The ‘Putin Doctrine’ Becomes Clear in Ukraine and Kazakhstan
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For most Westerners, the news that Russia has sent troops to quell a popular uprising in Kazakhstan may seem like a minor event in a far corner of the world. But seen in the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule, and of his coercion of Ukraine, it takes on a more sinister significance. Thirty years after the Soviet collapse ushered in the post-Cold War era, Putin has articulated a vision — call it the Putin Doctrine — meant to bring that era decisively to a close.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be required to cease all further expansion to the east, and to foreswear assistance to countries, such as Ukraine, that are presently outside the alliance. It would have to severely circumscribe training and exercises in areas that Moscow deems sensitive, and refrain from deploying American nuclear weapons anywhere in Europe. Most striking, it would have to commit to leaving the Eastern European countries that joined the alliance after 1997 virtually defenseless.
The upshot would be a badly weakened NATO and an Eastern Europe in which countries must defer to Russian wishes or suffer the consequences.
Putin’s demands have led to suggestions that he is a 19th-century man living in the 21st century. In reality, coercion and geopolitical aggrandizement never really go out of style. Yet Putin is indeed trying to turn back the clock by rolling back the post-Cold War order.
After the Soviet collapse, the animating theme of U.S. policy was promotion of an expanding liberal international order that would relegate autocratic spheres of influence to history. Within Europe, America sought a continent whole, free and at peace — one in which all countries could choose their own geopolitical alignments and political systems.
This vision combined soaring idealism with cold strategic calculus. It was meant to allow the countries of Eastern Europe to determine their own fates after decades, or even centuries, of subordination to larger powers. At the same time, allowing former Soviet allies or even countries that had once been part of the Soviet Union to join NATO would strengthen Washington’s hand in any future confrontation with Russia.
This project reached its apogee between 2003 and 2005, when NATO completed its second and largest round of post-Cold War expansion and “color revolutions” replaced corrupt rulers with Western-leaning leaders in Georgia and Ukraine. In retrospect, however, this was also when a once-prostrate Russia began recovering its geopolitical strength, and when Putin began pushing back.
The Russian leader gave fair warning at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, in an angry tirade accusing a hegemonic America of overstepping boundaries in Europe and beyond. The same year, Russian hackers launched a major cyberattack in Estonia after its government removed a Soviet-era monument — a symbolic reminder that the Baltic states could not so easily escape their past. In the years since, Putin has developed a multipronged approach to restoring Russia’s dominance in its “near abroad.”
The modernization of a once-decrepit military gave Putin the ability to prevent nearby states from drifting into the Western orbit: In 2008 and 2014, Moscow vivisected Georgia and then Ukraine when they appeared to be slipping away. Russia has simultaneously used cyberattacks, disinformation and other destabilization programs to keep vulnerable neighbors in disarray, and to undermine the institutions — NATO and the European Union — that Putin sees as encroaching on his flank.
Putin also formed the Eurasian Economic Union, a free-trade pact of five members including Kazakhstan, as a way of binding former Soviet states to Moscow, and invested more heavily in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a loose military alliance with similar motives. Putin has accompanied these measures with ideological and historical justifications for coercing small states. In 2021, he published an essay arguing that Ukraine is an artificial entity with no right to political or geopolitical autonomy.
As all of this indicates, the Putin Doctrine has become more assertive over time. A country whose influence recoiled rapidly after the Cold War is now calling for a bipolar division of Europe and using force along its periphery.
Whether the Putin Doctrine will succeed is another question. Putin grabbed large chunks of eastern Ukraine in 2014 but drove the western half of the country toward a NATO that was finally getting serious about defending its eastern members. Today, Finland and Sweden are openly flirting with joining, or at least moving closer to NATO if Russia once again invades Ukraine. The U.S. has warned that it would respond to a Russian attack by putting more military assets in Eastern Europe, in addition to imposing economic sanctions.
These costs may not deter Putin, who appears ever-more committed to breaking the resistance of Ukraine and unraveling the post-Cold War order in Eastern Europe. But the chief legacy of the Putin Doctrine could be ironic: The harder Russia pushes to restore a sphere of influence, the more strategically encircled it will become.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.