Places to Watch in 2017: Putin's Next Moves

Putin has proven to be an interesting player on the international stage. His goal is not to spread an ideology like Communism which was the goal of the Soviet Union, but to spread Russian influence. He has shown the willingness to protect Russian compatriots where they exist scattered in pockets throughout the borders of the old Soviet Union and Eastern bloc. And it is also unlikely that he will risk outright conflict with the United States by actually invading a NATO member. Instead, he will likely test the incoming Trump administration by targeting non-NATO countries in an effort to prove the West ineffective and disunited. That is his ultimate goal- to undermine the West and the best protector of Western values since World War II- the United States.

One area of interest is Moldova, particularly the region known as Gagauzia. These are Eastern Orthodox Catholics who speak Russian. Since 1812 and the Treaty of Bucharest, the area was ceded to the Russian empire by the Ottoman empire. In short, this region meets the criteria for Putin- its strong ties to traditional Russia. It is also the poorest region of the country and the people blame the poverty on the West and globalization (sound familiar?). In 2016, they elected a pro-Russian governor and this region is exempt from Russian counter-sanctions against Moldova. In 2014 as the Crimean crisis escalated, 98% of them voted against the EU and looked east to Russia.

Controlling this region would help Russia along Ukraine’s western border. They already have 1,500 troops in another region of Moldova- Transnitria. Along with the Odessa region of Ukraine, Moldova forms the region formerly known as Bessarabia which used to be part of the Russian empire.

Georgia is viewed as part of Russia by Putin. He has shown influence by projecting force. More than 8 years after a cease fire, there are 11,000 Russian troops in Georgia in the South Ossetia region. Meddling in Georgia will continue as Putin stokes ethnic tensions in another area- Samtskhe-Javakheti which has a large Armenian population. Besides weakening Georgia further, it would create a bridge between Russia and their military presence in Armenia itself.

Turkmenistan was one of the last areas to fall under Soviet control and one of the first to assert their independence afterward. They remain neutral and have rebuffed Russian overtures thus far. But as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates with the resurgence of the Taliban, incidents between Turkmen and Taliban forces along the border have increased. In 2016, Russia visited the capital and offered Russian military assistance in patrolling the volatile border. Until 2005, Russian troops patrolled the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan with success. Turkmenistan may take the Russians up on the offer.

Another area is northern Kazakhstan where one-fifth of that country’s population is ethnic Russian. After the Crimean annexation, they were sympathetic. In fact, many Russian Kazakh soldiers have shown up on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, Putin suggested that “the Kazakh’s have no statehood.” This country is important given its potential natural resources.

In 1988, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in a military clash that left 30,000 dead. Since 1994, there has been a cease-fire while Armenian forces occupy the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. In 2014, hostilities heated up along the cease fire line. Enter Putin who has suggested Russian troops as “peace keepers.” If so, then this region will likely never be returned to Azerbaijan. A military presence in a region the world recognizes as part of Azerbaijan would serve Putin’s purposes of keeping the government of that country from looking to the West- a goal they have been seeking.

Finally, there is the Ukraine itself. Here, Putin can afford to be more bold and take risks because Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to the NATO alliance. Parts of eastern Ukraine are vitally important to the Russian economy and military. He knows the last thing the West and NATO want is a war over the Ukraine. Being a non-NATO member, the Ukraine is basically on their own. This is a conflict between the Ukraine and Russia, not NATO and Russia. In effect, the United States and NATO have neutralized themselves without a shot being fired. Hence, deploying American tanks and engaging in NATO military exercises thousands of miles away has Putin laughing at the predictable response. He has achieved the more tangible goals in eastern Ukraine while NATO and the US engage in symbolic gestures.

Putin is driving a wedge into the heart of this dilemma. Not only is he cognizant of the fact that the West cares less than Russia about the Ukraine, he is betting and thus far winning that the West does not care about their alleged values. To Putin, if they really cared, they would be doing more to defend them. He sees the weakness of a post-Cold War NATO and the United States. Then, the alliance even threatened nuclear war to defend values like democracy. In effect, he is calling the West’s bluff.

Ukraine is simply a convenient pawn in Putin’s overall goal which is to change the nature of the current international system. If he succeeds, it is not a territorial victory, but a moral one he then uses to illustrate the hollow nature of the Western model. That model did not step in to help the Ukraine, therefore that model must be morally corrupt. This bolsters not only his international esteem, but also his domestic prestige. It will be national pride on steroids and provide a template for future despotic rulers who have no right on the international stage a seat at the table.

The United States needs to develop a comprehensive strategy with a Cold War mentality, but a new Cold War way of thinking. It could start with clear-cut “If…then” scenarios laid out diplomatically to Russia where the “then” is actually followed through. For example: “If you do not remove your ‘troops’ from eastern Ukraine by a date we set, then we will provide Ukraine with lethal offensive weapons that your military cannot defeat.” Then if Russia calls our bluff, we follow through on the threat. Clearly defined red lines are established and backed up. Perhaps they are ultimatums, but they may be the only language a Putin understands.