Making Sense of Vladimir Putin’s Long Game

Channeling Russian resentment, Tsarist ideas and Orthodox identity, the Russian president challenges the US-led West to make Russia great again.
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia in December 2019. © ID1974 / Shutterstock

December 24, 2021 14:26 EDT

On November 21, Bloomberg reported that US intelligence had shared Russian plans for a potential invasion of Ukraine with its NATO allies. Estimates indicated about 100,000 soldiers in around 100 battalion tactical groups were deployed on the Ukrainian border. Since then, this troop buildup has continued with “tanks, artillery, armoured units, drones, [and] electronic warfare systems” poised on Ukraine’s border.

Reports indicate that Moscow has called up tens of thousands of reservists, the first time since the end of the Cold War over 30 years ago. They could secure territory that regular troops capture. Moscow already has a blueprint to follow. In 2014, Russian troops took over Crimea. This time, they could gobble up significant territory in Eastern Ukraine.  As with the Crimea, Russia claims that Ukraine is historically and culturally an integral part of Russia 

The Response to Russia’s Brinkmanship Over Ukraine

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In response to this threat, US President Joe Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin of “severe consequences” for any aggression. Though Biden has ruled out putting American troops on the ground, the US president has promised Putin “economic consequences like [he has] never seen.”  Almost simultaneously, the foreign ministers of the G7 group of the world’s seven most powerful economies warned Russia of “massive consequences and severe cost” if Russia were to invade Ukraine

Biden has continued to ratchet up his threats of severe countermeasures. On December 19, influential columnist David Ignatius wrote that “a knowledgeable official” revealed US plans to arm future Ukrainian “insurgents” with advanced weaponry should Moscow invade. The official mentioned that “the CIA and other key agencies [have] been studying how insurgencies were organized against the Soviets in Afghanistan and Russian-backed forces in Syria — and also against the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.” If Putin invades Ukraine, the Biden administration wants “to make it hurt.”

Even as Biden has been warning Putin, on the other side of the Eurasian landmass 7,500 kilometers to the east, Moscow and Beijing have been romancing one another, in a straightforward diplomatic counterbalance to the US and NATO. In October, China and Russia conducted a joint naval exercise that set alarm bells ringing in many international capitals. A joint Russian-Chinese flotilla of 10 warships sailed through the Tsugaru Strait that separates the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. This flotilla headed down Japan’s eastern coast and then back toward China through the Osumi Strait north of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

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This joint naval exercise is significant. For the first time, a Russian-Chinese flotilla passed through the strait, in what was likely a countermove to heightened naval activity by the rejuvenated “Quad” group that includes India, Japan, Australia and the US. The flotilla’s circumnavigation of Japan’s main island of Honshu was clearly intended to threaten Tokyo and send a signal to Washington.

What is going on?

Russian Resentment

Over the years, both authors have spoken to and interacted with numerous Russians in intelligence, defense and diplomatic circles. One theme repeatedly crops up: The US and the West treated Russia imperiously and dismissively after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Most of our Russian interlocutors have believed that the US has long sought to weaken, even destroy, Russia and interpret almost every US action and statement as pieces of a long-term, coherent plan to undermine Russia and the government of Vladimir Putin.

Dangerously, even seasoned diplomats and intelligence officers tend to ascribe a strategic coherence and hostility to rival states, when the rival states in fact almost always have competing and contradictory power centers and mutually incompatible objectives, so that they struggle to pursue a sustained and coherent policy. Accurate or not, the Russians have tended to view their American rival as strategically competent and malevolent.  

Per this narrative, the US first cajoled the new Russia to commit samoubiystvo — suicide. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US funded a project by Harvard economists to reform the Russian economy. In the memorable words of Janine Fedel, neophyte reformers enabled “the Harvard boys [to] do Russia,” causing the misappropriation of Western aid and the plunder of Russian wealth. To date, Boris Fyodorov, Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar remain hated names in Russia. The figure of economist Jeffrey Sachs, then a high-flying 38-year-old who arrived in Moscow to transform the Russian economy, evokes similar sentiments.

