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Analysis - Setting the discussion over Leb. FP towards Russia - Part 2

Today’s Russia is neither monolithic nor immutable. Inside the country, low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic, and Russians’ growing sense of malaise all bring new costs and risks for the Kremlin. Abroad, Putin has played a weak hand well by applying the opportunistic policy (As shown in Part 1).

When Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, he set two goals to justify his policies and consolidate his power. Internally, he pledged to restore order, after years of chaos and impoverishment during the 1990s. Externally, he promised to restore greatness, following the humiliating loss of territory, global influence, and military dominance that had come with the collapse of the Soviet Union almost a decade earlier. Both ambitions resonated with the Russian people. Over the next two decades, Russians would steadily relinquish more and more of their rights—freedom of expression and assembly, political pluralism, judicial fairness, and an open economy (all of which were then new, tenuous, and unevenly shared)—in exchange for the stability of a strong state, a return to oil-fueled growth, and the prospect of middle-class prosperity.

Putin’s methods for reestablishing control became increasingly “Soviet” during his first decade in power: closing down opposition newspapers and TV stations; jailing, exiling, or killing political and economic rivals; and reestablishing single-party dominance in the parliament and regional governments.

When it came to Russian foreign policy, Putin had three initial priorities: reasserting Russian hegemony in neighboring states, rebuilding the military, and regaining influence at the global decision-making table. For the most part, the United States and the EU encouraged Russia in its pursuit of the third goal, bringing Moscow into the World Trade Organization and creating the G-8 and the NATO-Russia Council. They also made sure to take important decisions, such as whether to launch the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001 and whether to intervene in Libya in 2011, to the UN Security Council and the G-8 for debate, so that Russia could join in. It was supposed that Russia, like China, would become a more “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs by being integrated into rules-based international institutions.

U.S.-Russian nuclear reduction talks continued, but Washington paid too little attention to Moscow’s substantial military investments outside the nuclear realm. The Bush administration made an early blunder in 2000 by only cursorily consulting with Moscow before withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to build bigger missile defenses against Iran and North Korea. The Bush team later sought to rectify the mistake by offering transparency and collaboration in missile defense development to meet the growing threats from Tehran and Pyongyang, but Putin rejected the offer. He had already knit the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty into a narrative of grievance against Washington. He later felt justified in cheating on two other pillars of 1980s arms control architecture, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, accusing Washington of having broken Moscow’s trust first. Taking lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq and from Russia’s own subpar performance in the 2008 war with Georgia, Putin also poured money into irregular warfare, cyber-capabilities, long-range conventional weapons, and hyper-sonic missiles. Washington and its allies would not wake up to the impact of these investments until Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.

Putin started reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and vetoing the security arrangements of his neighbors. Here, a chasm soon opened between liberal democracies and the still very Soviet man leading Russia, especially on the subject of NATO enlargement. No matter how hard Washington and its allies tried to persuade Moscow that NATO was a purely defensive alliance that posed no threat to Russia, it continued to serve Putin’s agenda to see Europe in zero-sum terms. “If Russia couldn’t reclaim lands it had once dominated, only a zone of nonalignment stretching from eastern Germany to the Baltic and Black Seas would keep Russia safe,” Putin asserted.

The slamming of the the door on the new democracies of central and Eastern Europe, which had worked for years to meet NATO’s rigorous admission standards and were now clamoring for membership, left them in a geopolitical gray area hence those states were in an unsafe situation and free for the taking. Russia’s brutal treatment of those countries that were left in security limbo—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—has since made Putin’s intentions clear.

Putin has always understood that a belt of increasingly democratic, prosperous states around Russia would pose a direct challenge to his leadership model and risk re-infecting his own people with democratic aspirations. This is why Putin was never going to take a “live and let live” approach to former Soviet lands and satellite states. Instead, he seized on practically every democratic struggle of the last 20 years—Kosovo’s successful push for independence in 2008, the protests that set off the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow in 2011–12, the Maidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014—to fuel the perception at home of Russian interests under siege by external enemies. For a long time, it worked. Russia’s conquests in Ukraine and Syria were wildly popular at home and deflected attention from its internal problems. With these successes, Putin’s geopolitical appetite grew. He came to believe that democratic states were weak and that Russia could corrode their political systems and social cohesion from the inside.

Over the past 12 years, Putin and his cronies have paid a relatively small price for their actions. Russia has violated arms control treaties; fielded new, destabilizing weapons; threatened Georgia’s sovereignty; seized Crimea and much of the Donbas; and propped up the leaders in Libya, Syria, and Venezuela. It has used cyber-weapons against foreign banks, electrical grids, and government systems; interfered in foreign democratic elections; and assassinated its enemies on European soil.

