Russian Federation (Российская Федерация; Rossiiskaia Federatsiia). A federated state in eastern Europe and northern Asia. A legal successor to the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and, in the international sphere, to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR; 1922–1991) following the latter’s collapse in 1991. In the north RF borders on the Arctic Ocean; in the east, on the Pacific Ocean; in the west, on Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus; and in the south, on Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and North Korea. The Ural Mountains mark the conventional boundary between RF’s European and Asian (Siberian) parts. The state has an area of 17,098,246 sq km. Because of its vast size and the diversity of its ethnic groups the RF (just as the RSFSR before that) is structured as a federation. It has jurisdiction over 22 autonomous republics, 46 oblasts, and 9 krais, and 4 autonomous okrugs. This division serves chiefly to give the appearance of respect for national differences. The estimated 2022 population of RF was 144,699,673, a figure making it the nineth most populous state in the world.
The Yeltsin Presidency (1991–99). The Russian Federation came into being under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, elected president of the RSFSR in June 1991. Yeltsin sought to displace USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev and worked to have Russia take over the USSR’s governmental functions, domestic and foreign. He achieved his aims fully following the August 1991 coup attempt by signing with Belarus and Ukraine the Belavezha Agreement which formally dissolved the Soviet Union, replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in which the Russian state was meant to be first among equals. At the time of its emergence from the USSR the Russian Federation retained its Soviet-era constitution with a nominally federal structure onto which the office of president had been grafted by Yeltsin in March 1991. It provided for: an elected Council of People’s Deputies, which met twice yearly, and out of which was selected a working parliament, the Supreme Soviet; a prime minister and council of ministers; and a president. This was a semi-presidential or dual-executive system with the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government yet to be tested. RF inherited the USSR’s seat at the United Nations, including permanent membership of the Security Council, but it had at the outset limited experience with democratic government, none of foreign relations, and no political party system to speak of.
Launched into an uncertain future, the post-communist Russian Federation faced formidable challenges of adjustment to its new circumstances, of overcoming a great many inherited political and economic problems, and of managing a transition to some totally new order—presumably liberal democracy and market economy. Most fundamentally, there was no agreement on the rules of the game among the leading political players. Hence, politics consisted of permanent power struggles instead of cooperation on public policies to deal with the urgent issues at hand. This alienated the Russian public from democratic politics, making it vulnerable to the appeals of populism and authoritarianism. The situation was further aggravated by the chaotic state of the economy—depression, unemployment, and hyperinflation—to which policy makers responded with ‘shock therapy,’ making matters even worse.
Yeltsin’s 1993 Constitution. Originally designed by Joseph Stalin as window-dressing to hide his dictatorial party-state behind a democratic façade, the Soviet constitution was based on the notion of an all-powerful assembly, making no provision for separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers or for checks and balances, because these were unnecessary under one-party rule. In the post-Soviet era, this loose framework set the stage for continual competition for power between the Russian parliament and its president as they attempted to redefine their relationship to suit themselves. Each tried to maximize its own power and minimize the other’s. Concurrently, the strength of the legislature forced Yeltsin to moderate his economic reform policy, thus slowing down the transition to a market economy, creating uncertainty, and inflicting more pain on the Russian public in the process. In his quest for greater presidential power to deal with the agenda before him, Yeltsin’s principal opponent was his own vice-president, Aleksandr Rutskoi. At the sixth Congress of People’s Deputies in April 1992, Yeltsin won a pyrrhic victory over the challenges to his power and to his reform program led by Rutskoi, a key spokesman for Russian national-patriotic forces. But he failed to gain approval for his proposed new constitution. In line with the conservative nature of the body over which he presided, Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker (chair) of the Russian Supreme Soviet, played a major role in these attempts to reduce the powers of the executive. In December 1992, with the country’s economic decline accelerating, Yeltsin was forced to dismiss Yegor Gaidar as prime minister and architect of the ‘shock therapy’ economic reform in favor of the Communist-era industrial boss, Viktor Chernomyrdin.
The political battle between executive and legislature continued in 1993, as the Congress introduced constitutional changes to strengthen its powers at the expense of the president, and attempted to usurp all powers related to appointment and dismissal of cabinet and its ministers. Impeachment of the president was mooted. Yeltsin attempted to rule by special decree, but this was struck down by the constitutional court. In April 1993, Yeltsin held a referendum in which he sought and received public approval for his performance and his government’s economic policies. This had no restraining effect on the parliamentarians and their leaders. On 21 September, Yeltsin declared the dissolution of the Congress and Supreme Soviet, calling for elections on 12 December. This would forestall these bodies’ impending constitutional amendments that would have reduced the presidency to a merely ceremonial head of state. The Supreme Soviet on the next day responded by appointing Rutskoi as acting president, who with a motley collection of officers and soldiers and bolstered by mass rallies in the thousands, then staged a coup attempt during the night of 3–4 October 1993. On 4 October, forces loyal to Yeltsin shelled the White House (the parliament) and the rebels surrendered.
