Russia's aggression against Ukraine has caused many in the West to re-evaluate their opinion of Vladimir Putin. Disappointment and disillusionment with the Russian President's recent hostile actions appear prevalent among most U.S. and European leaders. Much time has been spent by experts, government officials, and journalists trying to understand Putin's motives for attacking Ukraine and what drove him away from closer integration with the U.S.-led global security framework. These inquiries imply that something fundamentally changed with Putin and that his current decisions are an aberration from prior behavior. Seen in historical context, Putin's policies and actions are consistent with traditional Russian leadership.
The Russian Empire, which arguably began with Ivan the Terrible's victory over the Khan of Kazan in the mid-sixteenth century, was built via military expansion. Ivan's victory established Russia as a formidable military power, resulting in Russia's ability to push the empire eastward across the Volga River and southward to the Caspian Sea. A century later, Peter the Great recognized his country's military and social backwardness compared to Europe. Tsar Peter instituted reforms to modernize Russia's military and social/government organization, mirroring the great European powers. Peter's actions began the conflict within Russia between admiration of the West (culture, arts, progress, military power) and, at the same time, opposition to western values that is seen to run counter to Russia's "special mission", connected to Russian orthodoxy and nationalism. This conflict continues in Russia to this day. For all of Peter's perceived western admiration, he employed his modernized military to further expand the Russian Empire westward. Despite the fact that his social reforms were based on western models, the Tsar kept firm control over the empire, actually increasing the autocratic power of the Tsar. Peter's legacy showed that Russia would absorb what it needed from the West but would stop short of adopting European values that challenged the Russian autocratic state.
Subsequent Tsars would follow Peter's example of instituting western-style reforms until such reforms impacted their rule. Early in her reign Catherine the Great, wanting to be recognized as an "enlightened sovereign", encouraged liberal reforms in education and even invited a certain degree of public debate regarding the Tsar's policies. When these debates became uncomfortable, however, the Tsar abruptly reimposed censorship controls. Catherine expanded the Russian Empire to a great extent, using both diplomatic and military means. Russia was recognized as one of the great powers in European politics. In the later years of her reign, she became increasingly conservative, reversing some of her earlier reforms. In the late nineteenth century, Tsar Alexander II introduced wide-ranging social and military reforms in Russia, the most significant of which was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. These reforms occurred, as with other Tsars, in the early part of his rule. Initially welcomed by many Russians, these reforms did allow greater political freedom and produced adverse economic consequences for the elite, and ended up being widely opposed by both conservatives and liberals. Several assassination attempts dampened Alexander's interest in further reforms. An assassin succeeded in killing the Tsar in 1881. Russia's last Tsar, Nicholas II, although not considered a reformer, did approve changes (such as the creation of a semi-autonomous parliament or Duma) under growing public dissatisfaction and the military failures of WWI, resulting in a weakening of the Tsar's power that was a contributing factor to Nicholas' abdication in 1917.
Soviet leaders inherited this historical paradox of simultaneously interacting and opposing the West. Soviet founder Lenin, realizing that his country's disastrous adoption of War Communism during Russia's Civil War would lead to economic collapse, re-instituted limited forms of capitalism, relying heavily on western, mainly European, management. With victory assured and the Communist Party's power was no longer under threat, Lenin and then Stalin reimposed strict state controls. Stalin's policy of rapid industrialization in the late 1920s and 1930s modernized much of the country's heavy production, but at a tragic human loss. The defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII resulted in the U.S.S.R. becoming one of the two global superpowers. After Stalin's long rule, Nikita Khrushchev, known for his fiery anti-western rhetoric, implemented some limited economic reforms. He admired the efficiency of American food producers during a trip to the U.S. in the late 1950s. Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, after replacing Khruschev, also initially tried to tinker with the Stalinist system. As his rule entered its second decade, however, he lost any energy and interest in reforms and hardened his position vis-a-vis the U.S. and its allies. Both Khruschev and Brezhnev entertained economic reforms of the Soviet system but did not tolerate political changes. Both leaders showed their willingness to use military force to quash any political threat to the Soviet regime, as witnessed in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979.
The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled a departure from prior Russian/Soviet leaders. Aware of the unsustainability of the Stalinist system, Gorbachev implemented his famous policies of "perestroika" and "glasnost". Unlike in the past, the new Soviet premier introduced both economic and political reforms. He sought closer relations with the West, which he saw as necessary to provide needed know-how and financial assistance. Gorbachev did not, however, envision the end of Communist Party rule. When the economic promises of "perestroika" did not materialize, the more liberal political environment created by "glasnost" threatened the Party's power and privileges. A poorly planned coup d'etat was attempted by hardliners in the Party in August 1991, including the brief arrest of Gorbachev. The coup failed when thousands of ordinary Russians took to the streets to oppose the power grab by "grey men". Former Moscow Party boss Boris Yeltsin became the public face of the coup opposition. Yeltsin, who had been a member of Gorbachev's inner circle but had fallen out of favor by criticizing the slow pace of reforms, leveraged the coup attempt to promote himself as leader of the Russian Federation, eventually leading to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. on New Year's Eve 1991.
