President Vladimir Putin has carefully crafted an image as a strong man of action — one whose will and power have single-handedly restored Russia’s status as a great power. Unfortunately, this often translates into acts that are illegal, immoral and ruthless. Putin and his proxies have annexed territory in neighboring Ukraine, conspired with an evil dictator in Syria to kill hundreds of thousands, violated American sovereignty during the 2016 presidential election, attempted to assassinate a former Russian intelligence officer on the territory of a NATO country, and, most recently, attacked Ukrainian vessels in international waters and kidnapped two dozen Ukrainian sailors. But, of course, for Putin and his admirers at home and abroad, the end justifies the means. And the end, or so the narrative goes, is to make Russia great again.
Putin’s defenders would argue that he has, along the way, scored some genuine foreign policy successes. The world is quietly becoming receptive to recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. Putin’s ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is winning the war there. Putin’s efforts inside the United States did help President Trump win, and that victory has weakened American leadership on the world stage — a clear plus for the Kremlin. And Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine last month has yielded only meek responses of concern from the international community. Some leaders in the West, including Trump, have convinced themselves that the only way to deal with a resurgent Russia is appeasement and accommodation.
That conclusion is premature. In the short run, Putin has won several tactical victories. In the long run, however, these same wins have planted the seeds of long-term isolation and weakness for Russia on the world stage. Nearly every single short-term Putin achievement has undermined a long-term Putin objective.
The first strategic blow came to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). When I arrived in Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation in 2012, Putin’s No. 1 foreign policy objective was the creation of this multilateral economic organization. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the idea made sense: to reunite in one economic union all the countries (except the Baltic states) that had emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a counterweight to the European Union — and with Russia at the core. Putin needed Ukraine’s 40 million-plus consumers to make the EEU viable and benefit Russian exporters, and for most of 2012-13, he was focused on securing Ukrainian membership. Yet by annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine, Putin guaranteed forever that Ukraine will never join his economic club.
Putin’s next strategic setback concerned NATO. In the wake of the mixed messaging about NATO expansion at the NATO summit in Bucharest in May 2008, and subsequent Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, NATO expansion eastward de facto was a settled issue. The alliance did not want to offer membership to Georgia, and Ukrainian leaders and society did not seek to join the European alliance. With time, relations between NATO and Russia improved. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev described the 2010 NATO summit as “historic.” Cooperation on missile defense between Russia and NATO was a main topic of discussion at the meeting.
Yet Putin’s invasion of Ukraine killed off the possibility of broader NATO-Russia cooperation and motivated NATO to return to its original mission of containing Russia in Europe, expending considerable new resources to do so. All this was the opposite of the long-term outcome that Putin desired.
In violating American sovereignty to help candidate Trump in 2016, Putin did achieve a central Russian foreign policy objective (as defined by Putin) of weakening American leadership in the world. Trump has withdrawn from many international agreements, all to Putin’s benefit. Admiration for the United States has fallen around the world, and polarization inside the United States has intensified.
In the long run, however, Putin’s blatant intervention in American domestic affairs has helped to produce a growing consensus among both American foreign policy elites and the public about Putin’s anti-American intentions. This unity in analysis, in turn, has produced continuity in deterrence polices between the Obama and Trump administrations. Over the past two years, Congress has even gone further by implementing new sanctions and providing lethal assistance to Ukraine. Trump himself is an outlier to this consensus, but his impact on actual policy toward Russia has been minimal.
Putin’s latest strategic setback was a new split within the Orthodox religious world, a lagging consequence of his invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Last week, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine voted to leave the Russian Orthodox Church, a decision likely to be ratified next month by the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Istanbul. The Russian Orthodox Church will lose roughly a third of its followers in a fissure that some are calling the biggest blow to Christian unity since 1054.
Initially, Putin’s belligerent policies abroad boosted his popularity. Over time, however, his numbers have fallen as the adrenaline rush of fighting “Nazis” in Ukraine has given way to growing discontent about anemic economic performance and unpopular social policies. When will Russian citizens begin to assess the losses from a weakened EEU, a strengthened NATO, a united America against Russia and a divided Orthodox Church to be greater than the dividends of an alleged return to great power status as defined by Putin? That full reevaluation is unlikely to occur while Putin remains in power. But once he’s gone, expect a big debate among Russian elites and Russian society as a whole about the costs and benefits of sustaining Putinism.