In May 2012, after having served a term as prime minister, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia for a third time. 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 air strikes in support of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Today, as in imperial times, Russia’s influence is exerted by both the pen and the sword. Organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) attempt to bind regional capitals to Moscow through a series of agreements and treaties. Nearly three decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and still nothing indicates that Russia is on a path to democratic reform. Democratic freedoms are in retreat, corruption is endemic, and the future looks bleak. Many of the same failings of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago have reappeared in Putin’s Russia today. Russia is an autocracy that justifies and sustains its hold on political power by force, fraud, and a thorough and strongly ideological assault on the West in general and the United States in particular. The U.S. needs to approach Russia as Russia actually is, not as the U.S. wishes Russia might be.
While Russia is not the threat to U.S. global interests that the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, it does pose challenges to a range of American interests and those of its allies and friends closest to Russia’s borders.
What the West is witnessing today is not a resurgent Cold War Russia, as commentators frequently claim, but an imperial Russia. Putin is acting like 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 partly defined imperial Russia were regarded not as “annexations” but as taking what was theirs. At the time, Russia’s imperial conquests were popularly characterized as acts of liberation of fellow Orthodox Christians from Polish Catholic rule. Taking out the religious dimension and replacing it with the need to “protect”—to use Putin’s term—Moscow’s fraternal ties with ethnic Russians, and the situation is similar.
Today, just as in the 19th century, Russia’s leaders see themselves as simply re-taking what is already theirs. Whether it is Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, the creation of the EEU, 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 did not sign an Association Agreement with the European Union 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 is unprecedented in the 21st century.
Backed, armed, and trained by Russia, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared both 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 backed separatist factions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, technical and financial assistance, and Russian conventional and special operations forces. Russian-backed separatists daily violate September 2014 and February 2015 cease-fire agreements, known respectively as Minsk I and Minsk II. Of the 10,000 deaths the war has produced, around a third have occurred since the signing of Minsk II. 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 possess territory above the Arctic Circle, the area just north of 66o north latitude, which includes portions of Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
Arctic actors take different approaches to military activity in the region. Although the current security challenges in the Arctic are not yet military in nature, there is a need for military capability in the region that can support civilian authorities. For example, civilian search-and-rescue (SAR) operations and response to natural disasters in such an unforgiving environment can be augmented by the military.
Russia continues to militarize its presence in the region. The Northern Fleet, which is based in the Arctic, accounts 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. Two Arctic brigades have been formed and Russia is planning to form Arctic Coastal Defense divisions. These divisions, which will be under the command of the Northern Fleet, will be stationed in the Kola peninsula and in Russia’s eastern Arctic. Over the next few years, two new brigades will be permanently based in the Arctic, and Russian special forces have been training in the region. Russia is investing in Arctic bases; its base on Alexandra Land, which will be commissioned in 2017, can house 150 soldiers autonomously for up to 18 months. Soviet-era facilities have been re-opened; the airfield on Kotelny Island, for instance, has been used for the first time in almost 30 years. The base will house 250 people and will have air defense missiles.
Russia’s behavior in the Arctic is increasingly troubling. Its increased stationing of military forces, building and re-opening of bases, and creating an Arctic military district—all to counter an imagined threat to its internationally undisputed territories—stands in stark contrast to the conduct of the seven other Arctic nations. Russia’s improvements to Arctic settlements are ostensibly to support increased shipping traffic through the Northern Sea Route. However, many of these activities are purely military in nature and follow a recent pattern of increasingly aggressive global posturing.
Russia has consistently used propaganda to garner support for its foreign policies. The 2016 Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation makes clear the Russian government’s aims in using mass media to further its foreign policy objectives:
Russia seeks to ensure that the world has an objective image of the country, develops its own effective ways to influence foreign audiences, promotes Russian and Russian-language media in the global information space, providing them with necessary government support, is proactive in international information cooperation, and takes necessary steps to counter threats to its information security. New information and communication technology is used to this end.
Russia’s cyber capabilities are advanced. Russia shows a continued willingness to use cyber warfare as a key tool in advancing the state’s strategic aims. Russia has perpetrated cyberattacks to further the reach and effectiveness of its state propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Russia’s recent cyberattacks on election processes in the U.S. and European countries sought to undermine U.S. and European citizens’ belief in the veracity of electoral outcomes and to erode support for democratic institutions over the longer term. Russia has also employed cyberattacks to target physical infrastructure, including electrical grids, air traffic control, and gas distribution systems, most recently and brazenly against the Ukrainian electric grid and Sweden’s air traffic control systems. Russia’s use of cyber capabilities—magnified by their sophistication and Russia’s verified willingness to use them aggressively—present a challenge for the U.S. and its interests abroad.
