It should come as no surprise that many Russians will mourn this month, a quarter century after Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and overnight, one of the great world empires simply dissolved.
Today a tense realignment is underway, as a resurgent Russia jostles to the table and upends American nostrums about the post-Cold War order. Russia has given the United States plenty of grist for worry with its apparent meddling in the US presidential election. President Vladimir Putin’s hackers and propagandists appear ready and willing to work to tip the balance to the right in upcoming European elections as well.
While these Russian endeavors are important, they’re a sideshow to the main event: a long geopolitical struggle in which the United States briefly gained a dominant position, but which today is more evenly matched.
In many respects, Russia’s position has been consistent so long as Putin has been in power. When it comes to terrorists, separatists, or defiant neighbors, force matters more than moral jockeying. Recent events confirm Russia’s view of itself. Aleppo’s rebels collapsed before a Russian-led onslaught. Turkey is desperate to remain in Russia’s good graces; the theatrical assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in an art gallery Monday only brings the two countries into closer cooperation.
Incoming President Donald Trump, meanwhile, appears willing to grant Russia the official recognition that Putin has always craved.
Trump and Putin — two macho leaders with empire-sized egos — tempt analysts to reduce the US-Russia relationship to personalities. But the unfolding clash stems from essentials. Russia has considerable hard power, starting with its nuclear arsenal and enormous territory. Its interests conflict with those of the United States and frequently of Europe, through tsarist and Soviet times down to the present. And finally, Moscow’s acerbic rhetoric and commitment to sovereignty and consistency place it in constant opposition in international forums to the United States, with its moralistic style and constant talk of human rights and democracy.
“Putin is about restoring his country as a major power recognized by the world,” said Dmitri V. Trenin, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian armies who now heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, an international think tank.
No amount of affection between Trump and Putin will change the fact that Russia’s interests never really overlapped with America’s. “The best we can hope for is to turn confrontation into competition,” Trenin said.
Trump won’t be the first recent US leader to woo Moscow. Every president since George H. W. Bush has tried to cultivate harmonious ties. Clinton might have helped Boris Yeltsin win a second term. George W. Bush famously waxed rhapsodic about Putin’s eyes. Barack Obama tried to reset. Trump will come into office on a wave of gushing rhetoric.
(Of course, all bets are off if some of the more unlikely theories turn out to be true and Trump turns out to be a sort of Manchurian Candidate with preexisting ties to Putin and a secret plan to realign the United States with Russia. But unless and until evidence emerges, we’ll have to chart the future based on what we’ve heard and observed so far.)
Through all these zigs and zags, Russia has consistently reasserted its alpha position in the former Soviet space while consolidating authoritarian state power in its heartland. Its techniques and rhetoric — against Chechen separatists, Russian oligarchs, political dissenters, suspected terrorists — won’t play by rules it considers rigged in favor of the West.
For Trump, this fundamental divergence means that despite any honeymoon period, the conversations are going to be difficult and full of disagreement.
Trump might see eye to eye with Putin when it comes to the Russian president’s reflex to crush dissent, and he may accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But Russian expansion will clash with America’s sphere of interests, and new boundaries will have to be negotiated.
Russia wants full hegemony in its old sphere of influence, which means a NATO rollback, and it wants a transactional international order stripped of even the rhetoric of international humanitarian law and its moral accoutrements.
Meanwhile, the United States will continue to preach a prosperity gospel built on capitalism, democracy, and lower-case liberalism.
Putin wants to erase once and for all the image of Russia as the tottering, ex-empire low on cash, trying to bully the world with a limping army whose rusty equipment is staffed by alcoholics with truncated life spans.
A multipolar world is full of fuzzy boundaries that breed conflict and uncertainty. The United States might be in first place, but China is gaining, and neither can patronizingly dismiss Russia as a “regional power.” The European Union is politically fragmented and economically hobbled, but it remains one of the richest markets in the world and, like Russia, possesses geostrategic depth. The fallacy of the American interregnum after 1991 was that old standards of geopolitical power no longer applied. Now the world has been put back on notice that they do, but that doesn’t answer the specific question: What should the United States do about Russia?
The first step toward a more effective Russia policy is to understand Moscow’s grievances. The sudden collapse of an empire of global scope traumatized many former Soviet citizens.
After Gorbachev’s Christmas-day resignation, Boris Yeltsin led an independent Russia into what was supposed to be a bright new age of capitalist democracy. Expert American advisers helped usher in a headlong rush to privatize state-owned industries. Whatever their intention, the chaotic process amounted to a looting of some of the former Soviet Union’s prized assets by a tiny circle of corrupt oligarchs. Yeltsin’s inner circle engaged in epic corruption. Some of the experts argued that a flawed sell-off of Communist-era industries was a necessary shock to shed Soviet mores. The result was catastrophic. Citizens lost the social safety net, while gaining very little in return. The visible results of capitalism piled up only for a tiny elite.
