Fiona Hill speaking at Harvard Kennedy School, February 2017

Fiona Hill on Russia: Insights and Recommendations

August 14, 2017
RM Staff

This evolving compilation of observations and policy ideas about Russia by eminent Russia expert and presidential advisor Fiona Hill is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ alternative takes on U.S.-Russian relations, Russia itself and America’s policies toward this country.

In spring 2017 Ms. Hill joined the National Security Council staff as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs. Prior to her appointment she worked for the better part of a decade at the Brookings Institution and, before then, as a national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council. She is co-author, with her Brookings colleague Clifford Gaddy, of two acclaimed books about Russia—one about President Vladimir Putin, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” (2015), the other about the dire consequences of Soviet economic planning, “The Siberian Curse” (2003).  

Ms. Hill has written prolifically about Russia and this compilation is nowhere near comprehensive in reflecting the depth and breadth of her thinking. It is but a sampling and an invitation to explore further. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another.

Bulleted text that is not italicized, bracketed or in parentheses is a direct quote from Ms. Hill unless otherwise noted. All sections may be updated with new or past statements.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • Putin firmly opposes U.S. policy toward Syria and the threat of force against Iran. But his opposition stems neither from anti-Americanism nor a desire to back the Iranian mullahs or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in their struggles with the West. It is rooted in his obsession with stability. Helping Tehran secure a nuclear weapon and keeping Assad in Damascus are not Putin’s goals. But an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, and NATO or the United Nations intervening in Syria to forcibly remove Assad, would increase global volatility. (New York Times, 02.04.13)

New and original Cold Wars:

  • Paraphrased, approved remarks from Feb. 1, 2017, Belfer Center event: Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 was a declaration of war, but we did not have the imagination to realize this. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • Putin seeks a “New Yalta” with the West in political and security terms. As he defines Moscow’s sphere of influence in this new arrangement, that sphere extends to all the space in Europe and Eurasia that once fell within the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR. Within these vast contours, Putin and Russia have interests that need to be taken into account, interests that override those of all others. For Putin, Russia is the only sovereign state in this neighborhood. None of the other states, in his view, have truly independent standing—they all have contingent sovereignty. The only question for Putin is which of the real sovereign powers (Russia or the United States) prevails in deciding where the borders of the New Yalta finally end up after 2014. … In the meantime, until a “new Yalta” is thrashed out, Russia and the West will remain at war. … This game of chicken will be a long one. Putin’s goal is security for Russia and his system. The means to achieve that goal is deterrence. … [T]here is no definitive endgame. He will keep on playing as long as he perceives the threat to last. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Ultimately, in pursuing Russia’s goals, Putin is a pragmatist. He has to keep a watchful eye on the home front, and Russia does not have the military or economic resources for the mass-army, total-mobilization approach that it adopted during the Cold War to defend itself against the United States and NATO. Putin has to combine conventional, nuclear and non-conventional, non-military—so-called “hybrid”—means of defense. (Brookings, 03.03.16)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Paraphrased, approved remarks from Feb. 1, 2017, Belfer Center event: For the Russians there is no such thing as a “hybrid war.” In terms of Russian strategic thinking, from a military perspective, it’s all part of one very large tool kit—going from nuclear all the way through to political efforts. Many analysts and commentators in Russia talk about Syria as a nodal point in that war now because of changes to the regional order; they talk about Ukraine as a proxy war with the U.S. And the full-frontal attack on our elections is part of this strategic thinking. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • In Georgia in 2008, for example, Putin called the West’s bluff about standing by its friends—which is what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the West would do during a visit to Tbilisi shortly before the August war. From Putin’s perspective, given all the emphasis the Bush Administration put on Georgia in its foreign policy, he thought this meant that the United States was prepared to fight militarily, not just rhetorically, for Georgia. Moscow was steeled for a possible fight with NATO. … When the United States and NATO did not come to Georgia’s aid militarily, and the European Union, with then French President Nicholas Sarkozy out in front, rushed to broker a ceasefire, there was a sigh of relief in Moscow. NATO was still a formidable conventional fighting force, of course, but it did not have the political will to fight for partners outside the alliance, and the frame of Article 5—even if (as in the case of Georgia) those partners were fighting alongside NATO forces in coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Putin understood that the United States’ security priorities were focused elsewhere. The West wanted to contain Russia on the cheap in Europe and Eurasia. The United States, NATO and the EU would do everything they could to head off another major military confrontation, a “World War III,” in Europe. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • The preferred scenario for Russia in Europe, as Putin has repeatedly made clear, would be one without NATO and without any other strategic alliances that are embedded in the European Union’s security concepts. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • Putin was personally angered by events in Libya and the death of President Muammar Qaddafi at the hands of rebels as Qaddafi tried to flee Tripoli after NATO’s intervention in the civil war there. In Putin’s view (again expressed openly in his public addresses and in interviews), the United States was now responsible for a long sequence of revolutions close to Russia’s borders and in countries with close ties to Moscow. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • Neither NATO nor Russia would want a miscalculation—say, a NATO fighter misreading a Russian plane’s actions and shooting it down—that could lead inadvertently to a larger armed clash. An agreement could set down rules on how to approach an aircraft or ship, and whom to call in the case of an uncertain situation. Such measures could and should become part of standard operating procedures. (The New York Times, 06.15.15)
  • In spite of the saber-rattling, Mr. Putin and the Kremlin do not want war with NATO. Mr. Putin is not hell-bent on the destruction of Russia or his presidency in a nuclear exchange. But Russian security elites know they lack the economic and military resources for a major conventional conflict, so Moscow has to accomplish its goals without triggering total mobilization—through hybrid tactics and bullying, including threats of a nuclear strike. And here lies the problem. Limiting the risks of miscalculation between NATO and Russian military units would seem to be a no-brainer. No one wants an accidental war. But, given Mr. Putin’s desire to intimidate the West, would the Kremlin permit such a dialogue to go forward? (The New York Times, 06.15.15)
  • The United States is on a dangerous trajectory in its relations with Russia, a nuclear superpower that believes itself to be under direct threat. (The Washington Post, 02.05.15)
  • See also “New and original Cold Wars” above.

