Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Donald Trump wanted his July 2018 meeting in Helsinki with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to evoke memories of the momentous encounters that took place in the 1980s between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Those arms control summits had yielded the kind of iconic imagery that Trump loved: strong, serious men meeting in distant places to hash out the great issues of the day. What better way, in Trump’s view, to showcase his prowess at the art of the deal?
That was the kind of show Trump wanted to put on in Helsinki. What emerged instead was an altogether different sort of spectacle.
By the time of the meeting, I had spent just over a year serving in the Trump administration as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Like everyone else who worked in the White House, I had, by then, learned a great deal about Trump’s idiosyncrasies. We all knew, for instance, that Trump rarely read the detailed briefing materials his staff prepared for him and that in meetings or calls with other leaders, he could never stick to an agreed-on script or his cabinet members’ recommendations. This had proved to be a major liability during those conversations, since it often seemed to his foreign counterparts as though Trump was hearing about the issues on the agenda for the first time.
When Trump was winging it, he could be persuaded of all kinds of things. If a foreign visitor or caller was one of his favored strongmen, Trump would always give the strongman’s views and version of events the benefit of the doubt over those of his own advisers. During a cabinet meeting with a visiting Hungarian delegation in May 2019, for example, Trump cut off acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was trying to make a point about a critical European security issue. In front of everyone, Trump told Shanahan that the autocratic Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, had already explained it all to him when they had met in the Oval Office moments earlier—and that Orban knew the issue better than Shanahan did, anyway. In Trump’s mind, the Hungarian strongman simply had more authority than the American officials who worked for Trump himself. The other leader was his equal, and his staff members were not. For Trump, all pertinent information trickled down from him, not up to him. This tendency of Trump’s was lamentable when it played out behind closed doors, but it was inexcusable (and indeed impossible to explain or justify) when it spilled out into public view—which is precisely what happened during the now legendarily disastrous press conference after Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki.
Before the press conference, Trump was pleased with how things had gone in his one-on-one meeting with Putin. The optics in Finland’s presidential palace were to Trump’s liking. The two men had agreed to get U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations going again and to convene meetings between their countries’ respective national security councils. Trump was keen to show that he and Putin could have a productive, normal relationship, partly to dispel the prevailing notion that there was something perverse about his ties to the Russian president. Trump was eager to brush away allegations that he had conspired with the Kremlin in its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or that the Russians had somehow compromised him—matters that at the time of the meeting, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was actively investigating.
Things went wrong as soon as the press conference began. Trump expected public praise for meeting with Putin and tackling the nuclear threat. But the U.S. journalists in attendance were not interested in arms control. They wanted to know about the one-on-one meeting and what Putin might have said or not said regarding 2016 and election interference. Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press asked Trump whether he believed Putin, who had repeatedly denied that his country had done anything to meddle in the election, or the U.S. intelligence agencies, which had concluded the opposite. Lemire pressed Trump: “Would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin—would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?”
Trump balked. He really didn’t want to answer. The only way that Trump could view Russia’s broad-based attack on the U.S. democratic system was through the lens of his own ego and image. In my interactions with Trump and his closest staff in the White House, it had become clear to me that endorsing the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies would be tantamount to admitting that Trump had not won the 2016 election. The questions got right to the heart of his insecurities. If Trump said, “Yes, the Russians interfered on my behalf,” then he might as well have said outright, “I am illegitimate.”
So as he often did in such situations, Trump tried to divert attention elsewhere. He went off on a tangent about a convoluted conspiracy theory involving Ukraine and the emails of his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, and then produced a muddled, rambling answer to Lemire’s question, the crux of which was this:
My people came to me. . . . They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be. . . . But I have confidence in both parties. . . . I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.
The outcome of the Helsinki press conference was entirely predictable, which was why I and others had counseled against holding it at all. But it was still agonizing to watch. I was sitting in front of the podium as Trump spoke, immediately behind the U.S. national security adviser and the secretary of state. I saw them stiffen slightly, and I contemplated throwing a fit or faking a seizure and hurling myself backward into the row of journalists behind me. I just wanted to end the whole thing. Perhaps contrary to the expectations of many American observers, even Putin was somewhat dismayed. He reveled in the national and personal humiliation that Trump was courting, but he also knew that Trump’s careless remarks would provoke a backlash in the United States and thus further constrain the U.S. president’s already limited room to maneuver on Russia policy. The modest agreements for further high-level meetings were already out the window. As he exited the room, Putin told his press secretary, within earshot of our interpreter, that the press conference had been “bullshit.”
