Putin as a Russian Modernizer

Speculation about Russia’s foreign policy motives are a cottage industry in its own right. Are Russians paranoid? Inherently expansionist? Intolerable to democracy and dissent? Such views have shaped how American and European governments have dealt with Russia for the last century. When set against other former Russian modernizers, Putin is more imagined as a nascent Stalin, rather than a Peter I, Nicholas I, or Alexander II. I think Andrei Tsygankov, professor of International Studies and Political Science at San Francisco State University and Program Chair, International Studies Association, has given a sober explanation for why Russia currently acts the way it does. According to him, Putin is likened more as a Russian leader like Prince Alexander Gorchakov, who after Russia’s defeat in the Crimea in 1856, called his country with brutal honesty, a “great, powerless country.” Such an assessment paved the way for Alexander II sweeping reforms. Tsygankov sees Putin’s reforms in a similar light.

He writes,

The most common explanation for the Russia’s assertive behavior points to Moscow’s revenge against the colored revolutionaries and politically “disloyal” states in the former Soviet world. Although there is no evidence of Russia’s involvement in the recent pipeline blasts in Georgia, many have rushed to implicate the Kremlin. President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili charged that the blasts were a deliberate retaliation for Georgia’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and political influence. Russia’s new strategy is supposedly to use the “energy imperialism” for reviving the lost empire and challenging the West in a new global competition. Back in circulation are phobias of Russia’s “centuries-old” expansionism accompanied by fear of democracy at home.

This interpretation attributes wrong motives to the Russian behavior. By presenting Moscow as increasingly paranoid and disrespectful of existing international rules, it projects the image of an irrational erratic power that continues to cling to its die-hard habits. Nothing can be farther from truth. The world is faced with an increasingly confident and stable Russia that is rapidly recovering from the economic depression of the 1990s. While taking precautions against encroachment on its sovereignty, Russia is far from isolating itself or launching revenge against those vulnerable to its pressures. Fear and lack of imagination is not what drives Moscow’s new behavior. Rather, this behavior demonstrates a forward-looking vision and an impressive grasp of new international opportunities. After years of searching, Russia has found a firm ground from which to proceed—a successful economic modernization.

Having resisted the eastern enlargement of NATO without much success during the 1990s, Russia has found a positive national idea. Vladimir Putin formulated it in his programmatic election speech warning of the danger of Russia turning into a third-world country. Ridiculing overly noisy great power rhetoric—“let us not recollect our national interests on those occasions when we have to make some loud statements”—he compared Russia to Portugal, the EU’s poorest member, concluding that “it would take us fifteen years and an eight percent annual growth of our GDP to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal.” Since then, Russia entered the stage of foreign policy concentration, with priorities of national economic recovery and secure borders. . .

Today’s Russia, however, is no longer “powerless.” Although much remains to be done in the areas of economy and security, particularly in the North Caucasus, one must register a considerable progress and act on it. Thanks to the high energy prices and pragmatic leadership, Russia has moved from a primitive accumulation of capital to the stage of generating a stable flow of investments in the economy. Internally, it is now in a position to develop more comprehensive social policies and address its status of a “third-world” country. Externally, it is about time that a nation armed with a forward-looking vision and growing resources develop a more aggressive foreign policy. The era of economic stagnation and moral decline is behind Russia, and it is logical to shift from concentration to projection of the accumulated national confidence.