President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, Nov. 10. (CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA); right: Vladimir Putin in a June 10, 2015 photo. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)
“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but
perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Donald Trump will soon be brought up to speed on urgent matters of
foreign affairs. High on the list will be Russian-American relations.
This essay is about the kinds of things any American president must
know about Russia in general and about the forces that now shape
President Putin’s policy behaviors, foreign and domestic.
long ago as 2007, speculation began in American intelligence circles
about the relationship between Russia’s historic cycle of political
change and President Putin’s policies. A more recent
analysis updated the inquiry in light of developments in Ukraine and
Syria, increasing levels of anti-American rhetoric in Russia, and the
ongoing economic slump there. The wheel, or cycle of history,
referenced in these and other speculations begins with a national
catastrophe, sometimes due to disastrous internal planning, at other
times because of foreign invasion. The social order crumbles; chaos
and dissolution threaten. In response, Russians turn to “a white
rider” (akin to the familiar metaphor of “a man on horseback”),
and thereby enter the second part of the cycle: the reestablishment
of order and stability by the consolidation of power.
for reasons we will describe, the “white rider” in Russia’s
past, confronted with the formidable barriers to his (or her, as in
the case of Catherine the Great) more optimistic dreams, becomes a
“dark rider.” This chastened leader turns toward strict internal
controls and external aggression, out of fear rooted in Russia’s
geographic vulnerabilities. The next phase is overreach, brought on
by lack of sufficient resources necessary to sustain and to keep
expanding the security of the state. The system begins to falter;
attempts at reform fail; stagnation sets in, and a new collapse
ensues, starting the cycle anew.
The Turn Toward the Dark Side
is apparent that Putin, Russia’s “white rider” of the late
1990s, has “turned dark.” Historians will someday explore whether
or not he turned dark as early as 2004, by which time three former
Soviet Socialist Republics and Warsaw Pact members had already been
NATO members for four years.
In his second term
(2004-2008), six more former client states joined NATO.
Between 2004 and 2007, nine of those former client states had all
joined the European Union.
Russia’s Soviet-era buffers,
except for Ukraine, were gone.
the timing, by 2008, when Putin quashed the attempts of Georgia to
pursue her turn toward the West and release from Russian suzerainty,
Putin the white rider was nowhere to be seen.
Putin’s policies are consistent with the phase of the dark rider
consolidating, centralizing and intensifying state power. Yeltsin’s
initial democratic electoral reforms have been rolled back; political
parties and elections now little more than props of Putinism; the
media has, with a very small number of exceptions, returned to
Soviet-style service as mouthpiece for Kremlin policy; the military
has been reinvigorated; the internal and external security services
have returned to the center of influence; and now, a daily propaganda
barrage of anti-Americanism not seen since the height of the Cold War
is in place. The consolidation of power phase is over. But is the
wheel now turning to overreach? Before we can answer that, we must
take a short tour of the geopolitical factors that help explain the
turning of the Russian wheel of history.
Geography and the Wheel
is an old idea that “geography is destiny.” It is a seminal
insight because nations exist and act in time and space. Modern
nation-states are sovereign entities rooted in specific locales.
These locales contain both stubborn limitations on, and tempting
potentialities for leaders.
The popular image of
geography (it’s about maps, landforms, waterways, etc.) accounts
for only part of its role in geopolitical analysis. Pertinent also
are: defensibility of borders; distance from potentially threatening
neighbors; amount of essential energy sources and other minerals;
population quantity, population dispersal, population “quality”
(health andeducation levels, for example); degree of population unity
(how many ethnic, tribal, racial and/or religious differences);
cohort profile (relative proportions of young, middle and older);
birth rates; natural mortality rates; and more.
this more expansive way, geography bears on our subject: the
likelihood of overreach in Russia at present or in the near future.
Space does not allow an in-depth consideration of all the above, but
what follows are significant causes of Russia’s fateful sense of
starting point in the analysis of Russian fear for her own safety is,
and has always been, her indefensible borders. The Northern European
Plain essentially offers no natural hindrance to invaders from France
across Germany and Poland to western Russia. One author opines that
if Putin is a religious man, he may well pray each night before bed,
asking God “Why didn’t you put mountains in eastern Ukraine?”
Five times in the last 500 years armies from the West have
pierced the Russian heartland by way of this plain.
the very vastness of Russia creates many other border threats. For
example, Russian Central Asia is peopled by ancient ethnic groups,
mostly Turkic and Muslim, not Orthodox or Slavic. They are located
far from Moscow and some border Afghanistan, the traditional
“graveyard of empires” and recent seedbed for Islamic terrorism.
