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Story Publication logo June 26, 2019

What Does Putin Really Want?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at a press conference at the Palace of Versailles. Image by Frederic Legrand - COMEO / France, 2017.

What does Russia really want and how does it get it? A look at Russian foreign policy—from agenda to...

Photo illustration by Delcan & Company
Photo illustration by Delcan & Company / The New York Times. 2019.

On a warm late-May afternoon, I took a taxi to the outskirts of the Russian capital to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, known by its Russian acronym, Mgimo. Flags marked the entrance to the campus, a stately Soviet behemoth with a hammer-and-sickle on a panel above the doors. Students in skinny jeans, button-down shirts and thick black glasses gathered in gaggles by the flagpoles, checking their phones and chatting. I signed in as a visitor at the security desk and wandered past a buzzing cafeteria, into the institute’s gift shop, with its rainbow of sweatshirts, coffee mugs and notebooks emblazoned with the Mgimo logo.

Since 1944, Mgimo has trained legions of diplomats; its 53 language offerings—including Afrikaans, Amharic and Vietnamese—serve as a reminder of the Soviet Union’s global ambitions. As much as ninety-five percent of Russia’s foreign ministry is made up of Mgimo alumni, while those who graduate with honors and pass a language test become attachés, complete with a green diplomatic passport. They are then sent forth, as Vladimir Putin himself put it, “to protect Russian interests” in the rest of the world. Alumni include the president of Azerbaijan, the foreign-affairs ministers of Slovakia and Mongolia and Russia’s own foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who regularly returns to give the commencement address.

Mgimo is run by the foreign ministry, so Andrey Baykov, its vice rector, is a hybrid—part academic, part representative of Russian diplomacy. I asked him a question that I would spend a long time trying to understand: What does Russia really want?

From behind a large dark wooden desk, Baykov—young and fresh-faced, dressed smartly in a suit and slender tie—answered in nearly flawless British-accented English: “To be an autonomous player, to uphold its identity of a great power which is strategically independent.” Russia, he explained, did not want to dismantle the trans-Atlantic world order by splintering NATO and demolishing the European Union, as was frequently suggested by the Western press using headlines like “Is Putin’s Master Plan Only Beginning?” (Vanity Fair); “The Dark Arts of Foreign Influence-Peddling” (The Atlantic); “Why Russia Is Using the Internet to Undermine Western Democracy” (Slate). Instead, he spoke about the importance of Russia’s national identity and its territorial sovereignty.

“Nationalism comes in different disguises,” he told me. “America’s nationalism comes in the disguise of universalism, but this universalism is basically the American national model being expanded.” Russia’s nationalism, he went on, is inward-looking. Students “all come here with the idea that Russia is a great power. It has all the rights it deserves, but it’s being mistreated,” he said. “There is a huge sense of being betrayed.”

[Read about the quiet Americans behind the U.S.-Russia imbroglio.]

Baykov’s sentiment was one I heard repeatedly while speaking to analysts, academics and journalists in Moscow. My trip came before the release of the Mueller report, and Russians alternately laughed or dismissed as hysterical at what they saw as the Western press’s assertions of Putin’s grandiose manipulations. “The American media made the Kremlin the third player in the U.S. election, which is great,” joked Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist who specializes in cybersecurity. “Like, you think to yourself: ‘We are such a great country, we can interfere with world elections!’ ” His real point was serious, though: that Americans looking for a master plan fundamentally misunderstood the Russian leadership’s mentality. “When you are trained by the K.G.B., it means you see the world in terms of threats,” he explained. “That’s the only way you see it. The thing about threats is that when you see threats, you do not have strategy; you rely on tactics. Because you don’t know what the next threat might be, you only respond.”

On another afternoon in Moscow, I entered the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, a crumbling yellow building, and climbed a stairwell under a massive chandelier to reach the office of its current director, Valery Garbuzov. The institute was founded in 1967 after the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the nadir of U.S.-Russian relations. Garbuzov told me that the institute was formed to provide the Soviet regime with detailed analysis of its adversaries to help direct the U.S.S.R.’s responses. “That doesn’t mean that the Soviet leaders did what was advised!” he told me mirthfully. “Rather, they did the opposite.”

