Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

Russia’s Transformation

By
Janusz Bugajski

President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy toward Russia has not only failed to create a strategic partnership with Moscow, it has also contributed to creating greater instability in Europe’s east. Instead of rebuilding trust, forging new avenues of cooperation, and helping to transform Russia into a responsible and constructive partner, the long-term impact of the “reset” has been to further undermine bilateral relations. It encouraged Moscow to pursue its neo-imperial agenda in the post-Soviet neighborhood with the conviction that neither America nor Europe would oppose its strategic ambitions.

Western strategic errors

In the pursuit of its neo-imperial restoration, Russia has been encouraged by several international developments. First, as a by-product of the “reset,” Washington reversed the Bush administration’s policy of incorporating qualified European democracies into NATO and curtailed its campaign to secure the post-Soviet neighborhood within Western structures. This left neighboring states more vulnerable to Moscow’s pressures and integrationist maneuvers, while Europe remained unwilling to take the lead in enlarging the Alliance. Under the Obama administration, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were no longer priority interests, but were often viewed as potential spoilers at a time when Washington sought to build cooperative relations with the Kremlin.

The net impact of the Obama approach was to convince Moscow that the U.S. was withdrawing from international commitments after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and had neither the resources, political will, nor the public support to challenge Russia’s reimperialization. In particular, a downgrading of strategic attention to Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia signaled to the Kremlin that it had a freer hand in redesigning these neighborhoods under Russian tutelage.

Second, the financial crunch and political stresses within the European Union in recent years have diminished Brussels’ political and economic outreach toward the post-Soviet countries. This decreased the momentum of the Eastern Partnership initiative launched in May 2009 (designed to harmonize the post-Soviet states with EU standards). Moscow concluded that the EU was in disarray and decline and would be preoccupied with its internal convulsions for several years, if it did not fracture outright. In addition, there was visible disillusionment with both NATO and the EU in several post-Soviet capitals. They did not obtain the road map or commitment to full integration, unlike the vision and promise that was given to Central European and Western Balkan countries during the 1990s and 2000s. This encouraged corruption, state capture, and susceptibility to Kremlin manipulation.

And third, an assertive foreign policy under Vladimir Putin’s renewed presidency contributed to distracting public attention within the Russian Federation from stagnant economic conditions by engineering a triumphalist foreign policy that promised to restore Russia’s power and challenge America’s global predominance. Putin’s return has been presented as vital to Russia’s national security in two ways. First, it would allegedly protect Russia from internal turmoil generated by public protests organized by a “fifth column” funded by Washington. Second, it held out the promise of rebuilding Russia as a Great Power and dispelling the purported humiliation of defeat and disintegration that had been experienced by Russians at the end of the Cold War.

Moscow’s strategic objectives

The principal aim of Putin’s foreign policy is to restore Russia as a major “pole of power” in a multipolar world, and to reverse the predominance of the U.S. within the broader Eurasian region. In pursuit of a dominant neo-imperial position in its former zone of control, Moscow is intent on constructing a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), with economic and political components directed by Moscow. To achieve these goals, the Kremlin is prepared to redraw international borders and to challenge governmental legitimacy and territorial integrity in targeted countries along Russia’s borders.

Instead of controlling the political and economic systems of its new satellites, as it did during the Soviet era, the Kremlin today primarily seeks to influence their foreign and security policies, so they will either remain neutral and passive players or actively support Russia’s agenda. Despite its bellicose claims, Moscow’s security is not threatened by the accession to NATO of nearby states. However, NATO nonetheless presents a threat to the Russian Federation because its security umbrella undermines Moscow’s capabilities to dominate its post-Soviet neighbors.

While its plans are imperial, the Kremlin’s ideologies and strategies are eclectic and pragmatic. Putinism as a set of precepts consists of a blend of Russian statism, great-power chauvinism, Russian nationalism (with increasing ethnic ingredients), social conservatism, anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism. In terms of strategies, the Kremlin employs flexible methods, including enticements, threats, and pressures, and is opportunistic and adaptable, preying on weakness and division among its Western adversaries. But Moscow also miscalculates on occasion, and its aggressiveness can propel some states toward a closer relationship with NATO or the EU as protection against the unacceptable pressures being exerted by Russian officials.

Although Putin’s objective to create a strong Eurasia Union as a counterweight to the U.S. and the EU is unlikely to be fully successful, especially given Russia’s escalating economic problems and the resistance of several neighboring capitals, attempts to create such a bloc can have a destabilizing effect on a broad region in Europe’s East. As the largest target of the Kremlin, Ukraine serves as a pertinent example of the impact of Moscow’s imperial aspirations. The open collision between Russia and Ukraine has challenged the post–Cold War status quo in Europe and unsettled regional security throughout the post-communist region.

A new strategic computation

Instead of contemplating some new “reset” with Moscow, Washington needs to reevaluate its understanding of Putin’s strategic goals. Acknowledging Russia’s revived imperial impulse gives NATO a reinvigorated mandate to fully protect the integrity of its newest members, including their eastern borders, and provide adequate deterrents against instability emanating from nearby states.

So far, however, the White House has confined itself largely to rhetoric. In his June 4, 2014, address in Warsaw, President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. maintains an “unwavering commitment” to the security of its NATO allies and that the Central–East European (CEE) members “will never stand alone.”(1) According to the president, these are “unbreakable commitments backed by the strongest alliance in the world and by the armed forces of the United States of America.” Such stirring speeches are intended to provide a rationale for policy. They should not, however, become a substitute for strategy. Obama immediately came under criticism for promising more than Washington or most of its European allies were willing to deliver.

The White House seems unable to mobilize Western Europeans in substantially strengthening NATO capabilities or in pursuing an effective sanctions regime against Moscow for its attack on Ukraine. Thus far, most of America’s European allies have proved weak, divided, and dependent on U.S. leadership. Such a posture serves as a potential invitation to Russia for future offensives. Even the CEE Visegrad Group has proved to be disunited, with Poland adopting a more assertive posture toward Moscow, while Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic remain more hesitant in imposing sanctions.

General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, described Moscow’s conquest of Crimea as a “paradigm shift” that required a fundamental rethinking of where American forces are located and how they are trained. Thus far, Alliance commitments have proved limited. NATO added combat aircraft support to NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, dispatched a dozen F-16 fighters to Poland, and sent AWAC reconnaissance aircraft to Poland and Romania. The U.S. deployed four airborne companies to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, an important symbolic step because—even though they lack heavy weapons—their presence indicates a more concrete commitment to defending CEE allies.

Several West European states also made commitments to dispatching troops to the “frontline states.” The rotation of American and European units for air policing and other duties and upgrading CEE air defense capabilities must also be supplemented with periodic NATO training exercises that enhance local capabilities. For the front-line states bordering Russia, it is vital to have a year-round presence of U.S. and West European forces that will act as a potential tripwire to deter any prospect of a direct Russian assault.

General Breedlove has urged the U.S. Congress to reconsider previously planned reductions in the number of American troops in Europe. NATO defense ministers also agreed to develop a “Readiness Action Plan” to enable the pre-positioning of supplies and equipment in member states and improve military capabilities to help NATO speed up its reaction time to any direct military threat. Russia’s attack on Ukraine reinforced CEE plans to switch from an out-of-area orientation, in line with U.S. and NATO overseas missions, toward constructing more credible territorial defense forces. Each state must ensure that it has adequate capabilities to engage in conventional and unconventional warfare against foreign aggression. This will require such assets as ground-based missile defense systems and anti-tank weaponry, as well as the development of anti-subversion units, which Russia’s proxy war in eastern Ukraine has highlighted as a necessity.

Additional steps will be required if NATO is to deter aggression, and this must include the positioning of Alliance infrastructure along its eastern flank. Military bases may need to be moved from Western to Central Europe. NATO has military installations in Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, and Turkey, but little infrastructure in CEE.

During his June 2014 visit to Warsaw, President Obama announced a $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative to increase the U.S. military presence in CEE.(2) Subsequently, at the NATO Summit on September 4-5, 2014, Alliance leaders did not endorse the positioning of permanent bases in CEE despite the urging of Warsaw and the three Baltic governments. However, they agreed to create a spearhead contingent within the existing NATO Response Force (NRF), called a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). This force, to include 4,000 tropps trained to move on 48 hours’ notice, would be capable of deploying at short notice along NATO’s periphery and consist of land, air, maritime, and Special Operations Forces components. It will benefit from equipment and logistics facilities pre-positioned in CEE countries, but the troops will not be permanently stationed in the region.(3) However, at this early stage in its planned deployment, it is difficult to estimate the effectiveness of a relatively small VJTF contingent in deterring either the subversion or outright invasion of a NATO member.

NATO also needs commitments by members to increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP. Today, only four countries in the Alliance meet this mandated requirement. While Russia has raised its defense spending by 50 percent over the last five years, the Allies have cut theirs by a fifth. Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, governments across the CEE region have pledged to boost their defense spending, but few Western European capitals are following suit. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously stated, the fundamental obstacle to long-term security is the prospect of “collective military irrelevance,” where political leaders and large sectors of the public remain averse to adequate defense spending and the deployment of military force.(4)

The most effective way to counter Russia’s aggressive and self-confident posture is to demonstrate NATO’s relevance and vitality in defending current members. Membership invitations should also be issued for Montenegro and Macedonia, as both countries have met the requirements for entry and are eager to accede to the Alliance. Meanwhile, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia need to obtain NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to confirm that they will also join the Alliance at some future date. In addition, NATO needs to pursue closer military cooperation with Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and other countries bordering Russia that seek closer links with the West. Such steps will demonstrate to Russia that it cannot veto NATO decisions, and that collective security is the sovereign choice of each state.

Finally, to provide an additional buffer against Russia’s onslaughts, all NATO partners (under the Partnership for Peace [PfP] initiative) facing potential subversion need assistance in creating viable territorial defense forces, beginning with Ukraine. The most effective deterrent to potential Russian attack is adequate military preparedness and a political commitment to resistance. There is an urgent need for reorganizing and equipping all branches of the Ukrainian military, as Russia’s subversion of eastern Ukraine shows little sign of abating. Unfortunately, the Allies have been reluctant to provide lethal weapons to Kyiv, contending that this will escalate the conflict with Russia. In reality, without adequate defensive weaponry that would be costly to any invasion force, the Ukrainian government will be unable to prevent Moscow from creating a “frozen conflict” in the Donbas region to paralyze Ukraine’s reforms and its Western aspirations.

Confronting the adversary

Regardless of the frequent comparisons, the world has not entered another Cold War. The Cold War was a status quo that divided Europe for nearly fifty years, while the Eastern and Western blocs avoided direct military confrontation. The new epoch can be better defined as a Shadow War, in which Moscow no longer recognizes the independence or territorial integrity of neighboring states and the West and Russia compete for political and economic influence throughout the Wider Europe using a wide assortment of economic, political, informational, and military tools.(5) Although Western leaders contend that there should be no zero-sum games, Russia’s officials believe they are engaged in an existential struggle with only one possible winner.

Western leaders continue to debate on how to deal with a neo-imperial Kremlin that subverts the independence of its neighbors and is determined to curtail Western influence throughout Europe’s east. While some have urged targeted economic sanctions, others are willing to acquiesce to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and attempts to partition mainland Ukraine, calculating that appeasement can satisfy the Kremlin’s appetite. Unfortunately, neither strategy will resolve the problem of Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial Russia.(6)

Policies of reconciliation bring only temporary pauses in the expanding geostrategic struggle. The West confronts two stark choices: either help facilitate the collapse of Putinism or face years of insecurity that will undermine both NATO and the EU and subvert the stability of Russia’s numerous neighbors. Trying to alter Moscow’s destructive international goals through negotiations is a forlorn hope. The Kremlin is determined to dominate its post-Soviet neighbors and Putin has staked his presidency on rebuilding an extensive “Russian world.” Western powers therefore have a direct security interest to minimize future regional conflicts by constricting Moscow’s ambitions and encouraging Russian society to replace the destructive Putinist system.

Taking a stand

In this new adversarial relationship, the West needs to focus on two messages. First, that the Russia-Ukraine war is part of a broader strategy of Kremlin subversion and expansion that needs to be thwarted. Second, that the pursuit of such an aggressive Kremlin policy will seriously backfire on Russia itself. In this stark reality, Russia’s citizens also confront a clear choice: either tolerate the Putinist system and face growing national isolation, external conflict, and domestic repression, or replace the Kremlin cabal and rebuild Russia into a constructive international player.

There are three indicators of Russia’s creeping state failure and they will be magnified in the coming years: economic decline, escalating repression, and reckless imperialism. Russia’s economy was deteriorating even before the limited Western sanctions were applied. GDP is contracting, industrial production is declining, capital outflow has reached alarming proportions, consumer demand is shrinking, and the country will soon enter a prolonged recession. The sanctions imposed by the EU in the oil, defense, technology, and banking sectors have restricted Russia’s access to European capital markets and will further undermine economic performance.

For Russia’s ruling clique, economic decline will necessitate political repression, because nationalist triumphalism over the seizure of Crimea, the alleged protection of ethnic Russians abroad, and opposition to the West can only distract temporarily. Although the Kremlin has imposed a legion of restrictions on human rights in recent years, Putin does not have the means to eradicate all domestic dissent. A palace coup against Putin cannot be discounted if a group of oligarchs and military chiefs conclude that their leader is pushing the country toward disaster.

The coming crisis of the hyper-centralized Putinist system should be welcomed by U.S. and EU leaders, rather than viewed as a destabilizing prospect. If Putin is indeed replaced by a more rabid nationalist, as some policymakers fear, then Russia will simply experience further decline and international ostracism that will rebound on its citizens. Moscow will not start a frontal war with the West because its military is simply no match for an American-led NATO and it can only operate against weaker and vulnerable neighbors.

The demise of Putinism as a system of internal rule and international imperialism can be hastened by a coordinated Western approach. Russia is vulnerable to sustained and extensive economic pressure but Europe will also need to bear the costs of economic disentanglement. Moscow’s access to the European financial system can be fully blocked, investment in Russian industries curtailed, and antitrust penalties on monopoly violations by Gazprom and other Russian state corporations strictly imposed. Ultimately, Russia’s statist companies should be pushed out of Europe’s energy market to deplete Kremlin export earnings and reduce its political influences. In turn, falling government revenues, a downturn in living standards, shortages of consumer goods, difficulties in traveling abroad, and rising unemployment can help fuel revolt against a regime that will become increasingly isolated and seen to be stumbling economically.

To thwart Russia’s expansionism, external pressure must be combined with steps that undermine Putinism from within. Kremlin controls can be weakened by supporting genuine federalism, decentralization, minority rights, regional self-determination, and embryonic national independence movements throughout the Russian Federation. All such initiatives are consistent with broader campaigns for democracy and human rights in which both the U.S. and EU have long experience in CEE and elsewhere.

The West can itself conduct a “shadow war” against Putinism, just as it did against Soviet Communism throughout Eastern Europe, by aiding democratic initiatives and supporting sovereignty movements among numerous nationalities. More than a fifth of Russia’s population is non-Russian, and many of these nations have been deprived of their elementary right to promote their indigenous languages, cultures, and identities. Russian federalism is simply a cover for rigid authoritarianism in which the Kremlin appoints or approves local leaders in Russia’s 85 federal units. An international campaign for genuine federalism inside Russia will be supported by many of Russia’s regions, where a growing number of people increasingly resent Moscow’s political controls and economic neglect.

If Putinism is not replaced with a non-imperial and democratic alternative, Russia will face a shrinking economy that will limit its military capabilities, restrict economic development, fuel social unrest, and compound ethnic, religious, and regional conflicts, culminating in potential territorial fracture. Without the prospect of a non-expansionist and quasi-democratic Russia, Putinism can also pull the West into further Ukrainian-type conflagrations, and a new, even more adversarial relationship than the one that prevails currently.

Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, DC and author of 19 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations. He is currently working with Margarita Assenova on a book entitled Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, due out in 2015.


1.    “Obama Vows to Stand with Ukraine as He Meets President-Elect in Poland,” CNN, June 4, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/04/politics/obama-europe.

2.    White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “European Reassurance Initiative and Other U.S. Efforts in Support of NATO Allies and Partners,” June 3, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/03/fact-sheet-europea....

3.    “NATO Response Force, at the Centre of NATO Transformation,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, October 2, 2014, www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49755.htm.

4.    U.S. Department of Defense, “The Security and Defense Agenda (Future of NATO),” Brussels, Belgium, June 10, 2011, www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581.

5.    See Janusz Bugajski, “The Shadow War,” Center for European Policy Analysis, May 9, 2014, http://cepa.org/content/shadow-war.

6. See Janusz Bugajski, ““Russia’s Choice: Putinism or Progress,” The American Interest, September 1, 2014, http://www.the-american-interest.com/articles/2014/09/01/russias-choice-....