Dr. Angela Stent on Putin’s World

The WIIS Global team — Kayla McGill and Zi Xue — were thrilled to meet and interview Dr. Angela Stent, a long-standing member and supporter of WIIS. Dr. Stent is the Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Her 2019 book, Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest, examines Russian actions on the world stage and the relationships with other individual actors. 

When asked about the main takeaways from her new book, Dr. Stent said she hoped readers would understand three main issues–

  1. Why the West was wrong in assuming that post-Soviet Russia would want to become more like the West and more integrated with the Western world;
  2. How has Putin’s Russia been able to reassert itself on the world stage given its economic limitations, its declining population, aging infrastructure and lack of economic modernization;
  3. How should the West think about having a more productive relationship with Russia in the future.

This last point is of particular importance, as many players in the international arena including European countries view Russia as an important trade partner with valuable resources whereas the United States’ economic relationship with Russia is very limited and it has a more adversarial political relationship with Russia than most countries in the world.

Dr. Stent explained that while the US-Russia relationship is particularly bad right now, and relations are at the worst they have been since Gorbachev was leading Russia in 1985, there have been more challenging times. The driving force behind the recent animosity, Dr. Stent explained, stems from Russian interference in the 2016 US elections and the US domestic political divide. For example, the people who do not support the current US President are more prone to mistrust and dislike Putin and Russia as they associate them with Trump, instead of voters who support Trump and therefore have a generally more positive outlook on US relations with Russia. 

Dr. Stent explained that Russia’s more assertive global posture is, in part, a product of its role in international institutions, such as the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS (an organization consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). In fact, one of the main reasons the world pays attention to Russia at all is because of its nuclear capabilities—it remains one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers—and its veto power on the UN Security Council (UNSC). In addition, Russia’s engagement with and support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative shows its desire to act as a great power on the international stage. While some view Russia as trying to replace the US’ leading role in international institutions, others believe Russia mainly has interests in curtailing the US’ influence. Dr. Stent described Russia’s position among international players as both unique and significant. She further explained that the combination of Russia and China on the UN Security Council makes them a force to be reckoned with in the international realm as they frequently vote in similar ways. To that end, Dr. Stent pointed out that it was Russia who wanted to form the BRICS alliance which excluded Western countries, play a role in the G20 Summit, and create other non-western institutions. What is important to note about the BRICS is that both Russia and China are coming together to lay the groundwork for some non-western ‘rules’ to break away from Western-dominated international; organizations  that have, in their view, governed the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union and imposed an agenda that neglects their interests.

From a US perspective, the relationship between Russia and the US takes the form of great power competition. The US National Defense Strategy of 2017 described “the return of the great power competition”, primarily between the United States and Russia. Dr. Stent agrees that Russia sees itself as being in a great power competition with the United States. She also stressed that regardless of Russia’s weak economy, the Russian military can still project power cheaply and effectively (for example in Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine). In fact, Chinese troops took part in Russian military maneuvers for the first time last September (2018). In July, they conducted joint bomber patrols over the Sea of Japan. However, Dr. Stent stressed that the military cooperation between China and Russia shouldn’t be exaggerated. China has its own interests and they aren’t bound by treaty to support Russia, and vice versa.

On the topic of Chinese and Russian cooperation, Dr. Stent explained that while China and Russia may be working together more closely due to recent US actions, the two nations actually started working with each other when both Russia and China were on better terms with the United States. Dr. Stent drew a parallel between the US position during the Cold War and China’s position now. During the Cold War, the US ‘played the China card’ vis-a-vis the Soviet Union by working more closely with China whenever the US-Soviet Union relationship was difficult. Now, Dr. Stent said, it seems that China is playing a similar ‘Russia card’ based on the positive China-Russia relationship and the negative US-Russia relationship.

Over the course of our discussion about Russia’s role in international institutions, it became increasingly clear that China was exerting a major influence in both the US and Russia. When asked if Russia could replace the US in the international realm, Dr. Stent said that even if the Russians wanted to, they wouldn’t be able to. This is because China is the major rising power and competitor with the US. We asked Dr. Stent about the portion of her book dedicated to the historical relationship between Russia and China working together contrary to the US. Dr. Stent said developments from this current administration (i.e. sanctions with Russia and a trade war with China) have pushed the two countries closer together and strengthened their trade and cooperation. However, this cooperation may end when it comes to certain issues, such as economic ties with the United States. China’s economic relationship with the United States is many times larger than its economic relationship with Russia. At the June St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Putin went on the attack against the United States, while Xi Jinping was more reserved and encouraging of cooperation with the U.S. 

