Stephen Kotkin is a professor at Princeton and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
The United States and its allies won the Cold War, a prolonged struggle across the globe, but news accounts nowadays give the impression that the West has lost the post-Cold War “peace” amid a resurgence of authoritarianism.
Exhibit A: Russia.
“Russia is a regional power,” President Barack Obama said dismissively at an international gathering in March 2014, after Moscow’s forcible annexation of Crimea. Back then, a Washington consensus largely belittled the United States’s former Cold War rival as a fatally declining has-been with less than a 3 percent share of global gross domestic product, compared to a U.S. share more than seven times as great.
Yet just a few years later, the perception had changed. Russia’s share of global GDP was no better, But in December 2017 President Vladimir Putin swooped in for a surprise visit to his country’s air base in Syria and congratulated Russian troops for ensuring the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s butcher regime against American wishes. “You are victorious, and you are going home to your families, parents, wives, children and friends,” Putin said, then took off for Cairo, where he signed a $21 billion deal with Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sissi for Russia to build a nuclear power plant. The Russian leader next flew to Ankara and joined with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to condemn the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Within 24 hours, Angela Stent writes in her book “Putin’s World,” the Kremlin boss had demonstrated that Russia was the indispensable power in the Middle East.
Russia also has strengthened its ties simultaneously to Saudi Arabia and Iran, two implacable foes, and to Iran’s other blood enemy, Israel, as well as with the United Arab Emirates. “Russia is the only great power that talks to the Shiite states, the Sunni states — and the Israelis,” Stent marvels.
Russia has disregarded the India-China chasm, too. Putin received Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2018 in Sochi, where the two men hailed their countries’ “special privileged strategic partnership.” The next month, during a visit by Russia’s leader to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping gushed that “President Putin is the leader of a great country who is influential around the world. He is my best, most intimate friend.” Xi added that China and Russia have “resolutely supported each other’s core interests.”
The short answer: Russia actually conducts diplomacy.
For the longer answer, Stent expertly walks readers through Moscow’s relations with every region in the world, avoiding the hysteria that warps discussion of the country.
Aware that too many books about Russian foreign policy arrive instantly obsolete because they lack a foundation in history or political culture, Stent opens with those subjects. Of the Russia-West clash, she writes that “it has been tempting to personalize the answer: it is all due to Vladimir Putin and his small group of Kremlin insiders,” but she adds that “behind the new tsar stands a thousand-year-old state with traditions and self-understanding that precede Putin and will surely outlast him.” Nonetheless, we get a book mostly about the czars — Mikhail Gorbachev’s, Boris Yeltsin’s and especially Putin’s official meetings, in minute detail. There is little about institutional makeup, interest group brawling or internal policy differences.
Stent clarifies that James Baker, George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, did not formally agree in 1990 to refrain from enlarging NATO in connection with German unification. But she also illuminates how in 1993, Warren Christopher, President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, ineptly assured Yeltsin that a so-called Partnership for Peace program would not entail NATO membership for Eastern European states, a vow that Clinton promptly broke. At the same time, she stresses that Moscow has not fleshed out the critical details in its persistent call for a new security architecture in Europe that would replace NATO and satisfy all parties, including former Russian satellites and possessions.
What does not come through is the larger strategic failure of U.S.-Russia policy under Obama. The president was suitably wary of American overextension, hyper-militarization and leading with democracy promotion, but he stocked his administration with regime change zealots, whom he did not empower to do what they were clamoring to do, but whom the Kremlin and others could point to and say, Aha, they are the real U.S. policy.
Stent shows how Russia seizes upon the wealth of opportunities gifted again and again by U.S. blundering or inattention. She recounts the leverage Moscow derives from its exceptional tool kit: a U.N. Security Council veto, a massive doomsday arsenal, heavy investment in its military, global weapons sales, vast hydrocarbon reserves and tactical daring (hacking, disinformation, assassinations). She further underscores the country’s web of long-standing relationships, inherited from the ideological Soviet Union. But unlike the latter, Russia’s global engagement is coldly pragmatic. She notes of the Middle East — in an observation that applies broadly — that Russia’s “appeal as an opponent of regime change and supporter of existing governments endears it to all governments in the area, authoritarian and democratic.”
Additional advantage accrues from a certain amorality. And spoliation is a far easier game to play than nation building.
Stent’s regionally compartmentalized tour of Russian foreign policy lacks a compelling narrative arc. Still, chapters about the interminable deadlock in Russia-Japan relations or the economic sanctions imposed by Europe illuminate the flaws in any depiction of Russia as some global power broker, and the book culminates in a clear-eyed portrayal of the inescapably troubled U.S.-Russia relationship. She argues for strong pushback against Russian aggression combined with a proactive quest for areas of common interest, such as counterterrorism or arms control and nonproliferation. At the same time, though, she acknowledges that three failed efforts to reset the bilateral relationship have demonstrated that engagement has worked no better than attempts at isolation.
Injecting a dose of reality, Stent notes that “Eurasia represents an intermittent, as opposed to a core, interest for the West,” so that “there are limits to which [the West] will go to challenge Russia’s interests in the region.” She deems the end of loose talk about further NATO expansion to places such as Ukraine or Georgia a victory for Putin, but in light of her analysis, this sobriety could be seen as inevitable. In any case, Russia’s challenge to the United States long ago transcended its own backyard.
But Putin’s foreign policy judo — a martial art that turns the strength of an opponent against that opponent — works only if the United States and its allies put themselves into vulnerable positions, such as Europe’s adoption of the euro without fiscal integration, the second Iraq War, the global financial crisis, pervasive social media platforms that are cheaply weaponizable.
Ultimately, whether Russia obtains much, if any, enduring strategic gain from its heightened activism abroad remains doubtful, considering the country’s fraught relations with Europe and its gathering eclipse by China. Vital technology transfer and major investment do not follow from ever-nastier one-upmanship of the West or rhetorical tribute paid by Beijing.
By Angela Stent
Twelve. 433 pp. $30