Putin’s Turning Point
Russia's aggressiveness has upended the security order in Europe and the world.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is a global turning point that finally puts an end to the European security order negotiated after the end of the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals of renegotiating the European security order, ousting the United States from Europe, securing zones of influence, and creating buffer zones around Russia are crystallized in the breakup of Ukraine as a state. This has implications for Russia’s role in the world, European security, transatlantic relations, and the global balance of power.
With the end of the US-dominated unipolar order and Washington’s withdrawal from its role as the world’s global policeman, Russian leaders had sought to expand their sphere of influence. In this, Moscow had some success in the Middle East and Africa. The goal was to become a pole in the new multipolar world, where large states resolve conflicts through temporary alliances or compete with other big powers for interests. This phase of Russian policy ended with the intervention in Ukraine. Though the goals stay the same, Russia will be much weaker and more isolated.
Russia itself is undergoing fundamental changes as a result of this war, with both domestic and foreign policy consequences. Internally, it is becoming more isolated, more totalitarian, and less able to modernize. In this it resembles more the Soviet Union of the 1930s, than that of the 1980s. Externally, it is becoming more aggressive and revisionist, ruthlessly asserting its interests. The war in Ukraine will permanently weaken Russia militarily and economically and isolate it internationally. As a result, Moscow will be more heavily reliant on itself, and the post-Soviet space, without being able to make attractive economic, political, or social propositions.
Isolation from the global economic and financial system calls Russia’s economic model into question and will fundamentally change the way Russians live. The consequence will be a Russia that seeks to control its locality by military means; a mobilization regime, both internally and externally. The result will be lasting instability in the European Union's southern and eastern regions, which will have to be contained and managed while there is still no short-term solution to the conflict with Russia.
Renegotiation of the European Security Order
The starting point for this development was the Russian leadership's fundamental desire to renegotiate the European security order. President Vladimir Putin stated his claim as early as 2007 in his speech at the Munich Security Conference. This policy is aimed at the United States, in its role as the leading power of NATO and guarantor of the previous peace order in Europe. From the Russian point of view, the aim is to limit the role of the US in European security and to put an end to any NATO expansion in Europe. This applies to post-Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia as well as to Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden. In two treaty proposals, Russian leaders have called for security guarantees for Russia from NATO and the United States, and thus acceptance of Russian zones of influence in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, NATO is to withdraw to the territory where it was in 1997, the year the NATO-Russia Founding Act was adopted. This would call into question the security of NATO's eastern states. By demanding that the US withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe, Russia would gain a veto over all security decisions in Europe; it would itself become the dominant security player on the continent. With the Russian war in Ukraine, the NATO-Russia Founding Act has become obsolete. NATO and Russia are adversaries. The goal of a "lasting and comprehensive peace" with Russia in Europe has failed.
Putin’s decision to go to war in Ukraine is closely linked to his understanding of the historical and strategic importance of the neighboring country for Russia. For the Russian president, “Ukrainians and Russians are one people,” they come from the “same historical and spiritual space.” At the same time, Ukraine has no right to “existence as a state.” In doing so, he not only opposes legally binding documents signed by the Russian leadership in the 1990s (the Charter of Paris, the Budapest Memorandum) but also international law. For the Russian president, Ukraine is a site of confrontation with the United States, a springboard for the West against Russia. In his view, the Orange Revolution of 2004/05 and the Euromaidan of 2013/14 served a US-initiated regime change in Ukraine.
For Putin, the US has installed a government in Ukraine designed to weaken Russia and has turned Ukraine into an “anti-Russia” country. For him, this is accompanied by fear of regime change in Russia itself. If the democratization and modernization of Ukraine were successful, if the country were integrated into NATO and the European Union, that could be a model for other post-Soviet states, including Russia. This would challenge Putin’s authoritarian model of governance and his claim to power in Russia and the post-Soviet states. That would also mean the end of Russia as an Empire, becoming a “normal country.” Thus, from his perspective, he is fighting for his own survival in Ukraine—and for Russia to remain a great power.
