You might not know it from your newspaper or television, but few countries matter more to the United States than Russia. The fragile state that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union barely 13 years ago is known well to comparatively few Americans, and understood by even fewer.
Yet Russia is central to the success of U.S. foreign policy, and to American interests abroad. Under the right circumstances, its resources and reach could make it an indispensable ally in what former CIA Director R. James Woolsey has dubbed the "long war of the 21st century"—the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Just as easily, however, Russia could once again become a major strategic challenger—a supporter of rogue regimes and a spoiler of U.S. diplomacy.
Moscow, in fact, is already a bit of both. Since September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become an important partner of the Bush administration, providing intelligence and political cover for American anti-terrorism efforts in Central Asia and the Middle East. And, spurred by the warmth of the personal relationship between Presidents Bush and Putin, Russia and the United States have drawn closer on many things, from nuclear security to energy issues.
At the same time, however, Russian policymakers are hard at work building military and diplomatic ties deeply harmful to the United States. The results are formidable strategic partnerships that have expanded China's military power, Europe's political intransigence, and Iran's adventurism.
This duality reflects the fact that Russia is in the midst of a monumental transition. That transformation, begun in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is still far from over. And its ultimate outcome will determine not only the political character of the Russian nation, but its attitude toward the United States as well.
Although December 9, 1991—when the leaders of the Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian republics met to formally dissolve the USSR—tends to be recognized as the official end of the Soviet era, the seeds of its demise were actually sown a good deal earlier. In the mid-1980s, at the initiative of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union attempted to rejuvenate Party rule through a radical socio-economic facelift. These policies backfired gloriously; by 1990, the Soviet economy had all but imploded under the weight of rampant inflation. The USSR's restive republics, meanwhile, became emboldened to seek self-determination, abandoning the crumbling Soviet colossus en masse a year later and spelling the end of the totalitarian regime that had murdered at least 20 million of its own people and condemned millions of others to slave labor.
If the Soviet Union was the quintessential police state, what replaced it was anything but. The rigid controls of Soviet society gave way and left one that increasingly seemed to have no rules.
The Russian economy, already devastated by the unintended consequences of Gorbachev's policies, became the focus of yet another—equally unsuccessful—experiment. Under the watchful eye of Western economists, the fledgling government of President Boris Yeltsin attempted a radical mix of market liberalization and large-scale privatization. But this "shock therapy" only succeeded in shifting the country's riches to a new class of robber barons, the so-called "oligarchs." And their wholesale takeover of large state-owned companies ushered in a new way of doing business in Russia—one built around corruption, bribery, and violent clan-style politics.
Rapid economic decline also gave birth to a sprawling network of organized crime, made up of businessmen, former intelligence officials, and gangsters. This leviathan quickly became the defining aspect of post-Soviet Russia, a fact President Boris Yeltsin himself acknowledged in 1994, when he called his country the "biggest mafia state in the world" and the "superpower of crime."
As for Moscow's rulers, once at the center of all the world's major decisions, they became increasingly irrelevant. Many governors and mayors did whatever they wanted, because there was no one to hold them accountable. With state controls gone, Russia's media outlets printed any and all material. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union's vaunted military crumbled, leaving large amounts of unprotected nuclear materiel and a vast conventional arsenal in its wake. In 1994 the Atlantic Monthly eloquently summed up the chaos when it headlined an article on post-Soviet Russia "The Wild East."
Buffeted by these forces, the Russian government turned to a tried-and-true source of legitimacy and political power—the Soviet secret police. If in his first days in office Yeltsin had embraced the need for a reform of this organ, by the mid-1990s he had reversed course and rehabilitated it. That move allowed the Soviet-era KGB, now reconstituted as some 11 different security institutions, to resume its role as a major player in Russian politics. It also set the stage for a career KGB veteran to take the Russian political reins nearly a decade after the Soviet collapse.
That man was Vladimir Putin, and his rise might be explained best by Eric Hoffer's famous dictum, that "when freedom destroys order, a society's need for order will destroy freedom."
Putin's meteoric ascent began in 1996, when he was chosen by the Yeltsin clan to take charge of Kremlin policy toward Russia's regions. By then, the former intelligence operative was already the deputy mayor of Russia's second city, St. Petersburg. Just two years later, he took the reins of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB, and assumed the post of secretary of the country's Security Council. Putin replaced Yevgenni Primakov as prime minister the following year, and subsequently was tapped by Yeltsin to succeed him as president in the last days of 1999.