Missile defense:

  • Paraphrased in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: Putin wants the U.S. to cancel plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, including bases in Romania and Poland. (Los Angeles Times, 12.14.16)
  • These dangerous Russian games of chicken [involving military craft] are now regular occurrences and come hard upon a Russian threat … to aim nuclear missiles at Danish warships if Denmark joins NATO’s missile defense system. (New York Times, 06.15.15)

Nuclear arms control:

  • We are now back in a similar frame to the nuclear war scare of the 1980s, which only ended with the Reagan and Gorbachev summitry that led to the conclusion of the 1987 INF Treaty. (Brookings, 02.10.16)


  • Putin does not discriminate between one terrorist group and another. An extremist is an extremist in his view—especially if they seek to topple governments, overthrow the acknowledged head of the state, and seize territory. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • A desire to contain extremism is a major reason why Putin offered help to the United States in battling the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is also why Russia maintains close relations with Shia Iran, which acts as a counterweight to Sunni powers. (Foreign Affairs, 03.25.13)
  • There is a broad culture of mistrust that is going to be very hard to change… That’s a huge obstacle to moving forward on counterterrorism. It’s the same sets of people who have to cooperate. (The Washington Post, 05.08.13)

Conflict in Syria:

  • From Moscow’s perspective, the collapse of Assad in Syria with no alternative strongman on the scene would create a political and military vacuum and more chaos. Assad would have to stay in place until someone could be identified to keep some semblance of the Syrian state together. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • [Putin’s] aversion to forcible regime change is intense and unwavering. … Why has Putin offered such steadfast support to Assad? On the surface, Moscow seems to profit from exporting arms to Syria, and it depends on the regime’s good will to maintain Russian access to a naval facility at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. But these are marginal and symbolic interests. Putin is really motivated to support the Assad regime by his fear of state collapse—a fear he confronted most directly during the secession of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which he brutally suppressed in a bloody civil war and counterinsurgency operation fought between 1999 and 2009. (Foreign Affairs, 03.25.13)
  • One of the understudied aspects of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is the ramifications it could have for the Russian government’s relations with Muslims back at home. Moscow is now home to the largest Muslim community of any city in Europe (with between 1.5 and 2 million Muslims out of a population of around 13 million, although illegal immigration has distorted many of the figures). (Brookings, 05.23.16)
  • Putin sees Russia in for the long haul in Syria. (Brookings, 05.23.16)
  • From now on, Moscow wants to be an agenda setter and order creator in the Middle East. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • See also “U.S. policies toward Russia and bilateral relations in general” section below.

