Putin’s long-term strategy: exploit ethnic tensions to weaken NATO
With Russian forces massed on the Ukrainian border and talks stalling, fear of invasion has increased. Vladimir Putin is using the threat of a major war in eastern Europe to wrest concessions from the United States and NATO.
Commentators have described him as irrational. Putin’s long-term strategy, however, is consistent and predictable, even when his short-term objectives are not.
Like the tsars and commissars before him, Putin wants a buffer zone in eastern Europe. By 1914, the Russian Empire included Finland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and much of Poland. The Soviet Union ceded most of that territory when it signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in 1917.
After World War I, Poland, the Baltic Republics and Finland gained independence. In 1920-21, Poland fought a successful war against the Soviet Union over a boundary dispute. Once the Bolsheviks consolidated power and rebuilt their armed forces, they looked to secure their western frontier. In August 1939, the Kremlin signed the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Secret clauses in the treaty divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union and allowed the Kremlin to annex the Baltic Republics.
The agreement did not prevent the Third Reich from invading Russia in June 1941. The Soviets repelled the invaders and advanced all the way to Berlin. Premier Josef Stalin, whom Putin greatly admires, established communist puppet states in Eastern European countries occupied by the Red Army. Those regimes lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1989.
Putin came to power after a decade of Russian weakness during which Moscow watched NATO expand to include old Soviet republics and client states. As a former KGB official, Putin lamented the demise of the Soviet empire and the loss of Russian prestige and power. He is determined to rebuild them.
Demographics have given him an opportunity to do so. The breakup of the Soviet Union had left 25.3 million ethnic Russians outside the new Russian Federation, many of them living in former Soviet republics where their status fell from ruling elite to resented minority. They had a hard time assimilating into nations that were ethnically defined and often did not welcome them. The presence of these disgruntled expatriates gave the Kremlin leverage it could use against the newly independent states.
When I lectured at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu, Estonia in 2004, people were already expressing concern over Russian aggression. I heard the same concern when I spoke in Latvia a few years later. The Baltic states did not fear a full-scale invasion but worried that Moscow would use sizeable Russian minorities in both countries to stir up trouble.
Those fears proved justified. In April 2007, Estonians removed the bronze soldier, a Soviet war memorial in the center of Tallinn. The action sparked violent protests by ethnic Russians and provoked a rebuke from the Kremlin. Russian hackers then launched what many consider the first state-on-state cyber-attack against Estonia, targeting government and financial websites. Despite Moscow’s denials, most analysts believe the Russian government was behind the attack.
Putin has exploited ethnic tensions elsewhere in the old Soviet empire. He has encouraged Russian separatists in the Transnistria region of Moldova and in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 Experts believe the West’s tepid response to Russian aggression emboldened Putin. In 2014, the Kremlin issued a statement that it would protect Russians living abroad. In 2020, the government changed the rules on dual citizenship, making it easier for those people to get Federation passports.
Viewed in this broader strategic context, Putin’s moves against Ukraine make sense. In 2014, he supported a separatist movement that allowed Russia to annex Crimea, reversing the 1954 decision to transfer it to Ukraine. The Kremlin then backed Russian separatists in the Donbass region, sparking an ongoing conflict that has cost the lives of an estimated 10,300 people.
In addition to using conventional military threats, Russia has conducted cyberwarfare against its former satellites. Hackers launched distributed denial of service attacks against Estonian in 2007, Lithuanian and Georgia in 2008, and Kazakhstan in 2009. In 2015, Russian hackers successfully shut down a significant section of the Ukrainian power grid. On Jan. 14, Ukrainian government websites were again hacked. U.S. intelligence agencies blame the Russian government for these attacks.
Putin realizes he cannot resurrect the Soviet Empire, but he believes he can weaken the states on his border and diminish NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe. He had gone some way to achieving that goal with the election of pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine in 2010. Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014 prompted Putin’s aggressive moves against the country.
Putin’s immediate objectives are less clear than his long-term goals. He is demanding NATO not admit Ukraine, not deploy forces in Eastern Europe and refrain from conducting military exercises in the region. The no-expansion demand is a non-starter. NATO has no plans to admit Ukraine any time soon, but it cannot give a guarantee that it will never do so.
The military demands are more complicated. The U.S. does have 4,500 troops in Poland and has deployed the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Romania with plans to deploy it to Poland in 2022. The system aims to defend NATO from an Iranian attack and does not threaten Russia’s ICBMs, but the Kremlin sees it as a threat.
From May to June 2021, NATO did conduct the DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise, involving 28,000 military personnel from 26 countries, including Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Estonia. However, Russia has engaged in numerous provocative acts around the world in recent years. The Biden administration may, however, be willing to reduce deployments in Poland and Estonia as a quid pro quo for similar Russian reductions. That could end the crisis, provided Putin is interested in an agreement rather than looking for a pretext to start a war with Ukraine.
If Putin’s goal is to weaken NATO, he may be having the opposite effect. Fear of Russia is drawing the alliance closer together. The threat of sanctions may also deter Russian aggression. One can only hope cooler heads in the Kremlin prevail.
Tom Mockaitis (@DrMockaitis) is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”
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