Periods of expansion by some of the greatest powers known to history have been sparked by domestic crises. The establishment and meteoric expansion of the Roman Empire came after Caesar’s civil war and the ensuing period of violent turmoil. England’s maritime empire became truly global after the regicide, Cromwell’s dictatorship, and the change of dynasty. Napoleon’s epic conquests, however brief, followed the trauma of the French Revolution.
An example of protracted crisis followed by consolidation at home and triggering expansion abroad is provided by Russia in the early modern era. Less than a century after the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great’s modernizing zeal laid the foundation for a strong centralized state and made Russia’s breakthrough to the Baltic possible in the early 1700s. Catherine the Great, a German princess gone native, cemented Russia’s role as a major European power and pushed its borders to the Carpathian Mountains three generations later. Russia’s pinnacle came in 1814, when Tzar Alexander I rode into Paris at the head of his victorious army.
The core of Russia, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, started its rise in the 15th century from an unfavorable geopolitical position. A vast, barely populated, and unproductive taiga spread to the north. From the northwest to the south were the basins of two seas whose coasts and hinterlands were controlled by unfriendly powers. There are no natural barriers between the North Sea and the Urals, no major rivers or mountain ranges to mark borders or offer defense. The North European Plain was therefore wide open to invasions, first by the Teutonic Knights, then by Poles and Lithuanians in the 17th century, Swedes in the 18th, Napoleon in the 19th, and the German Reich in the 20th.
Geography is not a nation’s “destiny” but it is a major contributory factor, and Russia’s grand strategy has been geopolitically conditioned to a greater extent than that of any other major power. Treating a strategic buffer zone against potential invaders as essential to its survival, Russia expanded to reduce vulnerability.
In Peter’s wars against Sweden and Turkey, the Russian army had mastered the technique of transferring the center of operational gravity from one theater to another. As early as 1735, they were able to send a corps of 20,000 soldiers a thousand miles west, to Heidelberg. In the Seven Years’ War, they briefly occupied Berlin. They fought Napoleon in Italy, Switzerland, and Bohemia—in quick succession—before 1812, in Saxony and France itself thereafter, and in 1814, they entered Paris, more than 1,500 miles from Moscow. No other European power of the time was capable of such complex, power-projection land operations—with the short-lived exception of Napoleonic France.
The grand strategy of the Romanov Empire was based on a spontaneously evolving roadmap for action that matched Russia’s resources to the vital interests of enhanced power, prestige, and security. On the whole, the strategy was sound and deployed the Tsardom’s resources in a balanced and proportionate manner. It was based on a vision of Russia as primus inter pares (“first among equals”) in the European Concert, with borders protected by deep buffer zones around the enormous Eurasian heartland. Crucially, however, Russia did not make a bid for outright hegemony—an option available to Alexander I at the time of Napoleon’s defeat—preferring to seek security in the Holy Alliance.
The Russian monarchs were almost all foreign by blood (mostly German), and the Baltic German nobility enjoyed a prominent position both in the military and in the senior ranks of the civil service, though there was never a clear line of partition between the military and administrative governing structures. The goals of each in imperial Russia were as solidly integrated as the members of the ruling elite who implemented them.
The major obstacle to the realization of Russia’s strategic objectives was its chronic economic weakness vis-à-vis other European powers, as the Crimean War revealed. Tsar Alexander II finally confronted the problem in 1861 with the abolition of feudal servitude. The ensuing period of rapid modernization started bearing fruits in the decades before 1914 and produced double-digit growth rates comparable to those of China following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Russia entered the Great War as the fourth biggest economy in the world, behind the United States, Germany, and Britain, but ahead of such powers as France, Austria-Hungary, China, Japan, and Italy.
