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The Putin Doctrine: A Move on Ukraine Has Always Been Part of the Plan

Author: Angela Stent

Affiliation: The Brookings Institution and Georgetown University (Office of Policy Planning in the US State Department-1999-2001-Clinton and Bush Administrations, and Former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia-2004-2006) 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: January 27, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 2450


Keywords: The Putin Doctrine, Ukrainian Crisis, Euro-Atlantic Security System, Russian Sphere of Privileged Interests, and New Security Engineering


The author puts the Russian decisive current moves in Ukraine within a more comprehensive context that goes beyond Russia’s rejection of Ukraine membership in NATO. It is a reckoning that has been 30 years with the US and the West. It is also concerned with a grand plan Russia-Putin is seeking in order to restore its interest and regional/international status that the West had stripped it of since the dismantling of the Soviet Union. This grand plan is manifested in a set of motivating drives for President Putin and a set of overlapping foreign policy principles that indicate Moscow will be upset with the West in the coming years and bent on restoring what was historically its legitimate right. That is what the author calls the “Putin Doctrine.” According to the author, this doctrine entails defending the current authoritarian regimes in Russia’s neighborhood and beyond, undermining democracies, reversing the consequences of the Soviet collapse, splitting the transatlantic alliance, and renegotiating the geographic settlement that ended the Cold War to reach Putin’s ultimate goal: get rid of the “rules-based” liberal international order that the United States had strengthened after the Cold War, and to establish an international order more suitable for Russia.

The article is divided into three parts. The first part highlights Russia-Putin’s drives in the Ukraine crisis and toward the West in general. Putin depicts the 1990s as an era of humiliation for a weak Russia by the West when it was forced to join a Western system/agenda that it did not participate in its design or reflect its interests. Today, Putin believes that his country is recovering, as it is a superpower that has an absolute right to decide, along with the rest of the great powers, issues of world affairs. Since the Russian war in Georgia in 2008, Moscow has succeeded in convincing the West that it is a prominent regional military power that can threaten its neighbors and prevent major powers from threatening it with invasion as well. Putin asserts that the West is ignoring Russia’s legitimate interests, especially in its western neighborhood. After “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” it has been exposed to in the twentieth century, as he describes the decision to dismantle the Soviet Union, about 25 million Russians found themselves outside Russia, and more than 12 million Russians found themselves in the new Ukrainian state because of that. Therefore, the use of force is perfectly appropriate if Moscow believes that its security is threatened. Putin is obsessed with the presence and expansion of NATO in the vicinity, and these fears are based on real historical precedents, according to the Kremlin. Historically, Russia has repeatedly been invaded by the West, for example, between 1917-1922, and Germany has invaded twice, causing the loss of 26 million Soviet citizens in World War II. In addition, the Russian media portrays the Ukraine as a potential launching pad for NATO aggression. All this makes Putin assert Russia’s absolute right to a “sphere of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet geopolitical space. That is why Russia’s former Soviet members should not join any alliances that are deemed hostile to Moscow, particularly NATO or the EU. In this way, Moscow ensures the presence of loyal (or neutral) governments in neighboring countries, especially in Ukraine.

The second part explains the tools and methods that Putin uses to embody his doctrine, or what is abbreviated by “Divide and Conquer.” The author argues that there is a similarity between Putin’s policies and the Soviet Union’s one in this regard. He acts today towards Georgia, Ukraine, and neighbors in general, as the Soviets did previously. Between 1945-1989, the Soviet Union rejected the right of self-determination for Central and Eastern Europe and exercised control over the local and foreign policies of its countries by supporting the communist parties, the secret police, and the Red Army, and plotting coups against every regime that strayed from the Soviet model, as happened to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today, the Kremlin holds that smaller countries such as Ukraine and Georgia are not as fully sovereign as the great powers, so they must respect Russia’s restrictions. Today, Moscow is looking for beneficial partnerships (more than alliances) and mutually beneficial transactions with countries such as China that do not restrict Russia’s freedom of action or interfere in its internal affairs. In addition, Putin presents Russia as a power supporting the status quo, a defender of conservative values, and an international player who respects established leaders across the world, especially authoritarians (in the author’s word), as the recent events in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Libya, Syria, and Venezuela have demonstrated. On the other hand, the West is depicted as supporting chaos and regime change, even by force, as happened in Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring since 2011. Putin also seeks to rupture the transatlantic alliance and make the United States withdraw from Europe by supporting anti-American and EU-skeptical groups and other left and right populist groups working to exacerbate discord within Western societies in general. The weakening of the transatlantic alliance will enable him to achieve his ultimate goal: get rid of the rules-based liberal international order and establish another one more suitable for Russia, in which the author sees nothing but a “disordered Hobbesian world” with few rules of the game.

In the last part, the author calls on the United States to pursue diplomacy with Russia to find acceptable ground without compromising the sovereignty of its allies and partners. She also calls to coordinate with the Europeans to respond to Moscow and impose costs on it. Furthermore, the author presents her geopolitical predictions for the future outcomes of the Ukrainian crisis. The situation in Europe will not return to what it was before this crisis, even if Europe avoids war. The crisis could result in what she calls the “third reorganization of Euro-Atlantic security” since the late 1940s, after the Yalta system in 1945 and the 1989 post-Cold War system, as Putin directly challenges the latter regime through his actions against the Ukraine. “The current crisis is ultimately about Russia redrawing the post–Cold War map and seeking to reassert its influence over half of Europe, based on the claim that it is guaranteeing its own security.” 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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