Eerik-Niiles Kross: Putin’s Plan

Eerik-Niiles Kross
Photo: Erik Prozes
  • Putin’s plan is actually rather clear
  • Everything depends on the forcefulness of the West’s response
  • Next time, it could be our turn

The question is not what Russia's goals are, but how and when it intends to achieve them, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu Eerik-Niiles Kross (Reform Party) writes.

In the spring and summer of 2008, several analysts advising the Government of Georgia were sitting behind maps and media reports and trying to figure out what Russia was planning against Georgia. At that time, most Western governments thought that Russia was not planning anything. The possibility of military invasion was not even discussed — this would have been “totally irrational.” German newspapers wrote that the escalating conflict between “the separatists and the central government” was Georgia’s own fault, and that Saakashvili was harming his country because he did not get on well with Moscow.

In April 2008, the Russians established official relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by presidential decree and sent landing troops and railway troops to Abkhazia, and the West did all it could to beg all parties for “dialogue.” Berlin, Washington, Paris, Brussels, and Tbilisi were all trying to carry out parallel “peace plans.”

Russia of course refused to participate in international negotiations to de-escalate tensions and would not agree to give up its quasi-recognition of Abkhazia, which had caused general outrage. A large Russian military exercise, Kavkaz 2008, was underway in the North Caucasus, and the exchange of fire between Georgian separatists and Georgian border guards across the line of control became more frequent.


  • So far, it is difficult for the West to admit that different conflicts instigated by Russia are elements of one large crisis.

  • The Kremlin thinks, or pretends to think, that the time for creating the long-awaited new global security architecture has arrived.

  • Russia does not want to face a possible counter-attack from the West, but extinguish any real resistance and willingness to help Ukraine.

In short, the map was full of red flags and indicators of a forthcoming conflict. However, apart from a few Russian analysts and the information agency of the Chechen independence movement, which was still active at that time, nobody predicted that there would be war. The West refused to believe it was possible, and those who believed that Russia could attack were not taken seriously.

At the end of July, Russia removed its railway forces and landing troops from Abkhazia, and the West thought that their diplomacy had been successful, when actually, the work was completed. We know very well what happened in early August.

In the early spring 2014, when the popular Euro-Maidan revolution was rising and Yanukovych (and the special forces sent to help him from Moscow) was falling in Kyiv, nobody even looked at a map, let alone made predictions about Moscow’s forthcoming military invasion of Ukraine. Little green men appeared in the cities of Crimea unexpectedly, rapidly, highly organized, without resistance. Once it was clear that no one from the West was coming to stop Russia — and that Ukraine was not able to stop Russia, for the time being — the invasion of the oblasts of Eastern Ukraine began.

The Kremlin tried to mask the invasions into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as popular uprisings or the local initiative of the Russian-speaking minority — but this fig leaf was used so clumsily that it covered nothing at all. Most probably, it was never intended to cover anything.

In the case of aggression against Georgia, the Kremlin, to a certain extent, took the trouble to frame Tbilisi for “starting the war,” creating a casus belli with the help of a fictitious genocide — but in Ukraine, it did not even bother to look for a reason. The reason was “protecting citizens of Crimea from the Kyiv fascists” — but quite soon and quite openly this became “getting control over historical territories of Russia” and undermining Ukraine’s orientation towards the West. By that time, both Putin and Medvedev had publicly acknowledged that the aim of attacking Georgia was to stop the enlargement of NATO, and that Putin had given the command to prepare for the attack in April 2008.

Both in 2008 and in 2014, Russia was simply protecting its “sphere of interests” as if this were something granted to it by God, and Russia demonstrated that if discussions about the enlargement of NATO (and the European Union) into that space did not end, then Russia would use force.

In 2014, the West was again shocked, “deeply concerned” — and this time managed to agree on some sanctions, as well. This time, the Russians did not get away without punishment. But what was taken is still taken. Nobody wanted or planned to do anything to take back the illegally occupied and annexed territories. Except, of course, Ukraine — which has now been holding back Russia’s further invasion for almost eight years. In 2014, the Germans, the French, and also the Americans started peace plans and attempts at de-escalation diplomacy post factum — and have arrived in the same place as before the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. Russia has refused to come to the Normandy Format meetings and has declared that Kyiv has violated the Minsk Agreements. On 11 November 2021, Putin said, in his speech on foreign policy, that the Minsk Agreements and the Normandy Format have been dismantled because France and Germany are indulging Ukraine.

