On October 17, Jill Doherty, a Russia expert and frequent traveler to that country, painted a verbal impressionistic portrait of today’s Russian Federation.
Russia today is weak militarily and economically, primarily due to low world prices for oil and gas and also to sanctions against Russia. This also makes Russia weak militarily with forced reductions in military budgets. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999, knows that, but is nonetheless determined to put Russia back on the world stage.
He has done so by injecting Russia into the Syrian conflict and Middle East affairs. He has created conflicts on Russia’s perimeter with Georgia and Ukraine. He is pleased that Russia is at the center of the U.S. presidential campaign: “they may not love us, but they fear us.” He hates Hillary Clinton, whom he deems responsible for demonstrations against Russia’s parliamentary election in 2011. [The original version of this post erroneously said it was the 2012 Russian presidential election.] With respect to Trump, Putin flatters him and plays to his ego just as he did in Germany when he recruited people for the KGB.
Putin is galled by expressions of Western triumphalism over the USSR. He has a big sense of resentment against the West and quickly reacts to Western slights against Russia. Earlier this month Russia withdrew from a nuclear security agreement regarding plutonium with the U.S. Even more recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation of Russia and Syria. Russia immediately responded by suspending talks with the U.S. over reducing violence in Syria, deploying sophisticated antiaircraft weapons in Syria and redeploying long-range ballistic missiles to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Putin also talked about installing military bases in Cuba, but Doherty believes this is bluster to upset the U.S. in its pursuit of normalization with Cuba.
Russia now has an ability to criticize the West and its faith in liberal democracy. Russia sees Trump as saying just that while Europe is turning away migrants and falling apart. Robotics and artificial intelligence are increasing threats to jobs in the West. Putin believes that Russia provides a moral compass for the world with its socially conservative values.
Putin does not want to invade the Baltic states nor war with the U.S. Many Russians today, however, expect such a war in the near future. They talk about Russian military prowess, including nuclear weapons. They are buying emergency supplies of food and candles.
Russia’s relations with China are very important to Russia, which knows China could “eat its lunch.” China sees Russia as very weak, but an important source of energy for China. Russia also worries about China’s activities in central Asia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia was very weak and chaotic with fears of a civil war with nuclear weapons. But the USSR did not dissolve in important ways. Thereafter Russia was challenged to create a new national identity. Yeltsin even had a commission to do just that, but it never completed the task. Putin, however, has done so. These are the main elements of that identity: Russian tsarism; Russian culture (the great composers, musicians, authors, playwrights and ballet dancers and choreographers); Russian bravery in the Great War for the Fatherland (World War II); the Russian Orthodox Church and its social conservatism; and modern technological accomplishments and talents.
Doherty’s mention of the contemporary importance of the Russian Orthodox Church reminded me of the 2014 Russian film, “The Leviathan,” which shows the Church’s complicity in a local government’s corruption and the absence of law; it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Advice for next U.S. President? Do not expect to reset U.S.-Russia policies; Putin does not want that. Instead he looks for U.S. weaknesses and then reacts. He strives to be unpredictable. Do not insult or denigrate him or Russia. Try for disarmament and trade. Continue space cooperation and encourage scientific cooperation in the Arctic. Stop Russian aggression against former USSR countries. Help Ukraine economically. Putin’s presidential term ends in 2018, but it is very difficult to predict what will happen then.
Putin does not trust a lot of people and relies on a small circle of advisers. He is very popular with the people, especially the young people.
Putin had seen chaos before: he was from Leningrad, where during World War II his mother almost died of starvation, and his older brother died of dysentery at age three. After the war, Putin served the KGB in Germany and Russia and saw more chaos.
Doherty is a former thirty-year CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent and former public policy scholar at the Kennan Institute. She holds a B.A. in Slavic languages from the University of Michigan and a M.A. from Georgetown University.
 E.g., Rosner, Israel Knows That Putin Is the Middle East’s New Sheriff, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).
 E.g., Kramer, Vladimir Putin Exits Nuclear Security Pact, Citing ‘Hostile Acts’ by U.S., N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Gordon & Sengupta, John Kerry Calls for War Crimes Investigation of Russia and Assad Government, N.Y. Times (Oct. 7, 2016); MacFarquhar, Behind Putin’s Combativeness, Some See Motives Other Than Syria, N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2016); Sengupta, A Senior Russian Envoy’s Take on Relations with the United States: ‘Pretty Bad,’ N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).