg.” Yegorov acknowledges that life is very different now from how it was during the totalitarian communist regime, but he maintains that people still tend to rely only on themselves. “We count everyone outside the closed circle of nearest and dearest (be it police, government, society, and person in the street) an indifferent agent at best, if not utterly hostile. And it’s not much fun to live in such an atmosphere.” “Will this last forever?” Yegorov asks. “I hope not. But as a true Russian, I am pessimistic about it.”

These traits of indifference and lack of trust have consequences for Russian society. Although, as we saw in Part I of this essay, encouraging signs exist that people are more willing now to protest when actions or inactions on the part of the authorities intrude into their personal lives, such collective responses are still infrequent. Russians prefer to remain indifferent and uninvolved. This is reflected in one measure by the lack of interest in supporting charitable organizations. According to the 2018 Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, Russia ranked 110 out of 144 countries where people supported charitable organizations, donated money, or volunteered their time. This is not to say that Russians are indifferent to suffering and assisting individual cases. There are many instances, particularly with the growing use of social media, when individuals have come to the aid of families suffering a health crisis or responded to failures by authorities to provide proper services, such as adequately responding to catastrophes like wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters.

Indifference and lack of trust within society have both positive and negative consequences for the authorities. On the positive side, these characteristics make it easier to manipulate public opinion. Because many Russians are suspicious of the motives of others, they fall easy prey to conspiracy theories spun by the official media and the authorities. The frequent claim that Russia is surrounded by enemies who are trying to weaken Russia, steal its resources, and diminish the lives of the Russian people is accepted by many as fact. Alexey Levinson, a sociologist at the Levada Center, said: “There is a strong belief in our society that Russia has a mortal enemy that can have different names…and is supported by the CIA or Pentagon.” Logically then, if Russians do not trust each other, why should they trust other countries? This conspiracy theory has worked to the Kremlin’s advantage over the years. It has been repeatedly directed against the United States and NATO and has been successful in rallying society’s overwhelming support during times of tension, most recently during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s war in Ukraine’s Donbas, and the Kremlin’s efforts to cause disarray throughout Ukraine.

On the negative side for the authorities, society’s indifference and lack of trust are manifested in the Russian people’s disdain for them and their system of control, primarily the judicial system. Russia’s judicial system is notoriously unfair, arbitrary, and unjust. It is another political tool the authorities use to maintain control over society and particularly over anyone who dares to challenge them.

The recent sentencing by the regional court in Penza of seven activists ages 23 to 30 to long prison terms—from six to 18 years—for allegedly planning terrorist attacks during the 2018 presidential elections and the soccer World Cup is a case in point, and it ignited a firestorm on social media. Some compared the trial to the show trials of the Stalin era. Several of the men claimed they were tortured to extract confessions. Human rights activists insist the case was fabricated and harsh prison sentences were imposed as a warning to other members of civil society who expressed views contrary to those of the government. In this instance, the authorities ignored the outpouring of negative reactions on social media, but public opinion is not always dismissed. In some recent court cases, especially those that have attracted high-level attention in Moscow, the authorities have responded to public opinion. Public opinion, therefore, can play an important role even in an authoritarian state. It is monitored carefully, listened to attentively, and manipulated deftly as an important tool in managing the components of the body politic.

Influential Institutions

The News Media

Control over the news media is a fundamental requisite of any authoritarian regime. Russia is no exception. Under the Soviet regime, there were no independent news organizations. All sources of news, information, and opinions were state-owned and controlled. The only independent sources of information were foreign news broadcasts that were usually jammed; foreign publications that were smuggled into the country; and illegal self-published dissident literature (samizdat) that was often handwritten, assiduously copied, and surreptitiously distributed among those opposed to the communist regime.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the news media became free. Independent newspapers, television, and radio stations took advantage of their newly won freedom to dominate the flow of information reaching the public, often drowning out the state-controlled media. But this uncontrolled and, at times, out-of-control media owned by some of Russia’s richest new oligarchs did not survive for long. One of President Putin’s first moves after he became president was to crack down and take control of the independent media. Within a few years, most media outlets were taken over by the state. Today, few independent print and broadcast media are operating in Russia.

This was a major propaganda victory for the Kremlin. Maintaining control over the news media means maintaining control over the message. The Kremlin applies pressure on the remaining independent news outlets when necessary. On many occasions, this pressure manifests itself in intimidation, violence, and even the death of journalists critical of the Kremlin.

With the rise of social media, which is now very widespread in Russia, particularly among the younger generation, the Kremlin has begun to lose control over the message. According to a poll from the Levada Center published on August 12, 2019,

Whereas a decade ago 94 percent of Russians obtained information about domestic and international affairs from [state-run] television, today only 72 percent do, the report says. It also shows that the most loyal television viewers are the oldest Russians: over 90 percent of those of pension-age rely on TV to obtain information, while only 42 percent of those under 25 watch news broadcasts.

The same Levada Center poll reports that

[O]ver the last eight years the popularity of Internet news outlets and social media has grown 250 percent—to the point where a third of Russian adults now obtain most or all of their news from web-based sources. In addition, a majority of Russians are now habitual social media users and sharers; among Russians under 25, 85 percent are ‘daily’ or ‘almost daily’ users.

Russia’s youth are tuning out state television and turning to independent news websites, such as Dozhd’ (Rain TV), and messaging apps, such as Telegram, to find out what is going on in the world. The Levada Center’s poll shows that Russians “under 35 are now more likely to get information about domestic and foreign developments from social media than they are from television.” As for print media and radio news broadcasts, their audiences have dropped by over 200 percent in the past decade.

This precipitous decline in official sources of information is accompanied by two important indicators of the attitude of Russian society toward the news media and information flow. The first is a significant increase in the belief that freedom of speech is one of the most important freedoms. A Levada Center poll published in November 2019 showed an increase in the past two years from 34 percent to 58 percent. The second indicator is that the Russian public is gradually gaining faith in independent news outlets and social media and is rapidly losing trust in state television news. The Levada Center reports that 10 years ago “roughly 80 percent of viewers believed what they were told on TV. These days, the figure hovers around 55 percent.”

This decline in trust in the state media and the rise of independent news sources and the largely unfettered internet are major concerns for the Kremlin and its supporters. President Putin and the Russian legislature have taken measures to restrict the use and operation of the internet in Russia and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the coming years. This has not yet prevented the free flow of information from reaching Russian internet users. On the contrary, it has further galvanized the efforts not only of political activists but also of ordinary citizens to counter state media messaging and play a more active role in sharing information and influencing public opinion.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Religion has played a special role in Russia for more than 1,000 years. It was one of the founding principles of the first East Slavic state in Kyiv. It was a pillar of Tsarist rule. It was nearly exterminated during the Soviet Union. And it has been revived and exalted in Putin’s Russia. That religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity—the most prominent and influential religion among the four faiths that the Russian government acknowledges as “traditional religions.” The other three are Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Roman Catholics are tolerated, as are some Protestant churches. Other religions and sects are treated differently. Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in 2017, and Mormons have had to reduce their religious activities to comply with a 2016 anti-terrorist law that banned most religious proselytizing.

Except for the Soviet period, the Russian Orthodox Church and its leadership have enjoyed a very close relationship with the Russian state. With the return to legal status and freedom to operate unconstrained by state restrictions, the Russian Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia has been enjoying an unprecedented revival and strong support from the authorities. The Russian government has been eager to put its weight behind new laws that strengthen the Church’s role in society. A law signed by President Putin in 2013, for example, criminalized actions that “clearly disrespect society” and are aimed at “insulting believers’ religious feelings.” This law was enacted following the famous “protest performance” by a rock group known as Pussy Riot in Moscow’s main church—Christ the Savior Cathedral—on February 12, 2012. Two of the performers served two years in prison for hooliganism. Although the new law has been in effect for seven years, few citizens have been prosecuted under it. The most notorious case was that of a 22-year-old man who was given a suspended three-and-one-half-year sentence for playing Pokémon Go in church.

Support for the Russian Orthodox Church has come not only from the authorities but from a wide segment of society—from ordinary citizens, some of whom maintained their faith, often secretly, during the Soviet era, to more liberal members of society who saw the revival of the Church as another important step in destroying the remnants of the old Soviet system.

Even before the Soviet system collapsed and the Russian Orthodox Church regained its freedom, attitudes toward religion were changing. The years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) offered new opportunities for people to express their faith and openly practice it. Young people, often as a sign of defiance toward the official atheism of their parents, would wear crosses on chains around their necks, attend church services, place icons in their homes, cross themselves, and pray openly. One of the most vivid manifestations of this change was the final scene in a defining movie of the time, Repentance. In a line at the end of the film, an old woman asks a stranger if she is taking the right road to the church. The stranger replies she is not, and the old woman asks: “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”

In recent years, however, there has been increasing criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church for what many perceive as its overbearing influence on government policy, its ostentatious display of power and wealth, particularly on the part of the patriarch and other senior church leaders, and its aloofness and lack of understanding of the real-life problems of ordinary Russians, 79 percent of whom think of themselves as Orthodox Christians. Even some of the most devout Orthodox parishioners are questioning the relevance of the Church to their lives. This is not good for the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in the power structure of the state and the state’s relations with society.

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains what happened to sour the relationship:

Russia’s church authorities did not engage its new parishioners in serious conversation about the modern world. Instead, they talked to them with the same didactic tone as the old ladies, telling them about their formal requirement to light candles before the church icons in a certain way, how to dress, and how to observe all the Orthodox fasts properly.… There was no debate about the language and meaning of the liturgy, the relevance and mission of the church in the modern world, or greater participation of the laity in the services. The new Christians wanted the church to disavow the power and wealth of the state and remain the friend of the oppressed. Instead, the bishops made themselves busy with the reconstruction of the grandiose tsarist-era Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the center of Moscow.

The latest criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church erupted in 2019 in public protest over the construction of a church in one of the few remaining open spaces in the center of the city of Yekaterinburg. Such a manifestation of discontent against the Church would have been unthinkable even several years ago. In a reverse of the many previously unsuccessful protests against construction projects that would harm the environment or directly encroach on people’s lives, this protest was successful, and the construction project at this site was abandoned.

This event is viewed by many as marking a significant change in society’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church has undoubtedly lost support from among the more liberal elements of Russian society, those who have been supportive of the Church because they believe in freedom of religion as a civil right. The Church, however, retains strong support from the state, from the conservative forces in society, and the large, traditional segment of Russian society. Baunov speculates that the protests in Yekaterinburg “…are in some ways a manifestation of a newborn secular, cultural, and political outlook reminiscent of Western Europe. They are a rejection of the church as archaic not just because it collaborates with the state but as archaic in and of itself.” He also speculates that the liberal-conservative divide over support for the Church “…may even shape party politics in the future [much as it has in the West]. The West’s culture war may have arrived in Russia.”

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union

Society’s Yearning

President Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He was expressing the emotional trauma of millions of Russians, many of whom found themselves living outside the borders of their homeland, who felt adrift in a world that no longer made sense to them, who were uncertain of their future, and who did not know how to deal with the past—a past that had just been negated by the decision of a small number of politicians.

The past for many countries can be a burden that can redound heavily onto the ability of governments and societies to cope with current problems and set a course for positive development for the future. Those countries that have directly confronted and reconciled with the sins and misdeeds of the past have been able to move forward more successfully and have nurtured a more cohesive and wholesome society.

Today’s Russia has not yet come to terms with its Soviet past and is still experiencing regret, nostalgia, pain, and even anger over a loss that is still incomprehensible for many of the older generations. One day the Soviet Union was there; the next day it was not. The uncertainty and anxiety this monumental event evoked in the hearts and minds of millions of former Soviet citizens were palpable and only increased in intensity as their lives were affected by political and economic turmoil.

These feelings still exist today, particularly but not exclusively, among the older generations, and they intensify as doubts about Russia’s future and the ability of the country’s leaders to ensure the people’s economic wellbeing grow. It is not surprising, therefore, that nostalgia for “the good old days,” “for better times,” for the “glory days” of the Soviet Union is popular among Russian citizens. According to a Levada Center poll conducted in December 2019, 66 percent of the respondents regretted the fall of the Soviet Union and shared Putin’s view that its collapse was a disaster. This is the highest percentage in 10 years. The same poll indicated that there is growing glorification of the Soviet Union even among young people.

The Moscow Times reported in June 2019 on the results of a Levada Center poll about some of the reasons for nostalgia for the Soviet Union:

A majority of Russians believe that the Soviet system took care of the common man and woman.… Fifty-nine percent of Russian respondents said “the state took care of ordinary people” when asked to name the defining characteristics of Soviet rule…. The absence of ethnic conflicts (46 percent) as well as economic growth and lack of unemployment (43 percent) were the second and third most common responses, Levada said. Constantly improving living conditions (39 percent) and advancements in science and culture (31 percent) placed fourth and fifth in Russians’ ranking of Soviet life.

Commenting on the poll results, the newspaper noted that

[F]ewer respondents identified Soviet life with longer lines in stores, international isolation and the persecution of dissidents than they did in past polls. The “idealization” of the Soviet past does not imply that Russians would prefer to live in the Soviet Union, Levada sociologist Karina Pipiya said. “All that the USSR is now glorified for is largely a consequence of what Russians are unhappy with now: low income, inequality, and corruption,” she wrote.

Yegorov writing for Russia Beyond last December also examined nostalgia for the USSR and the pluses and minuses of Soviet life. On the plus side, most people felt secure. “Soviet life could be quite boring, yet many felt that basic goods and opportunities were somewhat guaranteed for everyone for life, through the system of social services, pensions, etc.” On the negative side, Yegorov noted that career opportunities and salaries were limited, as was mobility within the local labor market and throughout the country.

Another aspect of Soviet life that ranks high in people’s minds is pride in the country and its achievements. A recent Levada Center poll shows that 87 percent of respondents are proud of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as they call World War II, and 50 percent cite space achievements as a source of national pride. Patriotic education among youth also is remembered favorably. Yegorov enumerated the ideals promoted by the state that he called not “all that bad,” including “friendship of all nations, building a great peaceful society without class barriers, free of poverty, greed and other vices (communism, in other words).”

On the negative side, Yegorov points out that “as a totalitarian state, the USSR was great at establishing ideals but very bad at telling its citizens the truth (which, of course, helps with feeling proud). By the end of the Soviet era (the late 1980s), only children could believe that the USSR, with its collapsing economy and constant lines in shops, was the best state in the world.”

Perhaps the most positive aspect of Soviet life was the claim that everyone was more or less equal. As Yegorov explains,

Equality was a thing in the USSR: almost no one had much, but almost everyone has something. Sure, there was an elite of sorts in the USSR—big officials, distinguished scientists, artists and so on, who enjoyed privileges…. But the salary gap between top-managers and regular workers was not as big as it can be now.

On the other hand, although everyone was “equal,” the quality and quantity of goods and services were poor. Yegorov continues his explanation:

Everyone could afford bad food and bad clothes. Material wealth hardly existed in the USSR—at least for the majority of its citizens. And though basics were guaranteed, even those who worked hard could rarely rise above the mediocre level of consumption. So why should have one worked hard? Basically, that was one of the (many) reasons for the Soviet socialist economy eventually collapsing so dramatically.

The name most closely associated with the Soviet Union is Joseph Stalin. It is both bewildering and troubling that more than 67 years after Stalin’s death and almost 30 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Stalin’s popularity in Russia is growing rather than diminishing. According to the Levada Center, the number of Russians expressing their “respect” for Stalin increased from 29 percent in 2018 to 41 percent in 2019. Stalin’s approval rating in his role in Russian history has also been growing and reached 70 percent in 2019. The same poll reported that only 19 percent had a negative view of Stalin. This is a significant increase from 20 years ago when Russians were split about evenly in their assessment of Stalin. As for how the respondents viewed whether the successes Stalin achieved were worth the cost of human suffering and loss of life, 46 percent agreed that they were, while 45 percent disagreed.

What is most surprising regarding contemporary views of Stalin are the results of a poll conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center. It reported that

[A]lmost half (47 percent) of young Russians (age 18 to 24) say they have never heard about the people killed during the Great Purge under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Of those age 25–34, the number decreases to 30 percent. What is even more astonishing is that for those 60 years old and older, 12 percent said that they have not heard of the killings during the Great Purge of the 1930s.

It is hard to believe that among Russian citizens 60 years old and older, there is anyone who does not know about Stalin’s Great Purge. Those who deny any such knowledge either must not be telling the truth or are suffering from dementia.

What explains this astonishing rise in positive attitudes toward Stalin? Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center offers his explanation. He cites popular admiration and demand for a firm hand and refers to Levada Center polls that show that 45 percent of the respondents affirmed their belief in the need to concentrate power in the hands of a single individual. Kolesnikov notes that surveys show that

[F]or many Russians, Stalin embodies a model of “order” (an attractive but abstract concept) and of “justice” (especially social justice, as there was no sharp division between rich and poor when he was in power). Russia’s current ruling class intuitively encourages a quiet rehabilitation of Stalin so as to benefit by association from these two concepts: if a politician supports Stalin, then by implication, they are also for order and justice.

Kolesnikov draws an interesting parallel between Stalin’s and Putin’s popularity. He argues that “when Putin behaves in a more authoritarian fashion, Stalin also become more popular: a trend that helps explain the jump in approval for Stalin after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.”

Despite these surprising figures that suggest a nostalgia for the Soviet Union and Stalin, do the Russian people feel so strongly about the past that they would like to live in the past? A poll conducted by the state-operated Russian Public Opinion Research Center revealed that only 5 percent of the respondents wanted to live during the Stalin era. Forty percent said they preferred to live in present-day Russia. Almost the same about (37 percent) expressed a preference for the later Soviet period (1964–1986), known as the “years of stagnation,” most closely associated with the rule of Leonid Brezhnev and a period of slow economic growth, but also a time of social and economic stability. Just 4 percent wanted to return to the chaotic years of the 1990s when Russia emerged as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country, under President Yeltsin’s leadership, experienced high inflation, widespread crime and corruption, and economic collapse. And 3 percent wanted to live during the final years of Imperial Russia before World War I and the October Revolution of 1917.

The Role of the State in Glorifying the Soviet Past

How the state addresses the role of Stalin and the achievements of the Soviet Union directly affect the attitude of society toward Russia’s past. The Kremlin has done nothing to discourage the slow rehabilitation of Stalin. In fact, it has openly encouraged the glorification of the Soviet past that was directly associated with Stalin. The most prominent achievement was the Soviet people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). That victory is increasingly attributed to the “genius” and “brilliant leadership” of Stalin. There is no event in contemporary Russia that is more celebrated and regarded with such veneration as this victory. May 9, which marks the anniversary of the end of the war, has become a lavish celebration that unites all citizens of the Russian Federation in the pride of victory and the admiration of the glorious achievement and sacrifices of the Soviet people. Stalin increasingly figures as the “efficient manager” whose leadership was essential to the Soviet victory.

