Make Russia Great Again!

Jared Forman is a Third Year International Relations Student at the University of Western Ontario and has served as the Editor-in-Chief of The General Assembly Publication since its inception in October 2017. His areas of interest include European Politics, specifically the European Union, Diplomacy, American History, and Cold War History. He can be reached at jforman4@uwo.ca.

Combining traditional drivers of Russian foreign policy with a modern spin, Vladimir Putin has created a new doctrine which draws parallels with the Trump administration.

From the icy northern waters of the Baltic Sea to the vast Siberian tundra to the shores of the Pacific sits the world’s largest country. Blessed by immense natural resources and beauty, yet cursed by centuries of autocracy and serfdom, understanding what this nation of 140 million people seeks in the international realm has once again become a pertinent question in Western foreign policy circles.

Over the past decade, relations have soured between the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin and the West as Russia has continuously flexed its muscle through both its diplomatic and military excursions into the world’s hotspots, blatant violations of national sovereignty, and its use of Soviet-era iconography and irredentist rhetoric. Yet, throughout this period of worsening relations, Western media has constantly failed to look at the root causes of Russia’s actions. Instead, it chalks up the machinations of Russian leader Vladimir Putin as representing the banality of evil; a simplistic black and white characterization which fails to understand the nuance of international relations and the real rationale behind Russia’s actions. Overall, this characterization, which has become the leading narrative portrayed in the media and in common parlance, is neither helpful nor accurate.

Alternatively, the Western media should be looking to far more familiar face to understand the Russian Federation and its mysterious leader: Donald Trump. 

Trump came to power this past November advocating for law and order, a restoration of American military might, a tough stance on terrorism, and returning the United States to an era in which it was more prosperous. Similarly, Putin ascended to the Presidency advocating largely the same priorities. Although far less abrasive and crass than Trump, Putin has maintained his stranglehold on power through a similar appeal to the perception of a more prosperous time.  

Traditionally, Russia has possessed unique geographical constraints as well as innate paranoia and fears of the West which has led it to operate according to a realist interpretation of international relations where it views international politics as a civilizational struggle between the Russian-led Slavic East and the West which, despite the end of the Cold War, continues to seek dominance in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

This hasn’t changed since the ascent of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency as the fear of Western encirclement continues to dominate Russian foreign policy, and to be frank, this view of the international system is not without justification. When German reunification was being negotiated in 1990, the United States provided a variety of assurances to the new Russian Federation, foremost of which was that they would prevent an expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the Soviet satellite states which constituted much of Eastern Europe. Yet despite the United States “iron-clad guarantee” that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward,” today, NATO has expanded right to the doorstep of Moscow, as it now counts former Soviet republics and Soviet-aligned states such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland, all of which border Russia, as full members of the organization.

This is particularly troublesome for the Russians as their main population centres are all concentrated in the Western region of the country. While the Eastern flank is protected by thousands of kilometres of inhospitable steppes and mountains, the West of the nation is comprised of exposed grasslands which past invaders, including Napoleon and Hitler, have used to penetrate deep into Russian territory. Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership in NATO is a particular sticking point for the Russians as their control of the Turkish straits restricts the Russian Black Sea fleet from accessing the Mediterranean, thereby diminishing their ability to project power.

Similarly, the European Union (EU) has vastly expanded since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is seen as a threat to Russian regional hegemony and security. As a primarily economic bloc centred on the idea of European unity and neoliberalism, the EU acts as an alternative for the nations of Eastern Europe to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which the Russians established in 1991 as a means of maintaining their ties and economic relations with the former Soviet republics. Furthermore, the EU’s role as a normative power promoting human rights and democratic freedoms is often at odds with the Putin regime’s ideals. Not coincidentally, the same former Soviet states and Soviet-aligned states that chose to join NATO have also acceded to the Lisbon Treaty and become members of the EU.

Nevertheless, while there may be some level of validity to this Russian viewpoint, it is also important not to discount the fact that the aforementioned nations voluntarily chose to join NATO and the EU (largely due to fear of Russian expansion), and it most certainly does not justify many of Putin’s illegal and morally reprehensible actions. However, it does lend credence to the Stalinist fear of Western encroachment as first outlined in Kennan’s Long Telegram. Previously, the fear during the era of the Soviet Union was a ‘capitalist encirclement’ which they believed threatened to dismantle the international Socialist revolution. However today, Putin’s Russia fears the liberal international order led by the United States.

While geographical constraints and innate paranoia amongst the Russian political elite have always been present, this is what truly sets the Putin regime apart from past Russia autocrats and allows one to draw parallels with the Trump administration. In the Soviet-era, the Marxist-Leninist system was seen as a competitive counterpart to Western capitalism. While in the Post-Soviet era, Russia has adopted the role of a revisionist state intent on destroying the liberal international order established by the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War. The reality is that Russia simply can no longer compete in an international order which undermines the importance of military power in favour of economic power as Russia has a GDP which is inferior to Canada, despite having four times the population. Overall, this new strategy can be boiled down to the mantra of ‘if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.’

Encapsulated in this is a yearning for a mythic past of a ‘superpower’ Russia as well as the building of alliances with other states such as Iran and more recently, Syria, which seek to disrupt to status quo.

From Putin’s speech to the Russian Duma in 1999 where he stated that Russia deserves its rightful place as a great power, to a speech in 2005 when Putin stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, up until his recent actions in Crimea, Putin has made it clear that he covets a time in which the Soviet Union rivaled the power of the United States and the West. However, unlike in the United States where Trump’s message has been monumentally divisive and polarising, Putin’s revisionist rhetoric is backed by a clear consensus among Russians as a 2017 poll indicated that 69% of Russians believe that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a bad thing.

Meanwhile, this belief in restoring Russia to its former glory has led Russia to ally with other revisionist states, principally Iran and its proxies, as a means to check American and Western influence in the Middle East. More recently, Russia has found themselves allied with the Syrian regime to counter American intervention in the region and to assert their role as a leader in maintaining international security against threats like ISIS. While finally, Russia has aligned more closely with a historic enemy, Turkey, as Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism and opposition to US-led Kurdish forces in Syria puts his regime at odds with the West.

However, the irony is that Putin’s crowning achievement in the pursuit of the dismantlement of the current international order is enabling the election of a man who has largely emulated his own platform and beliefs. Russia’s covert effort to convince the United States electorate that they are the ones losing in the current international system in spite of the fact that objective reality states otherwise will prove to be one of the most influential events of the 21st century and one of the greatest bamboozles in recent history.

Overall, while the support of the Assad regime, the invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and incursions into the airspace of NATO nations may be a thorn in the sides of the United States and its allies, the efforts which brought about the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent disintegration of American soft power could truly allow Putin to realise his ultimate goal.