Editor, This Week in Geopolitics
Even most of the oligarchs and the FSB (formerly KGB) could see this situation was unsustainable and realized that instability in Russia would ultimately threaten their newfound wealth.
But Russia remembers that in 1932, Germany was a tattered liberal democracy, hardly armed, with massive economic problems. By 1938, it was the dominant military and economic power in Europe. By 1941, German soldiers were outside of Moscow. The Russians know for a fact that intentions—and even capabilities— can change in the twinkling of an eye. What Europe or the United States intends now has nothing to do with what they could face in 10 years. Indeed, the Russians saw the contempt with which the West held them in Kosovo in 1999… where their desire that the West not bomb Serbia was brushed aside as if it had no significance.
It was Ukraine where, in World War II, the Wehrmacht had bled out its life. Ukraine also hosted Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean Peninsula, which gives Russia access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The two imperatives ran parallel.
Whether this was the American intent or whether this was a Russian misreading was immaterial. The Russians could not assume anything but the worst case.
Russian intelligence clearly failed to understand what was happening in Kiev and failed to counter it. Russia “seized” Crimea officially, but Crimea was already a major Russian base by treaty and was dominated by the Russians. They changed the legal status… not the correlation of forces. In eastern Ukraine, their attempt to trigger a pro-Russian uprising failed, and the Ukrainian forces, as poorly trained and armed as they were, ultimately fought the Russians to a standstill. If 2004 was a warning to others in the region about American weakness, 2014–15 was an American warning to them about Russian weakness.
Russia feared that, given its imbalance from the two blows, the United States would follow up with further aggressive moves. When a boxer is staggered, he goes into a clinch.
In this case, the Russians understood that the Americans’ vulnerability remained an overextension in the Middle East. Russia also recalled that the overextension in 2008 had paralyzed the United States in Georgia. For Russia, the period from Sept. 11, 2001 until 2014 was a period in which the United States was so obsessed with the Middle East, it had no resources to place elsewhere. Russia’s strategy, therefore, was to prolong the American focus in the Middle East, while creating the basis for a settlement over Ukraine.
However, from the psychological point of view, the Russians hoped to transform their position. First, they had demonstrated the ability to project power far from Russia’s borders. Second, Moscow’s intervention was designed to make it appear that Russia had saved the Assad regime, and therefore it drove the decision. The US had no intention of overthrowing Assad while IS was the likely beneficiary.
Its current strategy is constrained by weakness but compelled by the fact it is the only option available. A strategy of bluff follows from the reality of weakness when that weakness threatens to be fatal. Meaning that the economic and strategic weakness we see makes Russia more of a risktaker in the coming years, not less.