In part two of our Foreign Affairs Unedited series on Russia under Putin, we’re looking at the history of Russian aggression and the country’s recent military reform. Hosted by Deputy Managing Editor Katie Allawala and featuring guests Gideon Rose, Stephen Kotkin, and Dmitri Trenin.

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This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. Music credit: / Podington Bear, Delphone Dora and The Unexpected


ROSE: Back in 1939, Winston Churchill said about Russia or at that point the Soviet Union, it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Vladimir Putin's Russia is not quite as mysterious but it's still as surprising.

ALLAWALA: That’s Gideon Rose, Editor of Foreign Affairs. Today in part two of our Foreign Affairs Unedited series on Russia under Putin, we’re looking at the history of Russian aggression and the country’s recent military reform. First up, though, Gideon explains where Russia is heading. 

ROSE: Russia under Putin needs reform dramatically in order to move forward. The economy is kind of sclerotic. The political system does not have much give to it. There aren't a lot of great prospects for Russian advancement under the current regime as currently constituted. 

ALLAWALA: At the same time, however, the regime seems to be standing on solid ground.

ROSE: Putin himself is pretty popular and the regime has a lot of legitimacy, thanks both to the objective success he's had over the last decade in restoring some of Russia's fortunes, economically and politically, and in terms of foreign policy, but also because he controls dissent in the media very dramatically.

ALLAWALA: All this doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is in for an even more aggressive Russia. 

ROSE: And it is also clear that the Ukraine crisis and the Russian actions in Syria are not the precursors to a dramatic, aggressive move forward against, let's say, NATO. Putin seems determined to want to restore Russian greatness and to restore Russia's competitive stature, vis-a-vis the west and others. 

ALLAWALA: But that isn’t easy to do.

ROSE: The problem is Russia is fairly weak and it just doesn't have the resources, under the current system at least, to be able to play at that level.So Putin has ended up relying on centralized power and an attempt to drive things from the Kremlin in a very aggressive way. That isn't really going to be effective in the long run.

ALLAWALA: The question that remains is how the rest of the world should respond.

ROSE:  On the one hand, it's not clear that Russia, in its current form, is a truly adequate partner for other countries. It doesn't wanna play nicely with Europe or with the west and the United States and other Western powers can't just give it a blanket veto over a sphere of interest across the old former Soviet Union. The United States can't just allow it, for example, to do whatever it wants in Ukraine or other countries.

ALLAWALA: But the West’s options for responding are limited. 

ROSE: Russia is strong enough to be able to withstand pressure from the outside and it's not clear that there are tools that the United States or others have to manipulate it and to control it. So, the question of how to deal with Putin's Russia has to involve a lot of patience, a lot of prudence, and a sort of firm line setting here but no further, with a desire not to provoke, with a desire to allow Russia's own destiny to take its own course in the years to come. 

ALLAWALA: That was Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose on the future of the Putin regime. Now we look to its past.

For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass. By 1900, it was the world’s fourth- or fifth-largest industrial power and the largest agricultural producer in Europe. But its per capita GDP reached only 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s and 40 percent of Germany’s. Imperial Russia’s average life span at birth was just 30 years—higher than British India’s (23) but the same as Qing China’s and far below the United Kingdom’s (52), Japan’s (51), and Germany’s (49).

Throughout the years, Russia has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. 

So begins a recent article by our next guest, Princeton Professor Stephen Kotkin. We sat down with him to situate current Russian foreign policy in historical context. Kotkin believes that U.S.-Russian relations are as bad as they have ever been in his lifetime. He explained the two main theories about why.  

KOTKIN: One explanation is there's this guy, he's evil, straight out of Hollywood. KGB, experienced the Soviet collapse and he's just full of revenge and hatred of the West. I would say that that's perhaps the dominant explanation that's out there, so it's a personality, it's a biography story.

ALLAWALA: The other theory focuses on the West. 

KOTKIN:  On the other hand, then we have an explanation that, "No, it's the West's fault. They didn't do the Marshall Plan for Russia in the 90s when they should have, they expanded NATO in Russian's face when Russia was down and weak, supported the Ukrainian Orange Revolution," and on it goes.

ALLAWALA: But according to Kotkin, there’s a problem with both explanations.

