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Copyright © 2019 by Angela E. Stent
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Stent, Angela, author.
Title: Putin’s world : Russia against the West / Angela Stent.
Description: New York : Twelve,  | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018039540| ISBN 9781455533022 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781549194832 (audio download) |
ISBN 9781455533015 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Russia (Federation)—Foreign relations—1991–| Russia (Federation)—Politics and government—
1991–| Russia (Federation)—Foreign relations—Western countries. | Western countries—Foreign relations—Russia
(Federation) | Russia (Federation)—Foreign relations—United States. | United States—Foreign relations—Russia
(Federation) | Ideology—Russia (Federation)
Classification: LCC DK510.764.S75 2019 | DDC 327.470182/1—dc23
LC record available at
ISBNs: 978-1-4555-3302-2 (hardcover), 978-1-4555-3301-5 (ebook)
E3-20181227-JV-NF-ORI CONTENTS Cover
1 The Weight of the Past
2 The Russian Idea
3 Ambivalent Europeans
4 Russia and Germany: The Fateful Relationship
5 The “Main Opponent”: Russia and NATO
6 Russia and Its “Near Abroad”: How Civilized a Divorce?
7 “The Past Is Always Changing”: Russia and Ukraine
8 Russia and China: Duo of the Willing?
9 Wary Neighbors: Russia and Japan in the Shadow of World War Two
10 The New Power Broker: Russia and the Middle East
11 Three Failed Resets: Russia and America Before the Trump Era
12 The Rivals: Russia and America in the Age of Trump
13 What Kind of Engagement with Russia?
Newsletters To Danny, Alex, Rebecca, and Jessica. INTRODUCTION In July 2018, Russia showed its best face to the world as it hosted the World Cup. The spirited opening ceremony
featured bears, dragons, and picturesque onion domes. The Russian team—ranked at the bottom of all those
competing—defeated Saudi Arabia in the first game and went on all the way to the quarterfinals, when Croatia
defeated it. But even that loss did not diminish the pervasive—and unexpected—atmosphere of good feeling. For a
month, Russia welcomed fans from around the world with enthusiasm and camaraderie. Russians and foreign fans
partied all night in cities from Kaliningrad in the west to Ekaterinburg, 1,500 miles away in Siberia. Even the
normally dour Russian policemen had only smiles for those celebrating. As Russian president Vladimir Putin put it,
“People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country, a friendly one for those who come here.” He added, “I’m sure
that an overwhelming majority of people who came will leave with the best feelings and memories of our country
and will come again many times.”1
The World Cup represented a major success for President Putin. Before the games opened, there were questions
about whether Russia would be able to build the facilities in time for the games, about corruption involved in the
bidding for the construction, and about how international visitors would be received. Moreover, the games were held
in a politically charged atmosphere, when Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had been since postcommunist Russia emerged in 1992. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in Southeastern Ukraine, its
cyber interference in the US and European elections, its support for Bashar al-Assad in the brutal Syrian Civil War,
and its domestic crackdowns on opponents of the regime—and the US and EU responses—all this had intensified
the already adversarial relationship between Putin’s Russia and the West.
The World Cup left foreign fans with positive views of their hosts. Many had arrived in Russia with stereotypes
about unfriendly Russians living in a backward country. But they reported being surprised by how “normal” Russia
and its people seemed. The US sent the largest number of spectators, even though the American team did not qualify
to compete. Western journalists emphasized that it was important to differentiate between the Russian government,
which they criticized, and its people, who were hospitable. For their part, the Russians seemed surprised by how
approachable the foreign fans were. Russians were used to seeing westerners constantly vilified in their state-run
media, but a poll conducted after the games ended showed that Russians’ view of Americans and Europeans had
significantly improved.2 The games left an afterglow of positive feelings, even though the Russians realized that,
once the foreigners departed, they would no longer be able to celebrate all night in the streets. The Russia team may
have lost, but the World Cup was clearly a victory for Vladimir Putin.
The World Cup represented a culmination of Putin’s project, which had been nearly two decades in the making:
the return of Russia to the world stage as a great power to be respected, feared, and—as the World Cup showed—
liked and even admired. Russia’s reemergence as a major player capable of projecting power well beyond its
immediate neighborhood was unexpected and quite remarkable, given its limited economic resources: a GDP
smaller than Italy’s, demographic decline, decaying infrastructure, and the negative impact of successive waves of
Western sanctions in response to its actions. A few years before, President Obama had described Russia as a
“regional power.”3 But Putin proved otherwise. Russia’s reach is now clearly global.
This is the new Russian reality that has developed since Putin entered the Kremlin in 2000. At that point Russia
was emerging from a decade of political chaos and an economic meltdown. Some went as far as to opine, “Russia is
finished.”4 When an ailing Boris Yeltsin handed over the reins of power to a virtually unknown former KGB case
officer, it was unclear how the fledgling post-communist Russia could move forward. In retrospect, it is clear that
Putin was from the start determined not only to restore firm state control over the Russian polity but also to resurrect
Russia as a great power. Remarkably, he has been able to accomplish both of these goals, despite Russia’s economic and military constraints.
