There is no country quite like Russia. Despite having a relatively small economy, it has been able to maintain global influence through a range of unconventional tactics. How has Vladimir Putin played his country’s weak hand so effectively? And what is his goal?

January 19, 2021 — 36:45 min
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Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Jill Dougherty

Global Fellow, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center

Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Angela Stent

Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University

Show Notes

Much of the Western world assumed Russia would slowly fall in line after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, it has charted its own course, and has exerted global influence despite having a relatively weak economy. 


Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has demonstrated a surprising willingness to use any tool available to maintain this influence, including cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, foreign election interference, and support for authoritarian regimes. 


In this episode, three experts break down the realities of Russian power, Putin’s motivations, and the outlook for U.S.-Russia relations under the Biden administration.


Dig Deeper

CFR Resources 

Podcast: “Transition 2021: How Will Biden Handle Russia?,” The President’s Inbox

Has Russia Ended the War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?,” Stephen Sestanovich

Will Russia’s Constitutional Changes Allow Putin to Hold on to Power?,” Stephen Sestanovich

Putin and Belarus: Five Reasons Not to Save Lukashenko,” Stephen Sestanovich

New START: The Future of U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control,” Brian L. Sittlow

What’s at Stake With Rising Competition in the Arctic?,” Brian L. Sittlow

Part Three: Huawei’s Role in the China-Russia Technological Partnership,” Lauren Dudley

Cyber Operations Tracker,” Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Russia Is Losing the Oil War—and the Middle East,” Steven A. Cook

U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control,” Editors

Ukraine: Conflict at the Crossroads of Europe and Russia,” Jonathan Masters

Let Russia Be Russia,” Thomas Graham, Foreign Affairs

Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics,” Stephen Kotkin, Foreign Affairs


From Jill Dougherty

Audio: “Episode 12: The Putin Generation,” KennanX

Audio: “Why Study Russia?,” The Russia File

Is There Really a ‘Putin Generation?’,” Wilson Center


From Angela Stent

Why are US-Russia relations so challenging?,” Brookings Institution

Putin 5.0?,” Brookings Institution

Russia and China: Axis of revisionists? Brookings Institution

How Putin Changed Russia Forever,” Foreign Policy


Read More

Watch: “Why the World Worries About Russia’s Natural Gas Pipeline,” Washington Post

Watch: “What has Russia gained from five years of fighting in Syria?,” Al Jazeera

Watch: “Russian Hackers Broke Into Federal Agencies, U.S. Officials Suspect,” New York Times

Watch: “How Russia Wins the Climate Crisis,” New York Times

Watch: “Biden to Face a Confrontational Russia in a World Changed From His Time in Office,” New York Times




When we hear about Russia, and we hear about it pretty often, the news usually isn't good. If you were to Google the country on the day this episode was released, for example, you'd see a story on the jailing of political dissident Alexei Navalny and a new deployment of Russian forces in Syria's civil war. 

At this point, we're used to hearing this kind of stuff when it comes to Russia. Hacking, military muscle, support for authoritarian regimes the whole world over. But what's the story behind that reputation? Their power isn't derived from their economy - Russia's GDP is smaller than Italy's, for example. So how is it able to exert such a steady influence in global events? And why does it pursue the strategies that it does? 

I'm Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, Russia.    

CNN: 1:29 “For the eighth time, Russia has vetoed a proposed UN Security Council resolution regarding the horrors and atrocities going on in Syria over this six-year plus war.”

INDUS NEWS: 0:00 “And other news, Russia has reportedly concluded the delivery of a second S-400 missile system to China.”

BLOOMBERG: 0:00 “It turns out more US agencies were targeted by the suspected Russian hack. The Department of Homeland Security was hit, and the New York Times says, so are parts of the Defense Department.”

Barak Obama: 1:20 “Russians intended to meddle, and they meddled.”

Mitt Romney: 0:26 “I think that President Putin represents a real threat to the stability and peace of the world.”

