Kathryn Stoner on How Putin’s War has Ruined Russia

Kathryn Stoner

Kathryn Stoner is the Mosbacher Director at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. She is also the author of the book Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order. Her article “How Putin’s War Has Ruined Russia” was recently published online at journalofdemocracy.org.

Listen on SpotifyListen on AppleListen on Google Listen on Stitcher

Become a Patron!

Boeing is pulling out, DuPont, Erickson, Analog Devices, Bombardier. Eventually all of these things are going to cause supply and production chain issues and unemployment in Russia. So, Mr. Putin doesn’t have an infinite amount of time before havoc is wrought.

Kathryn Stoner

Key Highlights

  • How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected perceptions of Russia’s military
  • How has it affected its economy both short-term and long-term
  • How has it affected Russia’s international standing
  • The affects on Russia’s citizens
  • What does Putin’s unpredictability mean for peace in Ukraine

Podcast Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Democracy Paradox: A podcast on democracy, democratization, and world affairs. Each week you’ll learn about big picture insights to better understand political issues and events. These are complex ideas that might be unfamiliar so, I’ve provided a complete transcript at democracyparadox.com. 

Today’s guest is Kathryn Stoner. Kathryn is the Mosbacher Director at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. She is also the author of the book Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order.

Kathryn was a guest of the show last year. She argued Russia’s strength was underestimated. A lot of people had said Putin plays a weak hand well, but she contended Russia’s hand was not so weak. Nonetheless, in the invasion of Ukraine it seems Putin has badly miscalculated. Kathryn Stoner has written a new article for the Journal of Democracy titled, “How Putin’s War Has Ruined Russia.” So, I thought it was a good time to revisit with Kathryn to better understand Russian power as it stands right now. But I also had other questions for Kathryn. Did she overestimate Russia before the war or do we underestimate Russia now? Feel free to send me your thoughts to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. This is my conversation with Kathryn Stoner…


Kathryn Stoner, welcome back to the Democracy Paradox.

Kathryn Stoner

Thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be here.


Well, I want to start with a quote from your recent Journal of Democracy piece, “How Putin’s War in Ukraine has Ruined Russia.” It’s a fascinating piece. And in it, you write, “In a little more than eight weeks, Putin’s unjust and ill-conceived war has erased the gains of the last three decades.” Let’s just take a moment and briefly revisit those gains, because I think it helps to understand where Russia was before the war began. I think three key areas were very important. One was the economy, another was in terms of international relations, but a third was in terms of its military.

Russia’s obviously seen some setbacks in terms of its military through its invasion of Ukraine and you even make the case in the paper that people won’t look at Russia’s military the same way that they did before. Was Russian military power overstated before they actually began the invasion?

Kathryn Stoner

So, no, I think not. We haven’t seen the full force of the Russian military in Ukraine and hopefully we won’t. It has obviously failed in a couple of important ways. But I think we also have to remember how it did in Syria. It hasn’t been able to use the air force in the same way. I think there are lots of reasons for that, but that’s obviously been a serious problem for them. The other is… I think the parallel to use is when the United States military which is undisputedly on paper and in practice the most powerful military in the world. We spend the most. We have the most. But context is a lot and you can’t always use everything you have in every context.

So, remember when we went in under George W. Bush into Iraq. Bush was told by Rumsfeld and Cheney that American tanks would be met by Iraqis with rose petals thrown on the ground. We would be welcomed and it would all be very easy. Well, it turned out it wasn’t that easy. I mean, we did a lot better afterwards than the Russians are necessarily doing right now, but it took a lot more time. So, I think we’re being a little bit impatient in expecting that the Russians would quickly topple Kiev.

So, what happened? I think there’s some bad intelligence just as there was for us with WMD in Iraq. It turned out Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMD and it turned out not all Iraqis were happy to have us there or see us. So, was Iraq after all that money and time an unqualified success? It’s not clear.

So, let’s go back to Ukraine. I think that Putin was given intelligence indicating that President Zelensky would quickly leave, he didn’t, and that the Russian tanks would be welcomed by the Ukrainian people who after all were being held hostage by these corrupt Ukrainian elites who’d been bought off by the west. They would be happy to have their Russian brothers come and rescue them. Well, that turned out to be wrong and I think there’s a problem with autocracies as there is sometimes, as we saw in Iraq, with democracies where you don’t want to believe disconfirming evidence or it gets discounted. I think that in an autocracy that problem is even more acute, because no one wants to bring Mr. Putin something that would be disconfirming. So, I think that’s partly what happened.