Russia in Syria
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. While Russia has had a military presence in Syria for decades, in September 2015, it became the decisive actor in Syria’s ongoing civil war, having saved Assad from being overthrown and having strengthened his hand militarily, thus enabling Syrian government forces to retake territory lost during the war. Russia maintains a naval facility in Tartus, its only naval base on the Mediterranean, and Hmeymim Air Base near Latakia, to which it deployed the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system in late 2015.
Russia’s actions in Syria have allowed Assad to stay in power and have made a peaceful political settlement with rebel groups nearly impossible. They also have undermined American policy in the Middle East, including by frequently targeting forces backed by the United States. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia emerged as an equal player to Washington. It did so with a much weaker hand, gaining a diplomatic and geopolitical victory against a much stronger player.
Putin sees the Middle East as another region on his global chessboard that can serve as a spoiler of Western policy. Putin is not concerned with the Middle East burning or with how many people die. For Putin, the perception of the U.S. failing in the Middle East is a personal victory, and keeping and expanding Russian bases in Syria are an added bonus.
Eurasia: Rebuilding the Sphere of Influence
In the former Soviet Union, which covers most of Eurasia, Russia has used coercive power, as well as soft power, to advance its influence. Today, Russia maximizes influence in the region through economic, diplomatic, and military means. Russian businesses and foreign investment are found in every Central Asian and South Caucasus country.
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,” both of which are still internationally recognized as part of Georgia. In 2017, Putin approved an agreement with South Ossetia to incorporate “some military units” into the Russian Army. Russia has based 4,500 soldiers in South Ossetia and is regularly expanding its “creeping occupation” in Georgia.
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 or NATO’s goals in the region.
In the Balkans, Russia’s pernicious influence likewise continues to inflame historic religious and ethnic tensions in order to maximize Russian influence and destabilize the region. Montenegro, which became the 29th member state of NATO in June, is the starkest example. Unhappy with Montenegro’s decision to join NATO, Russia is thought to be behind a failed plot to break into Montenegro’s parliament on Election Day in October 2016, assassinate the former prime minister, and install a pro-Russian government.
Take a Realistic Approach to Russia. As long as Putin remains in power, Russia will not be a credible partner of the United States. Russia is not on a rocky road to democracy; it is an autocracy that justifies and sustains its hold on political power by force, fraud, and a thorough and strongly ideological assault on the West in general, and the U.S. in particular. The U.S. should speak the truth about the nature of Putin’s regime to both Russian leadership and the American public. The U.S. should calmly show that the U.S. does not regard Russia as a fit international partner. The U.S. approach should be to defend its allies and interests and to respond to destructive Russian actions with predictable rhetorical and actual costs, thus incentivizing Russia to choose other, more desirable actions.
Be Candid About the Human Rights Failings of the Putin Regime, Make Examples, and Target Abusers. Russia is not a free country. Freedom House ranks Russia’s 2017 status as: “Not Free”—on par with Iran, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in overall freedom score. The U.S. should be candid about the Putin regime’s human rights abuses inside Russia, as well as its international outrages in Georgia and Ukraine. What Putin’s regime fears above all is not the hostility of the U.S., but the hostility of the Russian people, which might be aroused by the revelations of the regime’s misconduct, thievery, and mismanagement. The U.S. should publicly emphasize those misdeeds, making examples of particularly eye-catching instances of abuses. The U.S. should target the regime’s human rights abusers.
One example of the U.S. punishing human rights abusers is the Russia and Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, commonly known as the Magnitsky Act, which was enacted to punish the Russian officials who were responsible for the death of Russian lawyer and auditor Sergei Magnitsky. The act has proven a useful mechanism for putting pressure on the abusive Russian elite who support Putin.
Support the Reduction of Russia’s Energy Grip on Europe. Many European nations remain reliant on Russian energy resources. Russia has demonstrated a willingness to employ energy cutoffs as a political tool to pressure European nations. To ease the effectiveness of energy as a tool of the Kremlin, the U.S. should pursue a free-market energy policy to immediately and comprehensively eliminate remaining barriers to U.S. energy exports. The U.S. should also support energy projects, such as the building of interconnectors and new LNG import facilities, that would diversify supply and reduce Russia’s ability to control Europe’s energy supplies. At the same time, the U.S. should push back against projects like Nord Stream II, which strengthen Russia’s position in Europe’s energy market, and which is neither economically necessary nor geopolitically prudent.
Let the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) Expire. New START undercuts the security of the U.S. and its allies, and remains a bad deal for the United States. New START allows a bellicose Russia to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal while the United States has to bear the majority of costly reductions. The Administration should let the treaty expire, and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and supporting infrastructure.
Withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Russia’s repeated violations of the INF Treaty span decades and are creating asymmetry between Russian and U.S. forces. The U.S. should withdraw from the INF Treaty, as Russia already behaves as if the treaty were not in force. The U.S. should re-evaluate its tactical nuclear weapons posture, including holding exercises that simulate responses to a hypothetical Russian nuclear attack with NATO allies. The U.S. should continue to develop and deploy ballistic missile defense systems to defend against intermediate range systems.
