Timothy Colton moderating a Valdai International Discussion Club panel in 2016.
Timothy Colton moderating a Valdai International Discussion Club panel in 2016.

Timothy Colton on Russia: Insights and Recommendations

October 11, 2018
RM Staff

This evolving compilation of observations and policy ideas about Russia by Timothy Colton is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ takes on Russia, U.S.-Russian relations and Washington’s policies toward its Cold War-era foe.

Timothy Colton is a leading expert on Russian and Eurasian government and politics. He teaches at Harvard University, where he is the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, and formerly served as director of the university's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Dr. Colton is the author of many books, including "Yeltsin: A Life" (2008), "Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know" (2016) and, most recently, "Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia" (2017), co-authored with Samuel Charap. Dr. Colton is also a fellow of the prestigious American Academy for Arts and Sciences.

This compilation is meant as a sampling of Dr. Colton's views. All sections may be updated with new or past statements. 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 Dr. Colton. 

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

Nuclear security:

  • Unlike past empires and failed states, the Soviet quasi-empire was armed to the teeth. The possibility of loss of control expressly over its nuclear storehouse gave governments everywhere fits. Providentially, this had a sobering effect on all sides. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • To be updated.

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • Describing changes in U.S.-Iranian relations after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal: Many other players in the Middle East are concerned that the U.S. and Iran are going to become very close. They are going to start cooperating on a much wider range of issues. [But] I think that Russia now has much closer relations with Iran on the Syrian issue. It is going to lead to a kind of a competition between Washington and Moscow for the affections of Iran. (Vestnik Kavkaza, 10.23.15)

New Cold War:

  • The nuclear saber-rattling associated with the Cold War has returned, although in different forms. In an interview in March 2015, Putin said that he considered putting Russia's nuclear forces on alert during the Crimea operation. In November 2015, Russia's state-owned Channel One displayed images of a general studying plans for a nuclear-armed torpedo, “Status-6,” a doomsday retaliation weapon that could irradiate the entire U.S. east coast. [Then] U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has named Russia a top threat to the U.S. ... There is a very real risk of returning to a time when miscalculations in Moscow or Washington can at any moment lead to the destruction of life on earth. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • The Cold War analogy gives us only so much purchase on the current scene. Twenty-first century Russia is bereft of a universality and transformative ideology such as lay behind Soviet behavior. It does not pose an existential threat to the United States. ... Much smaller in population (absolutely) and economic assets (relatively) than the USSR in its time, and without satellite states or reliable political kinsmen, the newest Russia does not have the wherewithal or the missionary spirit to carry on a worldwide struggle or to align the international system around it. It is in no position to be anyone’s great Other. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • Cold War imagery prevails thus far. And, were we to judge solely by the outpouring of rhetoric, parallels can readily be found. ... Likewise reminiscent of the Cold War is animosity at the mass level. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • [The Cold War] had been a kind of predictable exercise. In fact, [George] Kennan said that in the “long telegram”—he said that we already know how to handle the Soviets—so, in certain ways, to deal with them, to engage with them and to constrain them... There were clear rules of engagement. These rules are largely gone now. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 1:11:00)

Military Issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • There were no genuine negotiations with Russia on the central issue of the merits of NATO’s extension, let alone the details of the process. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Even if Russia had sought membership of NATO or the EU, the organizations would not have been able to absorb such a large country with the multiplicity of economic, social and security problems that would have come with it. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • The NATO moves are a response to genuine threat perception of East Central European allies over Russia’s behavior since 2014. Regardless, Moscow sees in them nothing more than a continuation of the long-running process of NATO moving its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • The long-entrenched policy of requiring ex-Soviet states to the east of NATO and the EU to face a black-and-white choice, of either befriending and integrating with the West or doing so with Russia, is ripe for reassessment and modification. (The National Interest, 12.01.16)
  • Much of the fault for Russia’s not getting its bearings [following the fall of the Soviet Union] falls with the extant superpower, the United States, and the Western nations. The wedge issue was a security architecture for Europe. ... The Euroatlantic community let a sterling opportunity slip. The Russians were not wrong to think that trundling NATO eastward was a breach of trust. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • Russia quite effectively blocked the move toward a [NATO] membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008. For what it’s worth, my view always was ... that in the case of Ukraine getting some kind of plan for joining NATO, that that’s when Russia would’ve taken Crimea back. This was a form of deterrence; this was an implicit threat. (Interview with RT, 06.29.14,15:35)

