As Russia’s influence on Eastern Europe spreads across the region, Moscow’s foreign policy has come under international scrutiny. Most recently, Russia has acted aggressively toward its neighbor Ukraine, putting pressure on its government and becoming militarily involved in the Crimea region. This decision may initially appear to be an isolated instance of Russian opportunism.  However, when examined in light of Russia’s domestic affairs, it becomes clear that the change in the country’s foreign policy toward a more aggressive stance is inextricably linked to the rise in domestic authoritarianism within the country. These two factors serve in many ways as part of Russia’s response to the changing international landscape and the United States’ proclivity toward a decreased role in the international community, reflecting Moscow’s determination to remain a central player in the international arena throughout the coming decades.

Since 2011, after Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency, Russia has reverted to a more authoritarian mode of domestic governance. Restrictions against public gathering have increased, and freedoms as a whole have been restricted. Candidates for the regional governorships have become required to get support from local legislatures, which are controlled primarily by the ruling party. NGO capabilities have been restricted; international advocacy for human rights is now considered treason, and subsequently many groups have been disbanded. Foreign human rights organizations, such as USAID, have been banned from the country.

These restrictions do not follow the previous trend of Russian politics. Prior to these changes, Moscow had been moving toward a freer society. Under former President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, political reforms had been passed, offering more control and independence to the people, reinstating the election of regional governors, and opening up the State Duma. These reforms, which marked Russia’s transition to a more modern and open state, were the first to go once Putin came into office. Putin, then, not only changed the government to reflect his own perspective but also directly reversed many of Russia’s previous steps forward.

This change in Russian domestic policies prompted protests across the country. In 2011, some of the biggest protests in the past 25 years erupted in Moscow. Protests continued intermittently for the next two years in response to various aspects of Putin’s policies, and in 2014 came as a response to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Rather than heed his protesting citizens, Putin has increased restrictions against group demonstrations, limiting places where people can freely organize protests. Moscow has additionally heightened fines on the violation of rules controlling public events, essentially making these errors tantamount to criminal offenses. Those who organize these protests may even face time in prison in unprecedented strictness.

Concurrently, Russia has mounted an increasingly aggressive and anti-Western foreign policy. Most recently, Russia has taken an active role in Ukraine, supporting elected President Viktor Yanukovych against opposition forces, strengthening its relationship with Ukraine in exchange for its lessening ties with the EU, seizing buildings and ultimately completely invading Crimea. Ignoring calls from the international community to pull back its forces, Russia continued to assert itself in Crimea and support Crimea’s consideration of separating from Ukraine.

But Russia’s aggressive foreign policy has not been limited to Ukraine. In regards to Syria, Russia has unequivocally refused to cooperate with the majority of the United Nations’ Security Council—particularly France, the UK, and the US—in working to sanction and condemn Assad for his crackdown on protests, and the arrests and deaths of thousands. Any sanctions, Moscow declared, would be vetoed, and Russia would continue to supply weaponry to Assad. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Putin has adopted a more anti-Western stance. For instance, though Medvedev had chosen to cease certain arms trades with Iran, Putin has suggested the resumption of such deals, speaking more frequently with Tehran and questioning the resumption of weaponry sales. Such refusals to cooperate with the West on issues of contention in the international arena reflect Moscow’s determination to maintain its independence from the West and continue to be considered a superpower with which other countries must contend.

In accordance with this philosophy, Russia’s diplomatic relationships with the West have become strained, as Moscow has made less of an effort to compromise and work with other countries. The United States in particular has borne the brunt of this iciness. Not only did Russia offer asylum to Edward Snowden, but it did not much care to discuss its decision with the United States, and instead brushed aside the American government’s disapproval.  Nor is this the only instance of ignoring or dismissing the United States, as American human aid and rights groups are spurned, and even American citizens are no longer allowed to adopt Russian children.

Russia’s relationships with other Western countries have become tense as well. In response to Russia’s foreign policy, Canada has imposed sanctions, ended military cooperation with Russia, and recalled its ambassador from Moscow, which has resulted in the Russian government's banning of certain important Canadian politicians from traveling to its country. And of course the European Union, following the 2013 Vilnius Summit and 2014 crisis in Ukraine, has sanctioned and decreased ties with Russia as well.

Throughout these policies, a pattern of aggression and blatant disregard emerges. There is a certain degree of brazenness here that is reminiscent of an older Russia. Contrary to earlier predictions that Russia would continue to open its policies and democratize, then, Russia is clearly heading in the opposite direction. It is therefore important that Russia’s actions in Crimea not be taken as an isolated event that can be ignored in favor of broader international peace. Rather, Russia’s assertiveness in Ukraine must be recognized as a part of a broader trend. Consequently, politicians seeking to increase and spread democracy cannot assume that a path of appeasement in this instance will maintain their ties with Moscow, and will therefore be more likely to further democratization in Russia. Instead, they must recognize this shift in Russian policy and act accordingly. Only by viewing this foreign policy as but one part of the broader picture will they take steps to ensure that Russia faces the consequences of its aggression. Namely, Russia must recognize that if it continues along this path, its relationships with the West will not simply be strained. Rather, Moscow’s wishes to remain an independent superpower may ultimately lead to its isolation, as Russia will no longer be seen as a partner in the international community, but as a rogue player, and will consequently be treated as such.