Washington – It was quite a week for Vladimir Putin. The Russian autocrat won a constitutional referendum clearing the way for him to remain in power until 2036. And Putin once again caused a firestorm in Washington, this one ignited by reports that Russian military intelligence offered to pay Taliban fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
If the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing America into ever-deeper competition with China, the challenge from Russia — the less mighty but more aggressive of the authoritarian powers — won’t be fading anytime soon.
But what exactly is that threat? Russia isn’t China, an economic powerhouse that could challenge the United States for global primacy. It isn’t the Cold War-era Soviet Union, a country with the military capability to overrun most of Europe and the ideological ambition to remake the world. Putin’s Russia uses its limited resources aggressively, to rebuild lost influence and tear down the structures of the American-led world. Putin can’t aspire to create a Russian-led international order. Yet he can give Russia a taste of geopolitical greatness while dragging the world back into a more disordered, predatory state.
That predation begins on Russia’s frontiers, where Putin desires to recreate a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe. From his perspective, having an acquiescent periphery is essential to rebuilding the strategic buffer that Moscow lost when the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. It would also suppress the danger of ideological contagion from democratic states near Russia’s borders.
This objective has underpinned Putin’s conduct for over a decade, from the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine to the use of military intimidation and economic pressure against countries from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea. It has driven a major military modernization meant to strengthen Moscow’s hand against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the alliance’s eastern reaches. And it challenges U.S. interests by threatening to undo one of the major strategic accomplishments of the post-Cold War era: the creation of a Europe “whole, free and at peace,” where countries can make political decisions and choose their geopolitical alignments free from coercion by foreign powers.
The desire for a sphere of influence intersects with a second objective: undermining the institutions, especially NATO and the European Union, that bring Western influence up to Moscow’s doorstep. Putin cannot succeed in dominating the countries around him so long as he is confronted by a strong, vibrant West. He cannot feel secure in his autocratic rule so long as institutions that embody democratic values are pressing up against Russia.
So Putin has set out to weaken the cohesion of these organizations — by courting dissatisfied or illiberal members, reinforcing European dependencies on Russian energy resources and reminding NATO’s most exposed members of their vulnerability to Moscow’s power. When the U.S., under President Donald Trump, poisons its own relationship with Europe or undercuts the American commitment to the continent’s security (with punitive troop withdrawals, for example), it does Putin’s work for him by eroding the institutions that constrain his ambitions.
Third, Putin has a penchant for stoking political turmoil in the opposing camp, an adaptation of a strategy long used by the KGB in which he came of age. Russia didn’t create the crisis of liberal democracy. But Putin knows how to make it worse, as a way of discrediting the ideological competition and fracturing the coalitions that oppose him.
Supporting illiberal right-wing movements in Europe, playing on political polarization in America, and sponsoring troll farms and disinformation campaigns that target democratic elections abroad are a low-cost way of preying on the Western’s world’s chief weakness. These tactics exacerbate internal troubles that make it harder for Russia’s rivals to act purposefully on the international stage.
Finally, there is Putin’s determination to reassert global influence, which frequently involves acting as a global foil to the U.S. Russia, we often hear, has an economy the size of Spain’s. Yet the comparison is highly misleading. Spain doesn’t have the power-projection capabilities to change the course of the Syrian civil war. It doesn’t send contractors to intervene in Libya or shore up a dictator in Venezuela.
Moscow’s global reach isn’t what it once was: Its only aircraft carrier has a habit of breaking down and catching fire. But Putin has realized that it only takes a modest amount of military power, employed assertively, to exert influence in small wars or amid conditions of great instability.
There are limits to what Putin himself can achieve in all this. The Russian political model is only attractive to other corrupt autocrats and illiberal populists. Russia doesn’t have the power to replace the U.S. as the key outside player in the Middle East or other regions unless Washington simply abdicates its role there. There won’t be a Russian-centric world. There is no future in which all roads lead to Moscow.
Yet if Putin has his way, there is a future in which Russia controls its immediate neighbors geopolitically if not physically, has divided and hollowed out the Western democratic bloc and has established a pattern of intervening and checkmating U.S. initiatives on multiple continents. Putin’s success, in other words, involves the weakening and perhaps failure of the world that America has sought to build.
There is little reason to expect that this pattern of behavior will change anytime soon. Putin must believe that many of his initiatives — particularly those aimed at sowing confusion and discord within the West — are working. His web of relationships with key players in the Middle East has grown. His regime has reportedly played an essential role in keeping Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro in power. And whenever Putin’s popularity dips at home, he will be tempted to manufacture legitimacy by stoking Russian nationalism through bold gambits abroad.
This points to one final additional dimension of Putin’s statecraft: his willingness to accept outsized risks in the quest for geopolitical rewards. At so many points over the past 12 years, Putin has gone a step further than most Western observers might have predicted: waging not one but two wars of conquest in Europe; projecting decisive power into Syria after the U.S. had hesitated to do so; meddling in American presidential elections. If his government has indeed put bounties on the heads of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it is simply following this familiar pattern.
What ties these moves together is Putin’s relative audacity and his willingness to hit his opponents where they are weak, exposed, or have left themselves vulnerable through flawed or incoherent policies.
It is easy to write off Russia as a country in decline, an economic and demographic basket-case. But Putin has a combination of strategic ambition and tactical opportunism that makes him a particularly dangerous adversary. And if last week’s events are any indication, he will be in a position to keep challenging Washington for years to come.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
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