Trump’s critics immediately pounced on his bizarre conduct in Helsinki. It was more evidence that Trump was in league with Putin and that the Kremlin held sway over the American president. The following year, Mueller’s final investigative report determined that during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Trump campaign had in fact been willing to exploit any derogatory information about Clinton that came its way from whatever source, including Russia. In seeking to thwart Clinton’s bid to become the first female American president, the Trump campaign and the Kremlin had been acting in parallel; their goals had aligned. Mueller concluded that although this did not amount to a criminal conspiracy, there was plenty of evidence of an extensive and sophisticated Russian political influence operation against the United States.
Russia and the United States were not so different—and Putin, for one, knew it.
The Mueller report also sketched the contours of a different, arguably more pernicious kind of “Russian connection.” In some crucial ways, Russia and the United States were not so different—and Putin, for one, knew it. In the very early years of the post–Cold War era, many analysts and observers had hoped that Russia would slowly but surely converge in some ways with the United States. They predicted that once the Soviet Union and communism had fallen away, Russia would move toward a form of liberal democracy. By the late 1990s, it was clear that such an outcome was not on the horizon. And in more recent years, quite the opposite has happened: the United States has begun to move closer to Russia, as populism, cronyism, and corruption have sapped the strength of American democracy. This is a development that few would have foreseen 20 years ago, but one that American leaders should be doing everything in their power to halt and reverse.
Indeed, over time, the United States and Russia have become subject to the same economic and social forces. Their populations have proved equally susceptible to political manipulation. Prior to the 2016 U.S. election, Putin recognized that the United States was on a path similar to the one that Russia took in the 1990s, when economic dislocation and political upheaval after the collapse of the Soviet Union had left the Russian state weak and insolvent. In the United States, decades of fast-paced social and demographic changes and the Great Recession of 2008–9 had weakened the country and increased its vulnerability to subversion. Putin realized that despite the lofty rhetoric that flowed from Washington about democratic values and liberal norms, beneath the surface, the United States was beginning to resemble his own country: a place where self-dealing elites had hollowed out vital institutions and where alienated, frustrated people were increasingly open to populist and authoritarian appeals. The fire was already burning; all Putin had to do was pour on some gasoline.
When Trump was elected, Putin and the Kremlin made no attempt to conceal their glee. They had thought that Clinton would become president and that she would focus on criticizing Putin’s style of governance and constraining Russia. They had steeled themselves and prepared for the worst. Instead, they got the best possible outcome from their perspective—a populist, nativistic president with no prior experience in foreign policy and a huge, fragile ego. Putin recognized Trump as a type and grasped his political predilections immediately: Trump, after all, fit a mold that Putin himself had helped forge as the first populist leader to take power in a major country in the twenty-first century. Putin had blazed the trail that Trump would follow during his four years in office.
The essence of populism is creating a direct link with “the people” or with specific groups within a population, then offering them quick fixes for complex problems and bypassing or eliminating intermediaries such as political parties, parliamentary representatives, and established institutions. Referendums, plebiscites, and executive orders are the preferred tools of the populist leader, and Putin has used them all over the past 20 years. When he came to power on December 31, 1999, at the end of a decade of crisis and strife in Russia, Putin promised to fix everything. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin did not belong to a formal political party. He was the champion of a looser, personalized movement. After 2000, Putin turned Russian presidential elections into national referendums on himself by making sure his rivals were obscure (or wholly manufactured) opposition candidates. And at every critical juncture during his time in power, Putin has adjusted Russia’s political system to entrench himself in the Kremlin. Finally, in 2020, he formally amended the constitution so that in theory (and health permitting), he can run for reelection and stay in power until 2036.
Putin blazed the trail that Trump would follow during his four years in office.
All of Putin’s machinations greatly impressed Trump. He wanted to “get along” with Russia and with Putin personally. Practically the only thing Trump ever said to me during my time in his administration was to ask, in reference to Putin, “Am I going to like him?” Before I could answer, the other officials in the room got up to leave, and the president’s attention shifted; such was life as a female adviser in the Trump White House.
Trump took at face value rumors that Putin was the richest man in the world and told close associates that he admired Putin for his presumed wealth and for the way he ran Russia as if it were his own private company. As Trump freely admitted, he wanted to do the same thing. He saw the United States as an extension of his other private enterprises: the Trump Organization, but with the world’s largest military at its disposal. This was a troubling perspective for a U.S. president, and indeed, over the course of his time in office, Trump came to more closely resemble Putin in political practice than he resembled any of his American predecessors.
