Deciphering Putin’s Russia: Why the Strains with the West?
A conversation with Angela Stent, the author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest” and former U.S. government official on Russia.
- The Western assumption had been that closer economic ties would have a beneficial effect on political ties with Russia. We now know that this assumption was erroneous.
- Trying to understand how the Kremlin works today is no easier than it was in Soviet times. In fact, the system is more personalized now and more opaque.
- Rather than letting the Russians play for time, the Germans should engage with Putin only to the extent that he is prepared to meet German interests.
- One legacy of Trump will certainly be a reversal in traditional party alignment, with Democrats now much more skeptical about Russia than Republicans.
- In the end, one always comes back to Winston Churchill’s great insight: Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
- Moscow and St. Petersburg are world-class cities with tech-savvy, well-educated globalized urban elites. Much of the rest of Russia looks like it was in Soviet times.
Q. German foreign policy seems to be marked – and marred – by an obsessive inclination to keep talking with Russia. Based on your personal insights into Putin, how effective is this approach?
A. Berlin’s argument has been that, given Germany’s difficult history with Russia, there is no choice but to engage with its large and challenging neighbor. Hence successive governments from the major political parties have reached out with projects like the “partnership for modernization.”
Now, German officials admit that these outreach attempts have done little to moderate Russian behavior. And the murder last August of a Chechen dissident in Berlin’s Tiergarten — apparently at the hands of the Russian state — certainly reminded all of Germany very publicly that Putin’s Russia continues to pursue and eliminate opponents wherever it sees fit.
To its credit, the German government under Angela Merkel continues to lead the Normandy Process which seeks to end the war in Ukraine. However, progress since 2015 has been glacial and it is unclear whether Putin has any interest in resolving this crisis.
Q. Since dialogue with Russia has not produced the results Berlin has sought, what is the alternative?
A. Germany and Russia maintain a robust economic and energy relationship. Engagement on the private-sector business level will also continue. But Putin has sought to separate the economic from the political side of relations with Germany.
The Western assumption after the Soviet collapse had been that closer economic ties would have a beneficial effect on political ties with Russia. We now know in retrospect that this assumption was questionable, if not erroneous.
Going forward, Berlin and Moscow would do best to engage in dialogue on issues of mutual concern where Russia is willing to come some way to meet German interests instead of conducting talks just for their own sake.
Q. Donald Trump labors very hard to be an advocate, protector and promoter of Russian interests, both inside the United States or on the global stage. Why?
A. Trump’s affinity for Putin—and for Russia—has been the source of endless speculation. His initial interest appears to have been generated by the prospect of boundless and lucrative real estate opportunities in the USSR as Gorbachev was opening it up to Western business.
Trump visited Moscow with his then Czech wife Ivana for the first time in 1987, when Putin was still a mid-level KGB operative in Dresden. Trump described this visit as an “extraordinary experience.”
Interestingly, although Trump has never been successful is closing a real estate deal in Russia and no Trump Tower adorns Red Square, he and his family continued to travel to Russia and do business there.
And even though his 2007 venture — producing Trump vodka — was unsuccessful, he did organize the Miss Universe pageant there in 2013. His firm was negotiating for a Trump Tower building there during the 2016 election campaign.
While he still talks about the possibilities for great business deals with Russia, he is hampered by the Congressionally-imposed sanctions against Russia.
Q. Viewed over the long term, what is the one component of Donald Trump’s Russophilia that is strategically likely most devastating and the hardest to remove from the American body politic?
A. On this particular issue, the United States’ famed checks and balances mechanism does indeed still work. Trump’s desire to improve ties to Russia has been stymied by actions from the Congress and the Executive branch. Contrary to the President, they have pursued tough policies toward Russia, imposing rafts of sanctions and expelling scores of diplomats.
The knowledge of Russian interference operations has made it very difficult for Trump to pursue his agenda of making a “deal” with Russia. The United States’ Russia policy therefore remains bifurcated. On the one hand, you have a president who still believes that ties can improve, on the other a most skeptical Congress.