Missile defense:

  • To be updated.

Nuclear arms control:

  • Several arms-control and confidence-building regimes that helped end the Cold War peacefully seem near collapse. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  •  [New START] was a rather major agreement. It reduced launches on both sides by 50 percent, but it did leave stockpiles intact. ... This was a successful initiative, but there’s much more work to be done. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 31:00)
  • There’s been a lot of progress in arms control, but ... the United States also has missile defense programs going all the way back to Reagan and so-called Star Wars, SDI program, which the Russians object to very violently and say that if you ever manage to build these systems, they could destabilize our interaction and make our nuclear deterrent ineffective. One particular event here that stands out … is the American unilateral repudiation of the ABM treaty. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 37:55)  
  • For America and Russia, it is tempting to search for a bilateral project, almost any project, and to use progress on it to help restore trust. Arms control and nonproliferation seem an obvious place to begin, with START expiring in December [2009] and enormous expertise having been accumulated in this field over the years. (RIA Novosti via the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2009)
  • A quick fix on arms control makes no sense unless it addresses fundamental questions about the strategic balance and about the purposes to which our weapons systems can be put. (RIA Novosti via the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2009)


  • On the first Chechen war, 1994-1996: Performance in the field and the war’s abject wrap-up telegraphed a decay of Russian military power. And the war induced something else—a brush with large-scale terrorism. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • A potential growth area for Islamic extremism is the middle Volga, the Urals and western Siberia, far removed from the Caucasus. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • Putin has been less than candid about the motivations behind the operation [in Syria]. Early on, he insisted that the central aim was to take on Russia jihadists in Syria, predominantly from the North Caucasus republics, and prevent them from returning home. This is debatable, since denial of readmission to the Russian Federation would assuredly be much easier than locating and destroying these roving warriors on foreign soil. The same applies to fighters from CIS countries in Central Asia, whose citizens can enter Russia visa-free but are subject to tracking. … It came to pass that the other “terrorists” in the sights of the Sukhoi fighters and bombers were any armed outfit opposed to the Syrian regime. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • On cooperation between Russia and the U.S.: Whether it’s on Iran’s nuclear energy program, whether it’s about Afghanistan since 2000, problems in Syria’s civil war, or about anti-terror operations, there’s been really a lot of cooperation here in terms of shared intelligence, in terms of, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, giving the United States direct logistical and transport access to Russian bases between Europe and Central Asia. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 28:28)
  • [The Russian] government has used a variety of approaches [to fight terrorism in the North Caucasus], and sometimes they compete with one another. There is a security response—armed force, of course, some of which is absolutely necessary. And I would support it if I were Russian. There’s an economic development program, but it seems to lack energy and coordination. (Interview with Russia Today, 09.16.10, 8:11)
  • After a decade of chaos, Russians, it may be reasoned, yearned for a Kremlin strongman who would deliver order and stability. Putin's ruthless use of force against the Chechens made him a national hero and the easy winner of the 2000 presidential election. (Post-Soviet Affairs, co-authored with Michael McFaul, 2002)
  • Putin, of course, has good reason to show solidarity with Washington -- at least for now. Russia's president is keen to link America's new battle against terrorism with his own country's campaign against rebels in Chechnya. And indeed, the connection Putin draws is not without merit. Osama bin Laden has sponsored violence in both Russia and the United States. (Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Michael McFaul, November/December 2001)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Reading between the lines of presidential rhetoric, and taking Russian military actions as given, there is no question that the primary goal was to stave off the fall of the Assad government, fighting for its life through the most merciless of methods, and thereby to act out Putin’s declarative doctrine of multipolarity. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • Another [objective] was to demonstrate Russia’s credibility as a power that stands by partners in need. And Putin wanted to flaunt the capabilities of his new-look armed forces, in front of geopolitical rivals and potential purchasers of Russian hardware. Russia has achieved no small measure of success in Syria. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • I think the issue is really not about the two countries, the two outside great powers, but about the internal coalition or constellation of forces within Syria and particularly about whether or not it’s appropriate to cooperate with the Assad government. ... I think it’s over the need to find some kind of way through diplomacy and negotiation to bring an end to the conflict. I think both sides agree that this is a very high priority for the world, neither Russia nor the U.S. obviously have any territorial designs on Syria. (Vestnik Kavkaza, 10.23.15)