Unfortunately, they are making some headway now in Eastern and Southern Ukraine and beginning to pound cities. The Ukrainians are being armed by us, they’re fighting for their land, and they have a very clear purpose in their fight. I think it’s pretty obvious that many Russian soldiers do not have a purpose or understand why they’re there or understood why they were being sent there to begin with. So, understandably they might be a little hesitant to actually shoot people who look like them and who speak Russian if they have Ukrainian grandmothers or mothers or used to vacation there. It was different in Chechnya. It was different in Syria. Those people don’t look like Orthodox Russians, but these people do. So, I do think that’s part of explaining the morale issue.

Then finally, one of the problems with Putin’s Russia, this is something I talk about in the book and this is certainly a break in Russia’s exercise of global power, is corruption within the military. We heard of some selling off their equipment in Belarus before they even entered Ukraine and then stealing things in Ukraine and sending them home to Russia. So, that’s indiscipline. It’s corruption. So, I think that also has a lot to do with it.


So, I had on a scholar, Zoltan Barany, months ago and he had written an interesting book about militaries in the Gulf Region. One of the points that he was making was that in autocracies sometimes they struggle in terms of their military because they don’t empower people to make decisions. They can struggle to be able to operate as effectively as democracies do. It was an interesting point that I hadn’t really heard made before and I think back on that a lot when I see some of the behavior that Russia has made in their invasion of Ukraine where it seems like if it’s not a senior officer, people are struggling to know what it is that they’re supposed to do.

It sounds like Russia doesn’t have the same kind of non-commissioned officer core that the United States does. That if you lose your Lieutenant or even a General that the army is not in disarray because noncommissioned officers will step up and know exactly what they need to do. Is there some of that? That Russia’s military wasn’t as strong because they don’t empower the people in the military to make those type of decisions.

Kathryn Stoner

Yeah, that’s what we’re hearing is they don’t have this non-commissioned officer corps and that might also help explain why it is that so many generals have found themselves in direct danger. So, many of them seem to have been killed. So the puzzle is why is that? So, I do think that’s it and that’s an organizational issue.

That’s not one of the things that they did in their reform. The other thing that we’re hearing more recently, too, Justin, is that Mr. Putin himself, Patrushev, and the chief of the general staff are becoming sort of armchair generals. This is kind of messing up chain of command because Putin himself really doesn’t have any military experience whatsoever and frankly, neither does the Minister of Defense Shoygu. That’s not his background. So, I think it could be a situation of top-heavy leadership trying to call the shots on the ground without having appropriate information and then not sufficiently empowering the people that they put in power. So, I think that’s true. Then the organizational issue that Zoltan mentioned to you makes total sense to me.


So, I also heard you on a podcast about two months ago. It was News in Context. In it you had said that Russia had sent in their B team into Ukraine and the host pressed you and said, ‘Well, is there an A team?’ And you said that there definitely is an A team, but they weren’t in Ukraine.

Kathryn Stoner

Well, they weren’t in the battle for Kiev, I would say. But yes, I think that they have now shown up in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The other thing too is, Justin, the expectation that they would be welcomed was really widespread. It was allegedly so widespread that the tank operators who were approaching Kiev, remember that big 40-mile-long convoy. Apparently, some of them had their dress regalia in the tanks for the victory parade that would happen on day two. So, they weren’t terribly worried about supply chain, because the Ukrainian people would be welcoming them. So, they would give them gas, food, and whatnot. That wouldn’t have been a problem.

Also, Putin exhorted the Ukrainian military to revolt on day two or three and join the Russians. That also didn’t happen. So, I think it’s kind of confirmation bias. Then sending in troops that were not prepared to do what they were being asked to do and not being welcomed in the way that once they found themselves there thought that they would be.

