Vladimir Putin is the current President of the nation of Russia; and relations between Russia and the Western world have grown quite tense over recent times. The purpose of this sample essay from Ultius is to explore the reasons and historical context that have contributed to the present situation. In order to do this, the essay draft will begin by presenting an overview of Putin’s own biography.
From this point, the essay will describe some of the recent events that have caused tensions to rise between Russia and the West. Then, the essay will connect this situation with a broader historical perspective regarding Russian foreign policy. Finally, the essay will reflect on the political implications of the present situation. The main theme that will emerge is that current Russian foreign policy is something of a reiteration of past Russian foreign policy, and that this may be driven by the fact that Putin himself played a prominent role in Russia’s Communist past.
Biography of Putin
Putin was born in 1952 in the city of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg), when Russia was of course still the Soviet Union. According to the biographical summary provided by Joseph Burgo of the Atlantic, Putin grew up under extremely harsh social and economic conditions: one biography paints a grim picture of the Leningrad complex in which
“the family lived, typical of the city during the post-war period. Crumbling stairwells and courtyards strewn with trash. Cramped, filthy, and crowded rooms. Families piled one on top of the other, sharing and fighting over a communal kitchen in the hallway” (paragraph 7).
There is also a persistent rumor that Putin may have been adopted, due to the fact that apparently no one can be found who has memories of him as a little child. In any event, Putin’s experiences as a child and adolescent would have clearly catalyzed the development of an aggressive and independent personality and/or persona. This is for the simple reason that living conditions were quite harsh, and it was necessary to become “tough” in order to survive (let alone thrive) under such circumstances.
In his later life, a salient point about Putin is that he served for a long time in the Soviet KGB, known in English as the Committee for State Security. This organization could be loosely compared to the FBI and the CIA within the United States. In this capacity, he was active across the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, including East Germany. According to interviews reported by Wiser, there would seem to be a general consensus that Putin fits the “archetype” of a KGB man quite well: he has been described as a “faceless” person, and he himself appears to take pride in the self-image of being a “thug”. When Putin became the acting leader of Russia in 2000, he clearly brought this experience with him when beginning to develop and implement foreign policy and strategy.
Putin’s biographical and professional history have become of interest in recent times due to the perceived erratic behavior of Russia on the global stage. A couple main events will be discussed below. For the time being, though, the most important point is perhaps that Putin’s foreign policy has been perceived as both narcissistic and aggressive. It has been hypothesized that the narcissistic aspect of the policy may spring from Putin’s own character, which itself could be at least partially explained by his experiences growing up (see Burgo). Regarding the aggressiveness, this has been seen as having a genealogical connection with Putin’s experience serving in the KGB (see Wiser). Essentially, the idea is that Russia’s current foreign policy and activities can be understood in a more effective way by gaining a deeper understanding of Putin himself. It is time now, though, to turn to recent historical events that have made these considerations arise in the first place.
In the March of 2014, Russia annexed Crimea as a part of its own national territory. Historically, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union; and once Ukraine became an independent nation upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region of Crimea became a part of Ukraine. However, Crimea also preserved a degree of independence. As Smith and Eschchenko have indicated:
“Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, has long been a semiautonomous region within Ukraine. It has had its own Parliament, but the Ukrainian government had veto power over its actions” (paragraph 8).
The annexation of Crimea by Russia occurred in the aftermath of a revolution in Ukraine that ousted the pro-Russian president of the nation from power. During this time, a referendum was held in Crimea, and the result indicated that the people of Crimea would like to become a part of Russia. Essentially, Russia did not need to be told twice: the nation seized the opportunity as soon as it opened and officially annexed Crimea.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding this annexation have cast strong doubts on the geopolitical legitimacy of the move. Among other things, it would seem to be obvious that a Crimean referendum for independence from Ukraine would be precisely the sort of thing that the Ukrainian government would have vetoed, in the event that the government was actually stable and capable of implementing such a veto. This is why by and large, most nations (including all of North America and Europe) have refused to consider the Crimean referendum to be legal, and have therefore also refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russia’s claim to have annexed Crimea. This has understandably contributed to a significant escalation of tensions between Russia and the West.
Moreover, the situation has grown even worse as a result what appears to be Russia’s intention to invade Ukraine itself (and not just annex Crimea). There has been a great deal of ambiguity and equivocation regarding this international situation. However, as Uri Friedman, also of The Atlantic, has indicated (writing in August 2014):
“What we know is that there are currently more than 1,100 heavily armed Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine and 20,000 Russian soldiers massed on the border, according to NATO. We know that armored vehicles and military equipment have been rolling into Ukraine from the direction of Russia in the dark of night” (paragraph 2).