At times, the similarities between Trump and Putin were glaringly obvious: their shared manipulation and exploitation of the domestic media, their appeals to their own versions of their countries’ “golden age,” their compilation of personal lists of “national heroes” to appeal to their voters’ nostalgia and conservatism—and their attendant compilation of personal lists of enemies to do the same for their voters’ darker sides. Putin put statues of Soviet-era figures back on their pedestals and restored Soviet memorials that had been toppled under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Trump tried to prevent the removal of statues of Confederate leaders and the renaming of American military bases honoring Confederate generals. The two men also shared many of the same enemies: cosmopolitan, liberal elites; the American financier, philanthropist, and open society promoter George Soros; and anyone trying to expand voting rights, improve electoral systems, or cast a harsh light on corruption in their countries’ respective executive branches.
Trump also aped Putin’s willingness to abuse his executive power by going after his political adversaries; Trump’s first impeachment was provoked in part by his attempt to coerce the government of Ukraine into smearing one of his most formidable opponents, Joe Biden, ahead of the 2020 presidential election. And Trump imported Putin’s style of personalist rule, bypassing the professional civil servants in the federal government—a nefarious “deep state,” in Trump’s eyes—to rely instead on the counsel and interventions of cronies. Foreign politicians called in chits with celebrities who had personal connections to the president and his family, avoiding their own embassies in the process. Lobbyists complained to whomever they could reach in the West Wing or the Trump family circle. They were quick to set attack dogs on anyone perceived as an obstacle and to rile up pro-Trump trolls on the Internet, because this always seemed to work. Influence peddlers both domestic and foreign courted the president to pursue their own priorities; the policymaking process became, in essence, privatized.
The event that most clearly revealed the convergence of politics in the United States and Russia during Trump’s term was his disorganized but deadly serious attempt to stage a self-coup and halt the peaceful transfer of executive power after he lost the 2020 election to Biden. Russia, after all, has a long history of coups and succession crises, dating back to the tsarist era, including three during the past 30 years. In August 1991, hard-liners opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms staged a brief putsch, declaring a state of emergency and placing Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation home. The effort fizzled, and the coup was a debacle, but it helped bring down the Soviet Union. Two years later, violence erupted from a bitter dispute between the Russian parliament and Yeltsin over the respective powers of the legislature and the president in competing drafts of a new constitution. Yeltsin moved to dissolve parliament after it refused to confirm his choice for prime minister. His vice president and the Speaker of the parliament, in response, sought to impeach him. In the end, Yeltsin invoked “extraordinary powers” and called out the Russian army to shell the parliament building, thus settling the argument with brute force.
The next coup was a legal one and came in 2020, when Putin wanted to amend Yeltsin’s version of the constitution to beef up his presidential powers—and, more important, to remove the existing term limits so that he could potentially stay on as president until 2036. As a proxy to propose the necessary constitutional amendments, Putin tapped Valentina Tereshkova, a loyal supporter in parliament and, as a cosmonaut and the first woman to travel to outer space, an iconic figure in Russian society. Putin’s means were subtler than Yeltsin’s in 1993, but his methods were no less effective.
It would have been impossible for any close observer of recent Russian history to not recall those episodes on January 6, when a mob whipped up by Trump and his allies—who had spent weeks claiming that the 2020 election had been stolen from him—stormed the U.S. Capitol and tried to stop the formal certification of the election results. The attack on the Capitol was the culmination of four years of conspiracies and lies that Trump and his allies had fed to his supporters on social media platforms, in speeches, and on television. The “Big Lie” that Trump had won the election was built on the backs of the thousands of little lies that Trump uttered nearly every time he spoke and that were then nurtured within the dense ecosystem of Trumpist media outlets. This was yet one more way in which, under Trump, the United States came to resemble Russia, where Putin has long solidified his grip on power by manipulating the Russian media, fueling nationalist grievances, and peddling conspiracy theories.
Trump put the United States on a path to autocracy, all the while promising to “make America great again.” Likewise, Putin took Russia back toward the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union under the guise of strengthening the state and restoring the country’s global position. This striking convergence casts U.S.-Russian relations and the exigencies of Washington’s approach to Moscow in a new light.
Historically, U.S. policies toward Russia have been premised on the idea that the two countries’ paths and expectations diverged at the end of the Cold War. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western analysts had initially thought that Russia might embrace some of the international institutional arrangements that Washington and its allies had long championed. That, of course, did not happen. And under Putin, U.S.-Russian relations have become more frazzled and fraught than at any point in the 1990s.
