Putin Was the First Alt-President: How the New U.S. Administration Needs to Think about Russia

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Between now and the middle of the next decade, the arc of Russian foreign policy will be determined by Vladimir Putin’s attempt to establish his legacy as a figure of grand history. Much like Ivan III, the man who re-founded the Russian state after a calamitous civil war, Putin is set on bringing Russia back to its glory days before the collapse of the 1990s. This Russia is independent from both the East or the West. Putin’s vision is not to build a new Soviet Union, but rather a new Russia that adapts much of its feudal past to the present. Putin is reimagining the authoritarian state at home, and the vassal-state-abroad structure of Imperial Russia for the new century, not the centralized Communist state. The motivation behind such a neofeudal world order is Eurasianism: a pan-nationalist movement that puts Moscow at the center of a countermovement to the American-dominated post-Cold War order.

Keeping a less realist and a more historical understanding of Russian behavior in mind is critical for long-term U.S. policy success. Putin wants to establish a norm among the international order that supports authoritarian states against Western intervention – a core part of Eurasianist ideology. As the new administration approaches Putin, it needs to think about him as pursuing an ideologically driven project to reconstitute the sphere of influence of imperial Russia. It is also important to understand that in seeking to secure his legacy, Putin operates with a feudal worldview. He fundamentally rejects core norms of the modern international order, chiefly the responsibility of states to intervene in other states in response to gross human rights violations. Taken together, this constellation of beliefs may lead Moscow to pursue policies in places like Syria and Ukraine for the sake of principle, and oftentimes against a simple hard-power calculation of what the West perceives Russia’s national interests to be.

The “New Tsar’s” first strategic goal is to roll back American-led efforts at what Putin terms as Western-led “regime-change” in places like Libya and Syria.[1] A second aim is the Kremlin’s overarching drive to re-establish Russia as a Great Power state – partly by establishing itself as an anti-West leader. Putin’s advancing age will make the model of ‘L’etat c’est Putin (“The State is Putin”) unsustainable in the 2020s, driving him to be more aggressive in stamping his mark in both domestic politics and abroad. This ultimately opens up the possibility of rolling back to the post-1989 Western world order.

Putin’s underlying slogan has always reflected the idea of “Making Russia Great Again.” The thrust of his policies and political appeal revolve around the notion of restoring Russian greatness. But the core truth of Putin’s reign is that he often acts from a position of weakness, not strength. Despite a decade or more of calls for reform, Putin has presided over a military that is a largely second-rate conscript ground force—hardly superpower status in quality.[2] While Putin rode a wave of oil and gas revenue to increase the standard of living for many Russians, he bartered for access to the kind of foreign extraction technology that the new U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, made expert use of as CEO of Exxon-Mobil. The miraculous Russian energy market is largely a product of foreign investment.

Of course, this extends to other industries that are the hallmark of truly developed economies. No Russian automobile or computer brands can compete on the world market. In the end, Russia is a petro-state. It has an income inequality ranking to match single-commodity economies, such as Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana.[3] The Russian economy is an immature, broad-based economy capable of adapting to future trends, especially the inevitable collapse of the carbon-fuel economy. Rather than rebuild a once world-class educational system, or invest in developing industries other than oil and gas, Putin has instead focused on military adventurism in places like Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. This focus plays well to Russia’s nationalist right, but does little to secure the future of Russian citizens as a whole.

The Civilization-State
The philosophical underpinning of Putin’s foreign policy is a political-religious movement broadly known as Eurasianism. Similar to the relationship of the Christian evangelical movement to the Republican party, Eurasianism offers a grounding for policies in both the spiritual and historical spheres. The central tenet is that Russia is a civilization in the form of a state. Whereas the United States is thought to be part of the broader family of “Western” civilization, Eurasianists see Russia as its own self-contained world. In this world, Russia shares values with states like Kazakhstan, Iran, or Turkey – countries that are neither European nor Asian in their values, but with a political and cultural leadership oriented toward Moscow.

