Timothy Frye is the Marshall D. Shulman professor of post-Soviet foreign policy at Columbia University.
From Venezuela to Syria to Ukraine, Moscow is playing an assertive role in global affairs. Observers often give Vladimir Putin the credit for bringing Russia “back” as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage — despite his country’s acknowledged weakness. Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright expressed a common view in a recent interview: Putin, she said, “is playing a weak hand very well internationally.”
Yet that analysis betrays a fundamental flaw. Power in global politics is not dealt from a deck of cards but is a function of state policy. Putin has now been leading his country for almost 20 years. If anyone has made Russia’s hand weak, it’s him.
The failure to create a more dynamic economy is the root of the problem. Thanks to high energy prices and fiscal caution, the Kremlin has accrued large reserve funds, but the economy has stagnated for a decade. When he returned to the presidency in 2012, Putin promised 6 percent growth per year, but the Russian economy is now about the same size as it was in 2008 ($1.6 trillion), and average real incomes for ordinary Russians have declined for six years running. (In nominal terms, Russia’s economy is smaller than that of Canada — or Texas.) Most experts predict economic growth in Russia will be less than 2 percent in the years to come, and few Russians harbor hope that economic conditions will improve. Slow economic growth does not directly threaten Russia’s military operations abroad, but Moscow’s spending on national defense fell to sixth place in 2018 — behind the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, India and France.
Policies to generate faster growth are at Putin’s command. Russia could reduce corruption, increase economic competition and cut red tape. Yet doing so would hurt Putin’s main constituencies — elite cronies who benefit from the status quo, conservative voters, state bureaucrats, and workers in import-competing sectors.
Putin’s foreign policy, too, has led to reactions that have ultimately limited Russia’s power. My research shows that the annexation of Crimea brought a four-year surge in support for Putin within Russia but also removed the largest and most pro-Russian voting bloc from Ukrainian politics. The landslide victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in presidential elections in April suggests that the polarization between Eastern and Western Ukraine that served Russia well is far less important today. And China will soon replace Russia as Ukraine’s largest single trading partner. To top it off, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have reinvigorated NATO despite all the centrifugal forces at work in Europe and led to economic sanctions that have further slowed economic growth in Russia.
While Putin is lauded for heightening the chaos of U.S. politics, there is little evidence that Russia’s multipronged effort influenced voting in 2016. Elections expert Nate Silver notes: “If you wrote out a list of the most important factors in the 2016 election, I’m not sure that Russian social media memes would be among the top 100. The scale was quite small and there is not much evidence that they were effective.” The deep movers of political polarization in the United States were in place well before 2016. However one judges the impact of Kremlin-backed efforts in the 2016 election, they have certainly bolstered support for economic sanctions against Russia.
To be sure, we should recognize Putin’s deftness. In Syria, the Kremlin has kept its ally Bashar al-Assad in power and retained its naval base with a small number of troops and few casualties. In the Middle East, the Kremlin has good relations with both Israel and the Palestinians and with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moscow’s ties with longtime NATO member Turkey have never been better, while relations with China have improved. Putin may even manage to prop up the Maduro regime in Venezuela for a while. This is an impressive record.
But in other areas, Putin’s assertive policies have produced short-term victories that limit Russian power in the long run. This trade-off is not lost on the Russian public, which has tired of the Kremlin’s foreign adventures. Surveys show that Russians prioritize economic development over foreign policy by large margins. In May, they also expressed less trust in Putin than at any time in the past 13 years.
Putin can continue to play his weak hand well and abet Russia’s long-term decline or try to strengthen his hand with all the inherent political risks of altering the status quo at home. My money is on the former. But before we crown him as a foreign policy genius, let’s remember that his weak hand is largely of his own making. More importantly, by recognizing the self-limiting dynamics of Putin’s foreign policy, we can keep the challenge from Moscow in proper perspective.