It’s Putin’s World, We’re Just Living In It

Notwithstanding Russia's weak position vis a vis the west, It's Putin who seems to be winning.

Photo via The New York Times

Looking at the numbers, Russia is hardly an imposing figure on the world stage. Yes, it has nuclear weapons and a military large enough to intimidate its neighbors and wage war inside nations such as Ukraine and Georgia. It’s also been able to project force to protect its long-standing ally in Syria. Economically speaking, though, it remains very much the”second world nation with nuclear weapons” and “regional power.” Absent its oil and natural gas reserves, the nation produces next to nothing of value to the rest of the world. A a result, its economy is especially vulnerable to a drop in the price of oil and natural gas, or to the possibility that current large customers such a the nations of Western Europe could find energy sources from a more trustworthy supplier. Despite all of that, it has proven to be quite adept at moving the chess pieces of the world to its advantage while thoroughly confusing its adversaries in the west:

The United States, an implacable foe during the Cold War but now presided over by a president determined to “get along with Russia,” is convulsed and distracted by impeachment; Britain, the other main pillar of a trans-Atlantic alliance that Mr. Putin has worked for years to undermine, is also turning inward and just voted for a government that vows to exit the European Union by the end of January.

The Middle East, where American and British influence once reigned supreme, has increasingly tilted toward Moscow as it turned the tide of war in Syria, provided Turkey, a member of NATO, with advanced missile systems, and signed contracts worth billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia, America’s closest ally in the Arab world. Russia has also drawn close to Egypt, another longtime American ally, become a key player in Libya’s civil war, and moved toward what looks more and more like an alliance with China.

It has been barely five years since President Barack Obama’s dismissive 2014 judgment of Russia as a “regional power” capable only of threatening its neighbors “not out of strength but out of weakness.” Its successes raise a mystifying question: How has a country like Russia, huge in size — it has 11 time zones — but puny when measured by economic and other important metrics, become such a potent force?

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone was asking the same question,” recalled Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and a Russia expert at the New School in New York: “How is it that such a rotten system punched so far above its weight?”

The West, Ms. Khrushcheva said, has repeatedly misread a country whose ambitions are as immense as its territory — it stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea — and that is often untethered from what looks like reality. Mr. Putin, she said, “is at once a technocrat and a religious zealot, an exhibitionist and a master of secrets. You expect one thing, linearly, and suddenly it’s entirely something else, smoke and mirrors.”

Under Mr. Putin, Vladislav Surkov, a longtime Kremlin adviser, wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper, earlier this year, Russia “is playing with the West’s minds.”

Judged by this standard, of course, Putin’s plan has arguably been more successful than he probably thought it would be. The past eighteen months have seen partisanship in the United States become even more bitter and divisive than it was during the Obama Era, and given the wide disparity between the way that Democrats and Independents judge the President’s performance on the job compared to Republicans, that’s only likely to continue. We’ve also seen this divide in the twin issues of the Russia investigation and the Ukraine scandal that led to the President’s impeachment. Poll after poll has shown that Democrats and Independent voters are far more likely to take these matters seriously than Republican voters are. For the latter group, the only thing that matters is defending the President even if it involves accepting as true things such as the ridiculous conspiracy theories regarding Ukraine’s involvement in 2016 election interference. Given that, one could say that Putin has already succeeded even if there is no further interference in our electoral process.

In other words, the outcome of the election doesn’t really matter to the Russians or other nations that may be involved in such campaigns. What matters is taking advantage of the already existing hyperpartisanship and the political divide to create chaos in the targeted nation and give people like Putin something to point to when they argue that there is nothing about western representative democracy that makes it superior to the way things are done in Russia. Such chaos also has the advantage of distracting Americans and their leaders from what Russia is up to in nations such as Ukraine and other areas of the so-called “near abroad“, as well as nations such as Syria and allows Putin to get away with whatever it is he has in mind there.

All of this is happening at the same time that the President continues to drive a wedge between the United States and our traditional allies in western Europe and elsewhere, as I have discussed herehere, and here among other places. This, combined with the chaos in Europe created by Brexit and its future implications for the United Kingdom and European Union, are all serving to help Putin achieve his goal of creating chaos throughout the Western world. All of this was done with a minimal investment of resources, and with seemingly little objection to the rest of the world. No wonder Vladimir Putin is in such a good mood as the decade comes to an end.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, Russia, US Politics, Vladimir Putin
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think that what has happened is a very fortuitous confluence of events. The Soviets/Russians practiced information warfare for a long time, so they are good at it, but they were limited in the channels they could use. It was hard for them to get their message(s) on US network television, for instance.

