Vladimir Putin’s Russia: Trying to Rebuild the Soviet Era?

For Vladimir Putin, the Soviet Union’s fall was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Russian foreign policy has sought to re-impose control over former Soviet countries.

Apr 28, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
vladimir putin poster with supports soviet era
Left The Chaos Agent by Chloe Cushman, via Chloecushman official website


Vladimir Putin has been in office as a president or prime minister of the Russian Federation since August 9, 1999, for more than 20 years. During the years of his presidency and premiership, he has pursued the goals of uniting the Russian Federation into a strong, independent nation and restoring Russia’s supremacy on an international scene as a great power. However, on his way to achieving these goals, the evolution of Russian foreign policy has been viewed by other nations as Russia trying to gain influence over post-Soviet countries and deterring the expansion of Western institutes, particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Vladimir Putin’s Early Years of Presidency & Russian Foreign Policy

The Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, (right) shakes hands with his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, during their meeting at the Kremlin by Elmira Kozhayeva, 1999, via The Guardian


Vladimir Putin began his political career in 1975 by serving as a foreign intelligence officer of the Committee for State Security (KGB) for 15 years. By 1994, he had climbed to the position of the first deputy mayor to St. Petersburg’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Later in 1996, Putin arrived in Moscow and held several administrative roles until being selected as a director of the KGB’s successor institution, the Federal Security Service (FSB). Later, he served as a Secretary of the Security Council. During this time, Putin grew close to the president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, who appointed Putin prime minister in 1999. Yeltsin envisioned Vladimir Putin as his successor for the next presidential elections.


The general public had little knowledge of Vladimir Putin and his political career at that time. However, Putin’s response to the secessionist rebels in Chechnya at the start of his premiership boosted his popularity and rating. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, rebels in Chechnya declared independence. Russian President Boris Yeltsin opposed Chechen independence, arguing that Chechnya was an integral part of Russia and fought Chechen separatists in the First Chechen War from 1994 to 1996.


A cease-fire agreement was reached in May 1996. However, violence erupted again soon after. Chechen militants entered the neighboring Russian republic, Dagestan, in August 1999 to support the local separatist rebellion. The following month, five cases of bombings were recorded in different Russian cities, killing over 300 civilians. Moscow blamed Chechen separatists. The invasion in Dagestan and bombings led Russian forces to initiate the Second Chechen War, also known as the War in the North Caucasus.


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Vladimir Putin dealt with the crises in Chechnya with surprising success. His decisive and sharp political figure appeared in contrast with Yeltsin’s fragile health, who unexpectedly resigned on December 31, 1999, and named Vladimir Putin as the acting president of Russia.


Now acting president, Putin wears a navy officer’s uniform while watching the tactical exercises of Russia’s northern fleet in the Barentsevo Sea by AFP, 2000, via The Guardian


In March 2000, Vladimir Putin won the presidential elections and inherited a deep economic crisis and crumbling infrastructure. A new elite class of “oligarchs,” rich and often criminal authorities, was blooming. But most importantly, the citizens of the Russian Federation did not have a sense of national belonging.  From the beginning of the 1910s to the end of the 1980s, Soviet citizens were compelled to identify with the USSR. Thus, its fall marked the beginning of a national identity crisis in the former Soviet countries, including the Russian Federation. Russian authorities struggled to find a uniting factor for its population of different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, as the disintegration of the Soviet Union meant that they could no longer identify with each other.


Vladimir Putin aimed to reform Russia into a strong, sovereign nation. The centerpiece of the Kremlin’s new ideology can be found in his words said during his speech to the parliament in 1999: “Not one of those tasks can be performed without imposing basic order and discipline in this country, without strengthening the vertical chain… Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest … We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored …”. Hence, domestically, he strived for stability and authority, while internationally, he aimed for Russian foreign policy to help regain Russia’s status as a great power.


Supporters of Vladimir Putin carry portraits of him as they march along the Moskva river embankment towards the Luzhniki stadium by Alexander Nemenov, via The Guardian


To accomplish the above-mentioned goals domestically, Vladimir Putin almost immediately took control of the media outlets and press, powerful tools in the hands of an authoritative regime that were used later for crushing public discontent. The first step was to initiate criminal proceedings against oligarchs who controlled media assets. A good example is the case of NTV- an independent TV channel owned by Vladimir Gusinsky. Soon after Putin’s inauguration, government security forces entered the building of NTV, claiming that the owner had a debt of $300 million. Gazprom-Media seized control of the channel and turned it into a tool of information exchange for the Kremlin.


In addition, to recentralize power in 89 regions of the Russian Federation, Putin divided the country into seven administrative districts and appointed presidential representatives to keep an eye on local authorities to successfully enforce Moscow’s central politics.


However, the Russian people needed an ideology to guide their national identity. The Russian Orthodox Church had a thousand-year history of holding significant political and spiritual power over the people of Russia. Vladimir Putin supported the rebirth of the Orthodox Church at the end of the 20th century. He ensured that church and state maintain a tight bond and shared a joint vision of rebuilding Russia’s greatness. Putin also brought back the Soviet national anthem and Soviet Symbols.


On an international scene, Putin tried to strengthen Russia’s global presence at the outset of his presidency by cooperating closely with great western powers, particularly France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. At the beginning of Putin’s presidency, Russian foreign policy was pretty pro-western; the new president actively advocated for Russia’s membership in NATO. Furthermore, to gain the status of an important ally of the United States, Putin ordered assistance to the US troops in Afghanistan.


President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin answer questions from students at Crawford High School Nov. 15 by Paul Morse, via The White House Archives, Washington DC


After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the new President successfully used his campaign in Chechnya to counter terrorism, making the President of the United States, George W. Bush, sympathetic towards new Russia. Collaborative relations with the United States and other European countries, especially in terms of international security, allowed Putin to strengthen Russia’s position among the great powers and international institutions (NATO, the United Nations).


By joining the above-mentioned security organizations, he made sure that Russia’s voice was as important as those of other great powers. Putin, however, feared the United States’ unilateralism incompatible with his efforts to rebuild Russia’s supremacy and tried to develop Russian foreign policy instead in the direction of China, India, and Iran with the aim to diversify his political cooperation and allies. Thus, the Iraq War in 2003 was used to challenge the United States and alter the balance of power in favor of Russia. The Russian government opposed the military intervention of the United States in Iraq and called for international law to be upheld: no invasion could take place without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, which was not forthcoming under Putin’s new Russian foreign policy.


As a result, in just four years, Putin had defeated Chechen separatists, got the media, press, and oligarchs under his control, won the support of parliament, and showed that Russia had an important role in world affairs by stepping into the political game with the United States.


Making Russia Great Again

A Paradigm Shift in Russia’s Foreign Policy, via The Moscow Times


After Putin’s rise to power, Russia’s GDP grew steadily. This economic growth was possible by Putin’s new policies on natural resources in the early 2000s, which increased oil production and subsequently oil prices. Putin believed in the importance of the ”national champions” for rapid economic recovery, especially in the field of national resources. This policy implied the renationalization of natural resources and international competition. When Putin became president, he began nationalizing energy companies, replacing the owners with his close friends or allies. Consequently, Russian state control over energy resources increased from 10% in 2000 to 50 % in 2007.


As a result, Russian living standards improved dramatically. Putin was able to rebuild, modernize, and expand the Russian military and nuclear arsenal, along with intelligence services and international activities. All of these provided the Kremlin with a powerful tool for defending and advancing the country’s interests internationally. Domestically, Putin’s political stability was assured by the majority of the population’s consistent support and improved living conditions. The power vertical Putin created offered an environment for him to exercise his political will without major domestic disturbances — to make Russia independent and great again.


As a result, at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, President Putin announced Russia’s rejection of Europe’s existing security architecture. By that time, Russia had already made clear its intention to withdraw from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. It had vigorously opposed NATO plans for theater missile defense, which had previously been developed in collaboration with Russia. Putin later violated the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF) Treaty and began to restrict Open Skies Treaty overflights. Russian foreign and security policy indicated that Putin evidently had his own path and vision of arranging a new international scene and balance of power.


Vladimir Putin’s Influence Over Former Soviet Territories

Putin: Russia’s great propagandist, via the Financial Times


After strengthening Russia’s capabilities and establishing a stronger political and military position in relation to the West, Russian foreign policy became more focused on exerting influence on former Soviet territories.


The Russo-Georgian War (the August War) in 2008 appeared to be a turning point in shaping the European security environment and Russia-NATO relations. A Five-Day War was fought between Georgia, Russia, and the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The war demonstrated the return of great-power politics and Russia-West contestation on the vision of NATO enlargement, as well as on European security and small countries’ abilities to decide their foreign political course independently from the interests of great powers.


The catalyzing events that led to war included recognition of the independence of Kosovo by the international society and NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008, which promised the two small, post-Soviet countries, Ukraine and Georgia, membership into the international security organization. Georgia’s chosen way towards democratization and integration with the West was a sign to Putin that Russia was losing influence in the post-Soviet space. So, gradually Russian foreign policy became even more aggressive towards its neighbors who chose a European path after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.


The same line of analysis applies to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of Donbas in Ukraine in 2014. In addition, over time, Putin has mediated the takeover of Belarussian security and media, stationed Russian peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, took control over Kazakhstan’s security and media, and most recently, has initiated a vast military buildup that threatens another invasion of Ukraine.


Russian Foreign Policy: Rebuilding the Soviet Union?

Russia and the Post-Soviet States, via The Russian Council


Upon becoming President of Russia more than 20 years ago, Vladimir Putin publicly declared his intention to restore Russia as a great power. In his annual State of the Nation address to Parliament in 2005, he said, “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”


Indeed, the Russian President has undertaken the task to restore Russian influence over the post-Soviet territories. But does it really mean that Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union? Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin is vast and complex, greatly evolving over his almost two-decade presidency. If analyzed from the point of view of the post-Soviet states and of Russia’s neighboring countries, it certainly looks like Putin is embarking on the project of rebuilding the Soviet Union.


The August War with Georgia to change its pro-Western aspirations (membership in NATO and the European Union), the annexation in 2014 of parts of Ukraine, and now the invasion and war in Ukraine, all prove so. “Putin shows a determination to carry out the scenario of rebuilding the Russian empire,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated during his speech in the Polish Parliament on January 6, 2022.


It is also evident that Russia has successfully regained the status of great power at the start of the 21st century in terms of military-political concept and emerged as a state that is resilient to foreign pressure, capable of pursuing an autonomous Russian foreign policy, and defending itself when necessary without outside assistance. In addition, Putin’s regime’s ideology and morality are remarkably Soviet, with a collective identity founded on shared ideals, shared history, and collective resistance to outside enemies, particularly the West.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.