Strong Medicine or Weak Placebo?: The Debate over Putin’s Foreign Policies

Guest post by Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness

Vladimir Putin climbs a rock wall during a visit to the Tver region of Russia. By Playing Futures.
Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbs a rock wall during a visit to the Tver region of Russia in 2011. By Playing Futures.

Paper Tiger Putin Folds

Back in March 2015, Ryan Maness and I wrote “Russia – perhaps more restrained than you may think?” in the Monkey Cage/Washington Post. That piece received a good bit of attention and generated debate over how to understand Russia’s current foreign policy strategy.

The piece was based on our book, Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy, which focuses on the salience of issues as the driver of Russian foreign policy, a factor often missed in the discourse. Our contention was that Putin is a paper tiger: Russia, contrary to popular belief, was restrained but that its strategic mistakes had put Russia in a weaker position and that Putin’s strength was overblown.

We have argued that Russia was able to roar in localized regional conflicts but limited internationally. These insights still hold. They have generated quite a bit of debate, and here we review that debate.

The Debate

Leonid Bershidsky has an interesting summary of the entire debate, noting that Aleksashenko’s response to ‘Paper Tiger Putin’ essentially suggests that if the West thinks Putin is weak, they should prove it on the battlefield. Baev supports our points by noting that Russia and Putin really is weak economically and thus constrained, yet he also wants an international response to Putin’s moves. Our response to all of this just basically reiterates that we are making these points based on an evaluation of foreign policy outcomes and evidence, not opinion. The point that Russia is weak internationally stands, pushing for more aggression in order to prove a point and knock Russia back down is the wrong strategy given an objective view of the total picture.

Bershidsky’s point is that Putin wins if we give him so much attention. Vox recently published “Putin is Weak” by Amanda Taub arguing that his fear of internal opposition has led to his external adventures because he is terrified of losing power. Things are just not right in Russia, with civilians unable to afford basic pain medication due to the falling price of the ruble internationally as well as Russia being unable to sustain its own military buildup, bailing on the latest fighter jet. Fears that Greece might turn to Russia for help with its problems are dubious at this point.

Recovery for the Paper Tiger?

Mariya Snegovaya makes the point that Russia will not recover until the price of oil recovers. A very apt observation, but the problem is that while it seems likely that the price will recover to some basic level, it is by no means assured. Oil prices are unlikely to reach the heights they reached recently. The deal with Iran and the West on its nuclear production will dampen fears of war in the Middle East. The Islamic State has stagnated in Iraq and settled into a constant back and forth of taking and giving up territory because a strong territorial state is not really a part of their ambitions. Syria has also settled into a quagmire, as has Ukraine, Iran now can sell oil again and will flood the market a bit to recover cash reserves. There is little evidence to suggest that the price of oil will go up, and the ruble with it.

Ukraine is essential to Russia’s energy earnings, with many gas pipelines traversing through the troubled country, and this is a big reason why Putin is willing to fight for its allegiance (in addition to the historical ties). Yet how sustainable is this conflict for him as the very EU customers that he is trying to keep are hammering him with economic sanctions and looking elsewhere for their energy supplies? Furthermore, things might get worse between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This would be bad for Putin as the U.S. would openly back the Azerbaijanis as it would want to protect sizable energy investments, while Russia would want to tip the balance in favor of its fellow Orthodox Armenians.

What Now?

The strategic picture is bleak. While Putin will likely hold on to power, maybe even for two full presidential (6 year) terms, his domestic support is conditional on his strength externally. These external adventures are weak and hollow. Lucky for him, so are the West’s resistance to confronting him and reliance on sanctions that likely won’t change his behavior. Establishing a buffer zone between Ukraine and Russia, or going deeper situating Ukraine as a buffer between the West and Russia is a non-starter and dubious from a social science perspective.

All this makes Vox’s recent piece on the possible World War III with Russia laughable (a topic we dealt with academically back in 2012 with a “Risk Barometer for War”). A cornered tiger might lash out, but at this point Putin is a maimed and tamed tiger with few capabilities and little incentive to escalate his conflicts. Adding that the potential for increased uncertainty through asymmetric warfare with cyber conflict or information wars just perpetuates the myth that these tactics are ultimately effective, a point we call into question with our research on Russia and in cyber conflict. Russia cannot sustain further conflict until the price of oil recovers and the ruble rebounds. Given the problems of China’s own economy, it seems unlikely that any of the BRICs will roar anytime soon but a recent economic foundation developed between China and Russia will help stabilize both economies.

Wrapping It Up

Everyone who participates in these sorts of debates or writes public articles do so from a perspective and with a goal in mind. Our goal was to promote our social science based research but from a larger perspective and to call into question the dynamics of escalation that are typically advocated in international politics.

Take all these pieces with a grain of salt. As much as we strive for policy relevance in our work as scholars, there is little control we have once our work reaches the public sphere. I wish I could say that the debate has enriched us all and led to the proliferation of viable research, but it likely has not. Reactions to all these pieces very much depend on who you are, what your beliefs are, and where you are situated. As academics we would like to encourage more research that engages facts and has a consideration for research methods and empirical accuracy, but this is not really a bar that public outlets seek to reach.

With that I will leave you with a song by the band Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin because someone must still love Boris Yeltsin and miss him. At least when he failed strategically, everyone knew it and did not freak out.

Brandon Valeriano is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow in Politics and Global Security. Ryan C. Maness is a Visiting Fellow of Security and Resilience Studies at Northeastern University’s Department of Political Science.

  1. Some of this reads like a projection of the American ruling class’s problems, rather than those of the Russian r.c. In general, however, I think the Russians are just continuing to play black to more aggressive American/Western moves. The plan, if any, is to wait for overall conditions to change, and meanwhile to work on long-term projects like the development of central Asia. If the West’s many unsolved and worsening problems get the better of it, then it might be time for stronger moves. Until then Mr. Putin and company will be playing black.

  2. I think one of the key questions here is whether Russian leadership is aware of their material limitations. (Seems to me they are?).

    The other is whether aggression is perceived as a sign of weakness or strength, among the policy-decision-making class?

    Since evaluating the relative merits of policy is outside the scope of academic study, maybe someone could look into the dual nature of aggression — it is simultaneously good and bad.

    Based on the huffing and puffing that accompanied the Ukraine crisis, I would say despite the rhetoric, that aggression is perceived as a strength among the policy-decision-makers. At the same time, I observed that each side went to great lengths, making wildly unrealistic public claims which were only believable in the heat of the moment. (E.g., numerous op-ed’s by high ranking leaders claiming Putin plans to take over Western Europe like Hitler, and similarly wild claims that a US-Ukrainian-Zionist conspiracy is seeking to destabilize Russia). These claims play UP the aggression level of both their own side and that of their opponents.

    I want to say that exaggerating both side’s level of aggression / strength (drama queen behavior?) is a good thing, ultimately a source of restraint, more so than it is a factor that motivates one’s side to respond in kind. Has there ever been serious study of this question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like