In his 2005 state of the nation address, Russian President Vladimir Putin bewailed the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
It was a significant revelation, and one worth considering in the wake of Putin’s recent reelection as Russia’s president. Putin’s lament of the collapsed ussr provides an invaluable glimpse into the mind of the man who runs Russia, it lies at the core of current international relations, and it gives much-needed clarity and simplicity to the sometimes confusing and contradictory movements of Russia.
Indeed, that single statement provides a key to understanding Russia.
Keeping apace of Putin is practically a full-time job. When Putin took the reins of Russia in 2000, he undertook a strategy to put Russia front and center on the stage of international relations. It has been successful. Over the past 12 years, the Kremlin has gained a place in every conversation and issue of major significance on the world scene. These days, when it comes to discussions among world powers on issues relating to the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, East Asia, Africa, Latin America—as well as issues relating to energy, nato, nuclear weapons and proliferation—a seat must be reserved for Russia at the table.
The Russians are everywhere—whether it’s loudly voicing their opinions and pushing others around at major international conferences; establishing naval and air bases on the Black Sea; meddling with American interests in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia; agreeing to form a “rapid reaction force” with Central and East Asian nations; periodically turning off gas supplies to Western Europe; conducting naval exercises in Latin America; directing the renegotiation of longtime treaties; assisting Iran’s rogue nuclear program; leading calls to undermine the U.S. dollar; interfering in America’s war in Afghanistan; undermining nato expansion; or laying claim to resources in the North Pole.
If keeping up with Russia’s activities is challenging, understanding them can be near impossible. Of all peoples, the Russians probably come closest to defying the truism that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Nuanced at times and brutally transparent at others, Russian dialogue and foreign policy, at face value, are famously schizophrenic.
Former U.S. President George Bush could attest. He will forever be haunted by his remark after his first meeting with Putin when he said that when he peered into the eyes of Russia’s president he saw a man with a soul he could trust. Mr. Bush wasn’t the first to be fooled by the Kremlin, and he won’t be the last. The Russians are masters of obfuscation and circumlocution, and they continue to ply their crafty trade. Winston Churchill, a superior statesman who knew the Russian heart intimately, said it was impossibly hard to predict—a riddle, mystery and enigma all wrapped in one.
So how can anyone keep abreast of Russia, let alone decipher the truth behind its behavior? By understanding the first sentence of Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address in 2005. Read it for yourself: “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” That revelation was a rare, unadulterated glimpse into the supreme ambition of the man who rules Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s supreme motivation is to reverse the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century—and restore Russia to the status of an empire.
It’s that simple.
Some of the best analysis of the Kremlin’s activities is performed by the intelligence pundits at Stratfor. When Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, Stratfor founder Dr. George Friedman wrote: “The war in Georgia … is Russia’s public return to great power status” (emphasis added). He continued: “This is not something that just happened—it has been unfolding ever since Putin took power, and with growing intensity in the past five years. … The war was far from a surprise; it has been building for months. … Russia has been an empire for centuries. The last 15 years or so were not the new reality, but simply an aberration that would be rectified. And now it is being rectified” (Aug. 13, 2008).
It is a defining reality in international relations today: Russia was an empire for centuries, and under Putin it’s working furiously to be one again.
That supreme goal underpins every move made by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Every major action, every major decision, every major speech, every major agreement, every major treaty and even every concession by the Kremlin is carefully calculated in the context of the broader goal of restoring the Russian empire. Ultimately, every major policy and foreign-policy decision is cast in the same mold: Will this decision, this action, this policy help restore the Russian empire?
This key explains why Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. That war was a warning to America, Europe and nato against further encroachment into the Russian periphery. It was a warning to former Soviet satellite states that their national security swings on a Russian hinge, and that they had better avoid slipping into bed with America and Europe. The same goes for Russia’s support of the brutal Assad regime today in Syria, its constant undermining of Western efforts to penalize Iran, and with every foreign-policy theater in which Russia operates. In each instance, the Kremlin’s goal is to both defend and reclaim its influence over the geographic territory of the former Soviet empire.
Lastly, it is important to consider the time frame within which the Kremlin must achieve its end goal. Putin doesn’t have time on his side. Russia’s conventional military and its nuclear arsenal are both aging quickly. Demographically, birth rates are plunging precipitously. “The Russian leadership is well aware that it is operating on borrowed time,” Stratfor observed. “This is not to say Russia as a state will die in the next few years, but instead that it needs to push back Western influence as far as possible before its own (probably terminal) decline begins” (ibid.).
Putin is running out of time to restore Russia to empire status.
Don’t expect Russia to drop from the headlines in the coming months. In fact, expect Russia to ramp up its efforts to restore the Soviet empire. Among other activities, this will likely mean the forging of a major agreement with Germany and Europe that will assuage both European and Russian vulnerability. Expect Russia to continue to be highly active in defending and enlarging its periphery. Don’t be surprised if there are more conflicts like the one in Georgia.
Finally, don’t be surprised if the Kremlin tramples on and exploits the United States’ naive willingness to, as Vice President Joe Biden stated, “push the reset button” with Russia. The Kremlin is already pushing the reset button—it’s just a different button than America wants to push. Washington wants to push a button that will create a clean slate with Russia. That’s not going to happen.
Reality is, Vladimir Putin is pushing a reset button—one that is returning Russia back to the glory days of its empire. ▪