There’s endless talk about Russia in the US media lately, mostly wrong. I’d like to take the time here to lay out what I see as the true foreign policy objectives of the Putin regime.
This starts with the proposition that, TV punditry to the contrary, the Russian leadership today has no serious agenda of reestablishing a de facto Soviet empire, championing the social values of Russian Orthodoxy, or promoting the interests of ethnic Russian minorities in foreign countries. These are slogans Putin exploits from time to time, no more. Nor is the president of Russia a geopolitical strategist of near-superhuman prowess, focused on the “long game” of destabilizing the entire West. Of course if a Brexit or a Trump election, or worse, should fall into Putin’s lap he will be happy; but his core objectives, and those of his entourage, are simpler and more immediate, as I hope I can show.
Breaking a complex topic into bite-sized pieces (and referencing general English-language links where feasible), I’ll work my way through the following headings:
- Between China and Europe
- Repression to the south
- Untapped treasures to the north
- Corruption & the criminal state
- Internal fragility
- Impunity from external force
- No institutions for domestic opposition
- Fear of popular unrest
- Response to Ukrainian events
- The new nationalism after Crimea
- Small, successful wars
- The need for an enemy
- Involvement in Syria
- False-flags, conspiracies & front organizations
- Punching above one’s weight
- Projecting power
- Frozen conflicts
- “Destabilizing the West”
* * * * *
Between China and Europe. The map is a good place to start in understanding any country’s perspective on foreign affairs. In Russia’s case, this reveals an uncomfortable posture, squeezed between two neighboring giants.
To the immediate southeast is the overwhelming presence of China, with a population 10 times Russia’s and a surging economy making up 15% of world GDP, compared with Russia’s 1.9% (http://databank.worldbank.org/da…). China’s rapidly growing military power is getting very close to full parity with Russia’s as well (2017 World Military Powers).
To the west the situation is, if anything, worse: the European Union, with its even greater economic preponderance (22% of world GDP), exerts a constant gravitational effect on Russian capital flows and popular aspirations; and the European integration into NATO makes it a military behemoth too, with a combined defense budget approaching $1 trillion per year (15x more than Russia’s).
In recent times, Russia has occasionally tried to triangulate between these two superior forces. For instance, when Western sanctions were imposed after the annexation of Crimea, Russia announced that it was turning to China instead to fund its new pipelines; and these would carry Russian oil & gas eastward from now on, rather than to Europe. However, not much tends to come of such threats, because like it or not, practically all of Russia’s existing road, rail and pipeline infrastructure already aims west. Over time, new infrastructure may be built linking Russia more tightly with China, but redirecting the entire economy eastward is a prohibitively expensive long-term initiative at best. There are also deep-rooted suspicions between the two countries: many Russians believe China is eyeing the empty lands and untapped resources of Eastern Siberia for its own expanding population.
Brutal repression to the south. Russia is bounded along its lengthy southern borders mainly by the steppes of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, which buffer it to a degree from the Central Asian trouble zones of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, etc. Closer to home though, there is a burning anti-Russianism and radical Islamism in some of the mini-states of the Caucasus, mostly in connection with the Chechen Wars of 1994–96 and 1999–2009 (Second Chechen War – Wikipedia). As a result, states like Dagestan and Chechnya today harbor deep resentments that periodically burst forth in terror attacks reaching as far as Moscow itself. The response has been almost unthinkably brutal repression, including the extirpation of entire families. This is reinforced by a policy of gargantuan financial subsidies — with zero controls against embezzlement — for the local warlords who keep things in line (The Putin of Chechnya).
Untapped treasures to the north. And to the north is the vast Arctic. This region is a treasure trove of natural resources, while Russia’s traditional oil and gas fields in Western Siberia, once thought inexhaustible, are up to 80% depleted according to some studies and are clearly losing productivity. Other plentiful sources of new hydrocarbon wealth are available, such as Eastern Siberia, deeper drilling and shale; but all of these, like the inaccessible reserves of the Arctic, are technologically daunting and very costly to recover. Thus it would seem that Russia has a common interest with other countries, especially the West, that could help in developing some of these sorely needed resources. In fact the Russian regime has welcomed foreign support for such projects, but at the same time it has been very careful to keep control. Rather frequently, this ultimate control by local interests has led to Western shareholders being expropriated (here’s a short piece just to give you the flavor of such events — How BP got into another fine mess).
