Russia will gradually drift toward an economic and political model resembling Iran’s—and will become increasingly dependent on China. The greater tribulation for Russia may be that such an Iranian-style outcome could be quite durable, and every year that it lasts will further diminish the chances that Russia will resolve the conflict with Ukraine, repent for the harm done, restore ties with the outside world, and bring balance and pragmatism to its foreign policy. The Russia That Might Have Been.
In the 12 months since Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, the war has become an accelerating disaster for Russia. Although Ukrainians are the primary victims of the Kremlin’s unprovoked aggression, the war has already left hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers dead or wounded. Unprecedented Western sanctions have squeezed the Russian economy. Moscow’s large-scale mobilization and wartime crackdown on civil society have caused thousands of high-skilled workers to flee abroad. Yet the greatest long-term cost of the war to Russia may be in permanently foreclosing the promise of Russia occupying a peaceful and prosperous place in the twenty-first-century world order.
Russia’s current foreign policy trajectory was not predestined, and the Kremlin had many chances to do things differently. For much of the last 20 years—even following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014—Russia had a historic opening to build a dynamic new place in the international system. When Putin was sworn in as president in May 2000, Russia was entering a period of greater possibility—both within and beyond its borders—than at any other point in its history. Internally, Russia had survived the collapse of the USSR and the tumultuous 1990s to go from an empire to an influential nation-state in the making. Despite the horrendous wars in Chechnya, Russia was largely stable and at peace by the turn of the century. Its planned economy had given way to an adaptable market economy. It was an imperfect but vibrant democracy.
Then, around 2003, Russia got lucky. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and China’s spectacular economic boom sharply increased global commodity prices. The Kremlin’s coffers were suddenly flooded with revenues from selling oil, gas, metals, fertilizers, and other products on the global market. This windfall allowed Russia to repay its foreign debts quickly and nearly double its GDP during Putin’s first two presidential terms. Despite mounting corruption, most ordinary Russians found that their incomes were rising. Compared with their troubled imperial and Soviet past, Russians had never been so prosperous and, simultaneously, so free as in the twenty-first century’s first decade. With these strong economic and political foundations, Russia was well positioned to become a global power between East and West—benefiting from its links to both Europe and Asia, and focused on internal development.
Now, Putin has squandered all of that. His growing appetite for power has driven Russia into an authoritarian regime over the past decade. Russian society and the country’s elite are largely unable and unwilling to hinder the process. That transformation is largely responsible for Moscow’s failure to grasp these opportunities and redefine Russia’s world stature. Instead, Putin’s steady accumulation of power transformed a robust foreign-policy-making process, rooted in impartial analysis and interagency deliberations, into an increasingly personalized one. As a result, Putin and his inner circle succumbed to growing paranoia about perceived military threats from the West, and their decisions did not undergo the intellectual and institutional scrutiny they needed. Ultimately, this drove the nation into the strategic and moral catastrophe of its war in Ukraine.
Bright, Confident Morning
When Putin came to power in 1999, the external geopolitical environment was more favorable to Russia than at almost any previous point in the modern era. No neighbor or great power posed a serious threat to Russian security. The collapse of the USSR had not produced territorial disputes between Russia and its neighbors that would lead to inevitable conflicts. And until the 2014 decision to illegally annex Crimea, Moscow seemed mostly happy with its borders, including with Ukraine. The Cold War was over, and the United States treated Russia as a declining power that no longer threatened it and its allies. Instead, Washington sought to support Russia in its transition to democracy and a market economy. Foreign investment and technology helped to modernize the Russian economy and started to heal the wounds caused by the country’s traumatic adoption of a new economic model in the 1990s. Many European nations enthusiastically purchased exports of Russian commodities.
Moscow’s relations with Germany and other major European countries such as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom were at a historic peak. In eastern Europe, there was a Soviet legacy of economic ties and personal connections between Moscow and such countries as Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as the newly independent Baltic states. Consecutive waves of NATO and EU enlargement in the 1990s and 2000s made Russia’s neighbors to its west more prosperous and secure, and thus far less fearful of potential Russian revanchism, and opened the way for a dynamic of pragmatic and mutually beneficial engagement, which persisted for much of the 2000s. During these years, Russia and the EU discussed strengthening trade and economic and energy ties. Although the EU did not invite Russia to join the union, it did offer to harmonize trade regulations and remove many barriers that limited ties between Moscow and Brussels.
