In May 2012, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia for a third term after serving a term as prime minister. Since then, Russia has become more assertive internationally and more oppressive domestically. Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. It has backed, trained, and armed separatists in eastern Ukraine—and has even sent thousands of troops to fight there. It continues to occupy 20 percent of the Republic of Georgia and is still in violation of the 2008 Six Point Peace Agreement which ended its 2008 war with Georgia. Russian fighter jets are conducting airstrikes in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has also intensified its efforts to bring the countries of the former Soviet Union into its fold through organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union and has hardened its rhetoric against the European Union and the United States.
Almost 25 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and still nothing indicates that Russia is on a path to reform. Democratic freedoms are in retreat, corruption is endemic, and the future is bleak. The same failings of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago are starting to reappear in Putin’s Russia today.
Thanks to the drop in the price of crude oil and international economic sanctions, the Russian economy is now in recession. Russia’s population is declining due to aging, rampant alcoholism and drug addiction, widespread disease, and low fertility rates. Expressions of ultranationalism are on the rise, fortifying the government’s quest for a new sphere of influence. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall caught many by surprise. Western leaders should not allow a resurgent Russia or the instability deriving from a degenerate Russia to catch them by surprise as well.
What the West is witnessing today is not a resurgent Cold War Russia, as commentators frequently claim, but an Imperial Russia. Putin’s behavior is like that of the Russian Tsars who built the Russian Empire nation by nation, province by province, and kingdom by kingdom.
In the eyes of Russians at the time, the 17th-century and 18th-century territorial gains that in part defined Imperial Russia were regarded not as “annexations” but as taking what was already theirs. At the time, Russia’s imperial conquests were popularly characterized as acts of liberation of fellow Orthodox Christians from Polish Catholic rule. Take out the religious dimension and replace it with the need to protect—to paraphrase Putin—Moscow’s fraternal ties with ethnic Russians, and we have a similar situation.
Today, just as in the 19th century, Russia’s leaders see themselves as taking what is already theirs. Whether it is Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, the creation of the Eurasian Union, the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, or what amounts to the suzerainty of Armenia in all but name, the empire is being rebuilt.
Invasion of Ukraine
When Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in 2013, months of street demonstrations led to his ouster in early 2014. Russia responded by violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sending troops, aided by pro-Russian local militia, to occupy the Crimean Peninsula under the pretext of “protecting Russian people.” This led to Russia’s eventual annexation of Crimea. Such annexation by force is unprecedented in the 21st century.
Backed, armed, and trained by Russia, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, leading to the creation of the so-called Federal State of Novorossiya. Russia has continued to back separatist factions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, technical and financial assistance, and the use of Russian conventional and special operations forces.
The number of Russian troops operating in Ukraine has fluctuated depending on the security situation on the ground. For example, when Ukrainian forces were making headway against the separatist factions, Moscow responded by sending an estimated 5,000 troops into Ukraine. Two cease-fire agreements—one in September 2014 and another in February 2015, known as Minsk I and Minsk II, respectively—have come and gone.
While the formal cease-fire has held, fighting has continued between Ukrainian forces and forces of pro-Russia rebels or regular Russian troops fighting alongside them. Russian convoys including howitzers, tanks, and air defense systems have continually crossed the border into Ukraine. These cease-fire agreements have resulted in the de facto partition of Ukraine and have created the region’s newest frozen conflict.
Russian Militarization of the Arctic
The U.S. is one of five littoral Arctic powers and one of only eight countries that have territory located above the Arctic Circle, the area just north of 66o north latitude that includes portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and the United States.
Arctic actors take different approaches to military activity in the Arctic. Although the security challenges currently faced in the Arctic are not yet military in nature, there is still a requirement for military capability in the region that can support civilian authorities. For example, civilian search and rescue and natural disaster response in such an unforgiving environment can be augmented by the military.
Even so, Russia has taken steps to militarize its presence in the region. Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is based in the Arctic, counts for two-thirds of the Russian Navy. A new Arctic command was established in 2015 to coordinate all Russian military activities in the Arctic region. Over the next few years, two new so-called Arctic brigades will be permanently based in the Arctic, and Russian Special Forces have been training in the region. Old Soviet-era facilities have been reopened; for example, the airfield on Kotelny Island has been put into use for the first time in almost 30 years. The ultimate goal is to deploy a combined Russian arms force in the Arctic by 2020, and it appears that Russia is on track to accomplish this.
