Over the past two years Russia has gone through rapid transformation from a generally adequate international actor to a rogue state, substantially threatening the world’s further existence.
To be fair, it should be noted that Putin’s Russia had launched its hybrid warfare against the world back August 2008, with an attack on Georgia. That war was a dress rehearsal for the larger-scale events that ignited with the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity and Crimea’s armed annexation. There is no doubt that, had the United States, together with European leaders (some of which still remain on key posts) reacted harshly to Putin’s military aggression Putin in Georgia and at least imposed international sanctions on trade, finance and other sectors, along with the political isolation of Moscow, there would have been no military annexation of Crimea, subsequent invasion of Donbas, military escalation of Russia’s relations with NATO along its borders and Russian involvement in the war in Syria.
The last six or seven years have seen the peak of Russian export of corruption to the West, as part of its hybrid war.
Unfortunately, in 2008, the West chose to turn a blind eye to Georgia for the sake of preserving the illusion of more or less peaceful relations with Russia. It was only later when a "second gas war" with Ukraine broke out, while the United States surprised the world with their "shale revolution." At that moment, Europe has not yet seen an alternative to Russian oil and gas, paying with their values for the illusion of energy partnership and cooperation in the security sphere. Putin took great advantage in Western money received for hydrocarbons to upgrade his army, create private military corporations with thousands of mercenaries on hand, as well conduct a large-scale bribery campaign among Western elites. The last six or seven years have seen the peak of Russian export of corruption to the West, as part of its hybrid war. And Putin almost succeeded in dismantling the Western political elite. Almost.
At the beginning of 2014 it became clear that the Kremlin missed the moment when the shale revolution actually happened, failing to diversify the economy. He also lost his grip on the protest movement, letting it sprout on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. So, Putin had to act decisively, and the only thing he could offer his fellow citizens was war, as well as the conquest of the neighboring peoples under the banner of restoring the "Russian world." The Russian leader offered his society a step backward, the path back to the template behavior of the early 20th century, choosing regression over progress. Such parameters of public behavior simplified the Kremlin's manipulation of the masses to the maximum, with the Russian TV playing the main role.
Putin wanted to bring the world to the fact of the armed seizure of a large part of Ukraine’s territory, offering redistribution of spheres of influence as early as 21st century.
Anyway, going along with the script of Crimea’s annexation, Russia hoped for a belated and clumsy response of the West following the scheduled blitzkrieg in Ukraine. Putin wanted to bring the world to the fact of the armed seizure of a large part of Ukraine’s territory, offering redistribution of spheres of influence as early as 21st century. This would allow the Kremlin to set clear boundaries for any social experiments and all forms of the state’s stance towards the citizens living in the area.
Within a short period of time, the Russian occupation troops would simply vanish in Ukraine’s forests.
But Putin’s program set for Ukraine has failed. Ukrainian society decided to save the country and the state, having managed to stop the “delegates of the Russian world,” who were hiding behind women and children without any insignia in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Thus, the society demonstrated extraordinary self-sacrifice and incredible civic activity. After that, the Kremlin has made several attempts to restart the "Russian Spring." But it became clear that without a full-scale war, with the use of the Air Force and the Navy, they will not be able to win in Ukraine. Moreover, Putin would have no forces to maintain conquered territories, so within a short period of time, the Russian occupation troops would simply vanish in Ukraine’s forests.
So the Russian government started looking for something to distract their citizens from military failure in Ukraine, as well as from the problems with maintaining Crimea. And then came a timely proposal on Syria from the Iranians. According to the generals from Tehran, Bashar al-Assad had a good chance to retain power, had Russia intervened in the conflict on his side, along with a coalition of Iranian troops and various organizations such as Hezbollah. And for the second time after Crimea’s annexation, Putin got into an extremely tough geopolitical trap. Having got involved in the conflict, which cannot be won, he cannot just quit, as he believes it would lead to a loss of power within Russia. By the way, it might as well be the case. So, today Syria has become, instead of Ukraine, a new sacred territory for Russia, where Putin will play to the end.
It should be noted that, getting involved in the war Syria on Assad’s side, Putin crossed the road for plenty of influential actors of the Muslim world, who are able to complicate significantly the internal situation in Russia. These include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and, of course, Turkey. In addition, the Russian Federation started to actively tease Israel, which, according to unofficial reports, is preparing to fight against the Russians in Syria and closer to its border.
Putin's last trump card is nuclear blackmail, which is gradually getting into a spotlight.
Amid ongoing escalation, we might see the expansion of the Russian military operations into Iraq (with the formal consent of the Iraqi authorities, as Iran would gladly help Putin dive deeper into the geopolitical abyss), Lebanon and possibly Libya. Putin has no prescription for solutions to problems blooming in these countries. But he does not need it. He is a merchant of war and peace. He has nothing else left to do. Putin's last trump card is nuclear blackmail, which is gradually getting into a spotlight.
Russia's role as the world's gas station is coming to an end. Revenues from sales have almost halved. Prices for oil, gas and petrochemicals hit their historic lows, with long-term forecasts of their further decline. Russia has no other real alternatives to oil and gas revenues. The society is collapsing, while the elites are murmuring amid dying economy and international isolation.
Putin’s nuclear blackmail Putin is a last resort. A threat to strike Syria, which is Russia’s direct military ally, with nuclear warheads to protect the country is in fact the highest form of absurdity. But even to this challenge, the West has managed to find a solution. Just pay attention to the latest tests of U.S. nuclear bombs and a missile defense system.
Russia's future is uncertain. But in any case, the Russian elites and the Russian society will have to bear responsibility for everything they have done in recent years outside the Russian Federation’s borders. All the bills will be paid. The only question is what will be the final cost for Russia.