Boris Yeltsin led a country emerging from seventy years of totalitarian Communist rule and in search of its new identity. Yeltsin supported the adoption of a western-style market economy and liberal democracy. Yeltsin's team, consisting of liberal Russian economists and encouraged by the U.S. and European governments, proposed a policy of "shock therapy" that would rapidly transform Russia into a market-oriented democracy. Russia also perceived that it had lost its status as a great power due to the break up of the Soviet Union. The expansion of NATO in several former Warsaw Pact countries in the late 1990s added to this sense of loss. The imposition of such drastic changes in a country lacking the West's experience in citizen participation in government and business resulted in confusion and disillusionment. Poor planning and execution led to a financial crisis in 1998 characterized by hyperinflation and the near collapse of the ruble. A feeling of chaos reigned in Russian society. The crisis severely eroded support for Yeltsin and western-style democracy and was a major contributor, in addition to the unpopular war in Chechnya, to Yeltsin's decision to resign from the presidency in December 1999.
Yeltsin named little-known Vladimir Putin as his successor. The former KGB officer enjoyed growing popularity due to his perceived toughness in the war in Chechnya. Many Russians believed Putin could end the chaos and restore stability and national pride. Putin initially presented himself as a liberal, appearing to court closer relations with the West. Putin leveraged the West’s eagerness to incorporate Russia into the international economic and security system to obtain Russia’s entry into the G-7 (renamed the G-8), promote foreign investment, and create European energy dependency. Putin’s criticism of NATO’s involvement in Bosnia and expansion of former Warsaw Pact countries was under-appreciated by western governments. Putin nevertheless allowed the U.S. military to use a Russian air base for supply operations at the start of the Afghan War. As Russia’s economy improved, bolstered by strong energy prices, and revamped its military, Putin’s tone began to change.
In the mid-2000s, Putin’s actions and words began to resemble more traditional Russian leaders. Putin emphasized more and more his country’s ‘special mission’, which historically meant opposition to western culture and values. The critical role of Russia as a great power also became a more frequent theme. In 2007, the Russian president delivered a speech in Munich that sharply criticized the United States' monopolistic position in global affairs, describing it as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘impossible’. Georgia’s desire for closer ties to the European Union and NATO played a key role in Putin’s decision to use military force against the former Soviet republic in August 2008. This action reminded the United States and its western allies of the potential limits of Putin’s commitment to cooperation with the West and foreshadowed events in Ukraine.
The Russian president gradually but consistently introduced measures restricting the free press and opposition political parties. During the 2008 global financial crisis, Putin maintained economic stability by utilizing a special fund created with energy earnings. Many Russians appeared willing to accept the restrictions in exchange for a better standard of living. Putin’s attempt to run for a third presidential term in 2012 was marred by allegations of vote-rigging and sparked massive street demonstrations in many Russian cities. The scale of the protests shocked Putin, who feared a popular uprising that might lead to a ‘color revolution’ similar to what had occurred in nearby Georgia and Ukraine. The experience was a wake-up call for Putin. The Russian president intended to avoid future challenges to his authority and began to enact more draconian policies. Over the subsequent decade, more far-reaching restrictions were placed on journalists and political activists. Violence became more commonplace. Several prominent journalists and political opponents were killed, the most notorious of which was the brazen assassination of Putin critic Boris Nemtsov in 2015. In 2020, Alexei Navalny, widely considered Putin’s primary rival, was poisoned by FSB agents while on a flight in Siberia. Navalny barely survived and is currently imprisoned in Russia. Putin has also not been afraid to go after critics outside Russia.
Perhaps in response to a declining economy and falling approval ratings in the early 2010s, Putin took steps to re-establish Russia as a global power on par with the U.S. and China. Officially part of Ukraine since the late 1950s, Crimea, Putin argued, historically belonged to Russia. Using the pretext of protecting the peninsula's Russian-speaking population, Putin sent unmarked troops into Crimea in 2014. The ‘little green men’ met no resistance and were welcomed by much of the local population. The Russian president wagered that Ukraine’s military was too weak to resist and that the U.S. and NATO would not risk direct war with Russia. Putin won the gamble. Russia added further instability in Ukraine by supporting separatists in two eastern regions, thereby giving Putin continued leverage against Ukraine’s government. The Russian president acted more like a Russian Tsar, trying to expand Russia’s empire. The move bolstered Putin’s popularity at home, allowing him to consolidate his power further.
Putin was recreating the traditional totalitarian police state that existed in Russia under the Tsars and Communists. The state legislative, or Duma, now firmly under Putin’s control, passed new laws further restricting speech critical of the government, rights to assemble and protest, and the ability of foreign organizations to operate within Russia. Many of these measures harked back to Soviet and even pre-Soviet times. As a result, most independent media and social organizations have been suppressed or forced to close, with certain members facing potential imprisonment. In Summer 2020, the Russian people approved a national referendum approving a constitutional change that allowed Vladimir Putin to remain in office beyond his current term ending in 2024. The referendum, heavily backed by the Kremlin, enables Putin to run for two additional terms extending his time as president until 2036. The move effectively gives the Russian leader a life term in office.
Secure in his political position at home, Putin has turned his attention to establishing his legacy. A fundamental tenet was restoring Russia’s status as a global superpower. Russian forces' unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 aligned with Putin’s desire to see himself as the leader who reconstructed the Russian Empire. He has even compared his actions to those of Peter, The Great. Despite being surprised by NATO's strong support for Ukraine and Ukraine's stiff resistance, Putin seems intent on continuing the conflict, likely fearful that perceived weakness or defeat would, as with prior Russian leaders, have devasting consequences. Thus, Putin's conduct appears to be in line with historical Russian leaders. Putin as well deals with the eternal Russian paradox of admiration and hostility with the West. Western leaders would do well to look at the past as a guide to the Russian President's future actions to devise their responses.