President Joe Biden warned U.S. allies this week they’re in a contest with “autocrats” around the world. It’s one of the few things he and Russian President Vladimir Putin are likely to agree on when they meet on Wednesday.
From Syria to Venezuela, Russia has intervened to save authoritarian leaders accused of refusing or stealing democratic elections, thwarting what the Kremlin portrays as Washington’s attempts at regime change. The interference is part of a wider policy of confrontation with the West that forced Biden to pay attention, resulting in Putin’s seat at the table in Geneva.
For Putin, the immediate upsides are clear, even if Moscow’s stance is potentially damaging to Russia’s longer term economic prospects. By deliberately rattling the U.S. and the European Union since returning to office as president in 2012, he has produced strategic gains that helped end what many Russians see as a period of national humiliation. In doing so, he forced the U.S. to treat Moscow as a peer once more, if a hostile one.
“We are going to prove them wrong,” Biden said of autocracies, addressing reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday.
Yet far from being defensive about supporting often brutal and unpopular leaders – something the U.S. also practiced during the Cold War, after all – Russia portrays its position as a principled defense against destabilizing Western policies.
“We don’t have the messianic zeal with which our Western colleagues try to spread their values around the globe,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a foreign policy conference in Moscow last week.
In 2015, Russian jets and troops saved Syria’s President Bashar Assad from almost certain defeat at the hands of rebel militias. In 2019, Moscow sent military support to President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela at a time when he too seemed unlikely to survive. More recently, Putin backed Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko as he crushed peaceful pro-democracy protests and forced a European airliner to land so he could arrest an opposition journalist. All three are still in power, for all the U.S. and EU’s protestations.
Seen from Putin’s side of the table, sanctions are an acceptable price of great-power rivalry. His steadfast support for Assad is regarded by the region’s mostly unelected leaders in stark contrast to the U.S. abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 Arab uprisings, said Alexander Aksenyonok, a former senior diplomat with decades of experience in the Middle East.
“This is all part of a big game with the West,” said Aksenyonok, now vice-president of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank established by the Kremlin.
Until recently, it was a lopsided contest. Russia opposed NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia over Kosovo, but could do nothing to stop it nor the subsequent toppling of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In 2011, Putin could only cry foul when a NATO intervention provided air cover for rebels to defeat Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi. Twice, in 2004 and 2014, Russia failed to secure power for Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, despite spending billions of dollars on influence operations.
Turning that around to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. in select theaters has proved cheap in fiscal terms, according to Sergei Guriev, a Russian economist who fled to Paris in 2013 and served as chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Estimates for Russia’s military spending in Syria run to about $2 billion, a sum that pales next to the total of more than $2 trillion the U.S. spent in Afghanistan. The Syria campaign also enabled combat-testing of troops and equipment developed in a rapid military modernization program.
Russian interventions abroad have probably cost less than 1% of annual economic output, a price the Kremlin was happy to pay, said Guriev. “In a way after 2012-13 they reached a new social contract” with Russian citizens, he said of Putin and his entourage. “Previously it was: ‘we provide economic growth’; now it’s ‘we produce the feeling of a superpower’.”
Yet longer term, the policy has made Russia “toxic” to the foreign investment it needs to grow, according to Guriev. The national pride that soared after Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has subsided, with discontent rising as spending on health, education and pensions are squeezed. The Kremlin has responded by cracking down on political opponents.
Whether Putin has the means to sustain the reprieves he won for unpopular leaders abroad is also unclear.
In Syria, Russia has had neither the funds nor allies to begin the nation’s reconstruction. The victory Putin’s air force won for Assad remains fragile. A Feb. 4 Facebook post by the vocally pro-Assad businessman Fares Shehabi complained Syrians were going hungry, despite the fact that “the Russian ally is the largest producer of wheat in the world.”
In Venezuela, Russia’s support has come to be seen as largely self-interested and transactional. Moscow-based Rosneft PJSC sold its Venezuelan businesses to the Russian government last year, to protect against U.S. sanctions on the Maduro regime. Few details have emerged of a 10-year cooperation agreement that was signed in March.
“They’re interested in Venezuela not just because it’s been an antagonist to the U.S. and is much bigger than Cuba, but it’s a very cheap option for Russia to maintain a presence in the region,” opposition lawmaker Angel Alvarado said from Caracas.
Putin has shown a dislike for some of the leaders rescued, including Lukashenko, whom Russia tried to undermine in elections in 2010, according to Kataryna Wolczuk, a Russia specialist at Chatham House, a London think tank. Putin’s personal preference became irrelevant once street protests began, something he was not going to allow to succeed so close to home as Belarus.
“It is not about liking autocrats per se, it’s about countries being loyal to Russia,” Wolczuk said.
Still, while Putin can’t offer anything like the vast financial and military resources that Washington controls, the Kremlin can provide embattled rulers limited, but at times decisive, battlefield support, global diplomatic and propaganda cover, some protection from U.S. sanctions through Russian state financial and other operations – and always a safe refuge in Russia if things go south.
More than that, saving leaders under pressure is a principled position for Putin, said Alexander Dynkin, president of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, which advises the Kremlin.
“Media support, advisers, doctors, bodyguards and a safe haven in Sochi rather than Miami are inexpensive and effective” tools for Putin to deploy, Dynkin said. “He copies the U.S.A. in this, but does it more efficiently.”