With the zeal of a Cold War free market missionary, Sachs advocated that Russia implement “shock therapy.” Sachs took the view that shock therapy would work even in societies where there was “no collective memory of free markets or history of evenhanded rules of contract law and property rights.” In those heady days, Sachs was regarded as the slayer of hyperinflation and the savior of the Bolivian and the Polish economies. He envisaged “an industrial comeback” in Russia “worthy of postwar Japan.” At that time, Russian industrial exports were around $5 billion and Sachs predicted they would “reach $50 billion by the turn of the century.”

Today, it is easy to conclude that Sachs suffered from hubris. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has been damning in his critique of Sachs’s shock therapy. For Stiglitz, the key point is that privatizing an economy before establishing a functioning legal and juridical system inevitably leads to overwhelming corruption and concentration of wealth; in other words, to a thug’s kleptocracy.

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Many US officials foresaw this danger at the time, and even as Sachs was pushing for total and immediate privatization of the entire Russian economy, the US government was trying to foster the establishment in post-Soviet Russia of the rule of law, the establishment of private property and the regulatory and legal regime required to avoid corruption, abuse and excessive concentration of wealth. In particular, American officials were working to prevent the de facto theft of the state’s assets, capital and natural resources. One of the authors knows this first hand, having worked on this very issue. 

Sachs, however, “succeeded,” and this now infamous privatization led to asset stripping, massive impoverishment and runaway inflation, averaging 204.91% in 1995.  Even as price rises made it impossible to pay for goods, Russia’s annual per capita income cratered, dropping over 50% in nine years, from $3,440 to $1,710.  The result of Sach’s policy was that the Russian economy foundered, poverty soared and life expectancy sank. Sachs’s recommendations brought, as Stiglitz stingingly put it, “Gucci bags, Mercedes, the fruits of capitalism to a few,” and misery and humiliation to 148 million Russians.  

This economic catastrophe tore apart Russia’s social fabric and the legitimacy of Russia’s nascent post-Communist democracy. Contrary to a common Russian belief, the US did not seek to destroy Russia, but to help it succeed in its transformation into a successful, democratic market economy. However, the view among many Russian officials is that Sachs was implementing a longstanding strategic plan by the US to destroy Russia as a functioning power. Tragically, this American-induced calamity became Russia’s grim reality for a dismal decade.

One of the authors still remembers a protracted, boozy conversation with a former Russian psychological operations (PSYOP) officer. This gentleman had served in Chechnya and was convinced that Sachs plotted the destruction of the Russian economy. This former PSYOP officer’s thinking is most revealing. In his view, the US sent Sachs to ruin Russia’s economy. Then, at a time when Russia was weak, NATO gobbled up the nations of Eastern Europe that until 1991 were Soviet satellites and constituted Russia’s “near abroad” security cordon. The PSYOP officer also argued that the US never dealt with Russia in good faith. In 2001, Putin offered the US complete support after the attacks of September 11. In Russian eyes, the US responded to Russian loyalty with treachery. On December 13, then US President George W. Bush announced that the US would pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an act that still infuriates Moscow

The other author, when serving as a US official, heard the same zero-sum game viewpoints from his Russian counterparts. How, they demanded, could NATO expansion be anything but an aggressive anti-Russian act? They took any of the author’s counter-arguments as proof of America’s disingenuous duplicity and as confirmation of their convictions.

Putin Distills Russian Resentment

Putin expresses Russian resentment and suspicion best. In a lengthy article published on July 12, he argues “that Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole.” He blames both Russian mistakes and outside forces for undermining that unity. In Putin’s words, “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus.” Language, economic ties and the Orthodox faith bind them together.

Unsurprisingly, Putin evokes a particularly Russo-centric version of history in making his claim. He refers to the 17th century war of liberation of the Russian Orthodox people from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which he blames for “social and religious oppression” of Russians. The Russian president also blames outsiders like the Poles and the Austro-Hungarians for “the idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians.” In Putin’s telling, this “idea” has no historical basis or much popular support.

When Vladimir Lenin forged the Soviet Union in 1922, he gave constituent republics the right to secede, which was incorporated into the 1924 constitution. Putin blames this for the “parade of sovereignties” that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. He argues that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era.” Putin further argues that Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine “in gross violation of legal norms that were in force at the time.”

