The Last Days of Putin

Putin is not Russia; the U.S. must seek to capitalized on future opportunities with a Russia beyond Putin’s reign.

Approximate Reading Time: 23 minutes

By Michael Povilus

Lately, Russia seems to be everywhere in the news, on social media and in our politics. With American society fixated on Russia for the foreseeable future, it seems appropriate to renew the debate about U.S. policy towards Moscow. Indeed, earlier this month Air University hosted a panel of experts at Maxwell Air Force Base to discuss growing concerns about Russia’s increasing anti-West hostility. Similarly, at Columbia University the renowned scholar Stephen Cohen debated former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul with a provocative theme: “The New U.S.-Russia Cold War: Who is to Blame?” Any useful reassessment of U.S.-Russia relations, according to Cohen, requires a commitment to verified facts. This would seem like an unnecessary caveat for serious scholars if not for the toxic state of our domestic politics, especially concerning alleged Trump-Putin collusion.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently remarked, “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on truth, even on what seems the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America.” In this light, the goal of this article is to generate a conversation about U.S.-Russia relations in order to flush out meaningful content and spawn useful critiques. This article consists of three parts, beginning with problems and concluding with ideas about solutions. First, I contend the on-going debate about U.S. policy towards Russia can benefit from revisiting some key facts, values and assumptions. In this context, I view Russia as neither entirely revanchist nor an imminent threat. Next, I claim Putin’s regime is primarily focused on domestic stability—preventing insurrection, containing rivals and maintaining borders. Finally, I argue that the missed geopolitical opportunities after Stalin’s death may hold lessons relevant to future U.S.-Russia relations once Vladimir Putin’s time at the helm comes to an end.

Revisiting Some Facts, Values & Assumptions
West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt supposedly characterized the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with missiles.” Similarly, Google co-founder Sergey Brin reportedly jeered his birth nation with the label “Nigeria with snow.” Whether or not the attribution is true, both phrases see regular revivals because the point they convey remains salient: Russia’s desire for world influence often outsizes its state capabilities—except they have nukes. Upon scrutiny, Nigeria might not be a good comparison, yet Russia certainly has meaningful peers. The World Bank’s most recent GDP data places Russia in position 12, right between South Korea (11) and Spain (13).

Although simplistic, this economic comparison is illustrative because few would expect that South Korea or Spain could sustain their economies against the financial and political burdens of annexing a neighbor’s territory by force. Based on Russia’s rentier economy alone, we could reasonably expect the Kremlin to act as a market balancer, moving back and forth between Europe and Asia in search of the most favorable terms for selling energy exports. Securing the best deal may at times include threats and punishment, but playing hardball carries long-term risks for a state that must find buyers for its oil and gas in order to survive. Based on economic realities, I contend President Putin is increasingly stuck like the king’s men after Humpty Dumpty’s great fall: The Kremlin cannot feasibly gobble up the former Soviet republics and reassemble them into a single, harmonious state. More importantly, some of the pieces want to be left alone, especially those now in NATO.

It was this contentious point about NATO expansion that professor Cohen and Ambassador McFaul most strongly disagreed on during their debate at Columbia. In short, Cohen laments the alliance’s expansion. Ultimately, he believes, expansion increased the risk of war by allowing in new members with dangerous Article V concerns vis-à-vis Russia. As such, NATO ought to be more selective about who can join, especially after Gorbachev and Yeltsin received assurances that the alliance would not push beyond East Germany. McFaul, in contrast, approves of NATO’s expansion. He maintains that democratic nations ought to freely associate as they see fit. The Ambassador acknowledges the agreement struck with Gorbachev, however, that deal was made with a Soviet authority that no longer exists. Regarding claims that President Yeltsin received additional assurances that NATO would not expand eastward, McFaul observes that if such a consequential agreement had been struck, it would be codified and signed. Yet no such document exists.

I agree with Cohen’s assertion that America shares much of the blame for the dismal state of U.S.-Russia relations. However, Ambassador McFaul’s stance best captures America’s commitment to a more democratic and free world. The West caved to Stalin’s demands after WWII and consequently millions of people became stuck behind the Iron Curtain for half a century. Of course, Russia poses a serious threat to our alliance and we should therefore act with prudence and caution. Henry Kissinger’s axiom comes to mind: great powers don’t commit suicide for an ally. Nevertheless, America should not abandon other democracies simply because a threatening authoritarian regime disapproves. Yet, if this is true, Turkey’s membership in NATO should at least give us pause, particularly considering the large-scale purges that followed the 2016 failed coup. Maybe the biggest threat to our alliance is not Russia, but rather an internal collapse of shared values.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election offers another instructive case for reviewing facts and assumption about U.S.-Russia relations. Bottom line, did Russians meddle in our democratic election? Yes, for sure there was interference. We might also ask what this interference writ-large actually means in terms of the election’s outcome or what it tells us about Russian state intentions? Acclaimed author and staunch Putin critic, Masha Gessen, argues that the actual cyber meddling related to the election was less coordinated than is often reported in the media and relatively inconsequential in terms of swaying votes. In the big picture, Russian trolls and bots are simply a small drop in the bucket.

