Think back to conditions in Russia in 1998. Russia’s already struggling economy is bearing the cost of the first war in Chechnya and the weight of declining production and severe exchange rate problems. A financial crisis in Asia, which began in 1997, and a decline in demand for crude oil, negatively impacted Russia’s financial reserves. As a result, in August of 1998, the Russian government defaulted on domestic debt, devalued the ruble, and declared a moratorium on payment of foreign debts. It was an embarrassing and painful outcome after years of struggling through attempts at democracy and experiments with the free market. Granted the efforts at reform were stunted by rampant corruption as oligarchs enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of the economy.
Less than a month before the default a former KGB officer, with a career that was not more than average before the collapse of the Soviet Union, was appointed head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor organizations of the KGB. As an employee of the KGB, Vladimir Putin burned sensitive Soviet documents in East Germany as the Berlin Wall fell. While he sent requests to Moscow for directions, he received silence in response. A defender of the Communist Party and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics watched as the Party and the Union crumbled.
Fortune changed for the former KGB officer in 1990 when Mayor Anatoly Sobchak of Saint Petersburg appointed him as an advisor on international affairs. Following a new path to power and wealth, it appears that Putin began to enrich himself during that time. Other opportunities and promotions in the city government followed, including an appointment as First Deputy Chairman of the Government of Saint Petersburg. When Mayor Sobchak lost his bid for reelection in Putin was brought to Moscow, having gained a sufficient degree of recognition.
Despite his personal successes, appointment as the head of the FSB and increasing personal wealth, Putin was forced to watch again as Russia was embarrassed and weakened domestically and internationally. To the West, Russia was seen as a sick patient, worthy perhaps of pity and care, but not of too much fear. Some fear was warranted due to fears associated with the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, the US and other nations sent in teams to make sure that Russia was correctly safeguarding their nuclear stockpile. The weakness of Russia, a sign that its greatness was in the past, was highlighted by the first post-Cold War expansion of NATO. In March of 1999 the former Soviet satellites Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, taking the expansion to the borders of Russia in Kaliningrad and to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.
A year after the 1998 government default, Putin was appointed acting Prime Minister of Russia by President Boris Yeltsin. In December of 1999, a few short months after being appointed Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin became the acting President of the Russian Federation. Putin won his first election as president in March of 2000. He served two successive terms as president, a four term as Prime Minister, and is now in his third term as president. During that time he has continued to watch as the EU and NATO have expanded. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined NATO followed by Albania and Croatia in 2009.
For now, let’s set aside the fact that Putin, a defender of the Soviet Union and a believer in Russian greatness, watched everything collapse and experienced the shame of economic, political, and military weakness underscored to the world at large. Now let’s turn to focus on the historical and political thought that drives and forms concepts of Russian national security.
Russia’s geography has left it open to invasion from multiple peoples and nations. In response the Romanov family spent centuries building and expanding the Russian empire. Russia’s leaders believed that security and safety were possible only by created a large buffer around its borders. These expansionist policies meaningfully impacted international relations and domestic politics. Russia’s neighbors were subsumed into the Russian empire, some to gain independence for short periods of time. Other nations, on the periphery of the Russian Empire, lived in varied degrees of fear of invasion or armed intervention. The advance of Russian troops into Paris to defeat Napoleon frightened all of Western Europe. While the nations of Europe adhered to the balance of power concept encapsulated in the Treaty of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna, Russia sought security by subjugation of border states, or near abroad.
In terms of domestic policy, the sheer size and geography of the Russian Empire required, in the minds of its leaders, a firm, domineering hand to ensure stability. Competing ideas and programs were not tolerated. The creation of a civil society involved in political issues was not encouraged. In fact any attempts at civic participation was quickly dissolved and dismantled. The influence of foreign political thought into Russia was often severely curtailed. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, while admiring the accomplishments of Europe, concluded that western political ideas were anathema to Russia’s political stability and continuity. As a result, the ascension of the Communist Party through the soviets was not too different politically in terms of Russian history, culture, and tradition. (The drive to modernity, however, was a significant change, seen by many Russians looking back as painful and beneficial.)