Corruption & the criminal state. We often hear terms like “kleptocracy” or “mafia state” with reference to Russia, but very few non-specialists could possibly imagine the scale of this. To put it succinctly, corruption, extortion and embezzlement are the rule in today’s Russia, not the exception, and they are practiced from the top-down, rather than being combated by forces of law and order. That’s why so many of the top Russian billionaires today are Putin’s childhood friends, former neighbors, KGB colleagues and judo buddies, although precisely none of them had a pot to pee in before he came to power. (How He and His Cronies Stole Russia.) When confronted, Russian leaders don’t even deny the ubiquitous corruption in their country anymore; they just argue that all countries are like that. Thus in its foreign relations Russia favors development of a quasi-criminal local oligarchy wherever possible, because those interests are the easiest for them to find common ground with.
Internal fragility. At the same time, what is sometimes not appreciated by foreign observers is Russia’s own internal fragility. Very little rail and road infrastructure ties together this huge land of 10 time zones; and what there is suffers from decades of neglect. Communications outside a few major cities tend to be poor; and everywhere beneath the surface is weakness. Factories throughout the hinterland have been abandoned, with their 1940s-era equipment left to rust. Housing stock is dilapidated; in the cities there are row upon row of decaying concrete-slab mid-rises that people somehow keep functional. In the countryside there are still villages without running water or indoor plumbing. And the political system that governs all this is a loose-knit neo-feudalism, with governors appointed by the central authority and then given wide rein to rule and/or plunder as they see fit. The key asset of any governor is his personally-loyal police force, corrupt to the bone and backed up — but at a great distance, and unreliably — by the iron fist of Moscow.
Impunity from external force. Despite such internal and external challenges, Russian leaders operate from a certain sense of invulnerability. First of all, this is due to the country’s sheer size. Russia crosses almost the entire Eurasian land mass and has been militarily unconquerable since the 13th century. Napoleon burned Moscow, and the Nazis stopped just outside it; but neither mattered in the long run, because the rest of Russia just kept going and going beyond any horizon. A second and more modern source of invulnerability is nuclear armament: Russia retains the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear missiles and other doomsday weapons. Thus the leadership that presides over this gigantic territory has a perhaps uniquely Russian feeling that it is eternal. No matter how much they steal, damage, destroy and pollute, ultimately there is no end to Russia, and there is no outside arbiter who can ever step in.
No domestic counterweight. After nearly two decades of Putin’s rule, there are also no domestic institutions that can challenge the current leadership. The law is an instrument rather than a regulator of politics; the judges in today’s Russia are appointed and subject to recall by the executive branch, so courts give the rulings that are “needed,” without much concern for justice or precedent. In addition, Russian elections have nearly always been rigged, and this has only worsened under the current regime. And the mass media as well, which were quite free under Boris Yeltsin, have been brought back under firm control by Putin. There are still some fearless bloggers on the internet, but television broadcasts a seductive mix of pro-government propaganda and flashy entertainment day and night. Thus the country’s leadership, aware that no established domestic institution can call them to account, governs for its own direct personal advantage — and does so with a quite unconcealed sense of impunity.
Fear of popular unrest. Yet in another sense the lack of peaceful, institutional channels for opposition just raises the stakes. It is not possible to understand Russia’s recent foreign policy without realizing how badly shaken the Putin regime was by public unrest during the crucial winter of 2011-12, when hundreds of thousands of people turned out in over 60 Russian cities, despite repressive measures, to protest the obviously falsified results of national parliamentary elections. Bear in mind, this was shortly after the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who had reigned unopposed for 40 years until he fell into the hands of a mob in October 2011 and was televised being beaten and ultimately sodomized to death with a knife — an event Putin has commented upon more than once. After that winter, while promising various political reforms, Putin tightened the screws of domestic repression mercilessly, pursuing a relentless, multi-pronged campaign to break the back of the protest movement.
To kick off the new policy, in the spring of 2012 he arranged for people who were obviously and demonstrably innocent of any crimes to be sent off for 15-year prison sentences, in response to their being merely present at a major political demonstration against the government (Bolotnaya Square case – Wikipedia). Thereafter, the opposition’s leaders have been harassed, imprisoned, assaulted on the streets, videotaped in compromising situations, even murdered, while their protest meetings have been forbidden, rescheduled, relocated, broken up and otherwise interfered with, their offices closed down and declared antithetical to the national interest, etc. It has now gotten to the point that even individuals standing alone on a sidewalk with a protest sign can be locked away for years (Freedom of assembly in Russia – Wikipedia).
