Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan met on 22 October 2019 in Sochi with a shared agenda of shaping the endgame in Syria's eight-year civil war.

The two leaders agreed upon a 10-point memorandum of understanding with an unstated bottom line: “The Americans do not have a place in shaping the future of Syria”.

And while residents angry over the US withdrawal from Syria hurl potatoes at American military vehicles in the town of Qamishli, northern Syria, the US is the biggest loser while Putin has emerged as the main geopolitical power broker in the region.

Some time towards the middle of last year, unmarked vehicles were seen in Bangui: it was the sign that Russia was renewing its influence on the African continent with 175 Russian private security contractors deployed to train more than a thousand Central African soldiers.

For a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was depleted, defeated, and outside the mainstream of world affairs. But Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, and since then, Russia has changed dramatically.

Step by step, Russia’s ruler is restoring his nation to its former grandeur by continuing to achieve success: this is why the world should take warning. 

Putin's Russia

When asked in a recent “Levada's Poll” which historical event they feel most proud of, the overwhelming majority of respondents, 87 %, named the Soviet victory in World War II. The number of respondents who say Russia must preserve its status as a great power also reached a historic high with 88 % subscribing to the view. And a Levada’s Poll conducted in late 2015 revealed a surge in patriotic feelings in the wake of Crimea’s seizure.

While Russia has enjoyed significant advances in terms of its military might, trying to put an end to US global dominance, Russia’s economy had seen pretty significant annual growth before it was hit by the Western sanctions.

Putin asserted control over territories in Georgia in 2008 and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. His efforts to rebuild parts of the old Soviet empire have been successful and he isn’t finished.

Putin is continuing to do everything he can to prevent Georgia, Ukraine and all other former Soviet countries from developing closer ties with Europe. He also pushed the US out of his backyard in 2013 by pressuring Kyrgyzstan to kick America off Manas Air Base, which was America’s last remaining military base in Central Asia.

Under Putin’s reign, Russia is also transforming its military machine into a modern, technological, 21st-century force.

By all of these heavy-handed tactics, President Putin has not only brought Russia back into play as a world power, he has also secured his position at the nation’s helm.

Russian military might

In assessing Russian military might it’s fair to say that defense spending is one of the most important indicators of military might.

China has a population of over 1.3 million, while the U.S. population stands at about 320 million. The manpower available to China at any given time is 5 times higher than that of the U.S. Meanwhile, Russia’s population barely even reaches 150 million.

While China is able to call upon nearly 750 million people in case of military confrontation, the Asian nation has around 2.4 million active military personal. By contrast, the U.S. has 1.5 million, and Russia has “only” 766,000.

But he latest official figures indicate that Russia is the nuclear superpower, to put it this way. Russia boasts a whopping 7,300 nuclear weapons in 2016. The U.S., meanwhile, has 6,970 total nuclear weapons. China rounds up the top three with its 260 nuclear arms.

And don’t forget: Russia, with its incredibly vast nuclear arsenal, has publicly stated that nuclear weapons remain key to the nation’s defense strategy. Moscow has even made plain that it is not averse to the possibility of launching preemptive strikes to defend its interests!

As a matter of fact Russia’s military doctrine, last updated in December 2014, will likely also emphasize factors such as hypersonic missiles and hybrid warfare.

The new doctrine, due for a makeover in 2020 will probably include non-military means of waging war, such as Russia’s hybrid warfare approach, which combines political and psychological techniques with narrowly applied military force.

Russia is in fact exploring a strategy of limited military action. Such a philosophy would imply that Russia sees a strategic benefit to using small but well-supported task forces abroad, like the 3,000–5,000 Russian group of armed forces in Syria.”

A strategic spoiler

Russia is a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order: at the same time Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers.

The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.

And while defending traditional values and criticising the Western way of life, Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world.