SIERRA: So, Russia is one of those countries that you hear about a lot in the news, even if you don't pay much attention to international relations, right? So is it really as powerful and influential a country as it seems to be? I mean, how powerful is Russia?

Angela STENT: Well, it depends on how you want to measure power. 

My name is Angela Stent. I am the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European studies at Georgetown University.

It is the only other nuclear superpower. The United States and Russia between themselves possess 90% of the world's nuclear weapons. So we have to listen to it, we have to pay attention to it because it can destroy us many times over. It has a seat on the United Nations Security Council. It inherited that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Soviet Union had a seat, Russia now has that seat, a permanent seat, and that means it has a veto. So it can make it very difficult for the United States and its allies to carry out certain policies. And we see that all the time. It is an energy superpower. It has the world's possibly largest reserves of oil and gas; Europe depends a lot on the energy they produce. And increasingly, the Chinese are buying their energy. 

Jill DOUGHERTY: If you look at their nuclear weapons, which is really number one, they can destroy the United States and probably most of the world. So yes, they are powerful. There's no question. 

This is Jill Dougherty. She served as Moscow Bureau chief during a three-decade career at CNN. She currently teaches at Georgetown University and is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. 

DOUGHERTY: Now, when you go beyond that, there are many ways that you could count it. But I would say conventional military; they're also quite powerful. If they went into a conflict with NATO, the United States and NATO together, they would probably lose, but they are very powerful. They are developing new weapons. And they have a sophisticated, educated populace, and they put as much money as possible into their military. 

Russia is not afraid to use its military prowess - whether it's in Syria or Ukraine - and don't worry, we'll get to both of those later. But their military investments are also a significant source of profit. Russia is the world's second-largest arms exporter next to the United States. Its most famous product is the AK 47, designed in 1949 and still used regularly in conflicts all over the world. But Russia also makes highly sophisticated weapons, like the S-400 anti-aircraft system, which poses a threat to the most advanced jets used by the United States and its allies.   

Russia's military capability and its enormous nuclear arsenal form the backbone of its unique position in the world. But it's not what we hear about most often in the news.  

Steve SESTANOVICH: There is every reason to think of Russia as important and powerful. But the reasons often change. 

I'm Steve Sestanovich. I'm a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, working on Russia and Eurasian Affairs. I also teach at Columbia University.

I think there are new reasons that people mention often for why Russia matters. And in fact, some of the most important ones that you hear most often these days would not have been mentioned by anybody ten years ago. You'd hear a lot today about Russia's cyber capabilities, the fact that it can use those to put American infrastructure at risk or interfere in elections. You might also hear that Russia has become an agitator for populist nationalism, that it has kind of stoked a backlash against democratic institutions and liberal internationalist ideas, particularly in the West. 

These are the aspects of Russia we hear about most often in the news - an ability to infiltrate and exert influence all over the world, whether through espionage, hacking, or disinformation campaigns. 

In short, Russia isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. Other countries do these things too, but Russia seems to have a unique willingness to use every capability at its disposal. And in order to understand this Russia, you have to first understand something about the man who runs the place. A man whose name is often used as a stand-in for the country itself. 

DOUGHERTY: He believes Russia is a great power. It was a great power under the czars. It was a great power under the Soviet Union when he would argue it has saved the world from the Nazis. And he believes that culturally and in every other way, Russia is a major power, and he wants to put it back on the stage. He wants it to be at the table when anything is being negotiated. He wants Russia's influence around the world. He's not dictating, kind of like the United States, "This is the type of democracy you should follow," but he does believe that Russia should have influence.

Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This event, and Russia's subsequent economic chaos, is widely seen as a formative moment in his life, one that clarified his goal of restoring Russia's former greatness. Though some saw his rise as unlikely, he became Russia's president in 1999 and has led the country ever since.  