The site of long-time probing by Russia in pursuit of a warm water
port on the Indian Ocean, and the locale of a bitter Russian defeat
in a war against Islamist insurgents (1979-89),
today worries Moscow because it is an easy infiltration route for
jihadists into all of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
there is the 2,500 mile long border with China, the sixth longest in
the world. China’s population is now almost 10 times a large as
and today Chinese merchants and investments
can be found in many parts of Russia, most numerously in the Russian
Far East. Twenty years ago I passed more than once through the city
of Khabarovsk, a major hub in the Far East. Chinese traders and
merchants were even then very numerous. One can see into China from
the heights of the city, overlooking the mighty Amur River. If China
is near, the central government of Russia is not. Almost exactly
5,000 miles separate Moscow from Khabarovsk; the whole of the Russian
Far East (an area the size of Australia) has less than 7 million
Russian inhabitants. Moreover, the population there has dropped by
14% in the last 15 years. One can understand the nervousness of
Russia’s leadership about these statistics.
Huge Territory, Fewer People
is truly immense. She occupies nine time zones, reaching from Finland
in the west, eastward to within a few miles of Alaska on the Bering
Sea. At the latitude of the Arctic Circle, Russia has nearly an
180-degree span, or half the circumference of the earth. This
compares with the USA’s six time zones (including Alaska and
Hawaii). Russia’s 6.6 million square miles compares with the USA’s
3.8 million. The entire continental USA could fit easily into the
space between the Ural Mountains and the Russian Far East. Vast
territory can quickly become troublesome, however, if the population
is not large enough to defend and economically exploit it. Therein
lies another source of insecurity.
1985, about 300 million people lived in the Soviet Empire. The
current population of Russia is approximately 143 million.
of these, about 100 million, live in the two westernmost Russian time
zones in European Russia, the “heartland” between Ukraine and the
Ural Mountains, the traditional boundary between European and Asiatic
Russia. That leaves about 43 million to occupy a space in Asiatic
Russia larger than the whole USA. Moreover, Russia’s birthrate
(number of live births per 1,000 population) is about 1.34. To
stabilize the population, the birth rate must be at least 2.1.
the future in this regard is grim. Forecasted population of Russia in
2050: 100 million. Moreover, high mortality rates, widespread use of
abortion in the Soviet era, and emigration are resulting in an aging
population with resultant labor shortages, especially in skilled
occupations. This problem is exacerbated by migration patterns.
Voting With Their Feet
the Soviet era, millions of ethnic Russians lived outside the
traditional Russian heartland, in Siberia, the Far East, the Baltic
States, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Top political and Communist
Party posts went to Russians or reliable non-Russian Communist Party
members. Since the collapse of the USSR, there has been a large
exodus of Slavic Russians out of those places and into the cities of
For example, many Russians have left the
North Caucasus. As a result, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia are
becoming more purely indigenous and Muslim. Without the presence of
large numbers of Slavic Russians, these places, poorer than most, can
easily become breeding grounds for discontent and radical Islamism.
In addition, Kazakhstan has also lost thousands of Russian
To make things worse, many of the more
educated and well-off Russians have emigrated out of European Russia
itself to Europe and even to the United States, taking their wealth
and skills with them. Putin must be concerned with this “brain
Other troublesome internal migrations are
afoot. Many Muslim Central Asians and Caucasians are moving into
European Russia, changing the demographic makeup there and causing
ethnic tensions. Also, the numbers of Muslims in Russia are growing
quite a bit faster than those of Slavic Russians. The Muslim
population is said to be at least 15% of Russia’s total, but the
numbers are probably higher; and, given the higher birth rates among
Muslim families, those numbers will certainly rise. Muslim families
marry in greater numbers, have more children, and stay together
longer than ethnic Russians do.
Political-Economics and the Wheel
addition to the political-geographic features above, we must mix in
some recent political-economic developments that bear on our question
of overreach. First is the continuing softening of oil and gas
prices. An inability of the OPEC nations to agree on a production
cap, the reentry into the supply chain of Iranian oil, the
innovations in fracking and other advances in extraction technologies
and the slowing of the Chinese economy, all contribute to supplies
exceeding demand, at least for now. Since the Russian economy is so
dependent on oil and gas revenues, this limits the scope of Putin’s
ambitions. Low oil revenues mean more fighting among
Putin’s oligarchs and security elites for tighter budget amounts;
stagnation in the Russian standard of living for millions, calling
for the drawing down of Russia’s cash reserves to stave off
domestic unrest; and reduced subsidies for places such as Chechnya
and some of the Central Asian states.
this, the Europeans are taking steps to reduce their overdependence
on Russian energy, a reaction to Putin’s consistent use of energy
as a tool to pressure (not to say blackmail) them to accommodate
Russian resurgence. For example, Poland just this summer received her
first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, after
signing a 20 year agreement. The Poles plan to link their new gas
plant by pipeline to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine and
Lithuania, giving them an alternative to Russian gas as well.