During an interview on PBS, Gessen also noted Russia’s history of interfering in democratic elections and then quipped about a better question: why wouldn’t Russians meddle in American elections? Indeed, not only has the Russia government meddled in a fair amount of elections, so have we. The fledgling Central Intelligence Agency famously swung Italian elections in 1948 with bags of cash, and ever since has continued to systematically hone this craft. Even before all this, president Woodrow Wilson sent troops to Northern Russia and Siberia in 1918 following the Bolshevik Revolution, an overt intervention that hampered U.S.-Soviet relations for several decades. Reciprocal interference has continued ever since, in varying forms and intensity.

Regrettably, the context of this back-and-forth tension between Moscow and Washington seems to be a mostly forgotten chapter in U.S. history. This comes at a time when some American values are seemingly on the wane, including transparency of government, due process and the assumption of innocence. As a result, there are at least five problems with the way our society—government, media, and academia—currently discusses election “hacking.” First, a lack of scrutiny leaves the term hacking vague and confusing. The concept imparts more political innuendo than meaningful substance (the same can be said about the term meddling). Second, much of the hacking-related debate rests on unsubstantiated assumptions or unconfirmed data. Over time, ambiguous allegations of meddling have become conflated with the idea that Trump’s electoral win was exogenously manipulated.

Next, claims that Russians, whether state sponsored or acting independently, aspired to outright alter our electoral outcome seem unrealistic. A safer bet suggests the Kremlin and its sympathizers simply desire to make democracy look like a mess whenever possible and regardless of the outcome. On this account, America swallowed hook, line and sinker. A fourth problem with the hacking debate is the shameful leaks from sources inside the U.S. government. Politically motivated leakers, as opposed to legally legitimate whistle blowers, lend false credibility to the more polemic claims about Russian hacking. Finally, and most concerning, the politicization of Trump’s alleged collusion handcuffs the president from improving relations with Putin because any attempt to do so may now be interpreted as evidence of quid pro quo. We therefore need more patience, verified facts and a broader timeline for making sense of what transpired during the 2016 election.

The aforementioned call for increased objectivity in no way absolves the Russian government of its role in a series of increasingly aggressive acts. Indeed, Russia should be sanctioned for invading Georgia and Ukraine, annexing Crimea, conducting cyber attacks against Estonia and enabling Syria’s Assad regime to conduct chemical attacks against civilians. However, this does not remove America’s responsibility to actively engage with Russia and other powers to ensure a continued nuclear peace. Such is the responsibility of bringing the world into the atomic age. In order to move forward and possibly repair relations with Russia, should favorable circumstances arise, we might do well to reevaluate our assessment of what motivates the Kremlin. Often, the U.S. government seems to play a guessing game with assumptions about Russia’s national interests, especially as they relate to aspirations for military conquest.

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Domestic Agenda: Safeguard Borders, Prevent Insurrection & Contain Rivals
In general, popular guesses about Russian national interests can be binned into three broad categories: a revanchist Russia that desires a return to great power status, a defensive Russia that feels provoked by an expanding NATO, and a weak but opportunistic Russian government that makes it up as it goes. All three bins are likely correct to a certain degree. Yet, I tend to favor the salience of an opportunistic Russian regime.  More specifically, I see a Russian regime with significant domestic threats that outweigh dangers from abroad. In other words, the Kremlin’s foreign policy can be better explained in terms of its domestic agenda than vice versa. More specifically, Russian foreign policy extends from domestic priorities focused on three aspects of regime survival: safeguarding borders, preventing insurrection and containing rivals. Due to scope limits, I highlight only a few aspects in each regime survival task.

I contend that Russia’s military adventures abroad primarily serve the domestic agenda of safeguarding borders. For this article, safeguarding borders refers to four general tasks: maintaining juridical authority throughout the entire territory; preventing unauthorized incursions into sovereign territory; ensuring economic lines of communication; and maintaining an ability to project military power beyond sovereign borders. Regarding the latter task of power projection, I argue it would be useful to first clarify what exactly the term “hybrid warfare” adds to the conversation about Russia. If unable to do so, however, we should discard it in order to avoid confusion and ambiguity.

