Over the past eight years, Russia's repression of its key domestic institutions has been a defining feature of its governance. The Kremlin's manipulation of Russia's recent parliamentary elections and presidential succession are the most recent examples of an ever-tightening grip on the country's political life.
What few have fully appreciated, however, is that the growing authoritarianism of Russia's domestic politics is shaping the parameters of its foreign policy. As President Vladimir Putin has consolidated control over the country's political opposition, civil society, and news media, independent voices of consequence have been muzzled and are no longer able to challenge or temper the whims and excesses of the Kremlin. This closing of ranks among an elite that has its hands on the levers of state and commercial power has created a dangerously insular system that produces public policy that does not undergo meaningful debate and scrutiny.
Russia's leadership has left few stones unturned in its effort to assert control over critical institutions. The strengthening of the instruments of the state to maintain political dominance has been especially visible in the business sector. The Kremlin under Putin has cleansed independent players from the commanding heights of the economy -- particularly the energy sector. Meanwhile, deep interlocking interests have taken hold within the Kremlin, much of whose leadership is "double-hatted" as state policy makers and stakeholders in some of the country's largest commercial (though state-controlled) enterprises.
In February, Viktor Zubkov, now prime minister, was named the highest-ranking public official on the list of candidates for Gazprom's board, suggesting that he will become Gazprom's next chairman, replacing Dmitry Medvedev, the current chairman, who is being guided into the Russian presidency. He joins numerous other officials with key corporate positions, including deputy head of the presidential administration Igor Sechin, who serves as chairman of the board at the state oil company Rosneft. This merger of outsized strategic commercial interests with those of senior Kremlin decision makers has subtracted from the foreign-policy-making equation the sorely needed range of voices that would be heard in an open and pluralistic system.
In the wake of this reassertion of state power and now with virtually no institutional checks on its decision making, Russia's leadership is pursuing an increasingly truculent foreign policy, taking hard-line positions on issues ranging from Kosovo to Iran, and suffering progressively fraught relations with Europe. The sharp descent of Russia's relations with the United Kingdom stands out.
The rise of Putinism has been felt acutely in the countries on Russia's borders, where the Kremlin is exerting political and economic pressure on a set of vulnerable post-Soviet states.
Energy is a critical, though not exclusive, part of this approach. As energy prices have soared, Russia's leadership has played the energy card to apply pressure on supposed allies such as Belarus and Armenia, as well as countries that represent test cases for reform, like Ukraine, whose democratic aspirations have been consistently challenged by the Kremlin.
Beyond energy, a mind-set has taken hold within Russia's elite that mistrusts the outside world and sees anti-Russian conspiracies everywhere. For Putin and his security-services-driven leadership, this view places squarely in the crosshairs neighboring countries formerly under the Kremlin's yoke. Russia has reserved its fiercest attacks for democracies on its borders.
Georgia and Estonia are cases in point. Just as the Kremlin has gone after domestic opponents, it is taking a similar tack against sovereign neighboring states that are pursuing a democratic course. At home, it is relying on capricious application of law to limit the ability of independent groups to organize and using state propaganda to discredit political opposition. Internationally, Russia has shown it can also throw sharp elbows, applying a variety of economic, military, and media-related instruments to accomplish its goals.
Georgia, a country consumed by recent political turmoil, has been a prime target of the Kremlin's wrath. Along with Ukraine, Georgia represents a critical test case for democratic reform in the former Soviet Union. With a population of 4.5 million, this fragile would-be democracy in the Caucasus has suffered since 2006 under a blanket Russian blockade that seals the border between the two countries to trade and transportation, and bars sea and air travel. The Kremlin's unhelpful hand in Georgia's volatile breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has exacerbated an already fragile regional order. Last August, an aircraft -- entering from Russian airspace -- dropped a Russian-made guided missile on Georgian territory not far from its frontier with South Ossetia. The overwhelming suspicion is that the Kremlin was behind this provocative act.
Despite its membership in the European Union and NATO, Estonia likewise has been subjected to Kremlin-inspired attacks. In April 2007, this small Baltic country was hit with a coordinated assault on its national cyberinfrastructure. Known for its reliance on the Internet, the country's banking system, media, parliament, and other institutions were compromised. The attacks occurred at the time the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet-era war memorial and the bodies of soldiers buried beneath it. Kremlin-controlled state television whipped up furious anti-Estonian sentiment. Members of Nashi, a Kremlin-backed youth organization, harassed the Estonian ambassador in Moscow and blockaded border posts. Russian oil stopped flowing through Estonian ports.
At the time, Estonia's defense minister said there was not enough evidence to prove "a [Russian] governmental role, but that it indicated a possibility." The public response -- or absence thereof -- by the Russian authorities suggests that even if official Russia did not direct the cyberassault, it certainly did not view it as unwelcome.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to be taking a somewhat different tack recently with Estonia's Baltic neighbor, Latvia, which has over the years been subjected to a relentless Kremlin campaign to stir up resentment among Latvia's ethnic-Russian community. In what appears to be a step back from this pugnacious approach, in recent months the Kremlin has turned down the volume on Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority and is "smothering Latvia with kindness," as Pauls Raudseps, editorial-page editor of Latvia's leading daily "Diena," has noted. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in January went out of his way to cite the "very positive dynamic" in Russian-Latvian relations.
While the precise basis for this recent Kremlin shift is unclear, Raudseps observes that "Russia could be trying to influence Latvia's position on EU policies that are of interest to the Kremlin. For instance, Latvia is one of the countries opposing the liberalization of EU energy markets, a policy which would run counter to the Kremlin strategy of controlling both the production and distribution of energy and locking in consumers with long-term contracts."
While the Kremlin has seemingly tempered the propaganda campaign in Latvia's case, the Estonian and Georgian episodes were emblematic of a Kremlin approach that relies heavily on control and manipulation of information to advance its objectives. The same propaganda machine that was revved up to spark anti-Estonian sentiment was also put into overdrive to attack the Georgian state and Georgians living in Russia. A dangerous byproduct of the Kremlin's dominance of Russia's news media is that it is able to routinely unleash harsh propaganda campaigns to shape and distort public perceptions.
Russia's resurgence on the international scene has closely tracked the rise in energy prices, which have given Russia's leadership leverage that would not exist if oil prices were at, say, the level of when Putin first came to power. The current Kremlin gambit does not, however, represent Soviet-era global ambition. Instead, Russia is pursuing a more circumscribed approach that first and foremost looks to ensure that transparent and accountable democratic systems do not succeed on Russia's periphery, where their proximity would pose the greatest threat to the controlling Putin model of governance.
The same Kremlin leadership that gives no quarter to domestic opposition likewise has little taste for democratic politics on its doorstep, and therefore will continue to devote substantial energy to prevent their advance.
(Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Robert Orttung is a senior fellow at the Jefferson Institute and author of the Russia report in "Freedom in the World," Freedom House's annual survey of politics rights and civil liberties.)