RUSSIA IS ON a roll. Under its unapologetically revisionist president, Vladimir Putin, the country has been notching up victories across the globe. Crimea, snatched from Ukraine six years ago, now looks securely Russian, along with its naval base in Sevastopol. Any prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia has been effectively blocked. Belarus could be next to fall under Moscow’s control, if that country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, yields to intensifying pressure to unite the two states. In the Middle East, Russia has rescued Syria’s President Assad, nudged Turkey away from its NATO allies by selling it advanced missiles, and warmed relations with the traditional US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Russian mercenaries are guarding dictators and diamond mines in Africa and assisting one side in Libya’s civil war. In the East, trade with China just hit a new high. And in the West, Putin’s adversaries are struggling to repulse an onslaught of hacking, fake news, and other covert interventions. It’s hard to say how much difference such measures made to recent political outcomes, but — from Washington, in the throes of impeachment, to London, embarking on Brexit — the disarray and confusion is striking. In the Kremlin, all this must seem cause for celebration.
Look a little closer, however, and almost all these apparent achievements start to seem less real. NATO’s eastward expansion flouted Russia’s interests, but Putin’s intervention in Ukraine has not stopped it. Montenegro joined the alliance in 2017, and North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are next in line. Ukraine and Georgia are unlikely to follow any time soon, but, in fact, that was also true before 2014. Although NATO leaders refused in 2008 to rule out membership for Ukraine and Georgia, they also agreed not to take practical steps toward this. Meanwhile, Putin’s Ukrainian intervention has triggered a major NATO buildup on Russia’s borders, with four new battalions assigned to the Baltic states and Poland, along with three US battalions rotating through. A NATO response force of 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons, and 30 warships is planned. NATO defense spending, which had been falling, rose by approximately $74 billion in the last five years.
Crimea is now a burden on the Russian taxpayer, absorbing $10.8 billion in budget subsidies since the invasion, as well as $3.7 billion to build a bridge to the Russian mainland. That is manageable. A bigger cost of Putin’s adventure is the apparently final loss of Ukraine, a formerly fraternal country of huge symbolic importance to Russians. It’s now hard to imagine Kyiv participating in any project led from Moscow. With just five of the 15 former Soviet republics agreeing to be in Putin’s “Eurasian Economic Union,” that body — for which Putin had high hopes — looks ever more blatantly a vehicle for Russian domination.
Putin’s successes in the Middle East are harder to deny. Still, Russia’s new centrality in Syria means the Kremlin must manage potentially explosive tensions between Turkey and Assad, Israel and Iran. What Moscow gains from destabilizing Libya and defending thuggish leaders in Africa is up for debate, but there is money to be made by the military entrepreneurs. Although trade with China is surging, it’s unclear how much Russia earns from this. In December 2019, the “Power of Siberia” pipeline came on line, connecting Yakutia to the Chinese border. Under a 30-year, $400-billion agreement, Russia pledged to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas a year. That’s a huge deal. But it bears recalling that Putin signed the papers in early 2014, amid the Crimea crisis, when his bargaining power was at a low point. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, he settled for an average price that was barely enough for Gazprom to break even. As one of the Russian negotiators put it, the Russian team was “squeezed like a lemon.” Xi Jinping, while calling Putin his “best friend,” will not bail him out; Chinese foreign direct investment in Russia has slowed to a trickle since Crimea. And as Xi’s grandiose “Belt and Road” project unfolds across Central Asia, points of friction between Moscow and Beijing are multiplying.
By any account, Russia’s central interest is in modernizing its economy and improving life for its citizens. Without cooperation from the West, it is hard to see how Russia can develop further into a knowledge economy, with internationally competitive, high value-added products to sell in place of oil and gas. But Putin, misreading Western intentions, has made such cooperation all but impossible. Convinced that US and European leaders are determined to overthrow him, he has responded with opportunistic military actions and covert measures to sow division and distrust in Western societies.
