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Possibilities for Putin’s Dream of Empire

Apr 19, 2024
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Over the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has dedicated himself to rebuilding a powerful nation and shaping an empire that dominates the Eurasian continent as it once did. That dream, however, has no resonance in the West, and the United States and its NATO Allies have continually encroached on Russia’s post-Soviet interests. Putin has felt their hostility keenly.

At the Munich Security Conference 17 years ago, Putin blasted the world’s sole superpower for its hegemonic ambitions and disregard of Russian interests, and he later responded in kind, first with a military strike on Georgia and now with an all-out war in Ukraine. This has completely altered Russia-U.S. relations.

The widening rift has also undermined the stability of the international order. International politics since the end of the Cold War have returned to the historical trajectory of confrontation. With immense power, Putin is the most direct agent of change in relations between Russia and the United States. With Putin’s recent landslide election victory, the question is what character those relations will take — confrontation or cooperation. His new term will serve as a barometer for the international political structure and the future of Russia. 

Russia’s “enemies” 

Putin said that Russia is willing to work with any U.S. president and ready to engage the U.S. on strategic stability topics. However, he will find it tough to remove factors driving confrontation with the U.S., as he cannot make territorial concessions to Ukraine. He is even planning a railway linking Crimea with the Russian homeland.

Moreover, Putin said he has lost his trust in the United States. He sees the U.S. and its “satellite states” as directly causing the collapse of European security, and he wants to create an indivisible new security framework in the Eurasian region.

With Putin’s re-election, the Russian Federation now has a full-fledged vertical power system with many hawks in decision-making circles. Elites in favor of improving relations with the U.S. and the West have either fled the country or have been marginalized. Others have chosen to remain silent. Putin stresses that there can be no stable world order without a strong Russia. The Russian official opinion is aligned with Putin’s negative view of America. His enemies are now enemies of Russia. Obviously, without major new developments, the relationship with the U.S. will remain confrontational for a long time. 

Victory in Ukraine decisive 

Events on the Ukraine battlefield directly affect Russia-U.S. relations. Putin’s power structure has a clear decision-making advantage in a war, as it is more efficient and aggressive in a complex and volatile situation. To strengthen its strategic deterrence against NATO, Russia is constantly making political, economic and military preparations. On March 20, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a plan to form two new combined armies.

The U.S. and its NATO allies are also gearing up. Not only did they launch a military exercise — Steadfast Defender 2024 — targeting Russia but they also stepped up support for Ukrainian armed forces. French President Emmanuel Macron even publicly talked about sending NATO troops into Ukraine. At a Ukrainian Defense Contact Group meeting in March, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed not to let Ukraine fall. Strategic determination, however, does not necessarily lead to desired strategic objectives.

Russia and the U.S. both face challenges far greater than their chances of victory, yet seeking a decisive victory in Ukraine seems essential for them. At a news conference in Kiev, U.S. National Security Adviser Sullivan stressed that by helping Ukraine the United States is helping itself.

No one knows when or how the war in Ukraine will ultimately end, but the U.S. is well aware that a Russian victory would mean the defeat of NATO and the decline of the West. This would significantly alter the post-World War II international order that the U.S. created and threaten American interests. 

A potential variable 

Historically, state-to-state relations follow a certain pattern. A profound change in the international environment will change state behaviors. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the U.S. and its Western Allies have imposed on Russia more than 16,500 economic sanctions, with negative impacts not only on Russia but also on the global financial system and supply chains. At the same time, the war has put the great powers once again on a historical trajectory of confrontation.

The extent of deterioration in Russia-U.S. relations is already greater than what occurred during the Cuban missile crisis in the Cold War. Putin has warned the West that a conflict between Russia and NATO will be just one step away from a third world war. Nevertheless, the probability of a world war is not high, despite the fragile world order, because there is no expectation that Western countries would invade the Russian homeland.

The best option for Putin is to maintain the military offensive while waiting for a strategic turnaround. If Donald Trump returns to the White House next year, he might offer just such a turnaround. Although Putin said that Russia would prefer to see U.S. President Joe Biden win a second term, he certainly also sees an opportunity in Trump’s views on the Ukraine war and America’s NATO allies.

This may also be an illusion. If Trump is elected and allows Russia to win the war in Ukraine, any relaxation between the U.S. and Russia will remain limited, if only because Trump will demand more from Putin. And Putin will be increasingly inclined to venture toward a restoration of the Russian empire at the expense of the hegemon’s alliances. 

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