Although hybrid warfare has become a catchall phrase associated with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, there seems to be little consensus on what hybrid warfare actually means. Most definitions of hybrid warfare add nothing new to military strategy when juxtaposed with similar notions: irregular warfare, asymmetrical warfare, non-linear warfare, unconventional warfare and so on. Hybrid warfare essentially describes the full spectrum of warfare combinations based on resources—military, political, economic, etc.—available to a state or non-state actor at a given moment. In this light, all wars are hybrid.

In practice, the rub with the term hybrid warfare is twofold. First, hybrid warfare describes means not ends. Yet hybrid warfare is often conveyed as a Russian strategy, and in such cases we risk missing the forest for the trees. Second, hybrid warfare can materialize in many unanticipated ways given an intelligent, adaptive adversary. This uncertainty can mask individual events, such as a commercial cyber crime or an act of industrial sabotage, making each appear as unrelated one-offs when in fact they connect synergistically to other actions within a larger strategic context. In other words, working top-down from an adversary’s national strategy or desired endgame can help identify and connect hybrid warfare events, but not the other way around. Put differently, the hybrid mix of tactics used in Crimea likely remains a poor predictor for future Russian actions outside of Ukraine. Therein lies the limited utility of the hybrid concept. Perhaps, the staying power for the hybrid warfare concept rests not in utility but ambiguity. In terms of coherence bias, ambiguity makes it easier for a negative label to stick to something we do not like but do not fully understand. Unsurprisingly, Russian military experts shun the concept, and so should we.

How might we perceive Russia’s recent military aggressions, particularly the annexation of Crimea in terms of Russian national interests: revanchist, defensive or opportunistic? If looking to the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine, a reference to the general’s January 2013 speech and subsequent journal article, the likely answer favors opportunism. Gerasimov’s speech signaled three pressing concerns about domestic threats. First, military power is losing relevant utility, giving way to non-military sources of power such as information warfare waged across the global media. Second, this change became evident during the Arab Spring revolutions. This form of people power directly threatens the Russian regime. Here Gerasimov appears to use Arab Spring as code for the “color revolutions” that occurred much closer to home, both literally and figuratively, in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005).

Lastly, Gerasimov’s call for a renewed focus on science-based innovation concedes that Russia’s current military-industrial thinking lags behind emerging threats. Throughout the piece, Gerasimov assumes that unnamed foreign powers underwrite civil unrest. This predictable claim about external threats, however, reads more like ideological filler. In this context, Gerasimov’s speech essentially describes a domestic threat based on people power enabled by ubiquitous commercial technology. The Russian military still considers NATO a threat, and may even call America the main enemy, but the most dangerous threat to Putin’s regime lies within Russia.

I argue that Russia’s opportunistic annexation of Crimea also falls into the realm of safeguarding borders. Like Russia, Kiev has for years faced the same internal threats of revolution and secession. Russia probably laid its plans by 2008, when Ukrainian President Yushchenko threatened to terminate Moscow’s basing rights in Crimea upon the lease’s initial 2017 expiration. In practice, the Russian government always saw Crimea as its rightful territory, a bulwark into the Black Sea. In 1993, the Russian parliament even declared Sevastopol a Russian city. But Moscow was never sure exactly what legal framework would guarantee Crimea as de facto Russian. Euromaidan’s 2014 ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych presented an opportunity for the Kremlin to finally resolve the matter and capture the Black Sea Fleet’s port in Sevastopol, its associated facilities and control the peninsula’s energy potential off the coast.

Despite Moscow’s anti-NATO and populist narratives, the annexation of Crimea can be seen as a case of exploiting ground conditions unique to Crimea. Russian military pundit, Ruslan Pukhov, argues that the smooth fait accompli was made possible only because Moscow enjoyed overwhelming support from the local populace. While many Crimean Tatars and other locals were in fact pro-Kiev or at least anti-annexation, their numbers were small compared to the vast majority who peacefully accepted Russian control. In contrast, one can argue that such acquiescence comes only with a gun to the head. For sure, local mayors and other officials were strong-armed or replaced by Russian special operatives to ensure compliance. Yet, an estimated 90% of Ukraine’s military personnel stationed on the peninsula chose to switch allegiance and remain inside Crimea even after the annexation.

The Kremlin’s success in Crimea also built upon broad domestic approval inside Russia. Public support hinged upon a narrative pushing Crimea as a legitimate exception to the post-WW2 norm against conquest. A case was made that Crimea’s identity is historically Russian and separate from the Ukrainian mainland. In addition, the legality of Crimea’s transfer from the Russian SSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 came into question. The peninsula’s annexation was therefore framed inside Russia as “the reunification of Crimea with Russia.” The Russian government also leveraged the “Kosovo precedent” as further justification for this exception. When combined, these elements (strong domestic support, near-total support in target territory, historical claims to sovereignty, shared ethnicity and culture) are not found elsewhere in the former Soviet space.