Russia’s strategic goals in the Arctic are to secure current and potential energy resources located in the region and to maintain military superiority above the Arctic Circle. Although the threat of armed conflict among the Arctic powers remains low, the U.S. should consider the implications of Russian militarization in the region in light of Moscow’s recent aggression in Ukraine.
Russia has used propaganda subtly and consistently to garner support for its foreign policies. In the 2013 Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, the Russian government is explicit about its aims to utilize mass media to further its foreign policy aims.
In its propaganda, Russia will seek to ensure its objective perception in the world; develop its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad; strengthen the role of Russian mass media in the international information environment, providing them with essential state support and participating actively in international information cooperation; and take necessary measures to counteract information threats to its sovereignty and security.
Russia in the Middle East
In the Middle East, Russia has been successful in pursuing its economic and geopolitical interests at the expense of the United States and its allies. It has successfully blocked Western efforts in the U.N. to intervene in Syria and provided President Assad with the necessary diplomatic and military support to resist the armed opposition. Putin’s proposal to have Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed by the international community stopped a planned American strike against Damascus, improved Putin’s image abroad, and secured Assad’s power—at least for now. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia emerged as an equal player vis-à-vis Washington. It did it with a much weaker hand, gaining a diplomatic and geopolitical victory against a much stronger player.
Russia’s direct military invention on behalf of Assad has complicated matters even more for the U.S. and its partners. Russia’s ultimate goal in Syria is the preservation of the Assad regime. If Assad goes, Russia stands to lose its only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea at the port city of Tartous. As Russia’s only port in the Mediterranean—and its only toehold in the Middle East—this would be a major blow to Moscow.
Even if Assad hangs onto power, he will never control all of Syria as it once was. Putin knows this. Therefore, it is likely Moscow will help shore up Assad’s defenses in the region around Latakia—where he maintains his strongest support. Coincidently, this is also where his naval base is located.
Putin sees the Middle East as another region on his global chessboard that can serve as a spoiler of Western policy. Putin does not care if the Middle East burns or if thousands die. For Putin, the perception of the U.S. failing in the Middle East is a personal victory, and keeping a naval base for Russia is an added bonus.
Assad is happy to play host to the Russians, regardless of the cost. There has been a lot of focus on Iran being the primary guarantor of the Assad regime’s survival. Although Tehran plays an important role in this regard, it should not be overstated. While Iran can fund a war in Syria using proxies, only Russia has the national resources and the expeditionary military capability to intervene in a meaningful way to prop up the regime. More importantly, for Damascus, only Moscow has the right to veto on the U.N. Security Council that can delay, block, or frustrate international efforts that could result in the removal of Assad.
Russia has also continued providing diplomatic protection and support for theocratic, terrorist-supporting Iran. Moscow defends Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy and has active economic ties with the country. It helped Tehran to build and launch the Bushehr nuclear power reactor and to train hundreds of Iranian military officers, nuclear scientists, and engineers.
Eurasia: Rebuilding the Sphere of Influence
In the former Soviet Union region, which covers most of Eurasia, Russia has used its coercive power as well as soft power to advance its influence. Today, Russia maximizes influence in the region through economic, diplomatic, and military means. Russia maintains a sizable military presence in Armenia and Tajikistan and occupies 20 percent of Georgia. Russian businesses and foreign investment are found in every Central Asian and South Caucasus country. Russian-backed organizations, like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or Eurasia Economic Union, attempt to bind regional capitals to Moscow through a series of agreements and treaties.
Russia views the South Caucasus as part of its natural sphere of influence and stands ready to exert its influence in the region by force, if necessary. In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, coming as close as 15 miles to the capital city of Tbilisi. Seven years later, several thousand Russian troops occupied the two Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In 2015, Russia signed so-called integration treaties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Among other things, these treaties call for a coordinated foreign policy, creation of a common security and defense space, and implementation of a streamlined process for Abkhazians and South Ossetians to receive Russian citizenship. The Georgian Foreign Ministry criticized the treaties as a step toward “annexation of Georgia’s occupied territories.” These agreements are the first step in a process of Russian annexation of these two breakaway regions—both of which are still internationally recognized as part of Georgia. Considering Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Georgians have serious cause for concern.
