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, most recently with its brutal invasion of Ukraine. But for all its ability to upend power dynamics in places like the Middle East and now Europe, Moscow has so far not demonstrated the capacity to fill the vacuums it exploits—or creates. That is most visibly on display in Ukraine, where the Russian military has proven operationally incompetent at anything but imposing punishing costs on the country’s civilian population, including alleged war crimes.
But while Russia has now proven that it lacks the military strength to challenge U.S. supremacy in Europe, let alone globally, no one—particularly not the NATO alliance—is ignoring its nuclear capabilities, as evidenced by the alliance’s refusal to intervene directly in the war in Ukraine. Moscow also uses arms sales and military engagements to build ties to countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and especially the Middle East. And its massive exports of fossil fuels to Europe—even now, after more than four months of war in Ukraine—offers Russia additional leverage.
Even as Moscow maintains an outsized influence on the global stage, Putin has had some setbacks on the home front. Though he has dominated the Russian political scene for more than two decades, his popularity had waned amid a slowing economy even before the war in Ukraine, particularly following a deeply unpopular pension reform effort in 2018. 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 has opened space for Putin’s long-suffering political opponents to call attention to the corruption and violence that have marked his tenure. The most prominent among them, Alexei Navalny, almost paid for his life for doing so, and is now paying with his freedom.
After a period of confusion and mixed messages during Donald Trump’s presidency, President Joe Biden’s administration announced sanctions in response to Russia’s cyber behavior in its early months in office, but also renewed the New START bilateral nuclear arms control treaty. Biden’s decision to hold a summit with Putin in June 2021 was seen as a further signal of his willingness to work constructively with Russia, particularly on issues like cyber crime. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that he sees no benefits in putting relations on a solid and stable footing. The sanctions the U.S. and the European Union imposed in response have now added to Putin’s domestic challenges.
WPR has covered Russia’s role in global politics in detail, and continues to examine key questions about future developments. Will Russia’s economy survive the war in Ukraine? What impact will the war have on Russia’s strategic partnership with China? And will Putin be able to maintain his grip on power should his military adventurism in Ukraine backfire? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage of Russia.
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Many analysts expected Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to include a cyber Armageddon as part of the conflict. So when those expectations didn’t materialize, the initial surprise quickly turned into declarations that Ukraine had won the “cyber war.” But it’s still possible that Moscow will turn up the dial on its cyber operations.
The War in Ukraine
After months of tensions and alarm, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February came as a shock, but not a surprise. In the weeks thereafter, the Russian attack bogged down in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, but also tactical, strategic and logistical blunders. In place of the lightning victory Moscow—and many Western military analysts—expected, the conflict has become a war of attrition, featuring brutal and indiscriminate Russian attacks on civilian population centers as well as credible accusations of war crimes. Meanwhile, the fallout from the conflict, as well as from Western sanctions on Russia, has spread globally in the form of skyrocketing food and energy costs, but also a diplomatic battle for allegiance that echoes the Cold War standoff between Washington and Moscow.
- What the war in Ukraine reveals about how the U.S. and Europe prepare for war, in The U.S. and Europe Must Relearn How to Fight an Industrial War
- How the war in Ukraine is exacerbating tensions between Warsaw and Berlin, in Germany and Poland Don’t See Eye to Eye on Ukraine—or Much Else
- Why the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would “change everything,” in A Russian Nuclear Strike in Ukraine Would Cross a Point of No Return
- How the war in Ukraine has become a must-win conflict for both Russia and the U.S., in What’s at Stake for the U.S. in Ukraine
Putin and Domestic Politics
Even as his global influence has grown, Putin is increasingly occupied with batting down domestic challenges, amid signs his popularity at home may be slipping. Though Russia’s economy has begun to stabilize from the effects of the punishing sanctions imposed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, it will continue to pay a long-term cost that could increase political pressure on Putin.
- Why it’s not too early for the West to prepare for regime collapse in Russia, in The West Should Be Ready for All Scenarios in Russia and Iran
- How divisions in Russia’s security forces could create unmanageable tensions for Putin, in For Putin and Russia, the Wagner Group Could Be a Recipe for Disaster
- Why Putin’s goal of a “sovereign internet” is easier said than done, in The Battle for the Internet’s Future Has Just Begun
- How the recent muzzling of Russia’s independent media after the invasion of Ukraine was actually a decade in the making, in Putin’s Crackdown on Russian Media Has Been Years in the Making
Foreign Policy and Global Strategy
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 Russia’s Putin can convert his recent gains into a sustainable and coherent approach to foreign policy, especially in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, remains uncertain.
