What Russia really wants

Eyes on his prize.
Eyes on his prize.
Image: Reuters/ITAR-TASS
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US-Russia relations weren’t always like this. Back in 2000, Russian president Vladimir Putin was doing his utmost to charm the West.

Immediately after winning the election, Putin made his first trip as president-elect to London, where British prime minister Tony Blair fended off criticism of Putin’s human rights abuses in Chechnya. Putin “talks our language of reform,” Blair said in a press conference, in which they referred to each other as “Vladimir” and “Tony.” When a BBC interviewer asked if Russia might join NATO, Putin replied, “I don’t see why not.” A couple of months later, he began closing Russia’s expensive-to-run, Soviet-era naval bases in Vietnam and Cuba (the process was finished in 2002).

Blair and Putin met five times in total that year, and even shared a glass of vodka in a Moscow cafe in November. When George W. Bush became US president in 2001, he received similarly warm treatment from the Kremlin. Having done his research, former KGB officer Putin didn’t foist alcohol on Bush, a reformed heavy drinker, but instead told a miraculous story about his mother’s crucifix being the only thing left over when his summer house burned down. So charmed was the American president, a fervent Christian, that he remarked, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The new Russian executive seemed cooperative, outward-looking and keen to be part of the liberal world order.

Sixteen years later, Putin’s government has been accused of hacking elections in the US and France, NATO has arguably become Russia’s biggest adversary, and there’s even talk of reopening those shuttered imperial military bases. Having spent years bragging about the stability and prosperity he had brought to the Russian people, Putin now oversees a country that only recently was able to pull itself out of a two-year recession. Though mainly brought on by plummeting oil prices, Russia’s economic fortunes haven’t been helped by EU and US economic sanctions. Imposed following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, these restrictions have also included travel bans on a number of the Russian leader’s closest allies.

Putin and British prime minister Tony Blair share a vodka toast in 2000.
Putin and British prime minister Tony Blair share a vodka toast in 2000.
Image: Reuters

So, how did we get here? Putin began turning against the West due to two early factors, says Mikhail Zygar, author of All the Kremlin’s Men, an extraordinary look inside the Kremlin’s power factions during the first decade and a half of Putin’s rule. Zygar based his book on a host of off-the-record interviews with top Kremlin figures, persuading some that he was writing an important historical document that Russians would still be consulting in 100 years.

Firstly, Zygar says, Putin was aggravated by the fact that Bush never viewed Russia as a superpower. “From Bush’s point of view, Russia could have become a normal European country, something like a big Denmark,” says Zygar, who founded Russia’s only independent television channel, TV Rain. “To Putin, that was a humiliation; he wanted Russia to be treated with respect as a superpower, as a kind of empire. Not like a big Denmark, but a democratic Soviet Union.”

Bush’s mantra of “democracy promotion” pushed Putin from offended to peeved, Zygar says. A suspicious slew of pro-democracy “Color Revolutions” took place across the former Soviet Union—in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, countries Moscow considers part of its rightful sphere of influence. In Ukraine’s 2004 election, the Kremlin ploughed money into its favored candidate Viktor Yanukovych, although a lot of that cash was stolen by Russian spin doctors freelancing in Ukraine, Zygar says. When the Orange Revolution took off and Yanukovych lost, Zygar says these Kremlin advisors couldn’t admit that they had pocketed a lot of money, instead claiming the loss was due to EU and US agitation.

“This was probably the first time that Putin thought the EU and US were not only not treating him with respect and not as a partner, but could also be dangerous for him and could support his enemies and try to promote a popular uprising or peaceful revolution in Russia,” says Zygar.

This conviction became clearer as NATO expanded eastward, but never invited Russia to join. Adding injury to insult, the alliance took in Poland and the Baltics, pushing right up against Russia’s borders—something the Russians insist they were promised would never happen during Gorbachev-era negotiations.

Then, after spending a four-year stint as prime minister, Putin announced in 2011 that he would return to the presidency in 2012. The streets of Moscow filled with tens of thousands of protesters on several occasions; not since the fall of the Soviet Union had so many Russians publicly voiced their disapproval. One of these protests followed the November 2011 parliamentary elections, which were condemned as potentially fraudulent by then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s criticism marked an important turning point in Western-Russian mistrust. Putin openly accused Clinton of fomenting unrest. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he said. “They heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department began active work.”

Since then, Russia has veered between acting as a spoiler against Western designs, trying to recalibrate the world into a post-Western order, and grabbing opportunistically at chances to consolidate regional power—such as the annexation of Crimea. Russians had never really accepted the peninsula as a part of Ukraine, and bringing it back to Russia provoked a wave of patriotism that has given Russians something to cling to even as their economy has stumbled.

To get a further sense of Putin’s aims, Quartz spoke to Zygar on the phone from Moscow. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: Can you describe Putin’s worldview? What is he aiming for in his foreign policy?

Zygar: His ideal is some kind of new world order. He wants a second Yalta; as in 1944, when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin came together in Crimea and divided the world into different spheres of influence. That was a symbol of the strength of those three major powers. He wants to be a major power to control the world; to have a permanent seat in that order. Every time he hears from foreign partners that, ‘That’s not what we do now, there are no more spheres of influence in today’s world,’ he thinks that he is being cheated by foreign politicians who are pretending to be idealistic and pretending to focus on human rights and liberal values. He thinks that’s obviously not true. NATO still exists—why does it still exist if there are no spheres of influence?

