Paper Tiger Putin

The Failure of Russia’s Anachronistic Antagonism

A woman holds a portrait of Russia's President Vladimir Putin during celebrations on the main square of the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 21, 2014. Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin is not as strong as he might seem, or, more important, as he might hope. Although Russia supports fighters in Ukraine, invaded Georgia in 2008, sold missile systems to Iran, and recently threatened Denmark and Lithuania with nuclear war, it is, in reality, a muted and restrained power operating in a system that no longer supports grand-scale intervention. If anything, Russia’s recent military and diplomatic adventures have revealed its desperate weakness. Meanwhile, its shift toward a self-defeating utilization of new forms of power (covert warfare, cyber conflict, and coercive energy policy) demonstrates the limitations it faces in coercing its neighbors.


Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict has not gone the way Putin intended. Betting that the West would decline to help new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Moscow attempted to strangle Ukraine’s economy, nullifying the bailout package and the gas deal that the two countries signed under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s rule in 2014. But Putin’s calculation proved incorrect; the West did offer financial support and training forces, granting Ukraine $17.5 billion in economic packages and loans to keep its economy afloat. Meanwhile, as the West was coming to Kiev’s aid, the price of oil collapsed, leaving Russia with barely enough funds to even contemplate purchasing a quarter of the new T-50 stealth jets it had planned on acquiring. That, combined with Russian soldiers and mercenaries’ limited success in Ukraine so far, and the fact that the government had to move troops in from Siberia and force conscripts to sign up for the long term just to get enough boots on the ground at the border, a full-scale invasion of Ukraine seems unlikely, even as the ruble recovers. 

For Russia, the story in Ukraine gets even worse. Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has roots in the nation’s role as a Soviet-era energy pipeline for natural gas sales from Russia to Western Europe. Until 2014, when civil strife began, 80 percent of Russian natural gas headed

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