Today, in 2021, analysts are again looking at the map of Russia’s neighborhood and see lots of red flags. But the question that is asked tends to be wrong. They ask: “What could be Putin’s aim?” or “Does Putin intend to attack Ukraine, some NATO country, Moldova or somebody else?” Kadri Liik recently said in The New York Times that bringing down the West was not the aim. Although it remained a little unclear what Liik thought Russia’s aim was, nobody has actually seriously claimed that the escalating crises and conflicts on Russia’s borders indicate a Russian intent to destroy the West. So far, the West has found it difficult to admit that these tensions — from the concentration of troops on the borders of Ukraine and the human experiments with refugees coordinated by Lukashenka’s KGB, to halting gas supplies to Europe and inciting of Bosnian Serbs to revolt — are elements of one large crisis. Even more, they are the continuation of one and the same crisis that is still unsolved for both Moscow and the West.

The active stage of this crisis began in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea, and its elements are Russia’s intervention in Syria; the deployment of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad; Georgia’s continued recapture back into Russia’s sphere of influence; Wagner’s activities in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali; various acts of diversion in Europe. From 2016, Russia’s Kalibr missiles (which have an operational range up to 2500 km) have been placed so that their range covers the whole of Europe, except maybe Portugal.

The question should not be what Russia’s aims are, but how it intends to achieve them. Russia’s strategic security policy objectives have been rather publicly declared since 2000, when President Putin, who had been in office for ten days, published Russia’s new security policy concept. These include: achieving and ensuring Russia’s status as a respected center of power in a multipolar world; protection and international acceptance of Russia’s interests in its near abroad; stopping the enlargement of NATO; and replacing Euro-Atlantic security architecture with Eurasian security architecture, where Russia has an important role.

It can be concluded from Putin’s latest speeches that Russia has, by its own estimation, already achieved the first objective — the multipolar world. Yes, it may be, as Liik writes, a more complicated world than the unipolar world that operates under the domination of the USA — but in Moscow’s opinion, it is certainly better. According to Russia’s new security concept, which was approved in July 2021, the emergence of new global and regional powers will bring along changes in the structure of global order — the formation of the architecture, rules, and principles of a new world order.

In Moscow’s opinion, the current instability in the world is caused first by the desire of Western countries to preserve their hegemony. Now that several centers of power have emerged in the world, Moscow presumes that these centers will agree upon a new balance of forces between themselves, where the privileged interests of each are mutually taken into account. If Washington and European capitals do not want to carve up new spheres of influence with Moscow, Putin sees this as anti-Russian behavior. If an agreement — some sort of new Yalta or Munich — is not wanted, Russia will use other means to protect its interests. By this logic, supporting Ukraine against being dragged back into Russia’s sphere of influence is downright provocative. 

* * * *

In an address delivered on 21 April 2021, Putin offers this on provocations and protecting Russian interests:

Those behind provocations that threaten the core interests of our security will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time…We have enough patience, responsibility, professionalism, self-confidence, and certainty in our cause, as well as common sense, when making a decision of any kind. But I hope that no one will think about crossing the ‘red line’ with regard to Russia. We ourselves will determine in each specific case where it will be drawn… We really do not want to burn bridges. But if someone… intends to burn or even blow up these bridges, they must know that Russia's response will be asymmetrical, swift, and tough. 

Moscow thinks that the new security architecture of the world is already taking shape. At least, Putin himself is convinced of that, as several of his recent public speeches show. For example, at the last meeting of the Valdai Club (on the theme: “Global Shake-up in the 21st Century”) on 21 October, he announced that a global change of greater caliber than before is taking place, with systemic changes in all directions, not simply a shift in the balance of forces, but determining the very existence of humans. This change is proven by the fact that the coronavirus crisis has shown that only nation states can control their territories and international institutions (i.e., the European Union) do not work, and that the hegemony of the United States has disappeared because the 20-year war in Afghanistan achieved nothing. Despite risks, such a global tectonic shift also provides opportunities — and Russia must be ready to make use of these opportunities.

Lately, the European Union has been totally disregarded as a political actor by Putin. While Russia’s security strategies of 2009 and 2015 still speak of the need for a comprehensive strengthening of cooperation mechanisms with the European Union and the development of relations with the United States and NATO, the 2021 concept does not mention the European Union at all, partnership and cooperation with NATO have disappeared, and about the United States it says only that they are planning to bring intermediate range missiles to Europe. Russia’s only allies are China and India.

