Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, Russian revisionism has focused on the western reaches of the former Soviet Union. He has annexed Crimea and unleashed his surrogate forces in Southeast Ukraine. He has tested NATO defenses in the Baltic and North Sea, while intimidating Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. He has expanded his military across the board to raise the price of Western counter-escalation.
Where might he turn his attention next? He has termed the “collapse of the Soviet Union a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” adding: “For the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens found themselves outside Russian territory.” In other words, “Russia is where Russians live,” which echoes Hitler’s slogan of bringing “Home into the Reich” all Germans living outside, starting with the Sudetenland.
So where do Russians live? In the Baltics, but these are fenced off by NATO. This is not the case in Russia’s “soft underbelly,” above all in Kazakhstan where Russians constitute 24 per cent of the population. In the northern districts, they are the ethnic majority. The country is rich in natural resources: oil, gas, and minerals.
Now assume, as throughout the “Stans,” political instability escalating into post-despotic succession crises. Such upheavals would offer a perfect pretext for intervention in order to save Russian lives.
Propinquity would add practicality to the purpose. Add further the age-old temptation to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” as Shakespeare’s Henry IV counseled his son and successor. Foreign adventure, as in the Ukraine, has been enormously popular in Russia, fogging in the dismal state of its economy. It shows little sign of improvement as the Kremlin continues to isolate the country from global markets—from knowledge and capital transfers. Russian economic growth is now around one-half of one per cent, and the estimate has GDP growing just above the zero line through 2020.
Finally, there is the strategic incentive. Looking southward from the Kremlin, the risk appears low. The West has done nothing to protect Georgia in 2008, enabling Russia to maintain a “frozen conflict” that allows for manipulation at will.
Regarding Ukraine, the West has imposed economic sanctions, but not delivered lethal weapons to Kiev. The worst “punishment” is the deployment of four “robust” NATO battalions to its most exposed members. In Europe, propitiation remains an enduring reflex.
So much for Western support for Ukraine that abuts on NATO. Russia’s geographic advantage in the “underbelly” is larger by orders of magnitude. It strains the imagination to believe that the West would rush to the aid of Kazakhstan or its neighbors, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, located immediately to the south. While lacking sizeable Russian minorities there, Islamist terrorism may serve as convenient pretext.
“Oh, what a lovely war!”, ran the title of an acclaimed 1963 musical. In the south, all the elements are in place: Russians minorities, Islamist threats, short lines, conventional superiority, and no risk of a Western military reaction. To turn advantage into action, Putin or his successors would foster internal strife in the target countries. After all, all of them are former Russian territory, conquered by the Tsars after the Crimean War in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Then, conquest was Tsarist strategy. Yet between now and 2030, certainly as far as Putin is concerned, heavy-handed strategy will yield to nimble opportunism: Let’s see how far we can go. In the west, a U.S.-led alliance spells risks. To the south, they hardly exist, apart from an Afghanistan-type insurgency. But Russia would not have to redraw borders. “Frozen conflicts” and pliant governments are enough to re-establish dominance.