During the past four years, the world has begun to discern that Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, has been pursuing a full-blown campaign to restore its global stature and regional power which has been on the wane ever since the beginning of the demise of the old Soviet Union. While Russia today is still a formidable military power, it has a relatively small economy that is heavily dependent on its energy sector, and the country can no longer marshal the resources necessary to act as a true global power as it could during the times of the Soviet Union. The Russian plan to recapture its position on the global stage has three main areas of focus:
Ensure that all its neighboring countries which were once part of the Soviet broad sphere of influence remain “friendly,” if not dependent on Russia.
Actively become involved in areas around the world where the United States has consciously retreated, such as Syria in the Middle East.
Weaken the liberal democracies, including the United States and the countries in the EU, who stand as the greatest obstacle to Putin’s aspirations.
The first part of this plan, the creation of a substantial, friendly buffer zone following the rough outline of the old Soviet Union, has begun to emerge through military action, as well as through the promotion of Kremlin-friendly governments in neighboring states. In 2014, when Ukraine was threatening to forge closer ties with the European Union, Putin commanded his military and intelligence forces to stage a revolt in Eastern Ukraine which resulted in the Crimean region’s separation from the mainland and a stand-off in a vast territory of Eastern Ukraine that no longer recognizes the authority of the government in Kiev. Russia essentially “stole” Crimea. The aggressiveness shown by Putin stunned the world and, most importantly, sent a clear message to all other countries that had been under Soviet control that they would risk a similar fate if they attempted to get closer to the European Union or the United States.
Other examples of Russia’s determination to project its regional priorities include the direct meddling in the elections of Montenegro and its open support for the new leader of Hungary. Hungary, a previously Soviet Controlled state, had since its liberation become a shinning example of a liberal democracy that had chosen to have closer ties with the West, and eventually joined the European Union in 2004. In this case, Putin realized that using military force, as he did in Ukraine, would be too dangerous, so he began to actively support a nationalist political leader, Victor Orban, who is now the current Prime Minister. Orban openly admires Putin, is a champion of what he has termed “illiberal democracy,” is actively promoting the defense of national sovereignty and a demonstrated distrust of Europe’s ruling establishments. Orban’s Hungary was the only member of the EU which opposed Russian sanctions for their annexation of Crimea.
Russia has also taken advantage of the Obama’s administration’s policy to take a back seat in the middle-east by actively inserting itself in the middle of the Syrian civil war.
The Assad regime had historically enjoyed close ties with the Soviet Union, and once the United States decided to decrease its role in the region, Putin jumped on the opportunity to have Russia become a significant player in the region. Russia and Iran are today Bashar Al-Assad’s main backers, and Putin has created a situation where any resolution to the Syrian civil war would have to include Russia. Putin has once again gained for Russia a Principal’s Seat at the table that will eventually resolve the future of this volatile but essential region for world peace.
Other than reestablishing its preeminence in the old soviet “controlled” regions, and reasserting its influence in the middle-east, a key aspect of Putin’s strategy has been to weaken its main adversaries, including the European Union and the United States. His ultimate goal here is to achieve the demise of NATO and ensure that the European countries can no longer restrain Russia’s ambitions. Putin has openly supported several political leaders in Europe who support withdrawing their countries from the European Union. Russian banks, with close ties to Putin and the Kremlin, funneled more than nine-million euros into Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France which actively campaigned against the European Union. Russia also undertook a sustained cyberattack against the campaign of Emanuel Macron, Le Pen’s challenger, who is an active supporter of the European project. Putin was also a strong supporter of England’s exit from the EU, and there is strong evidence that Russia covertly participated in supporting and perhaps even attempted to influence the Brexit campaign.
Putin has also made the decision that he must confront the United States directly using the modern tools of cyberwarfare where asymmetrical strategies can have a very significant effect, at a relatively low risk since they are so difficult to detect. In this context, Putin’s greatest success to date has been Russia’s direct involvement in fomenting chaos within its chief historical rival, the United States of America. The sixteen agencies dealing with intelligence in the United States government have unanimously concluded that Russia perpetrated a cyberattack against Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The attack on the Clinton campaign’s servers were aimed at embarrassing Hillary Clinton, and affecting the outcome of the Presidential election. This move has been a great blow to the credibility of America’s democracy. More ominously, the Russian interference in the election has expanded into a criminal investigation as to whether the Trump campaign acted in collusion with the Russians. There is still a long way to go with this investigation, but at the moment it has led to a destabilization of the Trump White House which has severely affected the effectiveness of the administration in implementing its agenda. While the Trump administration’s program is considered the most pro-Russian since the end of World War II, there is great resistance in Congress, including from within President Trump’s Republican Party, and it is relatively unlikely that much of it could be implemented in practice. Putin, however, is probably smiling somewhere in the Kremlin as he sees the chaos that he has helped create which has deeply affected the normal functioning of the United States government while weakening the historical alliances between the world’s great democracies. It is far too early to call Russia victorious, but Putin’s grand plan to, once again, place Russia as a key player on the global chess board is undoubtedly gaining significant traction, and has been frighteningly successful thus far.