But a catastrophe of world-historic proportions came in the summer of 1914. And after three years of sustained war effort, which cost her two million lives, Russia succumbed to the Communist coup in November 1917. The Soviet Union, as Russia’s theoretical successor, was weak and chaotic in its early years. Most Bolshevik leaders—notably Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Radek—based their grand strategy on the illusory expectation of a world revolution and the parallel dismantling of the Russian state, which they had always detested.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, under Stalin, that statehood was reaffirmed and consolidated under the banner of “socialism in one country.” Stalin’s revisionist heresy enabled the Soviet Union to recover the attributes of a traditional great power, to imbue the nation with patriotic spirit at the time of supreme crisis in 1941, and—at a huge cost—to break the backbone of the Wehrmacht. No country has ever demonstrated a comparable capacity for wartime mobilization and sacrifice.
After 1945, the USSR briefly enjoyed the semblance of a superpower. In reality, the Soviet camp during the Cold War was weak politically, economically, and culturally. Crucially, the party lacked a grand-strategic design, as exemplified by the blunders of Stalin’s successors. Nikita Khrushchev broke with Stalin’s cult of personality, but he was unable to reform the collectivized agriculture and centrally planned economy, which ensured that the Soviet Union would lag behind the West. He also brought the world to the brink of nuclear war by deploying missiles to Cuba in 1962, without explaining—then or later—the political objectives of the gamble. Leonid Brezhnev’s long reign ended in sclerosis and apathy.
Having run out of ideological appeal abroad as well as economic and social dynamism at home, the Soviet Union could no longer compete globally. Its piecemeal strategies of promoting Marxist insurgencies in the Third World were not connected to a wider vision of the future of the USSR as a global power. And in its final years, the Soviet state lacked even a semblance of design, as manifested by the botched intervention in Afghanistan and the geriatric leadership’s inability to manage the tide of discontent in the satellite countries (notably, in Poland following the rise of Solidarity). Ronald Reagan’s across-the-board pressure from the outside, coupled with Mikhail Gorbachev’s maladroit reforms at home, ensured the final collapse of the Soviet edifice.
The crisis-ridden Yeltsin decade followed. It was marked by the trauma of economic and social collapse which resulted from the application of Western-advised shock therapy. Government infrastructure also collapsed, including the security services. Criminally connected oligarchs commandeered some of the most valuable state-owned assets and invested the loot in the real estate and securities in the West. The decade was also marked by the naïve expectation of Russia’s postcommunist leaders that the end of the USSR would mean the end of Western (primarily American) hostility to the reborn Russian state.
This was not to be. Instead of reducing global commitments and bringing soldiers home from various faraway places, America’s leaders opted for the strategy of permanent, full-spectrum global dominance. With NATO’s subsequent expansion almost to the suburbs of St. Petersburg, the Russian Federation was pushed back to the geopolitical position of the beginning of Peter’s reign, over three centuries earlier. As George Kennan accurately predicted, the West’s aggression rekindled the Russian sense of geopolitical insecurity and made friendly partnership with America impossible.
Russia’s current predicament is largely due to the lack of grand-strategic vision in its top leader, President Vladimir Putin. His failure to develop a viable strategic doctrine is most perniciously felt on the economic front. Less visible than military weakness (as displayed in Ukraine), economic power is essential to a state’s ability to compete in the Hobbesian world.
Over two decades after Putin came to power, Russia is lagging in gross domestic product (GDP) even behind a resource-poor, middle-ranking South Korea. Russia’s nominal per-capita GDP is lower than that of China, and its growth rate is turning from stagnant to declining. The country’s foreign revenue remains dependent on energy exports, as its manufacturing is globally uncompetitive. In general, the Russian economy suffers from chronic bureaucratization and monopolization, with successful businesses subjected to semi-official racketeering. Further, the country’s legal institutions are not capable of sustaining market-driven innovation in the non-energy sector, stunting Russia’s growth and dooming her to a minute share of the global economy: less than one-tenth that of China.
These economic and financial problems are systemic and antedate the war in Ukraine. Statistical alchemy creates the illusion that macroeconomic indicators
remain sound in spite of Western sanctions. But the oligarchs remain unchecked, and the banking system under Putin has been sucking money out of the economy instead of transforming savings into investments and implementing a centralized credit issue. As a consequence, following the first round of Western sanctions in 2014, Russia failed to develop its own production of electronics, optics, machine tools, and other vital imports that are now in critically short supply.