- How the war in Ukraine has left the Wagner Group overextended in West Africa, in Burkina Faso Won’t Be the Wagner Group’s Next ‘Domino’ in Africa
- Why Putin is not as isolated diplomatically as the West would like, in Putin’s Iran Visit Shows He Still Has Friends—and Options
- What Putin’s attendance at the BRICS virtual summit reveals about the Euro-centric global order, in The BRICS Summit Isn’t Just a ‘Talk Shop’ Anymore
- Why it’s a mistake for Brussels to assume that Putin will hold onto power indefinitely, in The EU Needs to Start Planning for ‘the Day After Putin’ in Russia
During the four years of Trump’s presidency, relations with the Kremlin often become ensnared in Washington’s larger partisan divide. Biden promised a return to a more conventional approach to U.S.-Russia relations, seeking to confront Putin without undermining areas of potential and even necessary cooperation. But the invasion of Ukraine has put relations on a wartime footing, with little hope of improvement anytime soon.
- Why U.S.-Russia relations are likely to remain strained regardless of who succeeds Putin, in A ‘New’ Gorbachev Won’t Rescue U.S.-Russia Relations After Putin
- How the war in Ukraine upended U.S.-Russia relations, in The Russia-Ukraine Crisis Has Removed All Doubt. We’re in a New Cold War
- Why the U.S. and its partners will need a new approach if they hope to force Putin to change course, in To Change Putin’s Behavior, the West Needs a New Strategy
- Why domestic political currents are undermining Washington’s foreign policy goals, in When It Comes to Strategic Rivalries, History Doesn’t Take Sides
Moscow has taken steps to shore up its economic and military links with Beijing, but with the U.S. and European sanctions against Russia now in place, it is the economic ties between the two countries that are most important. While China continues to support Russia rhetorically over the war in Ukraine, the value of the partnership has become increasingly imbalanced—in Beijing’s favor.
- How the war in Ukraine has allowed China to outpace Russia in Central Asia, in China Is Taking Advantage of Russia’s Weakness in Central Asia
- Why China won’t abandon Russia over the war in Ukraine, in Xi Sees the Ukraine War Through the Lens of the U.S.-China Rivalry
- How Putin’s military debacle in Ukraine makes Russia a less attractive partner for China, in A War-Weakened Russia Has No Strategic Value to China
- Why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is putting China in the hot seat, in The War in Ukraine Is Testing China’s New Partnership With Russia
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 the coronavirus pandemic, Putin’s failure to diversify the economy could come back to haunt him. Now Western sanctions and the transition to renewable energies could further undermine the country’s energy sector.
- What the EU’s ban on Russian oil imports means for Russia’s relations with Europe, in The EU Finally Approves a Ban on Russian Oil
- Why Russian oil imports made such a tempting target for EU sanctions, in The EU Has Lots of Options for Targeting Russian Oil. It Should Use Them
- Why the war in Ukraine could be a turning point for Russia’s energy ambitions, in Russia May Never Recover Its Status as an Energy Giant
- Why the melting of Arctic permafrost spells disaster for the Earth’s climate, and Russia’s security, in Russia’s Drilling in the Arctic Is a Threat to the World—and to Itself
Russia is using its military to expand its global influence and deepen geopolitical ties. Its expensive military modernization program has also kept the United States and its NATO allies on alert. But the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine make a reevaluation urgently necessary.
- How a recent strategy document illuminates Moscow’s approach to nuclear deterrence, in Russia’s New Nuclear Doctrine: Don’t Mess With Us—But Let’s Talk
- What the demise of a key nuclear treaty means for the future of arms control, in The Myths and Realities of European Security in a Post-INF World
- Why NATO countries ignore Russia’s area-denial capabilities at their peril, in NATO Is Focusing on the Wrong Russian Threat in Eastern Europe
- What Russia is up to in Africa, in As the U.S. Disengages, Russia Ramps Up Aid and Arms Sales to Sub-Saharan Africa
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.