Today we have a Russian nationalist, Vladimir Putin, who experienced a considerable defeat of his country and who is now in power. For the past decade and a half he has patiently reasserted state control over the body politic while strengthening the military and positioning the country to regain control of some of the near abroad to include the Ukraine, seen by most Russians as a natural part of Russia. Vladimir Putin is behaving, as we should have expected in seeking increased national security and the ability to project power at home and abroad. The expansion of NATO occurred, in large part, to forestall a return by Russia to past policies and behaviors.
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Putin has the advantage of a US president with a weak foreign policy, who is beset by repeated failures. While Russia has returned to a historical pattern of international relations in pursuit of traditional national interests, the United States has experienced a departure from policies that worked in the past. President Obama has turned away from using its economic and military power to help maintain the balance of power in the world’s trouble spots to include eastern Europe and the Middle East. While President Barack Obama has dreamed and acted for a better world in violation of reality, President Vladimir Putin has stepped into the power void.
Here’s a short list of what President Putin sees as US failures and proof of US weakness:
- Abandonment of missile defense system in East Europe
- Failure to obtain a status of forces agreement in Iraq
- The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan
- The rise of ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria
- The abject failure of moderate groups to come to power in the Arab Spring in places like Egypt and Libya
- The unwillingness of the US and Europe to react significantly to the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine
- The willingness of the US to enter into an agreement with Iran that will heavily benefit Russia
Today we are seeing another significant sign and a step to reassertion of Russian power in Syria. The failure of President Obama and the West in the Arab Spring increased the instability in Syria. ISIS and other rebel groups rose up against Assad, a brutal dictator. Today there are no good options for helping Syria; there is no way to put anyone in control of the country. (We learned in Egypt and Libya that we it is unlikely that moderates will rise to power in the face of Islamic radicalism and despotic state actors.) As a result of this weakness and confusion, President Putin has put Russian forces directly into Syria with aims that are not in line with US aims. Putin had the audacity, because of the low risk involved, to demand that the US cease all flights in Syria and then attacked CIA backed rebels in Syria.
If the seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine was a strong enough sign of defiance and resurgence, then Russian military action in Syria should be seen as over the top. Unfortunately, the facts on the ground and in the region essentially leave the US powerless to limit the actions of the Russians. Our ineptitude and weakness make the prospect of Russian military action almost seem desirable because it likely will bring stability to Syria. But, at what cost to US power and overall stability in the region? What will a strong Russian influence in the Middle East mean for Israel and access to energy resources for the rest of the world? Today in Syria, a single pilot from the United States or Russia may decide national security decisions of significant import as they face the prospect of opposing missions in the same air space involving the same forces. This is where we find ourselves today.
At this point many of our NATO allies in East Europe are wondering what the future holds for them. The states of West Europe have failed for decades to provide any meaningful military value to NATO. Their militaries are small and underfunded. Instead, they have relied on the US. In the past this reliance meant that the US had significant influence in foreign affairs in Europe. Too many states in West Europe thought the threat of Russia was gone forever. As a result, they dropped funding for their militaries even further and thumbed their noses at US influence in favor of pursuing the economic goals of the EU. Add to this the abdication of leadership by our current president, and you have an Alliance that appears unwilling, and perhaps unable, to flex its muscle or use its teeth.
We are starting to see the states of East Europe react. Some are moving willingly toward the Russian embrace. Others are looking for greater assurances from their NATO allies, especially the Baltics and Poland, those states who have regularly been subsumed by the Russian Empire of the past.
How will the US and NATO respond? Will they allow themselves to continue to fade into obscurity and ignominy? What will that mean for the region? What has it meant in the past when an aggressive country has been appeased for the sake of peace and economic pursuits? How long before the US realizes the danger of foreign policy based on hopes and dreams that ignore reality and the national interests of others?