Putin and the Drift Into Overreach
course, the Russian “wheel of history” or cyclical model cannot
be used in a mechanical way. That is, the various stages in the cycle
do not have precise edges. For instance, the overreach stage of the
Soviet cycle might have been 10 years long or more. The best use of
the idea at present is to note that the consolidation of power stage
is over, and the historic pressures to overreach now become greater.
As Kaplan and others have argued for some time, the
apparent strength of the Putin regime masks deep weaknesses. This is
probably why we keep reading that Putin has played a weak hand quite
adroitly. In fact, saying that Putin holds a weak hand is an indirect
acknowledgement of the limitations imposed on Russian leaders even
after the consolidation of power is complete. The danger now is that
Putin the “dark rider” fully understands that his hand is weak,
sees that his hold on power is waning, and is following the classic
pattern of increasing repression within Russia and aggression on her
periphery. Let’s now list some of factors that may be pushing him
The Dark Rider Girds for Trouble
by the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine,
Putin fears a repeat of the Moscow demonstrations of 2011-12, when
thousands of people took to the streets to protest his decision to
stay in power by swapping places with his Prime Minister, Dmitri
Medvedev. Since 2012, he has moved to suppress opposition leaders,
manipulate elections, incite a “bogeyman” external threat
(“fascists” in Ukraine emboldened by the always handy USA) and
flex Russia’s military muscles. Besides several shakeups among his
administration’s top subordinates
has also created what amounts to a several hundred thousand-strong
“palace guard” within the Russian security system, the use of
which Putin alone could order and command. In terms of
popular support, the lower voter turnout for Duma elections in
September of this year could be a signal of waning enthusiasm for
Putin’s policies, given the stagnation in the standard of living
among Russia’s masses. These are the actions of a man gearing up
annexation of Crimea and the Moscow-supported incursions into the
Donetsk and Luhansk areas have not been followed by Putin’s hoped
for (one suspects) general pro-Russian uprising in the rest of
eastern Ukraine. This means that for now, the conflict is “frozen”,
and Putin’s goals of at least partial constitutional autonomy for
southeastern Ukraine are unmet. This opens him up for criticism by
his own hard-liners, who want more aggression, and the more moderate
in his regime who were never in favor of the original aggression. He
now must support yet try to control the insurrectionists he has
created. This support costs money and makes Putin a captive, in a
way, of his own tactics. Backing down would be admitting defeat, but
would more aggression only make things worse?
changing of European borders by force of arms in Ukraine is a
sobering development for Western Europe and her allies, reviving Cold
War anxieties. The resultant sanctions imposed on Russia have caused
a drying up of foreign investment capital and a general souring of
the relations between Russia and the West. But Putin may calculate
that he got away with crossing recognized borders once, and that
perhaps it might work again, especially if the USA is distracted by
internal political uncertainties and European unity is ebbing (both
true). Trouble could be stirred up in the Baltic States, Georgia,
Moldova, or in other parts of eastern Ukraine. He could also raise
the stakes in Syria. In October of this year, a Russian naval task
force sailed provocatively through the English Channel on its way to
the Mediterranean to provide combat support to Syrian President Assad
in his struggle to retain power. All of this fits into
the role of the “dark rider” beginning to overreach.
The Path Ahead for Trump
is what Trump’s foreign advisors should lay out before the
porous borders make external insecurity the constant companion of
Russian leaders. External insecurity begets internal insecurity
begets repression at home. At some point in the cycle of Russian
history, external insecurity has lead to aggression at the periphery.
Aggression at the periphery and repression within are already far
advanced. Therefore, if Putin is already in the overreach stage, how
should a President Trump react?
he must have an accurate picture of Putin’s economic problems.
Russia has been in recession since the collapse of energy prices.
This fact reflects the paradox of Russia’s immense mineral wealth.
The abundance of extractible mineral wealth continues to bedevil her
history. She has been and still is tempted to simply export energy
and other mineral wealth and neglect to develop a broader-based, more
consumer rooted economy. This has two pernicious consequences: 1) the
masses of Russians are thereby fated to a standard of living much
lower than that of Europe. This is a constant source of concern for
Russian leaders in the age of instant, world-wide communications
because, unlike under Soviet power, the populace cannot simply be
lied to about the material gap between their lives and the lives of
those living in the West. My friends in a major Siberian city used to
point to a large billboard that said (in Russian) :“Siberia
Rich Land, Rich People”. They said it should read “Siberia
Rich Land, Poor People.” 2) Federation budgets, being so dependent
on world commodity prices, are unstable. So, the masses must often be
placated through subsidies and the powerful must always be jockeying
for their share of an unpredictable pie. Thus, instability at the
base and at the top is built in to the system. Trump must understand
that this socio-economic instability is endemic and drives a great
deal of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.
the military, spending billions to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi,
annexing Crimea and supporting an insurgency in southeastern Ukraine
have taken their toll on Russia’s financial health. The recession
has cost Russia about half the value of the ruble against the U.S.
dollar since 2014. GDP growth is too low, and capital
investment is way down. But Putin, having opted to
construct a nationalist-authoritarian polity and an ideology to
justify it, would find it difficult now to reverse course even if he
were so inclined. Like a feudal king, he must keep his earls and
dukes happy enough with their share of power and wealth that they are
not tempted to collude against him. Uneasy lies the head, etc.
