Placing Putin’s Pragmatism in Perspective
Bryan T. Baker
As the 10th Century ended, Prince Vladimir I of the Rus faced the critical questions that all rulers face—how would he ensure his personal power, and the security and stability of his lands? He had just emerged from a bloody fratricidal conflict[i] and he looked to foreign policy to answer these questions. After exploring alliances with other nations and faiths, notably Islam, it was clear that a reorientation towards mighty Byzantium was the answer. Adoption of Christianity would allow Vladimir to control his people through the influence and authority of the Church. And a military alliance with the Byzantines would protect the Rus' southern flank while securing trading rights through Constantinople. Thus, Vladimir ordered the citizens of Kiev into the Dnieper to partake in the waters of baptism—this act fostered great changes in domestic and foreign policy for the Rus, changes that greatly strengthened Vladimir’s state.[ii]As the 20th Century came to a close another Vladimir, Vladimir Putin, faced similar challenges. Would he orient Russia towards the East or the West? Would he continue the Great Power Balancing foreign policy strategy of his predecessors, or would he adopt a new one? How would he modernize Russia’s economy while dealing with the expansion of NATO?
Putin chose to transition from the foreign policy strategy that had been advocated by his predecessors. He replaced this strategy—which (among other things) had emphasized counterbalancing Western power and promoting a multipolar world—with a strategy of Pragmatism.[iii] Pragmatism, for Putin, meant 1) fully ending Russian isolation and making Russia a full member of the international community, 2) ensuring internal stability as well as security from existential threats, and 3) pursuing economic modernization.[iv]
In this essay, I will describe and evaluate Putin's pragmatism, explain that this pragmatism grew increasingly assertive over time due to Western encroachments in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and conclude that the crisis in Ukraine shows this strategy has provided significant payoffs for Russia.
Two major events contributed greatly to Putin’s transition to Pragmatism. The first was Russia’s economic recovery after the financial crisis of August 1998 combined with new economic opportunities presenting themselves to the country. The second event was the rise in Islamic terrorism in the Caucuses and around the world. The economic recovery provided Russia with the resources to re-engage globally, and terrorism allowed Putin to “reshape Russia’s relations with the United States and redefine the threats to Russia as being characterized by global terrorism.”[v]
A rise in Islamic extremism in the Russian sphere and around the world afforded Putin with the political capital he needed to make the shift from Great Power Balancing to Pragmatism. In August of 1999 bombs set by Islamic extremists detonated in apartment buildings in Moscow while Chechen rebels invaded Dagestan. Putin—who was running for the presidency on the platform of “eradicating extremism,” and establishing a strong Russia state—saw his approval rating soar from 2 percent to 58 percent in the wake of these events.[vi] The September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States further reinforced the terror threat in the Russian psyche and Putin used these events to forge a new relationship with the US, based on cooperative pragmatism.[vii] In fact, after 9/11 Putin scrambled to help George W. Bush by allowing the US to establish military bases in Central Asia, among other things.[viii] This new strategy combined elements of Russian Westernism and Statism (see footnote for definitions).[ix] Statism—with its emphasis on governability and the ability to use one’s power—came before Western democratization for Putin, however.[x] Yet, Putin’s Pragmatism did not simply view the international world as a series of threats to Russia’s security; he also looked for new opportunities in the international system.[xi]
Pragmatic engagement with the West on counterterrorism helped to advance Putin’s goals of lessening isolation, making Russia a more integrated member of the international community, and making Russia more secure. The third goal of the new Pragmatism, however, was economic modernization. To achieve this goal, Putin initiated an impressive oil and gas boom involving new production and increased exports which seems to have involved the construction of new pipelines in nearly every direction.[xii]-[xiii] In addition to oil and gas, Putin also helped both Iran and India with their nuclear programs as a way to capitalize on Russia’s nuclear prowess.[xiv] Putin also strengthened ties with China and India and others to secure export markets in arms in addition to energy. Arms exports exploded in 2001 and 2002 especially.[xv] All things considered, it appears that during this period Putin attempted to expand and capitalize upon what Russia could already do well.