Cyber security:

  • On the U.S.-Russia relationship: We have failed to explore emerging uncertainties and conflicts, including on issues where the danger to the peace is great. An example of such an area would be cybersecurity. (The National Interest, 12.01.16)
  • Ahead of the bilateral presidential summit in Helsinki: The idea of … a larger conversation about rules of the road in the cyber age is one the presidents and their aides should entertain seriously. (Valdai Discussion Club, 06.29.18)

Elections interference:

  • On John Bolton’s visit to Moscow: The intent to improve the relationship with Russia happens to be one of the most frequently stated and, to all appearances, most intensely held policy preferences of the forty-fifth president of the United States. It is also the commitment he has had the most difficulty doing anything practical about. ... And there is no denying that this resistance is fueled by resentment of what is widely held to be unacceptable Russian meddling in the very presidential election in 2016 that carried Trump into the White House. (Valdai Discussion Club, 06.29.18)
  • There is a difference between hoping for an outcome and going to great lengths—and incurring great risks—to help bring it about. In our view, the U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that, by helping Trump, the Kremlin was advancing its “longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” is not entirely convincing. Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election was unprecedented. … The Kremlin’s determination to have its way in Ukraine drove it to take such a risk. … Once it became clear that Western policymakers were not going to blink, the Kremlin apparently decided to try to replace them. (Project Syndicate, co-authored with Samuel Charap, 01.24.17)
  • Russia probably hacked the Democratic and Republican campaigns in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, too, given its formidable cyber capabilities. But its intelligence agencies quietly analyzed the information, in order to improve their understanding of a potential adversary’s future leaders—hardly shocking behavior by a government. (Project Syndicate, co-authored with Samuel Charap, 01.24.17)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • Energy afforded a special abundance of opportunities [in the 1990s]. Russia was the primary purveyor of oil and natural gas to all but four other former Soviet republics that had their own hydrocarbon resources (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan); it routinely sold on credit and at below-market prices, making for buyer dependence. It also initially controlled all of the former USSR’s export pipelines, including those leading to the profitable European gas market. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • [In the mid-2000s] Russia was moving to a two-pronged approach to the issue of gas exports to its neighbors: cheap gas only for countries willing to participate in its integration projects and to share ownership of gas assets; unsentimental commercial terms for the rest. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Russia’s economic woes [in the 1990s] spurred its neighbors to diversify their trade ties. The total exports of the 11 non-Russian CIS countries to the EU overtook the volume of their exports to Russia by 1998. The most prominent Western geo-economic incursion was occasioned by the bounteous petroleum reserves of the Caspian Sea basin. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)

U.S.-Russian economic ties and sanctions:

  • From the Kremlin, the sanctions looked more like economic warfare intended to inflict pain and even destabilize the country. ... The belligerent language some U.S. officials used cemented the view in Moscow that Washington wanted to hurt Russia, not help Ukraine. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Over and above the billions spent on defense and assistance to Ukraine, the sanctions war has taken an economic toll on the West, though less so than on Russia. ... The EU has been disproportionately affected, absorbing three-quarters of the loss. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • If the political dust over Ukraine settles, Western sanctions may be lifted or watered down. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • On U.S.-Russian cooperation under Obama and Medvedev: In 2009, for example, they [the two presidents] did quite a bit of institutional innovation: They created about 20 joint presidential commissions (none of which is working today, by the way). The United States committed itself to finally putting an end to the so-called Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which had denied Russia most-favored-nation trading status; the United States supported Russian entry into the WTO, which finally came about in August 2012... These were long-standing Russian expectations and demands, and the United States really did respond. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 27:23)

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • The complete breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations, which were bad to begin with, stands in the way of efforts to address all manner of global challenges. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • The uncomfortable truth is that today neither Russia nor the West believes that the other would be willing to accept a compromise. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • It became a consensus view in Moscow that the West, beginning with the United States, was fomenting color revolutions in post-Soviet Eurasia as a non-kinetic means of engineering the same result as Operation Iraqi Freedom did in Iraq: regime change. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Where vital U.S. principles and interests are involved, there is every reason to hold firm in the relationship. But firmness has hardened into rigidity on many fronts, a point that also applies to the foreign-policy establishments of many U.S. friends and allies. (The National Interest, 12.01.16)
  • A key difficulty with the AmericanRussian relationship that emerged after 1991 was that it was dictated by the tide of events and by extraneous factors. Its many dimensions and consequences were not thought through by either side, let alone agreed between the two. (RIA Novosti via the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2009)
  • The situation that we currently find ourselves in [in U.S.-Russia relations] is largely because the two sides have been unable to manage the issue of control of, access to and management of the post-Soviet space. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 40:45)
  • I would single out one painful dilemma, namely, that of the principles governing ethnic minorities’ right to selfdetermination. ... A searching RussianAmerican conversation about this general terrain is long overdue. Both countries have taken contradictory and selfserving positions on the question and both are in desperate need of a general framework for managing it, without which their bilateral relationship will continue to be fraught. (RIA Novosti via the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Summer 2009)
  • I think one of the lessons of recent years is that the United States has to have a policy about Russia which is about Russia and not just about other places. If there was a mistake, perhaps, over the last decade, it was that Russia was always seen as a means to something else, and so we’re trying to get away from that here. Of course, Iran is relevant, NATO enlargement—all kinds of other concrete issues, but what we’re trying to focus on here is Russia and America because we think that that connection has been neglected. (Interview on the sidelines of Russia-U.S. session of Valdai Club, 07.01.09, 0:06)
  • Putin and Medvedev have benefited heavily from association with a core set of principles, including a strong orientation toward markets rather than socialism and—in what is likely a surprise to many -- a relatively pro-western foreign policy orientation, even in 2008. (Slavic Review, co-authored with Henry Hale, 2009)
  • The message of his [Putin’s] campaigns might thus be characterized as follows: Russia's future lies in cooperation rather than conflict with the west, but the west is an unreliable partner that frequently harbors ill or disrespectful intentions regarding Russia and that therefore must constantly be kept in check at the same time that cooperation must still be pursued. (Slavic Review, co-authored with Henry Hale, 2009)

 II. Russia’s relations with other countries

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

  • The international order, such as it is, depends on a basic level of comity among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That level of comity between Russia and the West is gone and will not return for years, if not decades. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • The imposition of American and European Union sanctions over Russian behavior in Ukraine gave Putin a chance to hold forth against an internal “fifth column” of sympathizers with the West. (Daedalus, Spring 2017)
  • The phrase that summarizes Russia’s official preference in terms of future world order is that of a multipolar world. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 43:43)
  • Russian-Indian relations seem to be on a very even keel. The Indians couldn’t care less about Ukraine, I think that that’s clear, or Crimea… It’s not their thing, and they tend to take the view, “Well, the Russians did what they did for their own reasons, there’s nothing we can do about anyway, and so we’re just going to preserve our decent relationship with Russia and leave it at that.” (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 1:15:22)
  • On Putin allegedly wishing to restore the USSR’s borders: No, I don’t think he wants that, I don’t think that he believes that Russia is capable of doing that. (Interview with RT, 06.29.14, 11:15)


