20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of interviews with experts on the political situation in Russia, its relations with the West, and the future of the country’s political system. Olga Khvostunova, editor-in-chief of imrussia.org, spoke with Dr. Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), about the Putin regime’s domestic imperatives, reasons behind the cooling of relations between Russia and the West, and the “pie in the sky” dream of American presidents.


Dr. Leon Aron, director of the Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) believes that the next U.S. president "will definitely try to fix the relationship with Russia."


Olga Khvostunova: Recently, Western experts on Russia have been increasingly using the term “New Cold War” in their assessment of the current relationship between Russia and the West. Do you agree with the term? And if not, what is the best way to describe it?

Leon Aron: It’s certainly not a Cold War in the classic sense. The key difference between the current situation and the West-Russia standoff of the Soviet era is the lack of a meta-ideology. Soviet leaders believed that there was a global war unraveling in the world—to the bitter end—and that the Soviet ideology could fit any country, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. At the time, Western liberal democracies lacked a similarly strong, serious ideology, and they don’t have it now. Therefore, even a classic Cold War can hardly be described as a clash of ideologies.

OK: What is at the core of this clash then?

LA: Today we have a situation that is more typical of the 19th century, with its traditional race for colonies, its struggles for a place in the sun. Russia plays the role of the revisionist power that thinks it has been looted and disrespected. Therefore, Russia needs to prove that it is still a great power that must be recognized as such and consequently restored to its position.

The crucial problem is that today there are no races for colonies. The situation is more complicated: the driving forces behind Russia’s new revisionism, its new messianism, if you will, are some very serious domestic policy imperatives facing Vladimir Putin. Starting around 2012–2013, this regime decided to base its legitimacy on identifying itself as a great power that should be feared and respected—as opposed to [basing it on] economic growth. At the same time, the regime demonstrates that it is protecting the Motherland from enemies who undoubtedly want to destroy it. Ignoring these imperatives will not allow the regime to remain in power.

OK: Putin’s return to the presidential office for his third term led to a dramatic decline in the relationship between Russia and the West. But, as many observers agree, it was the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine War that were the point of no return. Still, some argue that the cool-down of the relationship actually began long before—as early as Putin’s first assumption of power. When do you think it started, and what were the key triggers?

LA: I don’t quite agree with the view that the cool-down began when Putin became president. Let me remind you that it was Putin who called George W. Bush right after 9/11. Consequently, Russian military bases in Cuba and Vietnam were closed down. The relationship between Russia and the United States was good at that time—on both the personal and professional levels—perhaps even at its best for the post-Soviet period. But over time, three factors significantly changed the situation.

First, there was the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which shocked many Russian analysts, even those who don’t support the Kremlin’s policies. They couldn’t understand why, after Russia had made comradely gestures toward the U.S., Washington, without even consulting Moscow (though the U.S. disputes this notion), would invade a country where Russia had longtime interests and connections.

Second, there was the 2007 Duma election campaign. In February, at the Munich conference, Putin delivered a tough speech that shocked the West. Later the same year, at the rally at Luzhniki [stadium in Moscow], Putin spoke about [his political opponents] who were, as he put it, “slinking around Western embassies” [looking for support]. Opposing the West thus became part of the Kremlin’s political technology—the regime grew a need for an enemy. It had to demonstrate that Russia was unhappy with international developments—primarily with the series of “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. But the problem is that Russian leaders actually believed and continue to believe that all these revolutions resulted from Western conspiracies, especially those created by the U.S. secret services. As if people are incapable of aspiring to democracy, human dignity, and political freedoms on their own. When the West allegedly “encroached upon” the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin interpreted it as a threat.

The third factor was the deterioration of Russia’s economic model. By the time Putin returned to the presidential office for his third term, the country faced what Aleksei Kudrin, who had at the time already resigned [from his position as finance minister], called an “institutional wall.” The regime had a choice: either implement serious reforms (decreasing the state sector of the economy and diversifying, ending the authorities’ “gangster behavior” toward business, and fighting corruption), or come up with a new way to justify the current model.

OK: But the reforms were hardly considered seriously…

LA: It seems to me that Putin’s professional, and perhaps personal, nightmare is a recurrence of the Gorbachev experience, in which economic reforms resulted in the collapse of the country. When Putin started his first presidential term, he faced the challenge of legitimizing his regime. From 2000 to 2008, its legitimacy was based on the substantial growth of the Russian people’s incomes, but later on, to maintain this growth, the regime had to implement reforms. As many economists, not just Kudrin, suggested, even at oil prices higher than $100 per barrel, GDP growth in Russia would not exceed 2 percent. But reforms imply risks for the regime. So, a new foundation for the regime’s legitimacy was found—something I call “patriotic mobilization.” This new legitimacy meant that there had to be an enemy. There had to be Crimea, Ukraine, Syria. There had to be a constant propaganda campaign that would show how the Motherland is in danger and in need of protection. At the same time, it had to send the message that “our tanks are fast” and that Russia has had brilliant victories in foreign policy.

