Though Russia no longer threatens the United States as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, Moscow’s increasing aggression remains perplexing to outsiders. In the May/June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, top experts break down what motivates the Kremlin and its leader, President Vladimir Putin.

Russia has almost always been a relatively weak great power,” writes Princeton University’s Stephen Kotkin in the introductory essay. “Someday, Russia’s leaders may come to terms with the glaring limits of standing up to the West and seeking to dominate Eurasia.” Until then, however, Russia will remain a “problem to be managed” and not an adversary to be defeated.

While it may be tempting to view Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as a calculated chess move, nothing could be further from the truth, contends Daniel Treisman of the University of California, Los Angeles. In fact, recent evidence shows that Putin’s gambit was hastily planned and opportunistic.

Maria Lipman, editor in chief of Counterpoint, explains that Putin’s regime controls dissent through “manipulation and intimidation, cultivating a sense that opposing the Kremlin is not just dangerous but also pointless.” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin advisor turned critic, argues that Russian politics is not just about Putin, and the country’s corrupt governing system will persist long after he is gone.

Russia has the potential to catch up to the West economically, contends Sergei Guriev of Sciences Po. He recommends that Moscow begin by ending the Ukraine conflict and enacting pro-market reforms. Yet he is skeptical that it will choose that course because “the government’s major stakeholders—state-owned companies and politically connected businesses—benefit from the status quo.”

Also in the issue:

Under the Obama administration, the United States has reinforced its reputation for global economic leadership, using sanctions to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and helping reform the International Monetary Fund, writes U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew. “But the United States cannot take its global role for granted,” he warns. “The task now is to strengthen this architecture and adapt it to new challenges.”

Reducing the size of the American government won’t repair slow growth and rising income inequality, caution Yale University’s Jacob S. Hacker and University of California at Berkeley’s Paul Pierson. In fact, they write, “a government capable of rising above narrow private interests and supporting broader public concerns is part of the solution, not the problem.”

Despite frequent warnings in the 2016 presidential race about the rise of China, the country is not close to becoming a global superpower, assert Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth of Dartmouth College. China’s technological and military shortcomings, as well as its lack of international alliances, ensure that it will not match the United States’ ability to project power anytime soon.

The fight against climate change will require giant leaps forward in clean-energy technology, argue the Council on Foreign Relations’ Varun Sivaram and former U.S. Department of Energy advisor Teryn Norris. It’s time for the United States to get serious about investing in clean energy research and development and encouraging public-private partnerships.

Quantitative easing works when it comes to heading off short-term financial collapses, but it harms economies in the long run, argues Harvard University’s Martin Feldstein.

To prevent future recessions, the Federal Reserve should focus on controlling nominal gross domestic product (NGDP), not inflation, concludes George Mason University’s Scott Sumner.


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Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, is an independent magazine of analysis and commentary on foreign policy and international affairs. In recent biannual surveys, Foreign Affairs has been ranked among the top ten most influential media outlets by the independent research firm Erdos & Morgan.

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