Nevertheless, a pro-democratic undercurrent of popular sentiment remained strong, at least in Moscow and other major urban centers. Thus in the Moscow mayoral elections of September 2013, Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger, raised small private donations through his website and campaigned tirelessly on street corners against the government’s chosen candidate. Navalny obtained zero media coverage of any kind and was indeed hurriedly convicted of embezzlement during the campaign (in a case later overturned by the European Court of Human Rights). Nevertheless, he overcame every imaginable form of official harassment to win more than 27% of the official vote tally. For Putin, this was the bell tolling, a sign that his own days as president might be numbered.
Response to Ukrainian events. And this in turn helps us understand the Russian response to Ukrainian events just a few months later, in February 2014.
What happened in Kiev is that street protests, instead of retreating in the face of state violence, grew larger and more intense after police snipers killed a number of demonstrators in the central city square. The protests eventually culminated in Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovich fleeing the presidential palace in the dead of night, loaded down with gold bullion, to turn up eventually in an elite suburb of Moscow. For Putin these events contained the horror scenario of potentially striking a spark of rebellion across the border into Russia itself.
Fear of this spark of protest is probably the single greatest reason why Putin took immediate action after Yankovich’s fall from power. Although he scornfully denied it at first, he later admitted that incognito Russian forces had quickly advanced into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, deposing the local government and disarming local police and military units. This was then followed with similar interventions in towns and cities throughout eastern Ukraine. Putin’s regime clearly considered it a matter of life or death to prove to all and sundry that the “legitimate” Ukrainian president, a Putin ally, could not be toppled by street protesters without the whole country disintegrating into violent chaos.
Moreover, all the propaganda tools in the basket were then deployed, arguing to the domestic Russian public that those anti-Yanukovich protesters in Kiev had actually been neo-Nazis in the employ of the CIA, allied with fascist interests in the European Union. At the same time, the Russian propaganda machine insisted that the takeover of Crimea had been purely a local popular movement, not at all reliant on external military; and similarly it argued that the sudden armed insurgencies throughout Eastern Ukraine were also a true reflection of local people’s will. Many of the Eastern Ukrainian rebels were uniformed Russian soldiers, cossacks and Chechen “volunteers,” mysteriously led by known members of the Russian secret services. Moreover, they were heavily armed with tanks and rocket-launchers. But such contradictions of the official story were not viewed as problematic.
The new nationalism after Crimea. At that point, however, as on a few other fateful occasions in his life, Putin turned out to be very lucky. The Russian public “bought” his version of events. Unexpectedly perhaps even for Putin, the crisis revealed a powerful revanchist sentiment that had apparently been lurking among the Russian people, just waiting to be released. Suddenly millions of Russians found themselves overjoyed at their leader’s ability totriumph in a foreign adventure, to defy the overweening West, and to take back Crimean territory that in fact most Russians felt never should have been ceded to Ukraine in the first place (Russia formally transferred the province to Ukraine in 1954, but the whole exercise seemed a mere formality at the time, since all the parties were locked together anyway as parts of the USSR).
Thus Putin’s big gamble, though originally driven by little more than panic, turned out to be his biggest coup. Suddenly, his popularity soared. At that point, as any politician might, he played to his public. He assumed a pose as the champion of Russian nationalism, responsible for Russia “rising from its knees.” He made speeches of defiance toward the West and briefly flirted with the idea of a “Novo-Russia” extending deep into Ukraine. Also around this time Putin announced, in an ominous echo of Hitler’s nationalities policy, that Russia was entitled to be the ultimate defender of ethnic Russians everywhere, regardless of international borders. But even all this did not necessarily signify that he had been transformed into some sort of a modern-era Slavic avatar of Nazism, or that he was truly motivated by irredentism toward simultaneously all of Russia’s neighbors; it’s more that he lucked into a posture, just in the nick of time, that seemed to be working.
Small, successful wars. That said, it’s worth emphasizing that Putin’s Crimean and Ukrainian adventures didn’t happen just by accident. He had been the beneficiary of small, triumphant wars before.
