12:00 pm EDT - 2:00 pm EDT

Past Event

Evaluating Putin’s Legacy

Monday, March 10, 2008

12:00 pm - 2:00 pm EDT

The Brookings Institution

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

On 10 March 2008, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski shared his thoughts on Vladimir Putin’s presidency and Russia’s achievements during this time. At the core of Dr. Brzezinski’s speech was the distinction between Russia’s short-term economic success and the negative long-term effects of President Putin’s policies on the country’s political system, economy, and geopolitical prospects. He also compared the results of Putin’s presidency with what Russia could have achieved through other policies.

Dr. Brzezinski began by exploring the psychological motivations for Vladimir Putin’s policies. The earliest indication of political change was Putin’s declaration in his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” This was in stark contrast to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin who had welcomed the dissolution of the Soviet behemoth. A product of the KGB, Putin not only maintained basic loyalty to the organization, but was also a part of a younger generation of siloviki who sought to re-establish the country’s status on the world stage. Since the KGB had attracted the ablest and most ambitious of the Soviet elite, Putin had little trouble surrounding himself with loyal and effective leaders whose thirst for power and prestige was stronger than those of any other cluster of post-Soviet officialdom. Putin’s half-hearted condemnation of Stalinism and his brutal policy in Chechnya, Brzezinski argued, grew out of this mindset. The policy aimed to reconsolidate the demoralized security apparatus while channeling Russian nationalism toward undemocratic xenophobia.

The state reined in the Yeltsin-era oligarchs by demonstratively arresting and sentencing Mikhail Khodorkovsky in May 2005. The result was oligarchic sycophancy and state capitalism, of which Dmitry Medvedev is a perfect symbol. In order to divert public attention from the wealth and privileges of those in power, the state has whipped up nationalist xenophobia. Putin is not an ideological fanatic, but he is committed to restoring Russia’s international prestige while taking thorough advantage of the immense wealth that global conditions have showered on the country. Although Putin’s government never attempted to reestablish totalitarianism or collectivism, it nevertheless rejected political pluralism and a genuinely free market. In the end, however, Putin has offered no constructive vision or direction of development. As a political symbol, Brzezinski argued, he has personalized the triumph of the will with little content. The outcome for Russia has been an increasingly repressive state authoritarianism, centralized corporate statism, and a revisionist posture on the international stage.

Despite its bravado, the Russian political elite is profoundly insecure, which contributes to its paranoia and the state’s disproportionate reactions to perceived threats. The unsolved murders of journalists and businessmen prove that members of central and local administration are corrupt, if not directly involved, in these crimes. The Georgian Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 produced nothing short of a panic in the Kremlin, according to Brzezinski. As a result, the Russian state increased its manipulation of the electoral process. Meanwhile, Russia’s unexpected, but potentially transient, economic wealth has alleviated public concern about authoritarianism. However, this may prove to be the system’s greatest weakness because, unlike the Saudi and Nigerian elites, the Russian upper class increasingly identifies itself socio-culturally with the lifestyle of the West, from which the state has not sealed off the Russian public. Instead of pursuing the democratic trend set in the 1990s, Putin’s KGB background, Soviet big-power hubris, and the insecurity of his wealth have forced him to arrest and then reverse Russia’s political evolution toward a genuine constitutional democracy. This was a choice, not a necessity.

Although Russia’s central budget has grown rapidly, the distribution of wealth is geographically and socially uneven. The financial elite is disproportionately small and wealthy in relation to the middle and lower classes. Small business is stagnant, while state companies continue to grow. Russia’s regions are severely under funded. Russia’s transportation infrastructure provides the material proof of the country’s stagnation. There is only one transcontinental railroad and no transcontinental highway. Russia has no equivalent of the US interstate highway system and is well behind China in building modern roads. Dependence on oil and gas revenues is retarding technological innovation and industrial dynamism. Russia renovates its industrial infrastructure at a much lower rate than the developed world and devotes considerably less money to research and development. The most glaring deficiency of the Putin years, Brzezinski argued, is the absence of an ambitiously grand program to shape a dynamically modern, socially prosperous, technologically innovative, and legally transparent system capable of competing on the global market. The state has wasted the profits from the sale of natural resources, which it should have directed toward this end. Nationalist boasting has eclipsed a comprehensive vision of the country’s future. Putin’s presidency has witnessed a short-term success of recovery, stabilization, and growth, but has missed the long-term opportunity to become a truly advanced society with a productive and competitive economy. Putin failed to make this choice. The Russian economy is one-sided. Putin’s government missed many opportunities to modernize the country.

