Event Summary: Russia Resurrected
On Friday, May 14, 2021, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel to discuss ‘Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order.’ The discussion featured Kathryn Stoner, deputy director and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
Stoner explained that the book goes through the ways in which Russia could be a global power. It addresses how this could happen only 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book is a reaction to the different perceptions of Russia in the international system. Within the US, there are different understandings of Russia as a global power. Some view it as a peer power, others view it as a regional power threatening neighbors out of weakness, and some consider Russia an existential threat to US security. Stoner then listed a number of developments that illustrate how Russia has returned to the global stage: the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the 2015 mobilization into Syria, the 2016 election interference in the US, the 2017 Le Pen financing, the 2018 and 2019 promotion of populism in Eastern Europe and beyond, and the 2020 SolarWinds software hack. As a result, Western relations with Russia are at an all-time low. In terms of whether Russia is punching above its weight, she insisted that many view power too narrowly and overlook Russia’s capabilities. People must think beyond traditional measures of power and realize that it is multidimensional, relative, and contextual. A country’s power tools can be good enough to be very disruptive depending on the context. Further, the characterization of Russia as weak is outdated. Russia has recovered and maintained some prior capacities more than many appreciate. Russia lacks institutional checks, enabling Putin to use Russian power tools quickly and without much accountability.
Between 2000 and 2008, Putin expressed condolences for the 9/11 attacks and expressed enthusiasm about working with the West against terrorism. But, a sea change took place in 2012 when Putin announced that he would return to the presidency absent a free and fair election. This resulted in massive demonstrations that angered Putin. Stoner stated that the biggest threat to Putin is not NATO but rather the Russian people. Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia has had an existential need to find other markets because of sanctions from Europe and the US. Its markets in the Middle East are owned by Russian cronies. This region in particular illustrates the fact that Russia does not ask much ideologically from its partners, marking a significant change from how the Soviet Union worked in its foreign relations. It will sell arms to anyone and forges bilateral relationships with states that are traditional enemies of one another, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. In terms of the Biden administration’s approach to Russia, the president knows Putin well. She explains that Washington is likely to cooperate with Russia where it can but must be careful not to underestimate what it can do and what it is willing to do. Additionally, in terms of human development within Russia, the long-term sustainability of the working population faces two problems: life expectancy and high male mortality rates.