He launched his first presidential campaign to the drum-beat of the second Chechen war in 1999, and already then he found that the national emergency brought him a surge of popular support. Later, as the Chechen campaign died down, replaced by a protracted guerrilla-style conflict after about 2002, the Putin regime began discovering numerous grievances against Poland. Polish participation in planning for the US missile shield system was viewed as a hostile military strategy, Polish support for the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in Kiev in 2004 was scathingly denounced, the election of the nationalist Lech Kaczynski as president in 2005 was seen as anti-Russian (Lech Kaczyński – Wikipedia), and so on. The tone of coverage in the Russian media became aggressive, there were military exercises, Polish agricultural goods were embargoed (on “hygiene” grounds)… but ultimately no real military solution was available.
Instead, an ancient Russian friend and ally, the tiny neighboring Republic of Georgia, was chosen for the next war. Perhaps the reason was that a new Georgian president (Mikheil Saakashvili) had overcome the Russian-favored candidate, taking office in 2004 on an anti-corruption platform. The new government was having surprising success in cleaning things up, and in the process it was reportedly stepping on the toes of Russian business and criminal interests.
Whatever the reason, following an anti-Georgian propaganda drive for a year or two throughout the Russian mass media, then an embargo of key Georgian exports (again, for reasons of “hygiene”), in 2008 a short war was fought, resulting in immediate Russian victory and a more-or-less permanent Russian military occupation of large portions of Georgia. Importantly, as in the previous case of Chechnya in 1999, the war in Georgia resulted in yet another quick spike in popularity for Vladimir Putin. He was thus not entirely unprepared for the outpouring of public support that greeted his military adventures in Ukraine in 2014.
The need for an enemy. Of course, specific enemies may fade from attention for a time. This happened, for instance, with Poland after the plane crash and death of the Polish president and his entire government entourage during a state visit to Russia in 2010 (2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash – Wikipedia). At the time, there were accusations of Russian foul play, widely believed in Poland itself; but such allegations were never proven. In any case, the topic of Polish perfidy disappeared from the Russian media for much of the rest of that year as a new Polish president was elected, took office and began appointing high-level government officials to replace the dozens of dead.
But while specific enemies may come and go, the overall sense under Putin today is one of Russia surrounded by a hostile world. And the most consistent enemy in the Putin rogue’s gallery – very importantly – is the United States. Barack Obama famously took office with an olive branch in hand toward Russia, under the announced policy of a “reset” in relations. The reset was needed because of course relations between Russia and the Bush Administration had deteriorated so drastically since the early days when George W. Bush had looked into Putin’s soul and had seen that he could be trusted (Slovenia Summit 2001 – Wikipedia). However, ultimately Obama’s “forgive and forget” approach made little difference. By the end of Obama’s second term, US-Russian relations had deteriorated again to their worst point since the days of Brezhnev. Today the Russian public are assured on a daily basis that the US — operating as puppet-master to NATO and the West as a whole — is leading a grand plan to destroy Russia. The reasons for the US’s implacable hatred are usually left mysterious, though sometimes traced to Russia’s liberating role in world history (Foundations of Geopolitics – Wikipedia). Putin and his surrogates frequently remind their public that standing up to the United States could result in nuclear war, and the Russian people are encouraged to fear for their lives. The general siege mentality, in turn, is used to justify worsening domestic repression.
Involvement in Syria. All this is entirely in keeping with the Russian intervention in Syria. Which, by the way, was initially going to be a very short-term affair. Just another opportunity for a foreign triumph. Thus less than six months after hostilities began, Putin announced (in mid-March 2016) that the Russian operation in Syria was over. Mission accomplished. The Russian forces were on their way home again, having achieved decisive victories against terrorism (Putin orders start of Russian military withdrawal from Syria, says ‘objectives achieved’). It’s possible that the quick announcement may have been related to casualties, since around that same time a flurry of reports began claiming that Russia was losing more men in Syria than it was admitting to. One military contractor, who later died in Syria himself, claimed that “out of every 100 people, 50 are coming back in caskets” (Russia underplayed losses in recapture of Syria’s Palmyra). In any case, not long after the “successful conclusion” of Russia’s intervention, the regime seems to have started thirsting for military triumphs once again. There was no formal announcement of any change in policy, but in late May Putin’s military leadership started boasting of renewed, nearly miraculous success in the region (Russia killed 28,000 militants in Syria, third of all ISIS forces – Russian deputy security chief), and from there the Syrian operation has just kept getting bigger and bigger, and more and more “successful.”