STENT: As he became president, he published something called the millennial statement, and this is now the year 2000, essentially saying that he wanted to rebuild a strong state in Russia. There'd been terrible economic ravages; really, there was a crash of the ruble, the currency, in 1998. So the country was economically really suffering. And so I think, you know, his vision at that point came from his training in the KGB, his patriotism, one could call it nationalism, but really wanting to build a strong state with a strong leader. And I think that has informed him since then, and what's so interesting is he's been in power for twenty years now. 

SIERRA: Yeah, I was gonna say you said 2000. It's 2020!

STENT: Right, it's 2020. So he's seen Western leaders come and go. And he knows their weaknesses, their foibles, and he's an element of continuity there, so that gives him a great advantage.

SIERRA: So how has Putin been so successful at playing what you've described as a weak hand for Russia?

STENT: At the age of 24, he became the judo champion in Leningrad. Now, why is it important to emphasize the judo? It is because I think the skills that he learned in judo that even if you are weaker than your opponent, you can sense their own distraction. If you're very aware of their own weaknesses, you can take advantage of them and prevail over them. So these judo skills, I think, he's used throughout his life. He's been successful because he has been able to take advantage of opportunities that have been presented to him by the West. I would say, you know, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies thought we were going to live in a much more liberal world. Communism has gone, and Russia will want to become like us. Well, it turned out we got that one wrong. Because I think what we failed to understand was that Russians are Russians, and they do have their own view of the world. They certainly believe they have a unique civilization; it's different from that of the West. And they don't want to become like the West. And so we didn't really have a plan. And Putin had a plan. I mean, even in 2016, if you think about, when Russia interfered in the 2016 election, in terms of social media and in terms of cyber, we were really asleep at the wheel. By the time we woke up to what was happening, it was pretty late in the game. And so he knows how to do that. He knows how to do that very well. Sometimes, of course, he makes mistakes, but he's really perfected the art of playing this weak hand well, and also of being able to act as a spoiler on issues where the United States and its allies have different interests. 

If you want to see an example of Putin's judo skills, you only need to look at Russia's cyberattacks and digital disinformation campaigns, which skillfully exploit weaknesses in one of the West's biggest strengths - its tech infrastructure.  

DOUGHERTY: Cyber is cheap; this is what we all know. You can hire people for very little money with a big bang. I mean, the results of all of these operations are really quite great. And you don't have to spill blood, and you don't have to spend money on weapons. So Russia is definitely using this as much as it can.

So let's go back to 2016 and what we refer to as the interference in the American election.

CBSN 0:00 “Turning out a new report that shows the massive scope of Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election.”

PBS Newshour 0:15 ”This is the first glimpse we got into Russia’s interference in the election. It’s summer of 2016, and hacked and stolen emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were publicly released.”

CBSN 0:30 “Facebook, Google, and Twitter all disclosed they had found Russian interference on their sites.”

DOUGHERTY: So Russia, at that point, was trying to influence the election. As we know from congressional investigations and U.S. intelligence agencies, they were trying to damage Hillary Clinton, who they believed was going to win the election. By default, they were trying to help Donald Trump, whom they perceived as a better possibility for doing the things that President Putin wanted, like getting rid of sanctions and maybe improving the relationship. 

As we found out in an earlier episode, there's no way to be sure that Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 election. What is certain, according to the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, is that Russia did interfere on a vast scale. 

Russia is very good at online disinformation. But it's also good at outright cyberattacks. News of the most recent attack broke in December. And while it's still being investigated, it's already clear that Russia was able to gain access to secret information from some of the U.S. government's most important agencies and also from hundreds of corporate and private entities. 

GOOD MORNING AMERICA 0:36 “Sources are telling ABC News that this bridge went undetected for six months and that among the agencies targeted were Commerce, Treasury, State, Homeland Security, and even NIH.”

GOOD MORNING AMERICA 0:34  “Lawmakers are now comparing the hack to everything from the virtual invasion to Pearl Harbor.”

DOUGHERTY: That is a very different operation that was not to sow confusion or intrude in American elections. That was really an intelligence gathering operation, at least as far as we know, in order to get information. And the question that we don't know is why did they want that information? What kind of information did they want? And what were they planning on doing with it? 

