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Russia's (Not So) Splendid Isolation

  • Brian Whitmore

Alone and unloved

Alone and unloved

Activists in Moscow burn Turkish flags and pelt the embassy with eggs and rocks. In Crimea, they burn Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in effigy.

Russian authorities detain dozens of Turkish citizens for allegedly violating visa regulations. And, of course, the Kremlin has suspended visa-free travel for Turks and suspended charter flights to Turkey.

And to think it wasn't so long ago that Turkey was considered one of Russia's closest...friends? Just a year ago, Vladimir Putin praised Erdogan as "a man of strong character" who ignored Western pressure.

The downing of an Su-24 warplane -- which came after Ankara says it repeatedly warned Moscow about violating its airspace -- may be the proximate cause of the current Russian-Turkish standoff.

But the underlying cause goes deeper -- and has broader implications than Moscow's relations with Ankara.

Once upon a time, the story of Fortress Russia facing a hostile world was a convenient fairy tale the Kremlin used to mobilize the public.

Today, the fairy tale is quickly becoming a reality. As a result of the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine and Syria, this well-worn narrative of an isolated Russia staring down the world has come to life.

"Putin's Russia is not exactly weak, it's just alone and unloved after alienating even potential friends," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg.

Likewise, Kremlin-watcher Tatyana Stanovaya noted in that "Russia finds itself alone, humiliated on a worldwide scale."

As a result of the Crimea annexation, the Donbas intervention, and the downing of MH17, Moscow has no true allies west of Smolensk.

It has lost any vestiges of goodwill in Europe. Germany has been transformed from a close partner into a harsh critic. Traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland are considering joining NATO.

Russia has turned Ukraine from an erstwhile friend into a bitter foe, perhaps for generations.

And even autocratic Belarus is looking at Putin's regime with increasing trepidation.

Meanwhile, Moscow's intervention in Syria's civil war, its attempts to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and its air strikes against Assad's opposition under the guise of fighting Islamic State have alienated powerful players to the south -- like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.

Moreover, the Kremlin has appeared to abandon its much-vaunted pivot to the east once it became apparent that this would turn a declining Russia into the junior partner of a rising China.

"Russia has no powerful strategic partners; all of its alliances are temporary and can turn into enmity at any moment," Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote in a recent editorial.

Moscow's descent into isolation has its roots in the domestic political dilemma Putin faced following his return to the Kremlin in 2012.

Until that point, the regime's legitimacy was based on rising living standards and a loyal middle class. That social contract was destroyed by the protests of 2011-12 and collapsing oil prices.

As a result, Putin had to forge a "a new type of legitimacy -- which can be found in a military chieftain type of leadership and permanent state of emergency," Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently. "In order to preserve the image of vigorous leadership and deter the feelings of stagnation, bold action is helpful, if not irreplaceable."

A key element of this "military chieftain" leadership was liberating Russia from the constraints of international rules and norms. According to Putin's "New Deal," Putin would return the country to superpower status by sheer force of will.

It would annex Crimea and intervene in Donbas because it could. It would violate NATO airspace because it felt like it. It would kidnap foreign citizens like Nadia Savchenko, Oleh Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, hold them hostage, and dare the world to do something about it.

In a recent article in Vedomosti, Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov called it "the diplomacy of liberation," which abandons the goals and partnerships Moscow had forged for the previous two decades.

"Russia's new course means it is free from any and all influences and restrictions," Frolov wrote. "This freedom means that Russia does not need to abide by international law...and that Russia's claims to a leading role in the world cannot be contained."

The cost of this diplomacy of liberation, of course, is increasing international isolation and ostracism.

For the time being, as Frolov notes, Moscow has been able to "divorce foreign policy from economic interests and capabilities." But in the long run, the current course is not sustainable.

Nevertheless, isolated and resentful powers -- particularly isolated and resentful powers with nuclear weapons, large militaries, and vast natural resources -- can cause a lot of damage.

Which means that, in the short term, we are in for what Ben Judah, author of the book Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, calls "our violent new normal."

"The unthinkable happens, is quickly accepted, and fades obscure into a darkening background," Judah wrote recently in Prospect. "Grey wars, is what we have now: creeping skirmishes, proxy clashes, hybrid assaults and dogfights with Russia."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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