Red Russia inspired communist movements from China to Colombia and turned Eastern Europe into its political backyard. Russians accepted Orthodox Christianity from Byzantine Greeks and tsarist Russia saw itself as a “Third Rome”, a civilisational heir of the Byzantine capital Constantinople known as the “Second Rome”.

Russia'support of wannabe separatists abroad runs parallel to a violent rejection of any secessionism in the nation where ethnic Russians make up 4/5 of the population. The remaining 1/5 consists of more than a hundred ethnic groups Moscow conquered during its transcontinental expansion. Some of these ethnicities still harbour bitter memories of the conquest and its consequences. Chechens were fierce foes of tsarist armies and their two wars for independence after the Soviet collapse were drowned in blood.

Russian economy

Putinomics take in due account political stability, relying on not offending key constituencies, like allies in the state business sector, or the oligarchs, or the workers in factories, or the generals who have enjoyed big increases in defense spending.

Russia is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower and has a world-class scientific capability. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.

Notwithstanding the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, over the past two years it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.

Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year's revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.

Putin could anyway transform the country into an economic and technology superpower by resorting to the Skolkovo Innovation Center near Moscow supposed to become Russia’s Silicon Valley.

Like China’s Xi Jinping, who made himself president for life, Putin sees centralization of control and the uncontested vision of the leader as the only way to ensure stability and pursue the nation’s best interests. But in the 21st century, global power is about innovation, the ability to respond to rapidly changing economic conditions and creating a solid middle class to give society a strong backbone of human capital.

Russia and China

During last September Putin has met with a Chinese top official twice. As for Xi Jinping, Putin meets with him at least 5 times a year. They’re connected not only by business relations but also by friendship.

Putin’s support for China also came in the form of multiple military high-technology transfers, which helped China become a virtual military superpower, closely behind Russia and the United States. The recently-held military parade in Beijing showed just that.

While being both targeted by the US with punitive measures, in two separate events Russia and China have publicly heralded a new age of diplomacy between the two countries: with the Vostok 2018 Exercise and the Joint Sea 2019 Exercise, Russia and China signalled to the West that they are working closer together to counterbalance the US “unilateralism”.

In particular, Vostok 2018, a massive Russian-Chinese military exercise, involved more than 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships, while Joint Sea 2019 involved numerous submarines, ships, airplanes, helicopters and marines from both countries.

In the past decade, relations have improved amid large sales of weapons and energy between the two countries. According to Russian and Chinese political elites, current liberal interventionism in the West has caused many instabilities and miseries in the Middle East and much blow-back against the West in the form of terrorism, refugees, and anti-establishment populism. For Russia and China, the current harsh posture of the US derives largely from a strong sense of disappointment and dismay over the failed effort to “change” the two large powers with a neoliberalist agenda (democracy and free market economy).

Russia has supported China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which can provide foundation for future partnership. The BRI, also known as the “Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road” is a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government. The planned integration of the Chinese-led BRI with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) will develop a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes.

And while the personal touch in the Putin-Xi relationship guarantees political harmony, the trust between the two leaders is also enabling the two sides to overcome differences and solve problems for the common interests.

As for the China-Russia exercises, such drills are significant to the People Liberation Army (PLA): only large-scale exercises can truly reveal the capacity of a military in terms of strategic planning, power projection, command, control and communication. As the PLA has not been involved in wars since 1980, its capacity building and operational readiness can only be verified through military drills. Russian Military doctrine and Lessons Learned from wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria can be very useful to the PLA.

China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience, namely the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard. As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights (except North Korea and South China Sea) at international forums.

Putin's international agenda and “modus operandi”

Russia has strived to accomplish many objectives, such as undermining the US-led international order, especially in places of traditional US influence; dividing Western political and security institutions; demonstrating Russia’s return as a global superpower.

Moscow has resorted to diplomatic, military, intelligence, cyber, trade, energy, and financial tools while capitalizing on Western missteps and anti-establishment sentiments in Europe and North America.