It’s true that — with one big exception — Western leaders dislike Putin’s prickly personality and authoritarian rule. Some have supported Russia’s liberal opposition with encouraging words and small grants for human rights and civil society programs. But none has made any serious effort to replace Putin in a “colored revolution” like the ones that swept Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. And even if they were so inclined, Putin’s best defense would have been to support economic development and effective administration at home, stealing the opposition’s agenda. Instead, Putin has sacrificed the country’s global prospects to take jabs at his perceived enemies. Even with a bizarrely pro-Kremlin president in the White House, US and EU sanctions against Russia continue to accumulate, so far cutting an estimated six percentage points off Russian GDP, according to Bloomberg. The number of companies and individuals under US sanctions increased from just a handful in 2013 to more than 700 in 2018. Foreign direct investment fell from $255 billion in the five years before Crimea (2009–’13) to $99 billion in the five years after it (2014–’18), according to Russia’s Central Bank. Over the last five years, the country’s GDP has grown less than one percent a year. Adjusted for inflation, wages have only just caught up with their level in 2013.
The long run dynamic looks even worse. As a share of world GDP, Russia peaked in the mid-1970s at about eight percent. Today that’s down to three percent. A country with some of the world’s leading physicists missed the train to the post-industrial world and remains hooked on hydrocarbons. A promising start in internet technologies fell victim to Putin’s security fixation; Kremlin pressure has driven entrepreneurs abroad or undermined trust in their products. The country’s satellite technology is impressive. However, spending on Russia’s space industry fell from $9.8 billion in 2013 to $4.2 billion in 2018, just 10 percent of the US level. The early Putin years saw dramatic modernization in Russia’s newly formed market economy and consumer society. But the commodity boom of the early 21st century ended with the global financial crisis in 2008. Since then, state intervention and predatory bureaucrats have slowed the pace of economic modernization, while political and social freedoms have been curbed by repressive laws and a campaign for Orthodox traditional values.
How to make sense of this contradictory picture? To Sergei Medvedev, a professor of political science and regular commentator in Russia’s shrinking liberal media, the regression of the last six years is particularly galling. Ever since the Soviet collapse, he argues, Russia had been slowly and painfully transforming itself into a modern, normal society. It was becoming a “grown-up country.” All this ended abruptly with Putin’s lurch into Ukraine. Medvedev’s compatriots were suddenly “torching all that was created over a quarter of a century of reform and change — bourgeois comfort and a fragile post-Soviet sense of well-being; openness to the outside world and a system of relations with the West — all for the sake of crazy geopolitical gestures done for effect.”
In a series of elegantly crafted essays, collected in The Return of the Russian Leviathan and translated by Stephen Dalziel, Medvedev struggles to explain this harsh turn. He sees Russia’s Crimean adventure as the outgrowth of a distorted political culture. In ordering covert troops into Ukraine’s southern peninsula, Putin was channeling a “post-imperial resentment” and “wounded pride” that run deep in Russia’s “collective unconscious.” Not so “grown-up” after all, the country turned out to be still nursing its anger at history, brooding over its humiliation. “In my Moscow childhood long ago,” Medvedev writes, “there was a map of the world hanging in the kitchen of our flat. It hung there partly to educate me, but partly to cover up the paint that was peeling off the walls.” Today, much as in the late Soviet period, Russians cling to geopolitical illusions to avoid having to look at the reality of seedy decline. Messianic visions paper over the state’s dwindling capacity.
The only cure for this syndrome of aggressive resentment, Medvedev believes, is a thorough reckoning with the past, in particular the bloody years under Stalin. Unlike Germany, Russia never underwent a process of collective remembering and repudiation of its totalitarian era. Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinization” was superficial, and although the state archives were opened in the 1990s, that phase ended quickly as the economic crisis discredited liberal politicians and thinkers. Since then, the country has been too divided to address the trauma and honor the dead. With a nod to the historian Alexander Etkind, Medvedev writes: “Putin’s regime, with its unprecedented popular support, is the consequence of unprocessed mourning.”
The Return of the Russian Leviathan is filled with striking images and metaphors for the corruption and decay that Medvedev sees in Russian public life. The main highway between Moscow and Estonia suddenly disappears 250 kilometers from the capital where the repair crew ran out of asphalt the previous fall. “The M9 highway is constantly being repaired,” he observes, “but it simply gets worse and worse.” He captures well the strange kind of Orthodox kitsch and reinvented tradition that Putin’s elite seems to relish — from the carnival Cossacks and patriotic bikers to the Russian government minister with a Rolls-Royce, Whitehall residence, and pampered corgis, who seems to be auditioning for a stand-in role at Buckingham Palace.
