After Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 caught the United States off guard, Western observers have since struggled to understand Russian strategic decision-making. The apparent disconnect between Russia’s strategic gains and economic costs in theaters such as Ukraine and Syria leaves more questions than answers about “what Putin wants,” and how he perceives Russia’s interests. Alarmed by this uncertainty, a growing chorus of influential voices has warned that unless NATO shores up its land and maritime capabilities in Europe, it risks inadvertently inviting Russia to make a land-grab of NATO’s eastern territory. While NATO must prepare for such a scenario and reassure nervous eastern allies, Putin is probably not looking to rebuild Russia’s imperial frontiers or start a war with the United States, nor is he interested in or capable of reestablishing Russia as a global power like the Soviet Union was. Most analyses about “what Putin wants” miss the mark. Putin realizes that in an era when Russia’s internal challenges dramatically limit its ability to project power, Russia’s security depends not on rolling tanks across the borders of the NATO alliance, but instead on fracturing the West and paralyzing decision-making among Western leaders. Russia’s apparent success in exploiting these fissures within the Alliance is thus the greatest threat the United States and its NATO allies face from Moscow.
A more difficult question to answer, however, centers around why exactly Putin has used this strategy and plunged Russia’s relationship with the West into the worst crisis since the Cold War. Part of the consensus seems to be that Putin is resentful of Russia’s fall from global power and that he craves respect from the United States. Others blame the United States for stoking Russian insecurity by expanding NATO eastward to Russia’s western border. Still others focus on the dynamics of Russia’s internal political landscape, stressing that Putin’s ability to sustain his grip on power depends on promoting an intense nationalistic mentality amongst Russians. In reality, Putin is probably motivated by a combination of all these factors. What is clear, however, is that Russia is intent on honing sophisticated capabilities in the cyber and information domains to sew division in the West and fracture the unity of the transatlantic alliance.
How exactly does Russia carry out its policy of fracturing the West? A new report from CSIS on the Kremlin’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe explains that Russia seeks to advance its geostrategic objectives in part by “weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction” of the West. By shaping the decision-making apparatus of certain countries through the exploitation of weak state institutions and the identification of allies sympathetic to Russian interests, Moscow believes it achieves more than it could through traditional military campaigns, and at much lower cost. Putin has taken this well-known playbook, which includes disinformation campaigns designed to discredit Western institutions and sew doubts about official narratives of Russian behavior, and found new ways to apply it in the West. Recently, footprints of this approach can be seen throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East
In the United States, for instance, Russia’s intelligence services hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers and leaked embarrassing emails between high-level officials to Wikileaks. The Kremlin did not pursue this strategy because it thinks it can help propel Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, but rather thought that by exposing the inner-workings of the American political system that some voters already view as corrupt, it could sew more discontent among Americans, further discredit Western democratic institutions abroad, and politically weaken Clinton. A weakened U.S. administration would find itself distracted during its early days in office and unable to react decisively to Russian aggression in eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Putin’s intervention in the Donbas was also not intended to be a precursor to large-scale military intervention in eastern Europe. Russia solved the perceived problem of Ukraine’s integration into Western institutions not just by fomenting a protracted conflict in its east, but also by exposing deep-seated divisions in the transatlantic community about how to respond to Russian policy. Today, despite outward statements of unity, EU member states still find themselves at odds with one another over new sanctions against Russia. NATO’s capabilities, though improving, have suffered years of underinvestment by many of America’s European allies, and alarming public opinion polls expose deep ambivalence among Europeans for participating in NATO-led campaigns to defend their eastern allies.
The Middle East is another theater where Russian meddling has sewn disunity and division. Since Russia entered the conflict in Syria in September 2015, the Obama administration has been forced to balance its interest in ending the conflict on acceptable terms with the desire to avoid direct military confrontation with Russian military assets and personnel. The collapse of ceasefire talks with Russia in October has forced the United States to confront the uncomfortable reality that although a ceasefire must still involve some form of arrangement with Russia given Moscow’s interests in the conflict, Putin sees no need to hurry the process along. Russian disinformation efforts already blur the full extent of Russia’s crimes in Syria, and as long as Putin continues to prop up the Assad Regime and keep America at bay, he considers Russia’s interests safe.
The bottom line is that by creating cracks in Western unity, Putin believes he can achieve his aim of continued relevance at a time when Russian economic, demographic, and political power is on the decline. Fomenting chaos inhibits the West’s ability to present a united front, and thus provides an artificial boost to Russian power and ability to shape global events. What has also become clear is that relations between Russia and the West are not poised to improve any time soon. Although the United States and Europe must keep diplomatic channels open with the goal of deescalating tensions and avoiding further clashes, the West must understand that the true goal of Russia’s current strategy is to deceive Western interlocutors, deflect attention from its aggression, and undermine the cohesion of Western institutions. Even if Putin does not aim to instigate additional land-grabs or pursue war with NATO, this does not mean that Russia is not dangerous. In fact, through the use of hybrid rather than conventional tactics, Putin has proven that he can create just as much chaos as by sending an armed battalion into NATO territory. By waging underhanded forms of aggression, recent history has shown he can count on a Western response that underestimates Russia’s resolve to assert its interests.