Putin’s Poison Pill

  • Themes: Russia

The Russian president’s ambition to restore his country’s Soviet-era influence is solely in his own interest – at the expense of the nation’s long-term security and prosperity.

Graffiti of Vladimir Putin on building wall on Maroseyka street in the central Moscow, Russia.
Graffiti of Vladimir Putin on building wall on Maroseyka street in the central Moscow, Russia. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo

It is a sobering reminder of just how long Vladimir Putin has been challenging the West that he was nearing only his third year as Russian president when he launched his initial attempt to impose a nineteenth-century vision of geopolitics by exploiting an international crisis. That came two decades ago during a condolence call to his American counterpart George W Bush following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Far from unequivocally orienting his country toward the West, as many suggested at the time, Putin’s proposal to form an international anti-terrorism coalition was aimed at walling Russia off. Accepting him as an equal partner, the Kremlin’s logic went, would prompt Western leaders to acknowledge a Russian sphere of influence, free of liberal democratic values. That would silence criticism of his brutal war in breakaway Chechnya, promoting the deception that his massacring of civilians was necessary collateral damage in the common interest.

Putin had come to power on his promise to pacify Chechnya, part of the creation myth of his leadership as the sole means of preserving Russian sovereignty. Together with his image of a historic leader unafraid to restore Russia’s global clout, that narrative was key for legitimising his kleptocratic authoritarian rule.

Agreement with the West was not to be, of course. When he tried again in 2008, it was with a proposal for a new European security architecture that Western countries could only dismiss as a means of neutering NATO and the European Union. This time, forcing rather than merely offering up a concept that would dismantle the Continent’s post-war order represented a new projection of power, and came with Putin’s own ready-made international crisis – his threat of war in Georgia. When a deal with the West inevitably flopped again, Russia’s invasion succeeded in taking the former Soviet republic off the table for any foreseeable NATO membership, but still failed to impose his geopolitical vision on Europe.

Putin continued escalating his challenge to the West, in Ukraine, Syria, cyberspace and elsewhere; the current crisis over Ukraine is the latest, boldest attempt in his 20-year drive. With some 130,000 Russian troops encircling the country, the threat of imminent invasion is again shaking Europe’s security architecture with the possibility of the first conflict in Europe involving global powers since the Second World War.

Amid the swirling speculation about Putin’s real intentions, one matter is clear: He is already achieving what he wants. His endgame, if it can be called that, is not stability and security – even on his own terms – but ongoing crisis and destabilisation that puts him at international centre stage. Thus, despite the colossal Western effort to head off military conflict a final diplomatic solution with Moscow is all-but unattainable whether or not Putin invades, thanks to the logic of his regime.

Central to his modus operandi is a key aspect of the Russian political culture he resurrected after a decade of Westernisation in the 1990s: the practice of deceiving outsiders by maintaining facades. His predecessors have often done just that by appearing to adopt foreign concepts that actually enabled the preservation of traditional autocracy and expansion of empire. The laws of Catherine the Great left out much of the Enlightenment thought she claimed they reflected. The tone and practice of Stalinist communism would surely have astounded Marx. Western politicians’ mistake is to take Russian institutions and political rhetoric at face value.

The current disinformation is that Putin is really seeking to restore Moscow’s Soviet-era influence. In fact, projecting himself as the main global opponent of the United States lies in his own interests and that of his small circle of Kremlin insiders at the expense of the country’s long-term security and prosperity. He has the luxury of having neutralised public opinion with coercion and propaganda. Even though the vast majority of Russians oppose a war with Ukraine, they feel powerless to stop it, and would almost certainly pin any aggression on the West.

US President Joe Biden and his European allies are to be commended for their sustained diplomatic campaign to offer Putin an off-ramp. But diplomacy must be backed up by the only kind of persuasion he understands: hard constraints. More than threatening the kind of economic sanctions that have failed to sway him in the past, the transatlantic community must leave no doubt that invading Ukraine would bring about a military and political debacle. For a start, that means many more boots on the ground in NATO’s Eastern European flank.

Whether or not Putin invades Ukraine, ensuring his aggression stops there will require unity, perseverance, and – understandably unpalatable as it may be to many – displaying willingness to fight for liberal democratic values in Europe. Worse than gaining nothing, appeasement would only encourage further challenges from him and other kleptocrats.


Gregory Feifer