Russia started 2020 in a haze of uncertainty as President Vladimir Putin faced constitutional term restrictions that could have shortened the longest Kremlin government since Joseph Stalin. In January, after the prime minister and cabinet resigned en masse, Putin appointed a little-known tax inspector prime minister to cleanly curtail any political threat. By July, a referendum secured Putin’s right to two more terms as president, once his current term expires in 2024.
But not everything is sewn up on the home front, as protests in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk show for months. Putin and his henchmen have faced the biggest threat posed by the opposition head-on, poisoning presidential candidate Alexei Navalny with a new variant of the nerve agent Novichok. And the cranium went abroad: Russian mercenaries fought in Libya, Russia was accused of paying bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan, and earlier this month it was revealed that the US government was allegedly thoroughly hacked by Russian cyberspies was searched.
US President-elect Joe Biden will have a lot to fear next January, be it the raging pandemic and a weak economy or a highly polarized electorate. But like the last three – or seven or nine – presidents before him, he too will have Russia on his mind. But please, say experts, no more resets.
Here are five of Foreign policy‘s top Russia stories this year.
1. How Putin changed Russia forever
by Jewgenia Albats, Catherine Belton, Irina Borogan, Susan Glasser, Wladimir Kara-Murza, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Wladimir Milow, Michael McFaul, Olga Oliker, Andrei Soldatow and Angela Stent, May 7th
This year, Putin was sworn in as President of Russia for the first time 20 years ago. Foreign policy 11 leading academics, journalists and former diplomats were asked to look back on how the Russian leader changed his country as one of the most powerful leaders in the world becomes potentially one of the longest-serving in the world. “Contrary to Putin’s rhetoric about restoring Russia’s greatness, Russia is increasingly isolated and facing unprecedented international sanctions that preclude its future positive economic development,” wrote Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician and economic adviser to opposition leader Navalny.
2. Normal is over for Russia’s hinterland
by Sophie Pinkham, August 7th
The arrest of Sergei Furgal, governor of the Far Eastern Russian region of Khabarovsk, in July sparked protests that lasted for months. Furgal has been accused of participating in four murders in the mid-2000s, but the move has been widely interpreted as an attempt to contain the popular governor who surprisingly upset the Kremlin candidate in the 2018 election. While protests in the Russian capital tend to make international headlines, unrest in Russian regions over environmental concerns, economic problems and local politics could pose a greater challenge to the Kremlin in the future.
3. How Russia tried to arm Charlie Sheen
by Dean Sterling Jones and Amy Mackinnon, September 23
Last year veteran Russian politician Maxim Shugaley was arrested in Libya on charges of attempting to interfere in the country’s already chaotic conflict. His imprisonment was the subject of a determined and increasingly bizarre campaign to secure his release, which included his election to a regional parliament in Russia, two feature films and an advertorial in the Washington Post, a mixed martial arts tournament and cameo videos of actors Charlie Sheen, Vinnie Jones and Dolph Lundgren. “The effort provides a glimpse into Russian interference activities overseas, with celebrities appearing on the same aircraft as MiGs and Wagner group mercenary activities in Libya, where the US military has warned Russia is trying to gain a foothold,” said Jones and Mackinnon wrote.
4. No more resets with Russia
by Kurt Volker, August 11th
Biden will be the fourth US president to hold office during Putin’s rule. Each of his predecessors tried to set their own course in relations with Moscow. George W. Bush looked Putin in the eye and got a “feeling for his soul”. Barack Obama started with a reset and ended with a finger in Putin’s chest over electoral interference. Then there was President Donald Trump’s curious – and still unexplained – affinity with the Russian leader for four years.
Not anymore, argues Kurt Volker, former US special envoy for the peace negotiations in Ukraine. “Instead of a reset, the West needs the patience to exert consistent and steady pressure against Russian aggression and to support those in Russia and in neighboring countries who are looking for freedom, democracy and security. This time it is time for Russia, not for the West, to rethink its policy, ”wrote Volker.
5. How Putin and the KGB took control of Russia – and betrayed the West
by Howard Amos, June 27th
If Bush, Obama, and Trump misunderstood Putin, it could be because they didn’t know where Putin came from – or how he was educated. The former KGB agent, who described the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest geopolitical disasters of the 20th century, not only scolded – he resisted. Catherine Belton, a former Financial Times The Moscow correspondent meticulously revealed how Putin rose from the dark to become Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Stalin.
“They have forged a system, argues Belton, that uses the KGB game book to keep power firmly in control, manipulate hundreds of billions of dollars in flows of money, and spread Russian influence deep into the West,” wrote Amos in his review.