Few leaders in history have leveraged inscrutability the way Putin has. For weeks, his deputies and propaganda outlets have delivered conflicting reports, simultaneously denying the intention to invade while amplifying his desire to debase what he sees as continued Western post-Cold War encroachments.
A headline last week from pro-Kremlin newspaper Argumenty i Fakty read: “Nato Is a Cancer: It is Only Going to Spread.” In Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, Russian specialist in military, strategic and geopolitical affairs Konstantin Sivkov argued, “A new cold war is unfolding against Russia. In fact, it didn’t stop. The West is consolidating the successes of the previous stages of the Cold War and (…) is once again building an ‘iron curtain’, pursuing the previous bloc policy, increasing the size of NATO and moving it to the borders of Russia.”
The anti-Westernization rhetoric being pushed for the last decade has profoundly changed the political landscape in the region. As Putin prepares to invade Ukraine, he is neither looking for de facto territorial gains nor a diplomatic resolution. Instead, he is pursuing aggressive foreign policy initiatives aimed at expanding the Russian sphere of influence, knowing that the West will pursue a policy of engagement in order to subvert potential armed conflict. Whether or not he is successful at instigating a proxy war between Russia and the West, Putin will gain concessions at the bargaining table, ensuring not only regime survival, but the preservation of power.
Over the last decade, President Vladimir Putin has meticulously built a regime centered around preserving power. In his quest for historical legitimacy, he has focused on the late imperial period, when the empire was ruled by an assertive monarch who successfully modernized the region while suppressing domestic dissent and keeping Western rivals at bay. The power structure Putin has erected is reminiscent of a tsardom with stark parallels to Alexander III: a tsar for whom Putin had expressed his deep admiration for during a visit to the Crimean Peninsula in 2018. Like his distant predecessor, Putin has rejected many of the liberal reforms in Russia that threatened to limit his autocratic rule, and successfully delegated tasks to prominent figures amongst his kleptocratic allies. Putin’s agenda of preserving power is a carefully executed triptych: one in which he has ensured total control over his security apparatus, the accumulation of global assets, and geopolitical leverage on the European continent. He maintains total control over his security apparatus by way of quelling social interest and activism, but also by rewarding loyalty with exorbitant wealth and access to his elite circle. Putin then delegates tasks to his vast network of prominent kleptocratic allies who are best equipped to handle a variety of national security and energy interests.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a prominent businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” is the owner of private military company Wagner Group, which pursues Russian strategic objectives through hybrid warfare, using both direct combat and online manipulation. He was recently indicted by the U.S. for operating the Internet Research Agency, a disinformation troll farm that was accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Wagner’s appearance in strategic hotspots reveals a close correlation between Prigozhin’s commercial aspirations and the Kremlin’s pursuit of national interest. Prigozhin has been accumulating significant prestige and political capital, paving the way for future lucrative contracts, while providing services in the countries where Russia wants to expand its influence. By executing its foreign policy objectives, Wagner provides the Kremlin with immunity from international backlash. Alexey Miller, another notable figure in Putin’s elite circle and CEO of Russian energy company Gazprom, has pursued a policy aimed at devolving full control of the company to the Kremlin and Putin personally. Gazprom has since been routinely used as a powerful tool of external aggression and for promoting foreign policy. The so-called “gas wars” with Ukraine and the promotion of the Nord Stream 2 project, which makes Germany dependent on direct gas supplies from Russia, have become vivid manifestations of Putin’s interference.
It is no wonder, then, that the the Biden administration has repeatedly claimed the pipeline is leverage over Russia as many in the West fear an invasion of Ukraine. However, the White House opted to waive sanctions on the company responsible for its construction in May of 2021, with President Biden noting that the project was “almost completely finished.” On Jan. 26th, State Department spokesman Ned Price stated that the U.S. will ensure that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany will not become operational if Moscow decides to invade Ukraine.
This leverage, however, may not be as salient as the West seems to think. The Nord Stream pipeline is already operational between Russia and Germany, and it allows Russia to significantly diversify their oil and gas supplies, while eliminating the reliance on the pipeline that runs through Ukraine. The completion of Nord Stream in 2012 enabled Moscow to earn profits while also putting more political pressure on the government of Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych. Germany, in turn, has largely turned a blind eye to the larger Russian agenda as it has struck lucrative bilateral agreements with Moscow. There is an overwhelming lack of unity with respect to other European nations that also have bilateral gas supply agreements with Russia, largely because there are no alternative supply opportunities, nor overarching or multilateral supply agreements. This arrangement is wholly intentional and grants Russia considerable influence over its European counterparts. Putin has been expanding Russian influence in the region for the past decade, playing a game of geopolitical chess devoid of any rules or guardrails.
On Jan 28th, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin insisted that Putin remains undecided about invading Ukraine, but that Russia “clearly now has that capability.” Austin also argued that there was still “time and space for diplomacy” and added that the U.S. will continue to aid Ukraine via “security assistance material.” President Biden also vaguely described his plans to send U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, describing the number as “not too many,” and ruling out sending forces directly to Ukraine. Two days later, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggested that Europe should diversify its energy supply, expressing concern over energy security in the region and the vulnerability of being dependent on one source. However, Stoltenberg also said that NATO has no plans to send direct military assistance to non-member Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion, adding “we are focusing on providing support.” As Western nations direct billions of dollars worth of economic and military assistance to Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is openly criticizing many of them, including the United States, for their handling of Russia’s military buildup at his border and for inciting what he sees as unnecessary panic.
President Zelensky is right in at least one aspect of his criticism: Western deterrence in Ukraine thus far has been inadequate as it has only served to impose more sanctions and send weapons, but not provide direct military support. Putin believes that if he can execute an effective military campaign against Ukraine and demonstrate the limitations of NATO, he can push NATO to fracture, undercut the U.S. role in Europe, and ultimately drive the United States out of its position on the continent. The objective is clear—Ukraine is merely a proxy. Putin has no intention of direct war with the U.S., but he has much larger demands than just preventing NATO expansion. A proxy war with Ukraine serves as a lever to put pressure on the West—an assurance of regime survival and expansion of the Russian sphere of influence. While the West tries to inflict significant costs on Russia, short of direct military action, it looks to Ukraine to subvert Russian aggression. How effective this will be in the case of a rapid onslaught remains to be seen; however if Ukraine falls, the strategic calculus in Eastern Europe will be forever changed to the detriment of the West.