Stoner’s Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment of Russia’s New Strength

May 05, 2021
Paul Saunders


“Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order”
By Kathryn E. Stoner
Oxford University Press, February 2021Russia Rescurrected by Kathryn Stoner

As the U.S.-Russian relationship has become increasingly adversarial, Russia’s power and behavior have drawn increasing attention from policymakers, journalists and scholars. This has in turn fueled discussion and debate surrounding Russia’s capabilities and its government’s aims. Stanford University scholar Kathryn E. Stoner seeks to contribute to this important national conversation in her new book “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order.” Notwithstanding useful contributions to understanding Russia’s new strength, the book falls short in explaining when and why Russia employs its power.

Stoner contends that Russia is in fact more powerful than it may appear if one relies on what she terms “traditional means of power”—counts of “men, money and material”—and that the principal driver of Russia’s foreign policy is “a patronalist autocracy that has an interest in maintaining the domestic status quo.” First, Stoner asserts, power is relational; it depends on the state exercising power and its target. Second, she adds, to measure power, analysts must assess it across three dimensions: policy scope (specific issues across which Russia’s behavior affects others), geographic domain (specific places where Russia seeks to exercise its power) and means (specific capabilities available to Russia). She overlays two cross-cutting factors onto policy scope and geographic domain: the concepts of weight (the likely effectiveness of Russian efforts) and costs (to Russia, and to its target in complying or resisting). Finally, Stoner notes, power can be actual or potential. For example, she describes nuclear weapons as an example of “power in potential.”

Stoner assesses policy scope and geographic domain—as well as weight and costs—in qualitative terms but applies quantitative measures to means, with some supporting qualitative evaluation. While engaging, the scope and domain narrative can make it difficult for the reader to draw systematic conclusions about Russia’s relative power or priorities across issues and regions. The book’s survey of Russia’s means has some shortcomings too, most notably in providing international context for Moscow’s rearmament.

Examining Russia’s motives, Stoner writes that the country’s national interests are less important in understanding its conduct than are the domestic political needs of its corrupt authoritarian government. “Under Vladimir Putin’s regime,” she states, “Russian power has been used not merely or even primarily in the service of national interests…but also in service of preserving his own corrupt regime. That is, in order to continue to govern at home, the regime that has developed under Vladimir Putin has needed to project its power abroad.” “Russia Resurrected” defines public opposition to Putin’s third presidential term (2012-2018) as a primary force behind this. While Stoner devotes considerably less space to this argument, which she introduces in the book’s first chapter and articulates fully in the final chapter, it is more consequential for analysts and policymakers. Her case relies substantially on a flawed and incomplete account of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Stoner’s effort to measure Russia’s power comprises the bulk of “Russia Resurrected” and provides a generally helpful overview of the country’s capabilities despite its limitations. (Russia Matters produced a useful quantitative assessment of Russian power in 2018.) Though Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its intervention in Syria and its interference in America’s and other countries’ political systems forced observers to reassess Moscow’s geopolitical heft several years ago, Stoner’s analytical framework for evaluating Russian power is logical and coherent.

Two limitations in Stoner’s six chapters on Russia’s power are an occasional tendency toward inflating the dangers that Russia poses and some significant omissions related to Russia’s nuclear weapons and conventional military. In the former category, for example, Stoner closes a short section on Latin America with a somewhat alarmist 2018 statement by the commander of the U.S. military’s Southern Command—someone with a demonstrable bureaucratic and budgetary incentive to express such worries. The extensive discussion of nuclear weapons and some of Russia’s new weapons systems does not adequately pursue Russia’s stated concerns about U.S. missile defense and global strike capabilities (which are critical in understanding Russia’s perspective on the U.S.-Russian nuclear deterrence relationship) or the manner in which Russia’s nuclear deterrence of the United States both guarantees the country’s security and facilitates its assertive use of its conventional armed forces.