SIERRA: It seems like there are a variety of techniques, and organizations, and goals at work here. I mean, one simple result of all this is that it has changed my own perception of the internet and security. It's to the point where if Slack goes down or Google Docs, it can feel very much like, "Hey, there goes Russia again!" How alarmed should we be about Russia's cyber capabilities?

DOUGHERTY: I think we actually should be quite alarmed because they are very sophisticated when it comes to this type of thing. They also are not constrained by the laws that exist in the United States about the first amendment and privacy. Certainly, like in Europe, privacy laws are even stronger. It's been described to me by people who really know this business that they are much more nimble and willing to take chances, to take it right up to the edge, and maybe even over.

And going over the edge is something Russia is willing to do, not just in cyberspace but in the real world too. In 2014, Russia shocked the world by invading and annexing the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. In addition, Russia also began supporting Ukrainian separatists in the country's southeast region. The ensuing war has killed at least 13,000 people so far and has been described as the most significant security crisis in Europe since the Cold War.

SKY NEWS 0:21 “The Crimea is a sparkling jewel set enticingly in the Black Sea. It’s been coveted by many peoples and nations for over 2000 years of history.”

ABC WORLD NEWS 0:33 “Armored Russian vehicles burst through the walls of Crimea’s Belbec base today, firing warning shots and throwing sound grenades.”

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE 0:00 “Six years ago, Russia invaded, occupied, and attempted to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Today Russia’s occupation of Crimea remains an affront to the international order.”

SESTANOVICH: One of the reasons Russia matters is that it is a broken-up empire. And the borderlands of Russia, all the territories that used to be part of the Soviet empire, now have a kind of undefined relationship with Russia. There are a lot of countries there that are nervous about the prospect that Russia will try to reassert influence over them, try to, you know, if not gain overt control, at least make them a part of its sphere of influence. So the Russian periphery is a kind of source of conflict of international instability. And Ukraine is the most important part of that because it was the most populous of the former Soviet states that gained independence in 1991. And sometimes that tension had burst into real conflict, as you had when the President of Ukraine was overthrown in 2014, and the Russians responded by seizing Ukrainian territory and by starting a separatist war in the east of Ukraine. I think this has been the deepest crisis that the Soviet breakup created, but it's not the only one. Russia has tensions with almost all of the former Soviet states. 

DOUGHERTY: The reason that it happened was because Russia wanted it back. I think President Putin wanted it as a symbol of his power to reunite Russia and to get the property that had belonged to Russia before. It was an extremely popular move in Russia by President Putin. I mean, I was there at the time, and there were little ribbons that people were wearing, "Yes, Crimea is back." On my refrigerator, I have a magnet, and it says in Russian, "Khrushchev gave it up." Then there's a picture of President Putin looking like a military guy, and it says, "And Putin took it back!" So this was a very popular political move. So it accomplished what Putin wanted. But in a broader sense, it was the annexation of territory, and the West would say illegally, the first annexation in modern times. So it broke the rule about taking over the territory of another country. And that is why it is such a big deal. It has set a precedent. But I think there's a bigger issue here too, which is that President Putin looks at the former Soviet Union, which is a very big area, as kind of his territory. And Russia is intent on continuing to have control of that area. That, I think, is what motivates Putin. So when you look at Crimea, you can say, "Well, maybe it was a one-off." But look at what's happening right now in Belarus. Would Russia send troops in? Would Russia want to take it over now that it's involved in what really is a rebellion? They haven't so far, but that is a concern.

SIERRA: I mean, it must be pretty nerve-wracking if you live in Eastern Europe?


A majority of Crimeans, many of whom are ethnically Russian, celebrated the annexation. The situation in Belarus is quite different. In August, a democratic uprising seemed poised to overthrow the country's dictator. But support from Russia helped him initiate a crackdown that has so far kept that from happening. 

And Russia's willingness to act daringly to defend its interests is not limited to its former Soviet empire. The best example of this is its involvement in Syria's civil war, which has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime, displacing some 11.5 million people and killing hundreds of thousands more.   