It would be shortsighted and unsafe to think that this is just propaganda, while inside the Kremlin no one believes in this mission. To the contrary—it’s the driving force of the regime.

OK: Besides having an enemy, are there any other factors that determine the regime’s policies?

LA: There is no doubt that Putin has a credo that includes several beliefs. First, Putin clearly follows the ideas of his favorite philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, when he says that the West will never recognize a strong sovereign Russia and therefore will always try to undermine it. According to Putin, Western hostility toward a Russia that rejects following the West’s path is a historical fact. Second, don’t forget Putin’s statement that the demise of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Third, Putin thinks that only morons and traitors would launch liberal reforms in Russia, because such reforms caused the collapse of the state. Therefore, the goal of the Russian leader, the goal of any real Russian patriot, is to collect at least some of the assets—geopolitical, economic, social—that were lost during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I call this approach the “Putin Doctrine.”

OK: Is this an attempt to restore the USSR?

LA: Collecting assets does not necessarily mean automatic restoration of the Soviet Union within its former borders. In essence, Putin has been pursuing this goal from day one. Domestic assets, such as the media, the courts, and the electoral system—were brought into submission to the executive branch by the end of Putin’s second term. As for geostrategic assets, Putin started collecting them in his third term. This approach coincided with the regime’s general ideology and aligned with its domestic political imperatives.

OK: Do you agree with the view that the West misunderstands Russia and Putin’s regime? A general overview of Western coverage of Russia shows that policymakers, experts, and journalists are constantly debating the correct way to interpret the regime’s motives. What is the key problem with trying to read Putin’s mind?

LA: I think reading his mind can appear difficult because for the last two centuries, the West has been living and developing within the framework of a liberal capitalist democracy. Today, Western pragmatism overlaps with postmodernism. In other words, there are no strong ideologies in the West; politicians tend to do whatever they have to do [to satisfy voters]. Everything is negotiable; everyone can be persuaded. This is why the West struggled to understand the Soviet Union (George Kennan wrote about this in his “long telegram”). The West could not grasp the concept of a global idea, a mission that people would be willing to fight for and die for. There are similar problems with understanding Putin, who really stands by his credo and believes that the West will always be hostile, and that Russia needs to be protected. That’s his mission.

OK: Do you think Putin actually believes it? Some analysts argue that Putin and his inner circle have built a typical mafia state, and they don’t really believe in anything—that all this patriotic rant is just propaganda and populism aimed at average citizens.

LA: These things are compatible. One can have a mission and at the same time remember to line up their pockets. Some time ago, I had to read memoirs about various dictators. And it became clear to me that no matter how corrupt they were, Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Castro, not to mention Hitler and Mussolini, all believed they had a mission—handed to them by God or fate—to make their country great. A symptom of this messianism is self-identification with the country. Do you remember the words of Russia’s deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin, who said that there is no Russia without Putin? It would be shortsighted and unsafe to think that this is just propaganda, while inside the Kremlin no one believes in this mission. To the contrary—it’s the driving force of the regime.

OK: Based on the current discourse, the West’s misunderstanding of the Putin regime has led to the lack of a clear strategy vis-à-vis Russia. There are two competing, polar-opposite narratives: the first maintains that Russia is a major security threat to the West; the second calls for the West to acknowledge its own mistakes and restore cooperation with Russia. Which view is more accurate? And what should the West do in its dealings with the regime?

LA: The key problem is that until the regime reforms, and thus develops new domestic legitimacy imperatives, nothing will change in the West’s relationship with Russia. Judging by the polls, the idea of restoring a Great Russia currently resonates with the Russian people. And this supports the basis of the regime’s legitimacy. It is not clear how long this will last, but for now, it’s the status quo.

What can the West do? I believe that the only real way to reroute the regime onto a less dangerous, less aggressive path is to raise the cost of the Kremlin’s foreign policies. And these costs should not be monetary—if necessary, the regime will always find money to fund its adventures. The costs should be political. Let’s take Ukraine, for example. What was the price the regime had to pay for Crimea and the Ukraine crisis? Yes, the West imposed sanctions on Russia, but I entirely agree with the economists who argue that in the short-term, sanctions per se will hardly force the regime to reconsider its policies. What is left, then? You have to consider two factors. First, the regime is very careful about maintaining domestic public support. And it’s important that, according to the polls, the majority of Russians don’t want their country to be involved in long-term bloody wars. Second, there’s the success, or lack thereof, of the Kremlin’s foreign policies. No doubt, propaganda can spin anything as a success, but, nevertheless, we saw how Syria replaced Ukraine on the agenda. Why? Because Ukraine was no longer a brilliant success—and the regime needs nothing less than a brilliant success to maintain its legitimacy, even under conditions of monopolist propaganda.

OK: What would raising the costs actually involve?

