Trump, Putin, and the Wheel of Russian History

Russia’s porous borders make external insecurity the constant companion of Russian leaders. External insecurity begets internal insecurity begets repression at home.

“Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” — Winston Churchill

President-elect 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.

As 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.[1] 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.

Inevitably, 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.[2]

The Turn Toward the Dark Side

It 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.[3] In his second term (2004-2008), six more former client states joined NATO.[4] Between 2004 and 2007, nine of those former client states had all joined the European Union.[5] Russia’s Soviet-era buffers, except for Ukraine, were gone.

Whatever 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.

Since 2008, 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

It 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.

Seen in 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 insecurity.

Troubling Edges

The 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?”[6] Five times in the last 500 years armies from the West have pierced the Russian heartland by way of this plain.[7]

Also, 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),

Afghanistan today worries Moscow because it is an easy infiltration route for jihadists into all of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Then 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 Russia’s[8] 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

Russia 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.

In 1985, about 300 million people lived in the Soviet Empire. The current population of Russia is approximately 143 million.[9] 75% 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. 

And 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

In 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 European Russia.

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 inhabitants.[10] 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 drain.”

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.[11]

Political-Economics and the Wheel

In 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.[12] 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[13] and some of the Central Asian states.

Beyond 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.[14]

Putin and the Drift Into Overreach

Of 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 by

Putin is over, and the historic pressures to overreach now become greater. As Kaplan[15] 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 into overreach.

The Dark Rider Girds for Trouble

Rattled by the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine,[16] 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[17]

Putin 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.[18] 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 for trouble.


The 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?

The 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.[19] All of this fits into the role of the “dark rider” beginning to overreach.

The Path Ahead for Trump

Here is what Trump’s foreign advisors should lay out before the President-elect: Russia’s 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?

First 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.

Rebuilding 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.[20] 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.[21]

Putin 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.[22] 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


[1] Peter Zeihan, “The Coming of Russia’s Dark Rider”, Stratfor Geopolitical Weekly (Sept 24, 2007).

[2] Lauren Goodrich, “Russia Falls Into Old Habits”, Stratfor Geopolitical Weekly (Oct 25, 2016). See also Robert D. Kaplan, “Eurasia’s Coming Anarchy: The Risks of Chinese and Russian Weakness”, Foreign Affairs (March/April, 2016).

[3] The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

[4] Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia.

[5] Bulgaria, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia.

[6] Tim Marshall, “Russia and the Curse of Geography”, The Atlantic, October 31, 2015

[7] Ibid.

[8] See

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bruce Pannier, “A New Wave of Ethnic Russians Leaving Kazakhstan”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Feb 9, 2016).

[11] “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030”, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (Jan 27, 2011).

[12] Marek Strzelecki, “Poland Opens Liquid Natural Gas Terminal, Pledges to End Russian Dependence”, Bloomberg (Oct 12, 2015).

[13] Maria Tsvetkova and Christian Lowe, “Russia’s Putin Reminds Wayward Chechnya Leader – I’m the Boss”, Reuters, Moscow, (Mar 24, 2016).

[14] Strzelecki, op.cit.,

[15] Kaplan, op.cit., p. 33

[16] Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015), p. 276.

[17] “Russia: The Kremlin’s Power Struggle Claims Another Victim”, Editor, Stratfor (Sept 14, 2016).

[18] Jack Farchy, “Putin Creates New National Guard to Seal His Authority”, Financial Times (Apr 6, 2016).

[19] George Sandeman, “Royal Navy Sends Ships to Shadow Russian Fleet Passing Britain”, The Guardian (Oct 9, 2016).

[20] Kaplan, op.cit., p.34

[21] See “Vladimir the Inevitable? Understanding the Rise of Putin” my essay in Catholic World Report (Aug 5, 2016).

[22] Kaplan, op.cit., p.34

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About Joseph Kremers 6 Articles
Joseph Kremers is a political scientist who taught Political Ideologies, International Relations, and Soviet/Russian studies in Oregon for 28 years. He was a "citizen diplomat" that helped form the Sister City partnership between Eugene, Oregon and Irkutsk, USSR. He was co-founder of a private, non-profit corporation that conducted citizen-to-citizen exchanges between American and Soviet athletes, students and professionals, and was an exchange professor teaching American Culture at the Irkutsk State Teachers' Training Institute of Foreign Languages in Irkutsk, the capital city of Eastern Siberia. He made eleven trips to the USSR/Russia between 1988-98. A US Air Force veteran, he guest lectures to AFROTC cadets on international affairs.