Garbuzov suggested that little had changed—the Kremlin did not understand America and did not listen to those who did. The United States was no different. “We have an image of America as the country that foments revolutions around the world. The Americans have the image of Russia as a country that wants to revive the Soviet Union by any means,” he went on. “Both parties deeply misunderstand the motives of each other’s behavior.” He concluded by saying: “This is a very sad thing, the mutual misunderstanding we couldn’t overcome during the decades of the Cold War and can’t overcome now.”

When I met Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a military think tank, at the elegant Cafe Pushkin, he did not mince words. “Every time some Western observer says ‘Russians did this, Russia did that,’ I say: ‘You describe Russians like they are Germans and Americans. We are not.’ I also ask: ‘Do you know the word bardak?’” I did. “If you don’t know the word bardak, you are an idiot, and not an analyst of Russia. Because bardak is disorder, it’s fiasco.” Pukhov’s point about bardak—which technically means “mess” but is also used colloquially to describe utter chaos—was that Russia’s political system isn’t a streamlined, top-down dictatorship. Only naïveté, paranoia or both could convince you that the system functioned efficiently enough to execute a grand global anything.

Russia has long been a canvas on which Americans project their thoughts or fears—of the Red menace, and of Putin’s quest for world domination. This tradition only accelerated after the 2016 election, when it seemed as if everyone were an expert on Putin’s agenda. There wasn’t an election he didn’t hack, a border he wouldn’t violate, or an American ally he couldn’t manipulate. The very word “Putin” has come to symbolize a coherent, systematic destruction of the post-Cold War international order. But no one I spoke with who had an intimate knowledge of Russia saw that as anything but fiction. Instead, they talked about Russia’s strides back onto the world stage as improvised reactions, tactics, gambles that were at times more worrisome than masterful.

Because a nation’s foreign policy is in part built on its perceptions of itself, magnified to the world stage, I came to Moscow to understand how Russians saw themselves as much as how they saw the world. On and off for over two years, I visited other countries in the Middle East and Europe—historical allies of the United States that were portrayed in the press as pivoting to Russia—to do the same. If Americans tried to see the world as the Russians did, and as our allies did, could we better understand what any of these countries were doing? And if we understood what they really wanted, could we better understand the world ourselves?

To comprehend contemporary Russian thinking about the West, I was told to start at the beginning. Yet even identifying the beginning of the post-Cold War international order is a fraught exercise. Russian policymakers often set the start date in 1989, when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev willingly dismantled Russia’s political and military dominance over Eastern Europe. After such a magnanimous gesture, Moscow believed it would be treated as an equal partner of the United States, rather than as a rival, with the right to retain influence over countries in what it considered its neighborhood.

Western observers, on the other hand, date the dawn of the American hegemonic age as 1991, when the Soviet Union was roundly defeated and collapsed, costing Russia any say over its neighboring countries. That is, each side would come to blame the other for reneging on a post-Cold War compact that the other side never agreed on or perhaps even really understood. As the Russian academics Andrej Krickovic and Yuval Weber noted in a 2016 article in the journal Russia in Global Affairs: “The basic disagreement becomes clear: Was the status quo set in 1989, making the U.S. a revisionist hegemon, or was it set in 1991, making Russia a revisionist challenger?”

The 1999 war in Kosovo provided the first clear indication that the Russian view would not be reciprocated. Under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia had joined the Council of Europe in 1996 and the G7 in 1998. It sought special status with NATO and even flirted with joining the European Union. The Russians were furious when NATO forces launched a military campaign in Kosovo without United Nations Security Council authorization. The Kremlin viewed Yugoslavia as within its sphere of influence. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was over the Atlantic, en route to Washington, when Vice President Al Gore called to inform him that airstrikes had commenced. In a show of anger, Primakov turned his plane around.

When Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, he remained “convinced that he could build good relations with the West, in particular with the United States,” the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar writes in “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.” He took pains to court Tony Blair and George W. Bush, and he was the first leader to call Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. Russia was fighting the second Chechen war, and Putin sought to portray Chechen separatists as terrorists. He mistakenly believed the attacks on Sept. 11 would align the two countries’ world views around the war on terror.

Zygar writes that before the Americans began their bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Washington reached out to Moscow for approval to construct a temporary air base in Kyrgyzstan, promising that the occupation would last a year at most. Russia agreed. But by 2002, as the campaign appeared to be dying down, Alexander Voloshin, the main political strategist of Putin’s first term, asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when the United States would leave. “You know what?” Zygar writes that Rice responded. “It turns out we really need this base, like, permanently.” That year, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, despite Russian protests. The treaty was signed to slow the nuclear arms race and was referred to by Russians as “the cornerstone of strategic stability.”

The next offense came in 2003, when Bush circumvented United Nations authorization and invaded Iraq. Russia maintained historic and economic ties to Iraq, and the Kremlin publicly disputed the White House’s claim that Baghdad possessed weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2005, a wave of protests against Soviet-era rulers spread across Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, leading to the establishment of pro-Western governments. Nations in what was once considered the Soviet sphere joined NATO as a way to protect themselves from Russia. The Kremlin perceived these shifts as a threat to its own territorial sovereignty. Russians now understood clearly that the West saw them as a “de facto defeated country,” Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Presidium on the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, told me, “which had no right to claim to be on the same footing as Americans or Europeans.”

‘When you are trained by the K.G.B., it means you see the world in terms of threats. That’s the only way you see it.’


The difference in perspectives slowly became intractable. By 2007, Putin voiced his displeasure at the Munich Security Conference, an annual assembly of global elites, but it’s unclear if anyone understood the depth of his discontent. “The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way,” he said. “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?” He went on: “No one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.”

The Kremlin took particular issue with what Pyotr Stegny, a Russian academic writing in Russia in Global Affairs, called a kind of democratic fundamentalism emanating from the United States, including its insistence on liberal values like women’s, minorities’ and L.G.B.T. rights without considering the local context. Russian observers could find no other logic in America’s decision-making around the Arab Spring, when the Obama administration supported the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a 30-year ally. Moscow preferred stability at all costs, while the United States “mercilessly and mindlessly betrays allies for the sake of theoretical dogmatism,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, a Russian academic, wrote in the same journal, noting that these policies often lead to support of Islamic fundamentalists, who are even more at odds with America’s purported values.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, intended as Putin’s crowning glory, were overshadowed by boycott threats over Russia’s draconian ban on “gay propaganda” (the country was later slammed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for violating an international covenant on human rights). The Kremlin viewed the condemnation as a geopolitical insult driven by the American government. “People were attacking Russia, starting with the pro-L.G.B.T. campaign in the run-up to the Olympics and with, from the Russian standpoint, a very clear objective of scuttling the Olympics information space,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me.

In February 2014, mass protests led President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine to flee to Russia. Putin promptly sent soldiers without insignia to take over Crimea, redrawing the borders of continental Europe. “What did Russia do in March 2014?” asked Timofey Bordachev, director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies in Moscow. “Russia violated the United States’ monopoly on breaking international law,” he continued. “When the United States did not respect the international law, it was relatively O.K. for everybody, but when Russia followed, it created such a tense attitude.”

The West responded by imposing multiple sanctions on Moscow, and then expanding them as the violence in Ukraine increased, including the downing of a civilian airplane by Russian-backed rebels that killed 298 people. Though it is debatable whether the sanctions had their intended economic effect, Russians saw them as hypocritical and demeaning. (They also took great offense when Obama called their country a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”) Putin imposed his own countersanctions, but those, too, had little effect. Russia was now an international pariah, and the isolation seemed to only embolden Putin. “After Ukraine in particular,” Trenin told me, “Putin, in my view, decided to move on from standing defense to active defense.”