Election interference/cyber security:

  • Paraphrased, approved remarks from Feb. 1, 2017, Belfer Center event: What is unusual is the backdrop of an American election process with unprecedented efforts by Russia to have influence in it, although Moscow denies this. It is, however, not unusual for one power to want to have a say in what another power does, whether an adversary or a friend. It is just that the technological tools for having an impact have improved and, with a few taps of computer keys, rather than physical action, you can start to shape events. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • On cyber warfare: The Russians think we’ve been doing it to them all the time… They’re telling us to knock it off. (Los Angeles Times, 12.14.16)
  • Remarks from Nov. 20, 2016, interview with The Atlantic: The Russians didn’t create the dissent behind the election’s outcome, Hill argued. Rather, like all good propagandists, they “were riding the tide of dissent.”“Clinton was eminently vulnerable and eminently exploitable,” Hill continued. “Nobody invented Anthony Weiner, did they? And Putin didn’t make the decision for Hillary Clinton to have a private [email] server.” (The Atlantic, 11.20.16)
  • Putin and the Kremlin recognized Americans’ anger with the political establishment, because they are always on the alert for it at home. (Brookings, 11.11.16)
  • Putin and the Kremlin seemed to recognize that this election was really a referendum on America’s future. The November 8 ballot, as Trump also understood, was more like the June 23 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. (Brookings, 11.11.16)
  • 3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the U.S. presidential elections:
    • Putin thinks the U.S. already did it to him first.
    • Putin thinks and acts like a KGB operative.
    • Putin wants a weakened U.S. presidency. (Brookings, 08.03.16)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • For Russia, the world price of oil is the single-most important factor for the future of its economy. In the short term, the price of oil dictates overall growth rates. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.11)

Bilateral economic ties:

  • Most of all Putin is concerned about the economy. He literally wants to do business—trade and investment—with the West. (Brookings, 01.13.17)

U.S. policies toward Russia and bilateral issues in general:

  • [The Russians want] the old sit-down like they had with FDR at Potsdam and Yalta, working out what’s their piece of real estate and what’s ours… They want to have the U.S. acknowledge that they’re a great power and have the right to have a veto over things that they don’t like. (The Atlantic, 11.20.16)
  • Unlike the old Yalta of the post-World War II Soviet period, Putin’s New Yalta does not extend to economics. Putin wants preferential, even protectionist, provisions for the Russian economy, but he does not espouse the creation of rigid opposing economic blocs or autarky. That simply will not work in today’s global economy. Putin does not want to put Russia on a path to international isolation. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • In spite of his decision to go to war in Georgia in 2008 and again in Ukraine in 2014, Putin still wants to do business with the West. In political terms, this means collaboration when security interests actually do overlap. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Remarks from Nov. 20, 2016, interview with The Atlantic: Russia, she explained, has “always been an expansionist power—on the go all the time, not one to give up anything and concede anything—pretty much like the United States. It wants to have a veto, just like the United States has in its view, on international treaties and various issues. We’re going to have an awful lot of friction. And Trump isn’t exactly the most diplomatic of people. So I imagine he’ll fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly.” (The Atlantic, 11.20.16)
  • The Russians mirror-image and think, “Ah, yes. The United States is about to collapse. Look, this is the Soviet Union of the late ’80s teetering on the brink: economic collapse, overextension of foreign wars … social dislocation, dissatisfaction with the system.” (The Atlantic, 11.20.16)
  • The color revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 further darkened Putin’s view of U.S. activities. For Moscow, Georgia was a tiny failed state, but Ukraine was a smaller version of Russia. (The Atlantic, 02.16.15)
  • In Putin’s reading of the last decade or more, the threats come almost exclusively from the United States. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • The paradox of all this—including the nuclear brinksmanship—is that although Putin wants the West to back off and leave Russia alone, he does not want Russia to become a pariah state, stuck on the outside of the big international institutions and decisions. This would be detrimental to Russian interests. Putin wants to intimidate Western leaders and their publics, but his big mission is to get Russia a seat at the table with the West, on Russia’s terms, which he declares is on “equal” terms with the United States. Putin wants to thrash out a deal with the United States on any critical issue that could affect Russia’s interests. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • The best way to ensure that Putin will act as a spoiler on these and other issues which issues? is to try to isolate Russia. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • Russia today poses a greater foreign policy and security challenge to the United States and its Western allies than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Its annexation of Crimea, war in Ukraine’s Donbas region and military intervention in Syria have upended Western calculations from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. Russia’s intervention in Syria, in particular, is a stark reminder that Russia is a multi-regional power—as much by intent as by geography. (Brookings, 03.03.16)
  • The U.S. security response to the Russian challenge will have to encompass the arc of a long game. Strategic patience must accompany the judicious balance of elements of deterrence, defense and constraint, along with clear incentives and direct engagement with Putin and his inner circle. (Brookings, 03.03.16)
  • “The problem you Americans have in dealing with us is that you think you understand us, but you don’t. You look at the Chinese and you think: ‘They’re not like us.’ You look at us Russians, and you think, ‘They’re like us.’ But you’re wrong. We are not like you.” Over the past few years, top-ranking Russians have repeatedly delivered versions of the admonition above to American interlocutors. We’ve been told that it comes originally from Vladimir Putin. (The Atlantic, 02.16.15)
  • Russian leaders and elites vastly inflate the U.S. capacity to shape events, even under the best of circumstances. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.11)
  • And if Putin deems that a decision puts Russia at risk, he wants the same right Russia has in the United Nations Security Council—the right of a veto. The West clearly doesn’t accept this, but right now does not know how to respond. (Brookings, 02.11.15)
  • Regarding the U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis: We face a huge challenge in devising a strategy to deal with Russia that does not fuel this escalatory cycle and puts Ukraine on another path. We also need to draw bright lines around transatlantic unity and work to preserve it. It is hard to find effective alternatives to the current sanctions policy, but if we plunge headlong into sending weapons, we may lose our allies, and we may never have the opportunity to get things right. (The Washington Post, 02.05.15)
  • The United States and European Union must send strong signals to Moscow that punishing Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine for pursuing their European ambitions has consequences for our relations. This will require deft diplomacy and close coordination on joint programs and responses, as the actual sticks that we can muster against Russian misbehavior are limited. (Brookings, 01.23.14)

II. Russia’s domestic developments, history and personalities

Russia’s domestic developments:

  • Paraphrased, approved remarks from Feb. 1, 2017, Belfer Center event: Elections do matter in Russia, insofar as they put popular faith back into the presidency. And Putin wants to make sure there will be no outside efforts to influence that election, as he believed happened in 2011-2012. So we can imagine more pre-emptive aggression coming from Russia as a deterrent. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • Putin first took the 2011-2012 protests as a signal that the West had opened another front of attack and he would need to take immediate preparatory action. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Putin still draws his support from the regions outside Moscow, and the Kremlin remains obsessed with shoring up that support. Putin and his team are in permanent campaign mode. (Brookings, 11.11.16)
  • The religious wars in the Middle East are not a side show for Russia. Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to Syria from Russia, as well as from Central Asia and the South Caucasus, all attracted by the extreme messages of ISIS and other groups. (Brookings, 05.23.16)
  • Putin’s Russia is a one-man show. … [T]here is no oligarchy or separate set of economic, business, or political interests that compete with Putin. In the end, he makes the decisions. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • In Putin’s mindset, the main threats to Russia right now lie inside Russia, where Trojan horses and Fifth Columnists have been deployed by the West to exacerbate and exploit Russia’s internal contradictions and divisions. In the Russian worldview, the sprawling multiethnic and multiconfessional states of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union were always strong in territory, but weak politically. The Soviet Union was vulnerable because of all the infighting among national elites, just as the Russian empire fell apart because of separatist and popular revolts when it was embroiled in war. In each case, in Putin’s view, the West—the Germans in World War I, the United States in the Cold War—exploited internal fissures to help bring the colossus to its knees. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • There is a general consensus in Russia, deeply rooted in the political elite since the collapse of the USSR, that the current world order, and especially the European political and security order, disadvantage[s] Russia. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • For Putin, the inner circle, and many Russians, the idea that Russia should become “just another European state” or be viewed as a regional power is antithetical to their core beliefs about Russia’s status and position in the world. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • Anti-Americanism is always one of the stock tools of the political trade in Russia. The volume of the rhetoric is turned up and down (although never completely off) depending on the circumstances. (Brookings, 03.02.12)
  • Two key challenges are facing Russia as it seeks to attract skilled labor and entrepreneurs to help modernize and overhaul the economy. First it is, ironically, easier for a Russian émigré from California to move to and set up a new business south of Moscow than it is for a Russian from Vladivostok (often thought of as the “San Francisco” of the Russian Far East) to move to Moscow. … Second, the state, rather than personal choice and the private sector, tends to be the primary determinant of who goes and does what, where. (Brookings, 10.08.10)
  • The current cohort of reproductive-age females is the largest ever in Russia, but by 2012, this group will begin to shrink as the much smaller cohort born during the 1990s, when births were at an all-time low, begins to take its place. Similarly, as the current, comparatively large, cohort of working-age Russians begins to retire it will be replaced by a less numerous group. (Brookings, 10.08.10)
  • Russia’s greatest dilemma today is that it must connect an economy that is both physically vast in size and terribly misdeveloped. This is a costly endeavor, and is also likely to be inefficient once accomplished if connections are pursued within the framework of Russia’s current economic geography. (Brookings, 11.04.03)
  • Until Russia’s leaders come to terms with Siberia’s misdevelopment—and overdevelopment—during the 20th century, their efforts to build a competitive market economy and a normal democratic society are likely to fail. (Brookings, 09.01.03)