Just as China considers its rise as the inevitable natural product of history, so too does Putin believe Russia’s rightful place is in the pantheon of nations. This is why he grieved the collapse of the USSR as the “greatest political catastrophe of the century.” The “catastrophe” led to the “epidemic of disintegration that infected Russia itself” and diminished Russia’s influence over the Eurasian civilization by cleaving off places like Ukraine or Chechnya.[4] Putin wishes to establish his legacy by re-unifying and protecting this heartland – not by annexing it into a new Soviet state, but by bringing it under a protected sphere of interest firmly under Moscow’s influence.

Maskirovka in Ukraine
The death toll in Ukraine now approaches 10,000 since fighting broke out in April 2014. Recently, fighting has escalated outside the southeastern port city of Mariupol, continuing a pattern that has held on and off for two years. Each time fighting surges, the concern in Kyiv and Washington is that Russian and Russian-backed forces will take the city and make incursions westward along the coast toward Crimea. In each case, the United States is left to figure out what to make of this cycle of aggression that never turns into an outright advance. This pattern is best understood as another stratagem in Russia’s maskirovka, a form of warfare that seeks to destabilize the perception of an adversary in order to sow confusion about strategic intent and operational targeting.

Ukraine is the culmination of a long series of similar conflicts arguably stretching back to the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the early 1990s. The fight over this patch of land between Azerbaijan and Armenia was the first of many “frozen conflicts” that Moscow used to its advantage.[5] In dealing with Ukraine, Putin fine-tuned his ability to use maskirovka through a mix of psychological, informational, insurgent, and conventional warfare employed to selectively destabilize the government in Kiev at his will. Russia uses the eastern front as a thermostat, enabling Moscow to ratchet up or down the degree of its aggression in Ukraine, striking at the core of the government’s monopoly of force on its own territory. The psychological foundation of the Russian state itself – the idea that Ukraine is just an extension of Russia – is the real motivator of Putin’s operations in Ukraine. To an extent, it is simply psychologically inconceivable to many Russians and to the Kremlin elite that Ukraine might not always be a vassal state to Moscow.

Ukraine is still seen as of Russia, not separate from it. English-speakers often mistakenly call it “the Ukraine,” which in Russian emphasizes the region as a part of Russia. Kiev was the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy long before Moscow was established; for this reason, Ukrainian soil is sacred ground for many Russians. Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was sparked by a desire to yoke the country more firmly toward European institutions and away from Moscow. Putin was particularly pointed in his critique of the Ukrainians who espoused “alien” European values in support of the Maidan Revolution. The war in Ukraine is primarily a war of identity politics: keeping Ukraine firmly in Moscow’s political and cultural orbit. American culture does not have a meaningful analog to this idea of historically sacred soil in another state, so analysts tend to dismiss the importance of this piece of Russian history in explaining Putin’s behavior. Thus, they place an excessive amount of weight on strategic and economic factors, and undervalue the role that the neofeudal ideas in Eurasianism play in explaining Russian state behavior.

Notably, there are few military or economic gains to be had in Ukraine. Contrary to the fears stoked by Ukrainian leaders seeking aid, Putin is unlikely to overtake Kyiv. Nonetheless, if he can maintain his strategic thermostat over Ukrainian politics, he can keep Ukraine in Moscow’s orbit by preventing a strong parliamentary democracy from forming and by strangling any European-style, broad-based economy from emerging—all without actually making any further territorial incursions. In other words, if Putin were to take Kyiv, it would be out of desperation and possibly indicate impending defeat. However, if his campaign leads to the installation of a Moscow-friendly regime, he will have functionally brought Russia’s most important historic partner back to the Eurasian sphere of influence. He would make Eurasian civilization greater by re-establishing the thousand-year connection between Kiev and Moscow. This would be the culminating mark of his legacy, something worthy of comparison not to the short term of an American presidency, but to the era-defining the reigns of Tsars.

Syria – Kingmaker, Restorer of the Westphalian State
In the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin gave an astonishingly frank speech outlining the purpose of Russian foreign policy. He argued that Russia was responding to the United States and its Western partners circumventing a core tenet of international law: the inviolable sovereignty of the state. To Putin, Western intervention in the domestic affairs of states de-stabilizes the bipolar global order that Putin believes is optimal for peace.[6]

Russia’s Syria policy is based on the same theory that underpins those Putin uses in regards to Crimea. Russia wants to do three things in Syria: demonstrate that Moscow can project power “globally” as a counterweight to the existing unipolar system; establish that it will continue to resist what Putin sees as America’s penchant for illegal regime change; and give Russia a say in determining Assad’s policies in the region.

