Over the 20-plus years Vladimir Putin has been in power, numerous commentators in the U.S. and abroad have proclaimed the Russian autocrat a “strategic genius” running rings around successive American presidents. It is an easy case to make. The former KGB operative came into the Russian presidency with a mindset that was both ruthless and cunning. He surrounded himself with former KGB colleagues — “slovniki” or “tough guys” — shaped by a culture where anything goes. They inherited a chaotic and demoralized country led by an often-dysfunctional alcoholic (Boris Yeltsin).
Putin and his cohorts recentralized power while using the police and intelligence services to bring corporate oligarchs and provincial governors to heel. Putin had the great good fortune to take power at the precise historical moment when oil prices (Russia’s sole major export) began their most spectacular rise ever. Suddenly, Putin could provide not only stability, but rising living standards. His popularity soared.
For Putin, the real benefit of the oil windfall was geopolitical. His primary interest — his obsession — is Russia’s power and status. He has repeatedly lamented the demise of the USSR as the greatest “disaster” in history. His overriding mission, as he defines it, is to restore as much as possible of the former Soviet imperium. His strategic vision for the 21st century includes: 1) Rebuild Russian military power; 2) Restore Moscow’s dominant influence in Eastern and Central Europe; 3) Re-establish Russia’s status as a global superpower fully comparable to the U.S.; 4) Achieve a grand strategic bargain in which Russia and America carve up much of the world into respective spheres of influence. This, in turn, will require the effective dissolution of NATO and the European Union in East/Central Europe. It will also entail establishing outposts of Russian power in the Middle East and beyond.
For a decade or so, Putin’s strategic blueprint seemed plausible. Oil prices were well over $100 per barrel and much of Europe remained dependent on Russian exports of oil and gas. The one major negative was NATO’s continued expansion eastward — infuriating the Kremlin. Then, in 2014, everything unraveled. A popular uprising in Ukraine deposed Moscow’s puppet autocrat and brought in a democratically elected government. Putin responded by invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. The U.S. and Europe responded in turn, not with military forces, but with economic sanctions. These coincided with a precipitous drop in the price of oil. Suddenly, Russia was strapped for cash. Analysts noted that the Russian economy was relatively primitive — dependent on one primary commodity — with a GDP no larger than Spain’s.
Russia was thrown out of the G-7 (a club of the world’s advanced economies) and economic growth virtually ceased. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s much-touted military foray into Syria has implicated Russia in Assad’s bloody quagmire. Something similar is happening in Libya. Europe has steadily reduced its dependence on Russian energy exports, leaving Moscow to turn to other, clandestine, levers of power in its search for influence. These are the stock in trade of the intelligence agencies — assassination, bribery and sabotage. It takes time, but eventually these kind of operations are exposed and generate a reaction. In recent months, we have seen the wholesale expulsion of Russian diplomats (and spies) from Britain, Czechia, Estonia, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania — and the U.S. Moscow has responded in kind. But the net effect is to dismantle the spy networks the Kremlin has carefully constructed and Putin so values.
More important, the Russian economy has effectively stagnated. COVID deaths in Russia are, by some estimates, the highest per capita in the world. Badly needed European investment (capital and technology) is blocked by sanctions. Russian students are cut off from European universities and Russian research institutes have lost their partners. Meanwhile, a new administration has taken power in Washington more than ready to “respond” to Russian cyberattacks. Putin lost his puppet in the Oval Office and now has to deal with an angry successor.
Russian security analysts write openly about Moscow’s growing strategic “loneliness” — perhaps symbolized by Russia’s exclusion from the coming Olympic Games. Foreign Minister Lavrov, almost plaintively, insists that Russia “does not seek to isolate itself.” Even Putin has declared that Moscow doesn’t want to “burn any bridges.” But that is exactly what the Kremlin has done. Meanwhile, Biden administration officials openly refer to Russia as a “declining power.”
None of this was necessary. An alternative path was always available, but the “strategic genius” wasn’t smart enough to choose it.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.