How should the U.S. deal with Putin? Facing hackers and poisonings, Western analysts have focused on the motivations of Russia’s inscrutable president. And it’s easy to confuse Russia’s foreign policy with Putin’s foreign policy, given how much influence he exercises over it.
But the Putin-centric approach obscures an essential and timeless element of Russia’s foreign policy, in which Putin is only the latest chapter—the pursuit of derzhavnost. A word that’s difficult to render into English precisely, derzhavnost essentially means both being a great power and being recognized as such by others. In Russia’s immediate neighborhood, this means an unquestioned sphere of influence, similar to America’s Monroe Doctrine. In dealing with other powerful states like the U.S., it implies respect, prestige, and peer recognition rolled into one—in other words, a seat at the table managing global affairs.
Even if Putin has achieved some tactical successes in rebuilding regional primacy, his larger quest to re-establish Russia as a responsible and respected great power has been a complete failure. As a result, Russia is more insecure and paranoid than at any point since the Soviet collapse.
How did we get here? Part of the problem stems from the collapse itself, which the West saw as an unalloyed good and a breakthrough for global peace. The geopolitical and ideological dimensions of the conflict become intertwined, even inseparable—democracy had defeated communism, and as a result the international system shifted from bipolarity to unipolarity.
For Russia, however, the end of the Cold War signaled the end of two very different struggles—an ideological struggle of communism against democracy, but also the end of Russian derzhavnost. The ideological defeat was understandable and even welcome; today, few people in Russia seek a return to communism. Yet the quest to restore Russia’s traditional sphere of influence remains the key geopolitical imperative.
The twin victories of 1991 were conflated in the West but decoupled in Russia. To Western ears, therefore, Putin’s lament that the Soviet collapse was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” sounds like alarming nostalgia for the Cold War. But Putin means something else: in less time than it took Yeltsin to climb a tank, the country had gone from a feared superpower to a disgraced has-been.
This abrupt expansion of Western influence, as many Russian politicians see it, is a calamitous disruption to a centuries-long status quo that reaches back not just to Stalin but to Peter the Great. To be sure, the country has experienced setbacks in the past, as in the territorial losses of World War I. Yet today, what looms foremost in the minds of its people—not just Putin and his officials, but ordinary Russian citizens—are the disastrous consequences of the Soviet collapse and the half-gleeful, half-contemptuous Western response that followed.
From Russia’s perspective it’s not Russia but the West that has been acting provocatively: from German unification on Western terms, to the expansion of NATO, to the support of anti-Russian movements in the Color Revolutions — just to name a few. Such encirclement is deeply disturbing to Russian elites, who have traditionally maintained a paranoid view about foreign threats around and inside their borders. (A paranoia abetted by a steady stream of invasions from the Mongols onward.)
It’s hard to understate this psychological dimension of Russia’s geopolitical insecurity—the deep sense of humiliation, the dread of arrogant Westerners, the fear of NATO encirclement. They don’t show up in economic figures and military metrics, but they shape decision-making just as much as arms sales and trade deals.
Russians may grumble at Putin’s policies, but even his domestic opponents praise his pursuit of Russian derzhavnost, and chafe at Western attempts to ignore this pursuit. It’s partly why Russian officials bristle at Western talk of “punishing” Russia. You don’t punish your partners, after all, you punish disobedient children.
While this doesn’t excuse Russian behavior, it explains why some U.S. approaches might be more effective than others. U.S. policy-makers, shaped by a sense of moralizing exceptionalism, often view other states through what we might call the Wilsonian bias—the notion that a state’s foreign policy is determined by the qualities of its domestic regime. Thus a democratizing Russia is assumed to be automatically pro-Western, while an autocratic one is assumed to be inherently against the West.
Yet Russia’s drive for regaining derzhavnost and regional hegemony runs deeper than the changing qualities of its regime or the motivations of its rulers. Putin is himself a symptom of broader systemic forces that have dominated U.S.-Russian relations since the Soviet collapse—and will continue to do so regardless of who succeeds him. It might be too late to save the relationship, but getting a better sense of what drives Russian politics requires moving beyond the pathologies of its leader and examining the broader context in which he operates.
In the documentary Fog of War, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara lamented that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War because it failed to empathize with the enemy. This empathy was needed, he said, not to find sympathy for the Viet Cong but to understand their true fears and motivations.
The same failure marks our understanding of Russia’s policies today. Putin is not a mastermind at the center of a finely-spun web, but the head of an increasingly disorganized and corrupt patronage system. The country is not resurgent, it is weak and probably declining. That’s not necessarily better for global stability: in many ways, Russia is a threat precisely because its weakness undermines the geopolitical pursuit at the core of its foreign policy.
Ideologically, Russia actually has an easier task than during the Cold War. The Kremlin only has to chip away at the dominant Western narrative, rather than build up their own alternative like in the Communist days. But for all the cynical bravado of its embassy Twitter feeds, Russia is acting not out of a sense of newfound strength but a fear of decline and isolation. As a result, its foreign policy is characterized not by any particular ideology but by pragmatism and geopolitical paranoia. In many ways it is not a revolutionary power but a deeply reactionary one. It will remain so even after Putin leaves the stage.