Russian history:

  • Paraphrased, approved remarks from Feb. 1, 2017, Belfer Center event: The Bolsheviks specialized in agitprop and propaganda. And when you look at what they’ve been doing this last 100 years, they’ve been riding a tide that was already there, exploiting vulnerabilities in some cases, but really giving a nudge in the direction of larger trends. Lenin embraced all kinds of causes that were not intrinsic to the revolution, including the nationalist aspirations of Ukrainians and other nationalities in the former Russian empire. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • In the 1990s when Yeltsin did not take strong action on issues inimical to Russia’s interests, U.S. and European leaders routinely assumed that this was because Yeltsin had made a strategic decision not to do so. … Yeltsin, Western leaders concluded, had put his priority on good relations with the West no matter what. But Yeltsin and Russia were heavily indebted to the West. … In many respects, Yeltsin could not act in the 1990s because Russia was constrained. If Yeltsin made a threat it was empty. He did not have the resources, the capacity to back it up. Vladimir Putin has no such constraints. Sanctions hurt, but they do not deter him as they deterred Yeltsin. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • The Soviet Union was an early victim of globalization in the late 1980s and 1990s. It was hopelessly uncompetitive outside the energy and arms sectors in global markets. … During Putin’s first two terms, a fortunate, sustained rise in oil and gas prices improved circumstances considerably. The state had revenues to redistribute. Moribund industries were revitalized. Wages rose. Pensions were paid. Putin’s economics team conducted a careful, even exemplary, fiscal policy. (Brookings, 11.11.16)
  • Russia is a Muslim state. Islam is arguably older than Christianity in traditional Russian territory––with Muslim communities first appearing in southeastern Russia in the 8th century. (Brookings, 05.23.16)
  • The Russia of the 1990s that the West so admired was, in practice, not a sovereign country. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • Modernization, in one form or another, is a perennial Russian theme—be it in the form of Peter the Great “Europeanizing” Russia in the 1690s and 1700s by forcing Russian men to cut off their beards and adopt European clothing styles or raising St. Petersburg (the “Venice of the North”) from the swamps of the Baltic coast, or Stalin building “Socialism in One Country” from the 1920s to the 1950s, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” (reconstruction) in the 1980s. (Brookings, 10.08.10)