STENT: So in the Soviet days, the Soviet Union had a close relationship with Syria; it was quite prominent in the Middle East. After the Soviet collapse, it withdrew. It didn't have the wherewithal to do that. But the relationship with Syria was still important. There's been a civil war going on in Syria for a number of years now, really, since around 2011. And the leader of Syria, President Assad, was someone who was, you know, closely allied with Russia. But the Russians weren't actually involved in the conflict. And then, in 2015, it looked as if his forces were going to be defeated. And so Putin came to the United States, he spoke at the United Nations, he met briefly with President Obama. And then, a week or two later, the Russians started bombing in Syria. The United States was involved in the Syrian civil war, and we were supporting the forces that were against President Assad. And so the Russians came in on the other side, and they got involved. And Russia has stayed there. And Russia and Iran together have been able to save President Assad from being defeated. And as a result of that, Russia has also greatly increased its footprint in the Middle East. Unlike the United States, it talks to all of the different countries there. It talks to Iran. It talks to all of the Sunni states, and it's developed a close relationship with Israel over the past few years. So this is an example where, again, it's not a very expensive intervention in Syria. There aren't very many Russian ground troops there, but they have their air force there. They have a base there. And they've used this as a springboard to increase their presence in a number of other countries really quite successfully.

Russia has a knack for never letting a crisis go to waste and for making unlikely partnerships. After all, there are not many countries that can maintain fruitful relations with Iran and Israel at the same time. 

STENT: Many other countries in the rest of the world, such as India, Brazil, obviously, China, regard Russia as a large autocratic country with which they can do business. And so Russia's relationship with the West is very fraught: with the United States, with the countries of Europe. But much of the rest of the world does not have a view of Russia that is malign and thinks, again, that it's a large country with whom they can do business. And I think, sometimes in the United States, we maybe don't understand that well enough. 

Still, no matter how well Russia plays its weak hand, the point remains that that hand is weak. Currently, Russia is facing a number of obstacles that will affect what the country looks like in the future and its role on the global stage. 

STENT: One of the real challenges that Russia faces is it has a declining population. It's demographically really quite challenged. And it's really been impossible for the Russian government to persuade people that they should have a whole lot more children. But also the other important thing to know is that they have this unusually high mortality rate for young men. And so that particularly affects, for instance, the military.

SIERRA: In 2019, the percentage of Russian youth that said they wish to leave the country reached a ten-year high. So what does this mean for the future of the country? And also, why would that be happening?

SESTANOVICH: Well, the Russian economy has had a bad decade. The first decade of Putin's rule was pretty good. You had household income going up by multiples. And that was a big source of Putin's legitimacy and reputation in Russian domestic politics. Since the global financial crisis, the Russian economy has grown at barely 1 percent a year. And household income has declined several years in a row. When that happens, talented Russian young people, particularly with a good education or foreign language skills, say, I'm out of here, if I can find a way to get myself to Western Europe, or the United States, or the Middle East. They tend to look for those opportunities. As long as Russia continues in a kind of economic decline, that sort of loss of morale will be a national problem. And it's one thing that Putin and his associates are very aware of. They keep trying to come up with plans to turn the population decline around, to reinvigorate economic growth, but so far, for most of the past decade, they haven't succeeded. They have for some time thought of themselves as, you know, a civilization in decline. And this too is part of the Soviet act aftershock. 

These factors signal trouble ahead for Russia - but that trouble does not guarantee a waning of Russia's willingness to act. In fact, many observers feel that it is precisely because of these factors - declining population, a troubled economy - that Russia feels it must resort to unconventional strategies in order to exert influence and to undermine those nations that seem to be leaving it behind. 

SIERRA: So, what do you imagine Putin might have been feeling as he watched the chaos in Washington, DC on January 6?