As for its relations with the East, Russia managed to resolve a decades-old territorial dispute with China in 2005, finally putting the relationship with the new superpower on a predictable and productive footing. By then, China was the world’s largest importer of hydrocarbons, providing Russia with a new, enormous, and still expanding market. Meanwhile, with an eye on their own energy security, Japan and South Korea were also interested in helping to bring Russia’s vast hydrocarbon resources in Siberia to the market. In turn, by building ties to these two technologically advanced Asian democracies and China, Russia had an opportunity to tap into the rapidly modernizing potential of the Asia-Pacific region. For the first time in its history, Moscow could sell its commodities to Europe and Asia, diversifying its trade relationships and cultivating new markets as it accessed money and technology from both the West and the East.
Finally, Russia maintained Soviet-era connections to many developing countries in the diverse “global South.” These ties enabled Russia to keep afloat its Soviet-era industries, particularly its defense sector and civilian nuclear power, by turning contracts with countries like India and Vietnam into revenue sources supporting domestic manufacturing.
A Dark And Unnecessary Turn
Against this uniquely favorable backdrop, Russia had a chance to pursue an entirely different foreign policy from the one upon which it ultimately embarked. For the first time in its history, Moscow didn’t need to spend the bulk of its precious resources on defending itself against external threats or making a bid for global supremacy. With the end of the Cold War, Russia seemed to be out of the game of seeking global dominance. It could have focused its foreign policy on one goal: maximizing the prosperity of the Russian people through economic growth while guaranteeing their security at a comparatively minimal cost. Given its favorable economic and security relationships, Russia could have evolved into an economy similar to Canada’s, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, and geopolitical neutrality. In short, Russia had the foundations it needed to become a prosperous, confident, secure, and trustworthy major twenty-first-century power. This country could help tackle some of the world’s pressing problems.
Such benevolent geopolitical egoism, grounded in neutrality, was more pragmatic and realistic than the obvious alternatives. After all, the dreams held by some Russian reformers in the 1990s and early 2000s of integrating Russia into European and transatlantic alliances like the EU and NATO were futile. Russia was too large to easily absorb into the EU: it would have upset the union’s precarious internal political balance. Russia was an even more unlikely candidate for NATO, a military alliance dominated by Washington and subordinated to America’s foreign policy agenda—which even then did not necessarily coincide with Moscow’s. Unlike most European countries, Russia did not need the United States guarantees to feel secure. Yet by the same token, the alliance’s expansion to Russia’s doorstep did not present a credible threat to Russian security, given Moscow’s vast nuclear arsenal and substantial conventional forces. Remaining outside the EU and NATO was no hindrance to building a market economy, achieving economic prosperity, and building a political system that would protect human rights—if Russia’s elites and population had wanted such a system. In the early years of this century, the Russian leadership held all the cards for success.
Had Russia embarked on a path of growing ties to East and West, it would have had many chances to strengthen its position in the world. Instead of attacking the United States for its lack of public introspection over the Iraq war, the Russian government could have left critical commentary to experts and pundits. Furthermore, Moscow’s various calls for respect of the UN Charter would have been taken more seriously had Russia itself not unilaterally recognized the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 or annexed Crimea and instigated a war in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014. Instead, Russia could have done some introspection of its own and found ways to start healing its neighbors’ historical wounds. This could have been done by focusing on the fact that Russians themselves had made a decisive contribution to ending the Soviet regime by admitting a degree of responsibility, as a successor state, for imperial and Soviet misdeeds, by opening up the archives, and by discussing the darker pages of history, including the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33 and the Soviets’ 1939 nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany.
Moreover, a Russia that remained friendly to China and the United States–led West could have remained flexible and pragmatic when deciding how to respond to geoeconomic initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 or China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the 2010s. The Russian government could also have worked with both Chinese and Western global vendors on cutting-edge technologies like 5G, at the same time as trying to enhance domestic production and play a bigger role in the international supply chain. With its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, vast carbon-dioxide-absorbing forests, and natural resources to produce clean fuels like hydrogen, Russia could have begun to play a leading role in the global response to climate change.