It is important to understand how and why Russia has returned to the world stage. It is now active in areas from
which it withdrew after the USSR collapsed, and its reappearance has affected the ability of the United States and its
allies to conduct their own foreign policy effectively. The new reality of Putin’s world necessitates a rethinking of
how to deal with Russia going forward.
Putin’s world is one in which relations with the United States and much of Europe are adversarial. It is also a
world in which Russia has a deepening partnership with China, an increasingly influential role in the Middle East,
and has returned to areas of the world from which Russia was forced to withdraw after the Soviet collapse.
Moreover, Russia’s seat and veto on the United Nations Security Council have enabled Moscow to exercise
influence well beyond what its current capabilities would suggest. Russia’s ability to thwart Western interests has
also enabled it to advance its own interests internationally. Western attempts to isolate Russia after the seizure of
Crimea have failed. Moreover, the increasing disarray in the transatlantic alliance since Donald Trump came to
power, plus Brexit (Britain’s decision to leave the European Union) and a European Union beset by new challenges,
all these have provided Putin with unanticipated opportunities to advance Russia’s interests, which he has skillfully
This book explains how Putin’s Russia has managed to return as a global player and what that new role means. It
examines why Moscow’s relations with the US and much—although not all—of Europe have deteriorated, and why
so many other countries have a positive view of Russia and are working with Moscow productively in a variety of
fora. The book also traces the origins and development of the Russian national idea that has been consolidated in the
nearly two decades Putin has been in power and that drives policy today, highlighting how important it is to
understand how and why Russia has reemerged and how best to approach Moscow in this turbulent new global
It is customary to describe Russians as talented chess players with a grand strategy, but Putin’s sport is judo—
and that has given him a unique perspective on dealing with competitors and adversaries. Growing up poor in
postwar Leningrad, martial arts transformed his life because it was a way of defending himself against larger,
tougher boys who tried to beat him up. “It was a tool to assert myself in the pack.” The Leningrad evening paper in
May 1976 introduced the 24-year-old master “judoist” to the city as “not well known so far amongst specialists or
fans” but predicted that that would soon change.5 In judo, a seemingly weaker practitioner can rely on inner strength
and force of will to defeat a larger, more aggressive foe. Putting an opponent off-balance and taking advantage of
their temporary disorientation to strike a winning blow is a basic technique. Putin has proven to be adept at seizing
opportunities presented to him by the disarray in the West and the indecisiveness of some of its leaders.
Putin’s world also has been facilitated by the fraying of the transatlantic alliance. The initial euphoria over the
collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War has given way to a sober realization that the consolidation of a
Europe “whole and free,” the mantra of the 1990s, has been elusive. Democratic backsliding in Central Europe, a
renewed challenge from Russia to its neighbors, the persistence of a “post-Soviet syndrome” in all of the former
Soviet states, and waves of migrants landing on Europe’s shores have led to a rise in populism and a questioning of
the European project—the creation of a European Union that would ensure that Europe would eschew conflict going
forward—that was such a postwar success. The election of Donald Trump and the pursuit of “America first”
economic and political goals have called into question the durability of the seventy-year-old NATO alliance and of
the US commitment to Europe. This has played into the hands of a Russian leader who, like most of his
predecessors, has sought to profit from transatlantic tensions and prefers dealing with a disunited West.
But Putin’s world is also a product of deliberate Russian policies. Russia has focused on building up its military
since the 2008 war with Georgia and on using a variety of means to project power. It has also exploited
vulnerabilities in open Western societies and seized opportunities presented by the rise of social media. Russian
interference in Western elections and support for anti-EU and separatist movements in Europe, and for groups on
both extremes of the US political divide, have caught the West off guard. So far there has been no adequate response
to the deployment of these “hybrid” tactics in what has become an unending information war.
In exploring the making of Putin’s world, this book focuses on the areas that are priorities for Russian foreign
policy: the United States, Europe, the post-Soviet states, China, the Middle East, and Japan. Russia is also returning
to Latin America and Africa, but until now these areas have represented a lower priority for the Kremlin.
Foreign policy in Russia, as in any country, is driven by domestic considerations. For the current occupants of
the Kremlin and their close associates, foreign policy serves their overriding goal to remain in power. As Putin
enters what is constitutionally his last term in office amid increasing speculation about a possible succession in 2024, foreign policy could play a key role either in helping to consolidate the system he has created or in what could
become a future struggle for power among the different groups of contenders.