Similarly, Russia’s far-reaching conventional military modernization has not occurred in a vacuum but in the context of NATO’s eastward expansion and the rapid growth and transformation of China’s military. In this context, Stoner’s presentation of total active and reserve military personnel in Russia, the United States and other countries is somewhat misleading; setting aside the relative quality of their equipment and training, America has employed its reserves and National Guard extensively over the last two decades. Russia’s reserves are far less capable than its active duty troops or their U.S. counterparts.

Despite its contributions in measuring Russia’s power, “Russia Resurrected” has two critical flaws in explaining its uses. The first is its concentration on academic rather than practical debates regarding Russia’s motives; the second is a selective reading of history in attempting to marshal evidence for its argument that the needs of Russia’s patronalist political system explain its foreign policy more accurately than “national interests.”

First, in pursuing theoretical explanations for Russia’s foreign policy, Stoner focuses excessively on a critique of realist international relations scholars like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. This limits the value of Stoner’s argument, in that many non-academic realists (and some academic realists) readily acknowledge that Russia’s corrupt political system affects how top leaders define the country’s national interests and that senior officials often pursue private rather than public interests.

More seriously, even as Stoner advances a sophisticated multi-dimensional framework for measuring Russia’s power, calling on others to consider policy scope, geographic domain and means, she fails to address whether a similar multi-dimensional framework could be appropriate in measuring inputs into the country’s foreign policy decision-making. Might national interests have greater influence over policy in some geographic and functional areas while the needs of Russia’s leaders and elites more influential, or more easily pursued, in others? What factors could contribute to or weaken these two drivers as Vladimir Putin makes concrete decisions? Do non-patronalist domestic goals shape Russian foreign policy decisions, such as efforts to save or protect jobs? Or do such concerns matter strictly for their political effects, with no little or no separate role for economic imperatives beyond personal enrichment?

Rather than trying to answer harder questions like these, Stoner sets herself an easy task in stating that her final chapter argues that “it is unlikely that another leader [other than Putin] would have responded to the set of problems facing the country in precisely the same way.” Who could possibly disagree with the assertion that another leader would not handle Russia’s foreign policy exactly as Russia’s current president has? Only Putin is Putin.

The second flaw in the book’s attempt to explain Russian conduct is that Stoner privileges some historical events and misses others or, alternatively, avoids key aspects of the events she describes. This is especially problematic in the book’s limited exploration of the 1990s and in its discussion of NATO enlargement and Russia’s policy toward Ukraine, including its seizure of Crimea and later intervention.   

Stoner does not explore Boris Yeltsin’s growing authoritarianism and patronalism or his turn toward an increasingly assertive foreign policy during the late 1990s. Indeed, “Russia Resurrected” explicitly refers to the Russian president’s powers under the country’s constitution and Yeltsin’s political battles with Russia’s parliament without acknowledging that Yeltsin rewrote the constitution to secure those powers after forcibly disbanding the Supreme Soviet in October 1993. This was a decisive event not only in showing Yeltsin’s authoritarian side, but in facilitating Russia’s corrupt privatization processes and empowering Yetsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin simultaneously created public demand for a war on Russia’s oligarchs and gave Putin the tools to wage it. Some expressed concern about Putin’s handling of corruption when he became acting president following Yeltsin’s resignation.

Stoner likewise does not study events signaling Yeltsin’s frustration with Russian-Western relations. Two notable developments were his decision to fire Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and to appoint the harder-line Yevgeny Primakov, whom he eventually made prime minister, and his disagreements with the United States and its allies over the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. These omissions are especially unusual in that someone less determined to establish Vladimir Putin’s uniqueness, and that Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 was a turning point, could have used them to argue that an authoritarian and corrupt Yeltsin responded to flagging public support with a less vigorous version of Putin’s later hard line.