The Road To Ukraine
So why didn’t Russia choose this path? Although Putin’s foreign policy in his first term was largely pragmatic and fit broadly into this framework, after 2003, the Kremlin’s course became increasingly focused on revanchism and animosity toward the United States. Moscow’s reset with Washington during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev from 2009 to 2011 was a brief bright spot, in which the United States and Russia managed to find common ground on a variety of issues—from arms control and Iran’s nuclear program to Moscow’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the forging of a new technology partnership. But this rapprochement quickly ended with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. Feeling betrayed by Western intervention in Libya and support for the Arab Spring, Putin became increasingly fixated upon alleged U.S. efforts to promote regime change in Russia. This obsession was intensified by waves of street protests in Moscow in late 2011 after a rigged parliamentary election. His overreaction to the Maidan protests of 2014 led to Moscow’s decision to annex Crimea and fuel a brutal war in the Donbas. In the years after 2014, Russia’s relations with the West were on a downward spiral, although Russia still had an opportunity to pull back and rebuild its relations with the West. Despite significant sanctions, Moscow still had significant energy ties to Europe and continued to play a constructive role in nuclear diplomacy with Iran. But once again, Putin chose a darker path, deciding on the full-blown invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The main reason for Russia’s missed opportunities lies in the choices that Putin and the country’s elites have made over the past two decades and the direct connection of these choices to Russia’s domestic politics. Concerns about U.S. efforts to impose democracy via “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine fed into Putin’s growing suspicions and hostility toward the West. The decision to center Russia’s prosperity on the state-controlled extraction sector instead of building a diversified economy anchored in the rule of law was also a fateful choice that set Russia on its current course. Over the past decade, Putin and his inner circle gradually suppressed the discussions that had been taking place in society and among the elite about a new, more open Russian state and replaced them with propaganda and imperial nostalgia, which fell on the fertile ground following the trauma of the Soviet collapse.
In seeking to define itself as a great power in the twenty-first century, Russia has adopted a contemporary version of the Soviet Union’s Cold War standoff with the United States: only by controlling more territory, confronting the West, and opposing Western security alliances, Moscow has decided, can it assert its power in the world. The contrast with what might have been is hard to overstate. Instead of invading Ukraine, the Russian government could have offered a vision of a secure country with a high degree of strategic autonomy and inclusive economic growth, resulting in Norwegian-level wealth, Japanese-level life expectancy, and science that, among other things, would enable it to be a leading power in addressing climate change and pursuing the next frontiers in space exploration. But such a vision, in addition to being utterly new to Russian strategic culture, would also have required robust state institutions and effective checks and balances, both of which have long been anathema to Putin and his entourage.
Putin’s obsession with remaking Russia into a nineteenth-century-style great power and his alarmist view of NATO expansion became the building blocks of his quest to dominate former Soviet lands, starting with Ukraine, one of the largest and most influential of the Soviet republics outside Russia. Apart from Putin’s view that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are “one people,” as he famously claimed in his 2021 article on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians, he was driven by the belief—widely shared among Russia’s hard-liners—that without control over Ukraine Russia would never be a great power. Yet Moscow’s desire to exercise political, economic, and cultural dominance over Kyiv was doomed to failure from the start.
First, the Ukrainian elite always wanted to maintain distance from Russia rather than be integrated into a Russian-led order. Ukraine’s oligarchs knew all too well that, though their Russian peers might be wealthier in absolute terms, a phone call from the Kremlin could lose them their fortunes—unlike in Ukraine, where coalitions of influential players were constantly reassembling precisely to prevent the emergence of someone like Putin. Even Ukraine’s supposedly pro-Russian politicians used help from Moscow and pro-Russian sentiment in some Ukrainian regions as a resource in domestic power struggles, as President Viktor Yanukovych did before being ousted by the Maidan protests.
Meanwhile, to the west of Ukraine was Poland, which provided a role model for Ukraine’s educated classes. Poland’s success after joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004 provided a template for many Ukrainian liberals. Finally, and most important, by the start of 2022, it had been more than 30 years since Ukraine’s independence, and the process of national identity-building had advanced significantly. Notwithstanding the divisions between various regions and population groups, Ukraine had already defined itself largely as one nation in 2014—and every step the Kremlin made to disrupt the country in the years that followed only made that identity stronger and more anti-Russian, culminating in nationwide resistance following the invasion in 2022. That resistance was predicted by Putin’s intelligence services but never taken seriously by the isolated Russian leader, who had become a hostage of his ideas and led his country into disaster.
Russia’s window of opportunity to redefine itself in the world order closed when the first Russian bombs and missiles hit Ukraine. It’s impossible to tell how this ugly war will end, but one thing is clear: those missed chances will never return. Even if Ukraine can attain a full-scale victory, as defined by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it won’t necessarily result in the democratization of Russia. Given that Putin may order nuclear weapons if he believes that the survival of his regime is threatened, the possibility of a full Ukrainian victory seems slim as long as he remains in charge, which might be for quite some time. Meanwhile, Russia will gradually drift toward an economic and political model resembling Iran’s—and will become increasingly dependent on China. The greater tribulation for Russia may be that such an Iranian-style outcome could be quite durable, and every year that it lasts will further diminish the chances that Russia will resolve the conflict with Ukraine, repent for the harm done, restore ties with the outside world, and bring balance and pragmatism to its foreign policy.