Six months after Russia launched its offensive against Ukraine, Western leaders are still debating 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 to its attempts to partition mainland Ukraine, calculating that appeasement will satisfy the Kremlin’s appetite. Unfortunately, neither strategy will resolve the problem of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
It is time to discard any delusional or half-hearted approaches toward Moscow that bring only temporary pauses in this 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 engaged in an extensive “shadow war” to dominate its post-Soviet neighbors, and Putin has staked his presidency on rebuilding an extensive “Russian world.” The Western powers therefore have a direct security interest in minimizing future regional instabilities by constricting the Russian state and encouraging all sectors of Russian society to replace the destructive Putinist system.
To help accomplish this vital task, 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 must be thwarted; and 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 positive 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. In addition, the “phase three” sanctions imposed by the EU in the oil, defense, technology, and banking sectors in July will restrict Russia’s access to European capital markets and further damage its economic performance.
For Russia’s ruling clique, economic decline will necessitate political repression, while nationalist triumphalism over the seizure of Crimea, the alleged protection of ethnic Russians abroad, and staunch opposition to the West is intended to distract attention from decline and repression. Although the Kremlin has imposed a legion of restrictions on free speech, assembly, and organization over recent years, Putin is no Stalin and does not have the means to eradicate all domestic dissent. Even a palace coup against Putin cannot be discounted if an extensive group of oligarchs, regional governors, 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 indeed Putin is replaced by an even 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 neighbors.
The demise of Putinism as a system of internal rule and international ambition can be hastened by a coordinated Western approach with three core components: international isolation, imperial indigestion, and regime replacement. Russia is vulnerable to sustained and extensive economic pressure, but Europe will also need to bear the temporary 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.
Economic sanctions will be more effective if they impact on Russia’s citizens as well as on leading oligarchs and Putin cronies. Falling government revenues, a downturn in living standards, shortages of consumer goods, difficulties in travelling abroad, and rising unemployment can help fuel revolt against a regime that will become increasingly isolated and seen to be stumbling economically.
Externally, the attempted digestion of any occupied territories must become painful for Moscow. This will require more intensive Western military aid to Ukraine and other threatened states, such as Georgia and Moldova. A more effective military and territorial defense structure in Ukraine, guided by Western specialists, would help protect the country against further subversion, invasion, and occupation by Moscow.
Russia’s reimperialization also gives NATO a reinvigorated mandate to upgrade its capabilities and defend its newest allies by moving its military infrastructure into the “front line” states of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The U.S. should not have to reassure NATO’s newest members every time Moscow launches an attack on one of its neighbors. A more effective strategy would be to keep adequate defenses and deterrents in place preceding any possible Russian aggression along NATO’s borders.
If the Alliance were adequately prepared there would be no need for Central Europe’s nervousness and Washington’s ritualistic reassurances. If NATO is serious in defending its declared strategic interests and its professed values of freedom, democracy, and national independence, every ally will be afforded sufficient military protection, and NATO partners under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, would also obtain assistance in resisting Moscow’s interventions.
To thwart Russia’s expansionism, external pressure must be combined with efforts to 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 overstretched Russian Federation. All such initiatives are consistent with broader campaigns for democracy and human rights in which both the U.S. and EU excel.
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, from the North Caucasus to eastern Siberia, 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.
Ultimately, if Putinism is not replaced with a non-imperial and democratic alternative, Russia will face a shrinking economy, which will fuel social unrest and compound ethnic, religious, and regional conflicts, culminating in potential territorial fracture. Although the West cannot guide Russia’s internal development, it can help promote opportunities for the emergence of a new Russia in which domestic dictatorship and imperial ambition are perceived as weaknesses and rejected by a disillusioned public. The birth of a democratic and non-expansionist Russia may be a painful process, but without that prospect Putinism will drag the West into further Ukraine-type conflagrations.