For the time being, it seems that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been limited to what could be called border skirmishes: Russia has crossed into Ukrainian territory, backed off, crossed over again, and so on. The situation would likely qualify as one of war, although it does not seem to have explicitly acknowledged as such by the international community.
The Western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression of Ukraine has consisted of the imposition of sanctions. For example, David Herszenhorn of the New York Times has written that
“the latest sanctions include an order by the Obama administration prohibiting American companies from doing business in Crimea, including a ban on imports and exports, real estate purchases, and the financing of businesses there. The European Union, meanwhile, banned travel businesses from operating in Crimea, a popular tourist destination” (paragraph 10).
This has enraged Russia, in part on the ground of the principle that the West is punishing Crimea for making an autonomous decision regarding its allegiance to Russia, and in part because the sanctions actually are having some negative effects on the Russian economy. In any event, these sanctions can be understood as an effort to use “soft power” in order to encourage Putin to bring Russia’s foreign policy into congruence with international diplomatic norms. It is unclear, however, whether this will actually have the desired effects or rather just provoke Russian defiance and thereby exacerbate the situation.
Connection to Russia’s Past
Some commentators have compared the currently emerging conflict between the West and Russia as a return of the dynamics that prevailed during the Cold War. As the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has described, the Cold War was a major diplomatic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted several decades; and although it never erupted into open military conflict between the two superpowers, the conflict was marked both by peripheral military conflicts (most notably in Korea and Vietnam) as well as the omnipresent specter of nuclear annihilation.
According to Conant, it would be misguided to really call the present situation a reiteration of the Cold War, insofar as Russia is not at this time a superpower: the only real superpower on the planet now is the United States, which is apparent by its foreign policy and the external intervention it exercises. Unfortunately, the Russian military is a mere shadow of what it was during the Soviet Union days. However, the popularity of this analogy may be justified in the sense that similar geopolitical antagonisms are developing, even if the scale of the conflict is much smaller, at least for the time being.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that many Russians themselves would seem to be haunted by memories of the power that was enjoyed by the nation when it was still a superpower. As Burgo has honestly pointed out, Putin’s foreign policy, while seemingly narcissistic and aggressive, is also supported by the vast majority of Russians themselves: Putin enjoys an 80 percent approval rating; and most Russians also appreciate the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s policy regarding Ukraine.
This indicates that the Russian people may have some desire for Russia to return to the status it possessed during the Cold War as a major world power that could stand against the West in general and the United States in particular. This would also indicate that Putin’s foreign policy is not merely the result of personal idiosyncrasy but rather actually an honest representation of what the Russian people at some level actually want.
Implications and Conclusion
One important implication that has emerged over the course of the present discussion is the fact that two main dimensions must be taken into consideration when analyzing Russia’s current foreign policy. The first would be the biography of Putin himself. There is reason to believe that both Putin’s early life experiences as well as his experience with the KGB has led him to develop a somewhat narcissistic and highly aggressive persona, and that this is reflected in Russian foreign policy.
The other dimension, however, is sociological in nature. This consists of national memories of both the antagonism of the Cold War and the global power enjoyed by Russia during that period in its history. The current situation could perhaps best be understood as arising from the confluence of Putin’s own political ambitions and the Russian people’s desire to take pride in the power of their nation once more.
In summary, this essay from Ultius has discussed Putin and his foreign policy. Toward this end, the essay began with a description of Putin’s own biography. Then, it proceeded to reflect on recent events in Russia’s international relations; and finally, it reflected on these events in light of Russia’s past. At the level of practical policy on the part of the West, one concrete recommendation that emerges from this discussion is that the West should engage Russia with a sense of respect, and that efforts should be made to avoid belittling Russia in any way.
This is for the simple reason that to a large extent, Russia’s current foreign policy may be driven by the desire of both Putin himself and the Russian people to win for themselves a sense of respect—a respect that they perceive to have lost since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Respectful engagement would thus perhaps make Putin and Russia more open to productive dialogue.
Burgo, Joseph. “Vladimir Putin, Narcissist?” The Atlantic. 15 Apr. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Conant, Eve. “Is the Cold War Back?” National Geographic. 12 Sep. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Friedman, Uri. “Russia’s Slow-Motion Invasion of Ukraine.” The Atlantic. 29 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Herszenhorn, David M. “Russia Denounces New Round of Western Sanctions.” New York Times. 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “The Cold War.” n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Smith, Matt, and Alla Eschchenko. “Ukraine Cries ‘Robbery’ as Russia Annexes Crimea.” CNN. 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Wiser, Daniel. “Once a Spy, Always a Spy.” Washington Free Beacon. 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
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