New Year’s Eve marked the 20th anniversary of the day that Vladimir Putin, then a relatively unknown former KGB agent who had become prime minister, was named Russia’s president. For a short period, Putin was thought — or hoped — to be a modernizer, ready to continue Russia’s reforms, both economic and political; he even worked with Washington in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. That moment quickly passed, however, and Putin became increasingly estranged from the West. That estrangement continues and is the defining feature of his rule.
Two decades in power have been marked by Putin’s ruthless pursuit of two related ambitions: consolidating power (like all his predecessors), and the use of that power to reclaim Russia’s rightful place on the world stage. Angela Stent Yergin, a leading scholar of Russia, succinctly explains that Putin aims “to relitigate the end of the Cold War and renegotiate its terms … to get the West to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union.”
That is a bold goal given his tools. Russia is a demographic mess, with a population forecast by the United Nations to decline 8 percent by 2020. Blame declining birth rates, grim mortality rates — male prison inmates in Russia have longer life expectancies than free men — and emigration.
Particularly alarming is the rising number of emigrants with advanced degrees — 22 percent in 2017 versus 17 percent in 2012; Russia’s brain drain is real. The economy underperforms, with growth in 2019 estimated at about 1.2 percent, the slowest among big emerging economies. Russia relies on energy exports and the government has consistently missed opportunities to diversify its economy as a bloated, corrupt and paralyzing bureaucracy makes reform impossible. It’s with this list in mind that Russia is often described as “a regional power in structural decline.”
Putin still holds invaluable assets: a formidable military, cyber forces with unparalleled experience in the dark arts of digital manipulation, one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, energy resources that make it critical to European economies, and a permanent seat (and veto) on the U.N. Security Council.
It is a testimony to Putin’s skill and determination that he has overcome those shortcomings to make considerable progress toward the realization of his ambitions. He has successfully demanded consideration of Moscow’s equities in the resolution of international crises, actively contributed to the resolution of those crises, and made sure that Russia is at the table whenever decisions are made of global importance. Putin has restored Russia to what he thinks is its rightful place in the world. It can no longer be ignored. It is respected and (in some places) feared.
Success has been facilitated by a misreading of his intentions and his capabilities. Part of the fault lies with Western governments who have been naively optimistic about Russia’s future — after ignoring Moscow for the first decade of the post-Cold War era, the United States now regularly attempts to “reset” relations with Russia — and U.S. President Donald Trump’s seeming readiness to let Putin have that global role. Facilitating those misperceptions, however, is Putin’s policy of remaining “unknowable” to outsiders, a traditional tactic of Russian leaders.
The notion that Putin is “unknowable” is paradoxical. At first blush, his thinking is alien to that of the West. Fiona Hill, another Russia expert who recently served on Trump’s National Security Council staff, argues that “Putin doesn’t really know how to talk to the West, and the West doesn’t know how to listen or talk to him. We often fail to appreciate how dangerously little Putin understands about us — our motives, our mentality and also our values.”
Yet every scholar of Russia notes in the next breath that Putin’s behavior is consistent with that of his predecessors. Again, Yergin explains that Putin represents traditional, collectivist and authoritarian Russian political culture, and appeals to a sense of Russian exceptionalism.
Putin’s success is also a product of his tactics. While other world leaders are playing chess or go (or checkers, in some cases), Putin is doing judo, a sport notable for how practitioners turn their opponent’s strengths against them. Success depends on quickly exploiting openings as they arise. This approach has spurred a debate over whether Putin is a master strategist or a mere opportunist. He is both, seizing the moment, improvising as he goes, working toward realization of his goals without a master plan.
Putin relentlessly tests the seams of institutions and coalitions that he considers constraints on Russia. His relations with Japan are consistent with that approach. Engagement with Russia in recent years has been characterized by ever deeper probing of the Japan-U.S. alliance, seeing how far Moscow could push Tokyo from Washington as it held out the prospect of the return of (some of) the islands off Hokkaido seized by Soviet troops at the end of World War II.
Sensing that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was determined to strike a deal, Russian officials upped the ante, demanding that Tokyo agree to not position military equipment on returned islands, then military forces, and most recently have said that the very existence of the alliance with the United States was an obstacle to a deal. Abe has perhaps gone further that any of his predecessors in reaching out to Russia and acting in ways that might have caused a rift with the U.S. (albeit that’s less of a problem with Trump in the White House). Yet history provides a simple bottom line: There is only one case of a Russian leader accepting a loss of territory: a 2004 agreement with China.
Japanese officials argue that efforts to forge better relations with Russia reflect more than a desire to reclaim lost territory. Rather, their aim is to ensure that Moscow has options and is not driven into Beijing’s arms; they want to forestall a China-Russia entente. It is a laudable goal but one that is unlikely to succeed. Japan cannot offer Putin the international recognition and status that he seeks. Only Beijing or Washington can. In Putin’s geopolitical calculus, Tokyo is at most a tool, or more likely a mirror, that reflects Russia’s international status and standing.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director and a visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University and a senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”