• J.S. Mullen

U.S.-Russia Relations: a near-term forecast

While many have expressed disappointment over the apparent lack of substance to Biden and Putin’s much anticipated first meeting, in fact the outlines of a clear strategy are apparent in the new administration’s firm line and disinterest in attempts at productive engagement.

As is often the case, the general outlines of this policy and its underlying assumptions were articulated in an article in the previous month’s issue of Foreign Affairs. A leading organ of establishment liberal hawks, among whom Biden is a long-standing pillar, the policy is based on the assumption that Putin is in a fundamentally weak position – the weakest he has ever been in, in fact. Both domestically and abroad Putin is beset by problems, the author, a professor at Columbia, posits. Exhausted by 20 years of balancing a precarious coalition under intense international and domestic pressure, he is beleaguered and held virtual captive to the interests he has put in place to sustain his rule, from oligarchs to bureaucrats to regional strongmen. Totally reliant on commodity exports to sustain the state budget, and burdened with a stagnating economy and bureaucracy he cannot risk seriously reforming, military overreach combined with domestic dissent will make life increasingly uncomfortable for Putin.

While what will ultimately happen is left unclear, the thinking is that as Putin will be increasingly forced to choose between risky attempts at reform or more overt repression to maintain his position domestically the best thing the United States can do is hold the current line, mixing sanctions against Russian firms and individuals close to Putin with attempts at coalition building to geopolitically and economically ostracize Russia where possible, particularly over its human rights abuses and military activities in the Crimea and Donbas.

This is an antagonistic posture, and should be at the very least justified by the underlying assumptions of the argument matching the reality of the situation on the ground in Russia, and in its geopolitical circumstances.

So, is Putin weak?

Relatively speaking, in some ways, yes. Over the course of twenty years in de facto power, Putin has regularly enjoyed approval ratings in the mid to high 70s. Today, the best estimates of his approval rating fall in the low 60s. His handling of COVID wasn’t exemplary, and has probably contributed to this decline. But Russia did produce a relatively effective vaccine in the same amount of time as its western counterparts – and really, U.S. presidents have rarely hit, let alone maintained, a 60 percent approval rating over the two decades.

Politically, Putin’s coalition has proven resilient over his twenty-plus years in power. It hasn’t always been easy balancing their sometimes conflicting interests, and the future will present further challenges. But after replacing the political and economic elites of the Yeltsin period with those loyal to himself, Putin has been able to consistently draw upon the support of industrial workers in inherited Soviet industries, the numerous government employees of the extensive civil service, police apparatus, and military bureaucracy, pensioners, as well as the patriotic conservatism of rural Russians to maintain his political position. Though there have been regular reports of fraud and intimidation, especially in Russia’s further federated zones, like in Chechnya, Putin and his United Russia Party have enjoyed broad support. With only occasional exceptions, such as in 2012 over the reversion of the Presidency from Medvedev to Putin, or in 2020 over the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, Putin and his fellow ruling elites have enjoyed carte blanche to pursue the policies of their choosing unmolested by a large and disagreeable public opinion.

Overall, these choices haven’t been terrible.

Having expropriated, imprisoned, or co-opted the oligarchs of the Yeltsin period, Putin went about reforming the Russian economy with allies personally loyal to him put in charge of all the major public and private corporate entities relating to large-scale commodities, banking, and the media, as well as the military and state security services. Apart from some limited liberalizing reforms aimed at creating a stable macroeconomic climate, Putin’s rise coincided with the global boom in commodity prices, and he made the fateful decision to shift Russia away from native manufacturing toward raw resource extraction. Unlike profligate cases such as Venezuela, Putin used the surfeit profits of the commodities boom in the early 2000s to pay off debt and build up reserves for when commodity prices inevitably came back down.

A marked increase in the standard of living for the average Russian occurred during this period. Throughout his tenure, despite annual inflation levels consistently near 10 percent, the wages of Russian workers have grown in all but two of Putin’s years in power. Though corruption is still a problem, it is nowhere near its 1990s levels. The courts are reasonably fair, and property is only insecure among those of extreme wealth and position who dare to challenge the Kremlin, the old maxim reasserting itself: in an authoritarian state, beware of being rich if it isn’t the state making you rich. Indeed, Russia has developed a robust small business sector away from the oligopolistic public-private natural resource extraction conglomerates headed by Putin’s hand-picked loyalists.

Despite growing at an annual rate of well over five percent during the 2000s, Russia’s economic growth has been slowed by the commodity price collapse of 2014, as well as a series of economic sanctions directed against it by the west. These sanctions have spurred a renewed emphasis on domestic manufacturing, directed at spurring the growth of native industries and the domestic consumer market. Putin could massively increase the Russian economy’s productivity were he willing to allow grossly inefficient industrial enterprises inherited from the Soviet period to be shuttered or restructured, allowing capital investment and labor to be redirected according to profit potential rather than political expediency. But Putin has so far been unwilling to risk this. He has rather favored keeping unemployment low at the cost of economic growth, dipping into the state’s commodities savings fund during periods of economic slowdown or recession.

While serving as a global provisioner of natural resources has meant Russia under Putin has faced many of the symptoms of Dutch Disease, or the “resource curse,” their abundance of commodities such as natural gas has helped make them in-isolable internationally. Indeed, coupled to Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas are its strategic Middle East partnerships and interventions, which have made it an essential partner to any peace talks in Syria, or in navigating relations with Iran. Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East and Central Asia, combined with its strength in Eastern Europe, have been bolstered by the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union.

In short, while Putin may be weak this is a relative assessment. In real terms, both domestically and internationally, he seems secure. There are several reasons behind this and should inform U.S.-Russian relations.