SESTANOVICH: Well, you know, Putin has some very mixed reactions to this. On the one hand, he has said, liberal democracy, liberal ideas, the West's sense of superiority- we challenge all of that. The conceptions that the West has had about how to run a country are outdated. On the other hand, he had hoped that Donald Trump would be a pal, would be a kindred spirit. And for him to see Trump hustled out of the office means the end of a moment in which you could have had a kind of similar nationalism that he hoped would be compatible, dominating in both Russia and the United States. There's one other element of what happened. Putin is always unnerved by popular uprisings. He really hates them because it shows there's a kind of autonomy to the popular will. This isn't exactly his idea of how things should operate. And he doesn't also like the idea that real democratic constitutionalism and the rule of law matter. So in Washington, when the Congress was meeting to certify a democratic election, it was doing something that Putin is uncomfortable with. And when all of these thugs were storming the Capitol and breaking windows, they were also doing something that Putin was uncomfortable with. So while he likes the specter of American weakness, he actually doesn't want people to unpack any of these events and think too hard about how they might be exported to Russia.

Putin's fear of an uprising has been made clear by his ruthless treatment of political opposition. Take the case of Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition figure. In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a lethal and rare substance that has been used to poison other Russian opposition figures. He was evacuated to Germany and put in an induced coma, narrowly surviving the attack. 

Following our interviews for this episode, Navalny made the extraordinary decision to return to Russia, where he was promptly arrested. Still, he was able to release a video message calling for mass protests in Russia, saying, "there's nothing these thieves in their bunkers fear more than people on the streets." 

SIERRA: So how can the United States find a way of creating a more stable and effective relationship with Putin's Russia?

STENT: So I think that first of all, it's important to know that the Russian constitution was changed this year, and Putin could now be in power till 2036. So that will be a bit longer than Stalin was, quite a lot longer than Stalin. So the first thing we have to do is we have to identify what are the issues on which we have common interests with Russia and where we can work with them. And I think the most important one is arms control. I said at the beginning, we are the two nuclear superpowers, we have an arms control agreement that regulates our strategic nuclear weapons, the big ones, and that expires on February 5, 2021. And it's hoped that the new Biden administration, and they said they want to do it, can extend this agreement for five years with the Russians. The Senate doesn't have to vote on it, if not a word of the language is changed in the treaty. And I think that's an important area where we have to work with Russia. Now, they're developing weapon systems that we don't like, and we're developing weapon systems they don't like. But the worst thing would be if we had no arms control agreement with them and we just have an out and out arms race. It's very expensive. It makes the world more dangerous. And it encourages other countries to acquire nuclear weapons, what we call nuclear proliferation. 

DOUGHERTY: Russia, I think, affects our lives in many different ways. I don't think Russia is intent on blowing us up, but it could. It could literally destroy the United States and the world. So we should be concerned about nuclear weapons. We should be concerned about some types of controls on nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia are the two countries that have the most nuclear weapons, and they are an example to the rest of the world. So that other countries, such as Pakistan, India, and many others, look to the United States and Russia and say, "If you guys can't come to an agreement on nuclear weapons, why should we? Maybe we ought to build up our weapons because now it's a much more unstable place." 

STENT: Another area going forward, since the Biden administration says it will recommit itself to fighting climate change and rejoining the Paris agreements, the Russians used to be very skeptical about climate change. And Putin a few years ago said there's nothing wrong if it gets a little warmer in Russia. But recently, he's actually singing a different tune. He's saying he takes this very seriously. Russia is already suffering from some of the impact of climate change. So going forward, it's possible that that's an area which isn't too politicized but where we can work with the Russians. 

SESTANOVICH: Russia can be an important player on the whole set of climate issues partly because it is greatly affected by the question of whether or not the world makes a transition to a post-carbon economy. The Russian economy is still very dependent on oil and gas production and exports. They also are rather uniquely situated to benefit from changes in climate that make other countries wonder whether they're as ready to bear a lot of the burden of the transition to a different economy, a different set of post-carbon regulations. 