LA: The West can toughen the sanctions. Economically, it wouldn’t be the most effective decision, but it would create certain difficulties [for Putin’s regime]. The regime chose as its development model the same model described in Putin’s dissertation, according to which oil and gas are the drivers of Russia’s economic progress for the upcoming 50 years. And it is the regime’s fault that today almost all quality products—from pharmaceuticals to food to high technology—are being imported to Russia in return, so to speak, for oil and gas. The current situation is similar to the one in the Soviet Union during Brezhnev’s rule. Import-substitution might work for certain products, but in many sectors of the economy, difficulties have been emerging. Pensions were indexed only one third of the inflation rate. And pensioners, by the way, are part of the regime’s political base, along with public servants. All these problems per se are not catastrophic, but we don’t know what political repercussions they might have.

Also, the West can put additional pressure on Assad, and thus make Russia face a tough choice: either give him up or increase its military presence in Syria to protect him. Both choices will lead to losses and increased risks for the regime’s political support inside Russia. The core principle of the Western strategy should be forcing the regime to make an uncomfortable choice. Up to now, the regime hasn’t really had to choose. That said, there are no guarantees that the regime will make the “right” choice from the West’s perspective. There is always a risk that the Kremlin will opt for not just a more aggressive foreign policy, but for greater terror inside the country.

Starting with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1933, all American presidents, without exception and regardless of ideology or party membership, have attempted to transform Russia into a liberal democracy. This is their “pie in the sky” dream, the ultimate foreign policy win.

OK: Can such a strategy actually be developed? If you look at Europe, it has been struck by several crises simultaneously—refugees, terrorism, Brexit, financial issues. Leaders of some European countries, such as Hungary and Slovakia, openly call for lifting sanctions against Russia and restoring the relationship. Can the EU be pressured into softening its stance?

LA: I think Europe will follow the policy line that Germany and France agree upon. So far, Angela Merkel, although weakened by the refugee crisis and the results of the recent regional elections in Germany, doesn’t seem to have changed her stance. The EU will not toughen its sanctions policy, but will not soften it either—at least, not until the Minsk II agreement is implemented.

OK: The United States is currently in the midst of a presidential campaign. Candidates voice very different opinions on Russia. While Donald Trump “feels fine” about Putin, Hillary Clinton showcases much harsher attitudes. What should one expect from the next American president?

LA: If I were in the Kremlin, I wouldn’t be too flattered by Trump’s claims, because that’s just his rhetoric. Trump often says things he clearly has not thought through. His campaign has a shocking element to it, with the goal of gaining a lot of free media coverage. He likes to shock people with his statements—something the media adore. But who knows whether he actually thinks Putin is “a strong leader” or not.

In the Democratic camp, Russia is not a popular topic for many reasons. Democratic candidates tend to focus more on domestic issues—the economy, inequality, etc. But during her service as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton used to make tough statements about Putin—this could be a sign of her predominant position. Besides, in the 1990s, Clinton was the First Lady to a U.S. president who was smart about building a relationship with Russia and understood whom he should support there.

OK: In other words, there will be no change in the current relationship between the West and Russia?

LA: There will be no dramatic changes—positive or negative. Today, foreign policy both in the United States and in Europe is not so much frozen as it is paralyzed. Everyone has better things to do than deal with Russia. The West will not retreat, but it will not show initiative either.

OK: Let’s look at the situation in the long-term. In 2018, Russia itself will hold a presidential election. Many analysts agree that Putin will most likely be re-elected for the next term. By that time, one can assume that the U.S. will have formulated a new strategy regarding Russia. Do you think it will be reactive or proactive?

LA: Let me first make one stipulation: I have no doubts that not only in 2018, but in further years, Putin will remain in power. Russia has a lifetime president. As for the U.S.’s strategy, the specific characteristics of democracies—liberal, capitalist—mean that their legitimacy is not linked to foreign policies. Barring a war or another acute crisis, 90 percent of a democracy’s legitimacy comes from the material well-being of the people. Even in the “coldest” years of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward Russia was essentially reactive. It would become more proactive only during crises. When Greece faced a Communist coup, Truman announced the Truman Doctrine. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter, who only a year earlier was kissing Brezhnev, announced that the United States supported mujahedeen and would boycott the 1980 Olympics.

But overall, it is noteworthy that starting with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1933, all American presidents, without exception and regardless of ideology or party membership, have attempted to turn Russia into a liberal democracy. This is their “pie in the sky” dream, the ultimate foreign policy win. Roosevelt thought he could come to agreement with Stalin. Eisenhower arranged Khrushchev’s visit to the United States. Johnson met Kosygin in Glasboro (NJ). I’m not even talking about Nixon’s détente, furthered by Ford and Carter. One can say that Reagan was an exception to this rule, but he explained his lack of engagement with the Soviet Union by the fact that there was no one to talk to since three Soviet general secretaries would die during his first five years in office: Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko. But when Gorbachev became general secretary, another attempt at pushing Russia toward the democratic path was made. Clinton supported Yeltsin, Bush saw Putin’s soul, Obama launched the “reset.”

Therefore, the next U.S. president will definitely try to fix the relationship with Russia. The only question is how the regime will perceive it. I think such an attempt on behalf of the United States will be absolutely futile, because there is no glimpse of hope for the Russian economy, meaning the regime’s domestic imperative—to pursue the policy of the “besieged fortress”—will be preserved. So don’t expect a new détente between Russia and the West.