When Russian tanks halted their advance a few kilometers from Tbilisi in August 2008, with the Georgian army in full flight and Georgia’s allies in Europe and the United States reduced to fulmination, the global consensus on the meaning of the invasion was swift and bracing: Russia was back, a force to be reckoned with, and intent on reclaiming its lost share of import and influence among nations.
This consensus is as wrongheaded and simplistic as the previous incarnations of conventional wisdom it has replaced: first, that Russia was engaged in a rollicking, rollercoaster transition from communist torpor to liberal democracy and a free-market economy, and then, when that fine vision foundered in financial crisis and sundry misadventures toward the end of the 1990s, that Russia had become mired in some intermediary phase of its supposed transition and might soon slink off history’s grand stage altogether.
A transition did take place, but it was not to the hoped-for liberal democracy grounded in a free-market economy and the rule of law. Instead, it was a shift from the failing yet still functional bureaucratic authoritarianism of the late-Soviet period to a flashier, more footloose authoritarianism that rests on selectively capitalist kleptocracy, the dominance of informal influence groups, a decorative democracy that is often described as “managed,” and officially encouraged attempts to create a new and profoundly illiberal ideology with mass appeal. This system began to take shape under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, matured under Vladimir Putin in the 2000s, and received a tremendous shot in the arm as oil prices rose and the Kremlin’s coffers swelled. The regime has developed an elaborate and mostly effective toolbox of repressive and manipulative measures for maintaining domestic control, a conceptual vocabulary for faking democracy, and a series of strategies for wielding international influence.
The world’s democracies must navigate the shoals of this system’s contradictions as they fashion policies toward Russia along three major axes. The first is the advancement of common interests. These are few, as Russia’s ruling elite, whatever rhetorical flourishes it may occasionally adopt for foreign ears, views the world in terms of 19th-century territorial spheres of influence, approaches international relations as a zero-sum game, and has staked much of its legitimacy—more than most outside observers seem to realize—on opposition to an American bogeyman, a “West” that is allegedly bent on Russia’s destruction. The second axis is a response to the threats Russia poses to its neighbors. These are numerous, ranging from the encouragement of dictatorial regimes and the export of high-level corruption, to political meddling and even military intervention in countries deemed by the Kremlin to have misbehaved. Finally, the third axis is an attempt to mitigate the danger of systemic failure in Russia itself. This possibility is quite real, and its occurrence will be difficult to predict or prevent.