While many liberal paeans to the promise of Russian democracy take for granted that were Putin gone relations between the United States and Russia would be serene and conflict-free, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of Russians are supportive of precisely the aggressive foreign policy moves the United States has been so critical of. For example, if international polls are to be trusted, over seventy percent of Russians favored the annexation of Crimea in 2015. Further, a 2014 Pew Survey of Russians reported that over 60 percent believed that “there are parts of neighboring countries really belonging to Russia.”

The truth is that states determined to project power beyond their strictly defined borders will almost inevitably come into conflict, no matter their form of government. National interest in security and resources is in many cases made zero-sum by the attitudes and incentives produced by the preceding historical experiences of those involved. The Russian national consciousness is seared with the memory of three horrific invasions in the past 200 years. Protected by few natural barriers other than its immense size, its urge to expand from the small Duchy of Muscovy was driven by this innate sense of insecurity. It is difficult, too, for a non-Russian to understand the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union on the national consciousness of the Russian people. Approval of Stalin has hit an all-time high in the country, and over seventy-five percent report believing that the Soviet period was the greatest in the nation’s history. On both state and nominally privately controlled media, it is regular to hear repeated the narrative that the west took advantage of Russia when it was weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union – even that it violated its word not to expand NATO beyond the bounds of Germany. So, too, the apparent hypocrisy of the west with regard to human rights is regularly pointed out.

In short, while heroic figures like Alexei Navalny are held up by eager western liberals as representing the hopeful future of Russian democracy, we should remember they once held forth Boris Yeltsin with such excitement – and this while he was literally shelling the Russian parliament in disputes over fiscal policy. Over fifty percent of Russians hold an unfavorable view of NATO, perceiving it as a threat directed against Russia, while almost the same number hold a negative view of the United States. While students, journalists, and segments of the entrepreneurial and small business class might clamor for the advent in Russia of a proper liberal democracy governed by rule of law, one peaceful and engaged internationally, the truth is their numbers appear relatively small. More importantly, they control no levers of power anywhere in politics, the economy, or society.

While it may be true that after two decades in power Putin is tiring and wants out, no one in Russia of serious consideration is in a position to force him out, nor would any of the existing elites want to throw him out. Chaos would likely result, with separatist movements fragmenting the country while organized crime networks with shadowy connections to the police and security services dominated cities. Even if Putin does want out, it isn’t clear who could play the successor role to his Yeltsin – at once maintaining control over the state and population while safeguarding Putin and his cronies in their luxurious retirements.

Indeed, barring premature death by some natural cause, Putin seems well-entrenched, if trapped, in the Kremlin. It seems only prudent, therefore, that U.S. foreign policy should be formulated on the basis of that assumption. The tone of Biden’s initial interactions with Putin seem in line with this recognition: Putin can’t be dislodged, but his life isn’t comfortable and will likely become less so; where it can, the administration’s strategy will be to make his life more difficult rather than seeking cooperation or accommodation.

Time, the U.S. establishment believes, is on its side.

U.S. policy under Biden will therefore be carefully calibrated so as to annoy but not seriously provoke the Kremlin. From ending a long-standing tariff dispute between the U.S. and E.U. to expressing his commitment to NATO, refusing to hold a joint-press conference with Putin while making it public knowledge beforehand that Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador whom Putin has publicly expressed an intense dislike of, was among those prepping Biden for his meeting with Putin, Biden will try to box Russia in at the same time ramping up spending on the technologies of the future – see, for example, the massive quarter trillion dollar “strategic competition act,” that recently passed the Senate with heavy bipartisan support.

From strengthening NATO to ramping up techno-military expenditures, keeping Russia in a state of constant readiness for potential conflict may indeed exhaust the capacities of the state and undermine Putin’s rule. However, it also heightens the risk of geopolitical miscalculation and escalation. Already there have been close calls in Syria between U.S. and Russian forces – with some lives likely lost in direct exchanges between the two.

Really, the problem boils down to a conflict of visions. Where Biden looks at the Donbas, Crimea, Georgia, or the Caucasus and sees aggressive expansionism, Putin sees operations exactly analogous to those conducted by the United States in Panama, Grenada, or the Dominican Republic: justifiable campaigns intended to maintain a privileged sphere of influence.

Early on, Putin seems to have believed Russia and the United States could coexist peaceably. Both were interested in fighting Islamic extremism, the United States in the Middle East, the Kremlin in the Caucasus and its various Central Asian republics. While alarmed by NATO’s expansion, it wasn’t until the U.S. objected to its handling of the war in Georgia that Putin began to feel threatened. On top of the color revolutions in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Bloc, which were and are viewed by the Kremlin as western-backed or manufactured coups, it prompted a massive defense buildup. Having fallen in every year of his rule until that point, military spending increased rapidly in the years following 2008. Following his resumption of the Presidency in 2012, Putin turned this rebuilt capacity outward in order to secure by force what he couldn’t be sure of achieving naturally over the course of geopolitical play.

Though no one in the hawkish liberal establishment seems concerned with asking, we might inquire what, without drawing on a globalist, worst-case-scenario perspective, are the U.S. national security interests at stake in the Donbas or Crimea? And, is it a weak or accommodationist position to allow that a geopolitically significant power will naturally exercise a disproportionate weight in the domestic political calculations of its much smaller and weaker neighbors? Or, on what basis does the U.S. deny to others what it has for at least a century wielded itself at times in the western hemisphere?

These questions, alas, will go unasked, as both Democrats and Republicans line up to tack hundreds of billions onto the national debt in the name of a new, multifront arms race. Tellingly, we will be lucky if more red ink is the worst that comes from the new administration’s clear commitment to “strategic competition” in some of the world’s most contentious global hotspots and in the race for the technologies and weapons of the future.

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