It has become dangerously difficult to predict Vladimir Putin’s next moves and the boundaries – both geographical and ethical – he will not cross. The abduction of Estonian security officer Eston Kohver, even while peace in Ukraine was being discussed, seems to suggest an alarming policy incoherence. The temptation is to regard Putin as erratic, as unstable, as – in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words – “in another world.” However, while Putin is engaging in brinkmanship of a particularly aggressive and bare-knuckled variety, there is rationality and a strategy behind it.
Putin came to power as a pragmatic nationalist, skeptical of Western values and aims, but essentially convinced that Russia’s future lay in greater cooperation and economic modernization. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, he has demonstrated an ideological and political shift towards a more aggressive Russian nationalism and a belief that a distinctive and irreplaceable culture faces an existential challenge from Western values and political ambitions.
So he is aggressively seeking not only to consolidate Russian influence in Eurasia but also to insulate it from what he regards as the negative influences outside its borders. Not a Russian “hermit kingdom” like North Korea, but connection to global economic and technological currents on his terms, without sacrificing domestic control and geopolitical autonomy. He may be – is – mistaken that this could be done, but this is at least a goal that is rational in its own terms.
No desire to export ideology
The founding principles of Putin’s strategy appear to be four. First of all, he believes the West to be powerful – more powerful than Russia – but weak in discipline, ruthlessness, determination, and unity.
As a result, he has turned to what I call “guerrilla geopolitics,” trying to capitalize on these perceived vulnerabilities without triggering a direct conflict. The days when NATO feared waves of Soviet tanks crashing through the Fulda Gap are long gone. Instead, the challenge is from non-linear operations that blend political misdirection, subversion and propaganda with small but carefully calibrated injections of military force, whether from local proxies or deniable special forces.
Thirdly, one of the key distinctions between today’s “hot peace” and the old Cold War is that there is no desire on the Kremlin’s part to export any ideology. The aim is entirely defensive: to protect the regime’s grip on its country and its economic and security interests in its immediate neighborhood. Putin and the small circle of elites to whom he still listens essentially want to be left in peace to rule Russia and dominate Eurasia.
Finally, Putin’s nationalism is neither Soviet nor tsarist, although he bears the stamp of both. He does not want to restore the old empire, not least because that would incorporate many non-Russians, further diluting – in his opinion – the cultural unity of the Russian Federation. Instead, his vision of Russia’s true bounds is essentially cultural, anchored on “the Russian people” as a linguistically, culturally, historically, and religiously unified entity. Whether any such unity exists outside his imagination is another matter.
Put together, these strategic imperatives help us understand the limits of Putin’s behavior. He believes that the borders of the Russian state ought to follow concentrations of Russians, which means that northern Kazakhstan, for example, may be a future bone of contention. But eastern Ukraine, with its sizable Ukrainian minority, is less appealing – a lever to use against Kiev rather than a candidate to join the Russian Federation.
Furthermore, Russia ought to have the sovereignty to be able to resist what it sees as the cultural contamination and political influence brought by globalization and international institutions.
Everything short of war
However, Putin will not sacrifice his personal position or Russia in the name of ideology, empire, or personal crusade. So long as he still feels that the West is divided and irresolute – and no number of diplomatic statements will do anything to change this – he will continue to push and to needle.
He seeks not to invade the West, but to neuter it. At present, he knows that NATO is not eager for a fight and feels that the sanctions regime is both bearable and likely to ease once the fighting in Ukraine is over. Provocations like Kohver’s kidnap are intended to undermine Western morale and rhetoric (after all, it came just after U.S. President Obama delivered a stirring promise to defend Estonia).
This is what Putin’s “hot peace” will mean for the West: subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to weaken, divide, and distract. Strategic leaks of embarrassing information, cyber-attacks, military probes short of casus belli, business pressure and penetration, support for fringe political movements. Everything the West can imagine – short of war.