One recurrent theme, with implications beyond Russia, concerns the quest for absolute sovereignty. For Putin, sovereignty, in the sense of keeping the outside world at bay, has always been a priority. Yet there’s a paradox here. To defend its sovereignty, a state must have a strong economy. But economic strength today requires trade, foreign technology, and access to global financial and information flows — all of which create dependence on outsiders, compromising sovereignty. On the other hand, if countries isolate themselves, they stagnate economically, leaving them backward, vulnerable, and less able to defend their sovereignty. In fact, there is no option to avoid dependence on others, only a choice whether to make this a source of strength or of weakness.
In a similar way, the Kremlin’s embrace of intolerance is not just morally wrong, Medvedev argues, but also economically harmful. “In today’s world, all the major centres of creating value and meaning — New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona — are marked out by their multiculturalism […] broadmindedness, and acceptance of variety in ethnicity, race, religion and sexual orientation.” It’s no accident that Silicon Valley emerged in one of the most socially liberal corners of the globe. Free thinkers choose not to live behind cultural firewalls, in enclaves of homophobia or misogyny. “Closed systems are no longer capable of tackling complex problems. They will be affected even more strongly by global flows, but they will no longer be in a position to control them.” In a world economy based on information and innovation, the defiantly intolerant cannot win.
As a portrait of the cultural moment and debunking of the Kremlin’s talking points, the book is brilliant. As an explanation for why things changed in recent years, it leaves some open questions. Russia’s undigested past and geopolitical complexes certainly created the background for Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. But to see Putin as a projection of Russia’s “collective unconscious” underplays his personal agency, making his choices appear more inevitable than they were. In fact, Crimea took just about everyone by surprise — including Russia’s embittered nationalists. Had the crisis in Kyiv evolved differently, Russian troops would probably not have seized the peninsula setting off the cascade of subsequent events. Putin seems more often the manipulator of the zeitgeist than its puppet. The cheap jingoism and harsh traditionalism of recent years were deliberately stirred up by Kremlin operatives and loyal TV anchors. Russia was actually quite “grown-up” until Putin chose to plunge it back into a second childhood.
Another view of Putin is suggested by the investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan in their new work, The Compatriots. The book is not about Kremlin decision making per se — it is a fascinating account of Russia’s relations with its diaspora since 1917, weaving together stories of émigrés and spies, from Trotsky and his assassins to anti-Putin activists and billionaire oligarchs today. But here and elsewhere the authors’ detailed reporting and analysis cast light on Putin’s motives.
After Crimea, the most remarkable recent turning point was the Russian president’s decision to interfere in the 2016 US election by authorizing the transfer of hacked materials to WikiLeaks. Secret hacking for intelligence purposes was not new — many states engage in it. But releasing hacked materials to embarrass candidates in ongoing elections was a major escalation.
So why did Putin do this? Was it another manifestation of resentment against Western dominance, an effort to enhance Russia’s global position? In the 2017 edition of their previous book, The Red Web, Soldatov and Borogan traced out a different possibility. In a way, it too was all about sovereignty, but not that of Russia — rather, that of just Putin himself and his close circle of intimates.
Russian journalists know that, after Chechnya, the most dangerous topic to investigate is the president’s private life. Putin reacts with fury against invasions of what he considers to be his personal space. When a small Moscow newspaper reported on widespread rumors about Putin’s failing marriage and supposed affair with an Olympic gymnast, he exploded, denouncing journalists “with snotty noses and erotic fantasies.” The newspaper’s billionaire owner, Alexander Lebedev, quickly closed it down, but he was still raided by the FSB and forced to sell his businesses at a loss. To add humiliation, an occasion was found to sentence him to 150 hours of community service sweeping Moscow’s streets. When Soldatov interviewed Lebedev for The Compatriots, he seemed glad to have gotten off with just that. “I understand we came to terms,” he recounted. “Sit still and we leave you in peace. And I do.”
Soldatov and Borogan believe Putin authorized the leak of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton at a meeting of his Security Council in the Kremlin on April 8, 2016. This was right after several newspapers had published reports on the “Panama Papers,” a shocking exposé of how politicians, celebrities, and business people around the world were using offshore accounts in Panama to evade taxes and launder money. Among other discoveries, journalists had found multi-million-dollar accounts in the name of Sergei Roldugin, an old and close friend of Putin’s. A professional cellist, Roldugin could not provide any plausible explanation for his vast apparent wealth. Echoing a WikiLeaks tweet that claimed inaccurately that the “Panama Papers” had been funded by USAID, Putin accused the US government of releasing the information. Later — again inaccurately, and wildly so — he claimed that some of the revelations had been published in a newspaper owned by the investment bank Goldman Sachs. When WikiLeaks published materials hacked from John Podesta’s email account, these included transcripts of three paid speeches that Hillary Clinton had given at Goldman Sachs, which supposedly demonstrated her coziness with big business. The exposure of Roldugin, Soldatov explained in a recent interview with Foreign Policy, “made Putin very angry because his personal friend was attacked and his own wealth was targeted.”
