Contending With the New Russian Empire
NATO cannot roll over, risking a wider conflict with nuclear implications.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin believes the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has systematically taken steps to restore Russia’s influence in its near abroad by strengthening cooperation with states in the former Soviet Union. Invading Ukraine is part of a broader plan to restore Moscow’s hegemony in Eurasia and undermine Western influence.
The 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit was a tipping point in U.S.-Russia relations. Its final statement affirmed Ukraine and Georgia “will join” the alliance. From 2008 onward, Putin confronted NATO, foregoing opportunities for a mutually beneficial modus vivendi.
Russia occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. Though Russia already had a twenty-five-year agreement for military bases in Vaziani, Akhalkalaki, and Batumi, Putin viewed Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” as a challenge to Russia’s influence in the Caucasus. Puppet regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia showed contempt for Georgia’s independence and sovereignty. They welcomed the Russian 4th Military Base in South Ossetia, which hosted 3,500 personnel, and the 7th Military Base in Abkhazia with 4,500 Russian troops.
Beyond Georgia, Russia enhanced its role in the South Caucasus by providing weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia. It intervened in the conflict, deploying Russian “peacekeepers” in November 2020. Its mediation focused on economic and transport ties to Russia’s benefit. The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan would not have ended in Baku’s favor without Putin’s support.
Putin and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev met in Moscow on February 22, 2022, to discuss broadening bilateral cooperation in the political, economic, and humanitarian spheres. They signed a declaration consecrating Russia and Azerbaijan as “allied nations.” Russia’s Gyumri Military Base on the Turkey-Armenia border is home to 5,000 Russian troops.
When Kazakhstan’s government faced widespread civil unrest in 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed to Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for protection from “terrorist groups.” Tokayev’s security services gunned down hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Almaty and western regions of the country. Russian troops were instrumental in putting down the protest, which indebted Tokayev to Putin, and deepened fraternity between Russia and energy-rich Kazakhstan.
Taking a page from Josef Stalin’s playbook, Russia fomented “frozen conflicts” across the ex-Soviet space. In Moldova, Russia manipulated division in society and deployed troops to make sure that Moldova was indebted to Moscow. In 1992, ethnic Russians in Transnistria broke away from newly independent Moldova with support from Soviet troops in the Operational Group of Russian Forces, formerly the 14th Guards Army.
Belarus functions like a colony of Russia. In 1999, Russia and Belarus reached an agreement to become a “union state,” with a similar government, a common currency, and extensive security cooperation. Just last week, Belarus and Russia conducted military exercises involving tens of thousands of troops, as well as hypersonic and cruise missiles. The Union State is far from an agreement between equals. Belarus’ President Aleksandar Lukashenko is subservient and obsequious. He behaves more like Putin’s lapdog than the leader of a sovereign state.
We have seen this film before. Russia complains about the rights of ethnic Russians, fabricates provocations, recruits local militias, and deploys forces against the host government.
Putin telegraphs his punches. His intentions are clear. Occupying eastern Ukraine is part of a broader strategy motivated by Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions and distrust of Euro-Atlantic institutions. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own repression; Putin should fear a similar fate.
An effective response by the West must be based on a steely-eyed assessment of Russia’s goals. The Biden administration has warned Putin of serious consequences for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It has not, however, defined red lines that would prompt these consequences. Russia has a list of Ukrainian leaders it plans to eliminate. U.S. officials should publicly affirm zero tolerance for abducting, detaining, and killing Ukrainian officials.
If democracy is bothering Putin, the United States should work with NATO and non-NATO members to increase support for democracy and strengthen civil society. Putin only cooperates with illegitimate anti-democratic governments like Russia’s. Putin should be judged by the company he keeps.
The Ukraine-Russia border is the most dangerous place in the world. If Russian forces cross the Dnieper River and roll through Ukraine, they could keep going and attack the Baltic States. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are NATO members shielded by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which maintains: “An attack on one is an attack on all.”
No time for wobbly. No time for appeasement. NATO cannot roll over, risking a wider conflict with nuclear implications.
David Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Experts at the State Department during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.