Is Russia a Legitimate Global Power?

Can Putin Change Russia’s Role From Spoiler to Global Power?

Russia occupies an unusual position on the world stage. Under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated that it has the capacity to destabilize the international order, most recently with its brutal invasion of Ukraine. But for all its ability to upend power dynamics in places like the Middle East, Europe and Africa, Moscow has so far not demonstrated the capacity to fill the vacuums it exploits—or creates. That is most visibly on display in Ukraine, where the Russian military has struggled to achieve its war aims, while imposing punishing costs on the country’s civilian population, including alleged war crimes.

Russia Punches Above Its Weight

But while Russia may lack the military strength to challenge U.S. supremacy in Europe, let alone globally, it has begun to seize the initiative against the overstretched Ukrainian military. And no one—particularly not the NATO alliance—is ignoring its nuclear capabilities, as evidenced by the alliance’s refusal to intervene directly in the war in Ukraine. Moscow also uses arms sales and military engagements to build ties to countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and especially the Middle East. And until Europe dramatically reduced its dependence on Russian energy supplies, its massive exports of fossil fuels to Europe offered Moscow additional leverage.

Does Putin Have a Solid Grip On Power?

Even as Moscow maintains an outsized influence on the global stage, Putin has had some setbacks on the home front. Though he has dominated the Russian political scene for more than two decades, his popularity had waned amid a slowing economy even before the war in Ukraine, particularly following a deeply unpopular pension reform effort in 2018. Last year’s short-lived rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group—a private military company that has been a useful asset for the Kremlin in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine—raised questions about the stability of Putin’s regime and demonstrated how the warring factions within it could lead to chaos once Putin eventually leaves office. But the aftermath of the mutiny, including Prigozhin’s untimely death in an airplane accident, has demonstrated that Putin’s grip on power remains solid. And he recently secured yet another mandate as president in what most observers considered a sham election, after having engineered a way to flout a constitutional term limit.

U.S.-Russia Relations at a Low Point

U.S. President Joe Biden took office eager to demonstrate a tougher line on Russia than that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, announcing sanctions in response to Russia’s cyber behavior in the early months of his administration. But Biden also renewed the New START bilateral nuclear arms control treaty, and his decision to hold a summit with Putin in June 2021 was seen as a further signal of his willingness to work constructively with Russia, particularly on issues like cyber crime. Since then, however, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that Putin sees no benefits in putting relations on a solid and stable footing. The sanctions the U.S. and the European Union imposed in response have now added to Putin’s domestic challenges.

Russia’s Position in Africa Isn’t as Strong as It Looks

Reports emerge weekly that Russian influence in Africa is growing. Russian diplomats and mercenaries are welcomed in West African capitals and American and European diplomats talk continually about how to face the challenge of the emergence of Moscow as a strategic player in Africa. Observers talk of a “Russian conquest” of Africa and “Russian-controlled governments” on the continent. Beyond the headlines, however, Russia’s position is weaker and less profitable than reported. Purported political and economic gains are more doubtful if examined in greater detail. Political shifts in West Africa are primarily caused by decades of Western incompetence, rather than Russian grand strategy. Exaggerated reporting has inflated perceptions of Russia’s position. Take the widely circulated claims that Russian forces are making hundreds of millions of dollars from gold mines they have seized across the region. Closer examination shows that these figures are based on dubious assumptions. Moscow has successfully utilized long-growing resentment against Western powers to brand itself as a major player in the continent. Yet, the idea that Russia is “taking over” parts of Africa is an exaggeration that is based on fear, not fact.

Russia’s Naval Drills in the Caribbean Are a Nuisance, not a Threat

Three Russian naval vessels and a nuclear-powered submarine arrived in Havana in June to conduct joint sea and air exercises with Cuba and Venezuela. Prior to the war in Ukraine, the current visit would have gotten a small amount of media attention, some of it hyperbolic, but would still have been largely seen as no big deal. Given how common such exercises were in the recent past, the upcoming Russian military visit to the Caribbean is far from a repeat performance of the Cuban missile crisis. But the context is different this time. In response to U.S. and European military aid to Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made vague comments about arming Moscow’s allies with long-range weapons that can strike inside the territories of countries that have given Ukraine similar capabilities. Arming Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela with a small number of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. would be consistent with the verbal threats Putin has made. However, the current situation in Ukraine also means Russia doesn’t have much military equipment to spare. And outside of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, most countries will not be eager to host the Russian military at this time. Washington and the Caribbean region should avoid hyperbole, while remaining calmly vigilant to any Russian antics.

Putin’s Invasion Has Accelerated the Decline of the Russian Language

In a rambling, grievance-laced speech on Feb. 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the alleged oppression of Russian speakers as a pretext for his invasion of Ukraine. It is ironic, then, that Putin has done more harm to the language’s standing than perhaps any other leader in at least a century. Across the post-Soviet world, Putin’s invasion has dramatically accelerated the decline of Russian. Nowhere is this decline more apparent than in Ukraine, which counts more native Russian speakers than any country outside of Russia itself. The war has also accelerated the decline of Russian across Eastern Europe at large, where pockets of ethnic Russians still live as a legacy of the Soviet Union. This decline is perhaps most evident in the Baltics, where Putin’s invasion has transformed the status of Russian from a cultural flashpoint into a question of national security, for fear that Putin could decide the Baltics’ large Russophone minorities need saving. This linguistic realignment is just as dramatic, if more subtle, in Kazakhstan, once home to the third largest Russophone community after Russia and Ukraine. One day, Putin may deliver another speech attempting to justify his invasion of a new country, as he did in his February 2022 tirade against Ukraine. But more people will need a translator to understand him.

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