Deception. Since Russia today is a personal dictatorship, understanding its policies requires some understanding of its leader; and the most important attribute to understand about Vladimir Putin is that, as a man, the Russian dictator is extraordinarily deceitful. We like to say that all politicians lie, but when practiced to Putin’s degree it becomes a remarkable quality, able to keep others tactically or even strategically off balance. Thus Putin posed for years as a pro-Western reformer abroad and a democrat at home: the pretense was always disbelieved by some and became increasingly implausible to everyone, but it was still useful for quite a while, until enough power had been consolidated for the mask to be dropped. In the West many pundits have traced this profound dishonesty back to Putin’s training in the KGB; I personally feel it is due more to his broader biography, and to his own unique set of personal fears, hatreds, grudges and neuroses, but that distinction is perhaps not important. According to recent think-tank studies, Russia no longer even cares whether its lies are believed; often the point is just to overwhelm the international narrative through a proliferation of falsehoods. (http://www.rand.org/content/dam/…)
False flags, conspiracies and front organizations. Deception not only guides Russia’s own activities; Putin seems to assume it is the norm in world affairs. Thus he has always been firmly convinced that the CIA, pulling the puppet-strings of pro-democracy activists, somehow orchestrated all the so-called “color revolutions” in the former Soviet space, and that its hand also secretly guided the popular unrest of the “Arab Spring.” The CIA is generally believed to be behind all the proliferation of non-governmental bodies, charities, human-rights groups, relief organizations and especially political activist movements throughout the world. It is routinely accused of mounting false-flag operations to harm Russia’s and Putin’s own reputation.
Ironically, many believe that Putin in fact launched his own political fortunes using precisely this sort of false-flag operation. Back when he was still only prime minister (and former KGB director) of Russia, in 1999, he may well have orchestrated the night-time bombings of four Russian apartment buildings, with enormous loss of life, in order to cast the blame on Chechen separatists. Certainly the bombings enabled him to whip up a war hysteria against Chechnya that boosted his own popularity and helped him win the presidency for the first time. And note that this atrocity is not just some internet conspiracy theory or fringe-group accusation. As was reported throughout the Russian press at the time, three of the men who laid the bombs were caught in the act, arrested by local police, identified as KGB agents, and then let go upon instructions from higher authorities. The bomb materials were confiscated by the KGB, who later claimed that sandbags of white powder were just sugar, and that those agents who had been caught were merely testing local vigilance. (This was the only such vigilance test in the entire country.) Members of parliament demanded an inquiry into the matter, but it was quashed. People who investigated anyway were murdered (1999 Russian apartment bombings – Wikipedia).
But that is old history. Most recently, the Russian propaganda outlets are claiming that the Syrian gas attack on April 4th was faked by local emergency-relief volunteers, with the purpose of making the Assad regime look guilty. Allegedly, the volunteers killed children on live video for best effect. (White Helmets ‘Made Up Syria Gas Attack Story in Campaign for No-Fly Zone’). The sole source of this astonishing information is a KGB front that masquerades as a Swedish human-rights organization. In case you want to look into this a little further, here is the internet magazine of the Swedish group behind these reports: THE INDICTER. For my part, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sleazier operation in my life.
Under this persistent false-flag mythology, somehow people will go to staggering lengths to damage the reputations of Putin and his allies. I was once told outright by a Putin supporter that the Russian dictator’s arch-critic, Alexander Litvinenko, “probably committed suicide just to make it look like Putin had him killed.” It’s hard for anyone whose mind hasn’t been completely addled by propaganda to fathom such an argument. In any case, according to an official British judicial inquiry into the matter (Report), the fact is that Litvinenko — by the way, one of those claiming that Putin organized the 1999 bombings — was murdered in London by two KGB officers, probably at Putin’s behest. One of the agents was later given a medal by Putin and appointed to parliament.
But perhaps the most bald-faced lie ever told in the history of human propaganda was the Putin media claim in 2014 that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 — shot down over Ukraine with massive loss of life — was never a civilian flight at all. One of their stories is that it was actually an airliner full of pre-loaded corpses, rigged by the CIA to blow up over rebel territory in order to simulate an atrocity. And why? As yet another false-flag operation, staged to make Putin and his allies look bad. Because the obvious answer, later confirmed by a Dutch investigation (Flight MH17 Was Shot Down By Missile Moved From Russia, Investigators Say), couldn’t be true. Namely, that the airliner was destroyed by the pro-Russian activists who immediately claimed credit for it. Here is a great little summary, with substantiating links, of the blizzard of Russian lies and conspiracy theories that came out in connection with the Flight MH17 case: 10 Outrageous Ways Russian Media Covered The Crash Of MH17 – Listverse.