Putin’s strategy in Syria seeks to undermine the West’s ability to dictate the terms of the civil war. It also attempts to reestablish a bipolar world order in which the West must be circumspect about intervening in the internal affairs of other states. Using military force against the Assad regime’s enemies allows Putin to demonstrate that Russia’s military can affect political change outside of its own immediate sphere of influence. Most importantly, however, Putin’s all-in gambit on behalf of Damascus and Tehran puts guns and money behind his mission to frustrate American efforts of exercising what Obama’s administration called its “responsibility to protect” (R2P). In the case of Ukraine, preventing Ukrainians from adopting European political values is Putin’s manifest destiny; protecting the moral and legal logic of that claim is what Putin intends to do by engaging in the Syrian civil war.

Billionaires Abroad – Next Choices
The new Trump administration must keep in mind that Putin acts according to Soviet “Deep Operations” theory, which posits that the success of localized offensive operations depends on reaching deep into the enemy’s heartland. The Kremlin’s alleged tampering with the U.S. presidential elections helps free its hands in Ukraine and the Middle East. Any role Putin played in pushing the U.S. election in the favor of President Donald Trump surely stands as a triumph of regime change in many Russian minds. As a pro-Russia president with a war-weary public, President Trump is unlikely to push back against Moscow, in either Ukraine or Syria.

Putin’s foreign policy portfolio reads like that of a venture capitalist. He invests in many places through a myriad of methods, but does not expect each investment (troops in Georgia, planes in Syria, investment in Kyrgyzstan, etc.) to pay off individually. Instead, he uses the sum of these gambits to set the conditions for a new political market that he can then dominate before other players get involved. This is the expression of an old Soviet military theory known as “Deep Battle”[7] as applied to politics. In Deep Battle, the first goal is to use state power to set the conditions of the strategic balance, the terms of the political debate, and the economic flows between states so as to give Russia the upper hand the next time an opportunity to advance state goals appears.

The Trump administration must consider how Putin’s strategy in any given issue will develop in the long-term in light of his other foreign and domestic policy investments. The new administration should not exhaust its energy by attempting to weaken the competitive market of state power that Putin has created and dominated in places like Ukraine and Syria. Instead, it should create a new market of norms that defend the core principles of Western democracy and blunt Putin’s favored tools of military force and economic extortion via natural gas.

In places like Ukraine, for example, this means trying to roll-back the occupations of eastern Ukraine or Crimea instead of attempting to outcompete Russia. The Trump administration should build Ukraine’s native military capability so as to raise the cost to Russia of future aggression. Along with this, U.S. and allied policy should offer both aid and trade deals to jumpstart economic reform with an eye toward freeing Ukraine from its reliance on the Russian market. Doing this is a de-facto defense of the legitimacy of the 2004 and 2014 revolutions in Ukraine.

The United States must defend the Ukrainian peoples’ aspirations to build a European-style democracy instead of a Eurasianist semi-authoritarian state managed by oligarchs. The United States and its European allies should seek to change the fundamental competitive market conditions between Kyiv and Moscow by disrupting the strategic balance of power—as well as the direction of the economic flow between the two. The West’s policy should aim to take away the deep, passive advantages Russia holds on the whole region from Kyiv to Tallinn as long as Moscow is ruled by a semi-authoritarian, expansionist regime. Not only should the United States help Kiev build up its military backbone, but its economic one as well. The hardest task will be to create a strong, vibrant economy on the Ukrainian side of the demarcation lines. As the difference in living conditions becomes starker, the willingness to keep the charade alive will deteriorate on the Russian side. It will then become the responsibility of the Trump administration to call out Putin for the misinformation campaigns playing a central role in the Kremlin’s maskirovka strategy.

Within the context of Syria, the opportunity for any short-term U.S. policy likely disappeared alongside the horrific, Grozny-esque obliteration of Aleppo. In destroying Aleppo, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces effectively put down the rebel movement. Even so, if the Trump administration wants to uphold the principle of R2P, there is no better place to defend it.