The book’s discussion of NATO enlargement and its connection to Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea and semi-covert war in eastern Ukraine is similarly selective. With respect to NATO enlargement, “Russia Resurrected” evades the fact that Central European nations (including Ukraine) sought NATO membership largely due to their historically justifiable fear of Russia, and that the United States and other NATO members used this fear as leverage to press governments to liberalize their political systems as a prerequisite to and step toward membership. Washington’s well-established aims in this were to consolidate its Cold War triumph, to expand democratic governance in Europe and to hedge against Russia’s uncertain trajectory. This U.S. and NATO approach has worked less well in Ukraine because it had a large Russian minority that did not fear Moscow in the way that other regional populations did and thereby weakened efforts to define a national consensus favoring membership. More important for Stoner’s argument, untangling Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement from its efforts to undermine democratization is not as easy as she suggests.

Stoner’s search for a defining moment in Putin’s 2012 return to the presidency—which was an important event, to be sure—is also a problem in her arguments about NATO enlargement. She appropriately cites NATO’s 2008 Budapest Summit declaration, which said that Georgia and Ukraine “will become” NATO members, as a source of concern to Russia. Yet Stoner later asserts that because Medvedev was able to cooperate with Obama on some issues, no new countries joined NATO between 2009 (Albania and Croatia) and 2014, and NATO membership had not been “a politically palatable subject in Ukraine…for a number of years,” Russia’s “grievance narrative” around Ukraine’s potential alliance membership could not be a valid explanation for Moscow’s behavior. This argument ignores both that NATO membership remained stated U.S. and NATO policy as well as the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, which most reasonable observers expected could change Kyiv’s politics, government and policy.

“Russia Resurrected” seems to argue that since Russia’s Ukraine policy didn’t work in pursuing realist objectives but did work to get Putin re-elected in 2018, the latter must be a superior explanation of Putin’s aim. This fails to account for three important (non-exclusive) possibilities: that Putin had realist objectives other than those Stoner formulates, that he underestimated the costs of his policy and overestimated what was possible in the Donbass and that domestic political gains were an expected benefit rather than a driver of policy.

For example, on the first point, Stoner claims that “if we had understood Ukraine purely as a reactive move in defense of national interests, designed to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU, then it could be considered an abject failure.” Yet Ukraine has not joined the EU—it is associated, not a member, and seems unlikely to satisfy EU membership criteria while engaged in an ongoing (or frozen) conflict. Ukraine likewise appears further from NATO membership today than in 2014, in that it is a party to an unresolved territorial dispute with Russia over Crimea. The alliance has insisted that other post-Cold War aspirants resolve such disputes prior to membership, something that seems implausible so long as Putin remains in office and that is likely to be quite difficult afterward. More important for Alliance politics, those disputes were primarily among aspiring members (like Hungary and Romania) rather than with Russia.

The fundamental weakness in Stoner’s argument is that “Russia Resurrected” does not articulate a persuasive mechanism that requires Putin to select an aggressive foreign policy among his available responses to the 2012 protests or other domestic political problems.

One alternative option in 2012 could have been Putin’s approach to consolidating power in the early 2000s, that is, to wage internal political battles against unpopular opponents. Stoner refers to the Russian government’s energetic prosecution of Pussy Riot following the group’s controversial 2012 protest in Moscow’s Orthodox Church of Christ the Savior; why did Putin not do more of that, without the risks of armed conflict and Western sanctions? In a variant of this, Putin could have pursued populist economic policies and targeted pressure on Russia’s oligarchs to do more for workers, in the spirit of his public humiliation of Oleg Deripaska in 2009 following protests over unpaid wages. “Russia Resurrected” ultimately fails because it attempts to explain Russia’s behavior without setting out a rigorous model of leadership decision-making. The book works backward from outcomes to explanation rather than forward from drivers (whether political or otherwise) to decisions.

Understanding Russia’s power and the Russian leadership’s goals is a necessary task in formulating effective policy. Moreover, as Russia has become considerably more powerful over the last two decades, the stakes in accurately discerning the Kremlin’s motives have become commensurately higher. If “Russia Resurrected” approached these challenges with more care, discipline and nuance, it could have been an important work.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project and a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest. 

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