STENT: There are areas where we can work with them. But the areas where it's very difficult to work with them and where we have to be very realistic are, for instance, anything to do with their neighborhood. I think you have to accept that our relationship, at best, is one of competition and cooperation. I think that the challenge now really is just to get back to a more normal relationship. In the past four years, a lot of the channels of communication between the United States and Russia atrophied, particularly those in the State Department. I think some of those can be revived. And that at least there can be this normal level of communication. And really not to forget the Russian people and to keep reaching out to them because the government doesn't speak for all of the people.

SESTANOVICH: The overused quote about Russia is that it's never as strong or as weak as it seems. But it's always pretty strong. And still, the reasons that it's strong or also weak change. If the Biden administration asks, How much does Russia matter? It will have to review all of the issues that we've been talking about, from nuclear weapons to climate change, to imperial upheaval. But one possibility that they'll consider is that actually, Russia matters a little bit less than it used to. They may decide that a lot of these issues where Russia matters don't actually lead to the need to cooperate with Russia. One of the things that Putin probably fears as much as anything else is being downgraded in the policy calibrations of Western countries, the idea that Russia, as much as it matters, may not matter as much as it did. 

DOUGHERTY: It's a smart country. They have a lot of really educated young people. Many of them, I think, are patriotic, and they want Russia to improve. I do think that if we can understand that there are ways of working with even the next generation, that it's important, that there are problems that go way beyond the political problems we're looking at right now. And if we look at Russia as simply an enemy, we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot. The best way to deal with these countries, sometimes I believe, being a former exchange student in Russia myself, is to bring them to the United States and send Americans there.

I'll end on this. Russia has a very powerful culture. It always has. Their culture can enrich ours, and ours already is enriching theirs on many different levels. I think it's important for Americans to take them seriously, and not to demonize them, and not to sell ourselves short by misinterpreting what they're doing.

In this show, we focus on serious foreign policy issues because, well, they matter, and they affect all of our lives. But sometimes, a nation's people can get lost in a discussion of their government's policies. 

The Russia we hear about in the news can seem scary - an authoritarian country capable of carrying out assassinations, annexations, election hacks, and massive cyberattacks with seeming impunity. It's terrifying to remember the scale of Russia's nuclear arsenal, and our own, as treaty after treaty lapses. That is the Russia that is so often used synonymously with Putin's name.  

But there is another Russia, the Russia of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Chekhov. The Russia of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. A long list of mathematicians and scientists of towering accomplishment. These are treasures that belong to the world, and they signify Russia's place in it. These, too, are reasons that Russia will always matter.  

So, in this spirit, we thought we'd ask our incredible research consultant Elena Tchanikova to read us out in her mother tongue. See you next time, everyone! 


ELENA TCHAINIKOVA: For resources used in this episode and more information, visit and take a look at the show notes.

Have a question or some feedback? Feel like saying hey? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And, please please, if you are a fan of the show, show some love! Give us five stars and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It means so much to us, and it helps us get noticed.

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Additional research and extra help were provided by me, Elena Tchainikova. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters this is Elena Tchanikova signing off. See you soon

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In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

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For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

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How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

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The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

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In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

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The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

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Why It Matters is back for a fifth season, asking the important questions about the global issues, problems, and trends that will affect the future. What role does A...

Why It Matters is back for a fifth season, asking the important questions about the global issues, problems, and trends that will affect the future. What role does A...

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Last summer, China tested a hypersonic missile that traveled through orbit. The test shocked many observers and led to widespread concern about the potential for nuc...

Last summer, China tested a hypersonic missile that traveled through orbit. The test shocked many observers and led to widespread concern about the potential for nuc...

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Top Stories on CFR

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The Madrid summit paved the way for Finland and Sweden to join and underscored that Russia is NATO’s chief security threat. But the alliance’s new defensive efforts aren’t likely to change Putin’s strategy in Ukraine.

Immigration and Migration

Support for immigration in the West must be balanced with concern about governance in African countries. 


Ukraine’s first steps toward eventual EU membership are the start of a long process that has raised the stakes in the country’s war with Russia.