Punching above one’s weight. Russia’s leadership seeks always to play as large a role in world events as possible, seeking to profile itself as the great counterweight to the hegemonic ambitions of the United States. In a sense this is ridiculous, given the disparities involved, and it is not entirely clear to me why it matters to Putin quite as much as it does. It may primarily be a matter of image-building to bolster his domestic political legitimacy. In part it may be understandable as an urge to leave behind the national humiliations of the 1990s, when the Soviet empire collapsed and the crisis-ridden Russian successor state became an international charity case. It may simply be a matter of personal ego. As one of the world’s longest-serving national leaders, Putin has certainly accumulated vast experience compared with his peers in more democratic states; and it must be galling to be mostly disregarded, or even lectured on topics like human rights, by a collection of relative neophytes. Perhaps the key factor is Putin’s famous Napoleon complex, driving him to compensate for being under 5′7″ in height (Left a little short: Putin left red-faced as Kremlin photo gaffe exposes his small height). Presumably it is a combination of some or all of these; and perhaps most fundamentally of all, I suspect there is a deeply pragmatic strategy involved as well: an attempt to build a sufficient image of legitimate global statesmanship so as to allow Putin and his clique to be considered members of the global political elite, in the hope that this will help safeguard the vast wealth they have accumulated over the years, for the day when they may need to retire from office or indeed escape the country.
In any case, Russia treasures every opportunity to act the spoiler for US or UN efforts, or otherwise to remind the global powers of its own significance. A key tool for this is Russia’s nuclear-arms status and a gadfly sort of brinkmanship: an agenda of constant probing and minor military provocations that of course can’t be answered without a risk of escalation: border overflights, buzzing of warships, and the like. Another tool is Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council, which is trotted out as often as possible in interference with essentially any Western initiative. Western diplomats need to understand that the Russian veto is not being deployed to express policy preferences so much as general hostility and a striving for global attention.
Similarly, there was no policy reason for Vladimir Putin to unleash his black lab retriever around Angela Merkel in 2007, during her first state visit to Russia as German Chancellor. Putin denies today that he knew Merkel to be terrified of dogs at the time. However, it certainly seems like the kind of thing the highly professional Russian diplomatic services, which work hand-in-glove with Russian intelligence agencies, would have briefed him on, especially since her mild phobia was apparently well-known to other countries’ diplomatic corps (Vladimir Putin says he didn’t mean to scare Angela Merkel with his pet Labrador). This is especially true since Germany is a country Putin feels personally very connected to. He was based there for a time as a young KGB major and even speaks the language rather well (though with strange facial tics and an accent). Most likely, he was quite well-informed and simply used a known weakness of Merkel’s to establish himself on an equal footing with the leader of a powerful Western state. The fact that he denies it now means nothing to anyone familiar with his character.
Projecting power. In keeping with the fundamental goal of raising Russia’s profile in the world, Russia seeks wherever possible to hold onto its military presence in foreign lands or to establish new outposts exerting a military presence internationally. There are not many such facilities, but they are seen as vital.
- Thus Russian assistance to Assad in Syria was partly inspired by a strategic goal of holding onto the longstanding Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria; and more recently the Russian involvement has resulted in a permanent airbase in the country as well, in Khmeimim, near the city of Latakia (Russia’s Syrian Naval Base Offers it ‘More Formidable Position’ in Mediterranean).
- Reportedly there are Russian initiatives to establish military airbases in Cuba and potentially in Vietnam as well (Russia has its permanent air base in Syria. Now it’s looking at Cuba and Vietnam.).
- One of Russia’s major strategic aims in its 2014 takeover of Crimea was to make certain of the Black Sea naval base on Crimean territory in the city of Sevastopol. This has always been the primary base of the Russian southern fleet (Why Putin Took Crimea).
- In order to offset — or at least to signal anger over — NATO missile-shield installations in Romania and Poland, Russia has based new nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad. This is a Russian exclave located far beyond the Russian mainland, in between NATO members Poland and Lithuania (Russia Seen Moving New Missiles To Eastern Europe).