There is something confounding about the ongoing confrontation between the two countries, which seems like an artifact from another era. During the Cold War, the stakes of the conflict were undeniable. The Soviet Union posed an existential threat to the United States and its allies, and vice versa. The two superpowers faced off in an ideological clash between capitalism and communism and a geopolitical tussle over spheres of influence in Europe. Today, Russia maintains the capacity to obliterate the United States, but the Soviet Union and the communist system are gone. And even though foreign policy circles in Washington and Moscow still view U.S.-Russian relations through the lens of great-power competition, the struggle for Europe is over. For the United States, China, not Russia, poses the greatest foreign policy challenge of the twenty-first century, along with the urgent existential threats of climate change and global pandemics.
The ongoing confrontation between the two countries seems like an artifact from another era.
Yet a sense of confrontation and competition persists. Americans point to a pattern of Russian aggression and provocation: Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent assaults on Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty, its intervention in Syria in 2015, the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the frequent ransomware attacks and email hacks attributed to Russian actors. Russians, for their part, point to the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the U.S. bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovo war in 1999, Washington’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, U.S. support for the “color revolutions” that took place in post-Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine in the first decade of this century, and the uprisings in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. In Moscow, all of these serve as proof that Washington is hell-bent on invasion and regime change and also has Russia and Putin in its cross hairs.
In truth, most American policymakers simply wish that Russia would just go away so they can refocus their attention on what really matters. For their Russian counterparts, however, the United States still represents the main opponent. That is because, as a populist leader, Putin sees the United States not just as a geopolitical threat to Russia but also as a personal threat to himself. For Putin, foreign policy and domestic policy have fused. His attempt to retain Russia’s grip on the independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and to reassert Moscow’s influence in other global arenas is inseparable from his effort to consolidate and expand his authority at home.
Putin sits at the apex of a personalized and semi-privatized kleptocratic system that straddles the Russian state and its institutions and population. He has embedded loyalists in every important Russian institution, enterprise, and industry. If Putin wants to retain the presidency until 2036—by which time he will be 84 years old and will have become the longest-serving modern Russian ruler—he will have to maintain this level of control or even increase it, since any slippage might be perceived as weakness. To do so, Putin has to deter or defeat any opponents, foreign or domestic, who have the capacity to undermine his regime. His hope is that leaders in the United States will get so bogged down with problems at home that they will cease criticizing his personalization of power and will eschew any efforts to transform Russia similar to those the U.S. government carried out in the 1990s.
Putin also blurs the line between domestic and foreign policy to distract the Russian population from the distortions and deficiencies of his rule. On the one hand, he stresses how decadent and dissolute the United States has become and how ill suited its leaders are to teach anyone a lesson on how to run a country. On the other hand, he stresses that the United States still poses a military threat and that it aims to bring Russia to its knees. Putin’s constant refrain is that the contest between Russia and the United States is a perpetual Darwinian struggle and that without his leadership, Russia will not survive. Without Putin, there is no Russia. He does not want things to get completely out of hand and lead to war. But he also does not want the standoff to fade away or get resolved. As the sole true champion of his country and his people, he can never be seen to stand down or compromise when it comes to the Americans.
Similarly, Putin must intimidate, marginalize, defuse, or defeat any opposition to his rule. Anyone who might stand in his way must be crushed. In this sense, the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Clinton fall into the same category. In Putin’s view, if Clinton had become U.S. president, she would have continued to hound him and hold him to task, just as she did when she served as secretary of state in the Obama administration, by promoting democracy and civil society to root out corruption in Russia.
Of course, Navalny is far more dangerous to Putin than Clinton would have been. Navalny is a Russian, not a foreigner. He is a next-generation alternative to Putin: young, handsome, charismatic, patriotic, and defiant. He poses a threat to Putin not only owing to their differences but also because of a few key similarities: like Putin, Navalny is a populist who heads a movement rather than a party, and he has not been averse to playing on nationalist sentiments to appeal to the same Russian voters who form Putin’s base. Navalny has survived an audacious assassination attempt and has humiliated Putin on numerous occasions. By skillfully using digital media and slick video skills to highlight the excesses of the Russian leader’s kleptocratic system, Navalny has gotten under Putin’s skin. He has forced the Kremlin to pay attention to him. This is why Navalny is in jail and why Putin has moved swiftly to roll up his movement, forestalling any chance that Navalny might compete for the presidency in 2024.