Added to the quotidian discomfort was a wrenching loss of national status. An ailing Yeltsin lurked out of view, while oligarchs ran riot and former Soviet republics made a mockery of Russia’s former primacy. NATO spread closer to Russia’s borders.
“Russia’s brief experience of democratic life was an experience of being pushed around by the United States,” said Mark MacKinnon, a Canadian journalist and author of “The New Cold War.”
Yeltsin’s Communist challenger was expected to win in 1996, but a unified front of oligarchs, worried they might lose their privileges, and campaign experts dispatched by Clinton, saved the day for Yeltsin, if not for his constituents. The episode was memorialized in the 2003 American comedy “Spinning Boris.”
“Many Russians look at what’s happening now in the United States and giggle that it’s payback time,” MacKinnon said.
Russian influence reached its nadir when NATO intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, which Russia considered parts of its sphere of influence. Putin took power the year after the Kosovo campaign, and doggedly began rebuilding Russia’s military and intelligence prowess. His scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya presaged his approach to Syria.
By 2008, Putin felt confident and invaded Georgia, on the pretext of defending the ethnic Russian minority there. The act of aggression provoked apoplectic rhetoric but little else.
Meanwhile, analysts say, Putin was frustrated that America didn’t show more gratitude that Russia had not opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and campaign in Libya in 2011.
Ever since, he has sought opportunities to exploit Western disarray, as he did with the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, and the 2015 intervention in Syria.
Russian diplomats have crowed about American fecklessness in Syria and were visibly buoyed when over the Pentagon’s objections the US State Department negotiated an agreement in September — which never was implemented — to cooperate with Russian forces against terrorists in Syria.
The path forward is risky. A belligerent Russia can cause a great deal of destruction and spread instability. Russia threatened Europe’s natural gas supply. It lied about its military activities in Crimea. Its muscle-flexing has rattled Europe and NATO. Turkey challenged Russia, shooting down a fighter plane, and quickly lost the ensuing face-off. Russia played hardball, putting tourism and economic relations on ice until Turkey apologized and scaled back its ambitions in Syria where those ambitions clashed with Russia’s. Russia won that round, and other countries noticed.
Some analysts, like Nikolay Kozhanov, an expert at the British think tank Chatham House, have argued that Putin’s most disruptive moves came largely as the result of Western mistakes. As a result, Western unity could severely limit Russian capacity.
Sooner or later, Russia experts agree that Putin will test Trump. Clashes could come in Poland, or the Baltics, where Trump has suggested NATO is overextended. Tensions could flare in places where Russia already chafes at the proximity of NATO forces, such as around the Arctic and the North and Baltic seas.
“Trump will identify his red lines, because Putin is going to test them,” MacKinnon said. “The feeling in Moscow will be, how can we take advantage of this period, now that there’s a leader in Washington willing to let Russia get away with things it couldn’t have otherwise.”
On a November visit to Moscow, he said many of his Russian contacts expressed surprise that Trump had won the election. Initial concern that Trump could be a loose cannon turned to glee when he announced a series of Cabinet picks viewed sympathetically by the Kremlin.
Derek Chollet, who dealt with the Russians as an official on Obama’s National Security Council, said that Russia will take advantage of the new administration. Putin, he predicted, will do all he can to undermine NATO and the EU, influence energy markets, and drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.
“Judging on his rhetoric so far, Trump will be the most pro-Russian president since World War II,” Chollet said. “He likes the art of the deal, but to what end?”
We’ll find out where the United States will check Putin’s expansionism when we learn Trump’s priorities, whether they have to do with security alliances, business partnerships, or something else.
The first seminal crisis will come when Putin challenges an interest dear to the Trump administration. Perhaps the Russian government will confiscate the assets of an American corporation or clash with NATO forces or invade the Baltic republics or enter a showdown with Europe.
Trump will presumably have the advantage, from America’s unparalleled military and the imposing NATO infrastructure, to an economy orders of magnitude richer and more productive than Russia’s. But if America has squandered international goodwill and allowed alliances to fray, those assets will prove as ineffectual as they have in the most recent contests in which Putin has outfoxed the West.
The chapter in contemporary history in which America stood alone at the top has come to a close. Russia will return to the top tier, along with the United States, China, and potentially other alliances. But the natural size of its power, whether measured in wealth, military power, or global political influence, is not as great as Putin appears to think it is. Trump might be willing to accept a bigger Russian role than his predecessors, but he’s unlikely to forfeit first place.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.