Then you can kind of see how this all unravels in the evidence that’s been left behind in Bucha and in other places, just horrible things. The accounts are that initially the Russian troops that came in were professional and not bad. Then they become more and more suspicious of Ukrainian civilians who are not as helpful and welcoming. Then they begin to suspect as they’re being shelled and bombed by the Ukrainian military that the civilians are giving information about their positions. It doesn’t excuse, but you can see what happens where they get more and more hostile toward the civilian population and then just brutal with the civilian population, arbitrarily killing and treating them horribly. So, I think that this is a process of unraveling as well.


I think that that’s a perfect segue in terms of how that unraveling in terms of their military operations ties back to the unraveling in terms of their international standing. Because the humanitarian crisis, the war crimes that were committed are clearly an issue in itself. But in terms of the impact on Russia, the rest of the world has become much more united than when they began as they’ve seen some of the consequences of this war and seen some of the behavior of the Russian military going forward. Do you expect the American allies to remain as united as they’ve been in their support of Ukraine?

Kathryn Stoner

Well, I think the consensus and the rapidity of the response in terms of sanctions and the unanimity was unanticipated as well by President Putin. Now, whether that should have been unanticipated is a question, because we’ve maintained pretty good sanctions unanimity since 2014 as well. But the U.S., in revealing what it knew before the invasion, didn’t waste time by just sitting back and pointing out they are on the border. But actually, remember all of the diplomacy ahead of time where Blinken was going to Europe. That was to prepare a response quickly, so that when it did happen the response had already been negotiated and agreed upon. I think that was not completely anticipated.

Remember the Russians kept on saying, ‘We’re not going in. We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Clearly, the U.S. said, ‘Well, you are and we can see it and we know. Now, let’s go make sure our allies are all on board.’ So, I think that was not anticipated. That’s from Putin being isolated and not fully appreciating how the rest of the world thinks. That’s not how he thinks. So, I think that that was a surprise.

In terms of keeping the Alliance together, obviously that’s the key here, and one of the things that Russia has done that I talk about in my book, Russia Resurrected, and I want to separate Russia from Russia under Putin, because it’s not inevitable that these things happen. But he’s quite carefully in the last ten or so years pursued a policy of trying to disrupt the European Union because it’s better for Russia to deal bilaterally with countries.

So, he broke Germany away in terms of energy policy from the rest of the EU in really creating, and Germany went for it, a dependence. So, it’s not just an evil Russian plan. It is partly an evil Putin plan, but Germany made the decision. So, over time, this dependency grew, but then Putin did things like, ‘Huh, who better to run the company that is building Nord Stream 2 than the former chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder.’ There’s a really interesting piece in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. He makes like almost a million dollars a year from Gazprom still. So, that was done carefully. Then the Russians in the interim have also built-up storage facilities that they own in Germany and Europe.

The trick will be maintaining unanimity, keeping Germany on board, and also Hungary, because the strength of the European Union is in its unity. Its weaknesses is that it needs its unity to make decisions. So, right now Victor Orbán who’s a Putin fan is saying, ‘Hey, we’re not so keen on dropping natural gas supplies from Russia.’ And for the Germans that’s going to be hard and it’s going to take some time and until it happens, Russia’s making a billion Euro a day from the sale of oil and natural gas into Europe.


So, I do want to come back to the idea of energy and the way that that impacts the economy. But to step back to just the alliance and American allies, Lucan Way wrote recently in the Journal of Democracy, “There remains a chance that the global liberal project may emerge from this darkness stronger and more invigorated than before.” And that line was written long before Finland and Sweden began their application to NATO. How do you feel that the applications or the inclusion of Finland and Sweden would affect geopolitics, particularly in terms of how it would affect Russia’s place in the international order?

Kathryn Stoner

So, Finland and Sweden are relatively large developed economies and, of course, democracies. So, this is big in some ways, but they’re not great military powers per se. It further, I suppose, quote unquote encircles Russia by NATO. But to be perfectly honest, we’ve got Intercontinental ballistic missiles. We had Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania right on Russia’s border already and they’ve been there since 2004. So, does that give us extra military purchase on Russia? I’m not sure that it actually does. But in a sense, Lucan’s right in that I hear our liberal democracies stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we want to be part of that. We want to be defended by other countries that we count as liberal democracies as well.’

