With the U.S. president skeptical of overseas engagements and withdrawing from a series of diplomatic commitments, his “America First” doctrine often looks like disengagement from the world. But then there is Russia, which this week showcased its own brand of global engagement—the Taliban said it would attend talks in Moscow where the U.S. and Afghan governments have declined to participate; Russia said it would work with Iran to fight “evil” in Syria; and Microsoft said hackers linked to Russian military intelligence had targeted conservative U.S. think tanks critical of President Donald Trump and which advocated for a tougher line against Moscow.
Russia’s overseas resurgence, its first since the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, has been some time coming. In the early 2000s, it cut off natural-gas supplies to Ukraine, which at the time was governed by a pro-Western party. In 2008, its military rolled into the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The lack of a punitive response from the West was deafening. Six years later came the invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea. The Western reaction this time was stronger: opprobrium combined with the strongest set of sanctions in modern times against Moscow. It did little to change the country’s behavior in the world, however.
In the years since then, Western intelligence agencies say Russia tried to interfere in elections in several European countries, as well as in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia also decisively entered the conflict in Syria in 2015 on the side of Bashar al-Assad and drew close to Israel, even as it allied with Iran in Syria; sold missiles to Turkey, a NATO ally; reinserted itself in diplomacy with North Korea; and reengaged in Afghanistan, a country from where Soviet troops ignominiously withdrew in 1989. The message President Vladimir Putin’s pushing: Russia is back.
Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling agency, told me that most Russians see foreign policy “as a successful part of Putin’s policy because it … has made Russia great again … for the first time since the time of the Soviet Union.” They see Russia’s interventions as helping other countries. “For example, in Ukraine we [helped] the Russian-speaking population. In Syria … it’s viewed as a help Russians are giving the legitimate regime against terrorists.”
What makes Russia’s resurgence particularly striking is that the West largely ignored Moscow following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country’s economy was in tatters, living standards plummeted, and nostalgia for the days of Communist Party rule lingered. Putin slowly set about reversing that trend, essentially turning a very bad hand into a very good one for himself.
Alina Polyakova, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told me that there’s a wider debate over Putin’s foreign policy. On one side, she said, there are those who say Putin is an opportunist and a tactician. “He sees a vacuum of power, for example in Syria where the U.S. didn’t have a strategy, and he sees an opportunity to reassert Russian influence and Russian power in the region,” she said. “You could make the same argument about Ukraine. There was an opportunity that presented itself. He took a risk and it paid off.”
On the other side, she said, are those who view Russia’s foreign policy as part of a considered strategy by Putin. The Russian leader is simultaneously consolidating Russian influence in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe while challenging American, and Western, influence in other parts of the world.
“In broad terms, Putin has defined his legacy at this point as the Russian leader who has ‘brought Russia back up from its knees in the 1990s,’” Polyakova said. “So Russia now being a great power, a country that can reassert its global influence, and even challenge American influence in various parts of the world—I think that more than anything has defined his foreign policy in terms of strategic goals.”
Much of this comes as the United States withdraws from its traditional dominant position in the world. The U.S. attempt to limit its involvement in Syria during the Barack Obama years gave Putin an opportunity to consolidate Russia’s interests in the region. His success defending his ally Assad—who had at times seemed on the verge of being ousted prior to Russia’s intervention on his side—and his intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea are part of the same pattern that now sees him exerting influence in Afghanistan. The U.S. has even accused Russia of supporting the Taliban.
Russia’s motivations are simple enough to understand. It views the former Soviet space and Eastern Europe as part of its sphere of influence. The West’s overtures toward these countries, as well as the dangling carrot of NATO membership for some, angers Moscow, which, despite historical evidence to the contrary, says the U.S. and its allies broke a 1990s-era promise not to expand NATO. Russia’s increasing visibility in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere shows that it sees itself as an indispensable part of any diplomatic resolution to various ongoing conflicts—and, relatedly, that the U.S. isn’t. And Russia doesn’t seem to care what the world thinks of its other attempts to exert influence: The audacity of its alleged interference in several Western elections is exceeded only by that of its alleged role in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom. Russia denies both election interference and the assassination attempt—and the Russian public broadly believes those assertions.
For all this, Putin had support from much of a Russian public grateful that its country, battered by the economic troubles of the Yeltsin era, was becoming a great power once again. But that may be changing. A recent survey by Levada, the Russian pollster, found that Putin’s approval ratings had slipped considerably. They were still at a formidable 67 percent in July (a figure any democratically elected Western leader would happily take), but that number was significantly lower than his 79 percent approval rating in May and 82 percent in April. (Levada’s polling is considered to be among the best in a country where it is difficult to measure public opinion.) Trust in Putin similarly declined during the period. The number of Russians who said they thought their country was headed in the wrong direction also rose from 26 percent in April to 40 percent in July.
“We see that the population is getting a little bit tired of helping everyone else,” Volkov, the sociologist, told me. “Especially because the economy is not very good, especially because the pension reform is announced, which will raise the pension age and … in the view of the poll, people are saying, ‘Let’s stop helping everyone else. Let’s help ourselves.’”
On previous occasions when Putin’s approval rating fell, Russia became engaged in new foreign interventions. In 2014, for instance, Putin’s approval rating hovered around 60 percent. But after the annexation of Crimea in March of that year, it spiked to 80 percent. Putin similar saw a spike in approval after the Syria intervention.
“But right now, I think, the situation is different,” Polyakova said. “Putin is being received in European capitals … President Trump wants to meet with him—these should be things that are propping Putin up, but they are not.”
Part of the reason for this is the government’s plan, announced at the start of the soccer World Cup in Russia, to increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 60 for women. The government was surprised by protests against the proposal. Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs that the government underestimated the opposition to these changes across demographic groups.
“The reason for the public outrage is that the proposal is a breach of Russia’s unwritten social contract, in which the government preserves so-called stability, maintains modest social benefits, and promotes feelings of national pride in exchange for the public’s political support and indifference to the rife corruption at the top of the political pyramid,” Kolesnikov wrote. “Because the state has for many years nurtured dependent attitudes among the Russian public, it is not surprising that most consider it the state’s duty to maintain the social welfare system as is.”
Even if current Russian dissatisfaction with the Kremlin prompts Putin to rethink his foreign policy, disengaging from overseas military adventures isn’t quite as easy as engaging in them in the first place. Putin knows this, having seen, first, Soviet troops remain in Afghanistan for a decade until their withdrawal in 1989, and, second, the U.S.-led occupation there enter its 18th year. But the Russian president must also cope with the burden of a history in which Russia has swung from retrenchment from its global role to territorial expansion. Polyakova told me that Russia’s seeming foreign-policy resurgence isn’t “new at all.”
“In fact, if you look at Russian imperial history or Soviet history, there has been a cycle of belligerence that has defined Russian foreign policy … You have territorial expansion, then there’s a conflict, something like World War I or the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then you have contraction. And following that contraction, there’s a soul-searching about how to regain that influence again,” she said. “So what we’re seeing Putin carry out now, I think, is very much in line with centuries of Russian foreign-policy objectives.”