In several speeches and texts, the Russian president has made it clear that he is afraid of regime change brought about by the United States. He cites as examples the overthrow of the government of Slobodan Milosevic with the help of NATO’s bombing of Serbia at the end of the 1990s, the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 by the US, and Libyan President Muammar Al-Gaddafi in 2011, removed by NATO. Putin sees himself as a possible victim of such an overthrow. Russian support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria since 2015 should also be seen in this context. The Russian leadership was not only concerned with strengthening its position in the Middle East by intervening in Syria, but also with preventing the fall of another authoritarian president in the region. From Putin's point of view, such changes of power for authoritarian regimes bring instability to the whole region and could be inspiration for further grassroots changes of government with foreign (US) support.
One can, of course, agree with Putin with regard to the destabilization of the Middle East and North Africa as a result of US interventions. However, Russia is not a player that provides stability through its military policy. Instead, it uses instability and conflicts to strengthen its own bargaining power. Putin’s Russia is not capable, either conceptually or in terms of resources, of being a responsible regional or global force for order. It commits war crimes, as in Syria and Ukraine, to advance its power interests and systematically undermines multilateral institutions or uses them when it suits its aims.
In the process, a legalistic veneer provides Putin (who studied law before joining the KGB) with an international legitimacy for his power interests. This culminates in the absurd claims that Russia is preventing genocide in Ukraine and cleansing the country of Nazis. With this line of argument, Putin draws a direct line between NATO's actions in 1999 in the former Yugoslavia and Russia's war in Ukraine. However, this is less about NATO’s breach of international law at the end of the 1990s, as Putin himself repeatedly claims it is, but rather about retaliation against the US and the West for the end of the Soviet Union, and for their having ignored Russian interests thereafter.
Legitimation of Putin's System
With the beginning of Putin's third term as president in 2012, Russian politics changed fundamentally. Modernization and the opening up of Russia were finally rejected, as they would have meant loss of control by the regime and would, thus, have called into question the Putin system’s claim to power. At the same time, after the 2011/12 mass demonstrations against Putin’s return in major Russian cities, the United States was systematically built up as an adversary in Russian domestic political propaganda and, as a result, became a central resource for the legitimation of Putin’s system.
This was followed by a systematic crackdown on opposition, independent voices and media, and foreign funding of Russian civil society. Critics of Putin’s policies were defamed as the West’s "fifth column" and at times declared fair game. At the same time, the Internet and social media were transformed from an instrument of civil society, for self-organization against the regime, to an instrument of societal control by the state. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the war in the Donbas served to prevent Ukraine's integration into transatlantic structures. This brought Putin high approval ratings for a time at home, at a stage when the Russian economy was already in stagnation.
All of this was accompanied by putting all areas of state and society in Russia under a security prism. Increasingly, national security players and security thinking dominated Russian politics, with the goal of increasing Russia’s autarky. Western sanctions, despite their limited impact on the Russian economy, reinforced this security logic in Russian politics. This was combined with policies to bring Russian officials’ money back to Russia, to restrict their travel activities, and to render the economy independent of foreign influence.
Limiting Russia's foreign debt to below 20 percent of GDP, growing foreign reserves to €550 billion by the outbreak of war, and conservative spending policies in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (costing less than 3 percent of GDP), were also linked to the goal of making Russia less vulnerable to foreign influence. This policy rendered the liberal economic elites less and less able to act independently or to counteract the president. Instead, they became vicarious agents of the regime, securing the economic resilience of the state in preparation for a larger conflict with the West.
Russia’s Global Agenda
As a result of the West’s sanctions policy since 2014, Russia reacted with a non-declared war against the US and the European NATO and EU member states. Germany and the EU were also increasingly defined as adversaries and there were attempts to undermine them through disinformation campaigns and support for anti-democratic forces. The goal was to weaken Western democracies internally and globally and to strengthen autocracies internationally, through an alliance with China, and to prevent future regime changes such as those in Libya and Iraq. Growing coordination with Beijing in the United Nations Security Council also served this purpose. The (partial) withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan opened up spaces that Russia, with its limited capabilities, sought to fill. With a GDP the size of Italy’s, it did not rely on economic power or soft power, but on military and hybrid means. The Russian military and security structures became the central instrument of Russian foreign and security policy.