How should the West respond to the new Russia—which in many ways still resembles the old Soviet Union? In
1961, George Kennan—the twentieth century’s most gifted and knowledgeable American diplomat-scholar and
Russia hand—published Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin. As he surveyed the troubled legacy of the
interwar years, he criticized the West for failing to understand both what drove the Kremlin’s foreign policy and the
militant, universalist Soviet ideology that threatened Western security. He concluded that “the relationship we have
with the Soviet Union has to be compared, if we are to determine its real value, not with some nonexistent state of
total harmony of interests but with what we might call the normal level of recalcitrance, of sheer orneriness and
unreasonableness, which we encounter in the behavior of states anywhere and which I am sure we often manifest in
Today one can argue that the West has been slow to understand the mindset of the Kremlin’s occupants
determined to restore Russia to what they believe is its rightful place in the world. For Russians, the economic and
social dislocation of the 1990s is closely associated with what they view as a misguided Western agenda designed to
reshape post-communist Russia. The assumption made in the 1990s—that post-communist Russia was eager to join
the West—turned out to have been erroneous. Putin’s Russia seeks to offer a different model. Unlike in the Soviet
era, the Kremlin no longer promotes a universalist ideology designed to convert other states to its cause. Rather,
Putin has cultivated the idea of Russian exceptionalism, of Russia’s unique Eurasian destiny, a country bestriding
both Europe and Asia, the center of a new, multipolar world in which Moscow deals with governments of all
Russia and the West view each other as competitors, adversaries, and occasional partners. So far they have been
unable to achieve a durable post–Cold War modus vivendi. The West remains torn between seeking engagement
with Russia in the hopes this will moderate its behavior and trying to contain it. Neither strategy has worked so far.
This is the unique challenge of Putin’s world for the United States and its allies.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Russia is a large authoritarian state ruled by a leader with whom one
can do business. Other countries may be wary of the methods Moscow employs to achieve its goals, but they are
unconcerned about its domestic situation, recognize that it seeks a sphere of influence in its neighborhood, and are
content to pursue engagement without containment.
The first two chapters of the book examine the historical legacies that have shaped contemporary Russia’s
understanding of itself and its role in the world. Putin’s Russia has increasingly focused on a reinterpretation of
history that justifies how and why Russia has returned to the world stage as it reclaims what it views as its rightful
status as a great power resisting Western attempts to weaken it.
The book then focuses on Russia’s relations with major players, beginning with Russia’s long and ambivalent
relationship with Europe, to which it remains deeply connected, both politically and economically. Yet ties have
become increasingly strained since the onset of the crisis in Ukraine. Europe is sharply divided over how to deal
with Russia and Moscow has done all it can to derive benefits from these divisions. Nowhere are these tensions
more evident than in Russian-German ties, a long and complex relationship that has traditionally fluctuated between
amity and enmity. The combination of the Ukraine crisis and the advent of the Trump administration have caused
Germany to rethink its policies toward both Russia and the United States. For the first time, Germany is struggling
to develop an “America strategy”—something it has never needed to do before—as it reconfigures its ties to Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin’s insistence that NATO is the “main opponent” continues to shape his relations with Europe and
toward the transatlantic alliance. The West and Russia tried and failed to create a Euro-Atlantic security architecture
in the 1990s in which Russia had a stake. This led to mounting uncertainty about Russia’s relations with NATO and,
more recently, stimulated a new Western military buildup in Europe in response to Russian actions.
The next two chapters deal with the complex mosaic of Russia’s relations with the former Soviet states. The
Kremlin does not regard these nations as distinctly foreign countries, but as part of its “near abroad” which, in its
view, should only enjoy limited sovereignty. There is a separate chapter on Russia’s fraught ties with Ukraine. The
war in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine highlights the roots of the Russian-Ukrainian dueling narratives
over history, identity, and territory, and is the battlefield for a new type of conflict, hybrid warfare.
Russia’s increasingly close ties to China represent a major success of the Putin era and a remarkable
development considering that the two countries have a long history of enmity. This section discusses the changing
nature of a relationship that is not an alliance but an increasingly robust instrumental partnership that has enabled
Russia to avoid the isolation the West sought to impose after 2014. Indeed, in 2018, Chinese troops participated in the largest Russian military exercises held since 1981. By contrast, Russia’s ties to its other major East Asian
neighbor Japan remain constrained by the two countries’ inability to resolve their territorial dispute over four
unprepossessing islands, dating back to the end of World War Two. The book examines why it has been so
challenging to move relations forward.
The next chapter covers the Middle East, highlighting the other foreign policy success story of the Putin era.
Russia has returned to the Middle East as the only major power that can talk to the protagonists and antagonists in
all of the major regional conflicts—Iran, the Sunni states, Israel, the Palestinians, and the Kurds.
The final two chapters come to the great conundrum—the increasingly adversarial US-Russia relationship, which
resembles a new Cold War that some fear could even deteriorate into a hot war. Why has it been so difficult to
create a durable framework for productive ties between the two countries? Unrealistic expectations about the
relationship on both sides and fundamentally different views of what drives international politics have created a
downward spiral. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Russia has become a toxic domestic issue as
What is the future for Putin’s world? The book concludes by discussing Putin’s seven pillars for restoring Russia
as a great power, and the domestic constraints that will shape Russia going forward. It calls for a combination of
realism, push-back, and strategic patience in the West’s response to Putin’s ...
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