In his recent foreign policy speech, Putin spoke of relations with the European Union only at the end of the list — after Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania — admitting that relations were experiencing difficulties because Europe made unfounded accusation and took unfriendly actions, and that everything depended on Europe’s willingness to establish and maintain “equal and respectful cooperation.”

On Ukraine and NATO, several keywords are more and more often repeated by Moscow. Russia has “red lines,” the crossing of which the West will regret because it will trigger Russia’s “adequate” or “asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh” response. The main red lines are variously “bringing intermediate-range missiles to Europe,” “deploying Tomahawk missiles to Central Europe” or “close to the Russian border,” and, more recently, “bringing NATO infrastructure close to the Russian border.” Moscow claims this has already started in Ukraine. The provocative deployment of ships to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea by NATO and the USA, and even of “gathering of NATO troops” on the Russian border, are frequently referenced.

Regarding Ukraine, Putin set a new tone with his article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published on 12 July 2021. In it, he wrote that the present Ukraine is an “anti-Russian project;” that Ukraine and Russia belong together; that Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are one nation; and that the emergence of a Western-minded Ukrainian nation-state would be, for Russia, “comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction” against Russian territory. Putin earlier warned of “serious consequences for Ukrainian statehood” in the case of provocations, but the article published in July essentially put an end to the possibility that the Kremlin would peacefully agree to the existence of a Ukrainian state, within its currently recognized borders and outside of Moscow’s sphere of influence. Russian state media has understood this new rhetoric and has been directly escalating insults and threats, demonizing Ukraine since summer.

* * * *

Although many analysts are still meditating on the question of “what Putin actually wants,”Moscow has said what it wants as clearly as possible. The Kremlin thinks, or pretends to think, that the time for creating the long-awaited new global security architecture has arrived. Europe has become incapable of acting and pointless; America is weak; NATO is still trying to show off, but they, too, have basically no willpower. The world is changing and Russia should not let this situation go to waste, but instead push to solve its security issues — which in essence means cemented its status as a great power. As many regions and neighboring states as possible must be brought back under Moscow’s influence.

There are several signs that Moscow has decided to make use of this possibility now, when the time is ripe. Russia is already acting — and the West has to admit it.

The question “how far Russia is ready to go to achieve its aims, and where are its limits?” is still unanswered. Most probably, these decisions have not yet been made. And here the result depends on the future behavior of Washington, Brussels, and all the European capitals.

There is no doubt that Russia’s minimum plan is some sort of Russian-Belarusian-Ukrainian (either in part or whole) joint state, as well as guarantees that NATO will not enlarge more or bring significant new forces to Europe. Domination over Moldova, Georgia, the South Caucasus in general, and some Balkan countries would be an added bonus.

So too would be the chance to teach NATO a lesson by attacking a member state in such a way that it is left to take care of itself.

What are they ready to do to make this plan a reality? Gathering of troops near Ukraine and speaking of red lines and rapid responses is, at the moment, still part of the communication. It does not show that Russia is necessarily ready to start a war, but that Russia wants everybody to believe that it is ready.

Russia does not want to break the possible counter-attack of the West, but to totally extinguish any real resistance and willingness to help Ukraine. Putin drives up the price with a global information operation launched to psychologically neutralize Western societies and governments. The aim is to create a total chaos — to project an all-European security crisis and then kindly promise to resolve it if the West agrees to respect Russia’s minimum list of demands: agree to return Ukraine and Belarus into Russia’s arms, and promise that NATO will not enlarge. Russia wants the West to bend its knee and — caught in the illusion of saving its own skin — give to Russia “what belongs to Russia.” Then Russia will send its troops on the Ukrainian border back to their military units and everybody will sigh with relief as “diplomacy wins” again.

The question is: if the West does not submit to this manipulation, is Russia still prepared to go to war, at least against Ukraine? It depends on the credibility of the West’s response. As of today, such a credible response is nowhere to be seen. Peace and de-escalation plans and telephone calls are today a sure-sign for Moscow that there will be no opposition. Putin holds negotiations with a pistol on the table, and if the other negotiating party puts a box of chocolates on the table instead of a bigger pistol, things are clear for Putin. The West may be “concerned” — and Russia may take by war whatever it considers necessary.

Moscow’s rhetoric shows that they are most afraid of NATO or American direct military assistance to Ukraine — granting real military capabilities to Ukraine. This is more or less the only thing that could stop Russia, and granting it should be decided rapidly so the Kremlin can be convinced of this reality.