Support the Ukrainian People. Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was invaded by Russia in 2014 and has been occupied since. Russia has also provoked and now supports a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine that did not exist prior to 2014. Russia is the aggressor, and Ukraine is the victim. Modern Ukraine represents the idea in Europe that each country has the sovereign ability to determine its own path and to decide with whom it has relations and how, and by whom, it is governed. It is in America’s interest that Ukraine remains independent and sovereign and maintains the ability to choose its own destiny without outside interference.
Make a Clear Commitment to Continue Ukraine-Related Sanctions Against Russia. Russia continues to occupy Crimea as well as to commit daily violations of the Minsk II agreement, fanning the flames of a conflict that continues to engulf Ukraine. As long as Russia violates Ukraine’s sovereignty, the U.S. should continue economic sanctions against Russia.
Supply Weapons to Ukraine. Every country has the right to self-defense. Weapons can be an effective part of a larger strategy for assisting Ukraine. As authorized by the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. should appropriate funds to increase its assistance to the Ukrainian military to include anti-armor weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, and small arms.
Engage in Public Diplomacy to Counter Anti-American and Pro-Russian Propaganda by the Russian Government. U.S. efforts should include international broadcasting via radio, satellite TV, the Internet, social networking, and print media, and revamped academic, student, and business exchange programs.
Respond Publicly and Vigorously to High-Profile Russian Falsehoods. The U.S. should provide facts, whether through social media, press appearances, or international broadcasting, that counteract false Russian narratives. One example is Russian propaganda that U.S. and NATO actions have strained relations, when in fact Russian aggression is the cause. The U.S. should regularly emphasize the regime’s suppression of independent media in Russia. Public diplomacy, whether through international broadcasting, the Internet, print media, or exchange programs, should be leveraged to counter anti-American and pro-Russian propaganda by the Russian government.
Undertake More Significant Deterrent Measures Against Russian Cyberattacks. The U.S. should assertively “name and shame” Russian cyber aggressors—which must be backed up with legal and economic penalties against the individuals and companies that are connected to such malicious actions. The U.S. should expand its support of democracy promotion and Internet freedom in Russia. The U.S. should also build a coalition of partners to make such efforts more effective.
Avoid Legitimizing the Role of Russia in Syria. Russia is not a useful ally against ISIS, and actively undermines U.S. national interests in Syria. Russia has paid lip service to the fight against ISIS, but has launched most of its air strikes against rebel groups, including some supported by the United States. Siding with Russia, which may have committed war crimes in Syria, would discredit the U.S. in the eyes of most Syrians, and many Sunni Arabs outside Syria.
Resist Russia’s Attempts to Link Ukraine to Its Role in Syria. Russian policymakers are likely to try to parlay an increasingly important role in Syria into a reduction in sanctions and legitimation of Russia’s control of Crimea. The U.S. should resist these efforts, making clear that U.S. policy toward Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine will be judged by Russian actions there, not held hostage to promises of helpful behavior elsewhere.
Promote Stability in Eurasia. Washington should recognize Eurasia’s importance to the geopolitics of the Eastern Hemisphere and support independent Eurasian countries’ sovereignty, independence, and integration with Western structures. 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.
Facts and Figures
FACT: Putin’s Russia is a regime that combines a lack of respect for political, civil, and economic rights with a dysfunctional economy.
- Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Russia 131st out of 176 nations, meaning that only 45 nations are more corrupt than Russia.
- Of 180 countries ranked (one being the most free, 180 the least free), Russia ranked 114th in The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Economic Freedom.
- In 2017, Russia ranked 148th worst of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
- Freedom House ranks Russia’s status as “Not Free” in its 2017 Freedom in the World.
FACT: Russia has consistently used propaganda to garner support for its foreign policies.
- In 2016, Russia allocated $900 million for propaganda.
FACT: Despite economic sluggishness and deep structural problems, Russia has sought to safeguard defense spending, specifically its military modernization program.
- Russia’s 2011–2020 State Armament Program is an ongoing 10-year, $680 billion military modernization program.
- Russia expects that 62 percent of its military equipment in service will have been modernized by the end of 2017.
- As of December 2016, 60 percent of Russian nuclear forces had been modernized.
Selected Additional Resources
James Jay Carafano et al., “U.S. Comprehensive Strategy Toward Russia,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 173, December 9, 2015.
Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis, “The Trump Administration and the 115th Congress Should Support Ukraine,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3200, April 11, 2017.
Michaela Dodge, “Time to Withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4675, March 29, 2017.
Michaela Dodge, “The Trump Nuclear Posture Review: Next Steps,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3123, May 25, 2017.
James Phillips, “How President Trump Can Improve U.S. Syria Policy,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4661, March 3, 2017.
Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2017 Index of Military Strength (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2017).