Countless geopolitical analysts attribute increasing Russian aggression to Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinNavalny knocks Apple, Google for removing voting app Federal agencies warn companies to be on guard against prolific ransomware strain Top US general: Meeting with Russian counterpart 'productive' MORE’s desire to reclaim Russian “greatness.” But a more nuanced assessment holds that, far from “resurrecting” the “Russian empire,” Putin’s provocations are symptoms of an isolated power in decline.
In short, recent Russian bellicosity around the globe amounts to (a) propping up the few allies that Moscow has left or (b) lashing out when Russia loses (yet another) ally. Ultimately, Putin’s increasingly belligerent behavior – to include Moscow’s sweeping campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. elections – is a product of Russia’s increasing isolation on the international stage.
After centuries of invasions – from Napoleon to Nazi Germany – the Russian strategic psyche remains staunchly suspicious of the West. While this wariness is largely unfounded in the current geopolitical context, it is a reality. Policymakers would be wise to acknowledge that Moscow is paranoid about its continued loss of traditional allies and client states, especially on its western flank.
Indeed, Russia hemorrhaged allied buffer states following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many Eastern European nations, enticed by massive investment flows and the economic benefits that come with closer relations with Europe, began looking westwards.
In all, 13 countries – virtually all previously in the Soviet sphere of influence – joined the transatlantic NATO alliance following the end of the Cold War. These losses to the West, coupled with declining military spending, amounted to a series of strategic defeats for Russia.
While Moscow’s influence on the world stage (rightly) plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remains a significant military and nuclear power capable of projecting force around the globe. As Russia lost traditional buffer-client states to the West, Putin reacted much like many other large, authoritarian military powers under similar circumstances: by lashing out.
Moscow launched the first European war of the 21st century following Georgia’s westward turn towards Europe. More recently, Putin responded to Ukraine’s pivot away from Russia by annexing Ukraine's Crimea region and launching a deadly war in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Both Ukraine and Georgia share a border with Russia, making their turns toward Europe particularly stinging strategic losses for Moscow.
A few years later, as the Balkan country of Montenegro finalized the NATO membership process, Russia attempted a last-minute coup to halt the tiny nation’s westward turn. Moscow’s desperate (and often deadly) interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Montenegro are not the actions of an “empire” on the rise; they are the hallmarks of a fading giant desperately seeking to reverse a series of strategic defeats.
In an (imperfect) analogy, policymakers might imagine how a future U.S. government would react if Europe, Mexico and Canada turned toward China. Or, viewed through a slightly different lens, how many allies would the U.S. lose to the influence of a nuclear-armed competitor before it responded with force?
To be clear, citizens in all countries should be free to choose their governments and, by extension, their nation’s alliances. But there are consequences to actively pushing (or publicly cheering) key Russian allies and client states away from Moscow's orbit, as successive U.S. administrations have done. Indeed, considering a litany of historical nuances and Putin’s personality and background, it should come as no surprise that Russia lashes out as it is increasingly cornered on the international stage.
Importantly, Putin’s forceful reaction to the loss of traditional allies is not limited to Europe. Syria, for example, is one of Russia’s few remaining client-allies in the Middle East. When Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies sought to topple Syria’s Russian-allied government, Moscow mobilized a massive contingent of warships, combat aircraft and troops to ensure the survival of Syria’s authoritarian regime.
Putin does himself no PR favors by defending the brutal government in Syria. But Russian (and Iranian) efforts to save one of their few remaining allies prevented another catastrophic Middle Eastern power vacuum. Indeed, the collapse of the Syrian government would have made the rise of the Islamic State seem like a picnic.
In 2016, as Putin propped up his Syrian ally, Russia mounted an extraordinary attack against the United States. According to the U.S. Intelligence Community, Putin ordered a massive psychological influence operation – aimed squarely at the American public – for two key reasons.
First, Putin sought to elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Putin’s preference for Trump is hardly surprising. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump openly hinted at policies that aligned directly with Russia’s most pressing geopolitical objectives. Among them: Weakening NATO, removing crushing Western sanctions on Russia, and recognizing Ukraine’s Crimea region as Russian territory. (It should come as little surprise that Trump’s election was loudly cheered in Russia’s parliament.)
By launching advertising campaigns, mobilizing (or discouraging) voters and organizing political events, such as rallies – the three primary activities of any political campaign – Putin’s massive influence operation turned the Russian government into a direct extension of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Putin’s interference effort also sought to sow division in the United States. Given the fractured, divisive nature of political discourse today, a robust argument can be made that the thousands of paid advertisements, internet memes and false “news” stories created, planted and promoted by Russian intelligence officers were remarkably successful in politically polarizing America.
Indeed, Russia’s gamble to undermine American democracy represents an egregious violation of international norms, just short of an act of war. But Putin’s dangerous wager was not the act of a great power, nor of an empire on the rise. On the contrary, not once during the Cold War, even when the Soviet Union was at its peak, did Moscow think to resort to meddling so directly (and blatantly) in America’s internal affairs.
In the wake of Moscow’s long list of strategic defeats, Putin’s bid to elect Trump and surreptitiously destabilize the United States reflects an isolated former empire’s desperate gamble to change the status quo. As such, policymakers would be wise to reassess the strategic benefits of further isolating Russia.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.