Moscow center

The Future of Russia

March 01, 2021
Thomas Graham, George Beebe, Steven Pifer and Michael McFaul

The following is a four-part debate between Thomas Graham, George Beebe, Steven Pifer and Michael McFaul about the future of Russia. The exchange was hosted by Pairagraph—a new platform that brings together distinguished individuals for conversations about great events and great ideas. For the exchange in its original form, click here.

Thomas Graham

Predicting Russia’s future is the bane of Russia watchers. One of the greatest, George Kennan, suggested that the policy of containment could vanquish the Soviet threat in 10-15 years; it took nearly 45. The experts failed to foresee the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Widespread predictions in the 1990s that Russia was on the path to democracy ran afoul of an entrenched authoritarian mindset. Late in that decade, I wrote an essay entitled “A World Without Russia?” that traced a decades-long decline in Russian power and predicted it would continue. Alas! Humility is in order.

One prediction, though, we can make with complete confidence: A post-Putin Russia will eventually emerge. We just don’t know when or what it will look like. A lively debate over the possibilities is already underway. Observers fall into two broad camps, what we might call the Historians, who stress the enduring patterns of history, and the Sociologists, who are more attuned to the logic of change and development.

For the Historians, to whom I am partial, Putin’s Russia shares political characteristics with its Soviet and Tsarist predecessors: the concentration of power and property in the hands of a small elite, centralization and personalization of political power, exploitation of society for the state’s benefit, and suppression of a vibrant civil society. The details are of course different. Today’s Russia is hardly a replica of 15th century Muscovy. But the political DNA is the same.

Similarly, Putin’s foreign policy is grounded in a strategic framework with deep roots in Russian history. He faces the same challenge his predecessors did: How to defend a vast, sparsely-populated. multiethnic country located on a territory without formidable physical barriers that abuts powerful states or unstable regions. And he seeks security as they did in strategic depth, buffer zones, tight internal control, disruption of hostile coalitions, and wary alignment with powerful neighbors. Again, the details vary over time, but the logic remains the same.

Not surprisingly, the Historians tend to believe post-Putin Russia will eventually revert to this historical pattern, even if it goes through an unstable period that suggests otherwise. That is what happened after the Revolution in 1917 and the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. And that means the United States will likely continue to face a tough competitor in the decades ahead and not welcome a democratic Russia as a partner, as we once hoped to.

The Historians should be wary, however, of falling into a crude determinism that blinds them to possibility of radical change. One thing history teaches is that states rise and fall, and some disappear, as the surrounding political, economic, and technological context creates new requirements for viability. That is a critical lesson for today, as technology rapidly and dramatically changes the way we govern and wage wars. In these circumstances, whether the historical Russian state will remain viable is an open question. On this point, the Sociologists perhaps have something to teach the Historians.

George Beebe

It is probably not accidental that Tom Graham’s opening thoughts do not mention Aleksey Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader and political activist who has so dominated media coverage of Russia over the past several months. Tracking the daily drama of poisonings, protests, and power struggles can make for good headlines, but it can also distract from the bigger forces that are driving Russia’s development behind the scenes. In approaching the daunting topic of Russia’s post-Putin future, Tom rightly juxtaposes the prime movers of change against the inertial forces of continuity, such as the strictures of geography and the muscle-memory of tradition and culture.

What then are the key drivers of change? One of the biggest is technology. For much of its history, Russia has meant remoteness. Vast distances have separated its central government from its people, from potential invaders, and from foreign ideas. This remoteness was a two-edged sword: it made Russia difficult to conquer and influence from without, but also contributed to late modernization and uneven development that deprived it of organic stability within. Modern military technology, however, is eroding the defensive benefits of geographical distance, while information technology is making it more difficult prevent news and ideas from crossing Russian borders.

A related factor is economics. Russia’s economy is based on its extractive industries, but competitiveness in the world’s 21st-century knowledge-based economy rests much more on data, innovation, advanced education, and networking than it does on raw materials and factory labor. Russian mathematicians and scientists are among the world’s best, but their ability to turn scientific advances into commercial technology depends to a great extent on freedoms that the Kremlin has been loath to grant and protect.

A third factor, and perhaps the most intractable, is nature. Climate change is bound to be disruptive even for cold-weather countries such as Russia, which will have to contend with melting permafrost, the spread of new or reawakened diseases, and the pressures of migration from newly uninhabitable regions, in addition to the opening of Arctic sea routes and development.