A shocked nation went to the polls on 12 December and voters approved a new presidentialist constitution designed by Yeltsin as well as a new parliament, the 450-seat State Duma. The 1993 constitution reinstated a nominally federal structure for the country, with schedules of exclusively federal matters and matters under joint responsibility of the centre and its members, plus an undefined residue left to the member units. Provisions for non-intrusion of the two levels of government, or for judicial review, were absent as being unnecessary by custom. It also provided for a president elected for a four-year term, with extensive powers of appointment as well as the ability to suspend acts of member units of the federation, again eviscerating the principle of federalism. The bicameral Federal Assembly would consist of an elected State Duma (lower house) plus a Council of the Federation (upper house). This ‘superpresidential’ constitution did not settle the question of whether the Russian Federation was to be a presidential or a parliamentary republic. Legislative initiative was assigned not only to the chambers of the Federal Assembly, but also to the president and several other institutions, thus overriding the separation of powers as well as guaranteeing the ‘war of laws’ begun during the transition. The president could dissolve the State Duma, and could be removed from office by the Council of the Federation. The president would appoint the chairman of the government (prime minister), and could dismiss the entire government (cabinet). It was a constitution modelled on the semi-presidential one of France, with the president, and under him the prime minister and cabinet, and the national assembly. The president was assigned full powers of conducting foreign policy. Thus the stage was set for the continued clashes at the apex of the political system for the remainder of Yeltsin’s term of office, as well as for the slide into authoritarianism thereafter.
Using the two-ballot system (party lists and single-member districts), voting for the inaugural State Duma resulted in more seats for anti-reform parties than for those pro-reform. This did not bode well for Yeltsin’s reform program which was essential. While Russia’s Choice, led by Yegor Gaidar, won a plurality of seats, the next three were opponents of reform: Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democrats; and Gennady Ziuganov’s hard-line Communist Party with its rural counterpart, the Agrarians. Turnout was less than 55 percent of the eligible electorate. A dozen parties gained representation in the State Duma.
The Federation Council, to which each of the 89 regions elected two representatives, actually had no duties involving representation of the interests of federal units at the centre. Instead, it was to confirm presidential decrees on martial law, states of emergency, and use of the armed forces outside RF territory; schedule presidential elections and remove him from office; and appoint judges and the prosecutor-general. It would adopt resolutions on these matters; if it disagreed with a federal law, its opinion could be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the State Duma. In 1995, instead of being elected, regional governors and legislature heads were appointed ex officio to the Federation Council; in 2000, by which time the body had become a rubber stamp, regional delegates were elected to the Federation Council; in 2008, the 89 components of the pseudo-federation were reduced to 83. Yeltsin dealt with the regions and their leaders on a bilateral basis; 42 power-sharing treaties were concluded between 1994 and 1998. These had all lapsed by 2005, severely reducing regional autonomy. Ultimately, this kind of bicameralism became nothing more than unitarism in federal clothing.
Frustrated by its negotiations with Moscow, the republic of Chechnya under Dzhokhar Dudaev sought outright independence from Russia. In response, Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994 in an effort to bring down the rebellious government. A destructive conflict ensued for two years, indicative of the weakness of the Russian state and its military as well as of its negotiating skills.
Boris Yeltsin kept Viktor Chernomyrdin on as prime minister and leader of the new party of power, Our Home is Russia. In the 1995 elections to the State Duma, Our Home is Russia won 55 seats, which placed it second, but far behind the Communist Party’s 107. From the Kremlin and reformist perspective, this was a disaster. One-half of the electorate, which voted for parties that failed to cross the five percent threshold, was in effect disfranchised. It was being mooted that Yeltsin was becoming isolated and dependent on political advice from a kitchen cabinet including his daughter, Tatiana. Yeltsin himself was in ill health, and underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery in 1996. In the same year, he was revived sufficiently to contest the presidential elections, in which he narrowly edged out the Communist candidate, Ziuganov, by 35.3 percent to 32.0 in the first round, and 53.8 to 40.3 on the second. These results were questionable having been obtained by generously showering benefits on various categories of the population. Yeltsin continued to govern in his customarily erratic manner, tolerating corruption and abuse of the rule of law. Russians began to yearn for a return of the Leonid Brezhnev era.
Chernomyrdin was fired by Yeltsin in March 1998, and replaced by a young reformer, Sergei Kirienko. But when the Russian economy crashed in August, Kirienko was in turn replaced by the veteran bureaucrat Yevgeny Primakov. In 1999, Yeltsin began seriously looking for a successor, eventually settling on ex-KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Putin, whom he appointed prime minister in August. In response to mysterious apartment bombings instantly blamed on the Chechens, Putin launched a vicious military attack on Chechnya, making himself very popular with the Russian public. To capitalize on this popularity, and to sideline Primakov, a contender for the presidency, Putin created a new political party, Unity, to contest the December 1999 State Duma elections. The ploy worked, as Unity obtained 73 seats, edging out the 66 for Primakov’s Fatherland-All Russia, and thus taking second place behind Ziuganov’s Communists who had 114 seats. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1999, Yeltsin stepped down, naming Putin as acting president and asking him to ‘take care of Russia.’
The Putin Presidency. Declining to campaign, Putin won the March 2000 presidential election easily on the first ballot with 52.9 percent of the vote; Ziuganov placed second with 29.2 percent; and the liberal Grigorii Yavlinsky came third with 5.8 percent. Hitherto an obscure administrator with a background as mid-level KGB officer, Putin set about ‘to restore order and well-being to Russia’—politically, economically, and internationally. To curb anarchy and to prevent the country’s disintegration his first step was issuing an extra-constitutional decree in May 2000 establishing seven intermediate federal districts, each headed by his named representative, to impose coherence on the legal systems in them. This was part of his overall aim of constructing a ‘power vertical’ operating under him and inhibiting autonomous political action by the rulers of the federation’s component units (administrative oblasts and ethnic republics). In elections to the State Duma, single-member districts were abolished in 2007; the threshold for party list representation was raised to seven percent; and electoral alliances were forbidden. The Fatherland-All Russia and Unity parties were merged into United Russia, which in the 2003 elections succeeded in obtaining 223 State Duma seats, well ahead of the Communist Party with 52. In 2007, its competitors having been practically eliminated by changing the rules, United Russia, the president’s party, won 64 percent of the vote and 315 seats in the State Duma. Electoral uncertainty had been removed from Russian politics. Putin also attempted to limit the independence of non-governmental organizations; undertook a concerted attack on separatism, particularly emanating from Chechnya (although the efficacy of the security services was questionable in light of the attacks on a Moscow theater and the Beslan school); and pursued oligarchs regarded as disloyal or disobedient with the intention of neutralizing them economically and politically, driving some of the most prominent of them into exile in the process. Journalists critical of the Putin regime suffered unexplained deaths. A macho cult of Putin’s personality was disseminated in the mass media. At the end of his second term, Putin relinquished the presidency to his close colleague, Dmitri Medvedev, assuming the prime ministership from which he continued to exert influence on and to direct policies.
Medvedev handily won the presidential election on March 2, 2008, with 70.3 percent of the vote. The Medvedev interlude raised the possibility of a more liberal, modernizing regime, but such hopes for reform were never practically realized and in any case were undone by his successor. The Russian Federations’s 2008 war against Georgia, clearly directed by Putin rather than Medvedev, indicated a continuation if not intensification of the policy of ‘making Russia great again’ by fending off encroachments by NATO. Earlier that year, Georgia (along with Ukraine) had been promised eventual admission to NATO through a membership action plan. Despite Medvedev’s avowed dedication to the law, during his term of office several measures antithetical to openness and responsiveness were implemented. The constitution was amended to increase the presidential term to six years and the president given power to nominate the chair of the Constitutional Court. Jury trials were eliminated in political or terrorism cases. Police units dedicated to fighting organized crime were transformed into a force meant to fight ‘extremism,’ a convenient label for anyone with whom the authorities disagreed. The ‘tandem’ essentially paved the way for restoration of personalist rule and a more centralist state.
Amongst the Russian public, the Putinist system began to lose its attraction. The December 2011 State Duma elections showed a significant decline in popularity for United Russia, although it still managed a majority. When it was announced that Putin would return to the presidency after just a single Medvedev term, authorities were shocked by the thousands of Russians demonstrating in protest. Following Putin’s 63.6 percent win in the March 2012 presidential election, there were further protests against vote falsification. Protests continued at the inauguration, after which Medvedev returned to his job as prime minister while Putin prepared for two more consecutive terms ending in 2024. To bolster his position, Putin clamped down politically, particularly on social media, and promoted a set of conservative social values which were to differentiate the Russian Federation from, and elevate it above, a ‘degenerate’ Europe, the Anglo-American sphere, and the West in general.
The second coming of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of the Russian Federation was marked by a series of foreign policy actions asserting his country’s efficacy on the world stage. These included the annexation of the Crimea and intervention in the civil war in Syria in defense of Bashar al-Assad, as well as interference in the presidential election of 2016 in the United States.
On the domestic front, consolidation of a personalist order proceeded apace. In the September 2016 elections to the State Duma, where turnout was only 47 percent, the pro-presidential United Russia party obtained 54.2 percent on the PR vote along with 203 SMD seats for a super-majority total of 343. Three other parties, none of them a genuine opposition, secured representation: Communists, with 42 seats; Liberal Democrats, 39; and A Just Russia, itself a Kremlin project, 23. Controlled by the executive, the State Duma became a venue for perfunctory debate on matters decided elsewhere. The president’s personnel changes brought more siloviki (officers of security and law enforcement bodies) into important administrative posts, their loyalty more highly valued than their expertise. Opponents of the Kremlin were ending up dead. In 2016, Putin ordered the creation of a National Guard, nominally for the protection of public order and fighting terrorism, but also capable of repressing political opponents and mass protests. The September 2021 State Duma elections, preceded by unprecedented measures of suppressing the opposition and conducted with ample ballot stuffing but without foreign observers, produced unsurprising results: 49.8 percent of the PR vote plus 198 SMD wins for a United Russia supermajority of 324 seats; 57 seats for the Communists; 27 for A Just Russia; 21 for the LDPR; and 13 for New People, a would-be liberal party that refrained from criticizing Putin. Genuine parliamentary elections and opposition had now been totally eliminated.
In the presidential election held on 18 March 2018, Putin was re-elected with 76.7 percent of the vote on the first ballot. Other contenders were: the Communist, Pavel Grodnin, 11.8 percent; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 5.6; and Ksenia Sobchak, 1.6. Turnout was 67 percent, with many constituencies reporting nearly 100 percent, particularly in the Caucasus region, which was certainly improbable. Putin’s most credible opponent, Alexei Navalny, was barred from the contest. The election demonstrated that there was no alternative to Putin, just as there was no real parliament, no real political parties, no real elections, no real courts, and no really free press. Instead of its weak institutions the Putinist order was reliant on a network of informal patron-client and clan relations, personal loyalty, all subject to the absolute political power of the president. On Putin’s initiative, a plebiscite in 2000 approved constitutional amendments allowing him to run for re-election in 2024 and to remain in office until 2036, increasing the president’s power, and giving him control over the power ministries as well as the courts while reducing regional entities’ powers.
Russia’s Economy. Yeltsin launched the transformation of the Russian economy in October 1991, emphasizing the need for rapid liberalization of prices, macroeconomic stabilization, and privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). As his chief reformer he appointed Yegor Gaidar who advocated radical reform, beginning with price liberalization as of 1 January 1992. An immediate effect was that prices rose two and one-half times and goods reappeared on store shelves. Opposition from parliament, industrialists, and directors of SOEs, however, brought liberalization and macroeconomic stabilization to an early end in June 1992.
Privatization was launched in August 1992 by issuing to all permanent residents of the Russian Federation vouchers with a face value of 10,000 rubles which could be used to buy shares in privatized enterprises, used at auctions, placed in investment funds, or traded. Enterprise managers and employees could become owners, as could skillful traders who took advantage of people’s unfamiliarity with the principles of capitalist market economies. There were countless difficulties and controversies accompanying the process, including the notorious MMM pyramid scheme scandal. Nevertheless, according to Swedish economist Anders Åslund, voucher privatization was a great success with thousands of large enterprises being privatized in this way and the private sector accounting for one-half of RF’s GDP by late 1994. In fact, 100,000 enterprises acquired new owners and 40 million Russian citizens became shareholders. But critics complained of ‘nomenklatura privatization,’ ‘illegal appropriation,’ a ‘criminalization of the economy,’ and of an ‘enormous swindle.’ Ordinary Russians assessed it as a ‘massive swindle,’ hence the commonly used label prikhvatizatsiia (‘grabitization’) for it in place of privatizatsiia. According to Russian researchers the actual result was a concentration of ownership rather than a dispersal in democratic fashion as had been intended.
The privatization of farm land proceeded more slowly due to such factors as unprofitability of collective farms and state farms (kolkhozy and sovkhozy), ideological opposition within the Russian parliament, lobbying by former kolkhoz chairmen and sovkhoz directors, and competition from cheaper imports. On the whole agricultural output by the end of the 1990s had been cut in half. Russia’s economy was also impacted by severe capital flight abroad as well as illegal export of resources on a massive scale. At the same time, foreign investment was weak due to concerns about political instability, crime, and corruption. Financial stabilization was not achieved, furthermore, because of increasing money supply which created inflation bordering on hyperinflation. RF’s economy stagnated and began to regress into a barter economy instead of a market economy.
Unwilling to implement genuine market reforms, Yeltsin’s government supported itself in part by selling short-term financial instruments (bonds) known as GKOs. In 1998, it defaulted on both its domestic and foreign obligations, causing a financial crisis. The crash allowed astute oligarchs to take advantage of the ‘loans for shares’ program to acquire SOEs at fire-sale prices through rigged auctions, augmenting their dominance in the marketplace and domestic politics.
In the aftermath of the crisis financial stabilization was actually achieved and the Russian government began in 1999 to undertake seriously the necessary reforms for achieving a market economy. These included tax reform, corporate taxation changes, deregulation to stimulate small and medium businesses, and land reform. The results were mixed: alongside price deregulation, liberalization of imports, cuts in military procurements, and mass privatization, Russia retained its customary economic handicaps—resource dependence, renationalization of enterprises, and corruption. As a consequence of the hesitant approach to economic reform GDP declined by nearly half over the decade and poverty increased.
Putin, who took office in 2000, was able initially to capitalize on his predecessor’s reform successes as well as the rising price of oil which enabled the Russian Federation’s GDP to grow and the government to improve the standard of living for the population. His original target was to have RF’s GDP catch up to Spain and Portugal, but these were moving targets so that by 2021 it was still behind. By 2006, per capita income had recaptured its 1991 level. Poverty was cut in half. A stabilization fund was established from which windfall oil and gas revenues were invested. Although dismissed by Putin and Medvedev as a foreign conspiracy, the 2008 global crisis was a setback for RF as well. Stocks fell, the ruble dropped in value, inflation rose, huge sums of money left RF, and unemployment increased. Whether to continue reforms with guaranteed property rights or to fall back on resource revenues with state control re-emerged as the quintessential Russian dilemma.
The needed diversification of the economy and its restructuring did not proceed further. Prioritizing the hydrocarbon sector, Putin reversed its privatization by Yeltsin in the 1990s and brought it under state control. A turning point was the ‘Yukos affair’ of 2003, which resulted in the jailing of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and expropriation of his business assets as a warning to others not to meddle in politics or to cross the president. Thereafter, management of key industries in the country was entrusted to the president’s close and loyal associates. The Russian economy at present is a form of state capitalism, or crony capitalism, where the strategic sectors are run by the president’s friends for their own profit while small and medium-sized business remains inadequately developed for the needs of the public. Productivity, innovation, and investment are also low. Except for oil and gas the Russian Federation is uncompetitive on the world market.
