Prevalent in many western capitals is the narrative that Vladimir Putin is striving to regain dominance of the “lost” Soviet empire, and his aggressive behavior in Ukraine—especially his blatant annexation of Crimea in March 2014—is just the beginning of a great Russian advance toward another Pax Russiana.
This is a misreading of Putin’s motives and Russia’s strategic reality.
What Putin is fighting for is neither Moscow’s world dominance, nor its opposition to the superpower status of the United States. Putin does not want a duopoly comprising Washington and another superpower rival of the United States in a new bipolar geopolitical structure whereby Russia is less relevant or even irrelevant. Instead, Putin wants to be the world’s Number 2, and to prevent anyone else from filling that position so that Moscow and Washington can still bilaterally decide world affairs, just like the old days in the Cold War, sans ideological and geopolitical fervency.
There should be no illusion about Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet empire. However, Putin’s nostalgia is not driven by a desire to revive communist ideology. Nor is Russia able any time soon to achieve parity with the United States in modern military hardware or new weapons platforms. In a nutshell, Vladimir Putin is a Russian economic nationalist.
Russia in reality is not a superpower of equal strength with the United States whose economy is nearly 9 times larger than Russia’s. Putin knows this well and has readily acknowledged as late as June 17, 2016 in St. Petersburg that Russia respects the U.S. as the world’s “only superpower,” and that “we [Russia] want to and are ready to work with the United States.”
Essentially, Putin views the European Union and China as the two biggest threats to Russia’s relevance in a desired duopoly with the United States.
Putin has viewed the European Union as a unified political and economic powerhouse that can interact with the United States in a new geopolitical duopoly. To compete with the EU for the Number 2 position, Putin has planned for an ambitious politico-economic union of his own, the centerpiece of which is the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In his vision for EAEU, which was initially proposed by Kazakhstan in 1994 but taken over by Russia soon afterwards, Putin has expected three former Soviet republics––whose leaders, like him, were all quasi dictators who loathe full democracy––to form the core of the new union, i.e., Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
But President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, a Putin yes-man, was overthrown by a pro-EU popular uprising. The “loss” of Ukraine's membership in the EAEU and Kiev’s pivot to favoring EU membership was at the root of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive gambit in Ukraine that culminated in his March 2014 annexation of Crimea.
However, Putin’s struggle for greater global relevance as the world’s Number 2 has met its biggest challenger, i.e. China, a country whose economy is five times bigger than Russia’s and that has been constantly talked about in Western capitals as the only other superpower opposite the United States.
Russia’s worry about China is real. Despite the facade of a Moscow-Beijing alliance, the reality is that Putin has never allowed China to buy shares in Russia’s energy sector; the much-hyped gigantic gas/oil deal has gone sour significantly; bilateral trade has gone down nearly 40 percent, while the two nations still harbor deep distrust and engage in territorial spats.
The surest sign of Putin’s resolve to prevent China from becoming the world’s Number 2 is Russia’s recent entrance into East Asia’s imbroglios caused by China, especially in the South China Sea disputes––not to forge an alliance with China to fend off the U.S., but to prevent China’s foray from becoming purely a U.S. vs China dichotomy. Putin wants the world to know that Russia still matters mightily in Asia and the Pacific. To upstage China, Putin has hosted a boisterous ASEAN Summit in Sochi. Russia, with unambiguous anti-China messages, delivered advanced Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam to fight China and warmed up relationships with Japan and South Korea much to Beijing’s chagrin. In fact, most key nations weary of China in the region, from the Philippines to Vietnam and Indonesia, are now actively considering Russia as the third way toward a favorable outcome of various disputes involving China and the U.S. Apparently, China’s role as the world's Number 2 may well have been shanghaied by Moscow.
CBS News, “Putin: Russia respects U.S. as world’s ‘only superpower,’” (June 17, 2016).
Jon Henley, “A brief primer on Vladimir Putin's Eurasian dream,” The Guardian (February 18, 2014).
Miles Maochun Yu, “Russia Poised To Play A Lead Role In Asia Pacific,” Military History in the News (May 24, 2016).
Miles Maochun Yu, “China's Ascendance To The Position Of Chief Adversary,” Military History in the News (January 29, 2016).