Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, at first embraced the latter path, but his impoverished, chaotic Russia scared and repelled Europeans, who saw an alliance with the U.S. as far more profitable and useful from a security point of view. The U.S. never supported the greater-Europe notion because, ever since French President Charles de Gaulle advocated “a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” in 1959, this was a project to counterbalance U.S. power. Meanwhile, not even Yeltsin could quite imagine Russia fully integrated into European institutions, which were still taking shape during his rule. His last years in power were spent in a clumsy balancing act between Russia’s three options.
Putin inherited this fundamentally weak stance. A quick learner and adroit tactician, he soon had the skill (and the oil revenue windfall) to play Russia’s cards better than Yeltsin had done. Yet his natural preference was for the superpower option, the iffiest and most adventurous of the three but also the most consistent with his training and experience as a Cold War spy. Besides, he didn’t see a viable alternative. He’d come to see Europe as a collection of U.S. vassals incapable of independent policy. So, ever since his 2007 Munich speech criticizing the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the power dynamics of a “unipolar world,” Putin has pursued the superpower revival plan through military adventures in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and now, with the help of private mercenary armies, in Africa.
Strengthening economic ties with Europe and supplying resources for China’s continuing boom — the other two parts of the initial balancing act — became harder with this refocusing. Europe’s peace project rejects aggression. To China, a militarily powerful, assertive Russia is an annoyance rather than a potential ally, and any kind of resource dependence on it is a risk.
The superpower game can only be played if Russia has a formidable nuclear deterrent. Without it, the Kremlin doesn’t have the freedom to fight smaller wars. That’s why Putin focuses on developing weapons the U.S. and its allies don’t have. The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, tested on Wednesday in Putin’s presence, supposedly can break through missile-defense systems to deliver a nuclear payload at 20 times the speed of sound.
Vladislav Surkov, once Putin’s chief domestic ideologist and in recent years his eastern Ukraine czar, wrote an article in April extolling the virtues of geopolitical solitude. “For four centuries, Russia moved east and for another four centuries it moved west,” he wrote. “Both paths are at their end.”
But even the “happy solitude of a leader, a breakaway alpha-nation,” to use Surkov’s phrase, is increasingly hard to sell to Russians. For the older generation, Putin’s is the second iteration of a superpower game that brought them no economic benefits. For younger Russians, it’s an opportunity-limiting factor. Many Russians realize, now that they’ve seen the world, that their country doesn’t have the economic power to go it alone. Repression is Putin’s only answer to these doubts and fears.
It’s not a comfortable answer, however, given Russia’s history of blowing up when its people’s patience runs out. Whenever and however Putin may leave, any successor will need to revise Russia’s geopolitical choice. Putin has taken two decades to show that he doesn’t have a reverse gear. A new leader will be free from this constraint, and Russia may find itself considering its three choices again.