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A Pyrrhic victory

Vladimir Putin seems to be in an enviable position. After the recent unrest in Kazakhstan, it appears that Russia has yet another avenue to expand its influence. However, this expansion could help usher in the demise of Putin and his regime in the Kremlin.

January 28, 2022 - Daniel Jarosak - Articles and Commentary

Heavy traffic in western Russia. Drawing by New Eastern Europe's illustrator Andrzej Zaręba.

Since 2014, Russia’s efforts to expand its influence have appeared to be unstoppable. Despite the country’s various weaknesses, it has annexed Crimea, invaded and occupied sections of Eastern Ukraine and survived harsh economic sanctions. Ultimately, the country has forced its way back onto the global stage. Given the Kremlin’s current mobilisation and massing of troops on the Ukrainian border, there is now a slim chance that the country will gain meaningful concessions from NATO. Following the recent deployment of troops directly into Kazakhstan, it would appear that Russia will be able to further punch above its weight in the world arena and disrupt geopolitics for the foreseeable future. However, are all these tactical victories leading to an overstretched and fruitless strategy?

How did we get here?

Russia has been able to maintain a seat in the global arena for a variety of reasons. Of course, the most salient is its massive natural gas and oil deposits. Even though the international community is attempting to move away from fossil fuels, it still needs large amounts in order to propel the global economy. Additionally, Russia’s military remains a competent and well-financed force that can project its power outside of the country. Finally, Moscow is able to flex its economic muscle by acting as an export market for many western countries, such as Germany and its large auto industry. However, it is arguably the concept of the “near-abroad” that allows Russia to project its power in the region.

The “near abroad” is a term that has been discussed by numerous authors and academics over the past eight or so years. This term basically refers to the Russian-speaking and/or ethnic Russian people who live in the various states that border the country. In her book Beyond Crimea, author Agnia Grigas outlines how Russia engages with these populations. She outlines seven steps in the book that Russia often takes to maintain its influence over its neighbours. Russia uses a combination of soft power and disinformation, among other non-military actions, to try and generate support among a country’s Russian minority. Moscow then appears to act on its behalf against a discriminatory central government. This can then serve as a pretext for the Kremlin to “protect” these minorities, or outright annex these majority Russian areas. [1]

Russia has taken advantage of this “near abroad” strategy in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. There are a number of factors that have contributed to this success, though the most salient is the uncertainty shown by the EU and the world’s other democratic powers. This hesitancy can be explained by the affected countries’ locations on the periphery of the West and the EU. Simultaneously, the West is home to various special interest groups that benefit from relations with Russia.

What is Russia’s current position?

Presently, approximately 100,000 Russian troops are massed on the border of Ukraine, causing concerns about a potential Russian invasion among NATO members. Recently, Russian troops were deployed (and later recalled) to Kazakhstan in order to aid the Kazakh authorities in suppressing a surprising and violent protest movement. The situation in Belarus appears to have, for now, been stabilised and the country is now even more under the influence of Russia. The question must be asked regarding what the West can do to counter Russia. How will it reassert its position as a defender of democracy that Putin fears and will think twice about confronting?

The answer is as simple as it is deflating: nothing. There is not a single tool in the West’s toolbox that can be applied to curb Russia’s behaviour (short of a full-scale war). We can debate forever the idea that western intervention could have prevented Russia from attaining the position and influence it has now. Sanctions are effective at making Putin’s actions hurt certain individuals. However, as Catherine Belton points out in her book Putin’s People, Russia’s economy is uniquely positioned to lessen the impact of these financial weapons. The FSB’s Department “K” is one of the reasons the Russian economy is able to survive these sanctions. This is a subset of the security service is nominally tasked with investigating financial crime, “but actually oversees many…black cash schemes”. “Black cash” refers to attempts by Russian oligarchs to transfer money from Russia to the West. One example of this saw Russia slip 20 billion US dollars through Moldova and then Estonia and Latvia in order to access its offshore bank accounts. [2]

So, what next?

If the West does not have the tools to effectively halt Russia’s expansionist, sabre-rattling ways, what can it do? The answer is be patient. This can prove to be a frustrating and unpopular strategy as many countries, the United States in particular, have a poor track record when it comes to this tool. Instead of reacting to every new threat and provocation instigated by the Kremlin, the West can only reaffirm its defence and arms commitments, especially those to Ukraine, and hope that the paper tiger will fold. Of course, this is not a very inspiring strategy.

The next question that inevitably arises is, can the Russians themselves topple the Putin regime from within? Probably not. The simple fact is that Putin still enjoys a large base of support, especially among the older segments of the population. Additionally, the state and the security services operate a highly sophisticated surveillance system, possibly second only to that found in China. When there have been major protests (most notably in the winter of 2020), Russian OMON and FSB personnel have proved adept at mercilessly crushing dissent.

It is very likely that Russia will not see any major political changes until Putin either dies or makes the unlikely decision to voluntarily exit the political arena. From an outsider’s perspective, Putin and the siloviki appear to have a firm grip on power as it stands. However, there is one other pathway that could lead to Putin finally facing the consequences of his actions. This ultimately does not involve any foreign or domestic threat but rather Putin himself. Putin is at risk of overextending Russia in a military, economic and political sense. While the Russian military has modernised and now enjoys greater military spending, it is still faced with a shrinking population, undermotivated conscripts and inferior equipment. Politically, it is foreseeable that a long, protracted engagement in Ukraine would cause the Russian populace to sour on the Kremlin. This is especially true when wages and standards of living have been falling for years. Finally, the economic stagnation that Russia currently faces would only be exacerbated by the type of long-term war, and its unintended consequences, into which Putin could potentially stumble.

There is a historical precedent to support this conclusion. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Russia styled itself as the “Policeman of Europe”. On numerous occasions, the Imperial Russian Army would intervene on behalf of its allies and other struggling monarchs to preserve a world order it viewed as beneficial to itself. This ultimately influenced its decision to intervene in the First World War. As we all know, this short-term tactical decision upended the country’s entire system of governance and led to the destruction of the Romanov dynasty. For a man as apparently obsessed with history as Putin is, he fails to recognise the potential perils of his constant interventions. It is ironic that the man bent on restoring Russia’s historical importance could well end up repeating the errors of the same Russian Empire he wants to restore.

Daniel Jarosak does contract work for the US government. He was a former Researching Editor for New Eastern Europe and has an educational background in Eastern and Central Europe.

[1] Agnia Grigas, “Russian Reimperialization: From Soft Power to Annexation,” in Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] Catherine Belton Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020) 

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