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How Dangerous is Putin’s Russia?

A version of this article by Prof. Norman Bailey was published by the Winter 2015 edition of the The International Economy.

On a scale of zero (not at all) to ten (existential threat to the world), Putin’s threat is an eight. It would be a serious mistake to assume he is merely blustering.

Since taking control in 2000, President Putin has spent these fourteen years consolidating dictatorial power internally, rebuilding the Russian armed forces and security services, encouraging technological development in such areas as cyber-operations, recentralizing the Russian economy under state dominance, and probing soft spots on Russia¹s periphery, such as the cyber-attack on Estonia, the invasion of Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea.

With little effort and no significant resistance, he has also expanded the international role of Russia into the Middle East and Asia. In the face of Western weakness and vacillation, he was in the process of creating a geopolitical space from Germany in the West to China in the East. He deployed Russia’s energy resources with skill and determination.

The apogee of his reign was reached with the Crimean takeover. If he had paused there to consolidate his gains and concentrate on his medium- and long-term strategies, the rest of the world would have done nothing significant in response. Indeed, in the weeks following the takeover the general attitude of the Western powers and media was that he actually had some good points with reference to Russia’s right to Crimea, which had been handed over to Ukraine by Khrushchev for no apparent reason.

Then hubris took over. Putin’s remarkable successes in unlikely circumstances, he Great Russian ethnic, historical, and psychological beliefs, with resentments and fears based on centuries of aggressions by Mongols, Tatars, Poles, Swedes, French, Germans, and others, coupled with his contempt for the contemporary leadership of the West, impelled him to go beyond Crimea and attempt to detach eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country, with visions of a corridor to Transnistria and Moldova in order to create more Abkhazias and South Ossetias. He has attempted to intimidate the Baltic states and Poland, drawing former Soviet republics into an economic union with Russia, with the goal of eventually sharing geopolitical dominance over the eastern hemisphere with China.

Instead, his overreach has led finally to a reaction, which if not overwhelming, at least is not negligible, with economic and financial sanctions reinforcing the damage done to the Russian economy by the fall in the price of oil.

A wounded Russia, led by an immensely popular megalomaniac, is a very dangerous country, one which Putin never ceases to remind the world has a large and well-maintained nuclear arsenal and therefore cannot be intimidated. We cannot rule out a serious strategic error with disastrous consequences if Putin feels cornered and believes that Russia is being subjected once again to aggression from abroad. His language is incendiary and it would be a serious mistake to assume that he is merely blustering.