Is Vladimir Putin the godfather of a mafia state? That has been the Western consensus for some time. The dramatic death last month of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner private military company whose mutiny had earlier challenged Putin, only reinforced that view. Few doubt that the Russian leader ordered the hit, to underscore the steep, inevitable price of disloyalty.
That was only to be expected, the pundits explain: Russia is ruled by the principles of loyalty and revenge that suffuse mafia families as they pursue illicit riches.
This image of Russia is emotionally satisfying, especially in the glare of Russia’s brutal, cynical aggression against Ukraine. The conflict has highlighted the ties between the Kremlin and criminal groups. Prigozhin, after all, headed a criminal enterprise, and Russia uses shadowy networks to evade Western sanctions. But does this description help the West develop an appropriate response to the Russia challenge? Not so much.
Putin’s Russia is surely brutal and unforgiving. But it is not an historical anomaly. Kremlin politics have always been ruthless; corruption has long been rife. Loyalty generally has been prized more than competence; disloyalty has always been severely punished, often by death. Yet Russia has been a major player on the global stage for the better part of 300 years. At great sacrifice, it saved Europe twice from domination by a single, hegemonic power — from Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th. Something other than criminal gains and self-enrichment has driven Russian foreign policy.
Russia’s ingrained expansionary impulses do not grow out of the ruling elite’s avarice but rather out of Russia’s geopolitical predicament: how to defend a sparsely populated, diverse country located on a vast territory without formidable physical barriers that abuts unsettled lands or powerful states. Historically, Russia has found the answer in strategic depth, in pushing its borders away from the Russian heartland. It has expanded largely in search of security, not in search of riches, despite the greed of certain adventurers.
This is true when it comes to the war in Ukraine today. That country occupies a special place in the Russian imagination. Kievan Rus, which emerged in the late 9th century on territory that is now Ukraine, was the progenitor of Russia’s statehood and the source of its religious identity. For centuries, the lands of today’s Ukraine have served as a buffer zone against Russia’s enemies in Europe. Ukraine was also a critical industrial and agricultural region, without which the Russian Empire arguably would not have been a great power and the Soviet Union less of a force on the global stage. Because of Ukraine’s centrality to Russia’s identity and great-power status, Russian elites, no matter what their political orientation, have never been fully reconciled to its loss as the Soviet Union broke up.
Any Russian leader thus would have been concerned by Ukraine’s drift out of Russia’s orbit. In particular, he would have resisted Ukraine’s growing collaboration with NATO on matters of security and its integration into the European Union’s sphere of influence. Few, if any, might have chosen war, as Putin did. But all likely would have taken some kind of action to stymie Ukraine’s westward drift.
Putin, of course, has his own personal reasons for wanting to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s fold. Success would burnish his self-image as a great Russian leader, on par with Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Stalin, all of whom added substantial territory to the Russian state. And success would nourish his messianic delusions about his and Russia’s calling to erode the West’s hegemony in favor of what he sees as a more just multipolar order. Those motives have nothing to do with Putin’s being a mafia don in search of illicit gain, however. Instead, they have much to do with his being the leader of a major global power.
Even absent the mafiosi attributes, Russia would still pose a serious geopolitical challenge to the United States. Deeper appreciation of what is driving Russia would make clear that attacking the Russian elites’ riches will not cause the Kremlin to reassess its goals and back down in Ukraine and elsewhere. It also would indicate that the task is not so much to weaken Russia as to help build a strong, prosperous Ukraine. Throughout history, well-ordered states along Russia’s borders have served as barriers to its expansionism and malign behavior.
To be sure, attacking Putin as the godfather of a mafia state underscores our moral outrage. Unfortunately, it does little to help us meet the Russia challenge. That requires a more penetrating assessment of the drivers of Russian conduct abroad and more realpolitik in countering it./The Messenger/