Monuments, billboards, pictures of Stalin in store windows and subway stations are becoming more popular. Even a newly built Russian Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the Russian Armed Forces at a military theme-park near Moscow and touted as one of the tallest Orthodox cathedrals in the world was initially designed to contain murals featuring President Putin, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and other officials and a giant collage honoring victory in the Great Patriotic War and featuring a portrait of Stalin—a man who was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of tens of thousands of priests and the destruction of countless numbers of churches. When it became known that these paintings were being prepared, there was a loud public outcry. In response, the paintings were removed.

Although most of the monuments to Stalin are not erected by the state (they are usually put up by local Communist Party organizations), they are not discouraged by regional or national officials. Some Russians have vehemently objected to the growing rehabilitation of Stalin; however, the government has largely remained silent other than to admit that Stalin is a controversial figure.

By taking an ambiguous position on Stalin, the Kremlin can avoid direct association with the worst abuses of the Stalin regime, with the terror, and with the mass murders of millions of Soviet citizens. On the other hand, the Kremlin claims that it is the direct successor of the Soviet Union and consequently of its more positive achievements—the transformation of the country from a largely peasant society into a major industrial power, the attainment of superpower status and the military rival of the United States, and the first country to send a man into space. Russian state television pushes this positive narrative by associating the achievements of the past with the current regime while minimizing the negative aspects of the Soviet Union—its repression and extermination of millions of its citizens. This is particularly important now when the most notable accomplishments of the Putin regime—economic growth and the annexation of Crimea—are losing their impact on a society in which the hashtag #Krymnash (Crimea is ours) no longer arouses nationalistic fervor as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, most recently due to mismanagement, fallen oil prices, and the devastation brought on by the coronavirus. The failure of the Putin regime and society to come to terms with Russia’s past and to conclusively condemn Stalin and the crimes of his regime makes it difficult to move forward toward a better future, toward a more democratic and just society.

The future of any country depends on its ability to reconcile with its past, to constructively face the challenges at hand, and to entrust the younger generation with chartering a course forward. For Russia, its troubling past is a heavy burden with many conflicting interests vying for influence over its narrative. As Carnegie Moscow Center’s Kolesnikov has so astutely stated: “The war over historical memory for the minds and souls of the next generations is arguably Russia’s greatest battle.”

Washington, DC | June 2020

Chapter 11

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part III

The Leader and Society: Prospects for Change

In the third and final part of my essay on Russian civil society, I examine what the Russian people want in a leader and how well Vladimir Putin is doing in that role. Next, I look at what society wants: Is it willing to continue with current conditions, or does it want fundamental change? I conclude with a commentary on the efforts of the leaders of the protest movement to bring about change and the prospects for real transformation.

The Leader and Society

What Do the People Want in a Leader?

I concluded Part II of this essay with a section on nostalgia for the Soviet Union and an observation that Joseph Stalin’s approval rating related to his role in Russian history has been growing in recent years and has now reached 70 percent. I also noted that when Putin acts in a more authoritarian manner, Stalin also become. We saw this after Russia seized Crimea in 2014.

This begs the question: What type of ruler do the Russians want?

The Russian word vozhd’ means “leader.” It is an ancient word that was frequently used to describe a chieftain or a head of tribes. Over time it has acquired a special meaning. Today, the word implies a leader who personifies strength, power, and ultimate authority. Stalin was referred to as vozhd’. He personified the concept of an infallible leader who inspires awe and adulation and who demands obedience and unquestionable loyalty.

Does Putin also deserve to be referred to as vozhd’? Does Putin want to be perceived, if not openly referred to, as vozhd’? Do the people want to have a vozhd’, and do they see Putin as a leader with the qualities of a vozhd’?

The Russian propaganda machine has not been hesitant to elevate Putin to an exalted position and has referred to him at times as vozhd’. Although he did not use that term, then-Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Vyacheslav Volodin famously said in 2014, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” Now, as Chairman of the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament), Volodin has made another obsequious statement about Putin. On June 18, 2020, Volodin said, “After Putin will be Putin,” implying that Putinism will outlive Putin himself. After Putin was elected president for the fourth time in March 2018, Margarita Simonyan, head of the English-language RT television network (formerly known as Russia Today) said, “Before, he [Putin] was simply our president, and it was possible to change him. Now he is our vozhd’, and we will not let that be changed.” Statements such as these contribute to an effort to build a personality cult around Putin like the one that surrounded Stalin. The ubiquitous portraits of Putin; the songs of adulation from pop singers as well as ordinary citizens; the fawning of toady TV personalities; and the extensive memorabilia with images of Putin are designed to promote Putin—the authoritarian leader—as vozhd’.

But does Putin accept this adulation and see himself as vozhd’? A man who has ruled as an authoritarian for more than 20 years and appears to be ready to rule until 2036 understands the necessity of being perceived as the undisputed leader and recognizes that a personality cult is unavoidable and can be useful. But Putin is not Stalin. He does not rule in the same manner. He does not have the absolute power that Stalin had. Some would argue that Putin is quite weak and maintains his control by balancing a complex and precarious network of competing forces of power within the government, security forces, and the oligarchs. In other words, he may more closely resemble the Wizard of Oz than the vicious Stalin. Finally, Russia is not the Soviet Union. The latter was a totalitarian state; the former is much weaker and is authoritarian but not totalitarian. Because the word vozhd’ is so closely associated with Stalin and all the negative baggage associated with the late dictator—the terror, the mass murders, the deportations of entire ethnic groups to the harsh climates of Siberia and Central Asia, and all the other crimes of his regime—Putin eschews the title of vozhd’. He much prefers to be seen as an effective leader, a good manager, and a wise president who is guiding his country toward a better future.

As for the people, 75 percent of Russians still want their country to be led by a “strong and powerful leader,” according to a Levada Center poll published on its website on February 25, 2020. Specifically, “49 percent think Russia needs a strong hand all the time (down 9 percentage points from November 2018) while another 26 percent think it is needed some of the time, for example at present (up from 22 percent on 2018).” Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, believes that the results of the poll reflect Russians’ traditional view of the “good tsar” versus the corrupt bureaucrats and local officials. He explains:

The people think that a strong leader can offset the corrupt bureaucracy. Our party system is fictitious and does not reflect the interests of the people, so they don’t have a vision of where the country is going. The desire for a strong leader reflects the people’s disorientation and dissatisfaction with the authorities and their hope for a leader who can ensure social justice and somehow rein in the bureaucracy. Such is the nature of our political culture—holding on to illusory hope for the future and exasperation with reality.

But not everyone shares this need for a “strong hand.” The same poll reveals that the percentage of respondents who are opposed to placing all power in the hands of one person “under any circumstances” has risen from 18 percent to 22 percent.

Assessing Putin

If Putin does not see himself as a vozhd’, and considers himself, instead, to be an effective leader, a good manager, and a wise president, how does society assess his job performance, and do the people trust him to lead the country in the right direction?

After more than 20 years as head of state, Putin has lost much of his appeal. Polls show that the Russian people are growing increasingly tired of him, and focus groups have described Putin to pollsters at the Levada Center as “tired, getting old, and simply exhausted.”

Because the national euphoria of the Crimean annexation in 2014 has worn off, and as deteriorating economic conditions have become a reality for many Russian citizens, Putin’s rating has been in steady decline. Pollsters assess Putin’s standing in two categories: trust and approval. Putin’s trust numbers have been falling since 2017. A Levada Center poll published at the beginning of June 2020 ascribed to Putin a trust rating of only 25 percent. This was down from 35 percent in February 2020 and from 59 percent in November 2017. Those who trust Putin the most are pensioners and less educated citizens of all ages. Meanwhile, there has been an interesting change in support from young people. Just a few years ago the youngest Russians were among Putin’s most active supporters. Today, they show much less interest in him.

Putin’s approval rating remains high, but it is slipping. In February 2020, the Levada Center reported that the president’s approval rating had been holding at 67–70 percent for the past six months. A poll conducted in April 2020, however, showed a drop to 59 percent, and it stayed at the same level in May 2020.

The Levada Center explains the difference between the two ratings in the following manner:

Trust is based primarily on an evaluation of the social sphere; approval is tied to foreign policy, to rhetoric about ‘patriotic concerns.’ That is, the different roles of the president—in domestic and foreign policy. The rating for foreign policy activity is high; but for domestic policy, it is gradually declining.

Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, further clarifies the distinction. “The changing fortunes of Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings can be summarized as follows: essentially, most Russians approve of the president’s work, but voters increasingly take a dimmer view of him personally.”

Although the Russian people are growing tired of Putin, there is a general sense of ennui and apathy within Russian society that there is no alternative to Putin—there is no one waiting in the wings who could take up the reins of power. Those who continue to support the president (59 percent is still not a bad rating) cite the lack of an alternative and, according to Volkov, it also can be attributed to a significant decline in the share of the population that has any interest in politics. Volkov notes:

We are witnessing a growing sense of apathy and distance from political engagement—even while doubts are mounting as to whether Putin has any attractive vision of change to offer Russian society. Therefore, the president’s support in Russia today is increasingly linked not to any positive appeal, but rather to growing indifference and detachment, and the conviction that there simply is no alternative to Putin.

Samuel Greene of King’s College London and Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina conducted a recent study of the relationship between Putin’s hold on power and the need to maintain public support. They found that even in an autocratic state such as Russia, Putin’s power relies in large part on the degree of support he receives from the population. The weaker that support, which could reverberate within the elite as they witness a weaker Putin, the more tenuous Putin’s grip on power may be. Therefore, it is not surprising that Putin periodically makes certain gestures to garner popular support. During a period of economic downturn that directly affects the lives of ordinary citizens, this becomes an even more urgent task.

Two critically important events from Putin’s perspective were planned for April and May 2020 to rally the population, to set a course for the future, and to revitalize pride in the country. The first was a national referendum on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which was originally adopted in 1993 under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The vote was scheduled to take place on April 22, 2020. The second event was a grandiose military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), which was to be held on Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, 2020.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Russia forced the postponement of both events to July 1 and June 24, respectively. This postponement was not just a change in the calendar of events and a delay in Putin’s effort to recharge his image. It was also accompanied by the pandemic’s destructive blow to the economy, a sluggish reaction by the government to the outbreak, and Putin’s self-isolation from society, in which he almost entirely disappeared from view as the national leader and delegated responsibility for the pandemic response to regional authorities. Rather than contributing to an upsurge in enthusiasm for the president, the unexpected turn of events further weakened Putin’s image.

The referendum on approving amendments to the Constitution14 was more of a symbolic gesture than a legal necessity. The Constitution with the new amendments had already been published before the voting began. The only official requirement was the approval of the amendments by the lower and upper houses of the legislature and Putin’s signature, which had already taken place. But Putin wanted more. He wanted the entire nation to voice approval of those changes to the Constitution. To rally the population to vote “yes” in the referendum, a nationwide campaign was launched with billboards, commercial advertisements, and endorsements from celebrities blanketing city and rural streets, apartment houses and office buildings, and radio, television, and social media. The Moscow city government even offered residents the chance to win gift certificates for voting in the referendum.

Many of the slogans urging citizens to vote distorted the truth about the amendments, were blatantly absurd and even encouraged overt prejudices. Ilya Shepelin reported for TASS that the slogans suggested that the constitutional amendments were so vitally important “that even Russia’s animals would not survive another day without them.” Furthermore, voters were told that “this is the only way to show due respect to Russia’s few remaining World War II veterans who have waited their entire lives for this glorious opportunity to change the country’s Constitution.” One truly offensive advertisement showed a young man “luring” a young boy into his car as the boy’s parents stood by helplessly. The narrator said a vote for the amendments would protect Russia’s youth from the clutches of homosexuals.

Early voting began a week before the official date of July 1. In addition to the many official polling sites, social media showed pictures of numerous informal polling locations, including a park bench, a tree stump, a children’s sandbox, a car trunk, and even a grocery cart. Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, said that if an election official was present at these informal sites, voting was valid.

Ballot box stuffing, which has been verified repeatedly over the years by CCTV cameras at official polling sites, undoubtedly figured in the total count of this referendum. Multiple voting was documented during early voting. A prominent anchor on independent Dozhd’ (Rain TV) announced on air that he had voted in person and then voted again online. Shortly after the broadcast, the reporter was visited by the police. Despite the numerous blatant cases of voter fraud, there was a limit as to how much the authorities would permit public disclosure of voting abuses as they sought to help to satisfy the Kremlin’s goal of achieving a sufficiently high approval of the referendum and a national commitment to Putin’s constitutional changes.

Among all the promises and slogans, the rallies and celebrity testimonials, the most important change to the Constitution was largely ignored, namely, the amendment to “zero out” Putin’s previous terms as president and allow him to serve two more six-year terms, which would continue his presidency until 2036, at which time he would be 84 years old. This amendment removed speculation that had been circulating over the past several years about what would happen when Putin’s current term as president ends in May 2024. The only question that remains is whether Putin, now that he is legitimately permitted to run again, will decide to do so. When asked this question in recent interviews, Putin has indicated that he is considering that option.

On July 2, 2020, the Central Election Commission reported the official results: 77.93 percent of voters endorsed the constitutional amendments, and 21.36 percent opposed. Voter turnout was nearly 68 percent. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the vote “a triumphal referendum on confidence in President Putin.” Critics of President Putin called the vote a sham, riddled with corruption and fraud. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny called the results “fake and a massive lie.”

The Kremlin’s major objectives in holding the referendum were to boost Putin’s ratings and to reassure the people that the government remains in good, competent hands. The initial result of the voting was a public relations victory for Putin. But what will be the effect in the long term? If the people are growing tired of Putin, and if Putin is perceived as tired himself and increasingly detached from the people, and if there does not appear to be any plan to move Russia forward toward a more prosperous, more democratic future, will Putin be able to sustain his position within the power structure? And can he maintain the support he needs not only from the elite but also from society until 2024 and beyond? Four years may not seem like a long time, but much could happen in the interim to alter the dynamics within Russian society and the Kremlin. There may be an initial bump in Putin’s ratings as a result of the referendum, but other factors, many of which are not yet known, can have an unpredictable influence on the course Putin may be setting out for himself and the country.

The second major event Putin had to postpone was the Victory Day parade scheduled for May 9 but held on June 24. The latter date was selected because it was on June 24, 1945, that Stalin held his parade marking victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War. However, Putin’s June 24 parade was not the grandiose event that he had planned for May 9. Because of the pandemic, most invited world leaders were unable to attend. Those who did were mainly from countries of the former Soviet Union, the internationally unrecognized Georgian breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the president of Serbia, and the Serb representative of the three-man presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The annual Victory Day parade is one of the most celebratory and solemn events on the Russian calendar. It is meant to mark the Soviet Union’s glorious victory over Nazi Germany—a victory that cost the lives of more than 27 million Soviet citizens. The parade commemorates both the triumph and the loss. For citizens of the Soviet Union—not just Russians—this is a day of great national pride but also one of mourning over the personal loss of loved ones, of honoring the immeasurable sacrifices of those who survived, and a reminder of the horrors of war and that war must never be allowed to happen again.

The parade is also an opportunity for the Kremlin to show off its military might, to display its latest weapons systems as tanks, missiles, and artillery pieces are paraded across Moscow’s Red Square and aircraft fly overhead. Tens of thousands of enthusiastic onlookers lined the parade route this June 24 as 14,000 troops marched by, including contingents from India and China and a formation of young Russian female warriors attired in white miniskirts. The privileged few got to view the show from the shadow of Lenin’s tomb, among whom were VIP international guests and a dwindling contingent of veterans of the Great Patriotic War, most of whom were packed closely together and were not wearing masks.

After Stalin’s parade in 1945, there were only four more Victory Day parades during the remaining years of the Soviet Union. In 1995, President Yeltsin made the celebration an annual event, and it has been one ever since. For many, the solemnity of the event remains, but for others, its growing politicization is of concern. This year’s delayed parade amplified this concern. President Putin came out of isolation to oversee the parade and to deliver his traditional address. Muscovites and visitors, not to mention the aging veterans, were put at risk of the coronavirus, which continues to ravage Russia, to satisfy the ego of one man—Putin—in the view of many of his critics. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin told Moscow’s residents not to attend the parade but to watch it on television. This did not deter thousands of citizens, most without masks, from lining the streets to watch the spectacle.

The parade went relatively smoothly, but there were several unfortunate pre- and post-parade events that were highlighted on Russian social media and even on state television. During the parade practice, images of a tank tearing up the pavement on Moscow’s main street—Tverskaya Street—as it maneuvered a turn caused an outcry among many about the annual high cost of repairing the damage to Moscow’s streets. Following the parade, a Russian personnel carrier caught fire and had to be towed away, and a World War II-era tank fell off a flatbed and tumbled onto the street.

The most exceptional, and one could say sensational, post-parade event was the appearance on TV channel Rossyia-1 of Alexey Navalny—Russia’s leading opponent to Putin and the Kremlin’s bête noir—who in a short video clip on the program 60 Minutes criticized the exorbitant cost of the parade and the growing political nature of the event. “What the hell do we need a parade for?” Navalny said. “Everyone in the country knows that all this madness is done for one person only.” Until that moment, Navalny had been banned from appearing on state media, and Putin and his close associates refused even to utter his name. Although Navalny was roundly criticized by the program’s co-hosts and most of the panelists, his brief appearance on Rossiya-1 is mystifying.

Why did the state media offer him airtime? Is this another Byzantine maneuver by the Kremlin to address the growing concern of the people at a time of economic troubles, or are other motives at play? It is hard to tell, but one thing appears to be clear: Putin, in the minds of many, is no longer the strong, macho, bold leader he and society believed him to be in years past. Will the delayed Victory Day celebration and the referendum on the amendments to the Constitution inject fresh blood and vigor into the Russian president’s performance and ratings? Unclear. Too many other issues that Putin has failed to adequately address or has delegated to others have weakened him, and he may not be able to reenergize a regime that is becoming increasingly calcified.

What may work in his favor, however, is that the calcification that affects his regime also penetrates deep into much of Russian society. Putin’s emphasis on conservative family values (viz., the marriage amendment to the Constitution) and close state-church ties play well with many Russians. When combined with the widespread political apathy of the Russian population and their priority for stability, it is not surprising that, although Putin’s approval rating has dropped, 59 percent of the population still approves of his performance as president.

In their recent study, Greene and Robertson offer an interesting explanation for this support that is often overlooked by Western reporters:

Quite a few Russians buy into Putin’s…[policies]not because they are duped but because the values he claims to hold are, in fact, their values. In our polling, some 70 percent of educated urbanites said that being a part of the Russian state was important to their personal identity, and large majorities supported anti-LGBT legislation and opposed immigration. Many Russians were conservative nationalists well before Putin seized on that identity. Others, however, back Putin and his policies because they want to avoid falling out with their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Indeed, we find—using personality profiles—that the biggest supporters of Putin’s agenda are not conservative Russians but instead people who are highly “agreeable”: basically nice people who care a lot about getting on with others and not causing offense.

Is Change in the Offing?

President Putin appears to be setting a course that may provide him job security until 2036 but without yet offering a robust program to move the country forward. But is Russian society prepared to accept 14 more years of autocratic rule dominated by a corrupt, mega-rich elite, an overbearing bureaucracy, and growing economic and social ills? Or is society capable of and willing to apply enough pressure to bring about change to the existing system and fundamentally alter it?

On the eve of Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012, there was an impressive groundswell of opposition that manifested itself in months of demonstrations and protests in the streets of Moscow and other cities. The air was electrified with hope for real change—hope that tragically proved to be naive as the Kremlin cracked down viciously on opposition leaders and innocent bystanders alike.

As quickly as the enthusiasm and excitement erupted, it evaporated into disappointment and defeat. Most opposition leaders were either arrested or curtailed their overt activities. Ordinary citizens who had come out onto the streets and marched with slogans such as “Russia without Putin” and “Russia will be free,” retreated to their apartments and resumed their daily lives as if the months of demonstrations had been nothing more than an aberration. Doldrums set in. Two years passed as Russia continued to struggle to emerge from the economic collapse of 2008.

Then Putin and Russian society were tossed a lifeline, an injection of nationalistic morphine and LSD, when Putin’s “little green men” seized Crimea from Ukraine and Putin triumphantly announced that Crimea has been “reunited” with the Russian Federation. The economic pain was numbed. Rabid nationalism and illusions of superiority replaced traditional Russian apathy. Putin’s approval rating soared to more than 80 percent. Russia experienced a high that carried over until the start of President Putin’s fourth term in 2018. But no high—be it physiological or psychological—is sustainable; there is always a low waiting around the corner. The high created by the “Crimea effect” began to wear off as troubling economic problems forced Russians to face a new reality. Nationalist fervor could not put food on the table, provide for the inadequacies of poor health care, an underfunded educational system, decaying infrastructure, and a government that was unwilling and unable to address the urgent concerns of the people. For the first time since 2012 change appeared as an increasingly important imperative. But was Russian society ready for change? Were the leaders of the opposition forces within civil society ready and able to try again to push for change? And most important, did the people and the opposition leaders have a vision for the future?

Is There a Vision of the Future?

The challenge opposition leaders face in rallying citizens to protest and demand change is exceedingly difficult when so many people remain passive, apathetic, and resigned to accepting deteriorating social and economic conditions—indeed, when so many are pessimistic about the future not only of the country but also about their personal lives. In August 2019, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that 62 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation considered the situation in the country unfavorable for planning for the future. Their negative assessment was based on instability in the country, rising prices, low wages, and meager pensions. Only 28 percent of the respondents believed that conditions were favorable for planning for the future. The article pointed out that over the previous year, the number of pessimists had increased by 4 percent, and the number of optimists had decreased by 5 percent. Less than a year later, in February 2020, the Levada Center conducted a similar poll. It found a further decline in confidence in the future and in the belief that the country was moving in the right direction. Only 19 percent of the respondents replied that they had a “fairly clear idea” about the country’s future.

This pessimistic assessment shows up not only in public opinion polls but also in the media. An editorial published by the Moskva New Agency on January 19, 2019, said:

Today, ordinary people survive on their own and bureaucrats also act on their own, enriching themselves as much as they can. Neither the lower social strata nor the elites have any vision of the future. The absence of such a vision generates a deficit of historical optimism, pushing the system toward a debacle.

This absence of a vision is perhaps best captured in a meme that has swept Russian social media. A young Russian-speaking Canadian recently visited Russia and wrote his impression of the country on Facebook. He said: “Russians are strange. They don’t want to think about the future. They are not allowed to talk about the present. Therefore, from morning to night they keep picking away at the past.”

What Do the People Want?

Russia is at a complex juncture. This essay has explored the many elements in the political leadership and society that are competing to influence the Russian body politic. Maintaining the supremacy of the Putin regime, its survival, and its tight grip on power is the paramount objective of the Kremlin. Whatever rivalry, infighting, and internecine conflicts exist within the ruling elite have been subordinated to the elite’s paramount objective.

Society, on the other hand, is split into various interest groups. The overwhelming majority of the population remains apolitical, passive, and pessimistic, but within civil society, there are small groups of political, economic, and environmental activists who are unswervingly dedicated to bringing about change. These groups share a common disdain for the Putin regime, but they differ significantly in vision, strategy, and tactics. In recent years, there have been sparks of political activism that have sought to impact the course of Russian history. In most cases, those attempts failed, as we witnessed in the winter of 2011–2012. More recently, we have seen that some citizens are more willing to get involved in social and economic protests if they believe that action or inaction by the authorities is directly impacting their personal lives. If the leaders of civic action groups within Russian society can find a way to merge the energy and ambition of these disparate groups, their chances of bringing change to Russia could improve.

For those Russians who are growing tired, and even angry, with the socio-economic conditions in the country, there appears to be an increased desire to play a more active role in the country’s development. Change for most Russians means improvements in their daily lives, a higher standard of living, and better social services. Although most Russians recognize that political change is fundamental to improving their living conditions, they are still reluctant to push for radical changes that could jeopardize stability in their lives. Throughout the earlier years of the Putin regime, most Russians favored stability over change. This was particularly true following the economic collapse of 2008.

Since 2017, it became apparent that views were changing. According to a poll conducted by the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences of 4,000 respondents from all regions of Russia and published in the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on July 4, 2019, the proponents for change (51 percent) slightly exceeded those who favored stability. The report provided a breakdown by age group: among those 30 and younger, 62 percent favored change; among those 31 to 40 years old, 51 percent called for change; those in the age group 41 to 50 were equally divided between change and stability; those over 50 wanted stability. Geographically, those who were proponents of change live mainly in large cities, regional capitals, and (surprisingly) in rural areas. Those who wanted to maintain stability reside in smaller cities and towns. Among those who favored change, 42 percent favored radical change, according to a Levada Center poll in August 2017, and 41 percent preferred gradual change. A year later, those numbers increased to 57 percent favoring radical change and 25 percent for gradual change. By November 2019, proponents of radical change had grown to 59 percent.

However, to pursue change—be it gradual or radical—a specific program must be articulated, and an organization headed by a charismatic leader must emerge. Moreover, for society to follow such a leader, there must be a tipping point and a trigger. To date, these prerequisites are largely lacking.

Putin’s latest effort to gain widespread national support for constitutional amendments, including one that ensures his ability to rule until 2036, is an attempt to walk society back from a possible tipping point and to lock the trigger. But will it work? Will society be willing to accept 16 more years of the same ruler, the same elite clique, the same corrupt bureaucracy, the same or worse living conditions? Or will a movement and a leader emerge to bring about transformational change? Some are trying to make this happen.

The Protest Movement

The Murder of Boris Nemtsov

On February 27, 2015, opposition leader and former politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead by assassins as he was walking across a bridge with his girlfriend just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Two years later, five Chechens, who had been paid 15 million rubles to kill Nemtsov, were found guilty of his murder and were sentenced to prison. It was never determined who ordered Nemtsov’s murder, but many government critics suspect that the order came from a powerful person, perhaps someone in the Kremlin, perhaps Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Nemtsov’s murder delivered a powerful blow to the already weakened protest movement.

Nemtsov was a highly respected intellectual and a strong, politically well-connected young leader. He had experienced a meteoric rise in his career as a liberal politician in the 1990s—becoming the first governor of the Nizhnii Novgorod region and then ascending to the post of deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation.

After Putin rose to power and ended attempts by the Yeltsin regime to create a more democratic, albeit at times chaotic, society, Nemtsov joined forces with other prominent opposition figures, such as Alexey Navalny, Ilya Yashin, Sergey Udaltsov, and Ksenia Sobchak, to oppose the increasingly authoritarian policies of the Putin regime. He led the protest demonstrations against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and was an outspoken opponent of the Russian intervention in Ukraine. In fact, on the day Nemtsov was murdered he was planning a protest demonstration against Putin’s policies in Ukraine.

After a swift government crackdown and arrests that followed a large anti-Putin demonstration at Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the opposition movement, which never had a clear political platform, lost significant momentum. Udaltsov—a leftwing firebrand—was arrested and sentenced to four and one-half years in prison. TV personality and socialite Sobchak, the daughter of the Yeltsin-era mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak, whose deputy at the time was Putin, withdrew from active political opposition life and focused on her TV and socialite roles, although she did advance her candidacy for president in the 2018 elections. Yashin continued his political activity but also attempted to direct it through legitimate municipal channels. Only Navalny remained at the forefront of the opposition, focusing on his vigorous campaign to root out and expose through YouTube videos and social media the widespread corruption of senior government officials.

The murder of Nemtsov marked the end of an era.15 With civil society’s opposition forces largely leaderless, Putin’s regime becoming more authoritarian, and jingoism and euphoric nationalism over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for, and involvement in, the war in Eastern Ukraine engulfing the country, Russia appeared to enter a political hiatus. Large-scale demonstrations ceased. The focus of the country was elsewhere. Society turned inward as the people focused on the challenges of everyday life.

A makeshift memorial at the site of Nemtsov’s assassination was erected immediately after his murder. Although the authorities repeatedly remove it, people return undeterred to rebuild it. Portraits of Nemtsov, flowers, candles, and other mementos appear almost magically overnight despite the authorities’ efforts to erase all reminders of the horrible crime. But the memory of Nemtsov—what he stood for and died for—lives on. One wonders what would have been had Nemtsov lived to continue the fight for a better Russia.

A Resurgence of the Protest Movement: Is It Becoming More Radicalized?

The hiatus in the protest movement and the demands for change did not last long. Several factors came together to drive people back onto the streets: The “Crimea effect” was wearing thin, economic and social tensions were increasing, and municipal elections were scheduled. The summer of 2019 saw a resurgence of the protest movement, but it was noticeably different from the events of 2011–2012.

The spark that set off demonstrations in Moscow was the refusal of authorities to register opposition figures who sought to run for office in municipal elections scheduled for September 8, 2019. But the kindling ignited by the spark were the grievances surging around the country: increased economic hardships, callous policies of the local authorities that jeopardized the environment and health of local inhabitants, and rising frustration with the failure of the government to treat people with basic human dignity and respect.

At the same time, the security forces were getting stronger and more brazen. Several years earlier, Putin had set up an elite force called the National Guard (often referred to as “storm troopers” because of their elaborate protective garb) under the command of his former bodyguard. They were to play a critical role in beating protesters during the upcoming summer protests.

In early June 2019, a journalist by the name of Ivan Golunov was arrested on false drug possession charges in retaliation, it turned out, for his work in exposing government corruption. It was later determined that the security services had planted the drugs. The outcry from many segments of Russian society to this injustice was so loud that the authorities had to back down and release Golunov. The police officers directly involved in Golunov’s arrest were eventually punished.

The loud response to Golunov’s false arrest was a reaction to the widespread extortion tool used by the police to plant drugs on unsuspecting individuals to extract a bribe, seize a business, or apply pressure for a variety of nefarious reasons. As Alexander Baunov explained in an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center, “The protest against Golunov’s arrest [was another indication that] Russians want to be rid of the mafia-like grip the security services have over their everyday lives.”

The public outcry to the trumped-up charges against Golunov testifies to the fact that the authorities are not immune to public opinion, at least when there is extensive publicity surrounding a case. As human-rights advocate Olga Romanova wrote for the Carnegie Moscow Center in December 2019: “Despite all the skepticism, it seems that public opinion does play a role in the degree of repression in each particular case.” She cites the importance of “public support, [press] attention to the case, the involvement of high-profile people, and professional solidarity [among the accused’s peers].” Such support can influence the severity of the sentence given down by the judge.

In the earlier cited study by Greene and Robertson, the two scholars also noted the role public opinion plays in a broader perspective than just in the judicial system. They noted that,

[I]n general, public opinion plays an underappreciated role in Russian politics.… This reliance on popularity makes Putin vulnerable. Being too harsh on protestors could easily lead to a backlash in public opinion. But being too soft might encourage even more demonstrations against the evident corruption and mismanagement across Russia. As a result, the Kremlin often acts tough, then backs off.”

Public opinion manifested itself in a way not to the Kremlin’s liking on July 27, 2019, when thousands of Muscovites turned out in response to a call from opposition leader Navalny to protest against the Moscow authorities’ refusal to register several opposition candidates who sought to run for municipal office in elections scheduled for September 8. Navalny himself was arrested several days in advance of this unauthorized demonstration and sentenced to 30 days in jail to prevent him from leading the demonstration. Despite Navalny’s absence, the demonstration took place. Other opposition figures, some of whom had not figured prominently in the 2011–2012 wave of protests, rose to prominence at this time. One of the most outspoken was Lyubov Sobol—a lawyer, an activist with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, and an aspiring candidate for municipal office whose name the authorities refused to allow on the ballot. She had just ended a 30-day hunger strike to protest being barred from the elections. She was also briefly detained.

The July 27 protest was followed by almost weekly demonstrations throughout August—some authorized, others not. The ostensible reason for the demonstrations was to protest the abuse of the electoral process, but many of the protestors also chanted slogans against Putin, demanded freedom, and called for the end of political repression.

A demonstration that was held in Moscow on August 10 was the largest protest in Russia in eight years. Estimates placed the crowd size at more than 60,000. Riot police and the National Guard “storm troopers” were out in full force. Thousands of protesters—including even young children—were arrested. Many were badly beaten. Based on the size of the demonstrations, the cohort of participants (many more young people than in earlier years), the apparent lack of fear of many of those beaten and arrested,16 it was clear that the protestors were increasingly willing to come out onto the streets over issues such as abuses of the municipal election process that in the past did not arouse much interest. The fact that there was such a strong and violent reaction from the authorities indicates that they were seriously concerned that the protestors were becoming radicalized. The crackdown was orchestrated mainly by the Kremlin rather than the Moscow city authorities, who were responsible for the municipal elections, out of the concern that if the national government did not take forceful measures now, there could be bigger confrontations during the parliamentary elections in 2021 and the presidential election in 2024.

These concerns were not unreasonable from the Kremlin’s perspective. As prominent Russian commentator Pavel Felgenhauer explained,

The vast 80 percent majority that did not turn out [to vote in the Moscow City municipal elections on September 8, 2019] may appear indifferent and passively neutral, but it theoretically could sway in any direction. This social/political situation is somewhat reminiscent of the late 1970s-early 1980s, when economic stagnation and rabid anti-Western Cold War rhetoric resulted in widespread public indifference and passivity that, several years later, suddenly transformed into a wide pro-democracy and anti-corruption movement that broke up the Soviet Union.

At that time, protest demonstrations started small but rapidly grew into massive protest movements around the country. Now, the Kremlin is deeply concerned that history could repeat itself. The only response it seems able to take to counter this possible threat is repression and the use of increased authoritarian measures.

The authorities, like civil society, are aware that the protest movement is changing. This is evident in the differences between the events of 2011–2012 and 2019. Tatyana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center compared these two events. She argued that the response by the authorities to the two periods of demonstrations was significantly different because of their understanding of the nature of the protests, the political position of the Kremlin leadership (in 2011–2012 Medvedev was about to end his presidency and Putin was on the verge of returning to that position, while in 2019 Putin was firmly in power, had been reelected the year before for his fourth term as president, and the economic and political mood in the country was very different), and by 2019 there was much more uncertainty about the future of the country, both on the part of the authorities and the people. Stanovaya wrote that while the authorities perceived the 2011–2012 protests as principally a domestic issue, they saw the 2019 protests as part of a global assault against Russia, which represented a much greater threat to the Putin regime and its agenda. This required a mobilization and consolidation of political power and a much harsher response to stem what could be a serious threat to the Kremlin.

Stanovaya noted that after the protests of 2011–2012, the Kremlin’s initial response was to offer some concessions. Specifically, it undertook several reforms to the political system that included a return to gubernatorial elections and a reduction of restrictions on political parties. After the 2019 protests, the Kremlin was in no mood to offer any concessions. Harsh prison sentences for arrested protestors and tightening pressure by the security services on civil society activists were the response this time.17 This resulted in further isolation of the regime from society. In concluding her analysis, Stanovaya recognized that “the current construction of the regime looks as solid and sturdy as ever, but this solidity,” she emphasizes, “translated into a lack of flexibility and resistance to change, which is itself becoming a structural risk to the future of the system.”

Prospects for Change

Russia has entered very uncertain times, and it is risky to venture a prediction whether the Putin regime will be able to hold on to its authoritarian model of power and whether society will remain docile or erupt in an uncontrollable way. There is little doubt the Kremlin will continue to pursue its familiar methods of maintaining control: discrediting the leading opposition figures as crooks who lie and steal on the orders of foreign governments, limiting reforms to give citizens just the bare minimum to improve their living conditions, while applying harsh pressure on those elements in society that seek change. Furthermore, the security services under the direction of the Kremlin have increased repressions since the referendum on the constitutional amendments was held, and they have arrested several prominent individuals on charges ranging from treason to murder.

How society will react is the more intriguing question. There appear to be two schools of thought about how civil society may develop in the coming years. The predominant belief is that despite periodic anger and even short-lived protest outbursts over the authorities’ arbitrary and unfair policies and practices, there will not be any large-scale protests soon, and society will remain largely docile, passive, and indifferent.18 The lack of a popular charismatic opposition leader who could mold flashes of anger into a formidable protest movement that merges urban political protests with broader socio-economic discontent; the failure of past protests to make any significant progress; and the harsh measures used by the security services against protestors, civil society organizers, and even innocent victims have left much of Russian society indifferent and resigned to a continued gulf between the rulers and the ruled. This sense of despair cuts across all age groups. Perhaps what is most distressing is that it even deeply affects the very young. According to the pro-government All-Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion, 71 percent of youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are not optimistic about the future and see hard times ahead.

Masha Lipman, a leading Russian analyst, as quoted by Fred Weir in the Christian Science Monitor on August 22, 2019, summarized the status of the protest movement after the series of demonstrations earlier that month. She said:

There is nothing in terms of a movement that people can identify with in the long term. When the wave subsides, as it did before, it leaves nothing behind in terms of political organization and trusted leaders to sustain it. Of course, nobody wants a revolution. People are rightly leery of any big-time political turmoil. Evolution is preferable. But I don’t see much prospect on the horizon of reaching a society of law, checks and balances, and democracy. I don’t think I will live to see it.

The other school of thought is more optimistic about the prospects for change. It believes that society, over time, will take a more active role in protesting against the authorities, which will result in change—change that may only be incremental but might be more radical. Adherents to this view are not naive and fully understand the enormity of the task of transforming Russia. On the contrary, they are quite realistic because many of them have personally felt the wrath of the authorities, have been beaten, arrested, and served time in jail. This has only honed their resolve to work even harder for a better future for Russia.

Although Moscow remains the focal point for the protest movement, activists are encouraged by resistance to the Putin regime taking place in other parts of the country. Most recently, the epicenter moved to the Russian Far East and the city of Khabarovsk. On July 9, 2020, the governor of the Far East Region, Sergey Furgal, was arrested along with four others on charges of murdering several businessmen in 2004–2005—charges that many are convinced are politically motivated. But even if proven true, residents of this, the largest city in Russia’s Far East, are less concerned about the charges (many believe Furgal is innocent) than they are about Moscow’s heavy hand in this affair.

Furgal is a highly respected official in a country where this is a rarity. He is viewed by the people of his region as hard-working, honest, and responsive to their needs. He was elected to this post in 2018 as a candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party (a semi-opposition party headed by the firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky), garnering 70 percent of the vote and overwhelmingly defeating the candidate of the United Russia Party—the party of Putin and the majority party in the Russian legislature.19

Furgal’s opponents resent his popularity and the damage he has done to the dominant influence the United Russia Party has had in this region for years. Aleksandr Kynev, a political scientist quoted by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said that “they tried to dig up dirt on him from the moment he was elected—during this time, several searches were conducted, and friends and business partners were detained. It seems they didn’t find anything, so they tried to tie him to events from 16 years ago.”

On July 11, an estimated 30,000 residents of Khabarovsk—a city with a population of 616,000—took part in the largest demonstration in the region in recent history. They were showing their support for Furgal and demanding that he be freed. Although the demonstration was not authorized, the police did not interfere, and there were no arrests. Demonstrations continued for weeks, grew in size, and showed no sign of ending. Protesters insist they would continue to demonstrate until the authorities agree that Furgal’s trial would take place in Khabarovsk, where the alleged crimes took place, and not in Moscow. Similar protests in support of Furgal took place in other cities of the Far East Region.

After Furgal was arrested, Putin dismissed him as governor and replaced him with Mikhail Degtyaryov, a member of the Furgal’s Liberal Democratic Party, but not a resident of the Far East Region. Putin’s move further angered the protesters who rejected Degtyaryov’s appointment as another arbitrary move imposed on them by the Kremlin.

But the demonstrations were more than just about the injustice the citizens of Khabarovsk believed had been done, they were also about a broader list of grievances that are shared by many other Russian regions: economic decline, rotting infrastructure, the overbearing attitude of the United Russia Party, the indifference of Moscow to the plight of the regions, and fatigue with Putin and his rule. One of the slogans frequently heard in the Khabarovsk demonstrations is “Putin is a thief”—a popular chant that echoes past protests in Moscow and other cities. Other signs and chants that fill the streets of Khabarovsk are “I/We = Furgal,” “Freedom,” “Moscow, get out!,” “The Far East is ours!,” and “Putin, step down!”

Although the protests were technically illegal, the Khabarovsk governor’s office issued a public statement after the protest on July 11 thanking the people for their support. “We stand with you, and we respect you, and it means a lot,” the statement said in part.

Russian social media lit up with messages from around the country voicing support. Russian Twitter was buzzing with tweets from residents expressing their support for Furgal and for all that he had done for the region. They voiced their admiration for a governor who listened to the people and worked to improve their lives. When Furgal was arrested, messages went out on social media, and signs were posted in apartment building entrances calling people to come out onto the streets to show their solidarity. Tweets reported that although people were anxious, not knowing how the authorities would react, they nonetheless came out in droves. They felt energized by the comradery of the swelling crowd. They took pride in the fact that they were doing this as citizens of Khabarovsk, and they did not care how Moscow might react. It was their city, their governor, and their decision to protest.

As the protest demonstrations in Khabarovsk continue, there was growing support for them in many cities and towns around the country. The Levada Center conducted a poll on July 24–25, 2020, of 1,617 Russians and found that 45 percent of the respondents had a positive view of the protests, while 17 percent had a negative view. Twenty-six percent were neither for nor against the protest. When asked if they would participate in similar protests in their region, 29 percent said they would.

Among those Russians who find hope for the country in what is happening in Khabarovsk, few have captured this feeling better than Alexander Gorbunov, a popular blogger who writes under the name “Stalingulag” on the social media site Telegram. In a post on August 1, 2020, he wrote:

For the twenty-second day in a row, despite the pouring rain, thousands of people continue to take to the streets of Khabarovsk. Basically, there is nothing to add here; the Khabarovsk residents have said it all themselves. You just need to note that in 2020, when apathy struck every living thing, when the feeling that everything here was and will always be like this, that all hope for change is dead, there is Khabarovsk, which knows what is right and every day defends what is right. If truth is on your side, then you must defend it. After all, you are right, what could be more important than that? The naive belief that good will triumph is what our cynical society, which has forgotten how to dream, is so lacking. This seems to be obvious, but the sense of one’s own righteousness and of some kind higher justice, which we have lost, is the gift that Khabarovsk has bestowed on the entire country. This is the brightest thing that has happened in this crazy year.

Although the demonstrations in Khabarovsk may disappear from the headlines as quickly as they appeared, for those in the Kremlin who are concerned about any signs of discontent that could threaten central control, the events in Khabarovsk must be troubling and could be a harbinger of future challenges as Putin and his cronies struggle to maintain their increasingly sclerotic authoritarian rule. One of the Kremlin’s greatest fears is that regional protests could be successfully harnessed by the political opposition in Moscow to create a formidable force against the Putin regime. As Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer explained. “If…widespread social frustration begins to merge with opposition activism in the capital, the seemingly granite-solid structure of Putin’s political system may begin to crack.”

An equally troubling concern for the Kremlin is that opposition to the failures and arbitrary rule of the authorities is becoming increasingly spontaneous as anger and frustration over a multitude of socio-economic and political issues build. Russia has experienced numerous catastrophic shocks and tumultuous changes in the past that grew out of uncontrolled eruptions of popular frustration and anger. Moscow’s response to both organized and spontaneous challenges to its rule has been to respond with brute force and to crackdown harshly after suppressing the opposition. There is no indication that the Putin regime in 2020 intends to respond any differently.

Those who continue to fight for change and have no intention of giving up the fight against the authoritarian Putin regime find strength in the words of former president Yeltsin who said: “You can make a throne of bayonets—but you can’t sit on it for long.” Similarly, the prominent Russian-American opposition leader and close friend of the deceased Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, wrote in The Washington Post on August 15, 2019, that

[L]ike so many authoritarian regimes have in the past, the Kremlin is disregarding a fundamental historical maxim: When power cannot be changed at the ballot box, it will, sooner or later, be changed on the streets. We are not at that moment yet—and the Putin regime still has a formidable resource in its security services…. In the longer term, …no amount of state-driven coercion can, in the end, stop a strong enough public sentiment.

Are There Looming Signs of Change?

Given that Russian society has generally been marked by relatively weak and suppressed civil society activism and largely passive responses from the population at large, but has also at times experienced eruptions of pent-up anger and outrage that morphed into major, sometimes violent, events, are there any indications now that the situation and attitudes within Russian society are shifting in a way that could be more conducive to change?

Valery Solovyev, a scholar at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), believes there are. Solovyev argues that a major political crisis in Russia is “inevitable.” He came to this conclusion because he is convinced that “a qualitative change in the mass consciousness” of Russians is taking place and that they “have come to believe that radical changes are no longer precluded.” Solovyev acknowledged that maybe “only one percent of the population will in fact take advantage of these possibilities; but as in 1989 [the year the Soviet empire began to crumble], that will be enough once the overwhelming majority has gone from acceptance to anger about what the powers-that-be are doing.” Radical change, or revolution by another name, is not made by the majority but by a militant minority who is able to exploit the grievances of the majority and rally the masses. Solovyev believes that social consciousness in Russia is changing. People are losing hope in the future for themselves and their children and are growing increasingly angry. Solovyev concludes that “the future is no longer pre-ordained. It has begun to change,” and people are beginning to realize that “the situation in which they find themselves is neither inevitable nor permanent.”

People are also more willing now to take responsibility for their lives and the conditions under which they live. They are less reluctant to voice their disagreement with the authorities and to participate in demonstrations, as we have seen over environmental issues, election fraud, and the most recent mass protests in Khabarovsk. In an interview last year with Jacob Heilbrunn of The National Review, Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of the popular newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, pointed to recent changes in Russian society. One noticeable change is a shift in what people consider most important in their lives. Before Putin’s reelection in 2018, material demands were people’s top priority. Now, according to surveys conducted in 2019, personal freedom has risen to the top priority. Remchukov claims that 59 percent of the respondents to a poll cited “no limitations on personal freedom” versus a good economic situation as their highest priority.20 What surprised Remchukov even more was that 84 percent of the respondents to the same poll said that they want to personally contribute to the improvement of the situation of the country. “We’ve never had such a mood,” exclaimed Remchukov.

Remchukov explains this change in attitude by the growth of the middle class and an understanding of the responsibilities that come with the attainment of this status. Remchukov describes the Russian middle class as “the class of responsibility.” “It is the class that cares about the future, the future of their children; it doesn’t avoid responsibility; it [is] less dependent on government assistance and government money.” Whether this optimistic assessment will translate into action to improve the personal lives of Russian citizens and the overall welfare in the country is another matter entirely.

Journalists, sociologists, and students of Russian society see other hopeful signs that reinforce the view that attitudes are changing, and they view these changes as largely positive. Some note that society is shifting its emphasis away from the state-dominated ideology toward a national identity and patriotism that find their roots among the people and create new unifying principles that could be building blocks for the future. According to Yury Saprykin, a journalist who covers popular Russian culture, a new formulation of a national idea that he calls local patriotism, is being developed at the grassroots level. It is being spread through YouTube videos and social media, by hip-hop artists, and in the work of street artists. Saprykin describes this local patriotism as “a feeling of belonging not to a sovereign abstraction, but to a specific place that needs to be treated with care, respect, and attention.” He sees this feeling of belonging leading to

[A] learned skill of cooperation, of joint participation in actions of social significance, of joining forces with neighbors, colleagues and likeminded people for some kind of meaningful goal. This goal can be fighting against tree-felling in the park in front of your house, helping the nearest kindergarten, or defending an unfairly detained classmate.

We have seen manifestations of this local patriotism in the protests against actions by the authorities that would harm the environment or take away parkland to build a cathedral.

Saprykin argues that the rebirth of a national idea in the form of local patriotism is also being expressed in a more open approach to past state crimes and the initiative of local and national campaigns to remember and honor the victims of Soviet political repression and incompetence. Of particular note has been the discovery by the younger generation of the horrors of the Chernobyl disaster, as portrayed so vividly by the HBO miniseries. The lying, arrogance, and malfeasance of the Communist Party and the Soviet government from the highest levels down to the local authorities to cover up the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant continue to manifest themselves today in numerous ways. For many, particularly the younger generation, they have had enough.

Saprykin ends his analysis of changes in Russian society on an optimistic note. In his article for The Moscow Times on August 20, 2019, he argues that “ultimately, we are seeing that the national inferiority complex that is characteristic of the older generation (and which, perhaps, informs much of Russian foreign policy) is becoming obsolete. And it is this gap between the authorities and society that is perhaps the most heartening news at the end of the 2010s. This is a society that is ready to accept and make sense of its history and identity without waiting for these principles to be handed down from above, a society that is capable of taking responsibility for its life instead of waiting for the state to solve its problems.”

Saprykin’s analysis is not just an academic assessment. It is supported by the myriad posts on Russian social media; discussions and arguments among Russia’s youth in cafes, coffee houses, and university classrooms; and debates in Russian liberal, non-state media that illustrate the dynamic complexity of Russian society. This complexity is largely missing in most Western media that tend to report on just two dimensions of the Russian domestic scene—the Putin regime and an amorphous but mainly passive society with a vocal but mostly ineffective protest movement. At some point, the manifestations of this complexity will most likely play a pivotal role in the struggle between stagnation and change—a struggle that will inevitably be waged in Russia. Only the dynamics are yet to be determined. They may be peaceful and gradual, or they may be confrontational and violent.

Professor Solovyev of MGIMO outlined five symptoms of what he called a “looming crisis” in Russia. They are:

  • A qualitative change in mass consciousness,
  • Destruction of propaganda as an effective tool,
  • Crisis in the personal leadership of Putin,
  • Crisis in administration at all levels and in all sectors, and
  • The attempt to organize a transition in this turbulent situation.

Although it can be argued that there has been an intensification of contractions within some, if not all of these symptoms—most notably, I would argue, among the first two, Russia does not yet appear to be at or near a tipping point. Putin’s regime still appears to hold all the high cards, with the overwhelming force of the security services still solidly under its control. One should not, however, be complacent, as undoubtedly the Kremlin is not. Few in the late 1980s predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse in a matter of just several years.

Putin has weathered a difficult two years since his reelection to a fourth term in March 2018—a declining economy; foreign policy difficulties with Ukraine, Syria, strains in relations with the United States and Europe; a devastating pandemic; and uncertainty about his future after 2024. The latter problem has been resolved—at least there is a legal path forward now—but much uncertainty still looms in the coming years.

Society has also changed. Although much of society remains passive and civil society activists are still largely ineffective in rallying large segments of the population to their political agenda, people are more willing to promote and defend causes that directly impact their lives, fear of the authorities appears to be less, and youth is generally more energized about issues that affect them.

The next four years could be key to determining the course of Russia’s development and its future. Putin has still not committed to run for reelection in 2024, although the Constitution now permits him to do so. The struggle between stagnation and change hangs in the balance. The scales could tip either way. Russia has faced decisive times in the past. With rare exceptions, it has not been successful in implementing a peaceful, smooth transition to a new era. The question on everyone’s mind now is what will happen when Russia is confronted with the next serious challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic may very well be that challenge—a topic that I will address in a separate essay. When faced with that challenge, will the authorities resort to past patterns of behavior, or will they find a new, more constructive way forward?

Washington, DC | August 2020

Chapter 12

Toward 2024 and Beyond: The Fate of Vladimir Putin’s Reign, Part I

In this series of essays on “The Roots of Russian Conduct,” I have examined Russia’s national interests and how the Putin regime pursues them. I started with the most important national interest for any authoritarian regime: the survival of its leader and his close circle of supporters. I then examined other essential Russian national interests, from preserving the state, to the pursuit of key foreign policy goals, to maintaining a vibrant economy, and ended with the critical role civil society plays in Russia.

In this essay, the final one in this series, I return to the most vital national interest: the fate of Vladimir Putin and his ability, his plans, and even his desire to hold on to power until 2024—the end of his current term as president of the Russian Federation—and perhaps beyond, as far as 2036. Significant developments over the past year raise questions about the fate of the president and raise concerns, anxieties, and even fears among the power structure and the elites, as well as society as a whole, about Russia’s future.

In Part I of this essay, I examine the current state of affairs in Russia and Putin’s vision of the future of the country. In Part II, I look at prospects for Russia after Putin and offer some possible scenarios that Russia could face when the reign21 of Putin comes to an end.

Setting the Scene: How 2020 Has Impacted Vladimir Putin and His Plans for the Future

2020 promised to be a good year for Putin and his regime. Plans were set to mark the triumphant 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) with a grandiose military parade on May 9 attended by a broad representation of world leaders. The parade and the other activities associated with this monumental achievement were orchestrated to focus the world’s attention on Russia as the primary successor to the Soviet Union and on President Putin as the leader who had returned glory to Russia as a world power after years of recovering from the collapse of the Soviet empire. This was especially important to Vladimir Putin whose popularity had been steadily declining and who many Russians believe was losing his effectiveness as a leader. Serious questions were being raised about how much longer Putin would retain the reins of power and what would happen after he departed. The Victory Day parade was designed as a quick shot in the arm of national pride that would boost Putin’s ratings and distract, at least temporarily, from growing anxiety about the declining standard of living and uncertainty about Russia’s political future.

2020 was also important to Vladimir Putin as the year in which amendments to the Constitution would be introduced and adopted to bring about much-needed changes to the governmental structure and the administration. These amendments were heralded as an opportunity to breathe new life into the fundamental law of the country by updating and modernizing a constitution that had been adopted in 1993 during Russia’s early tumultuous years under President Boris Yeltsin. The introduction of this amended constitution was portrayed by the Putin regime as a vital step toward modernizing the political framework of the country and providing more clarity to its future.

2020 was seen as a year in which the Russian government would successfully increase investment and progress in realizing the “12 national projects” program that was launched in 2018 to focus on massive infrastructure development, major boosts to health and education, and large-scale economic modernization. The projects, as designed, were to be completed in six years at a projected cost of $400 billion.

Instead of a promising and productive year, 2020 turned out to be an annus horribilis, to cite a phrase popularized by Queen Elizabeth when referring to an earlier disastrous year.22 2020 will always be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic—a devastating, global disease that has had an untold impact on the entire world. Russia, which ranks third in the number of infections, has been particularly hard hit, and the long-term impact of the disease is yet unknown. In the short term, however, the pandemic has turned a year of promise into a year of disruption and uncertainty.

The toll the pandemic has taken and continues to take on the lives of Russians at all levels of society is devastating. Although the official number of deaths in Russia is quite low (there is much doubt about the veracity of the official data), the number of infections is very high. This has put a huge strain on the Russian health care system and the economic and social life of Russian society. It has furthered uncertainty about the ability of the Russian government to ensure the health and well-being of the Russian people and has intensified citizens’ concerns about their future and that of their country.

This anxiety and uncertainty have only grown over the way the government has handled the pandemic. From the start, President Putin cut himself off from society. He went into isolation in his residence outside of Moscow and emerged only on rare occasions. He turned over responsibility for managing the response to the pandemic to local officials who responded in various ways depending on their resources and capabilities. Putin’s aloofness was acknowledged with increasing frustration and even anger. His popularity dropped to a low of 59 percent in April and May. Subsequently, it has risen slightly, but not enough to repair the damage done by the nationwide mismanagement of the pandemic response.

Putin’s Victory Day parade had to be postponed from May 9 until June 22. The Kremlin put pressure on Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, to end the city’s lockdown a week before the parade. Despite the mayor’s warning that it would be much safer if Muscovites watched the parade on television, thousands came out onto the streets, many without masks or social distancing, to partake in Putin’s delayed triumphant event. Hardly any of the invited international guests arrived for the festivities. The parade was a success but far from the glorious event Putin had originally planned. The liberal media and opposition leaders criticized the parade for its huge expense and the health danger it posed to all those participating and attending the event—all to stroke the ego of one person, Putin.

The amendments to the constitution were drawn early in the year and were quickly approved by the lower and upper houses of the Russian legislature and signed by President Putin. He insisted that a nationwide referendum be held (although it was not legally required) so that the people could voice support for the changes to the constitution, one of the most important of which allowed Putin to run for two more terms as president if he so decided.

Because of the pandemic, the referendum was postponed from April 22 to July 1. During the buildup to the referendum, a massive campaign was launched to get out the vote. Voting took place over a week. Voter fraud and manipulation were widely evident, and Putin, who viewed the referendum as a personal vote of confidence, sustained a victory with 77.93 percent of the voters approving the constitutional amendments. Rather than resolving many of Russia’s constitutional problems, the amendments failed to clarify some issues and contradicted others. Moreover, the question about Putin’s tenure was now postponed. This further exacerbated the succession issue and increased anxiety among the elites and society about what will happen when Putin’s term as president eventually ends, be it in 2024 or as late as 2036.

2020 brought about a downturn in the economy. The pandemic was a major cause of economic hardship, particularly for small- and medium-sized businesses, many of which will likely never recover from their losses. On the macroeconomic level, the pandemic had a significant impact, but it was surprisingly smaller than many had anticipated. What was not expected and what had an immediate short-term effect on the economy was Russia’s oil price war with Saudi Arabia in March and April. It was triggered by Russia’s refusal to reduce oil production to keep prices at a moderate level. Although the price war was short-lived, the rapid drop in oil prices delivered a significant blow to Russia’s struggling economy. As the year progressed, the economic situation did not improve. The value of the ruble against the euro and the dollar declined. Economic stagnation became more deeply embedded, and greater uncertainty swept across the nation as economic, social, political, and health concerns worsened.

In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. 2020 confirmed that the process of accepting and adjusting to the changes that accompanied the demise of the Soviet Union was still ongoing. The war in eastern Ukraine persists, and Russia continues to disrupt efforts by the Ukrainian government to build a stable, independent state. In Belarus, massive, nationwide demonstrations against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime erupted following a fraudulent vote on August 9 to reelect Lukashenko as president. Those demonstrations continue undeterred. The people demand that Lukashenko step down, end the arrest and torture of demonstrators, and release all political prisoners. The people want a new, fair election, followed by the adoption of a democratic constitution. This has placed the Kremlin in an increasingly awkward position. Putin openly continues to support fellow autocrat Lukashenko but understands that if he ignores the demands of the Belarusian people, who are not anti-Russian, he risks turning them against Russia.

Russia’s foreign policy challenges have been further exacerbated by the outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan. An intermittent war between the two Caucasian nations has been waged since 1988. Numerous efforts over the years to negotiate a peace settlement have failed. The current war is particularly challenging for Russia, which has a special interest in the region and is one of the three countries of the Minsk Group charged by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to try to bring peace to the region. The other two members are France and the United States. Russia has a military base in Armenia and is the largest supplier of arms to that country. Armenia and Russia are joined as allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia also has close ties with Azerbaijan and does not want to damage that relationship.

Unlike previous armed conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey has become actively engaged in supporting Azerbaijan with military equipment and personnel, including reportedly having sent about 200 Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijan. In recent years, Russia and Turkey have drawn closer together, despite serious differences over Libya, Syria, and other issues. Turkey’s involvement on the Azerbaijani side could put an additional strain on Russian-Turkish relations. Recently, Russia brokered a truce between the warring parties that favors Azerbaijan as the dominant force on the battlefield. Russian peacekeepers, to be joined by Turkish military observers, will monitor the peace accord and oversee measures to implement the agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This agreement, however, does not mean the end of the multi-year conflict. It is only a temporary step to stop the bloodshed as the sides prepare for their next steps. Russia did gain in stature in the region, but so did Turkey, which appears for the first time to be a major player in the South Caucasus. It is unclear how Turkey will further assert itself and how its relationship with Russia will be affected.

Central Asia, far from the Russian capital but an integral part of the former Soviet Union, has seen yet another revolution in Kyrgyzstan—the third since the Soviet Union ended in 1991. Large-scale demonstrations against fraudulent parliamentary elections, held on October 5, 2020, led to the election being annulled and the storming of government buildings, including a prison where a mob freed a leading political opponent of the regime who immediately declared himself president and prime minister of the country after the latter two were forced to resign. Russia has always had close ties with Kyrgyzstan and has a military base in the country; however, it does not exercise significant influence over the political scene and has little choice but to stand by as the Kyrgyz try to resolve their internal problems.

Large-scale demonstrations have not been limited just to Russia’s periphery. Protests have also broken out within Russia itself over several events, including a massive oil spill in Russia’s Arctic region, pollution of the waters off the Kamchatka peninsula, and limestone mining on sacred lands in Bashkortostan. The most notable case is the protest movement that has been going on uninterrupted since July 11 in the city of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East over the arrest of the regional governor, his replacement by Moscow with an ineffective puppet of the Kremlin, and, increasingly, in opposition to President Putin and his regime. Although most of the protests have been peaceful, there have been instances when security forces have clamped down violently on the demonstrators. Despite the sporadic oppressive measures, frequent inclement weather, and the protracted duration of the protests, the citizens of Khabarovsk remain steadfast in their commitment to their cause. Although Khabarovsk is thousands of miles from Moscow, echoes of the demonstrations reverberate throughout the country. So far, they have not spread to other major Russian cities, but the citizens of Minsk and Khabarovsk have exchanged comradely greetings and voiced support for each other’s efforts to foster change. The Kremlin undoubtedly hears these popular cries against arbitrary and authoritarian rule from both east and the west with considerable concern. The question for the Kremlin is how long can these protests be ignored, and will they have consequences for Russia and the future of Putin and his regime?

The most shocking event of 2020 and one that has potentially serious ramifications for the Kremlin was the poisoning of prominent opposition figure Aleksey Navalny with the deadly poison Novichok. He was stricken during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and survived due to the quick thinking of the pilot who made an emergency landing in Omsk and by the response of the emergency medics who met the plane and administered the antidote atropine to counteract the effects of the nerve agent poison. Several days later, after failed attempts by the local authorities to prevent his departure, Navalny was flown to Germany where he was treated. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation, and the doctors are optimistic that he will make a full recovery. Navalny plans to return to Russia after he has recovered to resume his work as a leading political opposition figure focused on exposing corruption at the highest levels and working to get pro-democracy candidates elected at the local and regional levels.

What will happen when Navalny returns could further inflame political tensions within the Putin regime. Finger-pointing and the “retirement” of a senior official at the Federal Security Service (FSB) are already raising concerns that the poisoning of Navalny may have been a step too far even for the Putin regime and could create additional turmoil and anxiety within a regime that is increasingly concerned about its future.

The European Union reacted to Navalny’s poisoning by imposing sanctions on six Russian senior officials and one scientific institute. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly vocal in expressing Germany’s anger over this crime, which many have accused Putin of having ordered or at least tacitly approved by creating an environment where such egregious actions could take place without consequences for the perpetrators.23

Indeed, 2020 has been an annus horribilis for Putin and his regime. The level of uncertainty and anxiety among the elite and society over the future is higher now than a year ago. There is still no roadmap or plan for political succession. In fact, by pushing the decision point beyond 2024 to maybe as far as 2036 Putin has caused further apprehension and made the task of charting a path forward for the country and its leadership even more complex. When coupled with his actions and decisions that appear to be oriented primarily toward consolidating his legacy by providing more time and space to plan his future and ultimate departure from the pinnacle of power, Putin has, whether intentionally or not, contributed to the disruption of the tenuous equilibrium that has provided a semblance of cohesion in the country.

As we explore the options for Russia without Putin, we should first look more deeply into the nature of the Putin regime and the vision Putin has for the future of the country. Although much depends on policy decisions and furtive machinations behind the Kremlin walls, unexpected internal and external events can play an influential role in determining a path forward. Nothing could better illustrate this point than the devastation COVID-19 has brought to Russia.

The Russia of 2024 or 2036 may look significantly different from the Russia of 2020. But if the country fails to undergo meaningful change, it could remain mired in stagnation and antiquated ideas and ideologies that retard its development and relegate it to the position of a weaker, less influential authoritarian player on the world scene.

The Nature of Putin’s Regime

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company who spent 10 years imprisoned in Putin’s Russia and is now in exile fighting for a democratic Russia, has described Russia as a country that “is run by individuals with an archaic view of the world.” Putin, like many of his closest advisors and colleagues, has a worldview that was formed during the Soviet era. As a child growing up on the streets of Leningrad, fighting against bullies in a poor working-class neighborhood, dreaming of joining the KGB, and eventually entering the ranks of this most despised and feared Soviet organization, Putin saw life through the prism of struggle and confrontation. He witnessed this both in Russia and abroad as a KGB officer where he served in Dresden, East Germany, when the Berlin Wall came down and communist regimes collapsed, first in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union. The young KGB officer felt disillusioned and angry and was forced to struggle to find a place in a new world that seemed hostile, but also offered opportunities to those who were cunning and willing to fight for what they wanted. Through a combination of connections, good luck, and determination, Putin succeeded beyond his expectations and reached the pinnacle of success when he moved to Moscow to become head of the KGB, then prime minister in the closing days of the Yeltsin regime, and finally president of Russia—a post he has held now for more than 20 years.

As president, Putin has used the tools, connections, and skills he has acquired over his lifetime to achieve his goals. In so doing, he has shown flexibility and acuity in ruling Russia, but essentially, as Khodorkovsky argues, Putin’s thinking is “archaic”—it is rooted in the past and is outmoded. It no longer serves the interest of the country and can no longer guide the course of Russia’s development today and into the future. When Putin said in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” one cannot help but wonder if deep down Putin was also reflecting on his personal loss.

For much of the last 20 years, it has been assumed that Putin is an all-powerful leader who stands at the top of a “power vertical” and is the ultimate decision-maker. Although there is no doubt that Putin is an autocrat whose power and authority have been largely unrivaled and unchallenged, there is an increasing realization that this description of Putin’s power has become inadequate and outdated. It is now clear that the regime Putin put in place and nurtured over the years is becoming brittle and inflexible and is less capable of reacting to the many challenges the country faces.

Russian analysts and foreign observers have increasingly focused on what they see as the “illusion” of Putin’s omnipotence and the effectiveness of his regime and have been highlighting instead the weakness, venality, and decreasing efficacy of the Russian leader and his coterie of bureaucrats, cohorts, and sycophants. This depiction of Putin and his regime has become more widespread this year as Putin has been essentially secluded in his “bunker” residence, allowing decisions regarding the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to be made by underlings as the economy has deteriorated and as popular demonstrations and demands for change have been ignored.

Andrew Higgins writing in the New York Times as far back as two years ago asked rhetorically:

Is Mr. Putin really the omnipotent leader whom the critics attack and his own propagandists promote? Or does he sit atop a state that is, in fact, shockingly ramshackle, a system driven more by the capricious and often venal calculations of competing bureaucracies and interest groups than by Kremlin diktakt?

Higgins cites Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann to illustrate his argument: Schulmann contends:

Russia today resembles not so much the rigidly regimented country ruled by Stalin as the dilapidated autocracy of Russia in the early 19th century. The ruler at the time, Czar Nicholas I, presided over corrupt civilian and military bureaucracies that expanded Russian territory, led the country into a disastrous war in Crimea, and drove the economy into a stagnant dead end.

Tatyana Stanovaya, writing in May 2020 for the Moscow Carnegie Center, uses a musical analogy to describe the Putin regime. Stanovaya opines,

The Russian regime is less and less like a well-tuned orchestra with a confident conductor, and more and more like a cacophony in which every musician is trying to play louder and get more attention than everyone else. No one is focusing on the harmonious sound of the symphony. Instead, institutional and corporate priorities take precedence over national priorities and are carried out at the latter’s expense. This political divergence has been provoked by Putin’s political absence and fueled by a general fear of an uncertain future and lack of clarity regarding Putin’s plans.

She further explains that

[P]reviously, Putin orchestrated the overall political context, ensuring political convergence and a single logic dictated from above, even if the system did not always function properly. Now Putin is distancing himself from the system that he built, and we are seeing the emergence of a polycentric system with an unpredictable arbitration mechanism: a system Russia knows only too well from the 1990s.

Stanovaya describes the following operational guidelines for the Putin regime today: “As this polycentric system becomes more operationally apparent, the previously guiding principle that anything that Putin had not expressly allowed was forbidden, has now been replaced by the practice that anything that Putin has not expressly forbidden is allowed.”

The glue that seems to hold the regime together is loyalty to Putin. Although loyalty to the Russian leader might be reassuring to Putin’s ego and his daily needs, it can result in overlooking initiatives and activities members of the elite pursue that are in their interests but may not be in the interest of the country or even those of Putin and his administration. The result is a further weakening of the regime.

As the elements of this emerging polycentric system—the security services, the billionaires, the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin’s close inner circle, the bureaucrats and technocrats, and others—vie for influence and attention, Putin finds himself increasingly challenged to manage them as best he can, recognizing that he cannot fully control them or respond adequately to the ongoing needs of the country.

Undoubtedly frustrated by his inability to exercise proper control over a country that is going through turbulent times—the pandemic; a weakening economy; mounting environmental catastrophes; growing internal discontent with his inaction in addressing the systemic failures in the country; and loss of influence over countries that were part of the Soviet Union but are now undergoing war, revolution, or internal turmoil—Putin has been raising the profile of the security services and resorting more and more frequently to the use of force to regain control over an increasingly complex and poorly managed country. The noted British expert on Russia, Mark Galeotti, described the declining effectiveness of Vladimir Putin in the following manner. Writing in Intellinews on September 14, 2020, Galeotti said:

Putin is succumbing to the same problem as most authoritarians over time, becoming a caricature of himself. Older, less flexible, more dependent on a shrinking circle of yes-men, more detached from his own country, the temptation is to rely more on force and fiat, while his cronies take the fullest advantage of his indulgence to enrich themselves and prosecute their private feuds.

The most blatant use of force was the recent assassination attempt on the life of the prominent opposition leader Navalny. Many see this as an act of weakness rather than a strength of the Putin regime, as the failure of the Kremlin to control the more aggressive elements of its regime. Navalny’s poisoning was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, attack on Russian opposition figures. Such attempts in the past, many of which have resulted in the death of outspoken opponents of the Putin regime, have, unfortunately, become all too common in Russia. Prominent liberal journalist, Yulia Latynina, who herself was forced to flee Russia because of repeated attacks on her and her parents, wrote recently in the independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, that the poisoning of Navalny “is a sign that political violence and assassinations are now accepted at any level.” Anna Arutunyan, writing in The Moscow Times, grimly comments that this attack “just reveals the extent to which the Kremlin has weaponized its incompetence in the service of dark power.” One of the most prominent observers of the Russian scene, Masha Gessen, agrees about the increasingly dark nature of the Putin regime. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa quotes Gessen who says that “the poisoning of opposition figures has become a terrifyingly normal aspect of the country’s political life, and there’s apparently nothing Putin cares to do about it, or can. That toxin has surfaced not for the first time and, certainly, not for the last.”

The growing negative assessment of the Putin regime is not only shared by leading analysts and journalists. It has also penetrated Russian society. According to reporting by Steve Gutterman of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a survey conducted by the independent Levada Center from July 13 to August 8, 2020—before the poisoning of Navalny—cast a dark shadow over the Russian domestic scene. According to Gutterman, “one journalist said the survey gave off ‘last days of Rome vibes.’” The Levada Center survey asked respondents to describe the current situation in Russia. Gutterman reports:

38 percent of respondents picked “the loss of order and the growth of anarchy”—the largest proportion and far more than at any time since Levada began conducting the poll in 2005. Meanwhile, 17 percent said the country was headed toward authoritarianism and dictatorship, while 22 percent—fewer than ever before—chose “the development of democracy.”

As the Putin regime moves forward—a regime that is focused primarily on maintaining control as it prepares for the eventual transition to a post-Putin Russia, it faces a multitude of domestic challenges and it struggles to maintain its internal cohesion at a time when Putin appears weakened and the regime projects an image more of impotence than of power. Yaffa, writing for The New Yorker on August 21, 2020, made the following observation: “The more Putinism drifts into its late-stage geriatric period, the more jumpy, insecure, and rash the system and its members become.” This does not bode well for the country and emits danger signals about the stability of the regime and what it might mean for the country.

The Constitutional Amendments: An Effort to Secure Putin’s Future

The amendments to the Constitution were intended to update the Yeltsin Constitution of 1993, alter some of the internal administrative relationships, preserve Russia as a strong presidential republic, and rally society in support of the president by introducing changes to certain societal norms and by holding a national referendum to demonstrate this support. One of the important intended consequences was to defuse the mounting tension over the succession issue and give Putin more flexibility in deciding his future. By adding a provision that allows Putin to serve up to two more six-year terms as president,24 should he elect to do so, Putin hoped to reset his relationship with members of the elite by reducing their incentive to focus on a post-Putin Russia and to defuse what was already becoming a search for a successor as the elite jostled for new power positions in their struggle for self-preservation rather than focusing on their work. Russian journalist Konstantin Remuchkov reminds us that “the tradition from Byzantium is to intrigue rather than work. Putin doesn’t want to encourage that.” The amendment that permitted the extension of Putin’s term did lower the fervency but did not eliminate the inevitable search for a successor; it just made the process more protracted and less intense.

Potentially, one of the most significant changes to the constitution was updating the status of the State Council that until now has been a peripheral presidential advisory body that includes regional governors. An amendment to the Constitution elevated the State Council to a formal state body tasked with determining “the main direction of domestic and foreign policy.” Who is to head the State Council is not specified in the constitutional amendment, but it is made clear that the body will be formed by the president. There is much speculation that should Putin step down as president in 2024 or later, he could assume the role of head of the State Council, thereby continuing to wield power, just as former president Nursultan Nazarbayev has done in Kazakhstan.

The problem with this scenario is that if Putin as president emeritus becomes head of the State Council and is a rival to the new president in exercising power, such an arrangement could threaten to weaken the presidency and, consequently, the governing of the country. It appears that this would be contrary to Putin’s strong belief that Russia can only be run by a strong president. Putin made this clear in a comment he made on March 3, 2020. “Our country will not do well without strong presidential power,” Putin asserted. “We do not have stable political parties, which, say in Europe, have been maturing for centuries.” Putin made a similar point two months earlier. Commenting on the frequent collapse of parliamentary governments in Europe and the frequent long delays in forming new governments, Putin said: “Can you imagine how Russia would live without the government for six months? It’s a disaster! Believe me, this is just impossible, this would cause huge damage to the state.” Nevertheless, the option for Putin to realign the apex of political power is now open to him should he eventually decide to exercise it.

As an added guarantee to protect his future, Putin drafted a law that the legislature quickly approved and was signed by Putin. This law grants former presidents and their families immunity for life from criminal prosecution—a promise that Putin himself made to former President Yeltsin before the latter stepped down from the presidency on December 31, 1999. Putin’s draft legislation is consistent with the newly adopted amendments to the Constitution and with Putin’s strong belief in the sanctity of the institution of the presidency and the need to maintain stability and continuity in the country. Although it would reassure his safety for the future, this legislation is not about protecting one person; it is about defending an institution.

Putin’s Vision of Russia’s Future

President Putin has weathered a stressful and disappointing year, but he has succeeded in revising the Constitution in a way he believes will strengthen the presidency and will allow him to maintain control throughout the remaining years of his current term and beyond, should he elect to serve past 2024.

Structurally, Putin has reinforced his position through certain institutional changes. As he moves forward, he also relies on his guiding principles, ideological tenets, and historical experience to help him chart his path forward over the coming years. As part of this process, Putin must maintain a delicate balance between the three pillars of the Russian state—the presidency and its administration, the elite, and civil society. Managing this balance has always been challenging, but it will be even more so as Putin moves toward 2024 and beyond.

Putin sees the synthesis of absolute presidential power with the ideological conviction and propagation of the thesis of antithetical Western Russophobia and threats coming from the West as the foundation for the policies he and his administration pursue to ensure the sovereignty and survival of his regime for as long as he remains in power. Putin’s anti-Westernism is an essential element in his pursuit of policies that are designed to protect and strengthen Russia.

Putin is critical of both Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s attempts to draw closer to the West. He sees their policies as not only naive but also dangerous. He is convinced that the West is determined to undermine and weaken the Russian state and that any attempt to establish closer ties with the West could be perilous for Russia. Putin’s anti-Westernism not only serves his policy interests, but it also appeals to a large segment of the Russian population that has traditionally been suspicious of the West and has rallied around the Kremlin to present a united front against alleged “Western evil intentions.”

President Putin appears satisfied with the current structure of government and the policy framework he has created, but he recognizes the potential for missteps that could jeopardize his options for the future. In an interview on June 21, 2020, Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman, was asked if the president was “happy with the system in place.” Peskov responded:

One, the president is happy with the system in place. Two, the system has demonstrated that it can hold up under stress. The president has already explained the situation’s potential threat. This honestly is, let’s say, a feature of our bureaucratic and national world. But that absolutely doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t work in conditions of power changing hands. Power changes, there’s a constant rotation process happening, and it would be wrong to ignore this.

Peskov was referring to the issue of succession and a statement made by President Putin that he was considering running for reelection in 2024. The threat Putin is trying to avoid is that if he were to step down in 2024, this could disrupt the “normal rhythm” of government work as early as 2022, as state officials at various levels would begin searching “with wandering eyes” for potential successors. “We need to be working, not searching for successors,” Putin said.

There is another set of missteps that Putin is concerned about, and that is avoiding the errors Gorbachev made with his reform program of the 1980s known as perestroika that continued in a different form and scope under President Yeltsin in the 1990s. The predicament Putin faces is that he and his advisors acknowledge that some type of reform is needed but they must introduce changes without losing control of the process, as both Gorbachev and Yeltsin did. Under Gorbachev, perestroika led to the unraveling of the entire Soviet economic system and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Yeltsin, the turmoil of economic changes from a socialist to a capitalist system created chaos and grave economic hardships that culminated in Yeltsin’s resignation and his replacement by Putin.

Putin and his administration are wont to use the word “reform” to avoid its association with past efforts under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as well as certain measures the Kremlin itself has taken during the past 20 years. Yet, people are increasingly eager for change. Putin must find a way forward to improve the economic situation in the country without losing political control or releasing the centripetal forces that are always lurking in the background in Russia.

This is a most formidable task. It is unclear what the path forward will be. Some say that Putin has already reached a dead end and does not know how to circumvent the many obstacles that exist; some obstacles are innate to Russia, other obstacles Putin and his regime have themselves created. Many experts agree that Putin’s options are limited and there is little cause for optimism that life in Russia will change significantly in the foreseeable future. The historical efforts at reform, which Putin fears and eschews, combined with the traditional model of governance that is rife with corruption and lack of any equitable societal representation, impose barriers that Putin cannot and will not overcome.

Alexander Baumov stresses that Putin’s anti-Westernism and his “disdain for democracy” are key factors that limit Putin’s options. Ever since Putin delivered his political diatribe against the West at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, the Russian president has been moving further and further away from any interest in adopting elements of the European model. Instead, he has created a state that Baumov describes as “unashamedly authoritarian in design.” If Putin or any successor should ever want to return to the European model to effect change in Russia, Baumov argues, he “would have to dismantle the entire political legacy that this regime has built.” To do so, could be extremely disruptive and could lead to turmoil and chaos—a direction that Putin (and perhaps his successor) would reject.

Stanovaya agrees that Putin’s options are limited. She acknowledges that Putin has restored order to Russia following the disruptive years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has raised Russia’s profile on the world stage; he has modernized the military; and he has brought stability to the economy, despite a growing sense of stagnation. At least, as Stanovaya points out, “pensions and salaries are paid on time and regularly indexed, the banking system is stable, and so on.” The question now, however, is how can Putin continue to mobilize society in support of his regime and its policies?

Successful implementation of the 12 national projects appears to be the cornerstone of the Kremlin’s plans for the economic advancement of the country, and Putin is putting more and more technocrats into positions of authority to ensure that competent hands are directing the day-to-day work on these projects and to reduce systemic corruption that has repeatedly hampered the development of numerous large-scale projects in the past and continues to plague Russia’s development schemes today. Whether the goals to advance these projects will be met hinges not just on the technocrats or even on the orders emanating from the Russian president. They also depend significantly on the numerous obstacles that are inherent both in the Russian environment and in the nature of the authoritarian regime Putin has created.

Stanovaya sums up best the predicament the Putin regime faces as it moves toward 2024 and perhaps even beyond. Stanovaya asserts:

The regime appears increasingly precarious, but this is not to say that it will collapse: it still has plenty of resilience, and the public is disoriented and fearful of things getting worse. It’s more that this divergent, even contradictory, reaction to problems has two consequences for the state. It will be unable to enter into dialogue should the public start to become politically active, and it is losing its consolidation, making it unable to speak with one united voice.

But at some point, Putin will leave the scene, either due to natural causes or to a conscious decision by the Russian president that his time as leader is over and he needs to pass on the reins of power to others. There is also the possibility that the decision for Putin to step down may be made by others against his will. No one knows how and when the Putin regime will end, but there are many theories and possible scenarios about a post-Putin Russia. In Part II of this essay, I will explore some of the issues that could frame a post-Putin Russia and offer some intriguing scenarios about a future Russia.

Washington, DC | December 2020

Chapter 13

Toward 2024 and Beyond: The Fate of Vladimir Putin’s Reign, Part II

In Part I of this essay, I examine the current state of affairs in Russia and Putin’s vision of the future of the country. In Part II, I look at prospects for Russia after Putin and offer some possible scenarios that Russia could face when the reign25 of Putin comes to an end.

“What Is to Be Done?”

In his famous pamphlet by the same name, Vladimir Lenin in 1902 posed this proverbial question in response to the Russian revolutionary movement’s quandary about how to bring about change to Russia. In his answer, Lenin insisted that an elite vanguard party had to direct the Russian masses (in his day, the workers and peasants), that the people could not expect change to occur spontaneously, and that change would occur only if the revolutionary movement were led by an elite group of radicalized intellectuals.

Today, a different Vladimir—Vladimir Putin—together with Russia’s elite and Russian society, faces a similar quandary: “What is to be done?” But today, with public discontent growing as the country faces myriad political, economic, and social problems and is on the verge of a critical succession challenge, the authorities have no answer to this question. In fact, “they do not even raise the question, not seeing any need for it,” says Denis Volkov, Deputy Director of the independent polling agency the Levada Center. No one, except possibly some small fringe groups, is calling for revolution, but few would deny that change is needed, whether to improve citizens’ standard of living, raise the socio-economic conditions of the country, or even to ensure a more secure position for the elite in the power structure.

“No one among the authorities is even asking the question: What is to be done?” Volkov stressed. By failing to ask and respond adequately to this question, the authorities could face a dangerous, even an explosive, situation. Russian history should serve as a warning that when cries for change are ignored for too long, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the lid on Russia’s boiling socio-political kettle.

But this reluctance to consider the need for change is neither surprising nor unexpected. Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, maintains that Putin is “happy with the system in place,” but many others observe that Putin has become increasingly aloof from society and has reached a dead end on efforts to motivate society and improve people’s lives that would earn him and his regime their support. Moreover, United Russia, Russia’s “elite vanguard party” that controls the legislature and most of the regional administration and should be leading the effort to improve people’s lives, garners only minimal support in the country and lacks fresh ideas to move the country forward.

As economic stagnation increases and uncertainty about Russia’s future intensifies, many doubt that “Putinism” will survive long after Putin leaves the scene, in 2024 or later. Meanwhile, the longer Putin remains president, the more tensions will rise and demands for change will mount, and controlling these challenges will eventually be out of his hands. Determining Russia’s future path will fall principally to the power elite, but society, spearheaded by leaders within civil society, will also play an important role.

The Power Elite

Although most of the focus on how long Putin will remain in power centers on Putin himself, another institution will play a major role in determining the course of Russia’s future: the power elite or siloviki. This is an amalgam of the military, security, and law enforcement services. It is not a unified elite, but rather a fractured, yet powerful segment of the most influential elements of the Russian bureaucracy. These forces interact as both allies and competitors to ensure their supremacy in the Russian power structure.

Indeed, one of Putin’s greatest achievements in his more than 20 years as president has been to rebuild the power elite after many of its elements were decimated or severely weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thanks to Putin, the intelligence and enforcement bureaucracies once again play a dominant role in Russian society.

There has always been a delicate symbiotic relationship between the Russian ruler and his enforcers in the power elite. Maintaining the superior role in this relationship has often been challenging for the ruler, and any sign of weakness can imperil the relationship and threaten the security of the ruler’s dominance. There are many historical examples of what can happen if the ruler fails to maintain control over the power elite. It is not surprising, given the nature of Russian autocracy, that a powerful, dominant leader is essential to sustain authoritarian rule in the country. At the same time, the ruler, however warily, must rely on his power elite enforcers to safeguard his authoritative position. The enforcers are both his pillars of support and a potential threat to his power. How he manages this complex relationship is one of the ruler’s biggest challenges. As for Putin, once he is gone or is in the process of departing the scene, the power elite will undoubtedly play a dominant, if not a defining, role in determining the succession and in the evolution of the Russian state in the post-Putin era.

The siloviki derive their power and influence not just from their dominant institutions as enforcers, but through allies among the most conservative elements in Russian society, among which are the Russian Orthodox Church and certain influential politicians in the Russian legislature and regional positions of authority. To date, the siloviki have remained loyal to President Putin, and they continue to enjoy a mutually beneficial, yet still tenuous, relationship with him. Some prominent Russian observers see this relationship intensifying following the recent changes to the Constitution. Stanovaya, writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center, asserts that “by rewriting the constitution and reshuffling the government, Putin did far more than throw most of the Russian elite off-balance. Putin’s efforts signal that he is building a new political regime that will be more conservative, more ideological, and more anti-Western in its outlook.” We see evidence of this already in new legislation that is imposing more and more restrictions on civil society and expanding the definition of “foreign agent” beyond nongovernmental organizations to include individual Russian citizens. The informal alliance between the most powerful, repressive institutions and conservative ideologists not only strengthens the hands of those who want to impose stricter controls over civil society but also fortifies their already influential role in the succession battle that will inevitably ensue when Putin leaves the scene. It also puts them in direct conflict with professional technocrats who are, theoretically, politically neutral and whom Putin has put into senior political, economic, and social posts in his government to make it run more efficiently and produce results.

The Technocrats

The technocrats are a growing influential class within Putin’s power structure. If the siloviki are the enforcers, the technocrats are the policy wonks. They are supposed to be the motor of an effective bureaucracy if they are not stifled or made ineffective by the rampant corruption that permeates the country or intimidated by the enforcers. In any well-run government, the technocrats would play an essential role in developing policies and implementing the decisions of senior leaders of government. In the power structure of Putin’s Russia, the technocrats are among those struggling to maintain their position and striving to be an influential force in determining the nature of a post-Putin Russia.

But being a prominent technocrat does not necessarily make one an influential player in a future succession process. One must also have political ken and experience. Stanovaya refers to those with such qualifications as political technocrats. She describes them as not close friends of Putin and not politicians with their own ambitions and agendas. Rather they are individuals “who have earned their political status as the result of being handed a ‘political mission’—a task that is personally important to Putin.” They have earned Putin’s confidence, not because of friendship, but because of their competence and skills in successfully carrying out the missions Putin has assigned to them. These political technocrats are, as Stanovaya describes them, “young, extremely loyal, discreet, diligent and highly efficient.” They are totally beholden to Putin for their position, but Putin owes them nothing. Among the most prominent political technocrats in Stanovaya’s view are Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Anton Vaino, and First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko. These men occupy powerful positions in the Russian government and enjoy the confidence of President Putin. As long as Putin continues to serve as president and these officials perform to his satisfaction, they will remain important players in Putin’s circle.

When Putin leaves office and the struggle for succession intensifies, the ability of these officials, who lack a political and, in most cases, an institutional base of support, to remain important players could be quite tenuous. More powerful individuals and institutions from the darkest corners of Russia’s netherworld of enforcers who view themselves as the protectors of Russia against all forms of evil, whether from the West or from challenges within the country to Russia’s predominantly conservative ideology, will struggle fiercely to protect their interests and assert their power and influence to determine the nature of post-Putin Russia.

The Oligarchs

During the early years of post-Soviet Russia, a new class of individuals known as the oligarchs arose. They were businessmen who amassed great wealth by taking advantage of the chaotic transition from socialism to capitalism to acquire control over many of Russia’s natural resources. Not only did they quickly become billionaires in a country that had sunk into widespread poverty and destitution, but they also became extremely influential politically. In his battles with rival political factions, most notably the Communists, President Boris Yeltsin relied heavily on the financial and media support of the oligarchs. In this process, Yeltsin became beholden to the oligarchs who had taken control over much of the economy and the communication networks.

When Putin became president, he was faced with the daunting challenge of wrestling power away from the oligarchs and reasserting control over the economy and the media. Within a short time, President Putin was able to accomplish these goals. He did so by intimidation and force. Some oligarchs had their assets seized and were forced to flee the country. Others were arrested, and some, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were given lengthy prison sentences. Those who remained were stripped of their political influence and were forced to submit to the Kremlin’s will. The rule of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs came to an end. The survivors were no longer a political force; they were reduced to compliant businessmen who were allowed to retain their wealth but had to serve the interests of the state whenever called upon.

In place of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, a new class of wealthy elite emerged under President Putin. These individuals are, in most cases, personal friends of the Russian president whose shared roots go back to Putin’s years in the KGB or his days in early post-Soviet St. Petersburg where he served as deputy to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Putin has placed many of them in positions where they have amassed great wealth. Unlike the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, Putin’s rich associates are not in a position to exercise political power or challenge the authority of the Kremlin. Instead, they serve Putin’s interests and carry out assignments he orders, such as overseeing major construction projects and high-profile events like the Sochi Winter Olympics. In turn, they reap great financial rewards from these activities. There is much speculation that this circle of close friends serves as a conduit for the monies Putin personally receives from undisclosed sources. No one knows how rich the Russian president is, but there is speculation that his fortune is in the billions of dollars. Once Putin is no longer president, the personal relationship between him and his wealthy friends will certainly change. Infighting will intensify as the wealthy elite scrambles to establish new relationships with the emerging center of power in post-Putin Russia.


The media devote much attention to the role the siloviki and the political technocrats may play in determining the nature of a post-Putin Russia. Indeed, they are powerful rival forces that will most likely dominate the process of choosing a successor to Putin and framing the initial post-Putin years. But there is another element that could be a decisive factor in determining Russia’s future, and that is the attitude and role of Russian society. Society’s role will likely increase if conditions in the country further deteriorate, the government fails to address society’s needs in an even more egregiously negligent way than at present, and the protest movement grows throughout the metropolitan centers and into rural areas of the county. This could result in the political technocrats, who are reportedly growing increasingly disillusioned with Putin and Putinism, joining forces with some civil society leaders to attain a leadership role in charting Russia’s future in the initial post-Putin years. But such a situation would require the consent, or at least the tacit acquiescence, of important elements of the siloviki. Without their support, there is little hope that such a scenario could materialize.

The ability of society to play a decisive role in influencing the succession process is further complicated by the fact that society is deeply fractured and does not know what it wants in a future Russia. Like the governing elite, society is not sure what should come next.

The independent Levada Center recently analyzed this situation and presented a fascinating report. In a recent article in Intellinews, Ben Aris discussed the center’s findings. Levada Center Deputy Director Volkov reported that they conducted a survey with three focus groups that they termed “loyalists” (those who want Putin to stay in power after 2024), “traditionalists” (those who represent both extreme right and extreme left views), and “liberals” (those who oppose Putin staying in power after 2024 and want a Western-style government). Volkov framed the setting in which these three groups find themselves. He noted that much has changed in Russia since Putin assumed power more than 20 years ago. Attitudes have changed, but the Kremlin has not kept up with these changes. A new middle class has formed that is generally satisfied with their lives and fears any threats that could deprive it of its gains. Moreover, an entirely new generation has grown up that only knows Putin as president and has no ties to the former Soviet Union. This generation differs significantly from that of their parents. They get their news from the internet, not from state TV. They travel freely around the world, speak foreign languages, see how others live, and want the same for themselves and their country. At the same time, Russia is still plagued by economic stagnation, deep social inequities and hardships, and profound feelings of resentment and hostility toward both the authorities and foreigners.

Within this context, Volkov presented his findings. Before getting into what divides these three groups, he noted that all three shared a pessimism about the future of Russia. They also favored the idea of a welfare state that protects less fortunate citizens. They shared a disdain for the cumbersome, corrupt bureaucracy and a belief that the authorities should listen to, and work for, the people.

