20 years under Putin: a timeline

Russia’s revisionist foreign policy began to take shape long before its low-level war against Ukraine, or even its invasion of Georgia in 2008. As Donald N. Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for the Transatlantic Studies argues, Russia’s global aspirations are a challenge to liberal democracy. The West has refused to accept Russia as a great power, leaving it no alternative but to become an affiliate of the more sympathetic regimes of Eurasia.



Last month, after more than a decade of negotiations, Russia and China signed a $400 billion gas deal—a deal that gives Moscow a major market for a major commodity export and strengthens ties between two powers eager to counter the global clout of the West. The contract will run for thirty years and calls for the construction of pipelines and other infrastructure that will require significant investment.

The momentum to complete the deal came after the Ukrainian crisis forced the Kremlin to seek a market alternative to Europe, which has imposed sanctions on Russia and is beginning to seek other sources of energy. But the pact also solidified a relationship between the two countries that has been warming since Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping took power in 2012. Both leaders have opposed Washington on key issues. China formally expressed neutrality in the United Nations regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but Beijing’s strained relations with the U.S. on other issues appear to have prompted it to work with Moscow to bring the energy talks to a conclusion.

The gas deal, moreover, was only one of some forty agreements signed, many of which suggest the beginning of a possible strategic partnership between Russian and China that may eventually include Iran. The other agreements include promises to deepen cooperation in other areas of the energy sector; the creation of a bilateral investment commission; and a statement calling on all Ukrainian regions and “public-political groups” (a reference to Russian-supported armed fighters in Ukraine’s east and south) to take part in a dialogue with the central government in Kiev. Russia and China also indirectly criticized the U.S. and EU by declaring that they would resist interference in the affairs of other states, and by condemning the practice of introducing “unilateral” sanctions. In the security arena, leaders from both states promised to attend the opening of joint Russo-Japanese naval exercises. Putin has also recently approved the transfer to China of between two and four Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf (SA-21 “Growler”) surface-to-air missile systems, making Beijing Moscow’s first export customer for that weapon.

These moves are part of a broader challenge to the West. Writing in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, noted foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead portrays Russia, China, and Iran as the core of an “illiberal” coalition that is determined to undo the post–Cold War world order, which they believe binds them in subordinate positions to the West. They seek to minimize U.S. leadership, and increase their own influence on the world order. Across Eurasia, he argues, these aggrieved states—authoritarian, hostile to Western values, and resentful of U.S. and European preeminence—are intent on building countervailing spheres of influence. Russia’s seizure of Crimea, according to Mead, is but the latest example of such a challenge to the status quo.

Mead blames the West in part for the growth of the revisionism at the center of Russian and Chinese foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and EU have mistakenly moved past questions of territory and military power to focus on global governance, free trade, human rights, and the rule of law, among other “win-win” issues. Mead argues that Westerners should never have assumed that old-fashioned geopolitics would disappear. They did so because they misread what the collapse of the USSR meant: while it was indeed the ideological triumph of democracy over communism, its fall did not mean the obsolescence of hard power. Russia, China, and Iran also never bought into the geopolitical settlement that ended the Cold War, Mead states, and are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it—efforts that Moscow rationalizes by its frenzied, revisionist narrative of Russia’s victimization in the 1990s. With regard to Moscow in particular, I would also add that the West made the mistake of assuming that after communism died, Russia would be a “normal” country that—despite inevitable bumps in the road it—would eventually become a more democratic society, come to grips with its brutal Soviet heritage, and be content to play a constructive role in European and global political and security architecture.

Russia’s global aspirations are a challenge to liberal democracy for many reasons. As we have seen in the annexation of Crimea, for the Kremlin, the basis of legitimacy in the former Soviet space is not consent or international law, but historical claims.

Russia’s revisionist foreign policy began to take shape long before its low-intensity war against Ukraine, or even its invasion of Georgia in 2008. The Kremlin’s overarching objective since the beginning of the Putin era has been the preservation of the regime and restoration of the political, economic, and strategic assets lost during the Soviet collapse. In foreign policy, this has meant seeking to reassert not only Russia’s political, economic, and military dominance over the former USSR, but also international acceptance of Russia as a great power, and, more recently, a turn away from Europe toward more sympathetic regimes within Eurasia. Russia’s role in the world order has long been ambivalent. For prestige, or to advance its interests, or simply to counter the influence of the United States, Moscow repeatedly seeks membership in international organizations such as the World Trade Organization. But once Russia becomes a member, it frequently fails to play a constructive role.

Russia’s global aspirations are a challenge to liberal democracy for many reasons. As we have seen in the annexation of Crimea, for the Kremlin, the basis of legitimacy in the former Soviet space is not consent or international law, but historical claims. These are a challenge to international order because they revive the czarist and Soviet understanding of sovereignty as a contingent principle conditioned by blood, cultural inheritance, and national power. Sadly, the Ukraine crisis demonstrates that this view of the world is also supported by some Russian liberals. In 2012, for example, prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny stated that Ukraine’s unification with Russia was a “natural political process” because Ukraine is weaker and because “we are one and the same people.”

The central question posed by the rise of these international challengers is whether the Russia- China campaign is the vanguard of a long-term trend that will upend the existing order, or whether those two countries are, despite their aspirations, less full-scale revisionist powers than part-time spoilers. For now, the answer to that question is unclear. On the one hand, Russian leaders, like their Chinese counterparts, are convinced that the U.S. and Europe are in long-term political and economic decline. Dictatorships, as we have seen in Ukraine, can be more nimble than open societies in turning a crisis to their advantage. The Obama administration’s foreign policy—well meaning, but often cautious and uncomfortable in promoting human rights—unintentionally makes resisting the challenge more difficult. The European Union is divided.

On the other hand, the U.S. and Europe still retain the sinews of power. Their combined economies dwarf that of Russia (and are much larger than those of Russia and China combined). Russia still trades far more with Europe than it does with China. Western values and the lifestyles of Western citizens still have worldwide appeal, as we have seen in the rapid spread of pro-European sentiment in Ukraine in recent years. Russia and China also need Western cooperation to achieve key foreign policy goals. And there are signs of disunity among the rising powers. The leaders of several potential members of Putin’s Eurasian Union have been unsettled by the Kremlin’s aggressiveness in Ukraine, no doubt wondering whether Russian will intervene in their internal affairs on behalf of their Russian speaking minorities. The Russia-China deal has also incurred criticism. Prominent economist Vladimir Milov, for example, argues that Russia’s “anti-Western hysteria” will result in strained relations with the West for some time, leaving Russia no choice but to become a geopolitical appendage of China.

The Kremlin seems determined to carry out its Eastern turn despite the risks. Its growing focus on relations with China was highlighted on June 18, when Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom announced that construction of a pipeline to the Pacific (named Sila Sibiri or Siberian Force) will begin in August, thanks to a $25 billion advance on gas payments from Chinese partners. It may take years for the Kremlin to fully achieve its goals, but even if it ultimately falls short, Russia’s behavior in the crises in Ukraine and Syria, among other places, has demonstrated its ability wreak havoc on the world stage.