Who is Mr Putin? That was the question on everyone’s lips 18 years ago when Vladimir Putin, then an obscure government official, was handed the keys to the Kremlin by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Against all expectations and with great political acumen, Putin used the vast powers of the Russian presidency to rapidly recentralise power and eventually to dominate the political system. In a few short years, everyone knew who Putin was, the undisputed top Russian leader with autocratic ambitions.
As Putin is set to begin another six-year term as Russian president, a new question has emerged: What does he want? As if to underscore that question for an American audience, in his recent annual address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian parliament, Putin boasted about Russia’s new “invincible” nuclear arms, capable of overcoming any anti-ballistic missile system the United States might field and delivering a devastating blow. Earlier, no one listened to Russia or treated it seriously; now they will, Putin declared. Left unanswered was what Russia wants.
In truth, Putin has long perplexed American leaders, since at least February 2007, when he issued a scathing denunciation of America’s alleged designs for global hegemony at a major international conference while the United States was still talking about partnership. Concerns about Putin’s ambitions abroad soared after he reclaimed the Russian presidency in 2012 and used military force to reassert Russian prerogatives in Europe (Ukraine) and the Middle East (Syria), while persistently questioning the legitimacy of the US-led global order.
As one level, the answer is simple. Putin wants Russia to be respected as the great power he believes it is. This is not new. That desire was clear in the programmatic document “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium” he released assuming the presidency for the first time. And it should not be surprising. Great-power status has stood at the centre of Russian national identity since at least the beginning of the 18th century when Peter the Great brought Russia into the European balance-of-power system. Putin is, if anything, seeped in Russian tradition.
Putin’s ambition manifests itself most vividly in Russia’s relations with the United States and China, the preeminent world power and the rising competitor for global leadership, that is, the two states that can do most to validate Russia as a great power. Gaining their respect is, however, a formidable task. While Russia may be America’s equal and outclasses China in nuclear arms, its economy is 14 and eight times smaller than the American and Chinese economies, respectively. The gap will almost certainly grow, as Russia lags far behind the United States in technological advancement while China is overtaking it. To hold its own in these circumstances, Russia needs to balance adeptly between the two larger powers. Ideally, Russia would succeed in recreating the triangular diplomacy of the Cold War, only this time with Russia serving as the pivot and the United States and China competing for its favour.
So far, Putin has seemingly solved half the puzzle by making considerable progress in developing positive relations with China. Building on the work of his immediate Soviet and Russian predecessors, Putin signed the Treaty for Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation with China in 2001. That same year, Russia and China founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to help manage their affairs, ward off common threats such as terrorism, and limit America’s presence in Central Asia. Trade relations and military cooperation have blossomed since, as has coordination in the UN Security Council to stymie unwanted American initiatives. Putin only accelerated efforts to give substance to this strategic partnership after the West, led by the United States, sought to isolate Russia diplomatically in punishment for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and fueling a separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Russia had alternatives to the West, Putin stressed.
Ties with the US
But Putin’s grand design also requires constructive relations with the United States to avoid excessive dependence on China. Here success has eluded him. Russia’s relations with the United States have been on a downward trajectory from the high point of 2001/2002, when the two countries billed themselves as allies in a global counterterrorist campaign. The US missile defence program and invasion of Iraq, the American-led expansion of NATO and growing American presence along Russia’s borders in the former Soviet states, Russia’s crackdown on domestic dissent and foreign influence, among other things, have all steadily undermined relations, with only a brief respite as President Barack Obama sought to “reset” relations 10 years ago. The eruption of the Ukraine crisis precipitated a near total breakdown in relations lasting until today.
Putin’s task – what he wants now – is to restore relations with the United States to fashion the urgently needed counterbalance to China. He would insist that he has been trying to do this for some time, to be sure, in a way that would take into account Russia’s interests and validate it as a great-power equal. In his world, a strange one for American leaders, his actions in Ukraine are an invitation to a broader discussion about European security and his operation in Syria, to one about counterterrorism in general and the future of the Middle East. Amid mounting accusations about Russian meddling in American elections and attempts to sow confusion in Western democracies, Putin has proposed talks on norms in cyberspace and what might be called a “non-interference pact” limiting each side’s meddling in the other’s domestic affairs. And his bluster about Russia’s new high-tech nuclear weaponry is intended as a call for talks on the requirements of strategic stability and the future of the American missile-defense system.
What has been missing from the American standpoint is any sign of flexibility on the Russian side, a sine qua non for good-faith negotiations. Reinforcing this disincentive is the pervasive view in the American political establishment that Russia, even if it has now been identified as a strategic adversary and revisionist power, is in secular decline: The nation cannot play much of a constructive role in global affairs, though it can continue for some time to play the role of spoiler. In this light, American leaders see little reason to restructure the international system to accommodate Russia; rather, the overwhelming inclination is to exert further pressure, primarily through sanctions, to bend Russia to America’s preferences and reinforce the US-led global order.
The American response leaves Putin in an unenviable bind. Normalising relations with the United States will require him to make serious concessions that risk creating the impression that relations are not of great-power equals. Yet, if he cannot persuade the United States to restore relations, Russia will be left alone facing a dynamic China that will ultimately at best treat Russia as a junior partner – Europe cannot substitute for the United States: It may be able to serve as a commercial counterbalance, but lacks the hard power to counterbalance China strategically. Either way, Russia will appear to be less of a great power than Putin claims it to be. And then the question will no longer be, what does Putin want? It will be replaced by one that is perhaps more riddle and more consequential: What does Putin do when he does not get what he wants?
Thomas Graham, a lecturer at Yale University, was the senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff 2004-2007.
This articlefirst appeared on YaleGlobal Online.