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Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, walking in front of an honor guard of Serbian soldiers. Russian President Vladimir Putin reviews an honor guard during an official welcome ceremony in Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 17, 2019 (AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).

Can Putin Change Russia’s Role From Spoiler to Global Power?

Monday, Aug. 31, 2020

Russia occupies an unusual position on the world stage. Under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated that it has the capacity to destabilize the international order, but not the capacity to fill the vacuum it is creating. While Russia lacks the military strength to challenge U.S. supremacy, no one—particularly not the NATO alliance—is ignoring its capabilities. Moscow’s use of arms sales and military engagements to build ties to countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and especially the Middle East has also attracted attention. And its massive, and growing, exports of fossil fuels to Europe offers Russia additional leverage.

Even as Moscow maintains an outsized influence on the global stage, discontent is brewing at home. Putin has dominated the Russian political scene for more than two decades, but his popularity is waning amid a slowing economy and following a deeply unpopular pension reform effort. That didn’t stop him from engineering a way to hold onto power after his current presidential term ends in 2024, despite a constitutional term limit. But it may open space for Putin’s long-suffering political opponents to call attention to the corruption and violence that have marked his tenure.

With its sanctions on Russia, the United States has added to Putin’s problems. And American officials, including members of Congress, still see Russia as an enemy that meddled in U.S. elections and is continuing to work against American national security interests around the world. But for reasons that are difficult to determine, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven resistant to measures that could deter future Russian meddling, even as his efforts to undermine NATO and other international blocs plays into Putin’s hands.

WPR has covered Russia’s role in global politics in detail, and continues to examine key questions about future developments. Will Russia continue to be able to exploit far-flung conflicts, from Venezuela to Syria, to advance its interests without paying a cost? What steps will Putin take next to undermine the U.S.-dominated international order? And how will he simultaneously maintain his hold on Russian politics? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.


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Our Most Recent Coverage:

What Navalny’s Poisoning Says About Russia’s Putin

From the moment Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny abruptly fell ill last week, the top suspect in what German doctors confirmed as a poisoning was President Vladimir Putin. It is another damning indictment for a president whose critics routinely die mysterious deaths or survive attempts on their lives.

Putin and Domestic Politics

Even as his global influence remains undiminished, Putin is increasingly looking to bat down domestic challenges, amid signs his popularity at home may be slipping.

Russia-U.S. Relations

While relations with the Kremlin often become ensnared in Washington’s larger partisan divide, if Trump tries to cozy up too closely to Putin’s agenda, he could be met with a bipartisan rebuke.

Foreign Policy and Global Strategy

The Cold War is over, and Russia is no longer a great power, but it has found creative ways to punch above its weight in global affairs. Under Putin’s leadership, it has overcome obstacles and reasserted its influence around the world. But despite his reputation for strategic brilliance, Putin’s approach is more opportunistic and ad hoc than farsighted. Whether he can convert his recent gains into a sustainable and coherent approach to foreign policy remains uncertain.

Energy

Already a major player in oil markets, Russia’s growing share of the natural gas market was giving it more influence. But in the aftermath of coronavirus pandemic, Putin’s failure to diversify the economy could come back to haunt him.


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Military Modernization

Russia is using its military to expand its global influence and deepen geopolitical ties. Its expensive military modernization program also keeps the United States and its NATO allies on alert.

Russia-China Relations

Moscow has taken steps to shore up its military links with Beijing, but with U.S. sanctions against Russia still in place, it is the economic ties between the two countries that are most important.


[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for just $12 for 12 weeks and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]


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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.