* * * *

If you read the few Russian theories of “new wars” that are available in the public domain, what is happening now coincides quite precisely with the preparatory phase of war. The most well-known theoreticians of asymmetric war Chekinov and Bogdanov, who in 2010–2017 wrote several articles on the topic, have disappeared from the public eye. It is possible that their expertise is now being used for practical planning. In 2010, they wrote of asymmetric military actions (promised by Putin): “Asymmetric actions may involve making the adversary fearful of Russia’s intentions, demonstrating the readiness and potential of troops in a strategic region, and actions that are meant for deterrence, creating an impression of the surety of destruction of military or other targets significant for the adversary.” In the same article, they found that, in modern warfare, indirect actions are more important for achieving domination of the battlefield than “power strategies.” It is essential to “mislead, surprise, intimidate, or buy off the adversary, or to use other means to achieve success.”

In 2013, these authors wrote that in today’s warfare, “information war and psychological war dominate in order to achieve superiority. Asymmetric actions are widely used for counterbalancing the adversary’s superiority.” According to them, large-scale asymmetric and information actions — which aim to achieve victory before the actual kinetic operations — are the initial phase of a war. “All public institutions, mass media, religious organisations, popular movements, non-governmental organizations, etc. of the adversary state will be involved in them.” The attacker will plan these actions carefully and keep the preparations secret. Russia’s preparation for war (which is also an information operation) requires “intensive and widespread preparations for war by the Russian economy and the public to be reported in various information channels, the mobilization of reservists of different age groups, the movement of troops and holding them at high readiness, bringing of reservists from the interior near the borders, carrying out diversions that would be reported by the adversary’s intelligence, launching a widespread campaign to inform the public of the adversary’s evil intentions.”

I cannot think of any of these recommendations that Russia has not followed in recent months. All Russian military theorists have repeatedly emphasized in recent years that the decisive stage of war was in the information sphere, and the side that achieves superiority in information will be the winner.

I believe that Russia has launched the first stage of such a war. Probably nobody knows if it plans to continue to the second, kinetic stage. Deployment of troops near the Ukrainian border and speaking of a planned change of power in Kyiv are also part of the preparatory stage of war. Zelensky and his team have been put under strong psychological pressure, confusion is sown, fragmentation is induced, and it aims to break down Kyiv mentally. In the coming months, this pressure will increase, and the attempts of various special operations against the political leadership of Ukraine can be expected.

There are signs which indicate that Putin is also psychologically ready for kinetic warfare. At least, the leadership of Russia has constantly been sending out such signals. It is possible that Putin has not made a final decision about it yet — but he has made a critical part of Moscow believe that there will be a war, and US intelligence agencies think there might be a war. When Putin was asked at the Valdai conference how to prevent the deployment of NATO military infrastructure into Ukraine, he answered with a smirk, “We will wait and see what happens in Ukraine’s political affairs in the near future.” The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service spoke of a “pre-2008 Georgia” situation; the secretary of the security committee spoke of an “Afghanistan scenario” in Ukraine; a member of the Duma and analyst Popov made a parallel with the “Cuban missile crisis.”

The West’s response should not depend on the assessment of whether the information war stage will be the only phase or not. Russia has already thrown the glove at us, and the response must be decisive. Half-hearted diplomatic counter-initiative without any real demonstration of power would be the worst case for Estonia. This would encourage Putin to go the whole way, and in any case, it would give him the knowledge that a military solution would bring success at a suitable moment. Putin thinks now is a good crisis for taking action, due to “tectonic changes.”

The risk of war will increase exponentially if Putin gets the message that the West will refrain from using force. A half-hearted response to Moscow would put Estonia in the greatest danger. In the face of an uncredible threat, Putin will escalate, not withdraw. The West should, by now, be aware of that. In the event of a half-hearted response, the Kremlin may feel the need — and will certainly be tempted — to take some “asymmetric actions” against us. In order to deter NATO and to punish the likes of us.

If the West does not understand the seriousness of the current situation and does not find decisiveness for real countermeasures which can convince Putin that it is necessary to withdraw, it would unfortunately be safer for us if some sort of new Yalta-like agreement is concluded and the Kremlin’s minimum list of demands is agreed to. It would, of course, mean continuation of a fundamental problem, a depressing precedent: the legitimation of Putin’s power by the West, and a tragedy for Ukraine and Belarus. However, the instinct of self-preservation says that today this may be the best for the Baltic States. And it would give us some years to convince NATO and the United States that the issue of credible, tangible, heavily-armed protection of the Baltic States is an absolute priority.

Because even if we may come out of this round alive, it will be our turn next.