Tsar Meets CEO
Most Western observers focus on the role of Russia as a resource state. However, mistaking money for national mission, rather than as an instrument of that mission, obscures the power of Putin’s brand of Russian exceptionalism as a driver of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Trump must remember that Putin’s strength is superficial. Beneath the surface, Russia is a declining power, and at some level, Putin acts from a position of deep national insecurity.[8]

Thus, he has an incentive to overplay his hands and push beyond the expected. The Trump administration also needs to heed the fact that Putin is driven by a coherent philosophy that demands that the norms of state behavior established after the collapse of the Soviet Union be challenged wherever they can. The more capability he has, the better he can challenge the unipolar order and his role as the “chief ideologist of the illiberal world.” Finally, the new administration should take special care to remember that Putin is starting the process of establishing his legacy and that he has every incentive to be more aggressive as he gets older.

Putin will inevitably test the new American president; in fact, he already has. His attacks on the U.S. electoral system are another example of maskirovka, sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the government. When greater challenges are posed abroad, Trump should be firm and careful not to assume a billionaires’ détente will solve each crisis. Putin is no mastermind, but he is the much more experienced chess-player. As the end of his long-rule starts to come into sight, he will not find satisfaction in short-term deals when he is thinking in terms of millennia.


[1] Myers, Steven Lee. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
[2] Ariel Cohen and Robert Hamilton. The Russian Military and Georgia War. Strategic Studies Institute, 2011.
[3] Russia’s GINI index is 42, World Bank.
[4] There is debate about the exact translation of Putin’s 2005 address to the Duma. The most common translation uses the modifier “greatest” others use “major” which somewhat tones down the effect of the statement. I use the “greatest” because it’s clear to me Putin is saying this in reference to catastrophe’s for the Russian people, not the world in general. This is buttressed further when the full context of the second quote is taken into account. In any case, the links provided allow the reader access to the debate.
[5] The term refers to the concept of starting a conflict, such as over the Georgian territory of South Ossetia, the Transdniester region of Moldova (and southwestern Ukraine), or other places. Russia incites or directly commits violence in order to engage the target state in an armed conflict. It then uses its superior military force to halt the violence, but on its terms, usually meaning a de-facto occupation of the territory under the guise of “peacekeeping” or by local “militias” clearly under Russian control. This is the freeze. When Moscow sees benefit, it uses direct or indirect means to restart a certain level of violence in the region. The outbreak of violence is used as a thermostat, functionally turning up (more violence) or down (less) in an attempt to leverage the target government into a policy position favored by the Kremlin. In this way, the conflict is frozen and thawed as an instrument of state by the Russian government, more so than as an organic result of the local politics of the occupied territory. The effect is that, as in Georgia or Ukraine, significant territory is no longer under the control of the legal state to which it belongs. Furthermore, often the goal of Russian policy is not to fully gain control of the disputed territory, but rather to hold it in this indeterminate “frozen” state of conflict in order to use it as an instrument of state over long periods of time.
[6] See Charlie Rose, Interview with Vladimir Putin, September, 28, 2015. The key passage is this: “We act based on the United Nations Charter, i.e. the fundamental principles of modern international law, according to which this or that type of aid, including military assistance, can and must be provided exclusively to the legitimate government of one country or another, upon its consent or request, or upon the decision of the United Nations Security Council.”
[7] See: David M. Glantz: Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle. London, UK: F. Cass, 1991.
[8] Russia had the money to diversify a one-trick oil and gas economy and reform a rotten educational system that was once world-class, but Putin sacrificed the chance on the altar of national prestige. When the switch over to a post-carbon economy happens, Putin’s failure to adapt his country to modernity (ironically, the classic sin of every Tsar) will leave millions of Russians with an even worse future than they face now.
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Matthew J. Schmidt is Assistant Professor of National Security and the Director of the program in International Conflict, Development & Diplomacy at the University of New Haven. Previously he taught military planning and strategy at the U.S. Army’s School for Advance Military Studies. He holds a PhD in Government from Georgetown and an MA in Russian studies from the University of Kansas.

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