  • On the EU’s efforts to draw up association agreements with former Eastern Bloc countries: Russia was anything but welcoming of this new EU activism. But Brussels acted as if Russia did not exist. There were no consultations with Moscow, even though Russian officials had begun to object stridently. The hypersensitivity over steps that could evoke the ghosts of Yalta effectively ruled out conversation with Russia about Ukraine or any other In-Between. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Putin used to speak glowingly about a Greater Europe, or Union of Europe, promoting economic cooperation from the Atlantic to the Urals—without convergence on values. ... Ukraine then put Russia and the EU wildly out of sync. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • On Western responses to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and other actions seen as threatening: The European attitude towards all of this is more nuanced and subtle and less inclined towards confrontation than our own is. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 1:18:50)


  • With its Western partnerships blighted, Russia is becoming more dependent on China both economically and geopolitically, and over time that may limit its freedom of maneuver. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Rapprochement with the emerging though flawed goliath, China, began in the security sphere with Russian participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Beijing franchise, in 2001. The two began holding joint military exercises in 2005. By now, however, the nub of the relationship is money. What might have appeared like a Russian feint or juggling act against Europe looks like a change in grand strategy in geoeconomics. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • With China, the huge power on Russia’s eastern frontier, I think we can characterize where they are right now as a kind of wary partnership. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 1:14:09)
  • How to go about [building a multipolar world]? Well, they’ve tried a number of different things. Some of them involve cooperation with China, so they’re trading more and more with the Chinese, trading arms with them very heavily, energy, a variety of other things.” (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 45:22)