Does this mean that radical change is inevitable? Not at all. Putin is attempting to balance the forces of change with the weight of Russia’s culture and historic traditions, in the hope that he can buy time for orderly evolution rather than destabilizing disruption. As a result, Russia has become the political equivalent of Schroedinger’s Cat: it is a mass of contradictions, simultaneously democratic and authoritarian, xenophobic and multicultural, revisionist and status quo. The Putinist present embraces many incompatible forces, any or none of which might become dominant in the future.

Nonetheless, this list should be sobering for those that are confident that the Russia of the future will look very much like the Russia of the present. In anticipating the ways that disruptive and inertial forces might interact to shape Russian developments, we should remember how often our confident forecasts (most of which have employed the construction “will continue to”) have proved wrong in the past.

Steven Pifer

As Tom noted in his opening, making predictions about Russia's future is difficult. (Predictions in general are tough, especially about the future, as that great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said.)

Tom pointed out how the political DNA and characteristics of today's Kremlin reflect those of hundreds of years of its Soviet and Tsarist antecedents. But is the security challenge that Putin faces--"to defend a vast, sparsely-populated, multiethnic country located on a territory without formidable physical barriers that abuts powerful states or unstable regions"--really the same as that with which so many of his predecessors had to contend?

Strategic depth and buffer zones mattered greatly to Russia in the past, and it resorted to expansion to solve its security dilemmas. Today, however, Russia holds the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in addition to formidable conventional and unconventional military capabilities. The country's physical circumstances are roughly similar--okay, somewhat reduced--but does Russia today face the same threat of invasion that confronted the Soviet Union in 1941 or the Russian Empire in 1812?

To hear the current Kremlin leadership tell it, the answer is "yes." Putin and company use and perpetuate the image of a beleaguered Russia for political purposes. It justifies tight domestic control at home, including locking up opponents such as Aleksey Navalny. It offers a way to explain domestic protest--something orchestrated from abroad--as well as someone to blame for an economy that underperforms in meeting its citizens' needs--the West. It rationalizes pursuing a sphere of interest and using military force to do so (even though that has had the opposite effect, increasingly pushing Russia's neighbors to turn away from Moscow).

Can Russia change in the future? George has outlined factors that could--could, not necessarily will--bring change. I would add that another factor might be a future Russian leadership that stops exploiting the country's past for political reasons. Russians are not going to forget their history. But some compartmentalization might facilitate change.

Michael McFaul

In very few words, Tom Graham elegantly captures the essence of the debate about Russia between the “Sociologists” and the “Historians”. He leans towards what he calls the “Historian” camp, or what I would label structural and deterministic theories of continuity. I lean toward his “Sociologist” camp, but then add contingency and leaders, variables shaped but not determined by modernization forces.

Of course, historical institutions and legacies shape current politics, but they do not determine them. If they always determined outcomes, then all of Europe (including Russia) would still be ruled by kings. The United States would still be a British colony with slavery and without female suffrage. Even more recently, some arguments about the “political DNA” of countries have not aged well. It was not long ago that both Historians and Sociologists argued that Germans and Japanese had autocratic political DNA. Just a few decades ago, prominent social scientists developed elaborate cultural theories for why Catholics preferred dictators (like their Pope) because there was a strong correlation in the world between Catholic countries and autocracies. Those theories didn’t stand the test of time. I wonder if social scientists writing in 2051 will look back on our theories about the relationship between autocracy and Russian culture (or Chinese and Islamic culture) and wonder why we continued to confuse causation and correlation.

At the same time, Russian illiberal, autocratic culture and institutions have proven very resilient. For most of recorded history, some form of autocracy has ruled Russian territory. Vladimir Putin most certainly aims to convey continuity with tsarist traditions. Many Russian citizens seem to embrace the story (although its always hard to know what citizens in autocracies actually think). But two big factors – one sociological and one related to contingency and leaders – suggest caution in predicting the longevity of Russian autocratic continuity.

First, over centuries, we know there is a strong relationship between wealth and democracy. With the exceptions of Singapore and Qatar, 18 of the world’s 20 richest countries today in GDP per capita terms are democracies. Russians are some of the richest people in the world living under autocracy. Is that stable? I doubt it.