But there is a problem and that’s Turkey. I think eventually they will come on board, but they’re kind of a frenemy of Russia and Sweden and Finland have Turkish emmigrants there that the Turks don’t like and think are terrorists. So, what does it do? I think in part it’s symbolic for Finland and Sweden, but it also does consolidate at least some aspects of the liberal democratic project. I think the EU has been pretty important in that as well. I’m still worried about the liberal democratic project partly because of the United States and our fractious politics until we are able to resolve that I think it’s been dangerous still.


Last time we talked, you emphasized how Russia had found ways to sanction proof its economy and had found ways to work around the sanctions even though the sanctions clearly did have an effect. These are the sanctions that we put in place because of Crimea and because of their involvement in Ukraine already dating back to 2014. Why should we expect sanctions to work better especially the type of sanctions that we’re applying today regarding the current invasion of Ukraine?

Kathryn Stoner

The sanctions that we have implemented since this invasion of Ukraine are pretty much the biggest sanction regime ever placed on an economy ever historically and you could have said that about the sanctions after 2014, to be honest as well. So, now we’ve gone even further. So, this is not just targeted at individuals. It is really targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy. We’ve even sanctioned the Russian Central Bank. They cannot borrow abroad. They cannot access the 600 and… well they have 630 billion in foreign reserves or they did February 23rd, the day before the invasion. That’s like the fourth largest foreign reserve in the world. Three hundred billion of that is under sanction and they can’t access it because it’s in Western banks. Then the remaining 330 billion or so is in gold, which they can’t sell.

So, there’s a war chest that Putin cannot use. So, I think that was also unanticipated. We had not done that before. Then beyond that, as I said, individual targeted sanctions, we actually have a paper here in a working group at Stanford. We’re working with the Ukrainian government on how we can take sanctions further. We need to take sanctions further into the delivery of oil, for example, globally, which we can do and haven’t done yet fully. Although we here in the U S have sanctioned receipt of Russian oil, the problem is we didn’t really receive much Russian oil. So, that’s not terribly meaningful. But the Germans and the EU are saying that they will get off Russian oil by the end of the year which is faster and easier to do than natural gas.

All of this is going to hit the Russian economy very, very hard. That’s not something that was ever put in place before. Then beyond that after the collapse of the Soviet Union or even just prior to it, a lot of international companies moved into Russia. Right? Here was a new market that was available to them. So, Yale business school keeps a list of who either has seriously curtailed their operations or who has declared that they’re leaving entirely. A couple of days ago it was McDonald’s. They’ve gone. I think they can live without their Big Macs.

But in the piece in the Journal of Democracy I say ‘They can live without Burberry or Chanel, but they can’t for a long time live without some of the other companies that provide computer chips or airplane parts, also replacement parts. They’re not going to be that easily available. Boeing is pulling out, DuPont, Erickson, Analog Devices, Bombardier. Eventually all of these things are going to cause supply and production chain issues and unemployment in Russia. So, Mr. Putin doesn’t have an infinite amount of time before havoc is wrought on the Russian economy, not just because of our sanctions, but because of some of these other things as well. That’ll be much harder to adjust to than the previous sanctions.

The other thing is just as the Bolsheviks did in 1917 – terrible irony here – Putin and the Duma have threatened to confiscate the assets of international companies that leave. Those companies are never going to come back to Russia. Not in our lifetimes, Justin, dare I say, and I hope you live a long happy life and I plan to. That’s just terrible for Russians. That’s going to cause unemployment. They don’t make all of these things even though Mr. Putin thinks they can become an autarky and substitute for those products by producing them locally. They can’t do that with everything. They had been integrated into the global economy. So, this is going to be tremendously problematic for them in the coming year to two years. Estimates are that the economy will contract to something like negative 11% growth.


So, this is a really important point that you’re making. When we think about sanctions and we think about tools of economic warfare, I think there’s a real debate about whether or not it’s a short-term impact that the economy then adapts, figures out how to adjust, and then long-term works around those problems. You’re making the case that this is going to have long-term impacts and not only that, but the problems are going to actually escalate in the coming months and years. Am I understanding that right?