    But the internet and social media have proved to be perfect for them. It’s kind of like having the most and best bullets when someone invents the gun.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    Brexit and Trump are 99% the products of News Corp exploiting the media landscape into accepting obvious disinformation as meaningful, and in the Middle East there’s the post-9/11 catastrophe engineered by the United States. Putin did not invent disinformation or empire’s overreach and you can’t blame Russian bots for targeting the fine minds who buy into Sean Hannity and Alex Jones. I mean, what’s the actual argument against that–these are our gun-grabbing idiots to exploit, so back off there Vlad?

  3. steve says:

    Timing is everything. If we had the internet but the GOP had the leadership it had in the 80s, political AND thought leaders, I dont see Russia’s tactics working. The thought leaders on the left for a long time now have been on talk radio and Fox. It has been conspiracy laden, anti-science, anti-government (the parts they dont like) driven for many years now. We needed those many years of low brow conservative thought leaders to set things up before we could have a Trump in office and before Russia’s efforts could be effective. They needed that fertile audience already in place for their efforts to be effective.


  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s easy to win when your opponent is on your payroll. Imagine how well the Japanese Empire would have done had Franklin Roosevelt been a traitor.

  5. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I don’t think they’re paying or paying off Trump so much as they are blackmailing him. It would kill him to be revealed as a “clown operating on credit.”

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    My guess is it’s a bit of both. They loaned him money, because yes, he is dumb enough to take money from the Russian mob. And they’ll have bought themselves some insurance with kompromat. Trump has no doubt convinced himself that Putin is just giving him advice. The kind of ‘advice’ you get from a guy who has your balls in his pocket.

  7. Kit says:

    How is it that such a rotten system punched so far above its weight?

    In Putin’s place, do you really think you would respect the West? The EU punches well below its weight as it is, and would be a joke were it not for NATO. The US had a damn good run, but has been looking punch drunk for the past two decades. You remember how the Soviet Union was rotting from inside and simply needed a bit of time to fall, hastened along by Reagan’s arm race? Putin saw the same in us, but could do nothing but place a small wager on American ignorance. The US is rapidly shrinking into a regional power, but with the expenses of a hegemon. It was always going to be a tricky hand to play, but then along came Trump…

    Russia now finds itself in a world of equals, but the one and only country with the taste for mucking around in other countries’ yards, and the ability to do so.

  8. Slugger says:

    Putin is playing his hand extremely well. It may be that he recognized very early that the world is going to evolve into multiple power camps. After WW II there was a bipolar world; after the collapse of the USSR, the USA was the sole power. Holding on to empires is hard and always futile in the long run. The US is in decline in power with our power being spent in the Levant for dubious goals. We are led by a guy who gets played by North Korea, a guy who is tweeting about a cameo role in a movie. Building F-35s and Zumwalt class destroyers is not making us stronger.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    Putin must go to bed at night thinking Sheriff Bart’s line,

    Oh, baby, you’re *so* talented… and they are *so* dumb.

    It’s not so much Putin’s winning as we’re losing. And yes, I’m getting tired of all the winning. W. Bush took a decade off the American Century and Trump is throwing away what’s left.

  10. Kit says:

    Don’t forget that we went from being something like 40% of the world’s economy after WWII down to 15% now. We punching well above our weight. There was never any way that this was going to be our century, at least not the way that the last had been. Winning could only have meant shepherding the world into various organisations like NATO, the UN, WTO, etc., and having enjoyed entrenched advantages. China was never going to be contained militarily, but they could have been forced to play by our rules. But that ship has sailed. Every day we grow weaker both domestically and internationally. We might well shrink into another Russia. But probably without the brains.

  11. Kathy says:

    At the risk of engaging in bothsiderism:

    Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, Democrats are not really interested in foreign policy. Republicans are, but mostly they suck at it and want to do it on the cheap.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m not so dire on our long-term prospects. If we can move past the Tea Party/Trumpaloon stage of our development we’re in a stronger position than any other player. Given decent leadership we’d be fine, better than fine.

