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

Can Putin Change Russia’s Role From Spoiler to Global Power?
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony in Moscow for signing the agreements that will join several Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine with Russia (Sputnik photo by Grigory Sysoev via AP).

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 until Europe dramatically reduced its dependence on Russian energy supplies, its massive exports of fossil fuels to Europe offered Moscow 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. The recent short-lived rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group—a private military company that has been a useful asset for the Kremlin in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine—raised questions about the stability of Putin’s regime and demonstrated how the warring factions within it could lead to chaos once Putin eventually leaves office. But the aftermath of the mutiny, including Prigozhin’s untimely death in an airplane accident, has demonstrated that Putin’s grip on power remains solid.

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U.S. President Joe Biden took office eager to demonstrate a tougher line on Russia than that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, announcing sanctions in response to Russia’s cyber behavior in the early months of his administration. But Biden also renewed the New START bilateral nuclear arms control treaty, and his 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. Since then, however, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that Putin 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.

Our Most Recent Coverage:

Russia and China Don’t See Eye to Eye in the Middle East and Africa

The effusive rhetoric on display in recent high-level meetings between Russian and Chinese officials masks a significant vulnerability in their strategic partnership: Although both sides champion the creation of a multipolar world order, their actual cooperation on the ground lags far behind, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

The War in Ukraine

After months of tensions and alarm, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022 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.

Putin and Domestic Politics

Even as his global influence has grown, Putin is increasingly occupied with batting down domestic challenges—and armed rebellions—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.

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 he can convert any of his prior gains into a sustainable and coherent approach to foreign policy, especially in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, remains uncertain.

Russia-China Relations

Moscow has taken steps to shore up its political 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.

Russia-U.S. Relations

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.


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.

Military Modernization

Russia had been using its military, and outfits like Wagner, to expand its global influence and deepen geopolitical ties. Its expensive military modernization program had also kept the United States and its NATO allies on alert. But the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine make a reevaluation urgently necessary.

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

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