In December 2021, Russia’s GDP stood at $1,775.8 billion US, slightly ahead of Brazil at 1,609 billion. Its GDP per capita placed the country between China and Mexico; on a PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) basis, it sat between Turkey and Argentina. These data showed considerable unrealized potential and were difficult to square with Russia’s aspiration to great power status. Due to sanctions and the war in Ukraine, GDP was expected to decline by 3 percent in 2022, inflation to rise from 8 percent to 12, and real income to drop by as much as 2.5 percent. A recession was anticipated in 2023.
The Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy. At the beginning of 1992, President Boris Yeltsin articulated the two basic principles guiding his country’s foreign policy as being to facilitate Russia’s inclusion in the ‘community of civilized states’ and to acquire ‘maximum outside support’ for the country’s internal transformation. The Russian Federation would henceforth seek partnerships rather than confrontation with the rest of the world. Putting this into practice, he made numerous trips abroad holding summits with Western leaders. By 1997, RF had joined the G-8 group of nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Inevitably, differences of perception emerged which affected the friendship between the Russian Federation and the West. The westward orientation underwent a notable correction when Andrei Kozyrev was replaced as Russian foreign minister by Yevgenii Primakov. Among factors contributing to this reorientation was Russia’s view of Western aid as inadequate for its needed reconstruction of the economy. This was aggravated by RF’s taking over the entire Soviet debt and its withdrawal of military forces from Eastern Europe which required employment and housing in Russia. At the same time, certain actions by the United States were seen as insensitive to RF’s interests. These included the 1995 NATO bombing of Serb forces in Bosnia, and the 1999 bombing of Serbia to force Slobodan Milošević’s withdrawal from Kosovo. Expansion of NATO, beginning in 1999 with the admission of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, was another issue. Later came the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state and the US invasion of Iraq justified as a ‘preventive war.’ Increasingly it was being felt that Russia’s views and interests were being given inadequate attention and Russia itself treated with condescension.
From the American perspective, financial assistance to the Russian Federation was of doubtful value in view of the chaotic politics in Moscow, the misuse of humanitarian aid within RF, and American public opinion. Russia may have been insulted and offended by NATO’s expansion, but it was also ignoring the legitimate security concerns of Eastern European nations as though its own were solely relevant. Washington, DC, officials found incomprehensible Russia’s mood changes, truculence, mischief-making, and rudeness in the conduct of its foreign policy. Basically, there was a progressive divergence of interests in the 1990s between Washington and Moscow with each side blaming the other. Continuity in Russian foreign policy at that time was seriously undermined also by uncertainty within the country about the very nature of Russia and of its interests. A hot debate ensued within influential intellectual circles as to the nature of Russia, whether it was a nation or an empire, and how its boundaries should be considered defined. President Yeltsin attempted to remedy this by launching a project to establish a Russian identity appropriate for the times without making it into an ideology, forbidden by the constitution, but without effect. There was no consensus. Lacking a definition of the national identity it became impossible to determine Russia’s proper national interests and to fashion appropriate foreign policy in defence of such interests. Whether Russia was part of Europe or of Asia, or both, or apart from Europe, was never resolved by decision-makers during Yeltsin’s tenure.
From the beginning, by appropriating the USSR’s seat in the United Nations Security Council, as well as controlling the Soviet nuclear arsenal, it was clear that the RF’s leadership aspired or at least expected to continue its great power status. This was repeatedly confirmed by Yeltsin and foreign minister Kozyrev. Thereafter, it became an ongoing struggle for Russian foreign policy to gain recognition of the Russian Federation as a great power and to be treated as such in the international arena. Great power status had traditionally been granted on the basis of a country’s size, population, and military power. In the twenty-first century this was no longer so—hence the Russian dilemma as it emerged from the Soviet cocoon and sought ‘its rightful place’ in the world. When the government released its foreign policy strategy in June 2000, announcing that Russia was ‘a great power’ and ‘one of the most influential countries of the modern world’ with responsibility to maintain global and regional security, it was met with some scepticism.
On coming to office President Vladimir Putin had two objectives for Russia’s foreign policy: to have an active global presence and to improve US-Russia relations. He was committed to improving relations with the European Union (EU) also, although he personally viewed present-day Europe and the West unfavorably. Nor was he antagonistic towards NATO at first saying at one point that the Russian Federation might some day join it. But he expected RF to be invited in, not to apply like a needy supplicant. The Kursk submarine tragedy of August 2000 convinced him to overhaul the armed forces which he continued through to 2008. He was the first world leader to offer President George W. Bush condolences and support following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their cooperation was brief, as his disillusionment with the United States increased. This centred principally on the unilateral US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001, expansion of NATO in 2002 to include the Baltic States, and as already mentioned the US invasion of Iraq in contravention of the UN Charter. US support for both the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and Orange Revolution (2004) in Ukraine were interpreted by Putin as a conspiracy to weaken Russia. The ‘big bang’ enlargement of NATO by seven members contributed to Russian alarm at being hemmed in militarily, even though RF was a nuclear power while NATO was not. He depicted Russia as a besieged fortress now. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin excoriated the United States for imposing a unipolar order on the world and called for multipolarity with a greater role for the United Nations. The audience was stunned by his belligerence. This was a dramatic turning-point in US-Russia relations: Russia had had enough of disrespect and of lectures in democracy from the United States. Russia was no longer willing to accept the rules of international order as promulgated by America or to be treated as its inferior.