It was in Syria where Putin challenged his country’s post-Cold War identity, as well as how the West had perceived it for so long. His decision to commit Russian forces has been portrayed as the first step in an effort to realign the region, but the strategy was largely a result of luck and timing, its tactics born partly of a lack of resources.

After protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, Moscow blocked United Nations resolutions that would have paved the way for future intervention and continued shipping weapons to the Syrian Army. Russia’s drive to protect Assad dovetailed with the American administration’s regional disengagement. Obama had no interest in entangling America in another war. He said the “red line” would be the use of chemical weapons, yet as evidence of their use piled up, Washington did little. After the emergence of the Islamic State in 2013, the United States quickly became fixated on fighting the group itself, with little more than vague words of support for the Syrian opposition.

By 2015, Assad’s regime was on the precipice of collapse, losing territory to ISIS and the anti-government militias simultaneously. The Middle East is far closer to Moscow than to Washington; Syria’s nearest border with Russia is roughly as far away as Washington is from Boston. Moscow feared the spread of unrest and terrorism like a contagion. On Sept. 30, 2015, Assad sent a formal request for assistance based on a 1980 military cooperation treaty, which the Russian Parliament rubber-stamped. Russian armed forces officially went in. (Many Russians I spoke to quickly pointed out that because of this process, Putin’s military presence in Syria, unlike the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is permissible.)

After years of “covert” war by Russia in Ukraine and the legacy of a decade-long Soviet embroilment in Afghanistan, which killed 14,000 Soviet troops and one million civilians, the Russian population was genuinely wary about the intervention in Syria. In a poll by the Levada Center, Russia’s only major independent polling center, 69 percent of Russians were against direct military involvement. In terms of technical support, opinions were split—only 43 percent believed Russia should advise and arm Assad, while 41 percent were against it. Analysts and opposition politicians pointed out a host of risks from Russian “adventurism.” Dmitry Gudkov, Russia’s most vocal opposition member of Parliament, warned about potential repercussions. “It is not known how this will end,” he cautioned during an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Russia has its own large Muslim minority, roughly 10 percent of the population, and ex-Soviet countries contributed the largest cadre of foreign ISIS fighters, estimated at up to 8,500 people. Gudkov cautioned that troops on the ground in Syria risked inflaming ethnic tensions within Russia’s own borders.

The Kremlin cares deeply about domestic opinion and is set about selling the intervention on television and through pro-war op-eds. “The entire Middle East, due to internal reasons and the stupid, unceremonious and irresponsible intervention of the West, entered a period of decades of instability,” Sergei Karaganov, honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, explained on a popular Saturday political-affairs show. “And this instability will have to be controlled.”

[How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century.]

The Russian incursion began with a volley of airstrikes “targeting ISIS” in an area where there were no records of its activity. It was instead home to anti-Assad militias and at least one C.I.A.-trained group. The following day, Lavrov clarified that the Russian air campaign was targeting “all terrorists.” Over the coming weeks, Russia surprised Western officials with its modernized military. After the country’s disastrous war with Georgia in 2008, Putin had embarked on an extensive modernization program. Russia deployed 215 new weapons, showcasing them to potential buyers. Strikes utilized the relatively untested Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and a ship-based cruise missile fired more than 900 miles from the Caspian Sea, which, according to some analysts, exceeded American capabilities. Putin was open about Russia’s intended message. “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist,” he said on state television.

The payoff was immediate: Russia’s international isolation was over. The afternoon Russia struck, Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov met at the United Nations and agreed to begin talks on avoiding unintended confrontations. “Obama didn’t give a hoot about Syria by 2015,” Robert Ford, America’s former ambassador to Syria, told me. “All he was interested in was the fight against ISIS.” He went on: “I think the Americans at that point, the White House, had washed their hands of it, and Kerry, kind of operating almost solo, was pleading with the Russians.”

Russia’s official military death toll has remained relatively low throughout the conflict. The brunt of the casualty count, which the state suppresses, has been borne by private contractors, including the Wagner Group, a firm said to be run by Putin’s close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” though mercenaries are technically illegal in Russia.

As Michelle Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me: “Putin has played a clever hand on the cheap, without really investing that much in it.” Russia’s economy is 10 times smaller than America’s, and Trenin estimated the cost at roughly $4 million per day, which is “reasonably affordable” for the state budget. (By comparison, the United States’ mission in Syria, part of Operation Inherent Resolve, cost $54 billion from 2014 to 2019, or $25 million a day.)

By 2017, Russia had embarked on its own diplomatic solution to the conflict, outside the United Nations process, holding conferences in Astana and Sochi alongside Turkey (a NATO member) and Iran. “The Russians transformed the Syrian rebellion from one actively fighting Bashar al-Assad to one giving up on the fall of Bashar al-Assad and trying to preserve their areas of influence,” Hassan Hassan, director of the nonstate actors program at the Center for Global Policy, told me. Hassan explained that Turkey’s place alongside Moscow in the Astana conference gave Russia credibility in the eyes of the anti-Assad militias. Yet they knew full well whom they were dealing with. Under the guise of supporting Assad against ISIS, Moscow assisted and looked the other way as the regime dropped barrel bombs on hospitals, starved civilian population centers and set up massive domestic detention and torture facilities. More than half a million people have been killed in the fighting. Russia has also successfully obfuscated the most egregious Assad crimes—the use of chemical weapons. In Sochi and Astana, those fighting the dictator are now sitting down with the same power breathing life into his despotic government. “The fighters trusted Turkey more than they trusted Russia,” Hassan told me. “But Russia was the leader.”

In many ways, Moscow’s assertive foreign policy came as a result of earlier decisions made in Washington. Both Putin and the Obama administration were responding to the same thing: George W. Bush’s aggressive foreign policy. America’s withdrawal from the Middle East and elsewhere was the result of an American imperial hangover. Russia and the United States had moved in opposite directions, creating an appearance of one power rising and the other falling. The outcome was ultimately the same: “Whatever people think about Russia’s role, everybody acknowledges that it is the key state there,” Lukyanov told me. “It’s not because of Russian strength; it’s because of American weakness, it’s because of European geopolitical collapse. But that’s a fact of life now.”

Russia’s success in Syria has inspired the Kremlin to sell itself as a neutral moderator in other Middle Eastern conflicts—the fight among factions in Libya, the war in Yemen, and the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. Russia has now signed arms deals with all sides of the region’s complicated rivalries, including the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Russia when he arrived in October 2017, a 1,500-person entourage in tow. Riyadh and Moscow now coordinate on energy policy. Russia is working with the Saudis’ archrival, Iran, on nuclear power and increasing trade to help Tehran survive American sanctions. In Iraq, Russia has opened a military-intelligence-sharing center, signed arms deals and invested in an oil pipeline in Kurdistan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has made 10 public visits to Moscow in the last five years. Across the region, United States allies are often seen as “pivoting”—as if on a magnetic axis—toward Putin. But when I visited the region, I found something very different was happening.

In his sleek, large office inside the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Ahmet Berat Conkar of the ruling Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) sat across from me, anxiously clutching index cards of notes. Along the wall he had three bright red Turkish flags and, displayed prominently on his desk, a Russian teacup. It was a gift, he said, from the Russian-Turkish Civic Forum, of which he has been a chairman since 2014. Conkar told me that far from choosing Moscow, Turkey had been obliged to work with Moscow on Syria only because the United States had left its NATO ally in the cold.

When the Syrian protests began, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threw his support behind protesters against Assad. He kept Turkey’s borders open to support anti-regime militias, which also allowed foreign fighters to slip across to join the growing ISIS caliphate, about which the United States repeatedly telegraphed its displeasure. In early 2015, the United States and Turkey started a three-year, $500 million “train and equip” program to create a 5,000-strong army to fight ISIS, but it was a complete failure. Washington called it off later that year, saying in a statement: “Given the complexities of the situation, we’re going to take an operational pause.” It then began working directly with Syrian Kurdish militias.

‘Russia comes across as a power to be trusted by America’s traditional allies, even when differences exist.’


Ankara saw America’s Kurdish partnership as an existential betrayal—the Turkish state considers the group to be an offshoot of a domestic separatist group, the P.K.K., which the United States and Turkey have labeled a terrorist organization. Conkar likened it to a situation in which Turkey would be providing arms to an Al Qaeda base in Mexico that was trying to separate Texas from the United States—how would America feel then? “With respect to Turkey’s fight against terrorism groups, Russia seems to be more supportive and more understanding of Turkey’s concerns,” Conkar said. It is up to the United States, he continued, “to work on regaining Turkish hearts and minds and regaining the Turkish trust for cooperation.”

In many ways, I was told repeatedly, Turkey’s relationship with Russia was a kind of rebound, a fling undertaken after being jilted by the Americans. In recent years, Turkey and the United States have disagreed on multiple issues, including the extradition of a Turkish preacher living in America, democratic backsliding, American citizens jailed in Turkey, and U.S.-imposed steel tariffs. In July 2016, Erdogan purged the military after a coup attempt and claimed that Turkey needed a new air-defense system to replace the Patriot missiles the United States withdrew in 2015. In December 2017, Ankara signed a reported $2.5 billion agreement to buy the Russian S-400 air-defense system.

“Technically, Turkey doesn’t need the S-400,” a retired Turkish military officer I spoke with explained, requesting anonymity to speak freely about the deal. Not only is the range Turkey plans to purchase severely limited, but the system itself is designed to counter NATO threats. “Turkey is playing a really complicated game of trying to increase its strategic value in the eyes of Western powers by showing them it has alternatives,” Berk Esen, assistant professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told me. “Both Erdogan and Putin are very pragmatic leaders, and as long as they think that they will benefit from this cooperation, they will continue to exploit this opportunity.”

A year of negotiations ensued. The Trump administration offered to return the Patriot missiles to stop the S-400 deal and threatened to stop exports of F-35 advanced fighter jets. But Erdogan merely dug in deeper. Earlier this month, then acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sent an ultimatum to his Turkish counterpart. The letter explained that if Turkey went ahead with the S-400, the United States would suspend Turkish participation in the F-35 program by July 31.

Conkar and others I spoke with grew exasperated when describing the brinkmanship American allies felt subjected to after being accused of crossing the United States. Relations often felt zero-sum, with any movement toward Russia, especially, answered by an American threat. “The U.S. is oblivious to how its allies feel about it,” Hassan told me. “Russia comes across as a power to be trusted by America’s traditional allies, even when differences exist, while the U.S. is often seen as overweening despite the shared interests.” Russia’s aims, taken at face value, are far less expansive than America’s, its interests more narrow and steady. And notably, they do not extend into questions of human rights or democracy.

At the same time, more countries have embraced the ideology of realpolitik. In Egypt, historically America’s largest recipient of foreign assistance after Israel, the United States partly withheld military aid after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup whose aftermath killed more than 800 people. Russia was one of the first countries to lend international legitimacy to the government. Putin and el-Sisi have since staged grandiose announcements about trade agreements, an industrial zone in the Suez Canal and the construction of a nuclear power plant. Egypt agreed to purchase $3.5 billion in Russian arms. Both authoritarians fed off the pomp of their publicity stunts to a fawning, censored domestic media to reify their stature.

I met Gen. Nassr Salam, a retired military officer who worked on weapons procurement, in his living room shortly after reports of a preliminary agreement for Russian use of Egyptian air bases, which had been portrayed in the Western media as a sign that Egypt was snubbing Washington in favor of Moscow. Papers were stacked on the dining table, ornate rugs blanketed the floor, and a dagger hung on the wall. Seated on a plush golden armchair, Salam chuckled good-naturedly at many of my questions. He explained the Egyptians felt they had no choice but to go to Russia when the United States suspended military aid.

“The important thing about the weapon is not the weapon itself, but the supplies and the spare parts,” he said. “If you stop the supplies and the spare parts, you are hanging me.” He continued: “Russia at that time, they opened their arms to us.” I asked Salam if there was concern within the Egyptian military that el-Sisi was jeopardizing the U.S. alliance with the base agreement. “Do you know what sort of facilities we are giving the American Army?” he responded, his voice rising ever so slightly. “Why are you always putting it this way, that if we open the link with Russia, then that will affect the relationship with America? While, for example, Israel has very, very strong relations with both sides,” he said. “Why are you always putting us in that corner?”

It may appear from the outside that Russia was orchestrating authoritarian governments and nativist movements, but the reality was more nuanced. The governments Putin was reportedly cultivating, I found, had their own reasons for courting him right back. Under the Trump administration, America’s polices in the Middle East have appeared inconsistent and indecipherable—be it flip-flops on troops in Syria or a potential march toward war with Iran. Aberrations in routine diplomatic protocol have become the norm. Since 2017, the United States has been without an ambassador in Egypt and in Turkey. I heard the same assessment from Arab and Turkish former ambassadors and diplomats: The Russian diplomatic core was pragmatic. It moved slowly and deliberately when it comes to making deals. Those decisions could be trusted.

I encountered mild amusement from everyone I spoke to in the region about Russia’s supposed interference in the West, side-smiles of payback for all of America’s policies that had upended the Middle East for decades. “When the West today complains that Russia is trying to influence internal affairs, I don’t have hard evidence, but that’s what you’ve been doing for generations,” a former government official told me. “It was actually your tool before it was the Russian tool.” He added: “The rest of the world doesn’t really understand what for you guys is new here? You’ve been doing this all along.”

Russia is certainly positioning itself for a greater international role. But there is a danger of giving Putin too much credit without looking at the context. Evidence of Russia’s increased presence on the ground in Egypt is scant. Russia has been a chief source of tourism in Egypt, but direct flights from Russia to Red Sea beaches were suspended after a Russian airliner was bombed over the Sinai Peninsula in 2015. Monthly losses after the incident were worth $173 million, according to the tourism department. Cairo has been begging Moscow to resume these flights, and both Russia and Egypt have issued statements that it would happen soon—but nothing has. They flaunted Russia’s $7 billion investment in an industrial zone, but other than signing agreement after agreement, there didn’t appear to be anything happening on the ground. “All what you heard about promise of investing in this and that is just a statement to the media, to the press,” Ezzat Saad, Egypt’s former ambassador to Moscow, told me last year. “Nothing else.”

The same populist forces that reshaped Turkey and Egypt have altered the landscape in Europe. In Germany, another American ally, Russian interference was initially blamed for this rightward tilt. I met Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations at his sparse office. Meister was one of the first analysts in Berlin to raise the alarm of a new Russian threat. In 2016, a year before a pivotal German parliamentary election, he named civil-society groups, lobbying groups, and politicians as “networks of influence,” working to advance the Russian cause to destabilize the European Union. “In the campaign for the next federal elections in Germany,” he then predicted, “Russia will play a prominent role.”

In those elections, the German far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) picked up more seats than it had ever held, but the polls came and went with no serious disinformation campaign, no leaks from a Parliament hack (which German intelligence services had pegged to Russian-backed hackers), no evidence of meddling. After the polls, an independent NGO did a broad scrape of the German internet and found that Russian trolls did not seem to be significantly involved in the creation of the most viral “fake news” stories around the election. Instead, they came from local AfD politicians and their supporters, who themselves had merely recast news headlines and some stories on hot-button issues like immigration to make them more incendiary. “It’s not that this is a Russian conspiracy; these false stories were a very important mobilizing tactic for the right,” Stefan Heumann, a member of the NGO’s board, told me. “They pick this stuff up, and they spin it further.” He suggested that AfD had probably learned more tactics from the Trump campaign than from Russia.

