A good strategic synopsis of the situation in Eastern Europe can be found in the American Interest:
“It is time to discard any delusional or half-hearted approaches toward Moscow that bring only temporary pauses in this geostrategic struggle. The West confronts two stark choices: either help facilitate the collapse of Putinism, or face years of insecurity that will undermine both NATO and the EU and subvert the stability of Russia’s numerous neighbors. Trying to alter Moscow’s destructive international goals through negotiations is a forlorn hope: The Kremlin is engaged in an extensive “shadow war” to dominate its post-Soviet neighbors, and Putin has staked his presidency on rebuilding an extensive “Russian world.” The Western powers therefore have a direct security interest in minimizing future regional instabilities by constricting the Russian state and encouraging all sectors of Russian society to replace the destructive Putinist system.”
What are Russia’s weaknesses?
“There are three indicators of Russia’s creeping state failure, and they will be magnified in the coming years: economic decline, escalating repression, and reckless imperialism. Russia’s economy was deteriorating even before the limited Western sanctions were applied. GDP is contracting, industrial production is declining, capital outflow has reached alarming proportions, consumer demand is shrinking, and the country will soon enter a prolonged recession. In addition, the “phase three” sanctions imposed by the EU in the oil, defense, technology, and banking sectors in July will restrict Russia’s access to European capital markets and further damage its economic performance.
One of the themes running through my writings is that democracies are never as dysfunctional as they seem to be, while dictatorships are never as efficient and capable as they appear. In western societies, our dirty laundry is aired for all to see. In dictatorships, like Putin’s Russia, and Communist China, everything seems gleaming, modern, and efficient, at least from afar, but less so if you poke around a bit. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to poke around.
For Russia’s ruling clique, economic decline will necessitate political repression, while nationalist triumphalism over the seizure of Crimea, the alleged protection of ethnic Russians abroad, and staunch opposition to the West is intended to distract attention from decline and repression.”
As I have argued, the real cause for Putin’s military adventurism was his increasing unpopularity at home in the leadup to the 2012 Presidential election. Russia has real enemies, such as Iran (if it were to become nuclear), and China. But Putin is making deals with them. The most secure borders that Russia had are in Eastern Europe and they are what Putin is attacking.
“The coming crisis of the hyper-centralized Putinist system should be welcomed by U.S. and EU leaders, rather than viewed as a destabilizing prospect. If indeed Putin is replaced by an even more rabid nationalist, as some policymakers fear, then Russia will simply experience further decline and international ostracism that will rebound on its citizens. Moscow will not start a frontal war with the West because its military is simply no match for an American-led NATO, and it can only operate against weaker neighbors.”
A point Mark Steyn frequently makes is that foreign policy experts often make the mistake of valuing stability above all else. In a bad situation, stability only freezes the undesirable in amber.
“The demise of Putinism as a system of internal rule and international ambition can be hastened by a coordinated Western approach with three core components: international isolation, imperial indigestion, and regime replacement.”
“Economic sanctions will be more effective if they impact on Russia’s citizens as well as on leading oligarchs and Putin cronies. Falling government revenues, a downturn in living standards, shortages of consumer goods, difficulties in travelling abroad, and rising unemployment can help fuel revolt against a regime that will become increasingly isolated and seen to be stumbling economically.”
This is an absolutely critical point. To defeat Putin, the Russian people must be given a stark choice: themselves or Putin. Remember, Putin’s Achilles heel is his popularity, as evinced by the below 50% approval rating prior to the 2012 Presidential election. In trying to boost his popularity with military adventurism, he is playing a dangerous game. This is what Argentinina dictator Leopoldo Galtieri did, and look how long he lasted after he lost the Falkland Islands War.
“To thwart Russia’s expansionism, external pressure must be combined with efforts to undermine Putinism from within. Kremlin controls can be weakened by supporting genuine federalism, decentralization, minority rights, regional self determination, and embryonic national independence movements throughout the overstretched Russian Federation. All such initiatives are consistent with broader campaigns for democracy and human rights in which both the U.S. and EU excel.”
The West can itself conduct a “shadow war” against Putinism, just as it did against Soviet Communism throughout Eastern Europe, by aiding democratic initiatives and supporting sovereignty movements among numerous nationalities.”
In the age of nuclear weapons, the indirect approach is a must. This is what Putin has been practicing against the West. So should we, but against him.
“More than a fifth of Russia’s population is non-Russian, and many of these nations, from the North Caucasus to eastern Siberia, have been deprived of their elementary right to promote their indigenous languages, cultures, and identities. Russian federalism is simply a cover for rigid authoritarianism in which the Kremlin appoints or approves local leaders in Russia’s 85 federal units. An international campaign for genuine federalism inside Russia will be supported by many of Russia’s regions, where a growing number of people increasingly resent Moscow’s political controls and economic neglect."
There are many non-Russian people trapped in that jailhouse of nations, and not all of them are in the Caucuses, or are Muslim. Take the Mari and the Komi people. They are not in the Caucuses and they are not Muslim but they are being continually persecuted and their culture is being systematically eradicated.
“Ultimately, if Putinism is not replaced with a non-imperial and democratic alternative, Russia will face a shrinking economy, which will fuel social unrest and compound ethnic, religious, and regional conflicts, culminating in potential territorial fracture. Although the West cannot guide Russia’s internal development, it can help promote opportunities for the emergence of a new Russia in which domestic dictatorship and imperial ambition are perceived as weaknesses and rejected by a disillusioned public.”
This will only happen after Putin has been served a defeat.