The Russian Federation’s position was set out in its 2008 Foreign Policy Concept. Its key objectives included not only the usual items on national security, modernization, ‘a just and democratic world order,’ and good-neighbourly relations, but also protection of Russian citizens, Russian-speakers, and the Russian Federation’s image throughout the world. It was premised on the idea of a ‘new Russia’ exerting ‘substantial influence on the development of a new architecture of international relations’ and helping to ensure against ‘the threat of full-scale war.’ The document called for strengthening of international law and the United Nations, pointing out at the same time Russia’s geopolitical position, its role as one of the world’s leading states, and its permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
In the same year NATO offered the prospect in the indefinite future of membership to Georgia and Ukraine, to which RF responded by attacking Georgia and detaching from it two quasi-states or statelets (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) rendering it ineligible for NATO membership. By this time Putin was reading American disrespect as a sinister plot to weaken and subordinate Russia, although Washington’s obsessive attention to nursing Russia’s self-image through several presidential terms of office could well have been interpreted otherwise. There developed an extensive discussion in academic and policy-making circles of a ‘new Cold War.’
During the presidency of Dmitri Medvedev US-Russia relations improved somewhat. A new START treaty was signed, the two governments responded to Iran’s defiance of nuclear non-proliferation, there was cooperation on the Afghanistan situation and Central Asia generally, RF’s accession to the WTO was progressing, and they were addressing the global financial crisis together. The ‘reset’ of relations launched by the Barak Obama administration soon thereafter faltered as disagreements arose in connection with the Arab Spring of 2011, the no-fly zone in Libya, and the 2012 murder of Muammar Gaddafi. To forestall what he deemed such efforts at democracy promotion having an effect on the Russian Federation, Putin tightened the screws at home by labelling NGOs as ‘foreign agents,’ and by verbally attacking ‘coloured revolutions,’ together with American hypocrisy with its double standards.
When in 2014 the extravagant Sochi Olympics, meant to symbolize Russia’s proper place atop the global hierarchy of nations, was overshadowed by the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, Putin launched the invasion and annexation of the Crimea. This would disqualify Ukraine from NATO membership and hold it within Russia’s sphere of influence. At the G-8 summit in November 2014, Putin was consequently treated as a pariah and told by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper to ‘get out of Ukraine.’ Putin continued to push back against the United States and the West. In 2015, the Russian air force intervened in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, who had been fighting a civil war since 2011. This was meant to demonstrate Russia’s ability to counter American influence in the Middle East, to break out of its isolation, and to show that Russia was a great power to be reckoned with. Russian hackers attempted to disrupt the 2016 US presidential election in yet another gesture intended to challenge American dominance. The goal of Russian foreign policy at this time was to gain respect as a great power, to be part of the Big Three alongside the United States and China, and to be given a free hand on issues in its self-defined sphere of influence.
During Donald Trump’s term as US president, whose admiration for Vladimir Putin was unreserved, it was expected that relations with RF would improve. The baggage of unresolved issues between the two countries, however, with the addition of new irritants including tit-for-tat sanctions and Russiagate (investigating electoral interference), served to block such improvement. The summit in Helsinki in July 2018 was a clear win for Putin personally—from Trump he at last gained respect and equal (indeed obsequious) treatment.
While Russian foreign policy under Putin targeted NATO, as had his former employer the KGB, being the ‘major opponent,’ its orientation towards the EU and EU expansion was less antagonistic. Eight East European countries became full members of the EU in May 2004; in January 2007 they were joined by Bulgaria and Romania; Croatia joined in 2013. In response to this European aggregation, RF sponsored a series of its own economic and security associations including the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). EU members were ineligible for EEU membership. Its eastern-oriented regional associations gave RF an opportunity to influence and control political as well as economic activity in the post-Soviet area.
At the beginning of 2021, the Russian Federation was still a formidable military power, one of only two nuclear superpowers. Its conventional forces had been upgraded to the point where they were more than a match for NATO. Having invested heavily in space weapons, intelligence, and cyber-capabilities, RF could be ranked as the world’s third most powerful country militarily. Its economy was eleventh-largest, and sixth in terms of purchasing power parity. Its president, Putin, motivated by illiberal and conservative ideas, had promoted widely his anti-Western worldview and won converts particularly in Europe. He was not risk-averse, seeing himself at war with the United States and its allies, and rather than seeking a place within it sought to destroy the liberal international order. In the space of thirty years Russian foreign policy had been turned on its head. Two caveats about present-day Russian foreign policy: apart from its external posture of seeking security and global status it was intended also to maintain the autocratic system domestically, and its aspirations exceeded the country’s socioeconomic capabilities as objectively measured.
Russia and Ukraine. Before the collapse of the USSR, a multiplicity of ties—political, economic, social, and military—connected Russia to Ukraine. After 1991, these became issues for Russian foreign policy towards its southern neighbour as what had been merely administrative boundaries between the two states became international boundaries and Ukrainian politicians asserted their independence.