Russia’s relationship with China is tactically cooperative but strategically mutually suspicious. Russian resentment over the loss of influence in Eastern Europe has complicated its relationship with the EU. In the west, the EU is consolidating its economic and political sphere of influence. In the east, China is casting an ominous shadow over the neighboring and sparsely populated Russian territories. Putin’s foreign policy will isolate Russia and create an exclusive but depopulated sphere of influence.

Imperial nostalgia is strong in Putin’s administration. The Kremlin attempts to subordinate everything or to keep things intact particularly when matters concern the Central Asian states. However, the imperial path is not a viable alternative for Russia in the twenty-first century, and the West should not get overly alarmed about its eastern neighbor. Russia is too weak to challenge the US and a cold war is not a possibility. Although Russia has money to buy influence, it has no reliable allies. However, Dr. Brzezinski warned that putting all bets on a personal relationship with President Putin was a dangerous policy. The West has to create the conditions for Russians to understand that their future is to be part of the West. For this, Ukraine could be a good example. Through travel and study abroad, more and more Russians are exposed to the West and this will help the country evolve gradually along Western lines.

Dr. Brzezinski then answered questions from the audience. The first question challenged Dr. Brzezinski’s “dream” of a Western Russia. Many Russians had already traveled abroad, but just because they purchased Western goods did not mean that they wanted Western values. Like the Saudis, they accepted Western products and wealth, but not Western institutions. Many people from the Kremlin had been in the West, so why have Western values not penetrated Russia already? Dr. Brzezinski answered that these Russians had been in the West on special missions. Russia is much more open now and since it is no longer isolated from the West, it will change gradually and accumulatively. Russian culture, for all of its Orthodoxy, is more a part of the Western world than of any other.

The second question concerned the possibility of a different Russia had a man with a different sense of history, such as George H. W. Bush, been in the White House. Dr. Brzezinski answered that, although he was not happy about Russia’s current state, he did not consider it a threat and disagreed with the characterization of current US-Russian relations as a cold war. The West had contributed to the chaos in Russia. Western advisors had enriched themselves and the oligarchs. Things could have been done differently. The West had missed an opportunity in the 1990s. Some of the Russian resentments were unavoidable, but they will fade. The West needs to coordinate a sustained effort to convince the Russians that their future lies in joining the West and developed nations must create the conditions for this rapprochement.

In response to the question of whether he foresees the center losing control in Russia, Dr. Brzezinski argued that it was difficult to envision fragmentation. Instability was more likely to come from corruption, which was the greatest source of internal tension and destabilization.

Another question offered Dr. Brzezinski three courses of action in response to the Putin regime: to deny Russian state-oligarchs visas; to treat Medvedev as the real head of the state and limit contact with PM Putin; and to increase student exchanges. In response, the speaker emphasized above all the value of exchange programs. As a principle, he agreed that the US should talk exclusively to Dr. Medvedev, but he admitted that this would be unlikely since Putin would be the prime minister. He asked the audience if anyone could name the president of Germany and there was only one correct answer. In terms of visa restrictions, he did not know how this could be done.

This summary was prepared by Anita Kondoyanidi, a graduate student at Georgetown University.


  • March 10
    • Evaluating Putin’s Legacy

      12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

      On 10 March 2008, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski shared his thoughts on Vladimir Putin’s presidency and Russia’s achievements during this time. At the core of Dr. Brzezinski’s speech was the distinction between Russia’s short-term economic success and the negative long-term effects of President Putin’s policies on the country’s political system, economy, and geopolitical prospects. He also compared the results of Putin’s presidency with what Russia could have achieved through other policies.