  • Paraphrased, approved remarks from Feb. 1, 2017, Belfer Center event: Putin is a former KGB operative and he continues to think like one, and he is proud of his skill set. He talks about being a specialist in human resources, and in the use of information, and extols the virtues of the techniques he mastered in the KGB, and their application to politics. In the very contentious U.S. political race I think he saw incredible opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities on all fronts. Putin and the people around him are strategists. We have always underestimated him, as if he is some rank opportunist. Well, you can’t take advantage of opportunities that come along unless you know what you want to do with them. For the whole of his time in office, Putin has prioritized “Russia’s interests first.” (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • Vladimir Putin needs to be taken seriously. He will make good on every promise or threat—if Putin says he will do something, then he is prepared to do it; and he will find a way of doing it, using every method at his disposal. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Putin has no reliable interlocutors in the West from his perspective, only a handful of intermediaries. And he simply does not trust anyone. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Vladimir Putin is a fighter and he is a survivalist. He won’t give up, and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Judo moved the street kid from anything-goes scraps into formalized matches. It gave him insight and techniques to figure out ways of pushing bigger, stronger opponents to the mat while protecting himself. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • In the domestic and foreign policy arenas, Putin constantly sizes up his opponents and probes for physical and psychological weaknesses. Putin’s adaptation of Nixon’s “Madman Theory” approach helps flush these weaknesses out—it helps gauge reactions: They think I’m dangerous, and unpredictable, how do they respond to this?  Have I got them unbalanced and on the back foot as a result? Then Putin tests his opponents to see if they mean what they say—will they also be prepared to fight, and fight to the end? If they are not, then he will exploit their empty threats to show them up, intimidate, deter, and defeat them. If they are prepared to fight, and he is outweighed or outgunned by his adversaries, then he will look for unconventional moves that get around their defenses so that he can outmaneuver them. In judo you can win on points over the course of a series of matches even if you are far smaller than your opponent and lose some of the individual rounds. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • [C]ontrary to the prevailing external assessment, Putin is a strategic planner. The notion that Putin is an opportunist, at best an improviser, but not a strategist, is a dangerous misread. Putin thinks, plans, and acts strategically. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Putin has the same priorities today that he laid out at the beginning of his presidency in December 1999. His larger strategic goal is ensuring the defense of Russia’s interests—which are tightly fused with, and now largely inseparable from, his own and his system’s interests. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Another aspect of Putin’s strategic approach is to simplify and streamline his leadership at home and his interactions abroad. By creating a system in which he only has to deal with a small number of actors, Putin frees himself from having to deal with details and messy dynamics. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Putin has only a handful of contacts with U.S. and European insiders and thus a very incomplete grasp of what motivates or drives Western leaders. Finding himself too far outside their political perspectives and interactions, Putin falls back on his (and Russia’s) age-old threat perceptions. He looks for, and finds, plots and conspiracies. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Putin is, himself, a political performance artist. Putin’s appearances are carefully orchestrated to suit the mood of his audience. (Brookings, 11.11.16)
  • Putin personally—as he underscores—finds it hard to trust anyone. (Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, 04.13.16)
  • As Russian president, he has no larger institutional arrangements or political party beneath or behind him like Soviet-era leaders did with the politburo and the Communist Party. Putin has availed himself of the centrality of the Russian presidency in the Russian constitution to concentrate power around himself. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • Vladimir Putin is somewhat unique in his style of leadership and in the methods he uses, but he is by no means an anomaly in his views within Russia—nor is the current personalized nature of Russian governance something out of the ordinary. (Brookings, 02.10.16)
  • Putin is a practitioner of realpolitik in its starkest form. In his interactions with regional leaders, Putin has laid out his view that all the states that emerged from the USSR are appendages of Russia. They should pay fealty to Moscow. (The National Interest, 02.24.15)
  • [M]any in the West underestimate Putin's willingness to fight for as long and as hard (and as dirty) as necessary to achieve his goals. (“Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” 2015)
  • Putin is best understood as a composite of multiple identities that stem from those experiences, and which help explain his improbable rise from KGB operative and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg to the pinnacle of Russian power. Of these multiple identities, six are most prominent: Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • In Russia, individuals exist to serve the state and their rights are therefore secondary. From his earliest days in the Kremlin, Putin has pursued the goal of restoring and strengthening the state—by rediscovering and taking back Russia’s fundamental values, re-energizing its historical traditions and abandoning the practice of blindly copying abstract Western models. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • His family’s harrowing tale from World War II fits neatly into the national historical narrative—one in which Russia constantly battles for survival against a hostile outside world. The critical lesson from centuries of domestic turbulence, invasion and war is that the Russian state always survives in one form or another. Every calamity weathered reaffirms Russia’s resilience and its special status in history. This has been a rhetorical touchstone for Putin, as well as for many others from his generation. … Throughout his presidency, Putin has raised survivalism from the personal to the national level. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Putin has made a virtue of this outsider status throughout his presidency, stressing his connections to “ordinary” Russians and distancing himself from Moscow’s resented elites. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Regarding Putin’s former role as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg: As such, Putin seems to have emerged from his St. Petersburg experience with the view that winners in the market system are those who are best able to exploit the vulnerabilities of others, not necessarily those who provide the best goods and services at the most favorable prices. This perspective set him up to exploit the vulnerabilities of others, including Russian businessmen, to manipulate them and ensure that they followed the directives of the Kremlin. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • As a case officer in the KGB, Putin had learned how to identify, recruit and run agents, and acquired the patience to cultivate sources. He also learned how to collect, synthesize and use information. These tools proved invaluable in bringing Russia’s oligarchs to heel. (Foreign Policy, 02.15.13)
  • Putin’s favorite quote these days is, “We do not need great upheavals. We need a great Russia,” a paraphrase of Stolypin’s famous rebuke to his fellow Duma deputies in 1907: “You, gentlemen, are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of a Great Russia.” (The National Interest, 01.01.12)

