How Putin Is Perfecting His Border Plan

From the Kremlin’s pro-Trump meddling in 2016 to its threats to Ukraine, Georgia and other border states, nearly everything has gone its way.

Russian Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, President Vladimir Putin, and Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu examine a globe in St. Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Navy Commander in Chief Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, President Vladimir Putin, and Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu examine a globe in St. Petersburg on July 30, 2017. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

While the Western media were focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violent escalation of his conflict with Ukraine, another nation on Russia’s border, Georgia, voted in a run-off presidential election on Wednesday that will help determine its own geopolitical direction:  Moscow, or the West.

Though the Georgian election got far less attention, both events were critical tests of the Russian leader’s relentless efforts to resurrect, as best he can, a sphere of influence over the former Soviet republics—and with a dazzling array of methods such as creeping annexation, stealthy assassination, and digitally undermining democracy everywhere.

In the case of Georgia, which is already doing Putin’s bidding by and large, those methods have included outright coercion, bribery and vote-buying, hate-speech, and voter fraud, according to Transparency International and other nongovernmental organizations. These efforts were intended to wrangle support for the Russia-favored candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, and weaken her opponent, Grigol Vashadze, the heir to the exiled pro-Western former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Zurabishvili won, in an election that an international monitoring mission described as skewed by  “an increase in the misuse of state  resources.”

In effect, Putin is trying to do more successfully in Georgia what he ultimately failed to do in Ukraine: rigging the electoral system to install a Moscow-friendly government. He appears perfectly willing to use violence when necessary, as he did by invading parts of Georgia in 2008 and in annexing Crimea after his Ukrainian stooge, President Viktor Yanukovych, fled in the face an anti-government uprising in 2014.

But Putin appears to be getting better at this game of co-opting his neighbors with a combination of threats, subterfuge, and force, analysts say. Georgia, unlike Ukraine, has been fairly docile since 2012. And these days Putin is fortunate in his adversaries, especially U.S. President Donald Trump (though for the Kremlin, Trump’s election may have involved more than luck).

From Trump’s first moments in office to his obeisant performance in Helsinki to what is expected to be a buddy-talk at the G-20 in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, the U.S. president has given the Kremlin nearly every encouragement it seeks. Just as he failed to directly criticize Putin’s violent intervention in Ukraine this week, Trump last week shrugged off the murder of political opponents by autocratic regimes, saying, “The world is a very dangerous place!”

Trump was speaking of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, but the message to the killers of many Putin opponents over the years—including Sergei Magnitsky, liberal leader Boris Nemtsov, and journalist Anna Politkovskaya—was clear.

“It’s an absolute godsend to Putin,” said former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg. “Trump has disarmed us in this battle. If everybody’s the same, and we allow our friends to murder their opponents, then we’re no different than Putin.”

Regarding Ukraine, while Trump’s outgoing U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, condemned the actions of the Russian military on Sunday in firing on and seizing Ukrainian ships as “yet another reckless Russian escalation,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used similar language, Trump evinced his familiar moral equivalence. “Either way, we don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully, it will get straightened out,” the president said.

After being criticized for a weak response, Trump later hinted that he might not meet Putin in Buenos Aires after all, telling the Washington Post, “I don’t like that aggression.” But his national security advisor, John Bolton, said the sit-down was planned.

The motives for Trump’s tacit cooperation with Putin are unclear. In his remarks, the U.S. president has sometimes suggested he is correcting Washington’s past mistake of fecklessly provoking Russia after the Cold War; Trump has echoed critics who say the West is partly to blame for Putin’s anti-Western campaign by pushing eastward too aggressively with NATO, an alliance Trump mistrusts. On the other hand, some critics and investigators suspect that the Kremlin may have compromising information about Trump and his businesses. This week Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of violating a plea deal over conspiracy charges related to when he was working for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.

And in an explosive development on Thursday, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted in federal court that he lied to Congress about his ongoing efforts to negotiate a Trump Tower deal in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign, in an effort to protect the candidate, who was telling the public at the time no such talks were happening. The news raised new questions about whether Trump himself has been honest about his relationships in Russia.

All in all, what Putin has created and Trump appears to be facilitating is a well-oiled Machiavellian influence machine in Eurasia, one that is executing a strategy against the West that two Kremlin thinkers once called Moscow’s “Velvet Revenge,” according to Peter Eltsov, a professor of international security affairs at National Defense University in Washington.

In 1999, when Moscow was still reeling from its Cold War defeat under Boris Yeltsin (and Putin was waiting in the wings as his deputy and successor), the two strategists, Efim Ostrovsky and Piotr Shchedrovitsky, wrote that Russia’s great-power resurrection would come by re-creating “the Russian World” through a “new global meta-project.” This would be realized largely through soft-power, which has come to mean propaganda, bribery, fake news, and interference in foreign elections, Eltsov told Foreign Policy.

Today, “the Kremlin’s particular focus is what it considers its ‘buffer zone’—countries of the former Soviet Union or, using Moscow’s jargon, ‘the near abroad.’ Military scenarios are likely to be implemented here regularly. The current standoff between Russian and Ukrainian warships in the Strait of Kerch is just an example. Things will get worse,” Eltsov said.