KOTKIN: We've been here before. Autocratic politics. I recognize that. How about, I don't know, state dominated economy. Yeah, I know that too. State controlled media, militarized foreign policy. What we see out of the Putin regime today, we've seen before in a different version but nonetheless with similarities. The Soviet regime was like that and the Czarist regime was like that. So we need a deeper explanation that goes beyond personality and Western mistreatment of Russia.

ALLAWALA: In other words, there’s something systemic going on. 

KOTKIN: There is a kind of predicament or a syndrome, whatever you wanna call it, there is a pattern. Obviously, one has to be nuanced here. Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union just as the Soviet Union wasn't Czarist Russia. But nonetheless, it does look strikingly similar in certain ways. 

ALLAWALA: There are four similarities.

KOTKIN: The first is basically the challenging geography. This is a place that has few natural borders, and so its security was always under threat from its perception by outside invasion and the lack of protection of the borders. And so it saw expansionism as a necessity, as a defensive security measure. And so it gobbled up territories farther and farther and farther and each new territory it got, it couldn't defend unless it moved the border out a little bit farther and grabbed another territory

ALLAWALA: The second is Russia’s relative weakness vis-à-vis the West. 

KOTKIN: Now they're not weak, they're a great power. They have a sizeable military, they got a nuclear arsenal, they have cyber warfare, they got an UN Veto which they earned of course because they beat the Nazi land army. Nonetheless, they're never in the absolute first rank. There are always powers that are greater than they are. 

ALLAWALA: And to fight relative weakness, the state gets involved in the economy. 

KOTKIN: And so there's relative weakness vis-à-vis the West leads them into using the State or seeing the State as an instrument to catch up to the West or at least manage the differential with the West. And then you get these economic spurts, these State-led economic spurts culminating in stagnation.

The Soviet regime used it and we see it under Putin. Now once again, it's different in each of the cases. It's not identical. We don't wanna make it seem like it's identical. On the other hand, it's very striking. How big the role of the State is inside that economy now. And people didn't foresee this coming but in the sweep of Russian history, it doesn't look like a big surprise. So the number two is relative weakness vis-à-vis the State. 

ALLAWALA: The third factor is Russia’s sense of special purpose. 

KOTKIN: Now, let's be honest. All great powers have this view of themselves. There's a view of the United States' exceptionalism in being a providential power. We see it with China today. The problem in the Russian case is that they have a sense of being a providential power with a special mission, but they don't have the strength, the scaffolding to realize that in practice.

ALLAWALA: The result is fairly risky behavior. 

KOTKIN: They live in this world thinking that they are a special country with a special mission and other countries need to take that into account. So they're willing to pay a high price for something that others might look like few benefits.

ALLAWALA: The fourth element in Russian foreign policy is a paradox.

KOTKIN: Every time they pursue the strong State, the quest for the strong State culminates in personal rule. It's very uncanny. All the rhetoric about a strong State, the population is behind it, the State is gonna be the instrument that's gonna pull them up alongside the West or at least close the gap. And instead, you get the rule of a single person

And the entire grand strategy, national interest, state interest becomes hostage to the political fortunes of a single person. And lo and behold, here we are again once more in this situation.

ALLAWALA: In its future foreign policy, Russia has three basic options. 

KOTKIN: What would be a smart policy for Russia given the circumstances that we've now discussed? Well, here are basically three options for Russia: Become an Asian power, let's call that option A. 

ALLAWALA: But there are problems with that option.

KOTKIN: Russia's been on the Pacific for several centuries and it's never become an Asian power. And the population of the Russian Far East which had barely been eight million in 1991 is now barely six million in 2016 and continues to decline. So the idea of becoming an Asia power or playing the Asian card doesn't seem like it's got much attraction here. Let's also remember that turning to China to make up for Western sanctions either through Chinese FDI in Russia or Chinese loans to Russia. This really hasn't panned out.

ALLAWALA: The next option is to dominate Eurasia. 

KOTKIN: This is where Russia has been for the last several centuries dominating its region. It's got the biggest military in its region by far. There's no other military comparable to Russia in its region. It's also got economic leverage over the former territories it used to control which are now independent states.