Tensions with Ukraine emerged even before the USSR’s dissolution as a result of actions in Kyiv and reactions by Moscow. In October 1991, Ukraine failed to adhere to a new treaty on economic cooperation amongst the union republics and failed to send a delegation to a session of the USSR Supreme Soviet. It then began the process of legislating into existence a republican army, which in turn stimulated public discussion of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons. On 25 October 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR overwhelmingly adopted a resolution to the effect that Ukraine would participate in no discussions which might lead to its incorporation into another state. All of this caused consternation in Moscow where preservation of the Soviet Union was a priority shared across the political spectrum. The very idea of Ukraine’s independence was extremely difficult to accept by Russia.
After the 1991 Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence and the formal dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, the Russian Federation established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) with the aim of facilitating the multidimensional integration of the successor states. This objective was seriously undermined by Ukraine which viewed the new organization as a means of civilized divorce rather than enforced cohabitation. A particularly contentious issue was the disposition of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) stationed mainly in Sevastopol, Crimea. While President Boris Yeltsin declared the BSF as ‘indivisible,’ Ukraine insisted it was entitled to some if not all of it. A tentative agreement was reached in January 1992, to divide the fleet of some 300 vessels into ‘strategic’ and ‘conventional’ components, under CIS and Ukrainian control, respectively. Negotiations were to follow. Related to this, a confrontation naturally developed over the Crimea itself, with the Supreme Soviet of the RF launching an inquiry into the legality of Ukraine’s right to the peninsula. This dispute was unilaterally decided in 2014 by Russia when it occupied and annexed the Crimea making it a part of the Russian Federation.
Another dispute, one with global security implications, concerned the disposition of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory and in whose ownership and control they should properly belong. Ukraine’s hesitation in surrendering these weapons for obvious security reasons of its own created a flurry of diplomatic activity in the international arena. This involved the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Lisbon protocol, and the START Treaty. Russia insisted on full control of these weapons, offering Ukraine security guarantees which the Ukrainian government considered inadequate. A summit meeting between presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk in January 1993 produced only limited progress. RF’s approach to the issue concentrated on the arms control aspect while evading Ukraine’s security concerns (a non-nuclear state having a nuclear power as neighbour). Another summit meeting, in June 1993, dealt mainly with the Black Sea Fleet question and agreement on the division of the fleet was reached, although this was merely a statement of intent. President Yeltsin confirmed his readiness to provide Ukraine with security guarantees, but not yet to recognize Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Implementation of the BSF agreement was uncertain. Negotiations on these two closely interrelated issues were negatively impacted in July 1993 when the Russian parliament declared Sevastopol to be legally part of the RF, a claim immediately rejected by Yeltsin but which remained inextinguishable. At the following summit in September 1993, Yeltsin announced a breakthrough: Ukraine would sell its share of the BSF to pay off its debts to the Russian Federation, and transfer its nuclear warheads to Russia to be dismantled providing fuel for nuclear power stations in Ukraine. According to the Russian president, it was impermissible for Ukraine to become a nuclear power.
Ukraine’s ratification of the START-1 without conditions affirmed its nuclear disarmament and paved the way for conclusion of an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum. In this document, signed in December 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons, to send the warheads to the Russian Federation for decommissioning, and to join the NPT as a non-nuclear state. In return, the other signatories—the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States—promised to ‘respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine’ and to ‘refrain from the threat of use of force’ against it. As it turned out, these assurances in the Budapest Memorandum were not guarantees. Guarantees of security would have been worded to require the signatories to promise to defend with force if necessary if Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence were threatened or if it were attacked.
The Black Sea Fleet question was again dealt with in a meeting between the two presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma, in Sochi in June 1995. The agreement basically confirmed the status quo and conceded to RF that Sevastopol would be its main Black Sea naval base. The door was left open to pursue further negotiations regarding the two countries’ interests.
Yeltsin’s patient diplomacy ultimately resulted in two agreements signed in 1997. One was to divide the BSF, to allow the Russian Federation to lease its base in Sevastopol until 2017, and in exchange to write off most of Ukraine’s indebtedness for oil. The other was a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership Between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Under its terms Russia recognized Ukraine’s existing borders, its sovereignty over the Crimea, and its territorial integrity. The two countries would aim to achieve a strategic partnership. Russia seemed reconciled at that point, however reluctantly, to Ukraine’s independence, which Yeltsin expected to be temporary.
Under Yeltsin’s chosen successor the conduct of Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine turned from diplomacy to direct intervention. The biggest concern for both Russian presidents was preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. In 1994, Ukraine became the first CIS state to join the NATO Partnership for Peace program, thus initiating military cooperation with the West. Three years later, it concluded a Charter on Distinctive Partnership with NATO, an upgrade in the relationship. President Vladimir Putin’s first foreign visit, indicative of concern regarding Ukraine’s Western orientation, was to Kyiv. He lobbied to have Ukraine’s pro-Western foreign minister, Borys Tarasiuk, dismissed, and appointed the former chair of Gazprom, Viktor Chernomyrdin, as his ambassador in Ukraine. In 2002, he dispatched from Moscow prominent ‘political technologists’ to help Leonid Kuchma in the parliamentary elections. In May 2002, Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council voted to initiate the process of obtaining NATO membership. This turn to the West alarmed Putin who warned Kuchma in July 2004 in Yalta about the threat to Russia’s sphere of influence.