Put another way, the low hanging fruit in Russia’s near abroad is gone. Any further aggression against neighboring states would likely require a much larger operation and incur outsized costs in terms of human, financial or political capital. Even in the mostly pro-Russian parts of East Ukraine, Moscow faces stiff resistance in what has devolved into a frozen conflict. Recently, the Kremlin has seen waning public approval of its support to rebels in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine even tiny Moldova going down without enough of a fight to spark outrage among a Russian public that intermittently shows a willing to protest against Putin.

Since the 2011 anti-government protests in Moscow, many of the Kremlin’s actions also stem from the need to prevent insurrection.  Most notably, President Putin took away the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ approximately 370,000 national guard and anti-terrorist troops and turned them into an independent fighting force, the Rosguards. Under this new look, the Rosguards report directly to the president.  On the one hand, this move looks to streamline internal security and remove bureaucratic inefficiencies. But on the other hand, it suggests major concerns about domestic security and protecting against civil unrest. General Yury Baluevsky recently penned an article in which he affirms that the Rosguard’s new mandate and structure is intended to guard against internal destabilization such as what stirred up in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. Academic and Russia watcher Piotr Zochowski argues the creation of the Rosguards demonstrates Putin’s continued commitment to keeping power rested in a few trusted hands and the readiness to use force against the Russian public.

Regarding the powerful elites, few have garnered more trust from Putin than Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Because Kadyrov keeps the peace in Chechnya, home of two bloody wars for secession, the Kremlin turns a blind eye to the strongman’s ruthless methods. He employs his own military force with thousands of hardened soldiers, of which many have seen action in Ukraine and Syria. Mostly, the Kadyrovtsy, as they are called, engage in domestic security and other efforts aimed at social and political control. Indeed, Chechen involvement in Syria—on both sides of the fight—illustrates how Russian domestic security needs drive foreign policy. Simply put, a few thousand Islamic extremist fighters have made their way from Russia to Syria and the Kremlin would prefer these “bandits” are killed in the Middle East rather than have to fight them at home.

Islamic extremism and migration patterns, more than raw population growth, characterizes Russia’s security concerns about the changing demographics of the nation. Often, analysts portray Russia’s dismal demographic forecast—population decline, low life expectancy, rampant drug use, etc—as reason to write off the Kremlin’s staying power for military adventurism. Some argue Russia has only a few years to be aggressive and make geopolitical gains, like Crimea, before demographic realities set in and military conscription numbers become impossible to maintain. Yet to me, such arguments seem too deterministic and somewhat akin to the doomsday predictions that were made about global starvation before science spawned the Green Revolution in agriculture.

Moscow’s primary means of countering its declining population has been to welcome immigrants. Immediately following the USSR’s collapse, most of the immigrants were ethnic Russians returning to the motherland. Now, a second wave of migrant workers—millions of them—head to Russia from Central Asia. Most of these workers are Muslims and Moscow watches them suspiciously. These migration patterns, perhaps better than anything else, explain Moscow’s preoccupation with maintaining influence and leverage in its near abroad. Ironically, with the ongoing brain drain in the Baltics, parts of NATO may actually experience demographic-related problems more acute than Russia. Instead of trying to annex part of the Baltics in order to break NATO, Putin will likely get more bang for the buck by encouraging a disruptive pattern of migration into the Baltics while simultaneously steering it clear of Russia.

Putin’s third domestic concern, containing rivals, also takes on an international character. In particular, Putin’s Russia utilizes mass media propaganda to keep the opposition down. Putin’s liquidation of the independent mass media, however, is not only about brainwashing. Controlling the mass media narrative may be less about presidential approval ratings than it is about denying media moguls a backdoor to politics. Most Russians genuinely approve of Putin. They also approved of him before media conglomerates lost their independence. Just prior to assuming the role as Prime Minister in 1999, two media moguls, Boris Berezosvky and Vladimir Guzinsky, used their empires to effectively sideline an ailing President Yeltsin and wage a hotly contested foray into politics. Berezovsky is often credited as the king-maker who backed Putin. After receiving bad press following the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, however, Putin threatened media tycoons with the strong arm of the law. Ever since, he has dismantled the media empires and neutralized the moguls. Perhaps, Russian cyber intrusions and interference in the global media is an extension of this same process: deny domestic opposition the power of the media.

