Is Russia playing the long game for strategic control of the region?

When the Russian supreme leader, Vladimir Putin, announced earlier this year that Moscow would build up forces near European borders, many commentators at the time dismissed the move as an attempt to contain Poland and other neighbours that have tried to integrate into NATO.

The Russian military buildup was not intended to bolster its defences at home. Indeed, Russia’s military planners are clearly worried about the risk of its eventual status as a neutral country playing into the hands of its enemies, like the United States and Europe.

On the contrary, Moscow’s perceived strategic advantage over its rivals, including the US, has led them to take risky and destabilising steps to bolster their capability.

Once there, they have no intention of relinquishing control, even if their adversaries succeed in denying them access to regional waterways. Russia’s experience with the Baltic Sea has confirmed the existence of such watery stealth power.

A clear message

It is with this in mind that Europe has taken the first step in its own strategic defence, in the development of a ballistic missile defence system for the region. Now that NATO is reorganising its military capabilities, Russian strategists may be contemplating attacks on European states as a way of instigating greater tensions that can be exploited by Moscow.

What all this means for the region is that Europe’s strategic challenge is moving from defending the borders of its own countries against an invasion to defending itself from an external intervention that would result in a wider war.

Meanwhile, Russia is likely to carry out more assertive regional operations, especially along its borders and the Black Sea, to ensure that its interests are sufficiently protected to prevent any potentially destabilising NATO moves.

This will mean a return to Russia’s militaristic practices, including hybrid and terrorist attacks. It will also mean more efforts to deter the US and its allies from meddling in the region, such as their occupation of Crimea.

This is all a part of Putin’s strategic chessboard, so far hidden from the public eye, which is aiming at influencing the region’s future.

Nearer to home

In a new book, The Strategic Chessboard, which analyses these developments at a European level, Thomas Barnett writes that Russia’s strategic aim now is to enhance its influence, achieving external dependencies on countries that have already fallen under its control.

From the French and Italian governments in Europe, to the Libyan Government in Africa and the Syrian government in the Middle East, Putin’s objectives are to secure the use of foreign powers and the maintenance of alliances so that Russia enjoys political leverage when these countries need Russia’s geopolitical support.

Russian intervention in Syria for instance has included skilled and effective use of ISIL, but the strategy was also about securing a foreign military presence to serve its interests – interests that will be put to further use as Europe develops its strategic defence capabilities, including the United States’ missile defence system.

Most important, therefore, will be Russia’s perception of its military capabilities and the way they will be positioned, not just in Europe but in Asia as well.

With these strategies in mind, Russia is likely to use the role of its territorial expansionist forces to take more action against its adversaries. This means finding new areas for bilateral cooperation with a select group of partners in Africa, Central Asia and even Latin America.

It will also mean negotiating new relationships with states that are in security crisis and might once have been adversaries, such as Israel, India, China and Iran.

This is the strategy, and the perspective, of this new book.

An adaptation of an article first published by

Copyright: Eurasia Group

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