Succession after Putin:

  • The increased preponderance of power in the Kremlin has created greater risk for the Russian political system now than at any other juncture in recent history. (Daedalus, 03.27.17)
  • Absent a formal power arrangement, choosing a successor is a risky business in a political culture like Russia’s. Name a successor too early in the process and he, or his supporters, may be emboldened to accelerate your departure. Pick a weak successor and all bets are off. (Daedalus, 03.27.17)
  • As a result of Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015, security elites gained considerable traction at the top of the Russian political system. The security sector is traditionally the area of greatest risk in any political setting: Security elites literally call the shots and are the power base for potential coups, like the attempted putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. (Daedalus, 03.27.17)
  • Millions of people, not just Putin’s closest associates, are either directly vested in the current political system or see their livelihoods as dependent on it. Although Russian polling indicates considerable dissatisfaction with the performance of the Russian government and concern about the future trajectory of the country, there is no evident demand for a different system, or, as yet, a different president. (Daedalus, 03.27.17)
  • Putin may still have decades of natural life ahead of him; he will need his own “brilliant move” to ensure continued influence in Russian politics and a safe retirement. Given the number of examples of party-based power and succession mechanisms, including past Soviet and Russian precedents, shifting to a party rather than a personalized presidency for system management could be one move. (Daedalus, 03.27.17)

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • Regarding factors that influenced Putin’s new approach to the West: Putin’s second signal [that the West had opened another front of attack and he would need to take immediate preparatory action] was the European association agreements in 2013, combined with the EU’s decision to initiate its Third Energy Package and the financial crisis in Cyprus in March 2013. All this revealed how negative attitudes toward Russia had become in Brussels and Berlin. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • Regarding the U.S. boom in natural gas drilling: This is where everything is being turned on its head. … [Russia’s] days of dominating the European gas markets are gone. (AP, 09.30.12)
  • Turkey and Russia form another such couple, as states with histories of conflict, deep structural differences and divergent views, which seem to have come together more out of frustration with the United States than a new strategic vision of world affairs. (Brookings, 03.01.06)
  • The question should not be “how many islands will Russia return to Japan?”, but rather “should Russia seek to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Japan that resolves this dispute in a way that enhances Russia’s security, political standing and economic well-being?” (Belfer Center Report, 10.06.16)
  • See also “New and original Cold Wars” and “Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations” above.


  • Moscow is … wary of China’s regional ambitions, in spite of its partnership with Beijing. China’s expanding naval activities in and beyond the Pacific Ocean have increasingly intruded on Russia’s maritime domain. (Belfer Center Report, 10.06.16)
  • Regarding Putin’s speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum: The shift in economic focus might sound very much like the U.S. pivot to Asia, and Russia has indeed begun to reassert its military presence in the Asia-Pacific like the United States and other regional powers. What is different, however, is that Moscow has taken great pains to emphasize that its primary goal is to cooperate, not compete, with Beijing. (Foreign Affairs Magazine, 07.31.13)
  • Like the United States and many others, Russia subscribes to the fashionable notion that a global shift in power to the East is under way. Russia also shares the current understanding that the rise of China comes at the expense of the United States and the West. But unlike those of other European countries, Russia’s pivot is driven as much by its anxiety about the vulnerability of its sparsely populated eastern flank as by its desire to project influence. (Foreign Affairs Magazine, 07.31.13)
  • Fears of an energy-fueled Russian-Chinese alliance against U.S. interests that darkened some American analyses of the relationship in the 2000s may fade to more nuanced shades of gray in 2010-2020, as Russia and Chinese interests begin to diverge. (Brookings report, 08.31.10)