To deter future attacks of this kind, according to Soldatov, Putin struck back with what he probably thought was a calibrated response. The intended message was that the Kremlin would use embarrassing exposures — so-called kompromat — to punish Western politicians or governments that embarrassed Putin or his friends. Did Putin anticipate that the WikiLeaks revelations would blow up relations with Washington to the extent that they did? Soldatov and Borogan suggest not. In The Compatriots, they write that “many in Moscow believed that the political hacking campaign was a low-risk operation — and that the Kremlin’s denial tactics would work forever.” Instead, they “got caught red-handed almost immediately.”
In this view, this high-stakes gamble was not about the country’s interests at all but reflected Putin’s anger at the violation of his personal privacy. It was supposed to be a targeted strike against Hillary Clinton herself. Of course, authorizing trolls to post fake news and stir up conflicts on social networks was another matter. That was plausibly intended to weaken the United States by spreading distrust and cynicism. But it seems doubtful that anyone in the Kremlin thought these efforts would have more than a marginal effect.
Just how bewildering many in the Russian elite found the twists and turns of the 2016 US election is suggested by a recently released compilation of articles from Russian media, Russians on Trump, edited by Laurence Bogoslaw. These show the Russian state media scrambling — like everyone else — to figure out what was happening and how to spin it. Going into November 2016, Russian state TV seemed to be expecting a Clinton victory and preparing to accuse the US authorities of electoral fraud, mirroring their criticisms of Russia. Pre-election coverage of Trump ranged from mildly positive to characterizations as a “boorish adventurist” and “swindler.” Reactions to the victory also varied. The news sent Alexander Prokhanov — a nationalist writer, the closest Russian equivalent to Steve Bannon — into ecstasies: “A giant explosion has shaken the world, setting all the continents atremble.” It was a triumph, he crowed, for the “America of settlers in cowboy hats, carrying the Bible in one hand and a Colt in the other.” Paradoxically, Trump’s election — against the wishes of almost the entire US political establishment — renewed some Russians’ faith in American democracy, which many had come to see as a “family business,” monopolized by Bushes and Clintons.
The sensitivity of Putin and his close associates to personal attacks — on their reputations, assets, or freedom to travel abroad — is suggested by the Kremlin’s furious response to the US Congress’s 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on those associated with human rights abuses in Russia. (It was later extended to have global application.) Putin slapped a cruel ban on adoptions of Russian children by American couples. As Soldatov and Borogan recount, two Russian citizens were important in lobbying the US Congress to sanction individual top members of the Putin regime. The first, Boris Nemtsov, a former minister in Yeltsin’s government and later an energetic leader of the opposition to Putin, was assassinated on a bridge right outside the Kremlin wall in February 2015. The second, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., a courageous journalist turned human rights activist and opposition organizer, continues to return to Russia regularly despite having been poisoned there twice with rare substances.
All three books suggest the difficulties Russian governments will continue to face as they seek both to use the outside world and to protect themselves from it. Are opposition activists more dangerous inside the country or in exile? Since 2012, Putin has preferred to drive opponents out. As a result, the best Russian-language website covering Russian news, Meduza, publishes from Latvia. Political opposition is represented by the exiled former billionaire and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London; former chess champion Garry Kasparov in New York; and Kara-Murza Jr. in Washington. And even as he inadvertently creates an unexpectedly influential community of independent Russians in the West, Putin has trouble keeping his friends with him at home. Despite periodic exhortations to repatriate their wealth and families, Russia’s political and business elites continue to educate their children in Britain, shop in Paris, vacation on the Riviera, attend the opera in Vienna, and buy apartments in New York and Miami. As Sergei Medvedev reminds us, sovereignty these days is full of holes. And Putin, notwithstanding his recent victories, must worry that his power is, slowly but surely, leaking through them.