Russia’s successful military intervention in Syria and the buildup of paramilitary groups like Wagner, which have become increasingly active in the Middle East and Africa, made Russia appear more powerful than it actually is. Russia’s projection of power was based on the weakness of the West and its ability to act ruthlessly where the United States had retreated, or where Europe is absent. At the same time, under Putin, Russia was not a responsible international player involved in resolving crises and conflicts around the world. As a spoiler power, Putin’s Russia was always concerned with using or creating conflicts to strengthen his own negotiating position.
Here, too, the aim was to weaken the existing multilateral institutions and, as in the Syrian war with the Astana format, and in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war and the trilateral negotiation format with Armenia and Azerbaijan, to create parallel formats that were dominated by Moscow. Nonetheless, the Russian leadership has always wanted to appear to be a responsible player and to be involved in discussions with major states, as demonstrated by its constructive role around the negotiation of Iran’s nuclear program.
Russian aggression in Ukraine is also the result of an appeasement policy by the West. Starting with President Barak Obama, Washington has increasingly shown that it wanted to withdraw from European security policy. As a result, the Russian leadership has assumed that the US would be willing to compromise with regard to the European security order. That it was a fundamental strategic and analytical mistake to view Russia and China separately is demonstrated by the growing security, military, and technological cooperation between the two countries in recent years. China and Russia share the goal of replacing the US-shaped global order with their own norms and principles, and of changing or undermining multilateral institutions to suit their own interests. Donald Trump’s presidency weakened the US globally and exposed the dysfunctionality of its political system. Putin has tried to use this to discredit Western democracies as a whole.
At the same time, the European NATO and EU member states have not followed through to invest more in their own security. On the contrary, Germany, as the leading economic power in Europe, has made itself even more dependent on Russian gas. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, 55 percent of its gas was supplied by Russia. Gas storage facilities had been sold to Gazprom, among others, even after the annexation of Crimea, and, until just days before Putin invaded Ukraine, Germany supported the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
The German government thus gave the Russian leadership the impression that it was corruptible and opportunistic, which former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder only confirmed through his involvement with Gazprom, Nord Stream 2, and Rosneft. The ignorance of security realities in Europe alongside the opportunism of German politicians toward Russia, despite the country’s growing aggressive actions against its own population, neighboring countries, and in Europe, have emboldened Putin in his aggression against Ukraine. The failure of Russia’s policy in the Donbas and toward Ukraine then left him, in his view, with no other means but to attack Ukraine.
Europe’s Turning Point
In addition to preserving Ukraine as a state, it is now essential to prevent Russian aggression from spreading to NATO territory. The Baltic states are at risk because they have Russian minorities and they are part of the post-Soviet space. This can only be done through credible military deterrence, which European states, without the US, will not be able to provide in the coming years, despite the fact that they are beginning to modernize their armies. Germany's military modernization, with a special fund of €100 billion and the raising of the military budget to 2 percent of GDP, only mark the start of the process of bringing the military capabilities of Europe’s strongest economy to the level of the 21st century and, thus, responding adequately to the Russian threat.
Due to the crisis of democracy in the US, it will be necessary for European states to be able to provide for their own security as soon as possible. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom will have to take a leading role in the framework of NATO. At the moment, peace and stability in Europe are only possible against Russia, but not with Russia, within security guarantees NATO provides. Therefore, outside of NATO territory, there will be no peace in Europe.
Putin, as a person, has become a problem for peace and stability in Europe. His thinking and radicalization are shaping Russian politics as a whole. Russia under Putin must be restricted; its influence on German and European politics should be minimized, dependencies on oil and gas should end. Russia’s aggressiveness will influence European and global security in the coming years. China will have to take a stand in relation to this version of Russia, as Putin brings the conflict with the “collective West” to a climax.
Putin’s either-or policy, his thinking in win-lose categories, and his willingness to go to extremes, including threatening to use nuclear weapons, make him a permanently unpredictable and dangerous adversary. A weakening Russia will act even more aggressively. At the same time, a Russia policy is needed for a time after Putin. Ultimately, sustainable peace in the whole of Europe cannot be achieved against Russia, but only with it. However, as the past decade has shown ad infinitum, there will be no peace in Europe with Vladimir Putin.
Stefan Meister leads the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).