As a final note on this early period of Putin's tenure, it should also be noted that Russia did not simply cave to Western or US interests. Putin's pragmatism was married to Statism—ensuring Russia's independence, stability, and security were paramount concerns. Thus, Putin did not hesitate to push back on what he perceived as unhelpful Western actions such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq[xvi] or continued NATO expansion.[xvii] He also put a halt to US Peace Corps involvement in Russia.[xviii]
A New Assertiveness
The colored revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine from 2003-2005, and US regime change goals in relation to these revolutions brought about a new assertiveness in Russian foreign policy.[xix] Further exacerbating Russian-US relations at the time were the escalating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia believed that US strategy in those conflicts had created more terrorism and had resulted in a destabilization of Russia’s periphery.[xx] Compounding this Russian insecurity during this time were Georgia and Ukraine’s announcements that they wished to join NATO.[xxi]
At the Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007, Putin announced the new assertiveness Russia was embracing due to these perceived threats. He sent a strong message to the West that, from his vantage point, Russia integration with the West was in doubt due to the destabilizing course the United States was taking as the world’s sole superpower.[xxii]
“It is [a] world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within..the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. ”[xxiii]
The next year at the 2008 NATO summit, Putin doubled down: “We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders...as a direct threat to the security of our country. The claim that this process [NATO expansion] is not directed against Russia will not suffice. National security is not based on promises.”[xxiv] About three months later Russia was at war in Georgia, pushing back against US influence there.[xxv]The West, however, failed to heed Putin’s warnings against promoting regime change and NATO expansion on Russia’s periphery. This resulted in the current geopolitical crisis in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Case
As highlighted in the first paragraph of this essay, Russia has incredibly deep ties to Ukraine stretching back over 1000 years. According to the celebrated historian Susan Wise Bauer, the Russian state took one of its earliest forms as the kingdom of the Kievan Rus in modern-day Ukraine between 900 and 1000 C.E. Thus, Kiev was one of the first capital cities of Russia. Beyond geography, Kiev also has deep cultural and religious significance for Russians dating back to Vladimir I’s adoption of Orthodox Christianity.[xxvi] Thus there are approximately 150 million members of the Russian Orthodox Church that have a deep shared religious history with Ukraine.[xxvii]
Despite repeated messaging from Putin that he would not accept a Western-dominated Ukraine, the West pursued exactly that by courting Ukraine for NATO and EU ascension. The West also endorsed a regime-change strategy in Ukraine and supported the toppling of the democratically elected Ukrainian president. In 2013 Russia carried out the logical conclusion of continued Western encroachment in Ukraine (in light of Putin’s Munich Speech) by annexing the Crimea and sponsoring a separatist movement in the east and south—regions dominated by ethnic Russians. According to John Mearsheimer, the United States erroneously felt at the time that it bore no responsibility for this crisis. In fact, President Obama doubled down by imposing sanctions on Russia and increasing support for the Kiev government. Mearsheimer writes that these moves, “...are based on the same faulty logic that helped precipitate the crisis. Instead of resolving the dispute, it will lead to more trouble.”[xxviii]
Americans reading this essay may feel that Russia lost the Cold War and must deal with its consequences. Or they may feel that sovereignty demands that if Ukraine wants to join NATO and the EU, they have every right to do so. I would encourage those that feel this way to consider the following: imagine the United States had lost the Cold War. Imagine that Russia had promised not to expand the Warsaw Pact to America’s door.[xxix] Imagine if Soviet-backed economic transition in America had collapsed our economy. And finally, imagine that the Warsaw Pact had marched across Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s and now Canada and Mexico were considering ascension to the Soviet alliance. How would the United States respond once it had regained some of its military power?
When discussing possible Ukraine-Georgia ascension to NATO in July of 2018, Putin said: “Our colleagues, who are trying to aggravate the situation, seeking to include, among others, Ukraine and Georgia in the orbit of the alliance, should think about the possible consequences of such an irresponsible policy.”[xxx] I hope the West will take this statement seriously. If they do not, Russia will continue to lash out.
The Payoffs of Assertive Pragmatism
Assertive Pragmatism has substantially benefited Russia. US and Western actions prove that these actors prioritize one thing above all others—power. Assertive Pragmatism has reestablished Russia’s ability to project its power and defend its core interests. That said, this strategy has failed partially in its first goal; Russia is arguably more isolated now than it was when Putin took power. However, I would argue that Putin’s power projections have made Russia a more respected member of the international community, because, once again, the international system respects power. Putin’s second goal under Pragmatism was to ensure internal stability and to protect Russia from existential threats. I believe his pragmatism has achieved this for the time being. Putin has presided over a stable Russia as its paramount leader for over 18 years. Further, he has successfully checked Western expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. Lastly, Putin’s goal of economic modernization has been successful, though continuing sanctions threaten this success.
"2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts." CNN. April 03, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2014/03/13/world/europe/2008-georgia-russia-conflict/index.html.
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York, NY: Norton, 2010.
Dougherty, Jill. "Putin Warns on Iraq War." CNN. March 28, 2003. Accessed November 15, 2018. http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/03/28/sprj.irq.putin/.
Hardt, John. 2005. “Putin’s Window of Economic Opportunity.” Problems of Post-Communism 52 (4): 14–21. http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=poh&AN=17653493&site=ehost-live.