Q. How does that play out with regard to the political parties?
A. This bifurcation also plays out between the political parties. The latest Pew polls show that roughly 31% of Republicans express confidence in Putin. The figure for Democrats is less than 10%.
One legacy of Trump will certainly be a reversal in traditional party alignment, with Democrats now much more skeptical about Russia than Republicans.
This has some very real effects. For example, the Republican-led Senate has refused to vote on legislation that would protect the United States’ election infrastructure from Russian interference. In the long run, the reluctance of the Congress to recognize and push back against the Russian threat to the United States’ electoral integrity could weaken our institutions.
Q. This seems like an outrageous question, but is meant very seriously: Compared to Soviet times, how much more advanced is Russia today considering its performance in terms of human development? Especially when you factor in the very meager material resources available back then — and the ample ones now.
A. As has historically been the case, there has always been a huge gap between the major cities and the rest of the vast expanse of Russia. This is, by the way, becoming especially clear today with the COVID 19 pandemic.
Moscow and St. Petersburg are world-class cities with tech-savvy, well-educated globalized urban elites. Much of the rest of Russia looks very much like it was in Soviet times.
According to an official Russian watchdog, 30% of Russian medical facilities do not have running water and 40% lack central heating. Russia’s infrastructure is largely dilapidated and Putin’s “National Projects,” designed to remedy these problems, have so far not achieved much.
Under Putin, Russia has once again become a world player in the field of politics. But domestically it has failed to create the infrastructure of a modern state with effective institutions. And, of course, widespread corruption greatly hampers the country’s economic development.
Moreover, the Russian economy continues to be overly dependent on oil and gas revenues, which creates big political and budgetary problems right now as the oil price has crashed.
Q. If you had one wish free, what point about Russia should the so-called Russia lovers in Western quarters finally acknowledge about the deceitful ways in which Russia is still operating on the global stage?
A. Too many of those in the West who want to reset relations with Russia blame the West for what has gone wrong in relations with Russia. If only NATO hadn’t enlarged, so the argument goes, then things would be more cooperative and Russia would treat its neighbors better.
General Klaus Naumann, a German who served as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee in the late 1990s, once said that the United States had “empathy deficit disorder” when dealing with Russia.
The NATO-related argument — that it is the West’s ambition to encircle Russia — is one which Russians like to repeat, but I remain unconvinced. Relations with Russia are difficult not because of NATO enlargement or Western support for Ukraine.
Q. What’s the root cause of the strained relationship then?
A. It is the result of fundamentally different worldviews. And let us always keep in mind that we are dealing with a Russian elite that is focused on remaining in power — and tends to blame the West for the economic hardships that many Russians have to endure.
Q. What is the one insight about Russia from your time in government service that you didn’t know from your academic research before?
A. This may surprise you. There is very little about Russia that one learns in government which academics don’t know. You just have more specific information about the things you already suspected.
The real difference is that some academics have little idea about how the U.S. government functions, about how policy toward Russia is made, especially “decision-making” theory. They underestimate how ad hoc many decisions are. For all the attention on IR theory, it does little to explain why governments act the way they do or to predict what they will do.
Q. Finally, in which specific regard has your view of Russia/the Soviet Union relaxed itself the most during your 40 years of analyzing and studying the country?
A. The more I study the country, the more I realize that things are never as they seem in Russia. Formal structures mean very little and can’t explain why things happen the way they do. Informal and hidden relationships determine all.
That is why trying to understand how the Kremlin works today is no easier than it was in Soviet times. In fact, the system is more personalized now and opaquer than it was back then.
What’s the key difference? Today’s Russia is run by people from the intelligence services.
In the end, one always comes back to Winston Churchill’s great insight: Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But the key to understanding it is national interest.
Thus, understanding Russia’s national interest is the key to the enigma, the mystery and the riddle, all at once.