More readily apparent than these economic failures are the failures of Putin as a strategist in his conduct of the war in Ukraine, which has gone poorly for Russia. The gap between his stated objectives and the resources set aside for their attainment became obvious in the early weeks of the “special military operation.” Seven months into the conflict, Putin started resorting to palliative measures such as a partial mobilization, announced on Sept. 21, and referenda in the areas of Ukraine under Russian control, followed by their theatrical “acceptance” into the Russian Federation. Both moves were improvizations necessitated by battlefield reverses. Both reflected Putin’s fear that his popularity would collapse if he were to put the nation on a serious war footing.
A security bureaucrat by instinct and experience rather than a statesman, Putin is hesitant and lacks a sense of timing when faced with major decisions. His failure to intervene in Ukraine when the odds were favorable to Russia and the cause was plausible—following the February 2014 coup and the massacre in Odessa in May—is indicative of his risk-averse nature.
Back then, the operation could have been effected swiftly and probably with a less radical response from the West; not so, after eight years of Ukraine’s Banderist indoctrination and the intensive arming and training of its forces by NATO. Putin’s many warnings of the red lines that the West must not cross are no longer taken seriously, and the absence of a resounding Russian reaction to the sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea has only further eroded his credibility.
The claim that Putin was pushed into the war by a Western ploy to turn Ukraine into its aggressively anti-Russian outpost is not without merit, but it is the job of a statesman not to be coerced into making moves. Now, that war will continue—probably at a reduced level of intensity with the onset of bad weather—to the detriment of both warring parties and to the delight of global hegemonists in Washington and their Eurocratic minions. The arrival of hastily trained Russian reinforcements may help stabilize the front lines, but it will not lead to any radical change in the strategic balance. Only a full mobilization might do that, but that is a step Putin is loath to make because he does not trust the Russian people to support him in that endeavor.
Putin’s insecurity is replicated at all levels of Russia’s political hierarchy—and with dire results. His failure to reform the security services and to check their predatory urge to interfere with the economy, the legal system, and the political process is by now irreversible. He presides over a Russian national security state, which, for the sake of its own stability, perpetuates economic stagnation and institutional regression.
To that effect, he is surrounded by trusted cronies from his early days in St. Petersburg. As demonstrated by the inept and corrupt presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, their personal loyalty is the only qualification for whatever job they are given. In the absence of formally structured policy-making bodies and with the issue of succession unresolved, Putin is able to play various members of his entourage, one against another, and to manage a government that is systemically dysfunctional but conducive to the perpetuation of his personal control.
After more than two decades at the helm, Putin lacks the vision, the will, and the tools to reform the system that is his own creation. His failure to develop and pursue a grand strategy for Russia’s optimal utilization of its enormous natural and human resources has historic import. Demographically, economically, militarily, and culturally, Russia no longer represents a first-class power confidently pursuing a foreign and security policy on the global scene. At best, when Putin leaves office, the Russian Federation will represent a regional power of diminished stature and uncertain resiliency. At worst, it will implode.
The Russian establishment is not forgiving of foreign policy and military failures, as Tsars Peter III and Nicholas II and Secretary-General Nikita Khrushchev found to their peril. Putin, in fact, may be vulnerable to a coup by his increasingly vocal critics—in the security services and especially in the military—who accuse him of timidity.
In the short term, it would be in the American interest for the Biden administration not to provoke Putin’s replacement by men who are more embittered by the collective West and who will resort to any means of thwarting the threat of Russia’s dismemberment. Insisting on Russia’s utter defeat and humiliation may ensure the kind of regime change that would replace Putin with a junta of vindictive patriots, leading to incalculable consequences for all. As per Clausewitz, nuclear war as a means would overwhelm the ends of all state policy.
In the long term, it would be in the American interest to seek rapprochement with the post-Putin Russia, whatever the hue of its leaders. This is not just desirable but necessary. The task of long-term containment of China demands geostrategic creativity that demands overcoming visceral Russophobia and recognizing that we have civilizational commonalities. Those should make Russia America’s natural ally in the global ordeal coming later this century.