Putin in the Context of Russian History: Shaping a Way Ahead

By Robbin Laird

Putin in living through and shaping a way ahead after the chaos of the 1990s has rebuilt the Russian state and reasserted Russia’s role in the world.

And from 2008 onward Putin shaped an increasingly confrontational relationship with the West as part of his building of his power base and defining the new role for Russia in the world.

And as he has done so, the rise of China has matured, which has meant that Putin highlighting Russia as a Euro-Asian power aligns his regime with the reconfiguration of global politics associated with the rise of China.

In effect, the post-Cold War world was shaped thematically as the twin pillars of capitalist globalization and the ascendancy of liberal democracy. This was the narrative inherent within Western policies. As the European Union grew in significance, the role of the United States was being recalibrated, even if the American leaders might not be aware of it.

But in reality, this narrative was being undercut by a crucial dynamic involving Russia and China.

Both are capitalist powers, with what one might call a Russo-Capitalist system and a Sino-Capitalist system. Private enterprise plays a key role in both societies and their companies play global roles, but in both states, the national political leadership has ensured that the state gets not just its say in the broader impact of their variants of globalization, but are both focused on how to reshape the global system to more compliant with 21st century authoritarian “capitalist” globalization states.

In Russian history, Alexander Nevsky, a mid-thirteenth century Novgorod Prince, had to deal with twin threats, the German Christian crusaders to the West and the Mongols to the East. He chose to work to defeat the Germans to preserve the Orthodox identity of the Russians and to pay tribute to the Mongols in the East. In some ways, this may be the future which Putin is preparing the Russians for.

Dealings with the West are confrontational/cooperative, designed to ensure that Westernization does not overwhelm the Russian identity. And the European Union and its trade deals and promotion of “European values” is the major threat with the military led NATO alliance by the United States the secondary challenge, as the United States struggles to define its role in the world after being engulfed in the Middle Eastern land wars and working through its cold civil war domestically.

In his perceptive overview on Russian history in which he puts the Putin period in the longer historical context, Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has provided a way to place Putin in the broader historical context and to assess what might happen after Putin. For Trenin, the vast geography of Russia and the challenges within and without have lead to a long historical process of Russian redefinitions of itself.

“Paradoxically, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. There is a bedrock. They say that in Russia everything changes in 20 years, and nothing in 200. This points to a remarkable resilience of some of the core features of the nation’s existence, its self-image, and its worldview. Russia is like a phoenix: it repeatedly turns to ashes only to be reborn in some new guise.”1

The Putin regime is the latest iteration of the Russian phoenix. Putin comes after the turbulent 1990s introduce the Russian version of capitalism, and he leads the effort to reduce the chaos of the 1990s and to build a more stable Russia. But Trenin argues that he does this not by building a new state, but a new regime, which works through Putin’s personal networks to re-establish centralized control via his regime.  Putin has become the “godfather of Russian capitalism”

“Putin has become the godfather of contemporary Russian capitalism, with its state corporations, tame tycoons, and crass inequality. Yet he is also a transitional figure. The regime that he has built will probably not survive after he is gone. The secret of Putin’s Russia is that it is a regime posing as a state.”2

When Putin came back to the Presidency for his third term, which followed that of Medvedev, in 2012, the President would soon shape a way ahead to break out of the post-Cold War order. Putin’s seizure of the Crimea which followed earlier actions in Georgia in 2008 was deliberated designed to let Europe know that Russia was not going to allow the West to continue to do its version of map making, namely, allowing sovereign governments on Russia’s borders join the European Union or NATO if this was going to threaten the Russian view of itself.

According to Trenin:

“This breakout did not come from nowhere. Russia’s relations with the West had been strained for years prior to the Ukraine crisis. The root cause of the conflict between Moscow and Washington was the inability of the two Cold War antagonists to agree on an acceptable security relationship between them once their four-decades-long confrontation was over.

“The United States, convinced that it had won the Cold War, expected Russia to accept its new role as Washington’s subordinate in world affairs. Russia, thinking that the Cold War had been ended by joint agreement, aspired to the position of joint leader with the United States of the new order. When Moscow realized this was not possible, it resolved not to submit its own national interests to those of Washington. To yield to that, however, was for Washington akin to abdication of its global hegemony.”3

Putin for his part reached out to the West and expected Russia to be treated as an equal power. But Western leaders had a very different assessment of the state of Russia and its global role.