    It’s still all about the map, as it has been since the start. We have two ocean access with a multitude of year-round ports. China can be bottled up at sea, Russia was born bottled up, and there is still no better way to project force or extend trade than by sea. We have Canada to our north which could not be easier for us. And if we had a rational policy toward the economic development of Mexico we’d have a buffer against the climate change migration in our future.

    In addition to the power of geography, we have the English language, the Latin of our time. We have unique soft power, including our addictive cultural products and most of the world’s great universities. Add the fact that unlike Japan or China, we can handle immigration and thus continue to swell the bottom of the demographic pyramid. We are capable of energy independence and finally, we have thus far managed to avoid open schisms.

    All in all, we have an excellent hand of cards. I’d far rather be playing our hand than China’s.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: That claim only works if you think that foreign policy means wars, and even then the Democrats have had their share of smaller military engagements (Clinton bombing Serbia, Obama’s terrible Libya policy, and the expansion into Syria to fight ISIS, and the drone war).

    Republicans reflexively opposed Democrats’ smaller wars by the way. Kossovo was fiercely debated, and Republicans tried to kneecap Obama responding to Syria using chemical weapons.

    But up until Trump, the foreign policy of the two parties was virtually identical with minor differences — a belief that trade would create international ties that would prevent wars, plus a strong NATO and a moderately strong UN. Both parties supported expanding NATO up to the borders of Russia, for instance.

    As far as differences go… Obama opened up dialog and travel with Cuba, which the Republicans never would have done. Democrats are less willing to order a full scale invasion of a significant country.

  14. Andy says:

    Putin/Russia are not “winning.” They’ve simply stopped their backward slide are finally opposing US policy which has run roughshod over Russian interests for the last three decades.

    Putin, in particular, understands Russia’s position, its strengths and weaknesses, and what strategy will work to further Russian interests. By contrast, we in the US have gotten lazy and too accustomed to the idea that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want with no opposition and pushback.

    Our FP establishment is still obsessed with American Exceptionalism and still holds onto the idea that the entire planet is the US sphere of influence and that we are living in a unipolar world where the actions of other countries are inherently subject to our veto. Thus you get FP experts who declare that Russian interference in US elections is “an act of war” while they simultaneous support open and covert US interference in elections around the world.

    This is not to say that we should not be exercising our political, economic, military and social power to the fullest and to our advantage. The problem is we aren’t actually doing that and we seem to be willfully ignorant of our own limitations as well as the obvious fact that other countries and peoples have agency and will work to conduct their affairs to their advantage and not ours. And we are overly obsessed about institutions created for the Cold War, as if they should be unchanging and exist for eternity – just because. And, of course, lots of allies are happy with this arrangement as they get all the benefits of American hegemony with few of the costs.

    So the idea that we need to “oppose” Russia (or any other country) anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the wisdom or cost, is what passes for “strategy” among our FP establishment and it’s one that is based primarily on domestic political considerations and not the actual FP interests of the United States nor what is actually most advantageous for us. That’s how we got to stupid policies like supporting Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria to try to topple Asad and hurt Russia. It’s why we “can’t” leave Afghanistan despite the fact that everyone knows it’s folly to stay. It’s why we prefer a warheads-on-foreheads FP approach instead of alternatives that would be more effective and cheaper in blood and treasure.

    So rather than useless fretting about Russians on Facebook, or how they are supposedly “winning” – whatever that means – we should be doing what we should have done 25 years ago – consider an actual post-Cold War world and America’s place in it. Instead, we’ve been engaging in attempted hegemony based on a shit-ton of hubris driven by our own ego and geopolitical inertia. It’s not sustainable. Pretending otherwise hurts us far more than Putin’s machinations.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If we can move past the Tea Party/Trumpaloon stage of our development we’re in a stronger position than any other player.

    Other than the cancer, we’re fit as a fiddle!

    Our political system provides vulnerabilities and weaknesses that other major powers don’t have. You might rather play our hand than China’s, but you only get to play two of the five cards in the hand, because… Trumpaloons. We punched above our weight for a long time because both our parties had essentially the same foreign policy until Trump came along.

    On the other hand, we have plenty of food and decent water.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree with a lot of what you had to say. But you’re wrong about Russia’s very successful attack on us in 2016.

    Thus you get FP experts who declare that Russian interference in US elections is “an act of war” while they simultaneous support open and covert US interference in elections around the world.

