Two things are necessary to understand a nation’s strategy. The first is to view the world through the eyes of that nation… to know what it hopes for and fears. The second is to understand that the nation’s leader is far from a free agent. He (or she) became the leader by making endless political and financial deals along the way, and he remains the leader only to the extent that he satisfies others. There are also constraints and imperatives surrounding the leader that shape his actions. Some derive from internal politics, but the most important have to do with power, or the lack of it. In order to deal with an adversary, or to crush him, understanding the world from his point of view is essential.
People tend to personalize power. We believe that the leader makes decisions as he wishes. When he does what we want him to do, he is wise and decent. When he thwarts our plans, he is a fool and a monster. This makes the world a simpler place… but also a fantasy land. It imagines that someone rules a country of millions alone and by his own whimsical neurosis. We see that personalization when people talk about Russia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of an inefficient economy, low oil prices, and extreme demands on the Soviet defense system. Its collapse also led to a cataclysmic decade. Plunging into privatization, the economy was essentially looted by those best positioned to take advantage of it. These were extremely clever and fast businessmen, the intelligence and security services, and Western investors—all of whom became extraordinarily wealthy. The rest of the Federation plunged into far worse poverty than they had experienced in the late Soviet period. What Westerners thought of as liberalization was, from most Russians’ point of view, simply devastating. Even most of the oligarchs and the FSB (formerly KGB) could see this situation was unsustainable and realized that instability in Russia would ultimately threaten their newfound wealth.
This internal imbalance in wealth was compounded by Russia’s strategic position. The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, worked to maintain a buffer zone between itself and the European Peninsula consisting by the 20th century of the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these were all independent states, and the West began asserting its influence on them. From the Russian point of view, this was catastrophic. Russia had defeated Germany in World War II only because of its strategic depth. Westerners respond that surely Russians have no fear of invasion today. But Russia remembers that in 1932, Germany was a tattered liberal democracy, hardly armed, with massive economic problems. By 1938, it was the dominant military and economic power in Europe. By 1941, German soldiers were outside of Moscow. The Russians know for a fact that intentions—and even capabilities— can change in the twinkling of an eye. What Europe or the United States intends now has nothing to do with what they could face in 10 years. Indeed, the Russians saw the contempt with which the West held them in Kosovo in 1999… where their desire that the West not bomb Serbia was brushed aside as if it had no significance.
The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were held together by their intelligence and security services—and by money and the distribution of resources. The region was vast and disorderly. Privileges were used to hold the elites and the security services and to frighten them and others. It was no accident that the most efficient and effective institution in the Soviet Union had been the KGB. And it was no surprise that when it became clear that Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s liberalization had failed catastrophically, it was a KGB officer, deeply embedded with both the intelligence service and the oligarchs, who took over.
That it was Vladimir Putin was not the key. There were many like him. That it was an FSB man who knew where the oligarchs (some of them former KGB officials themselves) kept their money was the key. For only if the oligarchs were served could a new regime be created, and only if they could be intimidated could the new regime take firm control. No matter who the actual person was, an FSB man who knew the oligarchs well, was going to take over.
Russia had two imperatives. The first was to create order out of the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Critical to this was the strategy of using the export of raw materials to fund economic modernization. The means to do this was reversing much of the privatization of the 1990s, crushing resistant oligarchs, and aligning the rest with the export strategy. The second imperative was to restore the buffer zones to the West, accepting the Baltic’s membership in NATO, but being utterly insistent on at least the neutralization of Ukraine. Ukraine provides Russia with much needed strategic depth, forcing invading armies to stretch their supply lines before reaching major Russian cities. It was Ukraine where, in World War II, the Wehrmacht had bled out its life. Ukraine also hosted Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean Peninsula, which gives Russia access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The two imperatives ran parallel.
The United States and other Western countries had their own strategy in the region, trying to replicate the Eastern European uprisings of 1989 in other nations in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Their goal was to create liberal democracies, and the means was to support democratic uprisings through funding non-government organizations that could shape and organize political change. From the Western point of view, the question of the Russian Federation’s borders had been settled in 1991, and the fate of other former Soviet republics was not Russia’s concern.
From the Russian point of view, the West and particularly the United States were undertaking regime change by funding anti-Russian factions under the guise of liberalization. Liberalization to many Russians was merely another word for economic looting. Russian decision makers saw these uprisings as attempting to create a network of pro-American states intended to deny Russia its buffer zone. For the Russian leadership, the American justification of human rights was simply a cover for what had to be an attempt to destroy the Russian Federation by surrounding it with hostile states along borders that were indefensible due to topography and distances. Whether this was the American intent or whether this was a Russian misreading was immaterial. The Russians could not assume anything but the worst case.