It’s become a common assessment of Russian leader Vladimir Putin that he is chronically unpredictable—a sort of balding Donald Trump full of irrational resentments and bombast.
For instance, the recent buildup of troops along the borders of Ukraine seemed to come out of nowhere. Perhaps because US President Joe Biden called Putin a “killer”, some observers mused. An apparently calming phone call from Biden was followed by a quick withdrawal of Putin’s troops.
The games of aerial chicken played by Russian fighter jets that occasionally buzz NATO aircraft over European skies contribute to Putin’s erratic reputation. So, too, do the variety of cyberattacks on Internet systems that his government has engineered in the US, the Baltic states and Central Asia.
There’s little question that Putin’s apparent desire to make headlines explains some of this helter-skelter activity. But there’s a bigger pattern of Russian behavior that precedes Putin’s arrival on the international scene and would likely outlive him if he left office.
It is to reassert Russia as a global power, an ambition that back dates as far back as 1996 before he rose to prominence.
At that time, many of Russia’s political elites and, in particular, remnants of the country’s KGB intelligence establishment, became disillusioned by Russia’s subservient status to the United States.
Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, the country was impoverished, its military was in disarray and the nation was subject to a cannibalistic oligarchy feeding off the carcass of Soviet-era industry. Russia was very much seen as the Cold War’s loser.
Enter Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s foreign minister in 1996 and later prime minister who laid out a blueprint for Russia’s global power revival. He resolutely spoke out against NATO expansion toward Russia’s borders and campaigned for the creation of alliances to counter American dominance of world affairs.
In that context, he put special emphasis on a partnership with China.
At the time, Primakov’s plans bore no fruit. He first tried to put his ideas in motion by constructing a quasi-alliance of like-minded Asian powers—India, Iran and China—to oppose the US bombing of Iraq when the US suspected Saddam Hussein was building atomic bombs.
But no common opposition appeared and the US airstrikes went ahead.
Primakov also objected to US-led military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, while he was flying to Washington for a meeting with then-US vice president Al Gore, Gore phoned him to say that the Americans were about to bomb Serbia. Angered and humiliated, Primakov ordered his plane back to Moscow.
Over Russia’s objections, NATO added former Warsaw Pact countries to the alliance in 1999 and the expansion continued with the addition of former Soviet republics along the Baltic Sea coast by 2004.
Despite this variety of failures, Primakov’s vision for a globally revitalized Russia lived on. The agent would be Vladimir Putin, appointed prime minister in 1999 and then, on New Year’s Eve that year, as Yeltsin’s successor. (Primakov, who had ambitions to replace Yeltsin as president, had already been removed from office.)
Putin first focused on a precondition for strengthening Russia globally that Primakov had emphasized: the re-centralization of central government rule.
He thusly put down an armed rebellion in Chechnya and installed a client regime there. Putin also weakened the power of governors in order to tighten central control over the country’s provinces. He regained command of key Russian energy companies, a key source of state income.
Victory in Chechnya, feared by Russians as a terrorist outpost, along with rising global oil prices that stabilized Russia’s economy, made him wildly popular.
With a revitalized Russia, Putin soon turned toward heading off NATO expansion. With direct interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, he headed off any immediate possibility that either would quickly join the alliance.
In 2008, Russia sent troops into Georgia to back separatist fighters and then recognized the independence of the breakaway regions, which remain separate from Georgia to this day.
In Ukraine, after the 2014 overthrow of a pro-Russian government via massive anti-Moscow demonstrations, Russia invaded the eastern part of the country, nourished pro-Russian insurgents there and then annexed Crimea.
Putin moved further afield by steadily expanding Russia’s reach along NATO’s southern flank in the Mediterranean Sea. He backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his decade-long battle against a variety of rebels and refurbished Russia’s naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
He is supporting rebels in eastern Libya against the central government there through an affiliated mercenary force.
Putin’s interventions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have effectively made Primakov’s doctrine of reviving Russia as a major power a reality. It has also come at low military risk. The use of proxies reduces the chance of direct confrontation with the West and US.
At the same time, Putin’s occasional saber-rattling reminds adversaries of Russia’s nuclear, missile and ground force capabilities. That combination was evident in the recent tensions with Ukraine, where Russia backed up its determination to protect its allies in eastern Ukraine with a formidable armored tank force gathered on the border.
It all comes down to a steady reversal of fortunes. In the 1990s, the West, with the US in the lead, bestrode both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Russia was a weak bystander.
Now, Putin’s Russia is a strategic player, not only along its western border facing NATO, but in the alliance’s southern flank in Mediterranean. At a minimum in both realms, Russia cannot be ignored.
And as icing on the geopolitical cake, Putin has multiplied Russia’s importance by nurturing an ever-closer partnership with China. He has even spoken of forging a military alliance with Beijing.
China has yet to buy in, but Russia’s deepening ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s economic and military powerhouse worries US military planners that they might someday face hostilities on two fronts: against Russia in Europe and with China in the South China Sea or over Taiwan.
So, rather than unpredictable, Putin has overseen a quarter-century of unwavering foreign policy continuity. Primakov, who died in 2015, would be proud.