From the start, Russia's new president broke publicly—and spectacularly—with his predecessor's often timid policies. Putin's first major initiative was a sweeping effort to bring Russia's numerous regions under greater executive control. He succeeded in doing so through a variety of measures, from legislation reducing the number of official constituents within the Russian Federation to the appointment of seven loyal "super-governors" to manage the country's 89 remaining regions, so that by late 2001 he had effectively subordinated these entities to the Kremlin.
With that victory under his belt, Putin expanded his efforts. He declared open season on Russia's oligarchs, launching a brutal political and judicial campaign against billionaire mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his Yukos conglomerate—one that, as of this writing, has left Russia's richest man behind bars and its second-largest oil company on the verge of bankruptcy and/or nationalization, in an eloquent demonstration of the high cost of interference in Kremlin power politics. Through legislative fiat and hostile takeovers, Putin has similarly managed to muzzle the country's independent media, which observers say now operate under a "Soviet model," complete with state interference and a healthy dose of "self-censorship" by Russian journalists.
Putin even facilitated the rise of a large and vibrant subculture of "siloviki," former intelligence officials who have risen to populate most major positions within the Russian government (to say nothing of prominent business posts outside it). Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya puts the number of high-level governmental posts now occupied by these KGB holdovers at close to 60 percent. Last year, she told London's Financial Times that Russians "are witnessing the restoration of the power of the KGB in the country from the regions to the top of the Kremlin."
Yet all of this has met with tremendous popular approval. Putin, the best-liked Russian politician in recent memory, enjoys unprecedented levels of support from ordinary Russians enamored with his draconian governing style—a method so successful it has even earned a moniker, "managed democracy."
Russians, in fact, have a lot to cheer about. On Putin's watch, their country has made a dramatic economic turnaround. In February of 2002, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the world's largest energy exporter, and today, less than six years after its catastrophic 1998 economic meltdown, Russia boasts close to $100 billion in hard currency reserves. Putin, for his part, has managed to translate these soaring economic fortunes into real fiscal progress. Via measures like the imposition of a flat tax (accomplished in 2001), the subsequent softening of long-standing restrictions on land ownership, and the start of rudimentary mortgage programs (heretofore missing in post-Soviet Russia), the Kremlin has succeeded in devolving economic power and empowering ordinary Russians in a way not imaginable just a decade ago.
Putin's plans don't stop there. Capitalizing on Washington's post-September 11 focus on energy security, he has announced Russia's intention to provide the United States with fully 10 percent of its oil by the end of the decade. And in his 2004 State of the Federation address, the Russian president articulated the exceedingly ambitious goal of doubling his country's GDP by 2010.
Putin also is thinking big on the foreign policy front. Buoyed by economic and social successes, Russia's international maneuvers have grown increasingly assertive. Russia, once adrift, is now trying to regain its place as a "Great Power."
Russia's efforts abroad are animated by an old concept: the idea of Russia as empire. A little over a decade after the end of its last imperial experiment, rising economic and political prospects are making the idea—and the ideology—of Russian expansion a topic of growing currency in the Kremlin.
Such aspirations, again, are hardly new. The end of the Cold War did little to permanently eradicate Moscow's historic expansionist tendencies, which began to resurface soon after the Soviet collapse. Indeed, in some ways, by fracturing existing communities and established national identities, it actually strengthened the urge for reunification.
That is why in March of 1994, not even three years after the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, no less a public figure than Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn became among the first publicly to articulate post-Soviet Russia's imperial destiny. The breakup of the USSR, Solzhenitsyn lamented, cost Russia dearly. "In several days, we lost 25 million ethnic Russians—18 percent of our entire nation... Twenty-five million—the largest diaspora in the world by far. How dare we turn our back to it?" Mr. Solzhenitsyn would repeat the call for Slavic unity a year later, on the floor of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. That he was provided with such a prominent forum was a sure sign of serious political support for the idea.
Solzhenitsyn is hardly alone. A widening number of politicians of all political stripes are gravitating to the idea of a "Greater Russia." These include not only people like Aleksandr Dugin, one of Russia's most prominent—and controversial—political scientists, but also ascendant statesmen like Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy chairman of the Russian Duma. Rogozin, in his 2003 book We Will Reclaim Russia for Ourselves, makes the case that Russians "should discuss out loud the problem of a divided people that has a historic right to political unification of its own land," and are obliged over time to "create conditions" necessary for such a union.
This stance has found fertile soil, both within Russia itself and in Russia's "near abroad." According to a December 2000 domestic poll, the results of which were carried by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, no less than 61 percent of Russians, 53 percent of Ukrainians, and 69 percent of Belarussians favor unification of their states into one country. And, under Putin, this urge has found expression. Through a series of political and legislative maneuvers, his government is laying the groundwork for an imperial revival.