That buffer zone includes Georgia, which is why Putin has aggressively sought to control its politics since he invaded in 2008 and occupied the border regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Only last summer, Putin warned NATO against cultivating closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia. “We will respond appropriately to such aggressive steps, which pose a direct threat to Russia,” he said.

With his latest naval response, Putin appears to be trying to consolidate his control of the Azov Sea between Ukraine and Russia, while the West wrings its hands.

The Kremlin is already deeply involved in Wednesday’s Georgian presidential election. Though a largely ceremonial post in Georgia’s parliamentary system, the presidency is considered a key bellwether ahead of the bigger 2020 elections.

By several accounts, Wednesday’s vote was heavily rigged by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the mysterious billionaire chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is considered an under-the-table ally of Putin. Under Ivanishvili, the party has ruled parliament since 2012.

Though neither candidate could afford to be overtly too pro-Russian—indeed both sides routinely accuse the other of being Putin stooges—Ivanishvili’s choice, Zurabishvili, the French-born daughter of Georgian immigrants, has been careful not to offend Moscow.

To some observers the anointing of Zurabishvili, who is nominally independent, is just more evidence of Putin’s growing subtlety.  “What better way to suggest that Russia is not involved than to put up someone who was raised in the West?” said Eltsov.

Despite her victory, Zurabishvili has high unpopularity ratings in Georgia for appearing to cozy up to Russia. She has suggested that the 2008 war was Saakashvili’s fault, not Putin’s, and organizers of Zurabishvili’s rallies have “openly talked about cooperation with the Russian special agencies, the secret services,” said Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International—a political monitoring group—in Tbilisi.

Under Georgian Dream, Gigauri added, the attitude is, “‘Let’s not irritate Russia.'” Also, she said, with the rise of another party aligned with Zurabishvili, the Patriots’ Alliance, “it’s the first time there has been a pro-Russian party in the parliament, with leading politicians saying things like, ‘We’ve never seen a country that benefited from NATO.'”

“The previous [Saakashivili] administration was very clear with their messages that Russia was enemy, and the only way forward was to integrate into NATO, get closer to the EU, and implement democratic reforms,” she said.  “With this administration for the first time we saw demonstrations with Georgians saying Russian soldiers are heroes.”

Thus, under Ivanishvili’s shadowy power, Georgia’s once-promising democracy has increasingly become a component of the Russian power vertical dictated by Putin. And after Zurabishvili turned out to be a weaker candidate than thought, leading to the runoff on Wednesday, the billionaire’s rigging apparatus sprang into motion.

One example: On November 19, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze announced that the debts of 600,000 potential voters would be paid off by a foundation owned by Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank. (Like many Putin allies, Ivanishvili made his fortune in banking and metals, oligarch-style in Russia.)

Wednesday’s vote was thus an important indicator of whether Putin is getting better at the game of “managed democracy,” as it’s often called. And he’s not likely to stop trying. Putin’s overall vision is, first, to “create strategic depth for himself to make sure there’s nobody on his borders that can threaten him,” said Steinberg.

“Second, it is to weaken and demoralize the West and keep folks preoccupied having to put out fires,” Steinberg said. ‘Putin’s able to kind of pick and choose his spots and get away with what he can. And what he’s discovered is he can get away with a lot. There isn’t enough will to stand up to him.”

According to Eltsov, “the ultimate goal of the Kremlin’s foreign policy and military campaigns is to destroy or at least significantly diminish U.S. and NATO influence wherever it exists, but the control over the buffer zone is the number one imperative. With Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, Putin’s hands are pretty much open anywhere in this part of the world.”

The Kremlin distinguishes four tiers of significance within its strategic buffer zone, he said. The first tier includes Ukraine, Belarus, and most of Kazakhstan—countries included in the fundamental definition of Russia by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning writer who was once an anti-Soviet hero in the West but in his later years came out as a fervent Russian nationalist and Putin admirer. The second tier is the Caucasus, a region comprising southeastern Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The third tier is Central Asia—or what Solzhenitsyn once called “the underbelly of Russia”: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Putin has already extended his influence to most of these countries, as well as (more indirectly) to former Soviet bloc nations such as Hungary and Poland. Eltsov believes a critical test for the West will come when Putin seeks to exert his influence in the fourth tier of Baltic states—Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—three countries that have significant Russian populations but are also NATO members.

“The big question is what violates Article 5 of NATO,” said Eltsov, referring to the provision of the NATO treaty that says if a member is directly attacked, NATO promises to take “such action as it deems necessary” to restore security.

“Does it have to be a land invasion? And will the U.S. respond if, say, Narva, an Estonian town conquered by Peter the Great and located near St. Petersburg—which is populated predominantly by Russians—witnesses an unexpected uprising by its Russian-speaking population?”

Update Nov. 29, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect the results of the Georgian election and the new developments involving Trump’s former lawyer.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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