In defining what they would like Russia to be in the future, the “liberals” described a democratic, free Russia and often cited Russia under President Yeltsin as an example of what they would like to see. The “loyalists” and “traditionalists” sought their model for the future of the country in its historical past, with many expressing nostalgia for the socialist experiment. All three groups noted the uncertainty of attaining these prospects.

“Traditionalists” and “liberals” were united in their opposition to President Putin but for very different reasons, citing fatigue with the president as their common connection. “Traditionalists” and “loyalists” shared a common aspiration for a greater role for the state in the economy, up to the nationalization of all enterprises. They also favored a more aggressive foreign policy and the restoration of the territories lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. They were nostalgic for statism and the extreme manifestation of paternalism that existed in the Soviet Union.

The “liberals’” view of a democratic society, Volkov asserts, is acceptable to most Russian citizens. This view includes “a free, competitive economy, an independent court, a friendly business environment, fair competitive elections, a free civil society that is separate from the state, and openness to the world.” The role of the state, the “liberals” believe, should be one of arbiter and a provider of services. The division of society into these three groups illustrates the fractured nature of Russian society and the difficulty society faces in rallying around “a unifying idea about the character of social-political processes which are taking place in the country,” according to Volkov.

A poll conducted by the Levada Center in September 2020 shows that “the share of Russians who think that their country is becoming more authoritarian or a dictatorship has risen from 9 percent in 2015 to 17 percent now. At the same time, the portion of those who believe the country suffers from a loss of order has gone up over the same period from 28 percent to 38 percent.” Russian journalist Konstantin Remchukov described the tense feeling in Russian society about its current state and where it might be going as follows: “It’s like you lack oxygen. You’re in high altitude with little oxygen. There is no ideal of what other path Russia should follow: not America, not Ukraine, not China. [Instead,] Russia sticks to its old, anti-Western way, which is close to Putin’s ideal.” This is an ideology and a policy prescription that finds support among the “traditionalists” and the “loyalists.” Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova argues that “many who object to the Kremlin leader’s approach may, in fact, want to see him replaced by someone even more authoritarian and hostile to the outside world.”

The fractured nature of Russian society is mirrored in the extremely divided political opposition within civil society. Opposition leaders, who are expected to rally and unite the general public to their cause, are themselves deeply divided. Although opposition leaders reflect the spectrum of political views in the country, the most vocal and most prominent are the liberal opposition leaders, but they, too, do not share a common program or approach to opposing the Putin regime.

Most recently, the liberal opposition has united around Alexey Navalny following his poisoning by the security services and his arrest immediately upon his return to Russia after recuperating in Germany. Support for Navalny from civil society and the general population has increased, but Navalny’s rise in popularity is more in response to the vile manner Navalny has been treated by the Putin regime and the utter corruption of the authorities than an endorsement of Navalny’s political views.

It is hard to predict how long the current effort at unity will last and if it can be transformed into an effective political coalition. Many doubt that it will. Two prominent Russian sociologists, Sergei Belanovsky and Anastasia Nikolskaya, are concerned about this problem. They contend that

[T]he Russian opposition may fragment if an opportunity to democratically transform the country suddenly presents itself. This breakup could, in turn, lead to a stream of insoluble political conflicts that will again revive a desire within Russian society to return to the idea of a “strong hand” that will restore order.

This inclination to support authoritarianism may be viewed as the “lesser evil” compared to the possibility of anarchy.

A very important segment of Russian society is its youth. It consists of several generations of young people who have grown up in post-Soviet Russia and have, in many respects, a very different outlook on life, on Russia’s political structure, and on hopes for the future than their parents and grandparents who, for the most part, still carry the burdens and bear the indelible imprint of life in the Soviet Union. It is to Russia’s young people that the opposition and even some in the ruling regime turn to as they look to the future of the country.

Russian youth, like society as a whole, reflect a great diversity of views. Although they share many of the universal characteristics of young people around the world—aspirations for a better life, frustration with the authorities and the governing of the country, interconnection among themselves and the world through the internet, development of their own unique culture, etc., they also manifest these characteristics within the framework of their Russian environment, history, culture, and life experiences.

The Levada Center conducted polling over the past several years on the attitudes of Russia’s youth. It is not surprising that their findings indicate that young people are the most dissatisfied with Russia’s political system. One study, published on October 2, 2020, concluded that younger Russians are most likely to participate in activities that oppose the Putin regime. They share many of the complaints of the older generations: a falling standard of living, a decline in real income, a stagnating economy, and the unpopular hike in the retirement age. They are also frustrated with the many roadblocks in Russia to realizing their aspirations and dreams. Russia’s youth tend to be more entrepreneurial, pro-Western, and tolerant of others than are the older generations. Young people are deeply immersed in social media where they share their views. The voices of independent journalists, political opposition figures like Aleksey Navalny, the popular video blogger Yuri Dud, and influential platforms such as YouTube, Telegram, and TikTok offer channels for amplifying communication among Russia’s younger generation that could in tense times be used to send out calls to action to those opposed to the regime. The widespread use of the internet by young Russians combined with their growing opposition to the authorities could contribute to the erosion of Putin’s power over the long term. This does not go unnoticed in the Kremlin, which has already taken steps to restrict and control the internet and would undoubtedly implement more restrictive measures in the event of what it perceives as a direct threat to the regime.26

The data in the Levada Center report are quite revealing about the lack of support among Russia’s youth for Putin and his regime. According to the polling,

[I]n June and July, 18- to 24-year-olds were the group most critical of Putin’s rule (49–50 percent disapproved). And in a July study, 62 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds thought that Russia was heading in the wrong direction (as opposed to an average of 40 percent across other ages). According to the study, only 7 percent of young Russians named Putin among politicians they trust (as opposed to 23 percent of the population on average). And in August, only 23 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 31 percent of 25- to 39-year-olds surveyed said they would vote for Putin if the elections were to take place the next Sunday, as compared with 40 percent of the population in general.

Russia’s youth may appear to be a potential powder keg and, given the right circumstances and the emergence of a strong, popular leader, they could become an explosive force in a future succession crisis. Perhaps that will be the case, but the situation is much more complicated than that. The same Levada Center study points out that because of a low birth rate over the past decades, the percentage of young people to the rest of the population is quite low. The authors of the report speculate “there simply may not be enough young people to successfully push for fundamental change.” Another important observation in the report is that, although quite critical of the Putin regime, “many younger Russians refrain from actively participating in politics and only grow more politically engaged as they enter their early 30s.”

Estonian journalist and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations Kadri Liik studied the views of young Russian foreign policy professionals. These are the young men and women who represent the future of Russia’s foreign policy establishment and can be counted among the important class of aspiring political technocrats. Their voices will be increasingly important and influential as they progress in their careers to positions of responsibility within the foreign policy community. In this capacity, they will represent many of the views and aspirations of their generation.

Liik’s study reveals that the cohort of young foreign policy professionals she surveyed are more conservative and cautious than many of their peers, but they did share a common sense of bleakness and pessimism about the future of the country. Although they agreed that “some changes to the political system are necessary,” they believed that those changes should occur gradually and should be based on “continuity with what exists today.” Their cautious approach is based on their assessment that Russia has a “low level of political culture.” They also point to the large size of the country and argue that “with such a size, there should be fewer rights [for the population]. We are too big for too many rights.”

Such a passive, almost fatalistic, approach to the future of their country would be surprising in other countries where youth represent dynamism and aspire for change, even radical change if they feel the system is not working for them. But this is not necessarily so in Russia. Although Russia has experienced instances of dynamic youthful protests and even participation in rebellions in the past, there is also a strong tendency to accept the norms dictated by the authorities and conform to the system as it is despite all its negative and abusive aspects. Such attitudes are usually attributed to the older generations who have experienced the worst of past autocratic rule. It is concerning that an influential segment of Russian youth also shares these views. Liik explored this issue with these young professionals who are already working in state institutions and are experiencing the stagnation and inertia that prevails in them. Liik says that “waiting it out” has becomes a survival strategy for many of them. One young government official told her that everyone is tired, including the people in power. The regime is incapable of changing. “Under these conditions,” he said, “it is quite useless to try to explain or propose anything to anyone. Better to be silent.” Such an attitude of passive acceptance does not demonstrate leadership and argues against this cohort of young Russians being at the forefront of those championing for change in the future.

Youth alone, even those most fervently committed to pursuing change and aligned with more mature opposition figures in civil society, are currently no match for the power elite in determining the outcome of the struggle for power that will inevitably ensue in a post-Putin Russia. How that struggle will play out, no one knows. Much will depend on the “correlation of forces,” to use an apt Soviet expression, as the various power centers seek to emerge dominant, acting either alone, or more likely, in temporary alliances with rival forces. One can anticipate that these alliances will shift repeatedly as the power struggle plays out. It is also quite probable that the initial victor may not necessarily be the final one. Russian history is replete with such instances. There is no reason to exclude the possibility that history may repeat itself when Putin leaves.

Scenarios for a Post-Putin Russia

The transition of power has always been consequential in Russia. Putin has been in power for more than 20 years. He is now 68 years old. With each passing year, speculation increases about how long Putin will remain in power, when he will end his “reign,” how the transition of power will take place, whether there will be a struggle for power, who might emerge on top, and what type of regime will rule post-Putin Russia. No one has the answers to these questions, not even Putin. But this does not deter journalists, pundits, soothsayers, shamans, television mystics, and courtyard babushkas from offering their vision of what will happen when Putin’s rule ends. Many of the predictions are pure conjecture devoid of any realistic assessment of political reality. Some made by foreigners are based on their own logic and frame of reference and lack sufficient understanding of the convoluted Russian political scene. But some are worthy of serious consideration. They take into account both objective possibilities based on the Russian historical experience and the distinctive features that characterize the Russian political and social environment.

The Most Popular Scenarios

The first set of scenarios are among those most frequently cited. They offer a vision that can be accepted as reasonable, logical, and within the realm of possibility, given Russia’s current political scene. They are not mutually exclusive, and a combination of these scenarios could occur.

  1. Putin decides not to run for president in 2024. He selects his successor from among the most trusted political technocrats. His successor is duly elected, and the country continues along the same general path of Putinism and stagnation. Putin retires and does not play an active role in politics.
  2. Putin decides not to run for president in 2024. He selects his successor from among the most trusted political technocrats. His successor is duly elected, and the country continues along the same general path of Putinism and stagnation. Putin becomes head of the State Council and plays a rival, perhaps dominant, role in the political life of the country. This complicates the political power structure and exacerbates instability in the country.
  3. Putin decides to run for president in 2024 and is re-elected. When his term ends in 2030, he faces the same dilemma about running again for re-election by extending his term to 2036, at which time he would be 84 years old. At this point, conditions in the country have further deteriorated because the Kremlin has failed to implement major political and economic reforms to address the deep-seated problems facing the country. As stagnation deepens, unrest grows. This forces either a dramatic change in government policy (less likely), or pressures Putin not to run for re-election in 2030 (more likely), or leads to a coup d’état reminiscent of the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 (not out of the realm of possibility), or erupts into a violent revolution—a modern-day version of 1917 (highly unlikely but not impossible).
  4. Putin’s power base weakens and the elites surrounding the president become increasingly more independent and powerful. Putin is less able to act as an arbiter between the rival factions. The Kremlin as a center of power becomes less consequential. Power devolves to emerging regional centers that are in alliance with individual members of the power elite. Putin remains as a convenient figurehead and is allowed to run for re-election, in 2024 or 2030, depending on the timing of this scenario. The centrifugal forces that have always been present in Russia, but often in the background when power is concentrated in the center, become dominant. The power dynamic splinters. The center holds together but only in a weakened fashion. Separate regional power centers emerge, potentially in concord or conflict with each other. The possibility of Russia following its predecessor the Soviet Union by fracturing into autonomous or even independent entities cannot be excluded.

Three Contrasting Scenarios

The following three scenarios by prominent Russian political observers exemplify the conflicting views about Russia’s future. They illustrate the difficulty of reaching a general understanding, much less a consensus, about what a post-Putin Russia may look like and, consequently, the difficulty of working in concert to achieve a common goal.

The first scenario paints a dark picture of Russia’s future and predicts a more authoritarian and chaotic rule for the country. The second scenario presents an optimistic portrayal of Russia becoming a democratic country. The third scenario offers little hope for change; it sees some improvements in the country but a continuation of authoritarian rule.

A Dystopian Future for Russia

Russians are not lacking for gloomy, depressing visions of their country, whether of the present or the future. Fyodor Dostoevsky portrayed Russia in the darkest terms, and his pessimism about life has been shared by other writers, film directors, and political and social commentators for more than a century. Their depiction of the struggles and misfortunes of the Russian people reflects the reality many in Russia have experienced in the past and continue to endure today. It is not surprising, therefore, that grim scenarios about Russia’s future are popular and readily accepted by many Russians.

One of the more radical scenarios has been proposed by Aleksey Shaburov, editor of the PolitSovet portal in Yekaterinburg. As reported by veteran analyst Paul Goble, Shaburov posits that if and when the Putin regime collapses, power will fall into the hands of “bandits,” whom he called Putin’s “pseudo-Cossacks.” According to Shaburov, these are state-armed groups over which the state does not have full control. He claims that these so-called Cossacks, which he distinguishes from real Cossacks, “are situated on the border between two political groups: the official powers-that-be and ‘bandits.’” Shaburov expects that these groups will play a role in the transition of power, most notably by unleashing violence against minorities they do not like and furthering chaos in the country.

Others, such as Alexander Dugin, an ultra-right-wing commentator—some call him a fascist—are convinced that if Putin is further weakened, or when he is no longer president, the country will likely fall apart as did the Soviet Union in 1991. It is only thanks to Putin and his “tough line in the cause of Russian sovereignty” that the Russian Federation remains a unified state. To avoid a disastrous collapse of the country, Dugin argues, Russia will need a super-Putin “in which all his best heroic features will be continued, but his weaknesses and mistakes will be overcome.”

Russian analyst Kirillova worries that if Russia enters another “time of troubles”27 after Putin leaves the scene, radical-left populists, who are becoming more popular in the country, could emerge as a powerful force in the transition of power. With their Bolshevik-type ideology, repressive policies, opposition to pro-Western forces in the country, and “imperialist and isolationist vision of the world,” they could be instrumental in installing a leader who could be even worse than Putin “with regard to Russia and its relations with the West.”

A Bright Future for Russia

Others are more optimistic about a post-Putin Russia and believe that Russia can adopt more democratic principles and institutions and achieve a rapprochement with the West. Advocates of such views are not naive. They admit to Russia’s failures to properly embrace democratic reforms in the past but maintain the hope that under the right circumstances their vision is achievable.

One of the most prominent proponents of this view is the economist Vladislav Inozemtsev. He argues that “there is reason for long-term optimism.” He bases his cautious expectation on the fact that “the only limiting factor on the Putin regime is the lifespan of its creator. He will not live forever, and there is practically no chance that his system will be preserved after [he is gone].” Inozemtsev cites the deteriorating economic conditions in the country and predicts that they will continue to get worse. Demands for major change will increase. No one who replaces Putin will be able to continue his policies for very long. Once Putin is gone, “the current ruling elite will rapidly disintegrate.” Change at this point will become inevitable, and “the compass of Russian history inevitably will swing towards democratization and rapprochement with the West,” Inozemtsev concludes. But he warns that this process may take some time and will not “happen as quickly as many would like.”

For those who advocate adopting western-oriented democracy, political scientist Alexander Tsipko has a warning. In an op-ed on November 6, 2020, in the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, as reported by the Riga-based online newspaper Meduza, Tsipko acknowledges that Russia has had “many brushes with democracy throughout history,” but none has taken root. He is particularly critical of the Russian liberals who played a prominent role in the immediate post-Soviet years during the presidency of Yeltsin for “failing to build a lasting democracy.” There are many reasons for their failure, but Tsipko focuses on their “fundamental refusal to connect with the country’s national past.” By this, he means “embracing continuity with the old Orthodox Russia.” He accuses the liberals of the 1990s of being “alienated from the ‘heart of the people,’ which prevented them from building the necessary linkages between the national past and their vision for the future. By failing to accept and incorporate the historical essence and unique spiritual identity of Russia into their plans for modernization and democratization, the liberals were doomed to failure because they alienated Russian society from its essence.”

Tsipko is also critical of the Yeltsin-era reformers for not being interested in true democratic reforms. He argues that Russia’s nascent democracy, which was born during Gorbachev’s era of perestroika, died in the 1990s because “the liberal elite refused to behave as democrats, rejecting free elections when they couldn’t win,” and being less interested in actual reforms than in “transferring state property to private hands, in order to expand what they believed was their base of power.” Tsipko’s words should be viewed not only as a critique of the past but, more importantly, as a warning to those liberal-minded reformers and opposition leaders who aspire to transform Russia into a Western-style democracy in the post-Putin era.

Other experts, such as Liik of Estonia, share Tsipko’s warning but are more sanguine about Russia’s chances of embracing some form of democracy in the future. In a Carnegie Moscow Center publication on December 31, 2020, Liik writes:

Russia can still democratize, but the sources and nature of that democracy would be different. It’ll spring not from a desire to emulate the Western model, but from the homegrown realization that to function smoothly, a country needs to have some rule of law, some separation of powers, some legitimacy among the powers that be. Its agents will be found not so much among the liberal intelligentsia as among various professionals who have come to the conclusion that they need some rules to successfully do their work: a growing, though not yet too vocal social group in today’s Russia. Such a democratic (or maybe semi-democratic) Russia will not be Western-friendly by default: it’ll examine all its relationships in a critical and cold-blooded manner. But it could quite pragmatically cooperate with the West, if and when its interests dictate.

An Uninspiring Future for Russia

The third scenario is not provocative. It does not incite fear and anxiety as does the first one; it does not inspire hope, albeit guarded, as does the second. This scenario promises some glimmer of hope for improvement, but essentially it forecasts a continuation of the uninspiring policies of the Putin regime. One such adherent to this view is Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie office. He believes that a post-Putin Russia “will be different from what it is now, but hardly too different; it will be ruled by a new monarchical president.” He sees the nature of the economy as similar to what exists today with the Kremlin continuing “to play the role of an arbiter among the principal vested interests.” He anticipates that Russia’s society will mature but will remain focused on local issues and such socio-economic challenges as improving education and health care. Russia will not regain superpower status, but it will continue to resist what it perceives as pressure from the West and will play an important role in the world.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former advisor to President Putin and now one of Russia’s most prominent political experts, offers two alternatives for Russia. One is based on Putin remaining in power at least until 2024, if not beyond, but to do so he would have to “adopt revolutionary changes akin to a more classical dictatorship—mass mobilization and repressions, purges of the elite classes, intimidation of society, and much more severe conflict with the external world.” As we look at the increased repressive steps currently being taken by the Putin regime, it is quite apparent that the Kremlin is moving in this direction, whether for the purposes Pavlovsky argues or for other reasons. In any case, such measures, Pavlovsky insists, will demand an enormous price on both society and the elite that have been supportive of Putin over the many years he has been in power.