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In his article, Putin takes the view that the borders between Soviet republics were never state borders. Communists ran a highly centralized government from Moscow. With the sudden disintegration of the USSR, “people found themselves abroad overnight, taken away, this time indeed, from their historical motherland.” Notably, Putin blames the West for using “the old groundwork of the Polish-Austrian ideologists to create an ‘anti-Moscow Russia’.” He accuses the new Ukrainian elites of hobnobbing with neo-Nazis, attacking the Russian language and unleashing an anti-Russia project.

Putin’s aggrieved and self-justifying version of history, however, grossly misrepresents the past.  A little perspective: It is true that many Ukrainians initially welcomed the Nazi invaders as liberators in 1941. They wanted relief from the oppressive and exploitative mass-murdering communist regime of Joseph Stalin, whom Putin has been rehabilitating as a Russian icon. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis proved to be as murderous and imperial as the Soviet Union. Longsuffering Ukrainians were quickly and hideously disabused of the notion that the Nazis themselves offered Untermenschen Slavs anything but enslavement and death. In the end, the Nazis massacred 3 million Ukrainians, a lower number than the 3.9 million killed by the Soviets. In his self-serving version of history, Putin omits such awkward facts.

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Biden and his European allies are understandably worried by this amalgam of Soviet and pre-World War I pan-Slavic and imperial Russian historiography. On December 7, Biden and Putin spoke for about two hours to defuse rising tensions over Ukraine. Putin “demanded legal guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward toward Russia’s borders or deploy offensive weapons systems in Ukraine.” Biden “reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy.” Two days later, Putin used harsher language. He accused Ukraine of Russophobia and discriminating against Russian speakers in the country. He argued that Ukrainian action in the eastern Donbas region “certainly looks like genocide.” On December 23, Putin articulated Russian resentments in a four-hour press conference even as US officials announced possibilities of talks in January.

On December 17, Moscow “demanded strict limits on the activities of the US-led NATO military alliance in countries in Eastern Europe.” Moscow wants no troop or weapon deployment in areas where they could be a threat to Russia. If Washington accepts this demand, NATO would no longer play a role in the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia or, for that matter, in highly vulnerable Poland. Russia also wants a guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia would never join NATO.

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Putin has long called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century” and argued that “the epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself.” He has repeatedly pointed out that 25 million Russians became foreigners in their own homes. From Lithuania to Tajikistan, Putin sees Russians as an oppressed minority instead of full citizens of a once mighty nation.

But nowhere is this more galling than Ukraine, home to the historic Kingdom of Rus. His consistent objective as Russian leader has been to restore Russia to its historic greatness and global power. In his mind, the best defence for Russia is now offence.

Ideas Animating Putin

It is important and instructive to remember that Putin was a KGB officer for years. He was inspired by Max Otto von Stierlitz, the Soviet James Bond who infiltrated the German high command in World War II. Like Stierlitz, Putin served in Germany too and was posted in Dresden in 1989. Thousands of Germans took to the streets, the Berlin Wall fell and “Moscow [was] silent.”

The collapse of the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union turned Putin’s life upside down. Recently, he mentioned moonlighting as a taxi driver during those days to make ends meet and, like many older Russians, is haunted by those memories. The collapse of Soviet theology allowed Putin and all Russians to return to their history, culture, Slavic ethnicity and Orthodox religion as the essence of the Russian nation and greatness. Over 70 years of Communist internationalist ideology dissipated in an instant, leaving virtually no trace on Russian culture.  

Instantaneously, Putin and millions of Russians have reverted to Russian nationalism for identity and pride. At its core, this nationalism is Orthodox, Slavic and autocratic. The Russian Orthodox Church, persecuted during the Soviet era, has made a spectacular comeback. Putin has been filmed dipping into the freezing waters of a cross-shaped pool to observe an Orthodox Christian ritual that marks the feast of Epiphany on more than one occasion. Cossacks, the glamorized sword arm of Tsarist Russia, are also back in fashion. 

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Putin has brought back the idea of a collective Russian identity, in which Western individualism and cosmopolitanism are decadent Western infections. The strength and stability of the state takes precedence over human rights. In this “new” (old) Russia, respect for the ruler is sacrosanct and Putin is a father figure for a powerful strong nation that can once again project its power. After the humiliating years of a weak Mikhail Gorbachev and a drunk Boris Yeltsin, Russians see Putin as a leader who has restored dignity to a great nation and people.