Today, Moscow continues to take advantage of ethnic divisions and tensions in the South Caucasus to advance pro-Russian policies that are often at odds with America’s or NATO’s goals in the region.
Facing an Uncertain Future
In the domestic media, Russia has been positioning itself as an alternative to the West in economic and ideological issues. Russia granted temporary asylum to former CIA employee and former National Security Agency contractor employee and defector Edward Snowden, who inflicted some of the worst damage on U.S. intelligence capabilities to date.
While the Kremlin thinks in terms of 19th-century territorial expansionism and rearmament, Russia’s ills are the 21st century’s problems: lack of good governance, a need for rule of law to make citizens safe and attract domestic and foreign investment, and the rise of Islamic minorities at home. These issues, along with others like poor relations with the West, geopolitical competition with China and Turkey, and the threat of economically falling behind India and Brazil, add up to an unenviable knot of problems.
Promote Stability in Eurasia. Washington should recognize Eurasia’s importance to the geopolitics of the Eastern Hemisphere and support the sovereignty, independence, and integration with Western structures of the independent countries of Eurasia. The U.S. should support pro-democracy national and secularist forces in the region, while understanding that democratization is likely to be a very slow process.
Promote Continuous Bilateral U.S. Involvement in Eurasia. This includes strengthening bilateral diplomatic, political–military, and economic partnerships and regional cooperation with key states, especially Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Increase Regional Geopolitical, Linguistic, Religious, and Historical Expertise in the U.S. Government. Since the end of the Cold War, regional expertise has declined in the U.S. intelligence community, the military, and the State Department.
Champion Economic Freedom. The U.S. should work to prevent the Eurasian Economic Union from closing market access and expanding state sectors.
Continue to Enforce Economic Sanctions Against Russia over Its Invasion and Occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. From a military and diplomatic point of view, it makes no sense not to have robust capability in Central and Eastern Europe. Defending the Baltic States and deterring Russian aggression will be far easier and cheaper than liberating them would be.
- Expand the target list of Russian officials under the Magnitsky Act. Washington should implement a greater range of targeted sanctions aimed directly at Russian officials responsible for violating Ukrainian sovereignty, including freezing financial assets and imposing visa bans.
- Develop a new diplomatic strategy for dealing with Russia. The U.S. could start by acknowledging that the Russian “reset” is—and has long been—dead. Russia has already been expelled from the G-8, and NATO–Russia cooperation has been suspended. The U.S. should continue to marginalize Russia in other international forums, including the G-20.
- Adopt a new global free-market energy policy. The U.S. should work immediately and comprehensively to eliminate barriers to U.S. energy exports. The benefits are obvious—reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia to keep the lights on and the fires burning.
- Withdraw from New START. New START is a fundamentally flawed treaty that dramatically undercuts the security of the United States and its allies. It does nothing at all to advance U.S. security, while handing Moscow a significant strategic edge in Europe. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine jeopardizes the supreme interests of the United States, destabilizing a region crucial to the U.S. and the NATO alliance.
Facts and Figures
- In Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia saw a decrease in its global position ranking to 136th, which is down from 127th in 2012. Russia ranked 143rd in the The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal 2015 Index of Economic Freedom a slight decrease in its position from 2014, when it was ranked 140th.
- Between the years of 2010–2014 Russian defense spending increased 30.5 percent while U.S. defense spending decreased by 18.8 percent during the same period.
- From 2001 to 2014, Russia’s inflation-adjusted military spending went up by over 170 percent.
Selected Additional Resources
Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength (2015).
Luke Coffey, “The Perfect Opportunity to Advance the U.S.–Georgian Defense Relationship,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 4453, August 14, 2015.
Luke Coffey, “Russia and the South Caucasus: A Situation the U.S. Cannot Ignore,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4307, November 26, 2014.
Luke Coffey, “Russian Military Activity in the Arctic: A Cause for Concern,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4320, December 16, 2014.
Luke Coffey and Nile Gardiner, “The United States Must Be Ready to Send Weapons to Ukraine,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4346, February 12, 2015.
Nile Gardiner, Jack Spencer, Luke Coffey, and Nicolas D. Loris, “Beyond the Crimea Crisis: Comprehensive Next Steps in U.S.–Russian Relations,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2896, March 25, 2014.