ALLAWALA: Yet that strategy hasn’t really panned out either.

KOTKIN: So that's the option they've been pursuing. And what has that given them? The Eurasian Economic Union came into being January 1, 2015, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia. A few others have been added since. The majority of former Soviet territories refused to join. But let's say they all joined, every single one of them. Still combined, their GDP is tiny and they don't have the technology that the West has in comparison. 

And they actually don't offer Russia that much. Now, in terms of national idea, in terms of providential power, in terms of Russia being a great power with a special mission in the world, they seem to offer something. But this is a game that Russia pays very high cost for.

ALLAWALA: The final option is drawing closer to Europe.

KOTKIN: So door number three, which we thought was the door they had entered. We thought association with Europe. Now, association with Europe requires domestic, political restructuring. You need a civil service, you need a parliament, you need an independent professional judiciary, you need all the things, for example, that Poland and the others who were granted EU accession fundamentally did restructuring domestic politics and judiciary. We thought Russia was on this path.

ALLAWALA: The problem, though, is that Russia’s power differential with the West was still too great.

KOTKIN: Russia was not a great power anymore. The Russian State was a mess. In many ways, Putin rescued the Russian State. He deserves credit for coming in and taking that jelly under Yeltsin and making it a state that functioned again. However, the methods that he used to resurrect the Russian State, and then the direction he turned in once the state was resurrected, led us down the same pattern, the same syndrome that we see before which is, "I'm gonna manage the differential with the West. I'm gonna bring us back closer in terms of great power status to the West." But we see the opposite is taking place before us right now.

ALLAWALA: In short, Russia is still in a bind.

KOTKIN: The Asian option looks like a chimera, the Europe option is off the table, and in any case requires a fundamental recalibration of the national idea which is difficult for any country. And then the dominate Eurasia option doesn't really give them very much although that's the path that they're on. So in fact, relations with Russia, if you're the West, are not catastrophic but unfixable.

ALLAWALA: As for the West, Kotkin counsels a hands off approach. 

KOTKIN: Well, you have a lot of talk about George Kennan and containment. 

And I understand that because Russia is violating international law, changing borders by force, shooting down civilian airplanes, and various other things that the public knows full well. And so the urge to go back to containment, to open up Kennan's long telegram or his famous X article on foreign affairs, and think about how if we just stand up to them, show resolve and patience over the long term, they will collapse or internally reform the same thing Kennan predicted of the Soviet Union. It's a very tempting notion of new containment. 

The problem with the new containment idea however, is it re-elevates Russia to the status of the single biggest priority in American foreign policy, and I just don't think that's wise. I think there are lot of other issues that confront the United States including East Asia at large, including all sorts of other things like the global economy, climate challenges, and Russia could wrongly displace all of that. So it's a problem to be managed, not another necessary crusade to be won.

ALLAWALA: That was Stephen Kotkin on Russian foreign policy. As the West turns its attention elsewhere, though, it will have to contend with some uncomfortable realities: namely, Russia’s military modernization.  Our next guest, Dmitri Trenin, is director of the Moscow Carnegie center and served in the Soviet armed forces and then to Russian military. He remembers those years as a time of excitement.

TRENIN: Well it was a riveting experience. You had a military that prided itself in being second to none. And virtually engaged in a standoff with all the major military forces around the world, in the West and globally against the United States, NATO, US allies, and also in Asia, against China. 

ALLAWALA: Soon, though, everything changed. 

TRENIN: And then of course you had the very unusual experience of the Cold War being wound down, Soviet Forces being withdrawn from Eastern European countries. And then in the very short order, the Soviet Union itself collapsing with its military being divided up among the constituent republics of the Soviet Union turned independent states. And we're talking about a demise of a nuclear superpower. We're talking about a demise of a nuclear-capable military. And that was, still remains a truly unique experience in the world.

ALLAWALA: Trenin says that the Soviet armed forces are not given enough credit for how they handled the transition. 

TRENIN: What I think is not given enough attention is the fact that the Soviet military went along with the change. They made no attempt of their own to question the decisions taken by the political leadership. They made no last ditch attempt to save the Soviet Union, to save communism, to unseat Gorbachev, and establish some sort of a military dictatorship trying to reverse things and bring back the good old days of confrontation, the good old days of communist party rule, etcetera

ALLAWALA: If the officers had revolted, Trenin argues, things could have been much worse.

