The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Last week, after canceling a planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama said at a White House press conference that “it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we’re doing things that are good for the United States.” But where is Russia going?
As I outlined in Foreign Affairs in March, Russia is guided by the Putin Doctrine, which seeks the recovery of economic, geostrategic, and political assets lost by the Soviet state in the revolution of 1987–1991. The doctrine also promotes an assertive affirmation of three essential national goals, inherited from the Soviet Union and likely to be upheld by any Russian regime: the maintenance of Russia’s roles as a nuclear superpower; as the military, economic, and cultural hegemon in former Soviet territories (with the exception of the three Baltic states); and as a great world power.
Putin’s interpretation of the final imperative casts Russia as a counterbalance to the United States. Russia’s granting of political asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden is only the latest reaffirmation of this policy. The Kremlin remains unyielding on further sanctions against Iran, and, despite Obama’s entreaties, has hardened its position on Syria. As Putin explained the Snowden decision on state television: “Russia is not like other countries. We have an independent foreign policy.”
Because the Putin Doctrine almost by definition fosters confrontation with the United States, I argued, the United States should abandon its “reset” with Russia in favor of a “strategic pause.” And so Obama was right to want such an intermission to define the priorities in the relationship and the price each side is prepared to pay for achieving its goals.
In recent months, the Kremlin has doubled down on the Putin Doctrine, as evidenced by growing authoritarianism at home and recalcitrance in foreign policy, in particular global security issues. Russia has continued to zealously guard its nuclear superpower status against the perceived threat of a European missile defense system, despite a stream of high-level U.S. emissaries, from Vice President Joe Biden to top national security officials, seeking to assuage Moscow’s concerns. As a result, there has been no progress in the further reduction of strategic nuclear arms, one of Obama’s presidential goals and the key priority of his entire Russia policy, epitomized by the 2010 New START Treaty. That agreement reduced the number of America’s deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles to Russian levels, yet has failed to move Moscow any closer to accepting a missile defense system over Europe.
Similarly, Putin has continued to seek political and economic integration of the great stretch of former Soviet territories, reaffirming his commitment to a Russia-dominated “Eurasian Union” of at least Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which he insists will emerge in 2015. Advocated by Putin personally, frequently, and aggressively, the proposed union prompted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s rebuke last December that Moscow sought to “re-Sovietize the region.” Meanwhile, Russia has refused to move an inch toward accommodation with Georgia on the de-facto Russian protectorates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which only Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela recognize as independent states.
Likewise, the Putin regime is still seeking to deepen the state’s political control over society, within a steadily expanding perimeter. This push reflects a preference for shorter-term stability over institutional reforms, which would be necessary for Russia to secure long-term economic, political, and social progress. The repression and marginalization of Russia’s political opposition continues in the context of a broader assault on civil society, much of it from the urban middle class, which increasingly and daringly opposes the regime in public. The opposition’s most popular and charismatic leaders, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, are likely headed to jail on the absurd charges, respectively, of embezzlement and organizing “mass disorder” during protests in Moscow last year. Navalny was sentenced by a kangaroo court to five years in a labor camp; Udaltsov, under house arrest since February, awaits his trial.
More and more, the Kremlin’s domestic politics are becoming a significant irritant in bilateral relations. The White House’s statement on the cancellation of Obama’s meeting with Putin cited “our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months.” That last concern had been notably absent in previous White House statements. And the domestic repression -- along with the vicious anti-American propaganda that is its natural complement -- won’t likely subside anytime soon. Putin’s choice of authoritarian consolidation over political liberalization undermines the chance for strong and consistent economic growth, given Russia’s dependence on commodity exports and a weakening investment climate. Improving the latter depends on a measure of democratic accountability and transparency, including greater respect for property rights, the easing of television censorship, and real judicial independence from the government -- none of which Putin shows any sign of pursuing.
A LONG PAUSE
The economic, social, and, ultimately, political price of the Putin Doctrine is likely to be high and lasting. With the economy slowing down for the sixth consecutive quarter, this year’s growth projection has been revised down to 2.4 percent -- a far cry from the seven to eight percent growth during Putin’s first two terms and less than half of the five percent growth that Putin promised to deliver upon his reelection last year. Deep budget cuts, starting with healthcare and education, are scheduled for next year; pensions, already among the lowest in Europe, will probably stay there.
The belt-tightening is bound to increase restiveness and erode loyalty among the regime’s base, which depends on a system of patronage and handouts that Putin can no longer generously disburse. According to polls, Putin supporters are already beginning to chafe under their meager pensions, the rising price of food staples and utilities, a housing shortage, the deterioration of education and healthcare, and the daily indignity of corruption. The logic of authoritarianism will dictate an even greater repression in response to such discontent, along with an even greater need for an external enemy -- a role in which the United States seems to be permanently cast.
The confrontational dynamic that the Putin Doctrine has set in motion -- with the canceled Putin-Obama summit only the latest and most visible casualty -- could extend the strategic pause. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (something that Putin all but pleaded Washington not to do) will further diminish the countries’ geostrategic need for each other. At the same time, the pause probably won’t extend down to all levels of diplomacy; nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism should continue to preoccupy midlevel officials in both countries. The latter is of particular concern to both Moscow and Washington, given that next year’s Olympics in Sochi will be held within a three-hour car ride of a low-intensity Islamist insurgency.
In the end, though, the pause is likely to last as long as the Putin Doctrine guides the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign behavior. Barring an economic crisis or a national embarrassment such as the failure of the Olympics, Putin’s confidence in his current course will remain unshakeable: hubris, the illness of all long-term autocrats, increasingly affects decision-making. And a new U.S. administration in 2016 is not likely to make much of a difference. The sole closing bracket to the pause visible today is 2018, when Putin, then 66 years old, will prepare to run for a fourth presidential term, ignoring the fact that 55 percent of Russia currently does not want to see him continue on as the head of state. In Moscow, where Russia’s fate is usually decided, 61 percent oppose Putin’s fourth term. By then he will have been in power for 18 years, as long as Leonid Brezhnev. With rising discontent that could unite protesters with political and economic grievances, Putin may have to rig the vote in order to match Stalin’s 24-year tenure. What follows could end the Putin Doctrine as the Kremlin’s operational guide -- and, with it, the pause, ushering in, for better or worse, a new era in bilateral relations.