We asked if the US was inevitably declining as a world leader and if this current administration was contributing to or exacerbating a potential decline. Dr. Stent said that this decline is a slow development, and it would be unusual for any one country (like the US) to dominate the international system for so long. She expanded by saying that while some decline was inevitable, the Trump administration has definitely hastened the decline, particularly since the US has deliberately been skeptical about alliances with European nations—including NATO, and Asian nations.

After learning more about Russia’s role in international politics and its relations with the US and China, we turned our attention to the topic of gender in Russia. We wanted to know how gender impacts Russia’s international affairs and diplomatic relations. Dr. Stent started off by explaining the paradox of women’s roles throughout Russian history and in Russia today. She explained that although Russian women are portrayed as strong and capable, they have frequently been undervalued and overlooked in both social and professional circumstances. During Soviet times, most women worked outside of their homes. They were also required to work a ‘second shift’ consisting of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and other domestic responsibilities for their families. Typically, domestic responsibilities were traditionally taboo for men to participate in; thus, the burden fell almost entirely to women. This double burden was exacerbated by the fact that the most prestigious jobs were held by men. 

While this paradox and double burden for women is still present today, it was especially prevalent during the Soviet era. Dr. Stent recalled an event in 1974 where she addressed female professors at Moscow State University about the feminist movement. She recalled that these women seemed puzzled because they ‘wished they could have the opportunity to choose to stay home’. After the Soviet Union collapsed, a retrograde view of gender roles took hold across the nation. The advent of this societal shift is in large part due to the revival and growing power of the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution that favors traditional gender roles. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, not only has the status of women changed in the professional world due to ‘traditional’ views, but women’s security has changed as well. For example, Russia has decriminalized many of the protections for women that were present in the 1990s, most significantly, domestic violence laws.

In addition to the paradox of the double burden and the return to ‘traditional’ gender roles, the culture in Russia is very masculine – as it has been throughout most of its history. Today, Putin exemplifies this attitude by portraying himself as the epitome of masculinity through, for example, riding bare-chested on a horse. Further, the security services (where Putin and many high ranking officials come from) are imbued with a very masculine culture. Very few women occupy high- ranking positions in either international security or Russian domestic politics. In fact, only two women hold high positions in Russian government: Elvira Nabiullina, the head of the Central Bank, and Valentina Matviyenko, the head of the Federation Council. Dr. Stent explained that while there are also some high-ranking women in the Ministry of Defense, the government/security sector remains a heavily male-dominated system. 

We asked Dr. Stent if she thought that the government’s domestic and international policies would be different if there were more women in positions of leadership. Dr. Stent said that as there has never been a large group of women in the Soviet or Russian government, she would have to speculate at that point. But when asked if the relationship between the US and Russia would have been different if women were majority leaders in Russia or any other great power, Dr. Stent said no. Women are not necessarily more inclined to peacemaking, than to violence. Dr. Stent specifically mentioned her experiences at two landmark all-female WIIS conferences on ethnic conflict and international security held in the Czech Republic and Estonia in the mid-1990s. The participants held confrontational views on a number of ongoing ethnic conflicts that were no different from those of their male counterparts, These meetings revealed that the women involved in ethnic conflict were not, in general, any more peaceful than men, nor any more inclined to seek compromise. 

Because of the current tense international political climate, we asked if a gender lens of great power competition would be beneficial or not. Dr. Stent said that women becoming involved in international security is very important and will help scholars and practitioners better understand how competition is managed. This is particularly important as there are too few women in leadership positions around the world. Although more women leaders would benefit international relations, Dr. Stent said that she wasn’t sure how a gender lens would help us understand great power politics any better than we already do. In her view, better understanding will come from encouraging more women leaders and making the space for them on the international stage.

As our interview with Dr. Stent drew to a close, our discussion turned to the potential for any new wars, particularly new types of cold war. Dr. Stent argued that Russia and the US already have elements of a new Cold War going on right now. The present conflict has elements of both an ideological and military conflict. She further explained that China and the US are too economically integrated to be in a second Cold War. However many people believe the potential for a real war is there as well. Dr. Stent believes that a true war could develop out of an accident that suddenly exacerbates underlying tensions and leads to full out conflict.

Dr. Stent’s current work focuses on the Global China project at Brookings to further her research on Russia and China. It was a privilege to interview and learn from Dr. Angela Stent and we look forward to engaging with her future research!