Second, even in Russia’s recent history, there have been several leaders who did not think or behave according to Russia’s traditional “political DNA.” Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and even Dmitry Medvedev were much less autocratic and far more pro-Western than Putin, Leonid Brezhnev, or most of the tsars. In combined years since 1985, these more liberal and pro-Western leaders were in power just as long as Putin. Even today, not all Russians think alike. Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza are just as Russian as Putin. So was Boris Nemtsov.

However, Putin has resurrected a very sophisticated and effective system of autocracy, capable of even surviving his leadership. Its durability is impossible to know. No one in 1914 predicted the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Few in 1953 predicted Khrushchev’s thaw in 1956. I don’t know anyone who in 1985 predicted the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The prediction that Putinism will survive another two decades seems more radical than the suggestion of a new form of government emerging in that same time period.

Thomas Graham

George, Steve, and Mike each point to important drivers of change in Russia. George and Steve do not venture a prediction as to what a changed Russia would look like. Mike suggests that a more democratic future is in the offing, but that appears more as a hope than a firm conviction. Taken together, our remarks underscore the complexity of the issue of Russia’s future.

That should not be surprising for policymakers. Their lot is to formulate policy in an uncertain world. But to do that they must operate on some vision of the future. As Bismarck eloquently put it, “the statesman's task is to hear God's footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” In that spirit, I would like to ask my colleagues—all of whom have held policymaking positions—to lay out the policy implications of whatever footsteps they hear with regard to Russia’s future. That would help set the contours for the constructive debate on Russia policy that our country urgently needs.

In my view, we encounter Russia in a world that is rapidly moving away from a US-led order toward one based on multiple powers with diverging value systems. Global interconnectivity and technological advance hold tremendous promise for progress, but they also multiply the risks of pandemic diseases, terrorism, crime, and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons pose an immediate existential threat, while climate change raises a sustained challenge to our civilization. To master global challenges and create a stable world order, we need to foster a durable global balance of power and reconcile diverging value systems to produce a common sense of legitimacy.

Thanks to its vast nuclear arsenal, rich natural endowment, location in the heart of Eurasia, and scientific prowess, Russia will remain a critical pillar of world order. But, as I argued, it will also likely remain a tough competitor. We have little choice but to deal with this Russia. For we cannot alter Russia’s DNA or the way it defines its national interests. Concerted efforts to support Russians pushing for change will only exacerbate tensions, as they have in the past, and lead the Kremlin to crackdown harder on domestic pro-Western forces. Nor can we compel Russia, through sanctions or other forms of pressure, to capitulate on what it sees as it vital interests.

We will only be able to persuade Russia to change its conduct, if we are prepared to change our own, that is, if we are prepared to compromise and accommodate Russia’s vital interests as long as that does not jeopardize the advance of our own. In that spirit, we can hope to cooperate with Russia to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, responsibly manage our competition, and create opportunities for joint work in meeting global challenges. In time, such an approach might even produce a “better” Russia, but it would be imprudent to base our policy today on that distant hope.

Michael McFaul

This is excellent Tom.

Diagnostically, I have a different theory of international relations than Tom. Like most international relations theorists, and similar to many, in my experience, in the U.S. government, Tom treats Russia as a unitary actor. Ms./Mr. “Russia” even has DNA and defines “its” national interests and vital interests in immutable ways that cannot be changed by time or external forces. I have a different view. I believe that Putin is defining these interests as he sees them. Other Russians today as well as past Russian leaders have defined these interests in different ways. These interests are not fixed as a result of Russian history, culture, power, or geography. Individuals matter.

I also believe that regime type matters. The kind of governance structure in place domestically has a causal influence on how countries behave internationally. Democracies tend to have better relations with each other than democracies and autocracies. Not all autocracies in the world have been enemies of the U.S., but every serious enemy – including those with which we have fought wars – have been dictatorships. Conversely, democracies tend to have more cooperative relations with each other. At a minimum, they don’t go to war with each other. I do not think it is a spurious correlation between growing autocracy inside Russia and rising tension between Russia and other democracies. The legitimacy of autocracies, including Putin’s Russia, are threatened by democracies. And, democracies feel threatened by powerful autocracies, as we are witnessing now with increasing American anxieties about China’s rise. If China were a liberal democracy, American anxieties would still be present – the balance of power is the most important driver of international relations; regimes and individuals second and third – but less acute. (The rise of Japan and Germany after World War II fueled concerns from time to time, but never fears of war.) This condition in U.S.-Russia relations also injects ideological competition. Putin today distains liberalism. He champions his version of orthodox, conservative values, with a heavy emphasis on defending sovereignty (of course as defined by him; Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty don’t seem to be major concerns for him). Putin wants to see the destruction the liberal international order anchored by the United States, and the emergence, as Tom wrote, of multipolarity. The Biden administration has made clear their commitment to defending liberalism, democracy and human rights abroad and maintaining if not strengthening the liberal international order. Ideological conflict, therefore, is inevitable.

