When it comes right down to it, Vladimir Putin is still a Soviet. The former KGB agent has been leader of Russia in some form or another since 2000, making him the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin.
Putin has called the breakup of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and while taking questions a few years ago, the Russian leader was asked what event in his nation’s history he would have liked to change. “The collapse of the Soviet Union,” he responded.
Putin is also savvy enough to recognize that sizable portions of his constituents feel the same way. Polling of Russian citizens since the early 1990s has shown that strong and consistent majorities regret the fall of the USSR, and when Putin ordered the takeover of the then-Ukranian province of Crimea in 2014, his approval numbers shot up almost 20 percentage points.
He enjoyed similar popularity boosts earlier in his career after forays into Chechnya and Georgia. Putin clearly sees transnational military incursions as a useful crowd-pleaser.
Putin understands the domestic political benefits he gains from an aggressive nationalist and expansionist agenda, but also dreams of restoring Russia as a world power.
The combination of those two goals has led to a pronounced acceleration of his efforts to reestablish control over the remainder of Ukraine, and his recent buildup of Russian troops at the border between the two countries has led to a fusillade of gradually escalating warnings from Biden’s appointees and NATO leadership about the consequences of any military action.
But to date, the only results have been an equally bellicose rebuttal from Putin’s advisers and a marked increase in the number of Russian troops deployed to the region.
Joe Biden has made the rebuilding of this country’s international alliances one of the early hallmarks of his presidency. After a problematic withdrawal from Afghanistan and halting efforts to construct an anti-China alliance on the Pacific Rim, convincing Western Europe to stand with him against potential Russian aggression becomes an imperative not just relating to Ukraine but more broadly with regard to reestablishing the United States in its longtime leadership role on the world stage.
That’s why Biden confronted Putin directly on the matter this week, and why his national security and diplomatic advisers have stepped up their efforts to enlist our allies in the cause.
Putin has clearly calculated that the United States will not go to war to protect Ukraine. He has determined that American presidents are much more likely to draw red lines against international military threats than to actually enforce them.
He is gambling that Biden’s efforts to rebuild relationships with Western Europe in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency have been sufficiently harmed by the Afghanistan withdrawal and ongoing trade tensions to make it harder for the U.S. to build a unified front at the Russia-Ukraine border. And he is happy to collaborate with China and Iran to complicate Biden’s global challenges on multiple fronts.
Russia does not represent the same type of economic competitor to the United Stars as China, and Putin is not interested in the cultural and religious warfare that the Iranian mullahs regularly threaten. He just wants his empire back, and he is developing a post-Trump strategy he thinks can work.
Nor is Putin particularly subtle. When he talks of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, he emphasizes how many Russian citizens wound up outside of Russian territory.
“As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy,” Putin says. “Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
The term “fringes” implies borders that are neither particularly sturdy nor enduring. In addition to Ukraine and his puppet regime in Belarus, Putin also could easily scale up his saber-rattling toward nervous neighbors such as Georgia, Moldova and Kazakhstan.
Or if he were feeling even more confident, NATO members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could become targets as well.
The challenge for Biden is where to draw the red line—and how to hold it.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.