What Vladimir Putin really wants

The West cannot ignore a determined Russian President any more as Moscow prepares for its next act — on Ukraine

January 20, 2022 12:02 am | Updated 06:56 pm IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Catherine the Great, the 18th century Empress Regnant of Russia, once famously said, “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” Under her reign, the empire continued to grow, encompassing New Russia (the region north of the Black Sea, now part of Ukraine), Crimea, the Caucasus, Belarus and the Baltic region. Empress Catherine, like many of her predecessors, saw a Russia, surrounded by ambitious powers, that was vulnerable to external threats. And her axiom continued to be a guiding principle for several of her famed successors, from Joseph Stalin, who defeated the Nazis and expanded the Soviet boundaries, to Vladimir Putin, who annexed Crimea in 2014 and has now mobilised some 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border.

Russia, the world’s largest country by land mass, lacks natural borders except the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Pacific in the far east. Its vast land borders stretch from northern Europe to Central and north east Asia. The country’s heartland that runs from St. Petersburg through Moscow to the Volga region lies on plains and is vulnerable to attacks. There are practically no natural barriers that stop an invading army from its western borders (Europe) reaching the Russian heartland. In the last two centuries, Russia saw two devastating invasions from the west — the 1812 attack by Napoleonic France and the 1941 attack by Nazi Germany. Russia defeated them both, but after suffering huge material and human losses. After the Second World War, Russia re-established its control over the rim land in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which it hoped would protect its heartland. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union threw its security calculations into disarray, deepening its historical insecurity. This insecurity is the source of what historian Stephen Kotkin calls the “defensive aggressiveness” of Russian President Putin.

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NATO’s endless expansion

When the Soviet Union collapsed, which Mr. Putin termed “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, Russia lost over three million square kilometres of sovereign territory. The entire rim land was gone, and the heartland lay vulnerable to future threats. In the last months of the Soviet Union, to calm the nerves of a badly hurt but still breathing Russian bear, the West promised that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not “expand an inch to the east”. The United States and the United Kingdom repeated the pledge after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But despite the promises, NATO continued expansion. In March 1999, in the first enlargement since the end of the Cold War, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (all were members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact) joined NATO. Five years later, seven more countries — including the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all of which share borders with Russia — were taken into the alliance. Russia saw this as a direct challenge to its security. If in the early 1990s, NATO’s border with Russia was limited to the northern strip of Norway, now, the distance from NATO’s Estonian border to St. Petersburg, the second most populous city in Russia that was the Tsarist capital, is less than 160 kilometres.

Russia felt threatened but was not able to respond. For Mr. Putin, who inherited a weak state with a crumbling economy and a directionless foreign policy in 2000, the first job was to fix the state. But in 2008, when the U.S. promised membership to Georgia and Ukraine in the Bucharest summit, Russia, which was coming out of the post-Soviet retreat, responded forcefully. For the Kremlin, both Ukraine and Georgia are critical for its national security calculations. The distance from the Ukrainian border to Moscow is less than 500 kilometres. NATO has already come close to St. Petersburg. And if Ukraine joins the alliance, the heartland would come further under threat.

Moreover, take a look at the Black Sea, which traditional Russian rulers saw as a Russian lake. Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, all Black Sea basin countries, are NATO members. Ukraine and Georgia are the other countries that share the Black Sea coast, besides Russia. Russia was already feeling squeezed on the Black Sea front, its gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. If Ukraine and Georgia also join NATO, Russia fears that its dominance over the Black Sea would come to an end. So, in 2008, Mr. Putin sent troops to Georgia over the separatist conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and in 2014, when the Kremlin-friendly regime of Ukraine was toppled by pro-western protesters, he moved to annex the Crimean peninsula, expanding Russia’s Black Sea coast, thereby protecting its fleet based in Sevastopol in Crimea. That was the loudest statement from Mr. Putin that Russia was ready to take unconventional measures to stop further NATO expansion into its backyard.


Restoring the rim land

In recent years, Mr. Putin has tried to turn every crisis in the former Soviet region into a geopolitical opportunity for Russia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the self-proclaimed republics that broke away from Georgia, are controlled by Russia-backed forces. In Ukraine, the eastern Donbas region is in the hands of pro-Russian rebels. In 2020, when protests erupted in Belarus after a controversial presidential election, Mr. Putin sent assistance to the country to restore order. In the same year, Russia sent thousands of “peacekeepers” to end the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, re-establishing its strategic dominance in the Caucasus. Earlier this year, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, with Mr. Putin’s backing, manufactured a migrant crisis on the Polish border of the European Union. And this month, when violent unrest broke out in Kazakhstan, the largest and wealthiest country in Central Asia, its leader turned to Russia for help and a willing Mr. Putin immediately dispatched troops (under the banner of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO) to quell the protests.


The geopolitical realities of the present also favour Russia. The U.S.’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the Central Asian republics deeper in the Russian embrace. While Europe is vocal in its rhetorical opposition to Russia’s aggressive moves, it is very much dependent on Russian gas, which limits its response. Moreover, the West’s inability to inflict any serious damage on Russia over its Crimea annexation appears to have emboldened Mr. Putin further.

Defensive aggression

For years, the West, the winner of the Cold War, discounted Mr. Putin as a thuggish tactician who does not understand strategy. Mr. Biden called him a “killer” after taking office last year. But when the West’s response to Russia was lost in what academic Walter Russell Mead called “a narcissistic fog of grandiose pomposity”, Mr. Putin was steadily rebuilding the lost Russian influence in the rim land. By destabilising Georgia and Ukraine and re-establishing Russia’s hold in Belarus, Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow has effectively stalled NATO’s further expansion into its backyard. The West cannot ignore him any more. Rather, it faces an urgent question of how to deter him as Russia is preparing for its next act on Ukraine.


Having failed to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, NATO is unlikely to pick a war with Russia over Ukraine. The Kremlin also knows this. One weapon that is readily available to western policymakers is more economic sanctions. But Mr. Putin, who has already deepened Russia’s ties with China, a Cold War rival, to balance against the West’s economic coercion, seems to be ready to pay the economic price, whatever little it is, to meet his strategic goals. This sets the stage for a perpetual crisis in the Russian rim land. Unless the West re-establishes its deterrence, Mr. Putin’s defensive aggression would continue.


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