Russia is under siege. The country’s enemies have advanced to its borders. A hostile NATO alliance is now threatening to incorporate Ukraine – which historically and spiritual part of Russia. It fell to Vladimir Putin – heir to Peter the Great, Alexander I and Joseph Stalin – to lead the Kremlin’s fightback.
This, by and large, is the story that the Russian government is smuggling, at the beginning of a week of important talks with the West. Russia has joined forces on its border with Ukraine. It threaten to invade its western neighbor, but claims it is a defensive response to NATO enlargement. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, explain that for Putin “Ukraine is the last stand”.
But the Kremlin narrative is nonsense. There is no risk that NATO will attack Russia. The reason so many countries joined the alliance in the 1990s is because they fear Russian aggression. There is currently no realistic prospect of Ukraine joining NATO.
As a result, any concessions what the west can offer in this week’s talks – on troop deployment or alliance expansion – will not ultimately solve Putin’s security problem. This is because the real threats to Russia’s leader are domestic.
This time last year, demonstrations took place across Russia in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. His video investigations highlighted the lavish lifestyle of Putin and his cronies. The Kremlin claims with increasing ferocity that all its domestic opponents are “foreign agents”. In fact, they are mostly ordinary Russians who do not like the government and know that false elections offer no hope for change. Na a fail attempt to assassinate Navalny, Kremlin captured him. Moscow denies involvement in the assassination attempt on Navalny, but he remains a greater threat to Putin than NATO will ever be.
By presenting himself as the personification of Russian nationalism, Putin confused threats to his own rule with threats to the nation. But Putin’s personal security and Russia’s national security are not the same thing.
However, there is a link between Putin’s domestic problems and his external aggression. A war could create a wave of nationalist support for the Russian leader. More fundamentally, the only kind of government that Putin can tolerate on Russia’s borders is a corrupt autocracy that reflects the Kremlin’s own regime. A true democracy would provide an alternative model that could encourage opposition in Russia. A free country is also likely to flee the Kremlin’s embrace and align with the west.
For this reason, it is not in America’s ability to give Russia the stable “sphere of influence” that Putin demands. The corrupt autocracies that the Kremlin prefers on its periphery are inherently unstable because of the social resistance it evokes. It was a popular uprising which overthrew a corrupt, pro-Russian government in Ukraine in 2013-’14.
Inconvenient for the Kremlin it had to send troops to help suppress unrest in neighboring Kazakhstan – on the eve of talks between the US and Russia. Kazakhstan is a country where the average income is about $ 570 per month, but where the family of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from 1991 to 2019, acquired foreign properties at least $ 785 million.
The turmoil in Kazakhstan can be linked to infighting are governing circles. But these kinds of problems are inherent in corrupt autocracies. When wealth is distributed as part of an outside system, any hint of a change in leadership creates instability. That dilemma may also feel familiar to Putin.
Kazakhstan is not the only part of Russia’s nearby foreign country that is in turmoil. Since a stolen election in Belarus in 2020, Alexander Lukashenko, the indigenous dictator, brutally suppressed the domestic opposition. The Kremlin must now support the Kazakh and Belarusian governments – as they threaten to invade Ukraine.
These problems are worth remembering, amidst all the talking of the strength of Russia’s position goes into this week’s talks. In fact, modern Russia is dangerously close to repeating the situation of the Soviet Union – which kept its neighbors “friendly” by invading or intimidating them.
A short, victorious war could give Putin a temporary boost. But the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 will not ultimately ensure the survival of the Putin system, just as much as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 ensured the survival of the Soviet Union. Indeed, in the long run, an attack on Ukraine will actually exacerbate Russia’s security dilemma and weaken Putin’s domestic situation. If the war continues, Russian casualties would increase. A conflict will also drain the economy and increase the country’s isolation.
A Russian attack on Ukraine will also give NATO a renewed sense of purpose, and could lead to the expansion of the alliance that Russia is complaining about. Finland and Sweden is debate to join NATO, because they are terrified by Moscow’s increasingly threatening language and behavior.
Even if Russia could install a puppet regime in Kiev, the memory of Moscow’s aggression would give a historic boost to Ukrainian nationalism, reinforcing the emotional divide between Russia and Ukraine that Putin considers an abomination. All in all, it would be a strange kind of victory for the Kremlin.