In the 2004 presidential elections in Ukraine, Putin intervened by personally endorsing Leonid Kuchma’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Viktor Yushchenko eventually defeated Yanukovych as an outcome of the Orange Revolution, a devastating blow to Putin and the Kremlin. Yushchenko then pursued a distinctly pro-Western policy, viewed in Moscow as a threat to Russia’s domestic order and international standing. The Russian leadership concluded that attempting to influence Ukraine’s direction through its irresponsible politicians was impossible. It was decided to do so instead through business and economics. Ukraine’s principal vulnerability was reliance on the import of Russian natural gas. At first, RF raised the price of gas to the world market level. Then the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine, as well as supply to Ukraine, was cut off, most notably in 2006 and 2009 by Gazprom until Moscow’s terms were met. This occasionally brought Ukraine temporarily to heel. When Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential election, it was welcomed in the Kremlin.
With Viktor Yanukovych intent on improving relations with Russia, withdrawing Ukraine’s application to join NATO, and generally reversing the policies of Viktor Yushchenko which had annoyed Moscow, it appeared to Vladimir Putin as an opening to reassert control over Ukraine. In 2011, the Kharkiv Agreement was signed between the two governments. In exchange for a lower price for gas, the Russian lease on Sevastopol was extended to 2042. But at the same time, Yanukovych was negotiating with the European Union for an Association Agreement (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). As this would preclude Ukraine’s membership in the EEU and further economic integration with Russia, Moscow retaliated with threats as well as by blocking imports from Ukraine. Under such pressure, Yanukovych postponed the signing the AA and DCFTA, triggering the Euromaidan Revolution, and Putin reciprocated by offering Ukraine a US$15 billion loan. The revolution prompted Yanukovych’s flight to Russia and the repudiation of his pro-Russian policies by the interim government. In retaliation, Putin engineered the invasion, seizure, and annexation of the Crimea as well as the ‘separatist’ insurgency in the Donets Basin. Putin had warned in 2008 that should Ukraine join NATO it would be minus ‘the Crimea and the East.’
The violation of Ukrainian sovereignty was justified in Russia by the results of a hastily-arranged referendum and by reference to Nikita Khrushchev’s supposed mistake in the first place in awarding the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Strategically, annexation of the Crimea was meant to pre-empt its occupation by NATO. The Donbas conflict, depicted by Moscow as a ‘civil war,’ was in fact a military incursion supported by Russian troops, equipment, and supplies. Denying involvement, Putin negotiated the Minsk I and Minsk II agreements intended to settle the war on Russia’s terms but these were never fully implemented. The war in the Donbas continued until 2022 claiming some 13,000 lives and displacing millions of Ukrainian citizens from the conflict zone.
On 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a ‘special military operation,’ actually an illegal full-scale war, against Ukraine intended in his words to ‘de-Nazify’ and to ‘de-militarize’ it. Putin’s non-recognition of Ukraine’s right to exist justified this incursion in legal terms. He was absolved of criminal responsibility according to this narrative by declaring the historical non-existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians. He subsequently described his action as a wholly defensive operation against the existential threat posed to Russia and Russian civilization by having a Western-sponsored ‘anti-Russia’ on its doorstep. Initiation of military action was blamed on NATO and the United States, which ‘were conspiring to destroy Russia.’ In the course of this war, which it was forbidden within Russia to refer to as such, over 130,000 of its soldiers died in the course of the first year and a proportionate quantity of military resources was expended. The campaign was conducted as though Russian means were limitless. One-fifth of Ukraine’s territory was eventually captured in a long-drawn-out struggle reminiscent of the First World War. As part of its military onslaught, the Russian army engaged in systematic massive air and artillery attacks targeting non-military targets, residential areas, and civil infrastructure. There is an overwhelming evidence that the Russian military, secret police, and occupational authorities perpetrated war crimes through executions, arrests, kidnappings, torture, rape, and forced deportations. Four oblasts in southeastern Ukraine were officially ‘annexed’ by the Russian Federation even though not fully controlled by its forces. This was meant to deter NATO from joining the fray: a NATO attack on the Russian forces in the ‘annexed’ areas would technically be an attack on Russia, putting NATO at war with Russia and turning this into World War Three. Every gesture of Western support for Ukraine’s war effort was countered by Putin promising unimaginable retaliation which, in most cases, never came. The Ukrainian government applied for accelerated membership in both NATO and EU. The invasion of Ukraine was condemned by the United Nations, and the Russian Federation was expelled from the PACE. As a demonstration or affirmation of Russia’s great power status and guardian of its inherent sphere of influence, the Russo-Ukrainian War was of questionable value. By this action, Russia demonstrated that it had stepped decisively outside the prevailing international order into the ranks of ‘rogue states.’ In addition, Vladimir Putin has gained a reputation of a war criminal, as in March 2023 the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against him and Maria Lvova-Belova for alleged war crimes of unlawful deportation of children and the transfer of these children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. However, in spite of its violation of the UN Charter, the Russian Federation has so far remained a permanent member of the UN Security Council where it has been working to deflect all criticism of its actions.
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[This article was written in 2023.]