Russian President Vladimir Putin

7 Pillars of Putin’s World: New Book Shows US Policymakers Russia as It Is

April 04, 2019
Nikolas K. Gvosdev


“Putin's World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest”
By Angela Stent
Twelve, February 2019

Angela Stent
Angela Stent

American officials who profess to have been caught off guard when Russia initiated a military intervention in Syria in 2015—or when Russian military personnel arrived in Venezuela in March 2019—need to get a copy ASAP of Angela Stent’s “Putin’s World.” For all the hand-wringing in Washington about Russian strategic unpredictability or the opaqueness of decision-making within the Vladimir Putin administration in order to justify why the U.S. foreign policy apparatus seems to be continually surprised by Russian actions, Stent’s book clearly lays out Russia’s strategic imperatives as well as the cognitive mindset of Putin and his close associates to present a coherent, compelling analysis of contemporary Russian behavior in the world. Stent, arguably the doyen of America’s diminishing cadre of scholar-practitioners who understand both Russia and the U.S. national security decision-making process, is well positioned to help clear up the confusion.

Stent makes clear that Putin and his team seek to “reverse the consequences of the Soviet collapse and renegotiate the end of the Cold War” and that this imperative guides relations not only with the “West” but in reaching out to the rising powers of the global South and East. Her “seven pillars of Putin’s world” provide anyone in government working to develop policy options vis-a-vis Russia with a clear and compelling roadmap for understanding and anticipating Kremlin moves. The first five describe the vision: Russia will seek what it sees as its rightful seat at the table for any and all important global matters; it will advocate for its interests and perspectives and no longer defer to a Euro-Atlantic consensus as the de facto universal norm; it will continue its efforts to create a “sphere of privileged interests” across the Eurasian space; it will push for relationships with other states “that do not restrict Russia’s freedom to act or pass judgment on its internal situation”; and Russia will increasingly step in to frustrate Western efforts to promote change to existing global norms that privilege sovereignty and stability. The last two pillars focus on concrete outcomes: to achieve its interests, Russia believes it must:  promote fractures in the Euro-Atlantic community, particularly amplifying transatlantic tensions that have accelerated since the election of Donald Trump; and push for ongoing revisions and modifications to the post-Cold War international order.

Viewed with these pillars in mind, the limited Russian interventions in Syria and Venezuela come into greater clarity. At relatively low cost, Moscow has challenged the U.S. and exposed the gap between Washington’s rhetoric and reality, while enhancing Putin’s image as a decisive leader who defends Russian partners. As Stent notes, one result of the Russian intervention in Syria has been to restore Russia’s position as an alternative arbiter to the United States for Middle Eastern conflicts.

Of course, as Stent makes clear, Putin is not pursuing this course of action simply for Cold War nostalgia. His long-term aim is to ensure that other key power centers in the world—China, Europe, even ultimately the United States—have a vested interest in supporting and sustaining Russia’s role as one of the great powers. One lesson Putin has learned from the collapse of the USSR appears to be the importance of connecting geopolitical imperatives with economic and political benefits; so Putin expects Russian intervention today to pay dividends for the Kremlin, whether in terms of contracts or investments. Moscow has reaped some of the benefits of its activism in the Middle East—whether forging a new energy partnership with Turkey, obtaining lucrative investments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or ensuring that Israel does not join Western sanctions on Russia.

As an analyst, Stent avoids the extremes of hyping up a “Russia threat” or comforting predictions of imminent collapse to point out that “Putin’s foreign policy record is decidedly mixed” with both successes and setbacks, and that while Putin’s Russia has a number of critical weaknesses that impact its ability to sustain its current power projection, there are important sources of strength as well. Western sanctions on Russia post-2014 Ukraine have had an impact in limiting Russian options, while Russia’s “pivot to the East” has not allowed Moscow to completely turn its back on the West. Yet Stent’s narrative shows a Putin team that, despite its troubles, needs to be recognized for how it has largely successfully exploited U.S. setbacks and failures--plus deftly used a much more limited set of resources than either the United States or even what the USSR enjoyed—to resurrect Russia as a global player.

This work is a piece of analysis, not advocacy; it does not describe the Russia that U.S. policymakers might want but the Russia that is. For the same reasons that “Putin’s World” is such a compelling read, however, its conclusions are likely to be papered over by American politicians who do not want to confront realities. Putin is not depicted in these pages as a Dr.-Evil-style villain bent on global domination, and Stent makes it clear that good analysis requires understanding the world from the Kremlin’s point of view. The book’s measured, analytic tone may expose it to charges that it is too sympathetic to or apologetic for the Kremlin. Such claims would be amplified by the fact that Stent’s work provides little analytic justification for some of the deeply held hopes of parts of the U.S. policy establishment: that Russia is near collapse; that Russia’s “malign influence in the world” is all a result of “Putin and his clique”; that an imminent color revolution would ultimately reverse this trend. Stent shows how “Putin’s seven pillars” are in fact views shared across the Russian elite and policy establishment and that Putin’s retirement or replacement would not automatically usher in radical change in Russian policy.

Stent’s analysis does not easily support a narrative that the United States can confront the challenge posed by Russia with little cost, risk or effort or that the U.S. can “isolate” Russia and sit back and wait for change. She makes it clear that “Russia’s … endowments … necessitate engagement. Russia cannot be isolated because it has partnerships with many countries that refuse either to criticize Russia or to sign on to sanctions.” Thus she advises “strategic patience while containing Russia’s ability to disrupt” those relationships and institutions that the U.S. relies upon in maintaining the current global system. In other words, she calls for a long-term approach that can simultaneously deter and contain but also engage with Russia. Indeed, Stent’s recommendations, in my opinion, parallel the approach to Russia exemplified by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron—pressuring Russia to stop its malign activity and fortifying Western defenses, but ring-fencing beneficial areas of cooperation (like arms control or counterterrorism) and, most critically, keeping channels of communication between Moscow and the West open.

Can the U.S. national security system accommodate her recommendations? Throughout the book, Stent stresses a theme that the United States must “be prepared for surprises in dealing with Russia and agile enough to respond to them, just as Putin’s judo mastery has taught him how to prevail over an independent opponent.” Developments over the last two years, however, do not inspire confidence. Congress has passed and continues to contemplate blanket sanctions legislation that strips much of the flexibility the executive branch would need to have greater agility in coping with Russia, while the Trump administration’s failure to adequately staff the government means that, in many key posts, responsible persons with the authority and mandate to develop and execute policy are absent. What is most concerning is that the U.S. seems to be abdicating any proactivity when it comes to Russia policy until after the Trump and Putin tenures in office have ended. If that is the case, then advantage and initiative will continue to rest with Moscow. Stent argues that Putin’s current policies “involve a rapid and shrewd response to opportunities created by Western disarray or inaction,” which has “enabled Russia to reappear on the world stage in unanticipated ways that will continue to challenge the world.” This sounds like it will be a description for the future as well.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.