This is the second article in a series looking ahead at the drivers of Russian foreign policy from 2017 to 2022.

Putin remains the decider on all key foreign, security, and defense issues. In office as president since 2000 (with a term as prime minister from 2008 to 2012), Putin is by now one of the world’s most experienced leaders. He also wields absolute power in his country. Putin’s power rests on his unprecedented and stable popularity—in the 80 percent range since 2014 —among ordinary Russian people. Putin’s foreign policy of great-power revival is a major element of his popularity. The Western backlash against Russia’s assertiveness only helps consolidate that support. 

Putin is assisted by a group of senior aides, not colleagues or peers, who make up the Security Council of the Russian Federation (SCRF). The SCRF’s purview is wider than national security as usually defined in the West. The council can take up virtually any issue of national importance, including economics, finance, demographics, and even culture. Putin’s foreign policy decisions are based mostly on the information he receives from the security services.

The Russian security community plays the key role in helping Putin conceive, shape, and execute foreign policy decisions. Since 2014, its role has increased dramatically in visibility and importance. Now that Russia finds itself in the state of heightened political and economic tensions with, and even outright information warfare against, the West, the Russian security apparatus has taken up the role equivalent to the military high command in wartime. Members of this apparatus, like military commanders, in terms of campaigns, which they plan, get approved by Putin, and execute his orders —even as they stay out of the limelight.

The group’s worldview presents international relations in terms of a never-ending struggle for dominance and influence among a few powerful countries. The animus in the group against the United States is sincere and runs very deep. The community’s principal spokesman, SCRF Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, is very candid in his description of the United States as Russia’s main adversary. The foreign ministry under Lavrov has adopted a hardline approach to implementing the Kremlin’s decisions.

The present environment of the U.S.-Russian confrontation has substantially increased the influence of the defense community, both in the armed forces and in the military industry. The use of force has again become an active and effective instrument of Russia’s foreign policy, both within and outside the post-Soviet space. The military industry, supported by a large-scale defense modernization program, is also being promoted as a locomotive of Russia’s attempt at reindustrialization. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is the country’s most popular figure in Russia after Putin. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, in charge of the defense industry, is a rare politician in the bureaucracy-dominated government with clear presidential ambitions. 

The security, defense, and industrial community benefits from the high approval ratings that ordinary Russian people give to the Kremlin’s proactive foreign policy and to the armed forces. Virtually the entire political elite—from the parliament and the parties in the Duma to governors, mayors, and the state-run media—is united on the issue of Russian patriotism. The strong popular and elite approval of Putin’s assertive policy contrasts with a similarly strong rejection of this policy on the part of small liberal groups and individuals who have a voice but little influence in today’s Russia.

The Russian business community is much quieter but is also more concerned with the economic disruption resulting from confrontation with the United States and alienation from the EU. Businesses favor restoration of normal trading links between Russia and developed countries, naturally dislike Western sanctions and Russian countersanctions, and certainly do not want any further deterioration of Russia’s relations with the United States and EU countries. However, the oligarchic top layer of the community is too dependent on the Kremlin even to suggest a change in policy; state-owned corporations faithfully follow the government line; and many small and medium-sized businesses are patriotic and are supportive of Putin.

Ordinary Russian people, despite their many grievances against the authorities, have shown no inclination to move against the existing order. Public political protests are rare. The Duma elections in September of 2016 returned a parliament totally dominated by the Kremlin’s United Russia party. The Kremlin’s objective for 2018 is not merely to get Putin reelected: they aim to win 70 percent of the vote with 70 percent turnout. This ambitious goal will be an interesting test for the Kremlin. There are some protests which the authorities have not yet been able to defuse or quell, as well as widely publicized corruption allegations against some senior officials. Yet most Russians still prize the stability guaranteed by Putin so much that they are prepared to put up with an anemic economy, an ossified political system, and the arbitrariness of officials at all levels.

This situation will doubtless change as the economic resources that support the existing order run out, and new elites see more opportunity in upending that order than in preserving it, particularly when Putin, now sixty-four, passes from the political scene. This is unlikely to happen before the end of the next decade. Russia’s resources, even under the sanctions regime, are still substantial; the ruling elite is incredibly rich and has no interest in change; Putin is popular and his grip on power is as firm as ever; most Russian voters fear change, and those that don’t opt for emigration.

Post-Putin Russia is still over the horizon. The present regime will not necessarily be succeeded by a more liberal, Western-friendly one; and, indeed, the odds are stacked against that outcome. Putin has started the process of renewing his cadre, aimed at populating the state apparat with younger, more competent, and less corrupt officials devoted to the concept of Russia as a great power. Even if he steps down as president in 2024, Putin will probably continue as Russia’s primary leader for years to come. When he finally goes, however, the fate of the country will still be decided by the elites, some of which will try to keep their Putin-era privileges, while others will challenge them from both left and right. Nationalism, however, will probably continue to be the common denominator.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Dmitri Trenin