1) Since he stepped into office on December 31, 1999, Putin’s ultimate goal for Russia has been to, in effect, make it a world power again. In regards to this rebuilding of its past glory, what exactly has his strategy been since day 1 to realize this vision?
Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia when the international system was gradually
transforming from geopolitics to normative commitments, and this was exactly what
Putin aimed to contest. Instead of a value-based global community he preferred
multipolarity (understood as plurality of power holders), spheres of influence and the
multiplicity of civilizations where Russia would be one of core player.
There were some preconditions for Putin’s revolt against the liberal system,
including a sense of frustration and confusion in the course of market reforms, and the
trauma of the collapse of the USSR. Russia’s frustration was exacerbated by NATO
expansion to Russian borders, lack of Russia’s perspectives for joining neither NATO
nor EU, along with the advent to power of Russia-skeptic elites in some post-Soviet
countries. The West’s military support for Kosovo and the war against Serbia, as well as
military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, were perceived as dangerous and
detrimental for Russian interests.
Thus, during Putin’s rule Russia’s foreign policy evolved from accommodation
with and adaptation to the liberal international order, to imitation (Russia pretended to
be a “normal” nation), followed by mimicry and parody (Russia ironically appropriated
many Western concepts such as responsibility to protect or health diplomacy), and then
the contestation and subversion of the Western-centric order. In the process of this
transformation, Russia’s vision and perception of international relations were built on a
number of key arguments.
They start with believing that the Soviet Union didn’t lose the
Cold War – it was a win-win situation that was expected to lead to an all-inclusive
Europe (“common European house”). Yet the US-led West took full advantage of
Russia’s temporary weakness through encircling Russia with NATO military
infrastructure, and politically undermining Russia’s positions in its near abroad. In the
Kremlin’s view, the 1999 military campaign against Yugoslavia was an intentional
violation of state’s sovereignty. Putin also deems that all Russian attempts to find its
place within the US-masterminded world order, have ultimately failed. Russia accepted
French mediation during the conflict with Georgia in 2008, Russia didn’t veto UN SC
resolution on Libya; Russia has withdrawn of its military units from Georgia (Adjara)
and Azerbaijan (Quabala), yet these steps did not contribute to better relations with the
West. Many in the Russian government think that Russia was betrayed by the West
(namely, by NATO and the EU), and by some neighboring countries (Georgia and
This predetermined Russia’s increased interest to alternative foreign
policy pathways, among which the Eurasian integration plays first fiddle. From
Moscow’s perspective, the crisis in Ukraine was the “last drop” that left Russia with no
choice other than to intervene, which de-facto meant a denial of neighbors’ unconditional
sovereignty and the implementation of Russia’s plan for spheres of influence justified by
civilizational or cultural arguments (Russian World, Eurasian doctrine), by the policy of
protecting Russian speakers living abroad, or by the mere self-perception of Russia as a global center of power. Within this logic, many small countries (for example, the Baltic
states) are perceived as troublemakers who play a disproportional role in international
affairs. Against this backdrop, Russia’s ideal would be to get rid of NATO in Europe, to
make the EU devaluate the importance of trans-Atlantic connections, to come back to
spheres of influence as a guarantee of peace, to reinstall Russia as an equal and
indispensable partner, to reject any normative commitments (democracy promotion
etc.) beyond international law, and transform Russia’s neighbors into militarily neutral/de-militarized states (modelled after Finland, Sweden, Austria, perhaps Switzerland).
Yet this strategy makes sense only under a set of questionable assumptions – that
the Soviet Union was not defeated, that Western concerns about humanitarian aspects
of the Yugoslav crisis were just a pretense and thus can be discarded, that the West
intentionally marginalized Russia in world affairs, that all ‘color revolutions’ were
inspired by the West and lack in a grass-roots authenticity. This strategy implies that
Russia has sufficient resources for investing in Eurasian integration and maintaining its
de-facto sphere of influence (based on differentiation between “regional” and “extra-
regional” actors), that the West is ultimately in normative and institutional, if not
existential, decline, and that Russia’s relations with China are qualitatively different
from relations with the West. Each of these points look dubious or unsubstantiated to
me. Anyway, in its confrontation with the liberal order Russia ended up with
revisionism, illiberalism, skepticism about international socialization, limited
rationality, and reactualilzation of the Soviet/Cold-War-time discourse that looks
explicitly obsolete if not antiquated.
2) How important to Putin and Russia is their relationship with the EU and the West? It would seem fairly important considering that the EU is its largest trading partner, but Russia’s abrasiveness when it comes to annexing Crimea or poisoning Navalny puts this into question.
The core distinction between the EU and Russia seems quite clear: the EU is the
main pillar and champion of the liberal order (which is on the defensive), while Russia is
a major contender and challenger to this order. Yet both need to adjust their policies to
the global and regional structural dynamics that are largely beyond their direct control.
