Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crimea, August 2014.

Putin's Pivot: 4 New Features of Russian Foreign Policy

March 14, 2018
Daniel Treisman

Four years ago, Vladimir Putin shocked the world by sending troops to occupy Crimea and then annexing it to Russia. Was this an isolated aberration in Russian foreign policy, experts wondered, or a sign of things to come?

Today, the answer is clear. While, of course, not everything has changed, the Crimean operation introduced a new style in Russia’s international behavior that has persisted. Four key features characterize the current approach: risk taking, neglect of exit strategies, outsourcing and saber rattling. Although this hardly sounds like a recipe for success, it has worked quite well—at least in the short run.

Rolling the Dice

The first feature of Russia’s new approach, as noted, is an enlarged appetite for risk. Interviewed by journalists in 2000, Putin recalled that his KGB instructors had faulted him for a “diminished sense of danger.” Yet, before 2014, his foreign policy was generally cautious.

In his first 14 years in power, Russia used military force outside its borders only once—in Georgia in 2008. For comparison, the U.S. during the same years fought major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and conducted military operations in Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. While President Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, Putin favored preserving the arms control regime. In 2010, he agreed with President Obama to cut nuclear arsenals by two thirds.

Even in Georgia, the Russian leader did not entirely throw caution to the winds. He resisted the temptation to send troops all the way to Tbilisi to oust President Saakashvili. And he chose not to annex the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Since 2014, however, a new Putin has emerged. Consider his contrasting responses to the Ukrainian crises of 2004 and 2014. In 2004, Kiev’s “Orange Revolution” swept away Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych, replacing him with Viktor Yushchenko, an advocate of Ukraine’s rapid accession to NATO. Putin grumbled and raised gas prices, but mostly remained on the sidelines.

Not so 10 years later. As he sent commandos to occupy Crimea in 2014, Putin seemed almost to relish the prospect of military confrontation with the West. As he told an interviewer, he had been ready to put Russian troops on nuclear alert.

The risks were considerable. Had the operation gone wrong, causing significant casualties, Russia’s international image would have suffered serious damage. Had it taken a little longer to get control, Moscow would have faced intense pressure to negotiate a potentially humiliating retreat.

Putin seemed unfazed. Some reports suggest he had ignored the doubts of aides before ordering the intervention. When, at a reception in 2015, I asked how he had made the decision, he brushed off the suggestion that he had consulted advisors: “No, I told them we will do this and then that. I was even surprised at how well it went!”

Annexation raised the stakes again, drastically limiting the scope for a negotiated resolution. The old Putin might have hedged, leaving Crimea at least temporarily in the stateless limbo of a South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The new one did not.

Subsequent actions show the same penchant for gambling. Igniting a civil war in Donbas—and sending arms and Russian troops when needed—exacerbated the split with the West, prompting further sanctions. Had the U.S. or Europe sent Kiev significant supplies of lethal weapons, Russia could have faced a serious flare-up on its border, perhaps turning domestic public opinion against Putin’s adventure. 

Intervening in Syria was another roll of the dice. Russia risked sinking into the “quagmire,” of which President Obama warned. Before Putin acted, polls showed little enthusiasm among Russians for military involvement. (And enthusiasm remains low—as of last August, 49 percent wanted Russia to end its intervention, compared to 30 percent that thought it should continue.)

Finally, publishing via Wikileaks the information that Russian agents had hacked from Democratic Party officials—as Moscow has been accused of doing by the U.S. Intelligence Community—constituted an unprecedented attack on U.S. political processes. Any well-informed decision-maker would fear some major retaliation. Again, Putin disregarded such risks.

Sometimes brinksmanship seems almost an objective in itself, as when Russian fighter jets fly within feet of NATO planes or dangerously close to Turkey’s borders.

If—as British Prime Minister Theresa May has characterized as “highly likely”—Moscow ordered the murder by nerve agent of its former spy Sergei Skripal, that would mark yet another defiant challenge. 

Perhaps even more striking than Putin’s newly manifest appetite for risk is his willingness to keep raising the ante, piling one gamble on top of another. The Kremlin’s position is now vulnerable to chance events from the Donbas to Damascus, as well as to leaks about its various influence operations.

No Exit

Putin seems to have adopted Napoleon’s famous motto: On s’engage partout, et puis l’on voit (“you start the fight and then you see”). Since 2014, Russia has plunged into a series of situations with inadequate preparation and no clear exit strategy.

