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

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Russia's Putin reviews an honor guard during an official welcome ceremony in Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 17, 2019 (AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).
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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.

Our Most Recent Coverage:

Russia’s Military Was Doomed by Putin’s Culture of Militarism

As useful as the insights of Clausewitz or Jomini can be to understanding the Russo-Ukrainian war, they are the product of a particular historical moment in the early 19th century. The insights of 20th-century scholar Alfred Vagts may provide a better guide to how social context shapes militaries’ performance on the battlefield—and why Russia’s military has underperformed compared to prewar expectations.

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.

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.

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 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.

Putin and Domestic Politics

Even as his global influence has grown, Russia’s 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.

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.

Russia-China Relations

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.

Military Modernization

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.

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

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