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The West Needs to Understand Putin’s Plan So That They Can Combat It

 5 min read / 

In the 2012 US Presidential Election debates, Obama ridiculed his opponent, Mitt Romney, who had suggested that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical threat.

“The nineteen eighties are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the cold war has been over for twenty years.”

Just six years and one shocking US presidential election later such comments seem naïve and hubristic. Since that debate, Russia has annexed Crimea, gone to war in all but name in Eastern Ukraine has become the key player in the ongoing civil war in Syria and has been embroiled in a string of accusations of electoral interference in Western countries including the Trump and Brexit campaigns in America and the UK.

Most recently the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian spy and his daughter, in the quiet English city of Salisbury has created international condemnation of Russia. Why has the geopolitical landscape changed so much, and so unexpectedly since 2012? There are thousands of considerations in such a complex world, however; Vladimir Putin can undoubtedly be seen as an architect of at least some of the discord the world is currently facing.

Architect of Disorder

Putin, who emerged to power from the shadows of Soviet security agencies, is a man with a vision and with a strategy which is hard to understand. This is what makes it as dangerous as it is challenging to predict Russia’s next move, or plan to counter it. For example, in 2014 Putin made the superficially cosmopolitan and diplomatic move of hosting the Winter Olympics, a sure sign to the international community that Russia was ready to play its part in the established international order. However just months later Crimea was annexed from Ukraine, and Russian forces moved in on Ukraine’s eastern border. The sight of Russian tanks once again on the roll through European steppes resonated deeply with western leaders. America had reduced its military presence to just a few ‘Stryker Brigades’, light motorised troops which are unsuitable for taking on heavy tanks. 

NATO, in general, had been focused on non-state threats and closing down its deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. In light of developments in Russia, western nations scrambled to relearn conventional military tactics. NATO has increased its presence in Europe, especially in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In retaliation Russia organized its ‘ZAPAD” military trials in Belarus, flexing its military muscles along the borders of NATO countries. Russia is happy to show off its military capabilities.

Putin’s Plan in the Middle East

Europe was not the only region where Russia was catching opponents off-guard. In Syria, a pro-Assad Russian intervention has seen Putin become a more dominant player in the Middle East. The friction caused here is a massive point of concern. US and Kurdish forces killed more than 100 Russian mercenaries in February and marked the first time in 50 years that Russian and American forces fought each other directly. For many, Russia succeeded where America did not. It was able to push ISIS back and stabilise the region; however, the appalling humanitarian cost and disregard for civilian lives certainly make such success unpalatable. The reality is that Russia now has more influence in the Middle East than ever since the end of the Cold War. It also seems to be beginning to drive a wedge between America and Turkey, two NATO allies.

Information War

Accusations of vote meddling in western countries have been levelled at Russia. These accusations range Russian bots spreading fake news, and propaganda spilling from state-sponsored media outlets to alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Russia has waged an information war against the west and it appears to be winning. 

This strategy of information warfare perhaps comes from one of Putin’s advisors, Vladislav Surkov, who claims to pursue a policy that “destabilises perceptions.” He aims to destroy the narrative, to become a shape-shifter to his opponents so that it is impossible for them to counter-attack. If this sounds vague and wishy-washy look to Crimea. It was impossible for Ukrainian national forces to mount any opposition because they did not know who or what they were fighting against; was it Russian forces? Was it Russian loyalists? Who was legitimate? In the absence of a coherent narrative, Putin was able to consolidate power in the Crimea.

Military thinkers sometimes separate strategy from vision. Vision is the ‘why’ it is what you are aiming for. Strategy is the ‘how’, how will you achieve your aim. Putin has a very clear vision of what he wants; he wants to enhance the power of Russia, maintain it has a ‘super-power’ whilst also protecting and improving the lives of Russians and Russian speakers.

Putin’s Inconsistency

What is not clear is his strategy. He will go from hosting Olympic games one moment to annexing regions the next. This lack of understanding makes combatting Putin like grasping mist; the harder you try to pin him down the more easily he slips through your fingers. Like all dictators, Putin aims to cling to power. To win the support of the Russian people, they need to see him as a strong man. By exerting Russia’s influence on the geopolitical stage, either through soft power or by military intervention, he will succeed in creating the right persona.

The West is not powerless though. By being vigilant, adaptable and resilient western nations will be able to react to Putin. The current lack of international leadership may make this harder to do. Political paralysis and division within western nations make it easy for Putin to take the initiative, allowing him to choose places of confrontation on his terms. The recent poisoning of the Skripals appears to have briefly rallied the West against Russia and this could signal increased defiance against Russia. However, if increased resistance leads to a confrontation between two nuclear superpowers, the situation could become lead to a reversion to Cold War politics.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