TRENIN: So I think that we, all of us, owe a lot to the Soviet military being willing to accept the changes which in many ways went against their interest, not only corporate interest but the private interest of hundreds of thousands of officers and families who were removed from their deployment locations in Eastern Europe and basically thrown into the midst of the Russian steppes in a number of cases. So I think that they were the unsung heroes of the Cold War, if I may put it that way.

ALLAWALA: As for why the military behaved the way it did, Trenin points out that they shared much in common with the broader public.

TRENIN: Well I think that the Russian military were, including the officer corps, were very much a part of the wider Soviet public who had essentially abandoned the tenets of communism, the underpinnings of the Soviet state. And they, the bulk of them, the vast majority of them, welcomed the changes. So basically that tells me that they were not against, let's say alien, vis-à-vis the rest of the Soviet people at that time. That basically they too wanted change, and that I think was very important

ALLAWALA: Putin inherited the remnants of this Soviet force in 2000. 

TRENIN: They were still fairly big in numbers on paper. But when he needed a military force to confront Chechen separatists and terrorists, he had very little that he could draw upon to fight in the North Caucasus. And it was only on the eve of the war against Georgia that he had decided to go ahead with meaningful military reform whose goal was to turn those remnants, disorganized in many ways, and malfunctioning remnants of the Soviet military into something that was... Something that would be at that time a credible military force, a usable military force.

ALLAWALA: That realization came too late for the campaign in Georgia in 2008, though.

TRENIN: And although the battle was very short, we're talking a five-day long war, Russia still suffered outsize casualties, and outsize losses

ALLAWALA: And so Putin pushed forward with reforms, which are still ongoing. As Trenin writes in his recent Foreign Affairs article, Russian officials have projected that these efforts will cost some $700 billion by 2020. They are intended to transform the Russian military from a massive standing force designed for global great-power war into a lighter, more mobile force suited for local and regional conflicts. Moscow has pledged to streamline its command-and-control system, improve the combat readiness of its troops, and reform procurement.

Russia’s defense industry, meanwhile, has started to provide the changing force with modern weapons systems and equipment. In 2009, after a hiatus of about two decades, during which the Kremlin cut off funding, Russian forces began to undertake large-scale military exercises, often without prior warning, to improve their combat readiness. Perhaps most important, Russian soldiers, sailors, and airmen came to be paid more or less decently.

TRENIN: I would say that these reforms have been fairly successful. They are still not complete. The transformation of the Russian military is still an ongoing process. But if you look at what happened in Crimea from a military, a professional military standpoint, what happened in Donbass, what happened and continues to happen in Syria, then I think the conclusion would be that the Russian leadership for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union has a tool in its hands that it can use in various strategic, geopolitical circumstances to further Russian military, or political objectives, or to protect Russian interests

ALLAWALA: Russia’s ongoing economic slide—and the high price tag for reforms so far—might mean that Russia has to scale back. 

TRENIN: When the program was first adopted and they talked about the equivalent of $700 billion, there was much more money in the system than there is now. Some things are being scaled back. 

But still for Vladimir Putin, Russia's confrontation with the West is a very serious matter. Security threats to Russia from the South, the Muslim world, parts of the former Soviet Union potentially, is serious. We're talking about ISIS, or ISIS-type organizations that represent the biggest real threat to Russia these days. 

ALLAWALA: Still, the budgetary constraints are real.

TRENIN: But I think that questions about sustainability of that high rate of military expenditure are being heard more and more often in Russia. And I think that in the immediate future, adjustments are likely to be on the margins, nothing very substantial, nothing very fundamental. But over time, it will all depend on the performance of the Russian economy. 

If Russia resumes growth, at some point in the next couple of years, you're dealing with one kind of scenario. If Russia's recession continues for a long time, a very long time, say a decade or so, then a lot of priorities will have to be re-thought, and a lot of hard decisions will have to be taken in Moscow.

ALLAWALA: That was Dmitri Trenin on the Russian military. That’s our show for this week. Please let us know what you thought by leaving a review on iTunes or emailing us at [email protected]