The Crimean military operation was well-planned. But the political side was a mess. As I detail in a recent book, the mission’s commander arrived in Crimea with little knowledge of local realities. Having offered the region’s presidency to one politician, he had to snatch it back the next day after consulting others. The repeated changes in the date and content of the referendum suggest Putin went in not having decided yet on the territory’s final status.

In Syria, Russia’s operational objective was clear—to rescue Assad—but how to get out without prompting a collapse remains a puzzle.

If he indeed authorized St. Petersburg trolls to infiltrate Western social networks, Putin opened another Pandora’s Box. Outsourcing to semi-independent hackers would provide deniability (see below). The ultimate result, though, may be the opposite—now every hack or fake news story originating in Russia is assumed to have Putin’s fingerprints on it.

Outsourcing to Freelancers

Crimea was not just a test of Russian military strategy; it also showed off the Kremlin’s increasing use of non-state groups and contractors. The Night Wolves biker gang and Cossack regiments mobilized to help the GRU troops. In eastern Ukraine, “volunteers” of all types streamed in to assist locals.

The Kremlin has taken to outsourcing key foreign tasks to private individuals. One nationalist businessman, Konstantin Malofeev, has a broad portfolio. He reportedly financed mercenaries fighting alongside the Donbas separatists and invited China’s chief Internet censors to Moscow to discuss techniques in 2016. At the same time, he “serves as a kind of unofficial envoy to the [German] AfD and other right-wing parties” in Europe, according to Bloomberg, and was allegedly involved in attempts to influence elections in Poland and Bosnia.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently filed an indictment against Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former chef and restaurant owner, for financing the notorious “troll factory” that waged what the indictment called “information warfare against the U.S.” in 2016. Reports also link Prigozhin to Wagner, a firm that hires Russian mercenaries to fight in Syria. In February, Russian employees of the company were killed in a clash between pro-Assad and U.S.-backed rebel fighters near Deir al-Zour.

Using unofficial actors aims to conceal Russia’s responsibility and circumvent bottlenecks and bureaucratic obstruction. However, it muddles lines of command and creates problems when such actors prove incompetent or go rogue. When Russian-supported fighters in the Donbas shot down a Malaysian passenger jet in 2014, it hardened European determination to impose major sanctions on Russia. 

Rattling Sabers

Before 2014, Putin often criticized the West, but he generally avoided actions or threats that might provoke unwelcome countermeasures. Since Crimea, he has seemed determined to show off Russia’s military prowess and resolve. Most recently, he boasted of a nuclear-powered missile that can evade U.S. defenses and illustrated with a video showing, in CNN’s words, “nuclear warheads apparently raining down on Florida.”

The audience for such displays is partly domestic. As elections loom and the economy stagnates, Putin’s global swagger aims to rally support. But it is also international. By demonstrating Russia’s new, improved weapons and highly trained troops in Syria, Putin hopes to win friends abroad and dishearten potential adversaries.

So Far, So Good?

This new approach—combining risk-taking, neglect of exit strategies, outsourcing and saber rattling—sounds unlikely to work well. In fact, it has done better than might have been expected. Since 2015, Putin has suffered no huge disaster and enjoyed notable successes.

In the Middle East, Russia is not just back in the game—it is a central player. The Syrian campaign demonstrated Russia’s resolve and ability to defend allies, showed off a new generation of high-tech weapons, won Russia a new airbase at Khmeimim to supplement the beefed-up port at Tartus, and made Putin an indispensable voice in discussions of the country’s future.

In Ukraine, Crimea is securely under Russian control, while the war in the Donbas has—since the Malaysian airliner debacle—continued to destabilize Kiev without provoking major crises.

Meanwhile, Russia’s interference in the U.S. and other Western elections—although the costs may have proved higher than anticipated—did succeed in sowing discord.

However, the drawbacks of the approach are also pretty clear: It offers little hope of progress on the most important goal—boosting Russia’s economic performance—and it requires considerable luck and juggling skill. Even if the new style has so far kept the West off balance while expanding Russia’s influence in the Middle East, there is no guarantee that this will continue.


Daniel Treisman

Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and editor of The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia (Brookings Institution Press, 2018).

Photo by shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.