Moreover, democracy, to Putin and to millions of Russians is,
unfortunately, equated with the near collapse of order that marked
the period (1989-99). He seems convinced that Russia can only exist
and thrive as a vertically ruled state.
has made it clear that the spread of the European Union and
especially, NATO, into the former Soviet sphere of influence in the
Baltics and Eastern Europe require him to push back. But for Trump
and for NATO there can be no reversing course. The task for Trump and
other Western leaders is to avoid unnecessarily provoking Moscow,
while, out of the public spotlight, letting Putin know what actions
on his part will require which responses, up to and including
military force. This brings us to Trump’s election
rhetoric regarding NATO. It is true that, of NATO’s 28 members,
only 5 (USA, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia and Greece) meet the
“encouraged” level of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP for
their own defense. However, aside from the negative symbolism of
“free riders”, the actual amounts are not as significant as the
need to reinvigorate a cooperative spirit in the 67 year-old pact.
Unfortunately, Europeans are now distracted by Brexit and
its implications for further unification of member states.
Nevertheless, Trump should acknowledge, and soon, that the liberal
order preserved and defended in Europe since 1949 by NATO must find
new life, and only the US has the heft to lead the effort. It is in
Putin’s interest to see a weakened NATO and a weakened European
Union. He is working hard to find at least one EU member state to
vote against the extension of EU sanctions. Bilateral relations
between Russia and the countries of the former Soviet bloc work to
Russia’s advantage; united fronts against her do not. Trump should
show by his foreign policies that the US has a stake in both strength
and prosperity in Europe.
And so, although Trump will have an array of challenges in foreign
affairs, he will be better prepared to deal with Russia keeping these
things in mind: He must assure old allies that the US can and will
lead the defense of a Western liberal order now lacking in
self-confidence and unity; he must adapt to an international order in
which the US is no longer hegemonic; and he must combine
understanding, strength and subtlety in his relations with Putin.
Otherwise, the dark rider leading an ancient, inherently insecure
state may be tempted, by the weakness and disunity of his perceived
foes, to overreach and act rashly and aggressively on his perimeter
or elsewhere, in order to rescue himself and the system he has built
from entrapment in the cycle of his country’s own history.
Related on CWR:
"Vladimir the Inevitable? Understanding the rise of Putin" (Aug 5, 2016) by Joseph Kremers
"Faith in Putinism: A Church-State Symbiosis" (Oct 20, 2016) by Joseph Kremers
Peter Zeihan, “The
Coming of Russia’s Dark Rider”, Stratfor Geopolitical
Weekly (Sept 24, 2007).
Lauren Goodrich, “Russia Falls Into Old Habits”, Stratfor
Geopolitical Weekly (Oct 25, 2016). See also Robert D. Kaplan,
Coming Anarchy: The Risks of Chinese and Russian Weakness”,
Foreign Affairs (March/April, 2016).
The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.
Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia.
Bulgaria, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania,
Poland, Romania, Slovakia.
Tim Marshall, “Russia
and the Curse of Geography”, The Atlantic, October 31,
Bruce Pannier, “A
New Wave of Ethnic Russians Leaving Kazakhstan”, Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty (Feb 9, 2016).
Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030”,
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (Jan 27, 2011).
Marek Strzelecki, “Poland Opens Liquid Natural Gas
Terminal, Pledges to End Russian Dependence”, Bloomberg
(Oct 12, 2015).
Maria Tsvetkova and Christian Lowe, “Russia’s
Putin Reminds Wayward Chechnya Leader I’m the Boss”,
Reuters, Moscow, (Mar 24, 2016).
Kaplan, op.cit., p. 33
Steven Lee Myers, The
New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Alfred A.
Knopf, New York, 2015), p. 276.
The Kremlin’s Power Struggle Claims Another Victim”, Editor,
Stratfor (Sept 14, 2016).
Jack Farchy, “Putin
Creates New National Guard to Seal His Authority”, Financial
Times (Apr 6, 2016).
George Sandeman, “Royal
Navy Sends Ships to Shadow Russian Fleet Passing Britain”, The
Guardian (Oct 9, 2016).
Kaplan, op.cit., p.34
the Inevitable? Understanding the Rise of Putin” my essay in
Catholic World Report (Aug 5, 2016).
Kaplan, op.cit., p.34