    Andy, it’s an act of war when we do it, too. But we do it to banana republics and failed states. Putin treated us like a banana republic, profited hugely, did us great and lasting damage and got away with it. We’re a superpower, we are not Guatemala. Pretending that we were not successfully attacked smacks of a kid on the playground insisting the bully’s punch didn’t hurt. It’s empty bravado. And shrugging it off as both sides do it is the moral equivalent of shrugging off 9-11 because we’ve bombed Arabs at times.

    Foreign Policy is not about moral equivalency, it’s about power. Putin and his bitch in the White House have diminished our power, making it far harder for us to avoid decline. We are weaker because of Trumputin. And being weaker is not a good thing when you’re the most powerful nation on earth.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    When we take back the White House it should be American policy to hurt Russia in every way we know how. And we know a lot of ways short of war. We have a 19 trillion dollar economy while Russia clocks in at 8% of that. The economic disparity is far wider than it was when Reagan started outspending the Soviets. We can cut Russia out of international banking, over-produce natural gas to slash Russian prices, start a serious build-up to stymie Russia’s moves into the newly ice-free arctic, pour serious weapons into Ukraine, place a full division in the Baltics, strengthen our cyber defenses and start attacking theirs.

    It’s not about revenge, it’s about teaching Vladimir and the rest of the world a lesson: attacks on the United States bring disproportionate response and inflict serious pain. You cannot be king and ignore attacks.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher: That. It’s bad enough that Trumpsky is weakening the U. S., but we had, post WWII, a pretty good start at a peaceful, prosperous, liberal democratic world. And Trumpsky is weakening it as it’s under attack.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Andy: In some ways I blame Bill Clinton. He should have realized that he might be succeeded by a Republican and done more to set us on a sensible post Cold War policy.

  20. drj says:


    Putin is playing his hand extremely well.

    I’m not so sure.

    For instance, he regained the Crimea, but he is also the man who lost Kiev for Russia.

    That is not a good trade.

    Putin may be a great tactician, but he is a lousy strategist.

    He gained a warm-water port on the black sea (while he doesn’t have much of a navy), but turned ca. 40 million Ukranians permanently against (informally) reuniting with Mother Russia.

    Also, he’d better hope that no Democrat gets into the White House any time soon.

  21. Gustopher says:


    we had, post WWII, a pretty good start at a peaceful, prosperous, liberal democratic world.

    I don’t think that’s true, though. We never had a vision of what a Post-Cold-War world should look like, or our place in it, so we have been ignoring “smaller” issues that don’t fit into a Cold War framework (genocide in Rwanda, anything involving Africa really, or brown people in general) while looking for substitute Big Bad Guys we can oppose (Saddam Hussein, Venezuala, maybe China, etc)

    We have a notion that trade will bring people together and… that’s it. All while propping up Cold War institutions like NATO and our massive military. And supporting Israel no matter what they do.

    Parts of it are fine — you don’t want to bomb your trading partners — but beyond that we want to be the world’s only superpower, but we don’t know how to use that power without facing down the Soviet Union.

    @Andy Is right that we haven’t worked this out — we’ve been focused on domestic issues and just coasting on foreign policy, reacting where we have to.

    I would propose an active, engaged, humanitarian foreign policy.

    If there’s a hurricane in wherever, we should be there with the Army Corps of Engineers, restoring power and delivering aid and exercising our logistical readiness. Shipping food and supplies is not that different than planning for an invasion, so we get good will and good training.

    If we want to have a stupid trade war that hurts farmers, sure, go for it, but also buy up foods and send it to Central America where crop failures have caused greater pressure on failing governments and fueled the waves of refugees.

    If there is a UN peace keeping mission, we should be there, so our soldiers can learn the differences between invading and policing — skills that would have made the Iraq fiasco less fiascoriffic.

    Beyond that, trade and tariffs need to take worker’s rights into account, along with environmental issues. We have a huge marketplace, and that gives us a pretty big lever. Apply some pressure on that lever — just a little, just to nudge.

    All of this could really boost our soft power around the world, while helping us maintain our hard power.

    Or maybe that’s a terrible idea. But the point is that we haven’t really asked the question of what our role in the world should be.

  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree. Putin’s a brilliant KGB operative, but that’s it. That’s his whole bag of tricks. He took Crimea where he already had a base under long-term lease. And got what? Control of the Black Sea? He already had control of the Black Sea but until he also gets control of the Bosporous and the Straits of Gibraltar his Black Sea navy is a bunch of rubber ducks in a bathtub.