He wants to have partners who share his rather cynical and pragmatic approach; a kind of board of directors of the world, where he’s got a permanent seat and can discuss everything with the US president, Chinese chairman, and probably the German chancellor. Obviously, the UN Security Council was supposed to be that kind of board but it doesn’t work anymore. So he wants new rules of the game that would admit that he’s a key player.

He sees himself as the most experienced politician in the world. He thinks he is the only man who is capable of running Russia and saving it from all the dangers it faces. That was the main reason for him to come back as president for a third term in 2012—when he thought that the Arab Spring could continue and spread to Russia. That was a classic example of his color revolutions paranoia. He is sure that he’s the only man who can prevent Russia from violent color revolutions—so that mission is the key factor in his international politics.

Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel at Moscow’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2015.
Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel at Moscow’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2015.
Image: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

How do the hacking of the US and French elections, and the seizure of Crimea, fit into this vision?

Those things are all very different. You can’t say there is one Putin strategy and within that strategy he did all those three things. The image of an aggressive Putin who is trying to impose his view on the whole world and manipulate the US and French elections is Hollywood-style exaggeration.

I think the majority of news about Russia, articles about the Russian press, and the dominance of Russia and Putin in the international news agenda are exaggerated. Vladimir Putin is not the mastermind of everything that is happening in world—no one could be so clever as to produce a masterplan about the whole world. He has never been a strategic player; he doesn’t have a geopolitical strategy at all. He’s got a dream and he’s got tactics.

Crimea was a very quick decision, as I investigated in the book—the whole plan was created in December 2013, just three months ahead of time, so it was not a long-term strategy. It was much more of a reaction to the crisis in Ukraine. It was a very emotional decision because [the protests were] some kind of déjà vu for Putin and his disappointment over the Orange Revolution in 2004. In December 2013, he was persuaded by his advisers that there was some kind of US conspiracy; that some pro-US groups were trying to overthrow [then-president Viktor] Yanukovych’s regime. In his mind, that was an attack against Russia.

The hack attack of the Democratic party and the French election were not the Kremlin’s decisions. That couldn’t have been their decision—[but] they could know about it and they could be in touch with those who did it.

It’s very important to know how [Russian politicians] usually discuss things: they cannot talk about things directly. They usually don’t name names; they don’t mention anything that should not be mentioned. Their usual discourse is like “Do what you have to do,” “Do what’s your obligation.” They cannot say phrases like, ‘Please steal that $4 billion or please murder that journalist, or please order that hack attack against a government.’ That’s just impossible; it’s absolutely not done in a verbal way. Those acts could be done by companies which are not associated officially with the Kremlin. But there are bureaucrats and businessmen who are trying to attract the Kremlin’s attention with successful moves like that. They are trying to earn money, trying to be noticed.

This narrative of the hacks is very different from the one being reported in the West. Why do you believe the Kremlin wouldn’t order these hacks?

They don’t do that. Putin doesn’t like scandals. He used to be a lawyer so he cannot accept anything that could obviously look like a crime. That’s why he cannot be directly involved with anything that is illegal.

He doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy, that’s the law of human psychology. Rarely do real people in this life think of themselves as really bad or cruel. That’s Putin’s psychology—he truly thinks that he is right, he doesn’t think of himself as an aggressive leader, as Dr. Evil.

When Putin took power, his message was one of stability and prosperity. Now his strategy seems relatively harmful to the economy. Why are Russians are willing to put up with recession and stagnation for this idea of geopolitical grandeur?

Putin poses for a selfie with members of a youth military patriotic club.
Putin poses for a selfie with members of a youth military patriotic club.
Image: Reuters/Natalia Kolesnikova

First, the Russian economy is not so much worse than before. There isn’t a recession, there’s stagnation. The economic crisis is not as terrible as was expected in late 2014. Sanctions did not affect the economy; oil prices are probably the only factor, the major factor of economic instability. At the same time, that’s the only strategy that the Russian government has got for the future of the Russian economy.

For the first decade of the century the Russian population felt very prosperous. It was probably the most wealthy decade in Russian history, and a lot of people were thankful for Vladimir Putin because of that. Of course, that wasn’t because of him, but because of oil prices, but that decade is going to be associated with him anyway. But even after that decade, he faced popular protests from the prosperous middle class: Moscow and other big cities were the first to demand his removal.

After that, he didn’t want to see the middle class as his power base, he focused much more on “ordinary people”—the working class or the Russian equivalent of rednecks. They are much more conservative, much less successful. Among those people, the idea of Russia as a superpower is much more popular. Many Russians have been missing that feeling since 1991, since the collapse of the USSR, and many felt humiliated and disrespected by the whole world. They were missing the feeling of being a great country, so now they have that, now they see that Russia is great again and they enjoy that.

I usually compare it to the way football fans feel when their favorite team is winning. It’s not about them; their life is not changing, they are not richer, they are not more healthy, their family is not better off. They are just happy for no reason. That’s the same feeling of many Russians who appreciate the idea of Russia being great again. So, for them, Putin is a football king who is winning, he is a winner for them to be proud of. When all the international media speak about Putin as the most powerful man in the world, the man who manipulates US elections or French elections, the man who controls the American president—that’s the best news they can get. That makes some people feel happy, even though they are not more successful because of it, they are not richer, they are not healthier. But that’s their psychology.

Is that more important than economic success for them?

No. That’s not going to be forever. The economy is not that bad now; that feeling of Russia being great again is rather new, so that cannot guarantee maximum popularity for a long time. For six months, for a year—that can probably guarantee him a safe reelection during the election to be held next March, but of course it cannot be forever.