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Sunrise at the Bronze Horseman

The Russian political opposition remains frustrated with America’s infatuation with election hacking because for them it falsely credits Putin as a geopolitical master. Putin is not Russia, but he sure wants Russians to believe his interests are theirs too. When he comes across as successful, this task becomes much easier. In a recent interview, twice-poisoned Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza expressed frustration about the West’s conflation of Russia with Putin. Kara-Murza has also explained what Russia needs from the West:

 “We are not asking for your help. It is our task. It is our job to change Russia. To bring the rule of law and democracy back to Russia, and we will do it. The only thing we are asking Western leaders, Western Foreign ministers, is to stop helping Mr. Putin, first of all by treating him as a respectable partner on the world stage, and secondly, most importantly, by not allowing his cronies to use Western countries, including the UK, perhaps primarily the UK as havens for the wealth they have looted from the Russian people.”

Whether or not Kara-Murza is right, we can be certain that Putin will not lead Russia forever. A new Russian leader will eventually emerge, as will new opportunities to improve U.S.-Russia relations. The 1990s turned out badly for Russia, and Obama’s reset failed. Both nations share the blame. Anchoring our debates around these failures may not be the best line of thinking for rapprochement. Stalin’s death is perhaps a better example of missed opportunities, considering our rock bottom relations, a looming arms race, and what appears to be a new Cold War. Joshua Rubenstein’s The Last Days of Stalin portrays a series of missed opportunities by both sides after the Soviet ruler unexpectedly died. I believe there are four key takeaways.

When Stalin died the entire political landscape changed, but as Rubenstein details, then Secretary of State Foster Dulles continued to stymie conciliation efforts as if nothing had changed. So, we must ask ourselves, if Putin is not Russia, what is Russia? There are different units of analysis for viewing power and agency in Russia: the people as a country, the Russian government, President Putin and so on. Just as in the U.S., Russia’s interagency competes for influence and power. The Russian people hold a diverse range of opinions and ideas. What matters is identifying the institutions, organizations and trends that shape the Russian government’s relations with the U.S. These observations will continue to change over time, but a deeper, more intimate commitment to understanding how the layers of power in Russia intertwine may be required at the most unexpended moment. To this end, the U.S. needs to sustain a robust team of Russia area experts across the federal government, including more Joint Foreign Area Officers.

Following Stalin’s death, U.S. advisors were unable to craft a speech or recommend a course of action for President Eisenhower. An entire month lapsed before Eisenhower gave a speech to address Stalin’s death.  Meanwhile, the Soviet’s quickly engaged in a “peace offensive” that Rubenstein argues took the initiative and set the tone for a possible summit. Yet, the American side froze, unable or unwilling to see that Soviet overtures were not a ruse to soften their image and therefore undermine the rationale for NATO. In this context, NATO’s ongoing debates about Article IV and V should not rely on an aggressive Russia as a basis for continuing our collective defense. Otherwise, we too may resist genuine concessions mistaken as political ploys.

Another issue to follow in the Russian interagency involves domestic security. Various Russian intelligence agencies and the Ministry of Defense continue to vie for control over spetsnaz mission sets and resources. The Rosguards add a new contender for authority over the state’s monopoly on violence. The results of how well these disparate organizations choose to work together following Putin’s 2017 order for improved collaboration will say a lot about how violence and force could be used to consolidate a successor’s hold on power. This was the case when Beria consolidated the security apparatus in order to make his bid for power. A key aspect to Beria’s power also lay in his control over communications across the government. Ultimately, a showdown between the military and the security agencies forced Beria’s ouster, trial and death sentence.

Disgruntled workers and poor economic conditions do not necessarily translate into political mobilization. Rubenstein observed that the first mass protests after Stalin died, staged by Bulgaria’s disgruntled tobacco workers, were about poor economic conditions and nothing more. If material factors can outweigh ideology and politics, we must watch how current sanctions against Russia hurt the little guy and who they blame for it. We should also remain open to the idea that Russia can be both authoritarian and sufficiently prosperous so as to shun democratic reforms. If Russians truly blame the West for economic hardship, they may choose to follow ruthless thugs like Kadyrov.

Although we should strive for less confrontational relations with Russia, it may be useful to bear in mind some Russia watchers, such as Leonid Bershidsky, argue it is too late to salvage relations with Putin’s Kremlin. Instead, the fruits of a frank and honest debate about what went wrong in U.S.-Russia relations can at best help the U.S. avoid alienating partners, friends or allies while we watch for the next Bronze Horseman.

Lt Col Michael Povilus, USAF, is dual-hatted as an Air Battle Manager and Foreign Area Officer. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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