Kathryn Stoner

Yeah, that’s right. Some of these things will be almost irrecoverable in the next generation or two. So, let’s say for example, that the Europeans actually are able to pull together and do create substitutes for Russian natural gas. That will require them building liquefied natural gas terminals. So, natural gas has to be turned from a gas to a liquid to be moved, on a tanker let’s say, and then back to a gas. So, this requires infrastructure that the Germans don’t currently have because they were just bringing it through pipelines from Russia.

So, let’s say that they’re able to build that infrastructure in the next two to three years and they stop receiving natural gas from Russia, they’re not coming back. That’s gone forever in terms of revenue. That’s catastrophic and oil, which you can find alternatives to that more easily, by the end of this year, probably not coming back. Those are big, big, big problems for the Russian economy. So, they’ve got to find other markets. They have ramped up in China. But that creates a dependency on China.

So, you can bet China’s going to negotiate rock bottom prices and the same with India and this will also take time to increase the flow. Some of that’s in place already. There’s a big pipeline called Power of Siberia running into China, but these things can’t happen instantly. It’s not clear that they can ramp it up to replace the revenue from the European market. Again, these things are likely to have lasting impacts on the Russian economy for over a generation at least.


So, an even larger question though is whether or not the West should completely decouple its economy from Russia long-term. Because one of the problems that we’ve had with integrating Russia into the world economy is that because it’s so kleptocratic, it makes us somewhat complicit in their corruption. Because you have people who gain their wealth through corrupt practices that are now investing their money into Western companies, into Western real estate that’s essentially becoming whitewashed once it comes over here and that we’re now depending upon it. But it’s really tied back to the kleptocratic practices back in Russia. Is the long-term answer going to be that we just need to completely cut ourselves off from Russia so long as they are as corrupt as they’ve been?

Kathryn Stoner

So, I think the answer is different for different countries or even regions of the world. Europe can’t right now. It’s going to take time. They can’t turn it off instantly, because of energy in particular. There are also precious metals and Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat. So, we better come up with other supplies to substitute for that because Lucan can may be right that this is a reinvigoration of the liberal project. It could also be the end of globalization. Right? Because here is a great demonstration of what happens from globalization when we’re potentially going to see food insecurity because of this.

So, this will take time. There are also parts of the world that are illiberal. Turkey is not a steady ally at the moment of the U.S. It’s not a steady ally of Russia either though. Of course, there’s also China and there’s India under Mr. Modi that is not as steady an ally for us as we need it to be. If we were to shut Russia off, they’re not willing to shut Russia off. They need the energy, but they also buy a lot of weapons from the Russians. Then in the Middle East, Russia has done a lot in the last 10 years in terms of dealing with countries that are traditional enemies of one another selling weapons. Russia is the second largest purveyor of weapons in the world. We in the U.S. are number one and they sell to people we wouldn’t necessarily sell to.

They’ve also moved through parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, helping Central African Republic sell its diamonds and providing security and then ensuring that preferred candidates stay in office in those places. So, they still have access. So, there are parts of the world that will not want to isolate the Russia or the Russian economy. We can’t count on that. Although obviously we are one of the biggest economies in the world. China is another one that will not want to isolate the Russian economy at least not at this point. They need that energy.


So, I want to turn back to Russia itself, because we’ve talked a lot about the international relations and the geopolitical consequences. Do you feel that Russians fully realize the consequences from this war so far?

Kathryn Stoner

So, some do. Many of them have left. Some left in the last 10 years. There’s been what has been called by the Atlantic Council and others, for example in a study they did, the Putin Exodus. Others have left more recently since the invasion. They’re saying something like 50,000 to 70,000 in Georgia alone. But they’ve also tried to go to other parts of the former Soviet Union and, of course, to Europe, the United States, and Canada. But they can’t use their credit cards or sometimes access their bank accounts outside of Russia because of sanctions which is kind of a negative externality that I think wasn’t intended.

So, those folks have voted with their feet and then the public opinion polling that we’ve seen has shown actually frighteningly high levels of support. 81% in the first poll that came out at the end of March. And it seemed to have dropped slightly to maybe 75-76% overall. It’s lowest among young people ages 18 to 24. You know, the Levada survey organization asks every year including the last 15 years, if you plan to immigrate permanently. So, it’s gotten as high in 2019 as 53% of 18- to 24-year-olds in Russia. That dropped to about 48% in the most recent poll. I would expect given that we’re also seeing sentiments toward the United States and Europe with this war getting more negative, it’ll drop further. But still that’s a shockingly high number, given that it has control over the media.