Hill, Fiona. "Putin and Bush in Common Cause? Russia's View of the Terrorist Threat After September 11." Brookings. June 1, 2002. Accessed November 15, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/putin-and-bush-in-common-cause-russias-view-of-the-terrorist-threat-after-september-11/.
Kramer, Mark, and Mary Elise Sarotte. "No Such Promise ." Foreign Affairs. December 2014. Accessed November 19, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/eastern-europe-caucasus/no-such-promise.
Lind, John H. "The Russo-Byzantine Treaties and the Early Urban Structure of Rus'." The Slavonic and East European Review 62, no. 3 (1984): 362-70. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/stable/4208908.
Mearsheimer, John J. "Opinion | Getting Ukraine Wrong." The New York Times. March 13, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/opinion/getting-ukraine-wrong.html.
Osborn, Andrew. "Putin Warns NATO against Closer Ties with Ukraine and Georgia." Reuters. July 19, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-nato-putin/putin-warns-nato-against-closer-ties-with-ukraine-and-georgia-idUSKBN1K92KA.
Putin, Vladimir. "Putin's Prepared Remarks at 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy." The Washington Post. February 12, 2007. Accessed November 14, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021200555.html
"Russian Orthodox Church Facts." The Telegraph. September 26, 2011. Accessed November 17, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8789999/Russian-Orthodox-Church-facts.html.
Trenin, Dmitri. "To Understand Ukraine." Carnegie Moscow Center. January 10, 2018. Accessed November 17, 2018. http://carnegie.ru/2018/01/10/to-understand-ukraine-pub-75230.
Tsygankov, Andrei P. "Two Faces of Putin’s Great Power Pragmatism." Soviet and Post-Soviet Review. 33, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 103-19.
Tsygankov, Andrei P. Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity. 4th ed. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
[ii] Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York, NY: Norton, 2010. Pg. 537
[iii] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 167
[iv] Tsygankov, Andrei P. "Two Faces of Putin’s Great Power Pragmatism." Soviet and Post-Soviet Review33, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 103-19. Pg. 103
[v] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 135-136
[vi] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 136
[vii] Tsygankov 2016, Pg 136
[viii] Hill, Fiona. "Putin and Bush in Common Cause? Russia's View of the Terrorist Threat After September 11." Brookings. June 1, 2002. Accessed November 15, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/putin-and-bush-in-common-cause-russias-view-of-the-terrorist-threat-after-september-11/.
[ix] Andrei Tsygankov (2016) denotes three mainline foreign policy schools in Russia—Statists, Westernists, and Civilizationists. Statists strive to maintain Russian power and social and political order. Westernists desire to emulate, and bring Russia closer to, the West. And Civilizationists desire to export Russian culture and values abroad.
[x] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 137
[xi] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 137
[xii] Tsygankov 2016, pg 153
[xiii] Hardt, John. 2005. “Putin’s Window of Economic Opportunity.” Problems of Post-Communism 52 (4): 14–21. http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=poh&AN=17653493&site=ehost-live.
[xiv] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 152
[xv] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 152
[xvi] Dougherty, Jill. "Putin Warns on Iraq War." CNN. March 28, 2003. Accessed November 15, 2018. http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/03/28/sprj.irq.putin/.
[xvii] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 146
[xviii] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 148
[xix] Tsygankov 2008, pg. 103
[xx] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 178
[xxi] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 178
[xxii] Tsygankov 2016, pg. 177
[xxiii] Putin, Vladimir. "Putin's Prepared Remarks at 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy." The Washington Post. February 12, 2007. Accessed November 14, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021200555.html.
[xxiv] Tsygankov 2016, pg 178
[xxv] "2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts." CNN. April 03, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2014/03/13/world/europe/2008-georgia-russia-conflict/index.html.
[xxvi] Bauer 533-537
[xxvii] "Russian Orthodox Church Facts." The Telegraph. September 26, 2011. Accessed November 17, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8789999/Russian-Orthodox-Church-facts.html.
[xxviii] Mearsheimer, John J. "Opinion | Getting Ukraine Wrong." The New York Times. March 13, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/opinion/getting-ukraine-wrong.html.
[xxix] Gorbachev was promised repeatedly in 1990 that NATO would not expand into the FSU. See Kramer, Mark, and Mary Elise Sarotte. "No Such Promise ." Foreign Affairs. December 2014. Accessed November 19, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/eastern-europe-caucasus/no-such-promise.
[xxx] Osborn, Andrew. "Putin Warns NATO against Closer Ties with Ukraine and Georgia." Reuters. July 19, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-nato-putin/putin-warns-nato-against-closer-ties-with-ukraine-and-georgia-idUSKBN1K92KA.