Don’t underestimate Russia’s capabilities, influence on the global stage

Moscow is more capable of disrupting global world order than it is given credit for, Kathryn Stoner argues.

While some may think Russian President Vladimir Putin has played a "weak hand" in the card game of global politics, it’s important to remember that a weak hand in poker can be a strong hand in bridge, says Stanford scholar Kathryn Stoner.

"It is a mistake to assume that power in international politics is one dimensional," said Stoner, the deputy director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for an International Studies (FSI), in an interview with Stanford News Service.

Here, in the second of a two-part interview , Stoner discusses how Putin accelerated the country’s capabilities to disrupt the global order. Whether it’s the seizure of Crimea in 2014, involvement in the Syrian war that preserved the Assad regime, the hacking of the U.S. election in 2016 or the recent cyberattack of U.S. government agencies and private businesses, Russia has shown itself capable and willing of employing multiple strategies over many years to advance its strategic interests abroad.

Stoner also addresses what Russia’s resurgence as a global power means for the new Biden administration and how the U.S. must find ways to cooperate and constrain the Putin regime in the interest of global security.

Biden administration must find ways to both cooperate with and constrain Putin regime

In the first of a two-part Q&A, Stanford political scientist Kathryn Stoner discusses how Biden’s foreign policy in Russia is a departure from the Trump administration.

Stoner draws on extensive research, detailed in her new book, Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order (Oxford University Press, 2021), that shows how Russia’s intention to influence global politics is often underestimated. Stoner will discuss some of her recent research findings at a virtual event on Friday, Feb. 12, at 1 p.m. PT with FSI director and former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. The event is open to the public and registration is required.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How have politics under Vladimir Putin shaped Russia’s foreign policy?

I think Russia’s foreign policy, and in particular its increased aggression in Europe, the Middle East and against the United States, is pretty directly related to domestic politics. Most of the increased activity in Russian foreign engagement has happened since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. His return to the Kremlin was accompanied by popular protests and calls within Russia for transparent and fair elections. Since then, there has been a hardening of the Russian autocracy - new laws against protesting, increased control of the media and, of course, imprisonment, violent assaults and even killings or attempts to murder prominent political activists who oppose the regime. So, the increased crackdown on society at home has happened at the same time Russia’s leadership has become more aggressive abroad. Is there a connection? I think so.

For Putin, the link between foreign and domestic politics is really about the survival of his autocratic regime. What he fears most is people doing what they did in 2011-12 when they protested by the tens of thousands against corruption, and what they did again most recently. The regime faces a simmering legitimacy crisis at home. Even in the face of no real organized opposition party, Putin’s regime faces real societal resistance. While Russia’s leaders may claim that NATO is the regime’s biggest threat, in reality, the true threat to the regime comes from the Russian people themselves.

What do you think people misunderstand about contemporary Russian politics?

I think too often we have been told that Putin has played a "weak hand" well in the card game of global politics. But a weak hand in poker could be a strong hand in bridge; so the strength of your cards depends on the context. Context is what we overlook when we think about Russia’s relative influence in the world and what tools it has to exercise that influence. Moscow is clearly more capable than we would expect by a tally of just relative GDP, military spending and size of its population compared to the U.S., China or Europe. Either it is more powerful in international relations than we think or these are the wrong measures to assess state strength, or both! But one thing is clear: If we rely on these indicators alone to assess its relative power, then we are doomed to underestimate Russia’s capacity to disrupt the global order.

Can you explain further how Russia deviates from traditional measures of power?

To be sure, by traditional measures of international power, with just over 3 percent of the global economy compared to the 16 percent or so that the U.S. commands, Russia is no economic peer power. Its military, though modernized beginning in 2008, remains a fraction of the size of the American armed forces, although it has maintained nuclear parity with the United States and far out-matches China in the nuclear realm. Demographically, Russian men live on average about 13 years less than European men. Russian fertility levels remain low, and this is not completely offset by immigration, such that population growth has remained flat to slightly positive. Its 146.5 million people, if one includes Crimea, are still heavy smokers and historically heavy drinkers, although these bad habits are slowly being shed. Still, by these measures, Russia hardly looks like much of a challenger to the United States for global hegemony, nor an obstacle to a rising China.



"While Russia’s leaders may claim that NATO is the regime’s biggest threat, in reality, the true threat to the regime comes from the Russian people themselves."

--Kathryn Stoner

Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute



Nonetheless, by the end of 2019, just as the global pandemic began, Russia had come a long way back in its development from the decrepit, indebted and lawless country that emerged in the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991. Frequently portrayed as an oil revenue dependent state - deceased Sen. John McCain once described it as "a gas station masquerading as a country" - that produced nothing of any value but carbon energy resources, modern Russia is now much more than just that. It is one of the two biggest global exporters of oil (with Saudi Arabia), but also controls much of the world’s oil pipeline infrastructure. That is the kind of leverage over a host of countries that is not captured through estimates of GDP or the size of the Russian military. Over the last 10 or so years, Russia has also added significantly to its menu of exports - nuclear power plants in the Middle East, India and Sub-Saharan Africa; construction materials, nickel, timber, diamonds, mining equipment, high tech communications equipment, aluminum, chemicals, and of course ever more sophisticated weaponry. It’s gone from receiving food aid from the United States and Europe in 1991 to now being the world’s largest exporter of wheat in 2021. Putin and President Xi of China have forged close ties between their countries too.

And despite these changes, it turns out that Russia has not needed the biggest economy or military in the world to advance its interests globally. Only 18 months after seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russian forces performed a snap mobilization into Syria, saving Bashar Assad’s regime from imminent collapse. This basically changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Russia is also the major supplier of energy to Germany and other parts of Europe. Again, it’s not just the export of oil and natural gas; pipeline control has become an important leverage point too. Beyond this though, under Putin’s regime, Russia has also developed its "soft" power resources through [state-controlled] media like RT and Sputnik that attempt to appeal to more conservative societies turned off by an overly "permissive" West. In the U.S., we have directly experienced Russian "sharp" power - the use of social media and cyber tools - to alter the information environment. These tools are not as expensive as nuclear missiles, but they are pretty effective in terms of advancing Russian interests and disrupting the global order

So, Russia’s cards are not all that bad when we look a little deeper, and Putin’s regime is quite willing to play them.

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