By Stanley Shapiro
Over the last two decades, Russia has slowly dragged itself up in the global hierarchy. Now, it not only wields influence across the world, but also maintains a far improved quality of life domestically. This change was far from inevitable, though. At the end of the nineties, many in the U.S. Government believed Russia could be “safely ignored.” While today we easily can wonder how that line of thinking existed, it made plenty of sense at the time.
The nineties saw Russia suffer massive defeats, both politically and economically, leading many to question their strength. First, there was the disastrous invasion of Chechnya that began on December 11, 1994. What was meant to be a short operation to crush a Chechen independence movement turned into a two-year war, killing upwards of 100,000 people and drawing fighters from around the world. Not only was Russia forced to sign a peace treaty, essentially admitting defeat, but Chechnya turned into a breeding ground for Al Qaeda, setting the stage for future conflict. This, of course, came after grueling ten-year invasion of Afghanistan, in which the Soviets failed to implement a sympathetic government in the region. To make matters worse, Russia went through an economic collapse in the nineties. From 1991-1998, Russia lost almost 40% of its real GDP and experienced several bouts of inflation that devastated the savings of Russian citizens. The country was in crisis, and Boris Yeltsin’s leadership generated no hope of recovery.
When Vladimir Putin took charge in 2000, he vowed to “get Russia off its knees,” and through reforming economic policies, subverting the international order with strategic acts, and a stroke of luck in the form of a rise in oil prices, he did exactly that. When Putin took control of Russia in 2000, the price of a barrel of crude oil was $27.6. Eight years later, it was $94.1. This was one of the main catalysts of Russia’s economic recovery, but Putin also took measures such as introducing a flat income tax of 13% and reducing corporate profit tax. This, along with less restrictive policies surrounding small businesses, became integral to Russia’s economic recovery. It is important to note that as of December 2020, Russia’s GDP is only the 11th largest in the world, trailing Italy, Brazil, and Canada, among other countries. Though Russia has had its share of financial woes since 2000, it is in a far better place than it was at the time Putin took over.
Though Russia’s domestic economic policy has worked well, it is their aggressive foreign policy that has paid massive dividends. For the majority of Putin’s reign, the United States was the unipolar power in the world. However, a goal of Putin’s was to undermine this world order and construct a new, more balanced one. The way he intended to do this was two-fold. First, Russia wanted to increase the loyalty of their neighbors, so they would turn to Moscow when it came to policy issues regarding Russia. Second, Russia wanted to separate the United States from its allies in Europe. Russia is not a part of the European Union or NATO, and sees the existence of the latter as a real threat. However, in recent years, NATO has lost power, partially driven by the United States questioning its legitimacy and partially driven by Russian meddling in Eastern Europe along with a stronger alliance with Turkey. As of now, NATO is at a weak point. This is a signal that Russia’s policy is working.
Since 2000, Russia has both invaded Georgia and annexed Crimea, largely without repercussion. Though they were hit with severe economic sanctions after their annexation of Crimea, Russia has shown they are able to wield strong influence in Eastern Europe with little consequence. To be clear, Russia does not want to re-establish the Soviet Union, but their recent military advances allow them a much stronger influence than before. Specifically, the modernization of strategic nuclear forces and the deployment of a new intermediate cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. Though Russia states these missiles are meant to deescalate tensions, there is speculation they will be used as a measure to prevent retaliation after a Russian invasion of a neighboring state. However Moscow intends to use these weapons, they are a show of force that can’t be ignored.
Putin’s 21-year tenure as the leader of Russia has not come without its challenges or downsides. Many feel Russia’s stabilization has come at the expense of its democracy, and they are not wrong. Recent events precipitated by the poisoning and subsequent arrest of Putin critic and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny point to an emboldening of the Russian people to protest Putin and his allies. In January of 2021, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest the arrest of Navalny, the most forceful display of opposition to the Kremlin in four years. Despite this, Putin’s position is secure. Accusations of corruption and political interference are nothing new to Putin, and surveys show the majority of Russians still support him as their leader. While there are many questions about the future of Putin in Russia’s leadership, it will not be Alexei Navalny who takes him down.
Russia still faces plenty of problems. Corruption, an economy in recession, and a worrying future as oil is phased out are among the problems the country will have to grapple with in the coming decades. That being said, Russia garners respect on the global stage, and it seems like this will not change any time soon.