    Also, he got Syria, the gonorrhea of nations. Enjoy, Vlad!

    His success came from correctly grasping that the American and British peoples were weak, ignorant, suggestible idiots while our media and pols were not only corrupt but available at bargain rates. But he’s still got very bad borders and a declining population and the GDP of Italy. If we had a real president he’d already be bitterly regretting his choices.

  23. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Kit: We are shrinking in power by choice and this could be reversed if it became a national priority. No one, save China, frankly has any interest in being a global power. Russians interest in destabilizing alliances and ghe US domestically is about them desiring to deal with regional interests in a bilateral manner rather than with global institutions.

    The bottom line is that the average American voter has no idea what advantages being the global hegemon brings to their lives and thinks every non domestic tax dollar spent is a tax cut they could have gotten. How big do people think our economy would be if not for our status as a global hegemon? The US wasn’t a very inviting place for the overwhelming majority of Americans the last time the US was a regional power and economy. But hey, Generational amnesia is a real thing and can hurt.

    I actually like the soft empire model and think it’s been a net gain for Americans and the world. We already know the end of the book where the reigons of the world were a handful of multi-polar fiefdoms with neither being able to dominate the other. That wasn’t a good book for most people of earth. The book were there were a few players able to enforce security and stability has been marginally better to read. Look, we’ve screwed people over, no question about that but a lot of people that otherwise would have been swept up in tribal conflict were also able to live stable least until recently.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You are assuming that Putin is operating with Russia’s interests at heart, rather than his own.

    Given how the US operates, I wouldn’t be willing to make that assumption — do you think Trump is trying to make America great? Putin might have converted a lease into an occupation, but how is it playing at home, and how much money has filtered into his own hands as a result?

    Politics tends to be local and petty. The people with long term vision and the focus to pursue it are few and far between.

    Putin believes Hillary Clinton interfered with Russian politics — the motives for backing Trump, and weakening the US may well just be to prevent the US from being strong enough to do that again.

    You’re scoring Putin’s performance without figuring out if he’s playing the game you think he is. I suspect few of the folks here understand Russian domestic politics — our news is weak, and not focused on it.

    I’m willing to say Russia hasn’t done great under Putin, but that’s not the same thing as Putin not doing well.

  25. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: Well stated, and I would add that I fully expect Russia, China, Iran, NoKo, whoever to act in their own interests. I’d think less of them if they didn’t. This is the game of Geopolitics where, if you’re not playing, you’re losing. We really aren’t playing anymore as much as we are faking it.

    This is directly related to our broken domestic politics and partisan conflict. Strategic positioning takes years to execute. You cant build a strategy when each Party runs on a platform of reversing course of the other party every 4-8 years. Our place in the global economy directly affects the type of economy we can support and quality of life. We cant and shouldn’t be the only superpower on the globe. Its unsustainable financially and corrupting. We absolutely could remain as 1 of 3-4 global powers. That would take both parties being of one accord and a deliberate decision to set the chess pieces in a way that makes sense for the 21st century

  26. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The Straits of Bosphorus is why Putin is doing everything he can to pry Turkey away from NATO. And he’s probably going to be successful as long as Erdogan and Trump are in power.

  27. Kurtz says:

    Reading @Kit’s comment on Ellul from a recent thread got me thinking a bit about some of the comments here.

    It seems that a unipolar world may be less complex strategically than a bipolar world. A
    Paring down interests into a focused set of policies as a global hegemon seems almost impossible.

    Cooperative relationships may be more fragile in a unipolar world if the domestic politics of the hegemon become (or are perceived to be) fraught.

    In a bipolar world, perceived threats at least hold alliances together even during times of tension.

    Just thinking out loud here…

  28. Kit says:

    the nation produces next to nothing of value to the rest of the world

    In today’s Guardian: Russia deploys first hypersonic missiles

    The president described the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can fly at 27 times the speed of sound, as a technological breakthrough comparable to the 1957 Soviet launch of the first satellite.

  29. Matt says:

    @Kit: The speed is impressive and all but there are some downsides with something moving that fast. Maneuverability at that speed is pretty much non existent and hitting something as minor as a rock results in some serious kinetic damage. Obviously it gets from point A to point B much faster which makes response times super tight.

  30. Barry says:

    @Kit: Do they actually have this, or is this vaporware?


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