A 2016 tour de force analysis by Charles Clover explains how the Russian leader has found inspiration in the ideas of the late historian Lev Gumilev. This son of Soviet dissidents Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova spent many years in the Siberian Gulag. Gumilev developed a fascination for “the irrational in history” as he watched his fellow prisoners “die of exhaustion and hypothermia.” Just as Italian Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli coined the idea of virtù, as a character of moral excellence devoted to the state and Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun of asabiyya, the tribal solidarity of desert nomads, Gumilev came up with the idea of passionarnost, a human capacity for suffering.

In his 2012 annual address to the Russian federal assembly, Putin noted that the world was becoming more unequal and competition for resources more intense. New economic, geopolitical and ethnic conflicts were likely. As per Putin, victory and defeat would “depend not only on the economic potential, but primarily on the will of each nation” and the inner energy that Gumilev termed passionarity.

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Clover explains how Gumilev came up with the idea of Eurasianism, “the germ of a new Russian nationalism.” This idea seeks inspiration not from the westward-looking Peter the Great or Catherine the Great but from the nomads who swept out of the steppes to destroy everything before them. Gumilev took the view that European social theories like the Enlightenment and communism had led Russia to ruin. Instead, Russians were heirs to the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols, the conquering peoples who united the Eurasian steppes and the forests under “a single conquering imperial banner.” In Gumilev’s view, the Russians “were the latest incarnation of this timeless continental unity.” Putin seems to be deeply influenced by Gumilev’s ideas.

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In this regard, one author recalls a memorable evening spent with a Russian counterpart nearly 30 years ago, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The discussion turned around what Russians believed in and the author asked in some frustration:  Are you European or Asian? Implicit in the question was the assumption that the Russians must choose between the two and would surely finally embrace the Westernizing approach of Peter the Great.  “Of course we are neither,” the Russian replied quite accurately, “and both.” 

Putin also adheres to the views of Ivan Ilyin, an influential pan-Slavic Russian nationalist and fascist who exalted the Russian soul and who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922. He took the view that the 1917 October Revolution was the worst catastrophe in Russian history. As an exile, Ilyin first lived in Germany and then in Switzerland, where he died in 1954. His work strongly influenced mystical Russian nationalists like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Putin was personally involved in bringing back Ilyin’s remains to Russia and consecrated his grave in 2009. Noted historian Timothy Snyder has called Ilyin “Putin’s philosopher of Russian fascism” because he saw individuals as cells in the body of society, freedom as knowing one’s place in society, democracy as a ritual, the leader as a hero and facts as of no value whatsoever. Ilyin saw Russian nationalism as the only truth in the world and imagined “that his nation could redeem the world.”

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Gumilev and Ilyin are the modern Russian muses, and Putin the renascent tsar of the Eurasianist “neither European nor Asian” Russian culture and nation. But Putin’s Russian Eurasianism is the Russian strain of a widespread phenomenon called Traditionalism. It is a reaction to and rejection of the cosmopolitan, international, modernizing forces of Western liberalism and capitalism. Ironically, Traditionalism’s believers consist of a heterodox melange of French Catholic royalists, Muslim intellectuals, left-wing anti-materialists, social conservatives and nationalists brought together by their profound malaise at the culturally destructive and personally alienating forces of the technological and material developments of the industrial and modern era and, in their view, of the nihilism and imperialism of cosmopolitan Western liberalism.

The philosophical roots of Traditionalism and Russia’s “Eurasianism” version reach back to one of the fathers of Fascism, an Italian philosopher named Baron Giulio Evola. Evola’s thought became the basis for Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany and — after World War II and the spread of democracy and the success of market economies — for the far-right across Europe and the ascendancy of anti-Western Muslim extremism in Islamic societies.    

One of the authors first encountered Traditionalism personally in the mid-1980s when he was assigned to follow and understand the neo-fascistic movements in Western Europe then called the “euro-right.” The “nation,” the “people,” and “tradition” became the roots of personal meaning for the euro-right in the progressively mutable world of capitalism, materialism, individualism and democracy. The very successes of the Western economic and political model were the basis of the Euro-right’s indictment of liberal democracy and the Western Alliance.  