  • The crux of our argument is that the Ukraine crisis is the apotheosis of a broader regional dynamic: zero-sum policies producing negative-sum results. It is a game that has produced no winners. All major players are worse off today than they were when the crisis began. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • By supporting the Donbas insurgency, Russia has effectively been able to keep Ukraine off-kilter. But it is no closer to getting the political settlement it wants. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • In light of Russia’s unbending commitment to maintaining its influence in Ukraine, an inclusive settlement there may well be necessary to prevent the Kremlin from pursuing ever more aggressive options for asserting its position. (Project Syndicate, co-authored with Samuel Charap, 11.24.17)
  • By annexing Crimea, supporting the Donbas separatists and lashing out at the West directly, Russia wants to make clear that it will do whatever it takes to have its interests taken into account. But the West hasn’t cooperated. Despite the Kremlin’s escalation, the U.S. and the EU have refused to acquiesce to the negotiation Russia wants, and continue to support Ukraine’s integration with the EU and NATO. And, though a formal offer of membership in either organization is at best a distant possibility, it has not been ruled out. (Project Syndicate, co-authored with Samuel Charap, 11.24.17)
  • Crimea, a glittering prize in its own right, was the tool closest at hand for snapping back against a perfidious Ukraine and a West heedless of Russian interests. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • The crisis [in Ukraine] did not introduce any new notes to the music of Russian domestic politics but did give impetus to notes that had been there since 2000 [such as patriotism and support for Putin’s regime]. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • That conflict [in Donbas] is not just about ethnic considerations, but it’s certainly about identity, and it’s about language, and it’s about history. (Lecture at Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, 02.27.15, 16:24)
  • The irredentism that was manifested in the annexation of Crimea was unique, a unique event, and it’s the one that has us on the outside, I guess, worried the most. And there’s good reason to worry here. (Lecture at Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, 02.27.15, 54:17)
  • On dealing with the status of Crimea: It’s going to have to be done in a very deliberate way, and with compromises. The United States is certainly not going to recognize the annexation of Crimea. I think it will probably become like the Baltic States in 1940—it’s a fact, and the United States does not have the ability to reverse it; it’s certainly not going to attempt to use military means, but nonetheless it won’t be accepted. That is a form of compromise in a sense. If this is the last change in borders that happens this way, I’m not saying it’ll be forgotten, but people accommodate themselves to new realities. If it turns out, though, that it’s just the first step, and that this is going to go on indefinitely and threaten the very existence of Ukraine as a state, then we’re kind of in a different game. (Interview with RT, 06.29.14, 9:39)
  • [The Maidan Revolution] seems to be a mix, a snowball of many different things. … There is economic frustration in Ukraine... There was a lot of frustration about corruption, and many Ukrainians, rightly or wrongly, thought that this association agreement with the EU was going to mark a kind of symbolic break with the past; we would head down a different road, things would get better... Some of this was probably naïve… But in any case, people felt what they felt, and that produced the first wave of protests.” (Interview with RT, 06.29.14, 3:25)
  • American support, German support for NGOs in Ukraine is a long-standing pattern; it goes back 20 years. The United States has never really funded “revolutionaries” in Kiev, but it has funded a wide variety of NGOs. But this, it seems to me, is more of a constant background factor than anything terribly dynamic. (Interview with RT, 06.29.14, 5:06)
  • Obviously, there is rivalry over Ukraine; it’s a contested zone, and this is nothing new. But it has become more acute in the last few years, mostly because of EU behavior, not because of U.S. behavior. (Interview with RT, 06.29.14, 13:25)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Russian policymakers, whose cynicism often seems to know no bounds, do not see their neighborhood principally through an ideological lens. Their objective instead is to have druzhestvennye (friendly) neighbors, that is, states whose leaders are not hostile to Russia. How these leaders get to power and how their political institutions function is of little concern. (Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • The sine qua non for a reassessment must be an acknowledgement that both Russian and Western policies toward post-Soviet Eurasia have reached a dead end. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • To have its way in post-Soviet Eurasia, the Russian Federation relied on a range of tools. It meddled persistently, though without a master plan, in the internal politics of the successor states, providing moral and media support, and from time to time funding, for groups receptive to Russian policy. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Steering power in [the CIS] was to be in proportion to economic output, so that Russia was in the driver’s seat. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • On the Eurasian Economic Union: [Putin] now envisioned two separate blocs in Europe that would cut deals with one another but remain distinct. Under these circumstances, bandwagoning with Russia would be the only sensible option for CIS countries. The unspoken message to the In-Betweens was clear: Moscow wants to determine the extent and pace of their integration with the EU. (“Everyone Loses,” 2017)
  • Putin’s Russia has employed external military force three times. It is no fluke that two times out of three it has been in Eurasia, where, as Dmitrii Medvedev said in 2008, the Russian Federation claims “privileged interests.” (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • After the Georgia war Russia also throttled up economic integration in the post-Soviet expanse. Until then it had been the subject of interminable verbalizing but little action. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • It’s hard to see that the U.S. is moving the general situation [in Nagorno-Karabakh] in any particular direction. It struggles with the Karabakh dilemma like everybody else does. It doesn’t want another war, just like Russia doesn't. It would be catastrophic for Russia actually. (Vestnik Kavkaza, 10.23.15)
  • As far as the post-Soviet neighbors are concerned, where the biggest conflicts have been, I think it’s safe to say that there’s kind of a rising level of anxiety about the situation; a fear, maybe, of more wars, of more disturbances, but there is a lot of variation from country to country. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 1:13:45)
  • There may be some individual officials who are prejudiced against migrant workers, but most, I think, Russian officials accept that these people have been very indispensable in the Russian labor market. Moreover, they pay enormous amounts of financial support—remittances—to their home countries, all of which are part of Russia’s foreign policy orbit. So the government does not want to cut off this flow of migration. (Lecture at Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, 02.27.15, 53:41)
  • I think Russia’s presence in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is probably going to increase and in the rest of Central Asia probably going to decrease. (Interview with Russia Today, 09.16.10, 9:59)

III. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • Putin has had no shortage of the chances, time in position and power levers at his fingertips to assemble an outright dictatorship in the Russian Federation. Working from his platform within the state machine, given his rapport with his products of the security and military services (the siloviki), and the fruits of pre-2014 growth being there for the plucking, Putin, in my view, could have become the Francisco Franco or Omar al-Bashir of Russia. He has chosen not to do so. (Comparative Politics, April 2018)
  • From day one, the declared priority of Russia’s second president—it is no exaggeration to call it a sacred priority for him—was to engineer political and social stability. (Daedalus, Spring 2017)
  • I would typify that [Russian] system as a hybrid of autocratic and democratic features, and one in which the autocratic gained steadily on the democratic with the passage of time, to the point that it was debatable whether a threshold of out-and-out authoritarian rule had been crossed. Its operative goals were and remain multiple: state strength; limits on political contestation; economic and social development, in part to enable national competitiveness in the international arena; elite coalition building through co-option, clientelism and divide-and-rule; and popular legitimacy via managed elections, appeals to nationalism and welfare spending. (Daedalus, Spring 2017)
  • The [Putin] regime, for all its backsliding, has never transited to unambiguous dictatorship and to complete reliance on blunt repression. Individual liberties have been largely untouched by the authoritarian trend… (Daedalus, Spring 2017)
  • Change has been the rule, rather than the exception in contemporary Russia in its various guises and personae—as an Empire, as the Soviet Union, and now as post-Soviet Russia. (Speech at American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 06.06.16, 0:42)
  • From the outset, the tone of [Putin’s] third term was different: It was more restrictive, it was more control-oriented, and it was more nationalist and more anti-foreign—among which he was considerably more anti-American. (Speech at American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 06.06.16, 14:10)
  • Russians have now thought so well of Putin for so long that you kind of are to the point that you think that they’re never really going to change their opinion about him. But beneath the surface, I think that problems are there and have been there to a greater extent than perhaps we on the outside realize. (Speech at American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 06.06.16, 15:32)
  • [Putin’s] advantage was an economic boom, an economic boom that was facilitated by the bull market for Russia’s principal economic asset, which is oil. And so the petro-dollars flowed in, the new government actually managed the economy—I think its macroeconomic policy was actually quite prudent on the whole and enlightened—and so he got if not a free ride exactly, then at least the wind was certainly in his sails. (Speech at American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 06.06.16, 12:48)
  • Russia needs to diversify away from hydrocarbon and mineral exports and toward the knowledge economy while still cashing in on its bounteous resource endowment. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • Putin’s political persona is very much based on a skepticism about or a rejection of what happened to Russia in the 1990s. (Speech at Wellesley College, 03.04.15, 34:57)
  • There’s a culturally ingrained view in Russia that in order for this country to stay together and stay afloat, it has to have an effective state. And this is Putin’s core belief—I think it drives everything else. ... And he has, to a considerable extent, delivered on his promise. (Interview with RT, 06.29.14, 25:55)
  • Yeltsin actually had experience in the state itself, in government, and Navalnyy has not. This is a consequence of what Putin did, in closing the political arena in 2000—it bred this stagnation within the official structures, and so you don’t really have a set of alternative leaders who have experience in government. (Interview with Russia Direct, 10.23.13)
  • More Russians than not hoped that sooner or later it would be Medvedev rather than Putin at the helm of Russia’s ship of state, although they did not generally expect this to occur. (Problems of Post-Communism, co-authored with Henry Hale, 2010)
  • Outright falsification of the results was not necessary to produce a landslide victory [in the 2007 parliamentary elections]. ... It would be a mistake to dismiss United Russia as nothing but a club of bureaucrats oriented to their boss, Vladimir Putin. (Problems of Post-Communism, co-authored with Henry Hale, 2010)