Frozen conflicts. One of the most important instances of Russian power being projected internationally is however very different from any of these cases. Namely, Russia has stationed occupying forces in several neighboring countries, in the so-called “frozen conflict” zones (Putin’s Frozen Conflicts). There are two such zones in Georgia, one in the country of Moldova (between Ukraine and Romania), and of course now there is one in Eastern Ukraine as well. These are all territories in which Russia has intervened militarily outside of its own borders, ostensibly to protect some ethnic minority. In all of them, the Russian military presence remains long-term and helps to support a local regime known for smuggling, corruption, a dismal human-rights record and a low standard of living. Several of these zones have declared themselves to be new nation-states, and they even recognize one another (as does Russia), but none of them has obtained UN recognition or widespread acceptance.
It is tempting, but would be inaccurate, to blame these frozen conflicts entirely on Vladimir Putin. Certainly the Putin government benefits from them, in that fortunes are being made through the almost inconceivable level of corruption that tends to reign in these lawless zones, as well as through their utter economic dependence upon Russia. However, the conflicts themselves generally (with the exception of eastern Ukraine) tend to predate Putin. Perhaps the most accurate way of looking at this is that the Soviet empire left a legacy of potential ethnic conflict around the edges of Russia, and as the USSR disintegrated some of these conflicts were bound to flare up. Today they offer Putin an opportunity to hold some of Russia’s neighbors in thrall, keep them in the Russian orbit, keep them weak, and preclude their membership in NATO or the EU, as well as interfering with political and economic reform efforts in the Russian neighborhood.
“Destabilizing the West.” Clearly I can’t end a discussion of Russian foreign policy without addressing Russia’s so-called “active measures” of disinformation and hacking against Western electoral campaigns. These interventions are not an isolated event. They are part of a spectrum of measures that include the establishment of pro-Russian media outlets like RT and Sputnik to masquerade as normal news agencies in the West. Similarly, there is no distinction in principle between such propaganda efforts and the massive storms of pro-Russian comments in Western social media and news media, organized with the help of so-called “troll factories” in Russia (Salutin’ Putin: inside a Russian troll house). Furthermore, all these information policies and cyber-measures are closely related to the campaign contributions Russia has been making for years now to politicians and political parties throughout the West (The Russian Plot against Europe).
Some foreign-policy analysts argue that these initiatives are part of a grand Russian strategy designed to lead eventually to a breakup of the EU and NATO and to undermine Western democracy. That is possible, but I personally do not believe it. Rather, it seems more likely that all of these measures were conceived much more simply and modestly, as just a means of buying some allies, raising Russia’s profile, and if possible discomfiting some of Putin’s foes when they came up for re-election. After the tremendous success (or so they will interpret it) of Russian intervention in the 2016 US election, these original goals may be upgraded. They certainly won’t be downgraded. But in their origin I think they were never that ambitious. Putin was probably more surprised than anyone else in the world when Donald Trump became the 45th US president.
Conclusion. Looking back over what I’ve written here, an objection could be that it’s all just descriptive rather than revealing any true principles of behavior. But the problem with looking for deeper principles is that Vladimir Putin and his associates are cynics and opportunists. Any principles they may espouse from time to time, like adherence to Russian Orthodoxy as a religion, are smokescreen.
The fundamental fact of life for these people is that they have managed to amass incredible power and wealth. Now they want to hang onto it. And of course they want to pass as much of it as possible on to their heirs (Putin’s daughter, a young billionaire and the president’s friends). Directly related to this, their great fear is that the Russian people might still manage to take back control over the country and its crippled institutions, kick them out of office, potentially subject them to legal review of their actions, and gradually find the way to a system of law, civilization and the community of nations.
That is why the Putin clique are so afraid of domestic dissidents and political leaders like Boris Nemtsov (murdered) and Alexei Navalny (assaulted just last week, possibly blinded in one eye). People like these are potentially the undoing of all their “achievements.”
And yet the ruling clique has such an alluring dream, and it’s so close to being realized. They dream of a state of affairs in which they are free to travel about the world flaunting their success, becoming accepted among what they see as the world elite. They dream of enjoying their billions as part of a global oligopoly of wealth and privilege, regardless of what happens to Russia and the Russians: and that is the only bedrock principle that I can think of that motivates them.