Putin had a “grand strategy”, and it failed
While the West slept, Russia rocked
The starting point of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy goes back to 2007 when Putin openly criticized the strategy of Western countries during the Munich Security Conference. The President of Russia then expressed his main concern, which is still relevant today: The expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance is unacceptable because it is part of the US strategy to expand its own zone of military-political influence to the detriment of Russia’s interests. At the Russia-NATO summit the following April, Putin openly threatened to destroy Ukraine if it joined the alliance, referring to the neighboring country “not even a state.”
Five days after the speech in Munich, Putin appointed Anatoly Serdyukov, the man from his “Saint Petersburg Team” who radically changed the Russian armed forces, as the new Minister of Defense. Due to the initiated structural changes, subsequent military modernization became possible. It was a difficult task that eventually led to Serdyukov’s resignation when Putin returned to the presidency.
In addition to trying to modernize the military and reform the military-industrial complex, the Kremlin has mandated annual inspections and upgrades of the country’s network of bomb shelters. The outdated and plundered Soviet civil defense infrastructure needed to be revised and updated. In 2021, Moscow has also tried experimenting with the creation of an Army Reserve. It was formed late, largely due to poor management and retarded system of Russian Military Commissariats, inherited from the Soviet Union and remaining one of the most archaic institutions in the country.
Putin's Federal Reforms and Their Implications for Presidential Power in Russia
In addition to military issues, the Putin administration actively “captured” domestic politics. In the regions, the Kremlin gradually increased the influence of law enforcement agencies. Natives to some subjects of the Russian Federation became governors, while in others, law enforcement agencies rounded up regional leaders. The signal was clear — the heads of the regions must be exceptionally loyal and able to carry out any orders from the Kremlin. Otherwise, they were awaiting the investigation and prison.
Repressions against the opposition and the formation of a loyal civil society were part of the process of internal political mobilization. The destruction of individual political leaders, fragmentation of opposition groups, co-optation of civil initiatives with the help of grants and access to power, creation of alternative pro-government youth movements and censorship assured the general public’s consensus with this authoritarian political system. Putin’s regime labeled all the independent media, such as “Echo Moscow”, “Rain” TV channel, YouTube opposition channels, etc as “foreign agents”. Independent civil movements in wartime become suspects at best, and accomplices of the enemy at worst.
The Kremlin has also been preparing the country for economic sanctions. Since 2014, Russia has been actively working to ensure “economic security”. Moscow has defined the powers and responsibilities of federal agencies to counter sanctions by creating a legislative framework for working in an emergency. Moreover, the government conducted “stress tests” for state-owned companies, checking their readiness for the shutdown of SWIFT, the shortage of Western equipment, and restrictions on the conversion of the ruble. The Central Bank was also preparing to rescue the Russian financial system.
At the same time, the very contours of the future escalation were laid in a hidden mode. Even high-ranking officials did not know what exactly the Kremlin was demanding to prepare for. Only a detached and complex analysis made it possible to recognize the catastrophic – preparations were underway for a real war.
By 2022, the mosaic was almost completely assembled, with the exception of a key detail – the decision of Vladimir Putin. The ultimatum published on February 21 was the last attempt to get what he wanted in a non-military way. The check was pulled out, and on February 24 a grenade was thrown in the direction of Ukraine.
Putin has demonstrated an amazing consistency in his straightforward views, which have not changed in fifteen years. “NATO is a threat to Russia”, he claims. Ukraine is an “imaginary state”, deprived of the right to its own independent foreign policy and integration into the structures of the West. At the same time, Western politicians perceived these statements as propaganda divorced from reality and did not take them seriously.
By invading Ukraine, Putin has shown that understanding his foreign policy is easy—you just have to hear what he has to say.
The foggy future of European politics
Honoured Professor of Finland at the University of Helsinki Vladimir Gelman notes that the Kremlin’s calculations – even in military planning (the hope, apparently, was for a quick victory) – did not materialize due to the very political structure of Russia. What Gelman calls Putin’s “unworthy rule” has failed Putin himself. The most trusted bearers of the biggest state secrets turned out to be unreliable: American intelligence and the White House knew in advance about all the plans of the Kremlin and spoke about it publicly. Thus, they simultaneously warned Ukraine (giving it a chance to prepare for confrontation) and tried to prevent the war.
The fact that the preparations for the war became known is quite explainable by “holes in the system”, where the head of Chechnya Kadyrov, discusses in voice messages how he prepares a dance party on Khreshchatyk street in Kiev, while Russian military personnel use Viber and WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues in violation of a direct ban.
However, regardless of all the mistakes, Vladimir Putin cannot afford to lose this war politically. His personal security and the future of his regime are at stake. He put forward a number of political demands to Ukraine in advance. The key ones are the non-NATO status of Ukraine, the recognition of Crimea as Russian, and the LPR and DPR as independent, as well as the destruction of offensive weapons. Until Ukraine is ready to make such concessions, that is, de facto to lose part of its sovereignty and end Euro-Atlantic integration, the war will go on with an increasing number of victims and destruction.
The Russian army will more actively use indiscriminate attacks, and the possible start of guerrilla actions will lead to a multiple increase in civilian casualties. The participation of the West in this conflict has caused significant harm to the Russian military. There is a remaining concern regarding the use of nuclear weapons and expansion of the war in Ukraine beyond its western borders. Putin has openly warned about this, and it can be assumed that he is ready to do anything but lose his power.
Even the conclusion of a peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine cannot guarantee a peaceful future for Europe. The sanctions of the European Union and the United States are causing enormous damage to the Russian economy, the scale of which may exceed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The Kremlin will need a new enemy to explain its own failures and the plummeting of the standard of living. Hence, in its domestic politics the Kremlin will need to expand the search for the so-called “fifth column” supposedly working in the interests of Western countries. Russian partners in the European Union will have more and more questions about the benefits of such relations with Russia, which will have to be settled by new economic preferences to the detriment of Russian producers or threats towards EU members. Russia’s weakness will strengthen the influence of China that initially remained ambivalent in its assessments of the war in Ukraine, but recently have begun to speak out quite clearly.
Despite the reassurance from the Russian propaganda, the West hardly wants a revolution in Russia. It will be easier for NATO to isolate Russia and start a cold military confrontation with it than to seek regime change in a highly heterogeneous country with nuclear weapons. There is a consensus in the West that attempts to artificially change the Russian regime from within could lead to even greater problems. This can cause the territorial collapse of Russia, the loss of control over weapons of mass destruction, millions of refugees, the religious radicalization of the population of certain Russian regions, e.g., the Chechen Republic; an unprecedented energy crisis, and revolutions in other post-Soviet countries of Central Asia.
Therefore, the neighboring Western countries are much better off with Putin, restrained by the new Iron Curtain, is preferable to any form of military confrontation or the inflicting “point of no return” damage on Russia.
Intellectual coma of the Russian nation
February 24, 2022, Putin sent Russia straight into a debacle. The speed and likelihood of the country’s salvation depend on the internal political situation, that is, on the realization that the political system created over thirty years is no longer viable and quite archaic for the present day Russia. Not only it does not generate welfare growth, but also does not insure against decisions taken by its sole ruler leading to colossal negative consequences. The architects of this system were two post-Soviet presidents who imposed their sole power and interests on Russian citizens without attempting to find a consensus in such a complex and vast country as Russia.
Moreover, since 2007, the Kremlin has relied on an unrealistic “grand strategy” to confront NATO in order to revise the European system of relations and correct the “historical injustice”, which from this point of view consisted in the fact that since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been removed from its control of the Eastern Europe. This strategy rested on three pillars:
- Asymmetric military competition in those parts of the planet where Russia has a military advantage, and the establishment of alternative foreign policy partnerships in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
- Multi-hybrid domination of its rivals, i.e., disinformation wars, natural gas blackmail, export of corruption, selective approach to international law, sabotage and the formation of a block of loyalists within those countries.
- Domestic political mobilization of Russia (industrial, economic and financial consolidation, repressions and return of personalized power).However, the chosen grand strategy began to crumble due to the managerial system — created by Yeltsin and perfected by Putin — inept to generate exceeding economic growth and adequately assess the role of ideas in the world politics. These are related things. Russia is no example to anyone. Today, no one wants to be equal to Russia because of its economic aridity. And ideologically, Russia has nothing to offer to the world. Today reformers, even within authoritarian countries, seek to adopt good public administration and entrepreneurship practices from Kazakhstan, Serbia, Ukraine, and Estonia — and not Russian pinpoint innovations.
Therefore, despite the legitimacy of some of Russia’s demands to reform the European security system, the strategy to achieve them turned out to be a deliberate failure. At the same time, it was not Putin alone who shaped this strategy. Responsibility is borne by all members of the political class and all Russian experts loyal to the authorities, who, in exchange for short-term benefits and comfortable living, turned a blind eye to the obvious artificiality of the new order.
However, any crisis is a chance for rebirth. The salvation of today’s Russia is possible with the help of an intellectual revolution and the recognition of moral responsibility for the created system. Paradoxically, it’s time for Russians to truly experience what the Russian regime has used for years in the name of its own interests: solidarity between compatriots, love for each other and for their unique country, protection of their own cultural identity.