What does the war in Ukraine mean for Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin and how is it being leveraged to drive a wedge between “the West and the Rest”? How did the Cold War-era great power competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union influence Putin’s worldview and inform his foreign policy ambitions?
Dr. Angela Stent traces the underpinnings of contemporary Russian foreign policy under Putin to their origins in the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and dissects how Putin views Russia through the lens of its history of competition and confrontation with the United States. Stent contends that the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union was never truly accepted as a result of its weaknesses by some of those in its administration and that ideations of its former glory fueled a desire to restore its great power status, pursued using war and frozen conflicts.
How or to what degree did the Cold War and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union influence Russia’s current trajectory?
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s two superpowers—it was feared, it was respected, and most of the world was divided between the U.S. and the Soviet spheres of influence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, all of that ended. So, I would say a major influence on today’s Russian government is firstly that President Putin, and many of those around him and his generation, really don’t accept the collapse of the Soviet Union. They think that somehow it was engineered by the United States and some of its allies, but they’re not willing to accept that because of its internal weaknesses and the war in Afghanistan, which bankrupted it, and caused the collapse. This influences the Kremlin today because what Putin would like to do is to reverse the Soviet collapse—he doesn’t regard this as something final. What we see happening in the war in Ukraine, and what we’ve seen in other things that the Russians have done, the war with Georgia, the creation of frozen conflicts in different parts of the post-Soviet space—that’s a way of saying it’s not over yet. What Putin would like to do is to have Russia treated as the Soviet Union was treated during the Cold War, which is as a great power to be respected and to be feared, and to get the West to recognize that Russia has a right to a sphere of influence in both the post-Soviet space, and probably now, one can say, in the former members of the Warsaw Pact, and that’s a major driver of contemporary Russian foreign policy.
Considering the growing divide between Russia and the West since President Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in your view, how or to what degree has Putin managed to leverage that divide to prosecute his war and bolster Russian influence in other regions of the world?
A very interesting consequence of the war in Ukraine has been that despite the Russian military losses and the poor performance of the military, Russia has increased its influence with several countries in the Global South. The impact of this war has been that large numbers of countries that are not aligned do not want to take sides in this war—I’m thinking about the BRICS countries, particularly India, Brazil, South Africa, and China. And to a large extent they buy into part of the Russian narrative that the reason for this war is that the West was threatening Russia, that NATO was threatening Russia, and that Russia had no choice but to respond to it, and they have accepted that. I think the other aspect of this, that resonates with many countries in the Global South is the criticism of the United States. They say, “Well, if you look at what the U.S. did in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, how is that different from what Russia is doing in Ukraine?” So this skepticism about the United States, I think, has also reinforced their unwillingness either to condemn Russia for what it’s doing in Ukraine or to join in the Western sanctions. The final point to make here is that a number of these countries see this as an opportunity to assert themselves more in the global system; saying that once this war is over we won’t have as much domination by the U.S. and its allies in terms of the of the global system and the rules, and this has given them the ability to assert their voices more. So what you do see here is many countries in the Global South refusing to condemn Russia, and some of them almost siding with Russia, in what it’s doing because they are willing to believe that the West is at fault here.
We often see in Russian narratives, the framing of Russia as the victim and the West at fault for the war, at times going as far as to posit that the West provoked Russia and that NATO expansion threatens Russia’s territorial integrity. Can you provide insight into why those narratives in particular feature so prominently in his reasoning and how they factor into Russia’s post-Soviet foreign policy more broadly?
First of all, you have to look at Putin’s background. He was a KGB case officer in East Germany, so his way of looking at the world, as he said in interviews that were made with him when he became president in 2000, that NATO was the main enemy. So that’s part of his worldview, to see NATO as the enemy. Having said that, he didn’t object that much when NATO enlarged in 2004 to take in a large number of countries, including the three Baltic states. So from Putin’s point of view, NATO was a threat because if his major goal was to restore a Russian sphere of influence, or in the case of Ukraine, to eliminate Ukraine as a separate nation or state, the main threat that he sees from NATO is making it much more difficult for him to achieve the goals of subordinating Ukraine, of trying to reverse the Soviet collapse.
If Ukraine had been a member of NATO Russia would not have invaded it, because until now we see that Putin understands that if a country is a member of NATO it would face retaliation by NATO armies if it attacked a member state. So that’s the threat of NATO. I’m sure that he doesn’t believe, and none of his colleagues believe, that NATO has designs on Russian territory itself, but the demonization of NATO falls on fertile ground in Russia—the propaganda is very successful. He’s managed to persuade a majority of Russians who remained in Russia since the war began, that NATO is a threat to them, and also the idea that NATO was completely dominated by the United States is something else that’s part of this narrative, not that the NATO states themselves have any agency in what they do.
In an article you co-authored with Fiona Hill earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, you state that “The United States remains Russia’s principal opponent, not Ukraine.” Can you provide insight into how or if an ideological war between Russia and the U.S. serves as the backdrop to Putin’s war in Ukraine, and perhaps how the 2024 U.S. federal elections might factor into Putin’s calculus?
If there is an ideological war between the U.S. and Russia, it’s on the Russian side. I don’t think the U.S. sees Russia as its ideological enemy, and in a sense—and this is different from the Cold War—Russia does not have an official ideology. What Putin now puts forward is Russia as the leader of the kind of conservative international, the traditional family values, that Russia is saving the rest of the world from wokeness in the United States and other European countries. So that certainly is an important part of the Russian narrative here. Putin, I think, has convinced himself that Russia is at war with NATO/the United States and that Ukraine is just one part of that, whereas the United States certainly doesn’t see itself as at war with Russia. But this is how Putin has framed it, and he and his colleagues may well believe that that is the case.
Now, the 2024 election from the Russian point of view, they’re waiting to see what happens, they’re hoping very much that Donald Trump will win the election. If you watch currently their TV shows, every time Trump does well, or there’s the huge debate that’s going on in the U.S. Congress now about whether the U.S. should continue supporting Ukraine, providing funds for it, and many Republicans are against it—that’s again something that is a source of great satisfaction for the Russians. So Putin in this particular war, I think, is awaiting what happens in 2024, and the Russians are hoping that if Donald Trump becomes president again, the U.S. policy toward Russia will change, and particularly the U.S. policy toward Ukraine will change and that there won’t be any attempt anymore to support Ukraine and that therefore Russia will prevail in this conflict.
Before we wrap up, are there any last insights you would like to raise that you think are important for our audience to hear?
Putin seems at this point to be feeling much more self-confident about the war and Russia’s prospects. During 2022, when the Russian army was not doing well when the Ukrainians were able to take territory from the Russians, things didn’t look so positive for Russia. I would say at the end of 2023 if you put together the disappointing results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in June, and then you take doubts about future funding both in the United States and in Europe, the crucial votes coming up this week in December both in the European Council about continuing support for Ukraine and in the U.S. Congress—if you put that all together, and the fact that the Russians appear to be doing better on the battlefield than they were before, things are looking up for Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have thought possible at the beginning of this year.
Note: This interview was conducted on Monday, December 11, 2023.