Now, there’s practically no independent media anymore. That’s another thing that’s been just completely destroyed, although it was on the path to destruction already. The fines are very high for calling the special military operation, as it’s called in Russia, a war. It can be almost a month salary for the average person and then you could face jail for up to 15 years. So, do they realize the destruction? Well, no. Probably not. Those who are still there, however are certainly facing some major inconveniences especially people under 40, not easy to go places, not able to get your new iPhone or your iPad. Some people are unemployed. The state may be covering their salaries for a bit, but this won’t be able to go on forever.

So, we saw in a month, even with state media, that support is dropping. If casualty reports are as high as we were being told they are, then I think that’s going to drop even more. So again, it puts Putin on a timeline. Even if people won’t come out on the streets to protest the special military operation, they might still come out to protest the economy or inflation. Could you be arrested for that? Well, probably, because they can make rules about anything they want. But technically they’re not protesting the war. They’re protesting inflation and unemployment. Putin does care about his popularity, his approval rating. So, he doesn’t want that to happen. So, he doesn’t have an infinite amount of time for economic reasons and then social unrest as a result.


Yeah, of course. One of the other negative consequences of this war has been the loss of freedoms and liberties within Russia itself. The Economist, not too long ago, their big headline on an issue was the Stalinification of Russia and they’re not the only ones who’ve hinted at this idea that Russia is turning back towards the past. It’s necessary to realize that Putin’s regime within Russia has very different interests than we do in a democracy or in Western democracies. You mentioned this in the paper where you write, “A patronal autocracy makes very different choices as to what serves the national interest than would a more open and accountable political system.” Is the isolation of Russia actually in Putin’s interests because it allows him to consolidate his control?

Kathryn Stoner

It is generally not a sign of a regime’s strength when it has to use force against its own population. That’s expensive. Tim Frye writes about this in his book Weak Strongman. You don’t want to underestimate the tools an autocrat has. One is force. The ultimate sanction is killing somebody or putting them in jail, but generally the use of that reflects insecurity and you have to use it strategically.

So, now what has happened is Russian society, if you believe Seymour Martin Lipset’s modernization theory, they became an upper middle-income country according to the OECD. Their GDP per capita purchasing power parity made them look like a Spain or Portugal. You know, 29,000 U.S. dollars that’s pretty good. In 30 years, you know, that’s a big change. That’s almost twice of China’s GDP per capita purchasing power parity. Russians were developing a middle-class and we saw them come out on the streets in 2011 and 2012 to protest corrupt Duma results and Putin’s return – his announced return without actually having won an election yet. The penalty for protest went up and we then saw the regime crack down harder and harder over time as they became more assertive internationally as well.

So, getting harder on the media, getting harder on civil society organizations, strengthening their Foreign Agents Law, then poisoning members of the opposition like Navalny, for instance. He made the mistake of not dying and then he came back. Right? It’s his country and he wasn’t going to let these people take over. Really the last time we’ve seen big street protests is over a year ago when Navalny was jailed upon arrival. He’s now gotten an extra nine years in prison. He’s not getting out anytime soon as long as Putin is alive and running Russia. So, what’s happened is now there’s really no opposition and Vladimir Kara-Murza didn’t have the same gathering power as Navalny. He’s also in jail. Boris Nemtsov, killed in 2015. So, who is the opposition exactly who would organize civil society? That has been emasculated. It happened over time.

Now, the independent press has been pretty much driven out of Russia. So, they’ve really gone back to the USSR in many ways. But what they don’t have is the same sort of institutional infrastructure to suppress dissent. They also, therefore don’t have the same institutional infrastructure like the party or the politburo to constrain the president. So, remember, Khrushchev was ousted by his own Politburo. Gorbachev faced a coup attempt by his own Politburo. There isn’t such an organization that could really check Putin’s power and that gets us back to a personalistic paternal autocracy. But I do think it’s a dangerous point for any autocracy when they have to use more and more force to keep people down. It is in many ways, an act of desperation.


