Putin’s Paradise: What If Russia Had Chosen Prosperity When the USSR Collapsed?

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By Dr Andrew Foxall | 3:58 am, December 14, 2016

Twenty-five years ago, in December 1991, the Soviet Union fragmented, ending the Cold War. Today, Russia and the West seem again set on an intractable conflict. Here Dr Andrew Foxall, an academic and Russia expert, imagines how things could have been different…

It is remarkable to think, a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, that Russia’s relations with the West have come so far. Competition has been replaced by cooperation.

When Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Russia was hampered by corruption and cronyism. His early campaigns to reassert the rule of law and tame the power of the oligarchs were justified.

So too were the methods he used. He emphasised the independence of the judiciary and media, and encouraged the development of an active civil society.

Putin’s declaration, made during his successful 2004 presidential re-election campaign, that there should be no “crooks and thieves” in Russian politics, has stood the test of time.

Underpinned by the global increase in prices of oil and gas between 2000 and 2007, Putin was able to diversify Russia’s economy away from hydrocarbons. The significant budget surpluses accrued over these years allowed him to modernise Russia’s ailing infrastructure, institute meaningful social welfare policies, and invest heavily in education.

These policies, as well as others, helped speed up Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation, which otherwise would have been delayed until 2012.

Internationally, Putin came to power wanting to reassert Russia’s global influence. He used the 9/11 attacks in the United States to align himself with President George W. Bush, aiding logistics for NATO’s subsequent operation in Afghanistan. This laid the basis for the formation of the NATO-Russia council, in 2002.

Though he did not support the 2003 war in Iraq, he – like the leaders of France and Germany – did not obstruct it, either.

Although many in Russia argued, when NATO membership was extended to the Baltic States and some former Warsaw Pact members in 2004, that the Alliance had broken a promise not to expand eastwards, Putin knew otherwise. Under his watch, Russia became a cooperative great power.

Russia’s relations with its neighbouring countries were, of course, always going to be difficult. Although an ardent realist, Putin realised that it would be wrong to take the privileges and constraints of the Soviet era as if they were the natural order of things. There would be no ‘near abroad’ or ‘sphere of privileged interests’, he famously said at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.

Shortly after, Putin was rightly named TIME magazine’s Person of the Year.

When Putin left office in 2008, owing to the Constitution forbidding him from holding office for more than two consecutive four-year terms, Russia was firmly on the path to establishing itself as a democracy. The global arena, however, was not as kind to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as it had been to him. The economic crisis of 2008 had a negative impact on Russia, as it did throughout the West.

During Medvedev’s time in office, Putin served as Prime Minister, with control over Russia’s foreign policy. He worked with the leaders of other oil-producing countries to address falling prices, consistently reproached North Korea for threatening nuclear strikes, and maintained Russia’s strategic arms accords with the United States.

Such was Putin’s enduring popularity, together with widespread nostalgia for the economic growth of the early 2000s, that in 2012 he was re-elected president in free and fair elections – something that he has also keenly supported abroad. Since his return to the Kremlin, Putin has further endeared himself to the international community.

After Edward Snowden landed in Moscow in 2013, he responded positively to Barack Obama’s request to extradite him back to the United States.

He supported the democratic movements that appeared with the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria where Russia played a key role brokering a deal that saw Bashar al-Assad leave office.

So too did he help pressure Iran to reach a nuclear deal with the P5+1. Amidst of all this, Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games was met with much fanfare.

It is behaviour such as this that laid the basis for Putin’s biggest achievement of his third-term in office: its accession to NATO (alongside Montenegro), in May 2016.

  • Dr Andrew Foxall leads the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, an international affairs think tank in London