The author recalls sitting in a café in Paris and through the cigarette smoke listening in some astonishment and progressive alarm as the right-wing French political figure across the table confidently denounced American liberal decadence (that was no surprise), evoked the fascistic and conservatively Catholic ideas of the French politician Charles Maurras (again, no surprise) … and then spoke warmly of the concordance of the rejection of democracy, capitalism and the West by Islam, Italian Fascism and Russian Orthodoxy. The author has followed the Traditionalist movement in the 40 years since that cafe conversation and watched it wax in direct proportion to the speed and scale of social and political change caused by globalization and the end of the Cold War.

Evola’s movement and the French politician from the cafe morphed into today’s “Rassemblement national” (RN) party (formerly the National Front) in France and to the other ascendant far-right parties in Europe today. These new Traditionalists consistently identify with Putin’s Russia, because both exalt the “nation” and reject “rootless” materialism. The Russian “Eurasian” manifestation believes “liberal” democracy would lead to the ruin of Russian civilization and to Russia’s domination by a nihilistic West. Under Putin, Russia’s intelligence services have also insinuated Eurasianist, Traditionalist ideas into populist and right-wing parties throughout the West.

Putin clearly derives his worldview and policies from this coherent Traditionalist, Eurasian rejection of and hostility to the West. In his words, “The liberal idea [has] outlived its purpose….[Western views on gender, culture and power] must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.” For Putin, Eurasianists and far-rightists across Europe, the postwar globalized, capitalist, democratic liberal world order and US-led Western alliances are wantonly destroying faith, culture and, for Putin, the Russian soul and nation.     

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While Evola, Gumilev and Ilyin might be patron saints of Traditionalism, Eurasianism and Russian nationalism, the strident nationalist Aleksandr Dugin is the evangelist of Putin’s new (old) Russia. In 1997, he published “Foundations of Geopolitics,” a work that has deeply influenced the thinking of Russia’s military, secret services and political leadership. Ferociously opposed to US hegemony, Dugin advocates Russian Eurasianism as a response to Anglo-Saxon Atlanticism. Dugin’s views derive directly from the Eurasian and Traditionalist focus on the supposedly inevitable geopolitical clash of cultures, pitting Orthodox and continental Russia against the atheistic and cosmopolitan West. Instead of direct conflict, however, Dugin “advocates a sophisticated, asymmetric program of subversion, destabilization and disinformation spearheaded by the Russian special services, supported by a tough, hard-headed use of Russia’s gas, oil and natural resource riches to pressure and bully other countries into bending to Russia’s will.”

Putinism’s Strangely Unreal World

Even as others provide ideas, Vladislav Surkov, a brilliant Putin aide puts them into operation. On a spring day in 2013, Surkov claimed to be “the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system.” In the words of Peter Pomerantsev, “Surkov [consciously and explicitly] has directed Russian society like one great reality show.” Through puppet political parties, fake social media accounts and manipulation of truth, in the press, on television and on the internet, this modern master of propaganda has blurred truth and falsehood, reasoning that, as the public becomes less able to discern the truth, the state can shape reality to discredit its opponents and to consolidate its power. Even as Russia maintains the illusion of democracy, political challengers find every path forward thwarted, by murder if need be, and one man rules.

For ordinary Russians, Surkov has conjured up the specter of a deadly enemy and authored a new chapter of Putinism in Russian history. Putin “is the president of ‘stability,’ the antithesis to the era of ‘confusion and twilight’ in the 1990s.” Anyone who opposes Putin, by definition, is disloyal to Russia. Unlike Stalin’s iron-fisted oppression, Putinism “climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.” In Surkov’s Putinist Russia, “everything is PR” and only fools believe in anything. Putin, through Surkov’s cynical wizardry, reigns by turning Russia into a real-world combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and the Keanu Reeves starring The Matrix.  It is the dystopian triumph of the nihilism and solipsism of jaded postmodernists, literally weaponized by the State: Truth no longer exists, but it does not matter, because one can feel good through delusional self-regard and meaningless pageantry.  And Surkov, the Russian intelligence services and, above them both, Putin control the images, shape the public’s consciousness and wield the real-world power.      

Yet even Surkov seems to have some beliefs. In conversations with journalists, he reveals a “sharp nationalist edge.” Surkov claims that Putin did not abolish democracy. Instead, the Russian leader just “married it with the monarchical archetype of Russian governance.” Surkov claims, “this archetype is working. It is not going anywhere . . . It has enough freedom and enough order.”

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If Surkov had confined his dark arts to Russia, he would not be one of the seminal figures of the 21st century. But he has deployed his skills to advance Russia’s national interests abroad, specifically by interfering in elections in other countries. The most famous examples are the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election of 2016. There is strong evidence to suggest that Russia interfered not only in these two elections but in many others. There have been spin doctors galore in the past, from Edward Bernays who invented PR in the US to Dominic Cummings who coined “Take Back Control” for the pro-Brexit campaign. Yet Surkov has taken propaganda to another level. He has created what documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed “HyperNormalisation,” a strangely unreal world of total inauthenticity.

The Cold War Never Quite Ended

In the heady days after the end of the Cold War, the likes of Francis Fukuyama heralded the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” In an iconic article, he called it the end of history and celebrated “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea.” Fukuyama’s celebrations were premature. For 15 years, from Gorbachev’s assumption of power in 1985 to the departure from office of Yeltsin on December 31, 1999, the Western-oriented views and aspirations of Peter the Great’s Russia dominated.  But as one author’s Russian interlocutor from years ago pointed out, Russia is neither West nor East — it is both.  And so after the catastrophe of shock therapy and the expansion of NATO, Russian resentment returned in the form of Eurasianist Putin.

The Russian president has always sought to restore Russia’s greatness and reestablish hegemony over its “near abroad” — states in Central and Eastern Europe that the Soviet Union once forced into the Warsaw Pact. Of course, while making Russia great again, Putin seeks to solidify and perennialize his power and, along the way, to enrich himself. He has always rejected the normative unipolar international order created and dominated by the US that, in Putin’s eyes, institutionalized American imperialism and hegemony. In the past decade, the Russian president has modernized his military, eliminated any potential rival at home and embarked on a series of aggressive foreign moves that are changing the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East. Notably, he has constantly argued that “the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.”

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Putin realizes that, to prevail, Russia must leverage its strengths against the more powerful economies of the US and Europe, and he has been fortunate that many Western leaders have neither realized the scope of nor the power in the asymmetric warfare tactics of Dugin and Surkov. In contrast, Putin is very aware that the US GDP is 14 times larger than Russia’s, where oil and gas comprise close to 40% of the GDP.  Hence, he engages in a different “battle space” and, in so doing, has restored much of the influence Russia lost when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. Putin’s military and intelligence services have reasserted Russian predominance all along the “near abroad” states and former Soviet republics. Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and the Baltics have all felt the sting of Russian operations and have had to temper their pro-Western positions and accommodate Russian demands. 

Bolstered by success, Russian confidence and aggression has been growing. In 2014, Russia invaded and (re)annexed Crimea. In 2015, Putin sent the Russian military into Syria. Since 2019, he has used “private sector” mercenaries, who act under the guidance of the Russian intelligence services, in Libya. By intervening in Syria and Libya, Putin has made Russia a key power broker in the Middle East for the first time since 1972. Russian mercenaries are also active in Mozambique, Sudan and the Central African Republic. As if this was not enough, Putin has actively sought to destabilize his greatest rivals, the UK and the US. Russia has conducted a series of intelligence operations to influence the attitudes of the British and American public, with an overall goal of delegitimizing and paralyzing the UK and US governments. 

Even as Putin has ratcheted up pressure on Ukraine, he has also ostentatiously deepened relations with China, the other bugbear of the West. Russia’s new China play is a classic example of the balance of power and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to geopolitics. The cruise of the Russo-Sino fleet around Japan’s main island is a clear signal by Moscow and Beijing that they will support each other against the West. Putin has also worked assiduously to bolster relations with India, a nascent global power that has reservations about recent US decisions such as pulling out of Afghanistan and entering into a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the UK. As a former Soviet ally, India also has strong elements hostile to a strategic entente with the US. 

Should Western powers implement tougher sanctions on Moscow, an allied China and neutral India are likely to stay close trading partners, attenuating Russia’s economic hardship. Relations with the two Asian giants also boost morale at home by demonstrating that a Putin-led Russia is a global power and Moscow will not bend to the imperial and arrogant US.

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As a nimble judoka, Putin is also using gas diplomacy to pressure the West. On December 15, Putin and his new best-friend-forever, Chinese President Xi Jinping, had a highly-publicized conversation about the Power of Siberia-2 project, a mega pipeline through Mongolia that would deliver up to 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China every year. Beijing has long feared that the US Navy could block the Straits of Malacca, choking China’s energy supplies. Power of Siberia-2 serves both Russian and Chinese interests, weakening future leverage for both Europe and the US.

To pressure Europe, Russia is planning to sell gas not only to China but also to other growing Asian economies, while always holding the implicit threat over Western Europe of restricting gas shipments, just as it has done before in its “gas wars” with Ukraine. Putin’s “gas pivot” is making Europe nervous because Russia remains Europe’s main gas supplier. On December 20, The Moscow Times reported that Russia had cut gas supplies to Europe even as temperatures dropped, a clear example of “gas-politik.” Gas prices have surged as a result, leading to added inflationary pressures in European economies. 

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Russia is using gas diplomacy not only to cause economic pain to Europe but also to divide its opponents. For years, Russian companies have been building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany, bypassing Ukraine to deprive the country of gas transit revenue and to leave Kyiv in no position to completely block Russian gas supplies to Europe. Berlin favored Nord Stream 2 because Germany is boosting natural gas imports to transition away from coal and nuclear energy, and the pipeline would double the supply of cheap natural gas from Russia

However, Nord Stream 2 has caused a rift within NATO with allies like Poland and the US opposing Germany’s decision to go ahead with this pipeline project. Recently, the German economics minister has called the pipeline a “geopolitical mistake” and warned Russia that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to a suspension of this controversial project. Yet both Berlin and Moscow know that such a cancellation would depress the German and West European economies. The pipeline, even unfinished, gives Putin good sway over Germany and Europe.

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Putin is also exploiting the refugee and migration crisis in Europe and the Middle East to pressure the West. Imitating Turkey’s use of Syrian refugees to pressure the EU, the Russian leader has massed thousands of migrants in Belarus, a country now firmly under Russia’s thumb. These migrants have been trying to enter Poland, a member of the EU. Polish police have used tear gas and water cannons to deter migrants from crossing the Belarusian-Polish border, under the keenly watchful eyes of the media. Images of such police action have portrayed Europe as uncaring and inhuman, damaging its reputation, causing internal European divisions and diverting attention from Russia and Belarus and especially from Russia’s threatening moves on Ukraine’s border.

What Will Putin Do Next?

Fundamentally, Putin is a cold and calculating practitioner of realpolitik. He wants to keep the pot boiling but not spilling over. He wants to avoid war if he can.  So, Putin will keep seizing the initiative, creating strategic dilemmas for the US, NATO and the West on multiple fronts.  He calculates that the West is decadent and unwilling to fight, despite the series of diplomatic and economic sanctions Western states have imposed in response to his actions, especially after his invasion of Crimea.  

Now, Putin is focused on Ukraine, the “heart of Rus.” In his pan-Russian nationalist worldview, Ukraine is Russian land. Even so, the authors believe it unlikely, on balance, that Putin will invade. But he is likely to extract de facto changes to the status quo in Eastern Ukraine. He is also seeking to destabilize Ukraine’s government and to stop the West from bringing Ukraine within the western fold. He calculates, probably correctly, that the West does not view the Donbas or Luhansk regions of Ukraine or the fates of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as worth a war between the world’s great powers. Biden did all but make this explicit in his announcement that the prospect of sending US troops to Ukraine was “not on the table.”

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But Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine are merely parts of his larger worldview and strategy.  He has consistently pursued a sphere-of-influence international order, in part to bring the US down a notch, but in line with deeply held beliefs concerning existential Russian security needs in Russia’s “near abroad.” His Eurasianist worldview is coherent, resonates with traditional Russian Orthodox pan-Slavic ideology and makes it possible for Russians to see themselves as heroes in the drama of world history. Whatever happens to Ukraine, Putin will always seek to reorder Europe and international relations to Russia’s advantage, to weaken his decadent US and European rivals and to oppose the cosmopolitan, liberal West.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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