    WP_Comment Object ( [comment_ID] => 128663 [comment_post_ID] => 141389 [comment_author] => Andrew [comment_author_email] => [email protected] [comment_author_url] => [comment_author_IP] => 172.68.65.58 [comment_date] => 2018-04-05 12:19:31 [comment_date_gmt] => 2018-04-05 11:19:31 [comment_content] => John, as you are aware, most of us living in the U.S. have not thought much about Russia until the news media started displaying a fixation on Russia as the central most important issue for Americans. Now we all know that the media is run by wealthy elites who have not been ravaged by the economic hardship that has ravaged the lives of a large segment of the American population. But because of the Internet, the American public have become more sophisticated and we now understand global issues more deeply than is assumed by the major media. The news media did more harm in discrediting themselves by supporting the Democratic candidate and attacking President Trump during the elections than anything the Russians could ever have accomplished in the elections. After the Iraq propaganda and lies, most Americans no longer trust what they are being told. Sorry if that comes as a surprise to you, but many Americans are tired of wars. President Trump attacked the establishment during the presidential campaign saying that America should never have gone into Syria and Iraq with the Western allies for regime change. Both of these countries were Russian allies. We would never, and rightly so allow Russia to attack our NATO allies, and yet that is what we did to their allies. Putin is not a fool, he has been strategic all along. Russia and China vetoed that Iraq invasion in the Security Council and yet we went into Iraq in violation of the Veto. The only reason Russia did not resist America and Britain was that Putin was still building their modern weapons that were not yet perfected and so he was not yet ready to assert himself. At the same time, everyone in the media was saying that Russia was weak while he skillfully played into their hands saying that America was the only superpower. Oh, how much pride we all felt hearing those words. President Putin is not inconsistent as you argued. Your narrative leaves out key details as to the many reasons for his actions. You have to realize that the Russians are Chess players and are very strategic in everything they do. During the Olympic games, the President of Ukraine was overthrown in a Western-sponsored coupe which a growing number of intellectuals in the United States are not disputing. Ukraine was Russia's main trading partner with a trade of $35 Billion a year, and this overthrow occurred during the Olympics. It was as if it was timed to occur during the Olympics which led to the Crimean issue. Crimea which was a historic part of Russia with a mostly Russian population and is also home to the Russia Black Sea Naval fleet. The fall of Ukraine towards the West with their interest in joining the European Union and ultimately NATO is something that the Russian's would never tolerate. Absolutely never! Russia is a nation that was attacked by the West in World War II in which the Germans caused the deaths of 25 million Russians. These are historical facts that affect the psychic of the nation. Your assessment of Putin as being concerned about the welfare of the Russian people and Russian perception in the world is absolutely correct. But why is he concerned about Russia's external affairs? It is in part because Russia needs to fund its military-industrial complex and so its projection of power is an important component of that requirement. But that is no different to American geopolitical interests in selling arms to NATO members of other countries. But how did the press report on Russia's international interests before the Syrian crisis? They were telling us that Putin's desire was for Russian global status which was inextricably linked to his alter-ego with such analysis discounting the Russian political establishment's role in crafting a long-term foreign policy for generations of Russians to come. The conclusion is that Russia, facing Western sanctions is a much stronger nation after the sanctions. It supplies about 40% of Europe's gas, inked a new $400 billion gas deal with China, and signed major S-400 missile arms deal with China, India, Turkey, and now Saudi Arabia. And with the American shale oil production causing competition between American oil and Saudi Arabia with respect to putting a cap on oil prices, Russia is now enjoying close relations with the Arabian kingdom. Our strategy of imposing sanctions on the Russian energy sector and attacking Russia's close allies for regime change has created a resurgent Russia that surprisingly has proved to be more self-sufficient than anyone could have anticipated with also their agricultural sector flourishing. Even Japan with its nuclear station disasters and desire to curtail China's burgeoning relationship to Russia has done nothing but further, strengthened Russia. If there is anything Putin has done during his term as President was to rearchitect a Russia no one could have predicted would eclipse the former USSR in using soft and hard power to protect its interests overseas. So as a nation, we in America need to come to the realization that we cannot contain Russia. Their alliance with China who now challenges the U.S. in its economic output means that sanctions against Russia will not have the effects we had envisioned. It is evident that the sanctions were aimed at loosening Europe's dependence on Russian gas but with American shale oil derived LNG gas prohibitively more expensive than Russian pipeline gas, such ambitions were short-sighted. And now in retrospect, every new allegation against Russia is now viewed with great skepticism while causing the Russian public to be increasingly ill-disposed towards the West. Why would Russia act irrationally and attack a British Spy that they previously swapped in a deal with a Russian Spy just before their presidential elections and the FIFA World-Cup? And then use a known Russian substance to perform that act? It is not something that a rational person or nation would do. And now conflicting information keeps coming out soon after there was a rush to judgment by expelling Russian diplomats even without proof by international experts. Close to two decades ago, weren't Western expects sent into the former Soviet Union (USSR) after its collapse to clean up toxic materials? Is it not possible that those samples came from the clean-up operation? Here is the bottom line, Russia is a major nuclear power. It is impossible for Russia to be contained or marginalized. When reporters talk about an International outrage against Russian actions, it is mostly perceived that, by International, is meant European or NATO nations. But if the West perceives itself as International then maybe the real issue is that we have concluded that our Western geopolitical interests are what really matters. 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  1. Andrew

    April 5, 2018 at 12:19 PM

    John, as you are aware, most of us living in the U.S. have not thought much about Russia until the news media started displaying a fixation on Russia as the central most important issue for Americans. Now we all know that the media is run by wealthy elites who have not been ravaged by the economic hardship that has ravaged the lives of a large segment of the American population.

    But because of the Internet, the American public have become more sophisticated and we now understand global issues more deeply than is assumed by the major media. The news media did more harm in discrediting themselves by supporting the Democratic candidate and attacking President Trump during the elections than anything the Russians could ever have accomplished in the elections. After the Iraq propaganda and lies, most Americans no longer trust what they are being told. Sorry if that comes as a surprise to you, but many Americans are tired of wars.

    President Trump attacked the establishment during the presidential campaign saying that America should never have gone into Syria and Iraq with the Western allies for regime change. Both of these countries were Russian allies. We would never, and rightly so allow Russia to attack our NATO allies, and yet that is what we did to their allies. Putin is not a fool, he has been strategic all along. Russia and China vetoed that Iraq invasion in the Security Council and yet we went into Iraq in violation of the Veto. The only reason Russia did not resist America and Britain was that Putin was still building their modern weapons that were not yet perfected and so he was not yet ready to assert himself. At the same time, everyone in the media was saying that Russia was weak while he skillfully played into their hands saying that America was the only superpower. Oh, how much pride we all felt hearing those words.

    President Putin is not inconsistent as you argued. Your narrative leaves out key details as to the many reasons for his actions. You have to realize that the Russians are Chess players and are very strategic in everything they do. During the Olympic games, the President of Ukraine was overthrown in a Western-sponsored coupe which a growing number of intellectuals in the United States are not disputing. Ukraine was Russia’s main trading partner with a trade of $35 Billion a year, and this overthrow occurred during the Olympics. It was as if it was timed to occur during the Olympics which led to the Crimean issue. Crimea which was a historic part of Russia with a mostly Russian population and is also home to the Russia Black Sea Naval fleet. The fall of Ukraine towards the West with their interest in joining the European Union and ultimately NATO is something that the Russian’s would never tolerate. Absolutely never!

    Russia is a nation that was attacked by the West in World War II in which the Germans caused the deaths of 25 million Russians. These are historical facts that affect the psychic of the nation. Your assessment of Putin as being concerned about the welfare of the Russian people and Russian perception in the world is absolutely correct. But why is he concerned about Russia’s external affairs? It is in part because Russia needs to fund its military-industrial complex and so its projection of power is an important component of that requirement. But that is no different to American geopolitical interests in selling arms to NATO members of other countries. But how did the press report on Russia’s international interests before the Syrian crisis? They were telling us that Putin’s desire was for Russian global status which was inextricably linked to his alter-ego with such analysis discounting the Russian political establishment’s role in crafting a long-term foreign policy for generations of Russians to come.

    The conclusion is that Russia, facing Western sanctions is a much stronger nation after the sanctions. It supplies about 40% of Europe’s gas, inked a new $400 billion gas deal with China, and signed major S-400 missile arms deal with China, India, Turkey, and now Saudi Arabia. And with the American shale oil production causing competition between American oil and Saudi Arabia with respect to putting a cap on oil prices, Russia is now enjoying close relations with the Arabian kingdom. Our strategy of imposing sanctions on the Russian energy sector and attacking Russia’s close allies for regime change has created a resurgent Russia that surprisingly has proved to be more self-sufficient than anyone could have anticipated with also their agricultural sector flourishing. Even Japan with its nuclear station disasters and desire to curtail China’s burgeoning relationship to Russia has done nothing but further, strengthened Russia. If there is anything Putin has done during his term as President was to rearchitect a Russia no one could have predicted would eclipse the former USSR in using soft and hard power to protect its interests overseas.

    So as a nation, we in America need to come to the realization that we cannot contain Russia. Their alliance with China who now challenges the U.S. in its economic output means that sanctions against Russia will not have the effects we had envisioned. It is evident that the sanctions were aimed at loosening Europe’s dependence on Russian gas but with American shale oil derived LNG gas prohibitively more expensive than Russian pipeline gas, such ambitions were short-sighted.

    And now in retrospect, every new allegation against Russia is now viewed with great skepticism while causing the Russian public to be increasingly ill-disposed towards the West. Why would Russia act irrationally and attack a British Spy that they previously swapped in a deal with a Russian Spy just before their presidential elections and the FIFA World-Cup? And then use a known Russian substance to perform that act? It is not something that a rational person or nation would do. And now conflicting information keeps coming out soon after there was a rush to judgment by expelling Russian diplomats even without proof by international experts. Close to two decades ago, weren’t Western expects sent into the former Soviet Union (USSR) after its collapse to clean up toxic materials? Is it not possible that those samples came from the clean-up operation?

    Here is the bottom line, Russia is a major nuclear power. It is impossible for Russia to be contained or marginalized. When reporters talk about an International outrage against Russian actions, it is mostly perceived that, by International, is meant European or NATO nations. But if the West perceives itself as International then maybe the real issue is that we have concluded that our Western geopolitical interests are what really matters.

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