U.S. and allied sanctions, although initially painful, have grown leaky or impotent with overuse and no longer impress the Kremlin. Russian diplomats attend international negotiations on Syria, Ukraine, arms control, and other issues with instructions to stall any real agreement, thereby buying their country time to strengthen its ground position. Russia has also mastered the art of exploiting divisions in and between the United States and allied countries, thwarting their efforts at crafting a coherent counter-strategy. (The biggest proof was the Trump administration positions with regards to the EU several attempts to bring the US back in to harden both positions and to counter Putin’s hegemony on Crimea)

The mood inside Russia: Despite Putin’s power moves abroad, 20 years of failing to invest in Russia’s modernization may be catching up with him. In 2019, Russia’s GDP growth was an anemic 1.3 percent. This year, the coronavirus pandemic and the free fall in oil prices could result in a significant economic contraction. International sanctions deter serious foreign investment in Russia from most countries except China. Putin’s insistence on tight state control and on the renationalization of key sectors of the economy has suppressed innovation and diversification. Russia’s roads, rails, schools, and hospitals are crumbling. Its citizens have grown restive as promised infrastructure spending never appears, and their taxes and the retirement age are going up. Corruption remains rampant, and Russians’ purchasing power continues to shrink. In polls conducted in the country by the Levada Center last year, 59 percent of respondents supported “decisive, comprehensive change,” up from 42 percent in 2017. A staggering 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they wanted to emigrate, the highest number since 2009.

Putin, meanwhile, is not going anywhere. A fourth-term president barred from running in the next election, set for 2024, he is technically a lame duck. But the Russian parliament and the Constitutional Court have already rubber-stamped constitutional amendments allowing him to run for two more six-year terms and potentially stay in power through 2036. To give the process a veneer of legitimacy, Putin announced a national referendum on the amendments before the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold. Another Levada poll, from March of this year, found that only 48 percent of Russians supported extending Putin’s term, with 47 percent opposed, and 50 percent of those surveyed said they favored alternation of power and new faces in politics. Given those figures, Putin may reconsider holding the referendum at all. The similitude of his known allies China Xi Jinping till 2049 and Turkey Erdogan till 2030 is quite staggering.

More generally, the air of resignation and cynicism inside Russia today is reminiscent of past eras when Kremlin leaders focused too much on adventures abroad and too little on their own people’s welfare, including the stagnant 1980s. The difference is that Putin still has money to throw around. Russia’s two financial crises in the 1990s—and the need to keep his capos fat and happy—incentivized him to maintain a large rainy-day fund. Russia currently has $150 billion in its National Wealth Fund and more than $550 billion overall in gold and foreign reserves. It remains to be seen how much of this money Putin is willing to spend to support Russia’s health system and the country’s economic recovery from the coronavirus. Russians may prove less patient this time around if the pandemic hits their country hard and the oligarchs get bailouts while average Russians get empty promises and overflowing hospitals.

The one lesson Putin appears to have learned from the Cold War is that U.S. President Ronald Reagan successfully bankrupted the Soviet Union by forcing a nuclear arms race. Not wanting Russia to suffer the same fate, he is eager to extend the 2010 New START treaty, which limits U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons systems and is set to expire in 2021. (As stated in Part 1)

American and European support for Ukraine have prevented its collapse or complete dismemberment, but the war in the Donbas continues, with Ukrainians dying almost every day. Russia has actually agreed to terms for its withdrawal from the Donbas, in contrast to the situation in Crimea, as laid out in the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015.


There was no consistent diplomatic effort from Washington, Kyiv, Berlin, and Paris to implement the deal and pressure Putin to follow through. Instead, Putin has stalled and divided them, and key European leaders have blocked the United States from participating directly in the talks, against Ukraine’s wishes.


In Syria, Putin saw an opportunity to support Bashar El Assad (A fellow autocrat) under pressure from his people while protecting and extending Russia’s regional influence. By doing this Russia’s military intervention ensured the survival of Bashar El Assad.


Also, Russia’s recent inroads in Libya, where it is supporting the forces of General Khalifa Haftar with weapons and advice, demonstrate that its appetite in the region is not sated.


By labelling as “foreign agents” any Russian nongovernmental organizations with collaborative programs with liberal democracies, he has cut off foreign (Mainly U.S.) contact with Russian civil society activists, political opponents, doctors, journalists, and many others except for the weak or in necessity countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Syria, etc... He also closed down most academic exchanges with most of the European countries in addition to the U.S. The clampdown has worked exactly as he intended: fewer Russians know people abroad. It is believed that the Russian community in UAE has shrunk substantially too.


What will be the position of Lebanon towards Putin’s regime?

How will Lebanon work the FP relation with Putin’s Russia?

What are the areas in which Lebanon has interests in (Economical, Military and Education)?