  • On Russia’s handling of the 2008-2009 financial crisis: I would give them a pretty good grade… You see here the effects of some rather smart things that the Putin people did: saving this money, putting it away in a fund that could be used to get over hard times… I think you have to give them pretty good marks for managing the crisis. But what the crisis has done, it seems to me, is revealed at a deeper level the underlying structural problems. (Interview with Russia Today, 09.16.10, 6:03)
  • The economy has been a strong source of Putin's electoral success, but that effect is partly indirect and not primarily about personal experiences of economic gain perceived by the population. (Slavic Review, co-authored with Henry Hale, 2009)
  • It’s a developmental autocracy. ... They justify having all of those controls over everything and everyone in the name of modernizing the country. Not forever, but for a certain period of time. (Discussion at Council of Foreign Relations, 01.22.09)
  • If I were forced to characterize what we have witnessed [in 2004], culminating a half-decade of his period of leadership, I would reduce it to one phrase—he [Putin] sees politics as a process of imposing one’s will on the other. I think for Putin power is not merely the means to an end. It seems that nine times out of ten, it is the main end itself. (Post-Soviet Affairs, 2005)
  • Russia's political system today can at best be termed a hybrid of elements of authoritarian rule and liberal residues from the 1980s and 1990s. (Journal of Democracy, July 2005)
  • [2004] was also the year of the trial of the richest man in Russia—Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I mention this as a political event because, at least in large part, the whole affair was driven by political considerations, political grievances and political rivalries. (Post-Soviet Affairs, 2005)
  • We find the strongest explanation for Putin’s enduring popularity, despite declining support for a number of his policies, to lie in the Russian government’s control over the mass media. ... Such control, however, will be effective only in a limited and contingent set of circumstances. In particular, there has to be something for the media to portray that people find appealing in the first place, and in the Russia of 2003-2004 this meant the personality of Putin, high world oil prices and the associated economic improvement that a significant minority of the Russian population experienced during the president’s first term. Putin has also benefited from a certain intimidation effect. (Post-Soviet Affairs, co-authored with Henry Hale and Michael McFaul, 2004)
  • Putin has been remarkably successful in securing the implementation of key reforms. Whereas Yeltsin resembled Latin America’s presidents in that he failed actually to implement many key tenets of his shock therapy initiatives, Putin managed during his first term to carry out a series of economic reforms that one Western observer called “far more liberal than anything that could have been cooked up at the most radical think tank in Washington.” (Post-Soviet Affairs, co-authored with Henry Hale and Michael McFaul, 2004)
  • On the second Chechen war, 1999-2001: Chechnya offered opportunity and menace in equal measure. Yeltsin entrusted Putin with a military counterpunch stronger than the 1994 operation... Chechnya was the backdrop for a brawny decision-making style that set Putin apart from the burned-out Yeltsin. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Putin’s administration also shelters a forceful mercantilist and protectionist group keyed to the public sector and defense industry. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)
  • The uneven performance of Russian forces [in Georgia] underscored the necessity of defense reform, which Defense Minister Serdyukov began in earnest in October 2008, fresh from the messy victory in Georgia. (“Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know,” 2016)

Security, law enforcement, justice and intelligence:

  • There are anti-system forces out there—they don’t want to play within the system, they don’t want to support the system, they want to harm the system or break up the system. As for Russians, the government’s concern here is that overly rigid responses to demands by minorities are going to alienate the minorities and conceivably raise problems for national security. (Lecture at Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, 02.27.15, 53:17)

Quotes compiled by Russia Matters student associate Daniel Shapiro.

Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

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