So, Kathryn, before we go, I do want to ask you about the prospects for peace in Ukraine between Russia and Ukraine, and really even just the West. In your book, Russia Resurrected, you write, “Russia after twenty years under Vladimir Putin’s leadership was anything but conventional in its approach to foreign policy.” What does Putin’s unpredictability mean for prospects towards peace in Ukraine?

Kathryn Stoner

So, I think we’ve been looking at things we can easily measure or quantify in estimating Russia’s global influence. So, at its peak, let’s say, it had 3% of the global economy compared to, I don’t know, China’s like 17 or 18% and the U.S., something like that. That’s not very remarkable. It was the fourth or fifth highest vendor overall in terms of its military, but it had ICBMs, it has a pretty big population, 145 million. But the U.S. is something like 325 million. China and India are over a billion. So, not the biggest country.

Well, what we didn’t look at was things that give it leverage over other countries. One of them is oil and gas. That is an area where in the global economy Russia is a really weighty and important actor. I think we underestimated what that means and also that it is a weighty important actor in moving that resource around the world. So, it also controls a lot of pipelines now. That’s one thing it got out of Syria. Syria was not a quagmire. Mr. Obama, when he was president, said, ‘Now they’ll be stuck there and it’ll be a quagmire.’ Because he’s thinking like a good liberal Democrat. You broke it. You fix it. That’s not how Mr. Putin thinks. His attitude is ‘I didn’t break Syria. That’s Assad’s problem. Here’s what I’m going to get out of it. Here’s how it’s going to pay for itself.’

So, now they control the big pipelines that converge and move into Tartus where they now have a permanent port on the Mediterranean thus giving them even more control over energy supply into Europe and elsewhere. So, we looked at the wrong things. Misinformation and how effectively they use that. They use it globally. They didn’t just use it in our election. There’s a portion of the American population that thinks Vladimir Putin is great and a terrific strong leader. One of them happens to be a former President of the United States who could well be President again of the United States.

That is disastrous for global democracy. That is disastrous for the United States in our position in the world. That is great for Vladimir Putin and autocrats like him. So, that is a big danger to peace in this region and frankly in Europe. In Ukraine in terms of prospects for peace we have to keep on supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainians.

This isn’t some academic debate, you know, that John Mearsheimer is able to carry out of great powers doing what great powers do. It’s not inevitable that Russia behaves this way. This is because of this kind of regime. This is not structural, because if it were the way Mearsheimer evaluates power, Russia should be weak. It’s not a great power. It is because of the kind of regime that governs Russia and the way that it has appealed globally and used the tools that it has which are not the conventional tools that the Soviet Union used which was military and ideology. Russia has no positive ideological platform to put forward.

This is not transformational in terms of global development as the Soviets claimed communism was. This is just a corrupt cronyistic autocracy that believes in nothing except stealing from the people it governs and showing others how to do the same and supporting those who do so. Ukraine really not to be overly dramatic, Justin, but it really is at the forefront of a global struggle to maintain liberal democracy and the liberal democratic ideal. Like my friend and colleague here at Stanford has just written, Liberalism and its Discontents, the core of liberalism, classical liberalism, is tolerance. You wouldn’t necessarily do the same thing as your neighbor, but you tolerate them doing it.

Well, Russia is intolerant under Mr. Putin. It is intolerant of the idea of Ukraine or Belarus or Georgia or other Western leaning former republics of the Soviet Union determining their own future and making their own choices. That is, as I said, the essence of a classical liberal idea that we’re all supposed to believe in. So, that’s why I think it is a fight really for the core of the ideology of liberalism and liberal democracy, tolerance.


Well, Kathryn, thank you so much for joining. You’re one of those people that I turn to, so I can understand Russia better. So I was so happy to be able to see your piece. I follow you along on Twitter and am happy to learn more from you. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Kathryn Stoner

All right, my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me again.

Key Links

How Putin’s War in Ukraine Has Ruined Russia” by Kathryn Stoner in Journal of Democracy

Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order by Kathryn Stoner

Follow Kathryn Stoner on Twitter @kath_stoner

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Moisés Naím on the New Dynamics of Political Power

Kathryn Stoner on Russia’s Economy, Politics, and Foreign Policy

More Episodes from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Email the show at jkempf@democracyparadox.com

Follow on Twitter @DemParadox

100 Books on Democracy

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: