Putin’s Plans: As Russia Weakens, its Sword-Rattling Increases

Crimea is under Russian control. A large swath of the Donbas, including the main industrial hubs of Donetsk and Luhansk, remain outside Ukrainian government control. Russian troops roam the streets of the Donbas with impunity. Some don’t even bother to remove the Russian flag patch from their sleeves.  The Russian-Ukrainian border is one in name only; consumer goods, people, and weapons flow across it unregulated.

Despite these appearances, Putin has lost Ukraine. A pro-European president and Parliament now rule the country. Forty percent of Ukrainians say that they hate the Russian president. Another 35 percent say that they merely despise him. By some estimates, support for Ukrainian membership in NATO passed the 50 percent threshold, far higher than has ever been recorded.

This is a far cry from the vision of Ukraine’s future devised in the halls of the Kremlin. When they dredged up the idea of ‘Novorossiya’ from the murky depths of history, Putin envisioned nothing less than an uprising across the entire southeast of Ukraine stretching from Kharkiv to Odessa. With the help of the Russian security services (FSB), the “Russian Spring” movement was supposed to unite pro-Russian protestors across the region, forcing the interim government in Kyiv to negotiate by federalizing the country and forever vetoing the prospect of Ukraine’s westward push. Instead, Putin badly misjudged. Aided and abetted by the FSB and the “little green men” from Crimea, pro-Russian forces only managed to gain a foothold in the most pro-Russian region of Donbas. The rest of the country turned decisively against Putin’s machinations. Meanwhile, under the weight of sanctions and low global energy prices, Russia’s economy is stagnant and on the verge of recession. Putin’s fifteen years of trying to integrate Russia into the international community was reversed almost overnight.

In this environment, we should expect the worst from Putin in the coming years. Deflecting attention from Russia’s pressing domestic problems and international isolation, Putin is likely to ratchet up Russia’s confrontation with Ukraine and the West.

Ukraine will continue to be Russia’s primary target. First, Putin will try to prove to Russians the folly of the Maidan movement by disrupting Ukraine’s modernization efforts. The first pressure point in Ukraine is clearly in the Donbas, where Russia can continue to raise the risk of a re-ignited confrontation between the Ukrainian military and the rebels. Meanwhile, the Russian security services will do as much as possible to complicate Ukrainian politics. Russia will support pro-Russian political forces such as the Opposition Bloc and Communist Party. They also might penetrate far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups, as has already been alleged by the Ukrainian government, enticing them to engage in acts of violence or radicalism. This would boost the Russian media narrative of outsized neo-Nazi elements in Ukrainian society, justifying Russian responses to protect Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

Putin and other Russian officials will continue to make degrading and frightening statements about Russia’s neighbors in the so-called “near abroad.” Russian officials will continue to talk about “Russkiy mir,” the supposed kinship that unites all Russian-speakers regardless of their ethnic identity or their political preferences. Even strong Russian allies like Belarus and Kazakhstan will be the targets of disparaging remarks that question the countries’ “historical existence.” Neighboring states that don’t fully kowtow to the Russian line will become the targets of aggressive trade policies.

Most alarmingly for Europe and international security, the Russian Federation will continue to shake their fist at the West and NATO. Russia’s decision to recognize the upcoming elections in separatist-controlled Donbas, contrary to the Minsk Agreement, is one aspect of this. Another example was the kidnapping of the Estonian border guard Eston Kohver two days after President Obama’s visit to the country in early September. Russian aircrafts will continue to pierce NATO airspace, probe the reaction time of their defensive capabilities, and generally behave aggressively toward their Western partners. All the while, Russian leaders will vociferously deny any wrongdoing to the Russian people, portraying themselves as victims of NATO aggression and Russophobia.

As Vladimir Putin feels increasingly insecure in the face of international isolation and economic stagnation, Russia is more likely to behave aggressively. Therefore the international community should expect more confrontation and instability as the sanctions gain traction. This aggression will primarily target Ukraine, but will also affect other countries in the Russian orbit and especially the West. The international community must brace for the unintended consequences of Russia’s international isolation. As Russia gets weaker, Moscow will put on a tough face and lash out.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center