Indeed, on the one hand, Russia benefited a lot from EU normative order: EU
and Russia have signed partnership and Cooperation Agreement, developed it into Four
Common Spaces and roadmaps to each of them, and Russia received a de-facto status of
strategic partner of the EU. Yet on the other hand, Russia’s relations with the EU were
marked by a growing feeling of existential insecurity coming from a realization of
Russia’s normative marginalization in Europe, accompanied with a continued
frustration over the disintegration of the Soviet Union and a sense of “betrayal”.
In fact, Putin had two options in this respect: either to take the EU-centred
normative order as a chance to strengthen Russia’s positions in Europe using the existent regional and Europe-wide mechanisms, or challenge this order and offer an
illiberal alternative to it. He preferred the second variant.
Of course, the Moscow-Brussels relations have never been simple. Russia and the
EU failed to reach solutions for ‘frozen conflicts’ (particularly in Transnistria); Russia
was annoyed by ‘Gazprom’s’ painful adjustment to EU regulations in the energy sphere; and
Russia’s refusal to participate in EU-initiated European Neighborhood Program. But
after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war-by-proxies in eastern Ukraine
relations with the EU were almost completely frozen. The EU thinks of ‘Russia after
Putin’, while the Kremlin thinks of ‘Europe after the EU’.
Since the 1990s the presumption was that we deal basically with “one Europe”
(consolidated on the basis of its normative principles) and “many Russias” (meaning
numerous competing narratives on the basics of national identity). Nowadays we have
“many Europes” versus a much more consolidated (on the principles of imperial
conservatism) Russia. What is clear is that the old paradigm presuming the
unidirectional EU’s impact upon Russia – through binding normative and institutional
commitments – has lost its political value.
Now it is Russia that invests its resources in influencing the EU and its member states through different forms of interference in domestic debates (on democracy, multiculturalism, immigration, security, etc.) and electoral politics. Today there is more space for Russia to intervene and play the “divide and rule” type of game, amplifying the voices of marginal / non-mainstream / anti-establishment forces of populist and right-wing background all across Europe. As a result, nowadays we clearly see fundamental gaps that divide Moscow and Brussels when it comes to the basic notions of democracy, order, modernization, law and justice, etc.
3) Putin’s main ideological strategist, Vladimir Surkov, developed the idea of “Sovereign Democracy” in order to legitimize the regime and present it as democratic. Can you tell us a bit about how and why this term came into use, and why it’s so important to Putin to maintain the facade of democracy?
The concept of sovereign democracy is a perfect illustration of the hybrid nature of
Putin’s politics. It was designed as a combination of the democratic mimicry and an
insistence on the sovereign qualities of power. In other words, what Vladislav Surkov
wanted to say with this construct is that Russia won’t compromise or sacrifice its
sovereign autonomy and independence for the sake of liberal democracy. The
democratic façade is important for Putin because he always wanted to be accepted as a
peer and an equal partner by the West, and he knew that without democratic credentials
this acceptance won’t be possible. His current frustration stems from his failure to get
accepted on his own rules.
4) In your article, “Politics, the State and De-Politicization: Putin’s Project Reassessed”, you talk about how Putin and media-owning oligarchs have continuously and systematically delegitimized the Russian opposition by associating the Russian state with Putin himself by appealing to nationalism and conservatism. How exactly has this process been done, and what other means has Putin used to diminish the opposition besides for assassinations and banning of political opponents such as Navalny in 2018?
There are three strategies of dealing with opposition under Putin’s rule. One is to
incorporate it into the institutions of power and thus make it part of the system.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is a perfect illustration of the success of
such a strategy – a fully integrated into the ruling elite party that from time to time
criticizes the government on a very limited set of issues. The second method is to push the
opposition away from Russia, to the West. Many prominent opposition figures had to
escape, which of course made their voices much less important within Russia. And the
third strategy is physical repressions and murders. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov
five years ago was perhaps the most shocking example of this.
5) Although now 20 years old, in another article you wrote, “Islands of globalization: regional Russia and The Outside World”, where you formulate the idea that subnational territorial units are beginning to develop into international actors and that this globalization is very uneven and competitive between the regions. How much has this process been affected by the growing vertical power and increasing plethora of federal regulations by the Kremlin, and has this changed significantly or not at all in the past two decades?
Unfortunately, what was valid 20 years ago lost its momentum under Putin’s rule.
Domestic regions lost any autonomy in their external policies and became parts of what
Putin dubbed “the vertical of power”. Of course, some regions have managed to develop
higher international profiles – for example, Tatarstan, but this is more of an exception
than the rule. Another exceptional case of Chechnya whose leader Ramzan Kadyrov, due
to Moscow’s policy, has a relative freedom of hands, including when acting beyond