Rachel Rizzo and Adam Twardowski write: 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. [Continue reading…]