THE YEAR IN REVIEW
In 2020, Putin Raised the Stakes at Home and Abroad
Russia started the year with political uncertainty, then cemented Putin’s future, and ended the year by poisoning the main opposition figure—and future relations with the Biden administration.
BY AMY MACKINNON
Russia began 2020 in a haze of uncertainty, as President Vladimir Putin faced constitutionally imposed term limits that could have curtailed the longest Kremlin reign since Joseph Stalin. In January, after the prime minister and cabinet resigned en masse, Putin named a little-known tax inspector as prime minister—neatly pruning any political threat. By July, a referendum secured Putin the right to another two terms as president once his current time is up in 2024.
But not all is sewn up on the home front, as months of protests in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk show. Putin and his minions dealt with the biggest opposition threat frontally, poisoning presidential contender Alexei Navalny with a new variant of the nerve agent Novichok. And the skullduggery went abroad: Russian mercenaries fought in Libya, Russia was accused of paying bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and this month it was revealed that the U.S. government was thoroughly hacked and ransacked, allegedly by Russian cyberspies.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have plenty to worry about come January, whether the raging pandemic and a weak economy or a deeply polarized electorate. But, like the last three—or seven, or nine—presidents before him, he’ll have Russia on his mind, too. But please, experts say, no more resets.
Here are five of Foreign Policy’s top Russia stories this year.
4. No More Resets With Russia
by Kurt Volker, Aug. 11
Biden will be the fourth U.S. president to hold office during Putin’s rule. Each of his predecessors sought to chart their own course in relations with Moscow. George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and got a “sense of his soul.” Barack Obama started with a reset and ended with a finger in Putin’s chest over election interference. Then there were four years of President Donald Trump’s curious—and still unexplained—affinity for the Russian leader.
No more, argues Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative for Ukraine peace negotiations. “Instead of a reset, the West needs the patience to apply consistent and steady pressure against Russian aggression, and to support those in Russia and in neighboring states who seek freedom, democracy, and security. For once, it is time for Russia, not the West, to rethink its policy,” Volker wrote.