Since the late 2000s, Russia has adopted a decidedly aggressive tone in its foreign policy. Eager to prevent NATO from expanding around his borders, Vladimir Putin used the relatively low-stakes annexation of Crimeato show the world he would not be afraid to pursue new strategic interests for his country. Back then, the West reacted in a lukewarm fashion. Sanctions only mildly hurt the Russian economy as they did not effectively target the specific industries or the oligarchs that funded Putin’s endeavors.
Meanwhile, the Russian President’s effective handling of the economy ensured high approval ratings in the early 2000s. The Crimean episode also helped Putin’s ratings, as much of the Russian public — who saw Crimea as a rightful part of Russia — approved the operation. Russia moved in with little resistance, scaring Europe with flashbacks of the start of World War II, when Nazi Germany unilaterally seized the Sudetenland. This debacle consecrated what I would call ‘diplomatic terrorism’: a strategy of clever military and diplomatic maneuvers that bolstered Russian ambitions and leverage around the world.
However, Crimea was not the first instance of Russian belligerence. The war with Georgia in 2008 draws the closest parallels with the current Russia-Ukraine war. Using a now-familiar formula, Putin sent ‘peacekeepers’ to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia to support allied separatists there and in South Ossetia. An unfair war broke out between Georgia and its much larger neighbor. It was Europe's first conflict of the 21st Century, one that drove ethnic Georgian populations from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two regions became puppet republics, solely recognized by Moscow and its allies. It was again a cleverly led campaign.
These two military actions built Russia’s diplomatic might. The West became wary of the lengths Putin was willing to go, effectively stopping NATO’s expansion. The last states sharing a border with Russia to join the treaty were the Baltic states back in 2004. Governments in Finland, Georgia and Ukraine paused their respective efforts to join.
That’s where the diplomatic terrorism formula originates. By leading selective, smaller-scale military operations in allied territories along its borders, Moscow fear-mongered just enough to scare most of Eastern Europe while forcing the EU and U.S. into quiet assent. As long as Russia did not act too boldly, the West would turn a blind eye and keep flooding the Russian economy with foreign investment.
The EU also made the shameful strategic mistake of relying on Russia for an estimated 45% of its natural gas imports. Russia capitalized on the situation to cash in on much-needed hard currency rather than borrowing from the West which helped the country minimize the impact of the 2014 Crimea sanctions. The Europeans could not sanction their own gas imports. The Russians knew their margin of maneuver and claimed every inch. Russia was steadily rising back to a firmer place on the world stage.
The Trump administration veered U.S. foreign policy completely towards countering China. During this time, Putin used this respite and developed ties with traditional U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf while launching proxy military interventions in Western Africa to challenge France’s traditional domination there. Russia also began efforts to overhaul Sino-Russian ties, culminating in the recent partnership between the two nations with ‘no limits.’ Crucially, Russia established contracts to sell gas to China, which would reduce its reliance on the European market.
Ultimately, Russia successfully rebuilt much of the credit it had lost with the fall of the USSR. It went back to being both an indispensable player in global diplomatic negotiations and a feared military power, making the Kremlin’s foreign policy look like a masterclass in foreign relations and influence building.
On Feb. 24, however, Russia attacked Ukraine, triggering the first war of such scale on European soil since World War II, revealing the hidden plan lurking beneath its political terrorism. Despite the cruel imbalance of power, Ukrainian resistance turned out fierce: The population blocked a stronger Russian army from conquering any major city for a whole week. But for how much longer?
Brutal Western sanctions have condemned Russia’s aggression. Vladimir Putin correctly assumed no Western power would engage his nukes in battle but did not account for the potential harshness of economic retribution. Russian banks are being brought to their knees by exclusion from global financial infrastructure, while the world boycotts Russian exports. The sanctions allow for energy transactions to continue, but a significant part of Russia’s foreign reserves are now frozen in bank accounts around the globe. Germany even canceled a massive gas pipeline linking it to Russian fields, forfeiting billions in revenue. Even notoriously neutral Switzerland has foregone the status quo, using its international financial might to freeze nearly 15 billion euros in Russian assets and condemn the invasion.
Europe’s image has taken a hit from this war, proving that conflict can reach any part of the world. Some countries will now try hard to navigate the situation and profit from the crisis while safeguarding their trade relations with Russia. For example, Saudi Arabia condemned the invasion at the U.N. but refused to produce more oil in solidarity with Western efforts to punish Russia, undermining Western efforts to sanction Russia, instead colluding with Moscow to maintain record oil prices.
Still, the Kremlin needs to watch its back. Hypocrisy from some opportunists aside, Putin’s extreme rhetoric has brought the worst diplomatic crisis the Russian Federation has ever seen. Putin has single handedly united disjointed Western allies into an anti-Russia bloc. Brussels has fast-tracked the start of Ukraine’s accession process to the EU, while public opinion in historically neutral Finland and Sweden now sways firmly in favor of NATO accession. Putin’s craze is driving Ukraine closer to the West, as the EU and NATO support Ukrainian resistance with food, anti-tank missiles and other weaponry. Even China has foregone solidarity with its pretended ally by abstaining from the General Assembly vote condemning the invasion. With his oligarchs sanctioned and his currency now at its weakest in decades, Putin at worst might start durably losing the support he direly needs to stay in power. At best, he has revived a faltering Western front and will have certainly provoked unprecedented expansion of his Western rivals’ spheres of influence.
It is hard to anticipate the outcome of this war when the events are still unfolding before us. We can only hope that terror won’t prevail.