“The results of these conciliatory moves, however, fell short of the Kremlin’s expectations. Already from 2002, the Bush administration became focused on Iraq and lost interest in a strategic partnership with Russia. The European Union offered Russia “common spaces” but no institutional link. NATO agreed to a new supposedly inclusive format of relations with Russia, but it did not provide for the joint decision-making that Moscow coveted.

“The reason given for these limits on partnership was Russia’s slow progress toward a democratic polity based on the rule of law, and even backsliding to authoritarianism (after the 2003 Yukos case). The deeper rationale was perhaps fear, not unfounded, that Russia’s full membership in Western institutions would dilute US leadership and even lead to a fragmentation of the West: the Franco-German–Russian joint opposition to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq had acted as a bit of a wake-up call.”4

But it was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine which would force Putin’s hand. Although much of the Western and Russian rhetoric focuses on the United States as the “enemy” which triggered Putin’s actions, the European Union and its actions which even more significant in Putin’s view.

“In Europe, Moscow and Brussels engaged in a geopolitical competition over the EU’s offer of an association agreement with Ukraine. Moscow, which was trying to include Ukraine into its own economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union, sought to become a third party to the Kiev–Brussels talks, which the Europeans rejected. Russia then pressured Kiev to suspend its economic association bid with the EU. This in turn provoked mass demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, which the police tried to put down with the use of force. Police violence led to more protests, which resulted in a permanent demonstration in Kiev’s main square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, during the winter of 2013–14.”5

In the wake of the 2014 events, in effect, Putin has cultivated the image of itself as a 21st Eur-Asian power and with its intervention in Syria, one which can act in the Middle East to support its authoritarian allies as well.

In looking beyond Putin, Trenin’s characterization of Putin establishing a regime, not a state is a key consideration. He argues that one aspect of what post-Putinism might look like would be establishing a state which dealt with a number of the issues which Putin has pushed aside, such as significant inequalities.

“Present-day Russia has reinstated authority, but not really the state as such. In its place, the elites have installed a governing system that absolves them of responsibility while serving their interests. This triumph of the elites over the state is historically un-Russian as the elites, for all their privileges, have always been servants of the state, and it is hardly sustainable in the long term.

“The state will likely be back, but what kind of a state? Ideally, it should be a driver of development and progress, and a partner for business and civil society. Such a state could play the leading role in transforming and upgrading the Russian economy, technology, and society itself. For this, the future Russian state needs to be a meritocratic system built on equality before the law, an independent judiciary, self-governance, and national solidarity. Of course, there are other, less appealing alternatives.”6

He postulated what he calls a Russian Federation 2.0 as a possible outcome of the dynamics of change post-Putin.

“The policies of Russia’s future leaders are more likely to lean to the left domestically and toward closer relations with non-Western countries, including China, internationally. Putin’s never-to-be-satisfied desire to be “understood” by the United States might be seen by his eventual successors as being akin to appeasement.

“In extremis, Alexander Nevsky’s hard choice of submitting to the East to fight off the West could be made again. For Russia, it has always been more important to save its soul than its body. The optimal geopolitical construct, however, would be something like a Grand Eurasian equilibrium with Berlin, Beijing, and Delhi becoming Moscow’s principal foreign partners.”7

He argued that there is a clear need to avoid a direct confrontation with the West in order to sort through an effective way ahead with regard to its domestic future, notably with regard to the over-reliance on energy resources, and other natural resource commodities to fuel economic growth.

“In the near and possibly medium term, the most important foreign policy task will be avoiding a Russian–American military conflict. In the early twenty-first century, the Moscow–Washington relationship is no longer the most important element of global politics, but it could turn out to be the most dangerous one.

“If that war can be avoided, and some form of an understanding reached, based on a revised view in the United States of its global role (essentially: from a global hegemon to a primus inter pares), and on Russia’s settling into its own new role of a great power of a new type (essentially: national independence rather than regional dominance), the world system will be more stable, and Russia will get a chance to focus on its domestic development.”8


  1. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (p. 3). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (pp. 14-15). Wiley. Kindle Edition…
  3. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (p. 165). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  4. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (p. 166). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  5. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (p. 171). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  6. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (pp. 178-179). Wiley. Kindle Edition..
  7. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (pp. 183-184). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  8. Trenin, Dmitri. Russia (p. 184). Wiley. Kindle Edition.