Christmas surprises from Putin?

By Joris Voorhoeve, Professor Emeritus International Organizations, Former Cabinet Minister of The Netherlands


Vladimir Putin is known for exploiting the weakness of others. That is the core business of international politics. His regime wants to restore the Great Power of the USSR. But Russia’s economy, smaller than the Benelux, is not strong and modern and relies mostly on selling oil, gas and weapons. It has no appealing ideology other than nationalism and top-down control. It spurns indecisive, divided democracies of consumerist people focused on human rights, sexual orientations and climate change. Other nationalist leaders think they can do business with Putin; they understand each other. Their illiberal “democracies”, military strength and influence is on the rise. Such leaders benefit from the scruples of law-abiding liberal democracies with peaceful populations, not alert against aggression and threats to international law.

The time seems ripe for Moscow to move some chess pieces. The US has an incompetent leader. Britain wallows in a self-created mess and Germany wants peace and prosperity.  France is financially not strong. Ukraine has an idealistic president. Belarus is vulnerable to pressure. At Christmas, Western countries are on holiday. The Kremlin, unable to modernise the Russian economy, is criticised for raising the pension age and allowing much corruption. Putin may not resist the opportunities to unite much of his population around a new foreign adventure and muffle critics.

Plenty temptations! The Kremlin could strengthen its positions in and around Belarus, advancing so-called “integration” with offers Lukashenko “can’t refuse”. Forming a new federal state would create a new presidency for Putin. More grip on Belarus would improve Moscow’s military options to put pressure on Ukraine.   Moscow may want to advance other positions in and around Ukraine, for instance by sending military without insignia to help suppressed Russian passport holders to defend themselves against local “Nazi’s”. Putin may also improve his influence on the Kazakh leadership. Or foment a coup in Transnistria.  Or encourage Erdogan, for instance to strengthen his grip on Northern Cyprus and its seabed with oil and gas. More trouble in NATO is great. The list of opportunities is long, especially as the US and the EU are often not thinking strategically and engaged in politics at home.

Putin could enlarge his military bases in Syria.  Or send more military through the Wagner group to Venezuela. He might even stir unrest in Curacao about the Isla refinery, buy this bankrupt refinery through Russian energy companies, and pose a tough question to the Dutch Government. This, incidentally, is also an interesting option for Beijing. Moscow might move more weapons into Kaliningrad or surprise the Northern countries with additional claims on oil and gas in the Arctic.

It is not so difficult to move against his foreign and domestic opponents with cunning steps, not big enough to trigger a response from NATO members which, on holiday, will be chanting peace on earth and good will to all men. The Russian leadership might even make a couple of these moves at the same time, to diffuse attention.

Perhaps Putin wants to wait a few months for a further weakening of the West, while Trump, Johnson and others have made more progress in wrecking Western cooperation? We don’t know for sure. But the time seems ripe.