The Soviet Union dissolution was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. This dramatic statement was attributed to Vladimir Putin, the current Russian president and former officer of the KGB (Committee for State Security), the old Soviet Secret Service. It is not an accident that he has been working aggressively to recover influence, prestige and power of Russia. For those who always used to be in power and in control, it must not have been easy to watch so close the Soviet Union fragmentation. His vigorous actions in the international political arena, ruling with the “iron hand”, especially in regions that were portion of the former Soviet state, repressing separatist movements in the Caucasus region mainly in Chechnya, as well as providing military support for Russian separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine, clearly reveals his determination to rescue for the country at least part of the former influence and power that held Russia during Soviet era. His actions can also be seen as a reaction against the risk of political, cultural, economic and military western siege, which has been expressed by the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) advance to the East, to the extent that absorbs in its organization all the former communist states which were members of Warsaw Pact, the former military organization headed by the previous Soviet Union.
The current Russian government system and its political organization is, by definition, a democratic state, as it has a legislative and judicial system, theoretically independent. In practice, it is an authoritarian system in which Putin, head of the executive branch, has the overall control over the institutions. The Russian style of governing, which has as reference a strong central power, allowed him to build a powerful internal relations network, giving the full political control of the state to the President, in addition to exerting a strong influence on the decisions of other powers in matters of its direct interest.
This concentration of power has allowed Putin to exert huge pressure and repression on political opponents, ensuring the cooperation he needs from those interested in staying close to the “czar” in order to make business in Russia, or forcing this cooperation through intimidation, for those who choose not to cooperate easily. The state-owned companies in the oil and gas, rail and communications sectors were placed under the management of people he trusts, thus assuring the control of highly strategic sectors of the Russian economy. He is recognized for taking control of the powerful oligarchy formed after the end of the Soviet period, mainly composed of bureaucrats and former members of the communist party that seized the main wealth of the country as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
Putin’s nationalist rhetoric about Russia’s culture and people, and his claims to be the protector of the Russian people, also including in those living abroad, has aroused strong concerns of its Asian and European neighbors, especially in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and in the Baltics Republics. These countries are home for many Russian communities, who were settled there during the Soviet period. They can be encouraged to seek political autonomy or even join the Russian Federation, which could lead these countries towards political destabilization or even their dissolution. The military Crimea takeover on March 2014 is the most recent example of this nationalist attitude. Most of the Crimean population is of Russian origin. They encouraged and backed up the military operation. Claiming sentimental, historical and national identity ties, Putin wasted no time and annexed the peninsula to the Russian Federation, despite protests of US and most European countries, apprehensive about the justification of nationalist content that could be a pretext for new and bold military adventures, not only to redraw the Europe map, but also to submit to fear neighboring countries that have common border with Russia.
New military operations did not take long to happen. Still in 2014, shortly after the Crimea crisis, Russian separatists, dissatisfied with Yanukovych destitution, the former Ukrainian pro- Russian president, and also discontent with the Ukrainian government decision to continue with its economic and political rapprochement plan with the European Union, began military operations in the Donetsk and Lugansk industrial regions, in Eastern Ukraine, aiming to separate these regions from the country. Since the beginning of the insurgency, Putin has sent military supplies to the rebels. Officially he does not admit it, but this support to the separatists with soldiers and weapons is undoubted. Without this support the rebels would never have been able to contain and defeat the Ukrainian army on several fronts, and force the government, financially weakened, to accept truce and peace talks.
Putin has clearly defined his strategy and tactics to expand its influence, and thus continue absorbing territories or expanding its influence in Russian neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Western powers, afraid to confront him in their old areas of influence, refrains from providing military support to Ukrainian and grudgingly accept the military Putin advance. To face this uncomfortable situation, the Western powers has preferred to apply commercial sanctions, which has caused an important impact on the Russian economy, but it was not enough to cause insurmountable problems for the country. In some ways it has been the stimulus to the Russian people to strengthen their anti-Western and conservative behavior and also to stimulate Russian economy to develop by itself in areas where they were not prepared enough to face competition.
The Merkel, Hollande, Poroshenko and Putin’s meeting in Minsk – Belarus, in February this year, aimed to reach an agreement about a truce between the separatists and the Ukrainian government has served only as a moment of pause for Putin to consolidate his military conquests. It would be a miracle if Poroshenko has gotten an agreement granting autonomy to the regions to keep them in the country.
The meeting in Minsk brings to the memory a sad historical event which occurred on September 1938, in Munich, when the German city hosted an international conference attended by Western powers leadership, represented by the prime ministers of the Great Britain and France: Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, respectively. On the other hand, by the Germany and Italy side there were the dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, respectively. In the historical agreement, the Czech Sudetenland, at that time inhabited by people of German origin was ceded to the Nazi Germany in exchange it was the last territorial Hitler’s claim. Before the end of that year, Hitler rather than comply with the agreement took Czechoslovakia as a whole. The policy of appeasement was a complete disaster to contain the Nazi dictator, and has served as a historical example of the huge risk to accept pressures of authoritarian leaders. These kinds of leaderships should be contained at the beginning of its expansion process, before they become more dangerous and difficult to be controlled.
At this moment, to support its goals, Putin has the advantage of being in Russia an authoritarian leader with more internal power than any head of Western state. He takes decisions easily with no significant opposition. He has showed of being a skillful strategist who knows what he wants and which tactics must be adopted in each situation. Putin knows he is facing reluctant European statesmen who depend on internal political negotiations to take important decisions, and more, they need to talk each other to adopt sanctions or military measures. These leaderships are very concerned with their own political and economic affairs, prone to postpone the resolution of difficult problems.
Once the Ukrainian question has been solved, and there is no any difficult economic crisis, probably the next Putin’s step will be articulate some kind of pressure in the Baltic countries, more exactly in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. These small countries, especially the first two, have a large Russian speaking population. All of them were part of the former Soviet Union and are strategically placed in the Baltic Sea shores. Probably he will try to interfere in these countries. It could be done through political subversion or by political pressure to get the autonomy to these people, under the pretext that they are not well treated and they are not fully integrated into the political and social system.
If Putin gets to destabilize these countries and seize some sort of territorial or political concession, he will get to achieve his main target, which is to cause a break, a fracture, to weaken Western Alliance. Hence, he will show to the other countries that NATO cannot assure their security and that they should not have been associated with the Western bloc and turned their back to Russia. At this point, Putin will have demoralized the Western powers and undermined the confidence of Europeans in the Atlantic Alliance causing unpredictable political and economic consequences.
Putin knows that any miscalculated movement against NATO associated countries can lead to a serious risk of military confrontation with the US, which is also a member of the organization. Probably, this provocation will be the tipping point where Europeans and Americans will have to be firm to face Putin with the required severity, or instead, accept a position of absolute inferiority in Europe. The pieces are on the chessboard. The game has begun, and, for the time being, Putin is winning.