Prescriptively, however, I don’t land in a much different place than Tom when it comes to trying to change Russia internally. As I wrote three years ago and still believe today, we have to deal with “Russia as It Is”. We should not devise a policy towards Russia based on the pursuit of regime change. We do not have the means to do so. Instead, as Biden and his team have already done, we must make clear our commitment to defending liberal values – universal values, codified in many international treaties and institutions, both by speaking out in support of human rights and democracy advocates and by criticizing and sanctioning human right abusers. But sanctions or other policy instruments should not be deployed to try to foment revolution.

At the same time, we must commit to a multipronged strategy for containing Putin’s belligerent behavior abroad. And in parallel, we must cooperate with the Kremlin when our interests overlap, especially in multilateral formats when shared global interest are at stake, such as nonproliferation, pandemics, and climate change. In pursuing the latter, however, we must be realists, and have no illusions about any prospect of “improved relations” with Russia while Putin remains in power, or the Russian regime remains an autocracy. Especially naïve is the idea that we will peel away Russia from China. Instead, we must define limited goals in bilateral relations with Russia, and work hard to avoid greater conflict. Sometimes in diplomacy, achieving non-events must be the goal. No one ever writes a book about a non-event – the wars, revolutions, or financial collapses that did not happen. In U.S.-Russia relations today, however, the absence of events may be the best that one can achieve.

George Beebe

I won’t pretend to hear God’s footsteps, but I would offer instead to follow those of George F. Kennan, whom many regard as a close second when it comes to wisdom on Russia. Almost exactly seventy years ago, when the Russian people and many neighboring nations were still suffering under Stalinist repression, Kennan published an article in Foreign Affairs titled, “America and the Russian Future,” in which he looked ahead to offer some important precepts for US policymakers in dealing with a potentially changed Russia. Several of them stand out to me as particularly applicable to the policy challenge that Tom has posed.

When it comes to dealing with Russia’s domestic affairs, Kennan cautions against efforts to reshape them from abroad. We must repress, he counsels, “our inveterate tendency to judge others by the extent to which they contrive to be like ourselves." There may well be aspects of a future Russian state that genuinely concern the outside world, he notes, but they do not include the form of government itself, so long as it is not totalitarian. That does not, in my view, mean ignoring the particular matter of human rights; holding Russia to account on its human rights commitments is right and necessary. But we will get further when we do the bulk of this accounting in quiet diplomacy, shorn of any broader ambition to refashion the Russian polity.

There are good reasons for such self-restraint. One is the limits of our wisdom in knowing how to mid-wife an effective system of liberal governance for a foreign culture. As Kennan notes, “The ways by which peoples advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.” Another – perhaps even more important – is the dangers to our own security that such interference can bring. The United States is today more vulnerable to foreign meddling than at any time in history, beset by social cleavages and dependent on an almost defenseless digital infrastructure and media-sphere. Assuming that America is free to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs without inviting reciprocity is a formula for disaster.

The good news amid all the uncertainty about Russia’s future is that our ability to craft a sound set of US policies that protect core American interests does not depend on any particular internal Russian trajectory. Kennan points out, “It is not necessary for us, merely in order to shape our own conduct in a way conducive to our own interests, to decide what we admittedly cannot really know [about Russia’s future].” Russia’s form of governance may well change substantially in the coming years, but American policy regarding Russia need not be – and should not be – premised on a particular course of Russian development or on the assumption that a more democratic Russia will be more amenable to US interests.

In this regard, Tom’s sketch of our key interests in a changing world order strikes me as exactly right. Managing our competition with Russia, counter-balancing the rise of Chinese power, and dealing with such transnational threats as climate change, infectious disease, cyberattacks, terrorism and weapons proliferation should be at or near the top of our foreign policy priorities, and we can make substantial progress on them regardless of whether Russia is authoritarian, republican, or something in between.


Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


George Beebe

George Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest.


Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


Michael McFaul

Michael McFaul is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Photo by Evgeny shared under a Pixabay license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors.