How Russian imperialism could bring down Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin has based his domestic support on economic growth and restoring the “Russian World.” With the Russian economy in a nosedive, the Kremlin looks increasingly likely to attack a former Soviet neighbor to revive its imperial credentials. Twelve years ago, Russia invaded Georgia to divert public attention from the 2008 financial crisis, and in 2014 it invaded Ukraine to help quash growing protests against Putin’s rule. A confluence of factors will make the next few months especially dangerous for Russia’s neighbors, but also for Russia itself.

An assertive foreign policy can shift the spotlight away from Russia’s economic decline, and the global pandemic provides a unique strategic opportunity. Western capitals are preoccupied with the health crisis and its economic repercussions. In addition, the U.S. confronts social and economic convulsions in the midst of a deeply divisive election. Putin will urgently seek a foreign fait accompli, especially as he may face a more combative administration if former Vice President Joe Biden becomes president. Although the U.S. national security team has pushed back against Russia’s aggression, Putin perceives Trump as more accommodating. And if Trump is reelected, Putin will seek a grand deal that will acknowledge Russia’s new conquests.

The Kremlin has several offensive options along its long European and Central Asian borders. Although Moscow aspires to seize northern Kazakhstan, inhabited by a large Russian ethnic population, such an operation would be prolonged and destructive, and would alienate Russia’s other Central Asian allies. A direct attack on a NATO member containing sizeable Russian-speaking populations, such as Estonia or Latvia, may be tempting, but this is likely to provoke an American response to defend its allies. It is countries outside NATO that are most vulnerable, as they do not possess a multi-national security shield.

Ukraine remains key to Moscow’s neo-imperial agenda. Its independence and Western integration exposes Russia’s fraudulent claims to the country’s history, identity, culture and territory. Although Russia occupies Ukraine’s Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas region, Moscow has failed to coerce Kyiv back under its control. Putin is therefore weighing several options in staging another assault on its sovereignty. These include a new offensive to expand proxy-held Donbas after claiming that the Minsk process has collapsed, or even the direct annexation of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” 

Another realistic possibility is a disguised humanitarian operation to provide water to drought-stricken Crimea. This would involve the seizure of much of Ukraine’s southern coastline from the Azov Sea to the major port city of Odessa. Such an operation would block Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and further strangle the country’s economy. It would also directly threaten NATO ally Romania as well as Black Sea commercial shipping routes and energy platforms. Russia has placed 150,000 troops and more than 100 warships on a state of high alert close to Ukraine’s borders and is conducting a series of offensive exercises. Moscow claims it is providing military security against terrorist threats, but the objective looks more ominous.

A looming prospect is the absorption of Belarus, viewed in Moscow as Russian land with a false sense of national identity. The pretext of growing unrest in Belarus and the disputed presidential elections on August 9 may enable Putin to pose as the national liberator from the autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko. One cannot assume that the fall of Lukashenko will herald a democratic pro-Western government in Minsk. On the contrary, Moscow will seek to make sure that Belarus does not follow the path of Ukraine and Georgia toward Western institutions. 

But despite his calculations, Putin’s empire-building may also backfire at home. Thus far, open opposition to Moscow has revolved around specific grievances — whether the loss of land by Ingushetia, the sacking of a popular governor in Khabarovsk in the Far East, the reduction of language rights among non-Russian ethnics or environmental pollution in the Far Northern regions. Paradoxically, instead of distracting attention from domestic woes, a foreign offensive can both exacerbate and refocus public anger. A costly escapade that further impoverishes and isolates Russia may help convince large sectors of the Russian population that the only solution is Putin’s ouster. 

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is  “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.

Tags Joe Biden NATO Russia Russian-US relations Ukraine US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin

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