Russia’s global activism can be divided into four geographic regions. First are the states of the former Soviet Union where Moscow wants to retain control while keeping its clout in Central Asia, a region increasingly dominated economically by China. 

The second category consists of Moscow’s efforts to undermine the Western and transatlantic institutions considered its principal adversaries: namely US, EU and NATO. Moscow has attempted to exploit their internal divisions as well as the uncertainty about Washington’s commitment to its allies.

Third, Russia is engaging in a campaign to gain or regain influence in other places where the Soviet Union once held sway. In the Balkans, for example, Russia plays the nationalist and Christian Orthodox cards to complicate Western efforts to integrate these countries into European structures. In the Middle East, Russia seeks to protect its longstanding interests in Syria and in what was seen as a traditionally U.S. sphere of influence.

The final category consists of Russian efforts to gain influence in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Some of these efforts involve forming coalitions of rising powers willing to challenge the Western-dominated international system.

Putin's next move?

Kremlin policy will require all international naval ships to give Russia 45 days’ notice before entering the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic waters north of Siberia. Russian officials justify the new naval restrictions with a familiar explanation, claiming that “the more active naval operations in the Arctic of various foreign countries” require such a response.

From Georgia in 2008, to Ukraine in 2014, to Syria in 2015, Putin has always laid the blame for Russian aggression squarely at the West’s feet. Russian media are scaremongering about “NATO encirclement” and pointing to the West’s condemnations of Putin’s actions as evidence of “Russophobia.”

Putin has ruled the largest country in the world for nearly two decades, consolidating his domestic control while, from the invasion of Georgia to the hybrid offensive in Ukraine, Western leaders have demarcated red line after red line for Putin to trample with impunity.

At this stage why not play political fantasy and identify Russia’s likely target in the near future? Well, it could be either Finland or Sweden: although both are members of the EU, they are not members of NATO. By attacking a non-NATO country, Putin does not risk a proportional response in accordance with Article 5 while he can expect to reap public approval at home from voters.

Well, it wouldn't be a matter of Russian tanks rolling into Helsinki or Stockholm but it could be a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra? 


Before 2014 Russian foreign policy had been confined largely to the territory of former Soviet states with the aim of protecting Russian influence in these countries and react to the perceived encroachment of NATO and the EU on Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence.

Essentially, Russian policy was defensive by nature, seeking to protect this sphere. From that perspective, Russia saw even the annexation of Crimea as a defensive move, intended to keep a satellite, Ukraine, from leaving its orbit. Farther afield, Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime aimed to protect Russia’s last remaining foothold in the Middle East.

Russia aims to assert itself on key international issues where retreating Western power has created vacuums. Furthermore Moscow aspires to challenge the Western political, economic, and security institutions, around which much of the current international system is based, that it claims pose threats to Russia’s own interests.

The dire state of Russia’s relations with the West means that Moscow has less to lose internationally by making bold foreign policy moves; such actions are popular at home and broadly supported by Russia’s national security establishment. Moreover, Moscow has cast its diplomatic net far and wide, displaying a clear propensity to take advantage of opportunities left behind by the West. 

This is why the United States should seek to share the burden of countering Russian actions. Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s distaste for pursuing multilateral cooperation and confronting Moscow, Washington should develop tailored strategies to work with and through allies, partners, nearby states, and regional organizations to deter, contain, and, if necessary, roll back Russian attempts to undermine key US and Western interests.

Moscow is animated by an aspiration that has guided it for some two decades envisaging a multipolar world presided over by 3 major powers: Russia, US and China. In such a contest, the prospects of having to fight a united Russia and China was always a strategic nightmare for the West. Being the global reach of Russian foreign policy broader now than is often appreciated, the US and Europe should be well aware of that.

As Russia will likely continue trying to fill global power vacuums resulting from U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, Washington and its allies must carefully judge Russian actions on a case by case basis and respond in concert when possible.