The Faraway Tsar

by Morgan Herrell

In today’s Russia, dominated by one man, those of us on the outside must look to President Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia in order to anticipate the future of that state and our relationship with it. Worryingly, though, there may be no vision at all—and no space for anyone other than Mr. Putin to create one.  


(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past year, Russia has careened to a point nearer to open conflict with the West than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In the eyes of the Russian public and of other nations, responsibility for the trajectory and nature of the Russian political system over the last 15 years can only fall to one person, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Russians and foreigners alike must guess at his vision of Russia to try to anticipate the country’s next step. Essentially, we must decide if there is any true guiding ideology, a “Putinism,” and if so, what exactly it means for Russians and foreigners alike.

The way in which Mr. Putin consolidated control in the Russian Federation, a state constructed in 1991 to be essentially decentralized in structure, means that his rule is often personal and plagued by a lack of credible institutions. In 1991, Russia’s constituent regions and republics agreed to remain in the fold on the understanding that they would “take as much sovereignty as [they could] swallow.” The regions of Russia, from the Caucasus to Siberia, signed on to this often chaotic and multi-tiered regional system with the intention of bringing money and control closer to the people. However, after assuming the presidency in 2000, Vladimir Putin promptly undertook a number of important steps to increase the political influence of the central government and reduced the ability of regions to influence policy design and its implementation.” [AP1] This resulted in the failure to develop any sort of counterweight to the executive power. In the story of Russia’s transformation since 2000, this failure was a key first step.  

Another key feature of Vladimir Putin’s worldview is the drive to restore Russia to global prominence. However, it is important to note that this is not his primary goal; flexing muscles abroad represents a means just as often as an end. A popular assumption in this area is that Mr. Putin’s guiding ideology is a sort of Soviet revanchism, a desire to rebuild Soviet-style control over a post-Soviet space. It is truer to say that Mr. Putin wishes to create economic and political ties that favor Russia, such as attempting to create a Eurasian Union or exerting pressure on the Ukrainian government not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. But Putin certainly does not wish to territorially resurrect the Soviet Union, as demonstrated in what might at first appear an unlikely place—the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine. If Mr. Putin truly wished to push a physical Soviet resurgence, he would not wage a covert conflict through ineffective proxies in Ukraine’s East. Similarly, in the frozen conflict zones in Georgia and Moldova, he is vying to destabilize, and thus gain influence, but not to take territory. Instead of expansion, he has used the war in Ukraine to drum up support at home, first rallying his people around the annexation of Crimea and then creating a “siege mentality” with himself as the national defender.

The portrayal of Russia as a resurgent, muscular great power first and foremost serves a domestic rather than foreign policy purpose. Mr. Putin has the power to continue or “freeze” Russian involvement in regional conflicts, from Ukraine or Georgia any day, and he is unafraid to abandon these regions when they cease to benefit him politically. When we see these conflicts through the lens of power in Russia itself, we concur with historian Anne Applebaum’s description of Mr. Putin’s goals: “to maintain the dominance of his clique”. Since the Medvedev interregnum, a relatively calm six years marked by the US-Russian “reset,” domestic worries have, to the detriment of all, increasingly motivated many of Mr. Putin’s foreign policy decisions in an effort to stay on top.

Today the Kremlin’s shaky control, after years of corruption, violence, and more recently, the fall of the ruble and standards of living, is “now fully based on external conflict.” The Kremlin feeds these perceptions of conflict and encourages this “siege mentality” through its almost-total control of television and print media. For a man who loves to cite Russian historians and philosophers, though, Mr. Putin has not learned the ultimate lesson from Russia’s preceding systems: that the purpose of a government cannot be to hold down its citizens. The fact that he continues to govern through this prism, even after the national traumas of the Soviet years, should worry us all.

Instead, with no legitimate competition, Mr. Putin made control the primary principle of the entire state. This structure is not viable, at least not in Russia, as demonstrated by over a hundred years of upheaval, repression, and upheaval again. Instead of a real organizing idea, we see a clear lack of a long-term vision for Russia. Unchallenged, Mr. Putin hops from one political tactic to another, depending upon the prevailing winds, to see where he can score the quickest points. He hardly pictures Russia a few years down the line, much less after his lifetime. He certainly does not trouble himself with creating a government and social structure that will last for decades to come. Those types of institutions would draw their strength from rule of law and the citizenry, not from the top-down, and that would be unacceptable.

How long can Russia survive without an attempt to improve the relationship between citizen and state? The Soviet Union lasted 69 years—bear in mind, if the Russian Federation were to exist for the same amount of time, it would still dissolve in our lifetimes. But the Soviet Union existed before the Internet, in an era when it was much simpler to isolate the populace. No matter how completely the Kremlin controls the television, it does not change the fact that over 60 percent of Russia is wired to the Internet, and Russian is the sixth-largest language online. Today, the average Russian can access foreign media regularly and with little risk. And the Kremlin knows from experience that Russians are capable of gathering information and organizing online, especially after the “White Revolution” protests of 2011–2013 and the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. Sites such as LiveJournal and Vkontakte have served as nerve centers for anti-corruption activism, agitation for increased political freedoms, and better social services. This means that, at least to Putin’s Kremlin, the modern Russian Federation faces a constant level of danger.

The United States and the other nations of the West must walk a careful line, balancing between attempting to work with Mr. Putin for the global good (for a recent example, see the Iran deal), and looking ahead to what will come after. The idea of a dismembered Russia is a terrifying one. It is, after all, home to one of the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, not to mention the possibility for Islamic extremism in its Caucasian regions. There are risks in reaching out to Russia, especially in alienating Eastern European North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, but the United States does have clear mutual interests with Moscow.

More importantly, though—everyday Russians will be the ones stuck picking up the pieces if Russia lurches into another crisis, which seems almost guaranteed. The United States must reach out to Russians on every level, especially as Americans play the perennial villain in state-sponsored media. Instead, Americans must challenge themselves to prove they are the opposite. Americans need to fight to keep educational and technical exchanges with Russians, and maybe most of all, they need to increase the reach of Radio Free Europe to counter disinformation and propaganda in Russia itself. Through soft power outreach the United States accomplishes two aims: weakening Mr. Putin’s xenophobic stranglehold on information, and laying the groundwork for a true partnership with the Russian people after he is gone.


Morgan Herrell is a first-year law student at the University of Chicago Law School, and a former editor for Charged Affairs. She has a BA in Russian & East European Studies from Yale University, and is an alumna of the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.