Just such a restoration was on the mind of Putin and his key supporters in late 2001, when they pushed a remarkable new law through the Russian parliament. That bit of legislation defines the parameters by which a foreign state or territory can become part of the Russian Federation—providing the legal basis for a peaceful, or not so peaceful, territorial expansion. Moreover, it is hardly an isolated incident. The newly selected prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, in his March 2004 address to the Russian State Duma, confirmed that territorial expansion is now being given new attention by the Kremlin. "In light of economic growth and questions of demography," Fradkov said, the Russian government would "in the future simplify grants of citizenship to Russians living abroad."
Moreover, Russia has moved to put its plan into action by more dramatic means. In late 2003, the Russian Defense Ministry adopted a draft military strategy dramatically expanding its reach in—and claims to—the "post-Soviet space." Among other things, the so-called "Ivanov Doctrine," named after its chief architect, Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov, broadens Russia's accepted uses of force to include the protection of Russian citizens living beyond the borders of Russia.
Meanwhile, with the countries of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, Moscow has succeeded in establishing a "Single Economic Space." This economic construct, formalized in 2003, is designed to harmonize the Russian, Belarussian, Kazakh, and Ukrainian economies into an economic counterweight to the European Union—with Russia at the helm, naturally.
And, through a savvy strategy of sticks and carrots, Russia now dominates the energy picture in the "post-Soviet space." Russia's state-owned energy conglomerates virtually control the Armenian electrical sector and Georgia's natural gas exports, and play a decisive role in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan's energy calculus. The Kremlin has even managed to delay, obstruct, and otherwise discourage the development of alternative energy pipelines from the Caspian, making the countries of the region deeply dependent on its good graces for their economic well-being. Needless to say, all of this has been done to the considerable detriment of foreign investors and the political independence of the fledgling former Soviet Republics themselves.
Putin also continues to strengthen and expand Russia's strategic partnerships. Moscow's bonds to Beijing, which date back to Soviet times, have been bolstered considerably under Putin's direction. In 2001, the new Russian president and his counterpart at the time, Jiang Zemin, inked a formal treaty on "Friendship and Cooperation," the first pact of its kind between Russia and China since 1950, and one specifically designed to offset American influence abroad. Subsequent deliveries of high-tech arms, courtesy of the Kremlin, have aided China's military modernization and expanded the PRC's power in Asia.
Russia similarly tightened its ties to Iran. In the early days following the Soviet collapse, the new government in Moscow gravitated toward partnership with Tehran, based on an understanding of the need to prevent Iran, with its well-deserved reputation for terrorism, from making trouble in the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the end of the 1990s, however, that marriage of convenience became much more—an important military alliance in its own right, and an attractive way to blunt American policy in the Middle East. These connections have only been strengthened under Putin's stewardship; Russia is now Iran's principal arms supplier and responsible for much of the Islamic Republic's nuclear progress.
Even diplomatic dialogue with Europe has expanded. Bilateral consultations between Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2001, for example, substantially broadened cooperation between Moscow and Berlin, while similar diplomatic contacts with Paris greatly enhanced the Franco-Russian relationship. That these bonds to a large degree are built around antagonism to America was evident in the run-up to the Iraq war, when Russia joined France and Germany in blocking United Nations authorization of military force, forcing the Bush administration to craft its own "Coalition of the Willing" against Saddam Hussein's regime.
Yet at the same time, Russia has drawn dramatically closer to the United States. In the aftermath of September 11, Putin broke publicly with many in Moscow when he extended his support for an unprecedented U.S. military expansion into Russia's backyard as part of the war on terrorism. Since then, Russia has become an important asset to Washington's anti-terrorism efforts, feeding the U.S. defense and intelligence communities with critical data in an ongoing process that has not been interrupted by political disagreements over Iraq. In fact, on a range of issues—from civilian scientific research to the prevention of WMD proliferation—Russian-American cooperation has never been better. Over time, these advances, given the deep personal connection Presidents Bush and Putin appear to have made, could result in an even closer partnership.
The success of these foreign policy maneuvers is a testament to the skill with which Putin has so far managed to balance partnership with the West (and in particular the U.S.) and opposition to it. At some point, however, either Russia's current president or a successor may have to choose his country's political direction.
Russia's economic aspirations, its rising concerns about Chinese expansionism (particularly into the energy-rich Russian Far East), and its fears of militant Islam, all suggest that Moscow is likely to look westward. Still, the potential for another ruthless, anti-Western dictatorship to take power in Russia cannot be ruled out. And because such a development is not impossible, the dynamics of Russian policy merit close attention from American policymakers. So does helping Moscow to make the right political choices.