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‘There’s just something about Putinism,’ Analysts Reflect on Russia and US Foreign Policy

June 17, 2021 by Kate Michael
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

WASHINGTON — The recent summit between U.S. President Biden and Russian President Putin has been hailed by both countries as an opportunity to reevaluate the nations’ relationship. While the three-hour conversation may not have inspired confidence toward ensuring stability, the meeting did reflect Russia’s ongoing importance to U.S. foreign policy.

“[Russia] doesn’t want stability and predictability,” said Kathryn E. Stoner at a panel convened by the research institution Brookings prior to the summit. Stoner, who recently published her book Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order, believes that, instead, the way Putin holds on to Russia’s influence is through its disruptive capacity. 

While Putin’s ambition is for Russia to be respected as a great power, Stoner believes that, traditionally, it wouldn’t be viewed as such. When power is considered in traditional terms, which she describes as “men, military, and money,” Russia may be “punching above its weight” with a mid-size population, spending about 1/10th of what the U.S. does on its military, and a GDP comparative to Canada instead of the world’s great global economies. 

“There are conflicting perceptions of power,” Stoner said. “Added up, Russia doesn’t look remarkable, and yet it has been [viewed that way] in traditional politics.” 

“There’s just something about Putinism,” Stoner offered, explaining that the usual way of thinking about power was too narrow when considering Russia’s unique tools, “power tools [that] can be tremendously disruptive depending on the situation.”

“There’s a lot inherent in the system, but the peculiarity about Putin is that he is a black-ops dirty-operations guy from the intel world,” agreed Fiona Hill, former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs. 

Hill said Putin has a “ruthlessness and aggression that make[s] Russia formidable,” in addition to illicit tools that Putin — and those he surrounds himself with — are willing to use to maintain their control. 

“We don’t need [talks with] Russia to be constructive, just not disruptive,” said Paul Poast, associate professor at the University of Chicago.

“Russia has a tendency to always play the heavy,” he warned. But Poast isn’t sure whether it’s truly Putin’s cult of personality or the culture of the Russian system that influences the country’s multi-dimensional and contextual use of power.

“Russia has always been a ‘good enough great power’,” Poast admitted. Though he believes it may be due to the nation’s geography that Russia projects more power than some other nations. “Russia is the only country that is both a European power and an East Asian power,” he said, adding that because of this, it is possible for Russia to project its power with a lower men, military, and monetary baseline than countries like the United States. 

In the age of fossil fuels, analysts suggested that Russia’s oil also makes it a weighty actor economically. 

Regardless of how Russia’s power is measured, the recent summit has shown that Russia and Putin do maintain influence and have been able to shape the post-Cold War international order despite numerous domestic challenges.

“Russia is the biggest threat to America in terms of breaking up American security and alliances,” Stoner said. “It’s a particular kind of system led by a particular kind of person.”

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