Pavlovsky’s second alternative focuses on Russia surviving while Putin’s power wanes. Pavlovsky does not explain how this would happen, but he does argue that the increasingly conservative nature of the regime will somehow facilitate the process of “distancing itself from Putin and learning to function without his everyday involvement,” thereby accelerating the transition to a post-Putin Russia. Over time this process will accelerate, “even sometimes against the wishes of powerful political players.” In the end, Putin “will have to leave—to allow the system to move forward on its own.” Which of the two alternatives will prevail, Pavlovsky concludes, “we’ll see by 2024.”

The Vision of a Dreamer: A Post-Putin Russia as Imaged by Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a man on a mission. Once Russia’s richest man who made his fortune during the lawless early years of post-Soviet Russia, Khodorkovsky dared to challenge the power of President Putin and paid a terrible price. He was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering. When he was released, he left the country. He currently resides in London where he pursues philanthropic work through his foundation Open Russia, which works to bring about reform to Russian civil society, including through free and fair elections, political education, protection of journalists and activists, the rule of law, and media independence.

During his years in prison, Khodorkovsky transformed himself from an oligarch into a political prisoner and a self-styled “freedom fighter.” He has written about this transformation in numerous articles and interviews while in prison and following his release. He has now made it his life’s mission to bring change to Russia, to transform Russia into a democratic country. This is his commitment and his passion, and he and his supporters are working tirelessly toward this goal. The Economist magazine has described Mikhail Khodorkovsky as “the Kremlin’s leading critic-in-exile.”

There are few opposition figures inside Russia or in exile who have outlined a vision of Russia’s future and have dedicated as many resources toward realizing this vision as has Khodorkovsky. He has suffered greatly at the hands of a regime he despises. He has undergone a traumatic transformation from living life at the height of luxury with little care for the rest of society to hanging on to life in the sordidness and terror of prison where all the perks he enjoyed for decades no longer existed. In prison, his privileged past was a target on his back in a place where survival depended not on who you were but on how adept you were at fitting in and adjusting to an alien and terrifying environment. The transformation Khodorkovsky experienced could only occur to a man who had lost everything but dared to rebuild himself into a better person, a person whom he could respect, regardless of how others viewed him.

This is the Khodorkovsky we now know. Some say his vision of a future Russia is naive and unachievable. Others say it reflects a profound understanding of both Russia’s past and the weaknesses of the authoritarian regime of Putin. Regardless of one’s assessment of the possibility of transforming Khodorkovsky’s vision into reality, there is little doubt that he has profound insights into the reality of today’s Russia. For this reason, I quote the essence of his analysis and prescription below.

Khodorkovsky28 begins with the premise that “all authoritarian regimes always come to an end because everyone commits critical errors.” In a democracy, errors can be corrected, and democracy can learn from these errors. In an authoritarian regime, “the result of a critical error is a change of government. Under authoritarian rule, it is the end of the regime as we know it.” If one accepts this premise, then there is hope that the authoritarian regime established by Putin will at some point come to an end.

Khodorkovsky, as well as many other critics of the Putin regime, argues:

Russia today finds itself at a crossroads. Society, the opposition, and even the authorities understand that the country cannot go on as it has, but no one understands what comes next. The regime does not have much time left—five, maybe 10 more years—but nobody knows how it will end.

“What is the Russia of my dreams?” Khodorkovsky asks.

It is a country with national interests that lie in a speedy integration into the world economic system with the opportunity to play a worthy role. It is a democratic state that observes the rule of law, firm in its civilizational unity at home, and based on the fundamental principle of freedom. It is…a nation of many cities that take power into their own hands.

What kind of democracy does Russia need? Khodorkovsky is not interested in building on the short democratic experiments of 1917 between the February and Bolshevik revolutions or of the 1990s. Instead, he proposes “building a solid democratic foundation for the first time in Russian history.” This new democratic foundation is based on what he calls a three-dimensional system: a “pyramid based on the key elements of strong local self-government; mega-cities as regional centers; and a strong central government. If one of these elements is not present, the entire system will invariably collapse, either into traditional authoritarianism or possibly the total disintegration of the state itself.” He sees local self-government, which has historical roots in Russia, asthe primary check against any backsliding of Russia towards the chasm of authoritarianism.”

Khodorkovsky believes in the decentralization of power and argues that “the development of federalism will supplement this as an additional driver of decentralization.” Moreover, he is convinced that “it is much easier to ensure public control over state structures if they are within walking distance. Russia’s citizens must learn to solve problems at the level at which they arise. No democracy anywhere in the world can exist without this basis.”

There is no doubt that civic activism on local issues is becoming more widespread in Russia. In some instances, particularly on environmental issues, local communities have been successful in their causes. But in many other cases, citizens have failed to achieve their objectives due to rampant corruption and the exercise of arbitrary power by the authorities. Khodorkovsky recognizes these problems and admits that change will not be coming soon. Most likely it will take several generations to build a new Russia. Khodorkovsky muses:

I do not exclude the possibility that the Russia of our children may be able to survive in something like its current form, lurching forward as a creaking, pseudo-imperial husk. But if we want to see a Russia for our grandchildren, then it is imperative that we build something else: a state founded on the wishes of its people to live together in a common cultural, linguistic, legal, and political space.

How does Russia achieve these goals? How does Russia “build something else?” Khodorkovsky’s answer is “by revolution.”

Revolution is not an alien concept for Russia. In fact, throughout Russian history, political change has been synonymous with revolution. Khodorkovsky is convinced that revolution in Russia is inevitable. “The regime is slipping deeper into repression,” Khodorkovsky argues, “driven by the desire to retain power at any cost. Having done much to turn the idea of revolution into a bogeyman, it is now reaping the backlash: many have begun to perceive a revolution as the most desirable outcome of the growing crisis.” He admits that revolution is a very heavy price for society to pay, but it will be inevitable if life under a regime becomes unbearable and refuses to change. For Khodorkovsky, “a revolution in Russia is only a question of where and when (and to a lesser degree, how).” He warns that revolutions should not be used as “instruments of settling scores and looting resources.” He cites the example of revolutions that have taken place in other countries of the former Soviet Union, which he acknowledges he admires but cautions that “one should not forget that their midterm results were far from the expectations of their inspirers and creators.” Therefore, he concludes that “the democratic movement must do everything possible so that the revolution does not become an end in itself.”

As a final plea, Khodorkovsky reminds the Russian people and all those who wish the best for the future of Russia that “it is impossible to stop despotism and violence with more despotism and violence. Nor should we lose sight of the main goal of revolution—to make society more humane, more tolerant, more free. It should be the work of all those who, having passed through the revolution, are morally cleansed and liberated—and such a revolution, despite all its costs, is beneficial to society.”


I began Part II of this essay with the proverbial question: What is to be done? It was a challenge made famous by Lenin over 100 years ago, but it could not be more relevant today. Russia again finds itself at a critical juncture as the era of Putin approaches its end. Russia must confront the challenge of finding a solution to the eternal quandary of how to manage succession when the current regime ends.

As we have seen in this essay, competing and conflicting forces are constantly in motion as they position themselves to maximize their power and influence in the impending struggle for succession. No one knows the outcome, but many are eager to offer their predictions, some of which I cited above.

If I were to venture my prediction, I would favor those who base their vision of a future Russia on its strengths, historical experiences, societal convictions and norms, and the essence of the so-called Russian soul, that is, a system of beliefs—both religious and secular—that distinguishes the Russian people from others. This leads me to the conclusion that whatever form a future Russia takes it will incorporate the best and the worst of what has been part of the traditional Russian heritage. In my view, this would favor a continuation of strong, centralized rule that would be more authoritarian than democratic. I recognize that Russia does have experience in the past with successful local self-government, but its last significant remnants were killed off many years ago. One could argue that these past experiences imply that institutions based on certain universally accepted principles of democracy are innate to Russia. Indeed, they may be. But when it comes to translating these principles into operating norms at the highest levels of government, Russia has consistently failed. Efforts to import Western democratic concepts and practices have been unsuccessful. From Catherine the Great’s flirtation with the ideas of Voltaire and other Western philosophers, to the programs of the so-called democratic revolutionaries at the end of the 19th century, to the abortive attempt to establish a democratic regime following the February 1917 revolution, to the hopeful days of the 1990s, Russia has seen one failure after another.

In retrospect, it has not necessarily been the concepts themselves that were rejected. Frequent polls show that Russians support the ideas of personal freedom and other basic democratic principles. Rather, it has been the implementation, or more correctly, the distorted implementation of elements of democracy by the authorities that has led to abuses and failures to bring a better life to the people. For the Russian leaders, it has always been about ensuring their power rather than caring for the wellbeing of the people. And the more power the authorities amass, the less they tend to the needs of society.

This has created a vicious circle over many centuries. The more power that is concentrated in the hands of a few, the more subjected the masses are to the arbitrary rule of an authoritarian regime. This continues until a breaking point is reached. That breaking point can manifest itself in a “palace intrigue,” at which time there is a change in leadership at the top (viz. the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964), or in full-scale revolution (viz. the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). Another breaking point may soon be approaching. But perhaps Putin will be able to postpone it and prolong the life of his regime for some years to come. This does not mean that Putin will necessarily be able to significantly alter the nature of the eventual succession process. The process will play out at the appropriate time, and the result, as Trenin predicts, “will be different from what it is now, but hardly too different,” and post-Putin Russia will be ruled “by a new monarchical president.”

I greatly admire the convictions of Khodorkovsky and Navalny, and I know they will continue to fight for a better future for the Russian people. But to succeed, society—at least a significant segment of society—must join the opposition in fighting the same fight, in taking the initiative to change their own lives and the lives of their neighbors. As Khodorkovsky stressed: “Russia’s citizens must learn to solve problems at the level at which they arise. No democracy anywhere in the world can exist without this basis.”

Unfortunately, Russia is not there yet. I hope someday it will be.

Washington, DC | January 2021

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  1. In addition to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union expanded its territorial claims in Asia. It captured four Japanese islands in the Kuril chain and refused to return them to Japan. It also invaded northwestern Iran during World War II and established the Azerbaijan People’s Government in the Azerbaijani part of Iran (the UK also temporarily occupied part of Iran during the war). After the war ended, the Soviet Union initially refused to withdraw its forces from Iran. Finally, in 1946, following intense diplomatic pressure from the United States and other countries at the United Nations, the Soviet Union agreed to leave Iran. Soviet forces also occupied Manchuria from 1945 to 1946 and North Korea from 1945 to 1948.
  2. Color revolutions is a term Moscow uses to identify revolutions in countries of the former Soviet Union that have sought to overthrown authoritarian regimes and introduce democratic reforms. Among such events are the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and the Velvet Revolution in Armenia 2018.
  3. The war in Donbas is far from being a “frozen conflict”—a conflict in which 14,000 people have been killed, including 298 innocent passengers and crew aboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 that was shot down on July 17, 2014, over separatist territory by a Russian missile. Ukrainian soldiers are still being killed almost on a daily basis. Civilian casualties continue to mount. We know less about casualties among Russians and separatists because information about them is not as readily available, but we can assume that they are also still suffering losses.
  4. This essay was written before the fraudulent presidential election on August 9, 2020, the subsequent demonstrations against the Lukashenko regime, and the violent crackdown on leaders of the opposition and peaceful demonstrators.
  5. On November 12, 2019, the pro-Western government of Maia Sandu collapsed after of vote of no-confidence in the Moldovan parliament initiated by the pro-Russian Socialist Party of President Dodon. This strengthened the hand of the pro-Russians forces in Moldova and was a positive development from Moscow’s perspective.
  6. This essay was written before the latest war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in autumn 2020 in which Azerbaijan was victorious and regained a large part of its lost territory. Russia also enhanced its position in the region by becoming the “peacekeeper” in the disputed territory and stationing its troops in the rump portion of Nagorno-Karabakh that still remains under Armenian control.
  7. Shock therapy is a strategy to switch over to a market economy as quickly as possible. The strategy relies on price liberalization, budget stabilization, ending subsidies, and privatizing industry
  8. In an effort to retaliate against sanctions imposed by the West, Russia enacted its own countersanctions, which amounted mainly to a ban on the importation of many Western food products. Although this did have an economic impact on certain European producers, the Russian people felt the countersanctions even more. Not only were they deprived of their favorite food items, but they had to witness absurd scenes of destruction of Western goods that remained in Russia after the imposition of the countersanctions or were smuggled into the country. Piles of quality products were bulldozed, set on fire or destroyed by other means. Although this may have instilled a certain degree of patriotism among a certain class of Russians, it evoked disgust, anger and frustration among many others.
  9. A “bright future,” or in Russian svetloye budushcheye, was a term used extensively by Soviet officials to rally the nation to the cause of communism and all the wonderful benefits awaiting the Soviet people. Over time, it became a term of derision among Soviet citizens and is still viewed that way today.
  10. By civil society, I mean a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. Civil society is traditionally comprised of groups or organizations working in the interest of the citizens but operating outside of the governmental and for-profit sectors. In this essay I will, at times, conflate the more limited concept of civil society with the population as a whole when there are clearly defined mutual interests. When those interests diverge, I will make the distinction.
  11. A similar view is shared by others in positions of authority in Russia today. In October 2014, Deputy Chief of Staff of Putin’s Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, told an international audience that “there is no Russia today if there is no Putin.”
  12. The impact of the coronavirus on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy will be the subject of a separate essay.
  13. The current population of the Russian Federation is 145,934,462, which includes the 1.967 million inhabitants of Crimea.
  14. There are more than 200 amendments to the Constitution, many of which are contradictory to the text of Constitution itself. Among them is a reference to a belief in God, although the Constitution of 1993 established Russia as a secular state. The Russian language is elevated to the language of “the state-forming people,” which contradicts the theoretical equality of the multiethnic population. In the social sphere, an amendment defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thereby constitutionally banning same-sex marriage.
  15. On the fifth anniversary of Nemtsov’s murder, Matthew Luxmoore of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published a conversation with a long-time compatriot of Nemstov about the formative years of Nemtsov’s political life as a liberal reformer in the Yeltsin government. In his report, Luxmoore revealed that this friend viewed Nemtsov’s murder “as the final death pang for a certain vision of Russia’s future, a project that was already foundering when Putin came to power. What was his mistake, the mistake of that generation? They were focused on economic problems, first and foremost,” he said of Nemtsov and the team of young reformers he was part of in the 1990s, “and independent courts, trade unions, honest policemen, the welfare state, free media, civil society—they would all arise of their own accord. There was no understanding that democracy is something that required constant effort,” he added. “That was our naivete.”
  16. The lack of fear on the part of protesters has manifested itself not only in their willingness to demonstrate, but also knowingly doing so despite the likelihood that they could be arrested and even beaten. In isolated incidents protesters have resorted to the ultimate action—willing to sacrifice their own life—to protest. In late 2019, a teenager blew himself up in the Arkhangelsk office of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in protest over the FBS fabricating cases and torturing people. Even this very sad event did not evoke the slightest sign of remorse on the part of the authorities. Instead, after a regional reporter spoke about this event in her weekly radio commentary, she was arrested, charged with “publicly inciting terrorism,” tried, and fined 500,000 rubles ($7,000). The prosecutors had asked that she be imprisoned for six years.
  17. Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist writing in The New Yorker on September 6, 2019, noted in the aftermath of the wave of protests the previous month that “Russia today has more political prisoners than at any point since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., in 1991, and, in fact, many more than it had when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided to release most of them, in 1987.” She predicts that “as long as the current regime exists, the number will grow, as will the length of prison sentences and the brutality of enforcers.”
  18. According to a survey of 1,623 respondents over the age of 18 conducted by the Levada Center and published on June 1, 2020, by Open Media, 27 percent of Russians consider mass protests possible at the present time, due to falling living standards. On the other hand, 61 percent of respondents believe such demonstrations are unlikely. Respondents were also asked if they were likely to participate in such protests, should they occur—28 percent responded positively, while 68 percent responded negatively. Open Media notes that these are the highest numbers seen in favor of protests in the past year and a half. But Gudkov, Director of the Levada Center cautions that “the population’s readiness for mass protest still has a declarative character…and is not a real outflow into the streets.” However, by the autumn he does not dismiss the possibility that “local outbursts in big cities are quite possible.”
  19. The United Russia Party is headed by former Prime Minister Medvedev. President Putin is not officially a member of United Russia, but the party is viewed as his party because it fully supports his policies and agenda.
  20. A poll conducted in mid-2019 on whether democracy is important for Russia, found that the majority of Russians believe that democracy is needed, but “a very special type that is in line with national traditions and specifics.” According to polling data, as reported by the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, “62 percent of those polled consider democracy to be needed, and 55 percent only recognize the need for it in a localized incarnation. Almost 4 percent of those polled are certain that the Western-type democracy will bring chaos and destruction to Russia.”
  21. I used the word “reign” to note the protracted nature of Putin’s rule and the similarity in the way he exercises or fails to exercise power with the rule of some of Russia’s most notorious emperors. I believe that one can draw comparisons with two very different Russian emperors: Nicholas I (1825–1855)—the reactionary and repressive autocrat who was nevertheless responsible for significant territorial expansion, economic growth, and industrial development; and Nicholas II (1894–1917)—the well-intentioned autocrat, who initially supported reform but in the end was unable to meet the challenges of the country.
  22. Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth called 1992 an annus horribilis because of three royal divorces, a devastating fire at Windsor Castle, and several scandals involving members of the royal family.
  23. A separate essay on Alexey Navalny appears in my essay series “Occasional Essays on Contemporary Russian Issues” and provides an update on events since this essay was written.
  24. This change to the constitution has also been codified into law by the Russian legislature.
  25. I used the word “reign” to note the protracted nature of Putin’s rule and the similarity in the way he exercises or fails to exercise power with the rule of some of Russia’s most notorious emperors. I believe that one can draw comparisons with two very different Russian emperors: Nicholas I (1825–1855)—the reactionary and repressive autocrat who was nevertheless responsible for significant territorial expansion, economic growth, and industrial development; and Nicholas II (1894–1917)—the well-intentioned autocrat, who initially supported reform but in the end was unable to meet the challenges of the country.
  26. We have seen President Lukashenko in Belarus take such action in response to the popular demonstrations against him and his regime.
  27. The “Time of Troubles” was a period of political crisis in Russia that followed the demise of the Rurik dynasty (1598) and ended with the establishment of the Romanov dynasty (1613).
  28. Khodorkovsky’s ideas and citations are taken from his recent work entitled Gardarika – The Land of Cities.


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