The current U.S.-Russian relationship no longer mirrors the Cold War challenge, even if some geopolitical contours and antagonisms persist. The old U.S. foreign policy approach of balancing deterrence with limited engagement is ill suited to the present task of dealing with Putin’s insecurities. And after Trump’s disastrous performance at Helsinki, it is also clear that the arms control summitry that took the edge off the acute phase of the Cold War and nuclear confrontation can provide little guidance for how to anchor the future relationship. The primary problem for the Biden administration in dealing with Russia is rooted in the domestic politics of the United States and Russia rather than their foreign policies. The two countries have been heading in the same political direction for some of the same reasons over the last several years. They have similar political susceptibilities. The United States will never change Putin and his threat perceptions, because they are deeply personal. Americans will have to change themselves to blunt the effects of Russian political interference campaigns for the foreseeable future. Achieving that goal will require Biden and his team to integrate their approach to Russia with their efforts to shore up American democracy, tackle inequality and racism, and lead the country out of a period of intense division.
The polarization of American society has become a national security threat, acting as a barrier to the collective action necessary for combating catastrophes and thwarting external dangers. Partisan spectacles during the global covid-19 pandemic have undermined the country’s international standing as a model of liberal democracy and eroded its authority on public health. The United States’ inability to get its act together has hindered the projection of American soft power, or what Biden has called “the power of our example.” During my time in the Trump administration, I watched as every peril was politicized and turned into fodder for personal gain and partisan games. Successive national security advisers, cabinet members, and their professional staffs were unable to mount coherent responses or defenses to security issues in the face of personalized, chaotic, and opportunistic conduct at the top.
In this regard, Putin actually offers an instructive contrast. Trump railed against a mythological American deep state, whereas Putin—who spent decades as an intelligence operative before ascending to office—is a product of Russia’s very real deep state. Unlike Trump, who saw the U.S. state apparatus as his enemy and wanted to rule the country as an outsider, Putin rules Russia as a state insider. Also unlike Trump, Putin rarely dives into Russia’s social, class, racial, or religious divisions to gain political traction. Instead, although he targets individuals and social groups that enjoy little popular support, Putin tends to promote a single, synthetic Russian culture and identity to overcome the domestic conflicts of the past that destabilized and helped bring down both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. That Putin seeks one Russia while Trump wanted many Americas during his time in office is more than just a difference in political styles: it is a critical data point. It highlights the fact that a successful U.S. policy approach to Russia will rest in part on denying Putin and Russian operatives the possibility to exploit divisions in American society.
The Biden administration must integrate its approach to Russia with its efforts to shore up American democracy.
The United States’ vulnerability to the Kremlin’s subversion has been amplified by social media. American-made technology has magnified the impact of once fringe ideas and subversive actors around the world and become a tool in the hands of hostile states and criminal groups. Extremists can network and reach audiences as never before on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which are designed to attract people’s attention and divide them into affinity groups. Putin has weaponized this technology against the United States, taking advantage of the ways that social media undermines social cohesion and erodes Americans’ sense of a shared purpose. Policymakers should step up their cooperation with the private sector in order to cast light on and deter Russian intelligence operations and other efforts to exploit social media platforms. They also need to figure out ways to educate the American public about the perils of posting personal and political information online.
Making the United States and its society more resilient and less vulnerable to manipulation by tackling inequality, corruption, and polarization will require innovative policies across a huge range of issues. Perhaps the highest priority should be given to investing in people where they reside, particularly through education. Education can lower the barriers to opportunity and accurate information in a way that nothing else can. It can help people recognize the difference between fact and fiction. And it offers all people the chance not only to develop knowledge and learn skills but also to continue to transform themselves and their communities.
One thing U.S. leaders should avoid in seeking to foster domestic unity is attempting to mobilize Americans around the idea of a common enemy, such as China. Doing so risks backfiring by stirring up xenophobic anger toward Americans and immigrants of Asian heritage and thus fueling more divisions at home. Instead of trying to rally Americans against China, Biden should rally them in support of the democratic U.S. allies that Trump spurned and derided. Many of those countries, especially in Europe, find themselves in the same political predicament as the United States, as authoritarian leaders and powers seek to exploit socioeconomic strife and populist proclivities among their citizens. Biden should base a new transatlantic agenda on the mutual fight against populism at home and authoritarianism abroad through economic rebuilding and democratic renewal.
Most important, Biden must do everything in his power to restore trust in government and to promote fairness, equity, and justice. As many Americans learned during Trump’s presidency, no country, no matter how advanced, is immune to flawed leadership, the erosion of political checks and balances, and the degradation of its institutions. Democracy is not self-repairing. It requires constant attention.