Still, after the election, Western journalists kept calling Meister, waiting to hear what Russia was really up to: Was Putin devising a new strategy? Had his meddling just gone undetected? The alarm Meister helped raise had become deafening. “My task for the last year is to get the balance right—to say that Russia is not the problem, the problem is us. We are opening opportunities for Russian actors to strengthen some narratives which already exist in our societies,” Meister told me. “We shouldn’t overestimate Russia because that makes Russia stronger than it is; then we overestimate its capabilities and we don’t fix our own problems. It distracts from our own domestic problems, and it’s useful also for our elites.”

It had been incredibly hard to speak to someone from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—one reason the Russia position is often absent from Western media. But after months of chasing diplomats, I had a chance to sit down with Denis Mikerin, the Russian press attaché in Berlin, in March 2018. (He has since returned to work with the ministry in Moscow, and when we spoke in mid-June, he confirmed that the Russian position remained unchanged.) The Russian Embassy was a beautiful complex protected by an imposing white stone wall and wrought-iron double gates. Inside, we walked past a stained-glass wall depicting a rainbow over the Kremlin. Interviews with diplomats are often boring recitations of the country’s talking points, but in the case of Russia, even this is novel. Our two-hour conversation ambled among Crimea, Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. It went on so long that we had to move from what looked like an ornate tearoom to one resembling a hunting lodge, with wood-paneled walls decked with trophy heads with antlers.

I asked him if Russia was willing to take on a greater global role and all the unwanted criticism that would entail. (In a Pew 2018 poll of 25 countries, many saw Russia playing a more important international role compared with 10 years ago, but views of Putin had grown more unfavorable.)

He suggested Russia was ready. Moscow would do things differently, he said. He pointed to Syria: “Russia has all the legal basis to be there—in response to official request from the government of Syria. With Geneva negotiations completely stalled, the Astana format with Turkey and Iran appears to be an efficient platform. We did not come in alone and say now we are deciding. On the contrary, we are trying to join the efforts of all those committed to preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.” He seemed to be drawing a distinction between the Astana format and the American-proposed way forward in Iraq, but the two versions—countries spearheading a “coalition of the willing” to work outside the United Nations—did not feel dissimilar to me. Still, the strain of trying to spearhead constructive policy was becoming evident. He claimed that the Americans had sent low-level officials to the first peace conference in Sochi in an attempt to undercut their efforts. “They were sending the signals to those whom they had in fact wanted, not to sabotage, but to avoid taking part.” The Russians were falling into the same trap the United States had for so long—looking for others to blame for the difficulties of constructing policy.

In contrast to Western condescension, he explained, when Russia works with other countries it’s about finding common ground and pragmatic interests. “It’s ridiculous to presume that some countries are lobbying Russian interests,” he said. “They are lobbying their own interests in the first place.” He said the Russians were tired of the United States and the European Union “mentoring” them. “We kept trying to find this very high road in relations between Russia and the Western world in general. We treat everyone equally and want to be treated the same way. But it came to nothing at all. The West said: ‘All right, guys, you have certain limits you can come to, but those are your limits and you may not exceed them.’ This is arrogant, to say the least. We know exactly what’s good and bad for us. We totally comply with the international law. That is solid and indisputable. The rest of it is subject for negotiations.” Our interview was polite, friendly even, like two people genuinely attempting to communicate. The issue of whether Russia had broken international law in Crimea was one of the few topics where we were completely stuck, as if we were discussing two different realities.

Over all, the diplomat seemed earnestly baffled when I told him Americans believed Putin had a master plan he was slyly executing. And on this point, I didn’t disagree. It didn’t seem to me that Russia was pushing a grand strategy so much as responding to opportunities in order to do exactly what Baykov said the country would: “to be an autonomous player, to uphold its identity of a great power which is strategically independent.” If we look at the world through Russian eyes, the plan is working, but it isn’t the plan we thought it was. Russia did not break the back of the international world order, as much as it recognized the opportunities created by American withdrawal and the new era of global bardak.


war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict




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