  • Annexing Crimea and setting the rest of Ukraine on fire were contingency operations. They were prepared in advance, ready to be used if needed—but only if needed. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • As far as what Vladimir Putin might do next, it seems rather clear: He will keep Ukraine boiling, and he will prepare for contingency operations elsewhere in the neighborhood. (Brookings, 01.13.17)
  • It is entirely possible that Russian policy regarding Ukraine and Donbas could evolve. U.S. policy should be prepared to evolve with it. Donbas is a sprawling territory with an impoverished population, destroyed infrastructure and, by now, a deeply damaged economic base that will take years, if not decades, to restore. The Kremlin has shown zero interest in annexing the occupied region, which would entail costs far in excess of annexing Crimea. This suggests that, at some juncture, Moscow will be open to an accommodation with Kyiv. (Brookings, 10.06.16)
  • The situation with Crimea is different. Russia has absorbed Crimea into its existing federal structures. (Brookings, 10.06.16)
  • The U.S. should:
    • Insist that Kyiv accelerate reform efforts and, if it does, work with Europe to offer greater assistance;
    • Continue current military aid to Ukraine and consider provision of defensive arms, depending on circumstances on the ground;
    • Maintain pressure on Moscow to comply with Minsk II, while signaling that Russian implementation of Minsk II would lead to better relations with the West;
    • Be ready to enter the negotiating process if and when a real prospect emerges for a solution to the Donbas conflict;
    • Avoid displacing Germany and France in the negotiations and make sure that Ukraine is present and represented in any supplemental diplomatic frameworks; and
    • Continue the policy of nonrecognition of Crimea’s illegal annexation by Russia. (Brookings, 10.06.16)
  • He firmly believes, as he has laid out in many statements, that the battle for the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is a proxy war with the West. (Reuters, 02.26.15)
  • The logic of sending weapons to Ukraine seems straightforward and is the same as the logic for economic sanctions: to change Vladi­mir Putin’s “calculus.” … We strongly disagree [with calls on the West to provide military support to Ukraine]. The evidence points in a different direction. If we follow the recommendations of this report, the Ukrainians won’t be the only ones caught in an escalating military conflict with Russia. (The Washington Post, 02.05.15)
  • Our problem is that we do not fully understand Putin’s calculus, just as he does not understand ours. In Putin’s view, the United States, the European Union and NATO have launched an economic and proxy war in Ukraine to weaken Russia and push it into a corner. As Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, has underscored, this is a hybrid, 21st-century conflict, in which financial sanctions, support for oppositional political movements and propaganda have all been transformed from diplomatic tools to instruments of war. Putin likely believes that any concession or compromise he makes will encourage the West to push further. (The Washington Post, 02.05.15)
  • In the jargon of geopolitics, Putin enjoys “escalation dominance” in Ukraine: Whatever move we make, he can match it and go further. (The Washington Post, 02.05.15)
  • See also “U.S. policies toward Russia and bilateral relations in general” section above.

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Since 2000, Russia’s greatest contribution to the security and stability of its vulnerable southern tier has not been through its military presence on bases, its troop deployments, or security pacts and arms sales. Rather, it has been through absorbing the surplus labor of regional states, providing markets for their goods, and transferring funds in the form of remittances (rather than foreign aid). Migration to Russia has become the region’s safety valve. (Current History, 10.01.08)
  • An analysis of the conflicts in the republics of the former Soviet Union since 1992, reveals a disturbing pattern. In each of the conflicts, there is evidence to suggest that Russia has intervened in such a way as to promote their escalation and/or continuation instead of their cessation. (“Back in the USSR: Russia’s Intervention in the Internal Affairs of the Former Soviet Republics and the Implications for United States Policy Toward Russia,” January 1994)
  • See also “New and original Cold Wars,” “Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations” and “U.S. policies toward Russia and bilateral relations in general” above.

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