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The West Must Deter Russia or Accept Defeat

Putin hasn’t set his sights on just Ukraine. Further destabilization of Georgia is next on his agenda.

By , an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
A Ukrainian soldier patrols at the checkpoint.
A Ukrainian soldier patrols at the checkpoint.
A Ukrainian soldier patrols at the checkpoint in the village of Shyrokyne near Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 26. ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images

Following the extraordinary crackdown on opposition politicians and the predictable victory of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, in the 2021 State Duma elections, the Kremlin is testing the patience of Western leaders once again.

From extraordinary mobilization of forces along Ukraine’s border, to weaponization of migrant flows through Belarus, to increasing Russian influence in the Caucasus, Russia has demonstrated that it is wedded to a hostile posture. This time, Putin’s regime is determined to exploit existing weaknesses by simultaneously fueling and creating crises on several fronts. While many observers tend to view Russia as a declining power, the Kremlin is proving that it can create prolonged problems not only in places such as Georgia and Ukraine but also on the European Union’s borders.

Despite the Kremlin’s increasing reliance on hybrid tools that aim to undermine the rules-based order, European countries are divided into two camps—those still advocating for the policy of appeasement, such as Germany, and others, such as the Baltic states, demanding a tougher response to Russian threats. In this case, time is Putin’s best ally.

Following the extraordinary crackdown on opposition politicians and the predictable victory of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, in the 2021 State Duma elections, the Kremlin is testing the patience of Western leaders once again.

From extraordinary mobilization of forces along Ukraine’s border, to weaponization of migrant flows through Belarus, to increasing Russian influence in the Caucasus, Russia has demonstrated that it is wedded to a hostile posture. This time, Putin’s regime is determined to exploit existing weaknesses by simultaneously fueling and creating crises on several fronts. While many observers tend to view Russia as a declining power, the Kremlin is proving that it can create prolonged problems not only in places such as Georgia and Ukraine but also on the European Union’s borders.

Despite the Kremlin’s increasing reliance on hybrid tools that aim to undermine the rules-based order, European countries are divided into two camps—those still advocating for the policy of appeasement, such as Germany, and others, such as the Baltic states, demanding a tougher response to Russian threats. In this case, time is Putin’s best ally.

The Kremlin playbook relies on existing vulnerabilities to score strategic gains and challenge Western cohesion. The conflicting views among NATO allies over granting Ukraine some security guarantees, such as a roadmap to joining the alliance, gives Moscow time to mobilize its forces and test the ground for further military provocation. The lack of a firm response from the West is a victory for the Russian propaganda efforts aimed at creating fragmentation among EU states and drawing attention to the decline of global U.S. influence following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The current situation shows that the West failed to learn the lessons of the August 2008 war in Georgia. The lack of response to the Russian offensive that resulted in the occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory further emboldened the Kremlin to go ahead with its aggression against Ukraine and annex Crimea six years later. This policy of appeasement is perceived in Moscow as the ultimate demonstration of weakness and has encouraged the Kremlin to exercise a free hand in pursuing its revisionist policies.

Recently, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Moscow that it will pay a high price in case of the use of force against Ukraine. According to U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, during U.S. President Joe Biden’s Tuesday video call with Putin, Biden made it clear that Washington is prepared to do things today that it did not do in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yet, when it comes to deterring Russia, words do not have much meaning unless followed by actions. The United States and its European allies have real leverage in terms of sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline or, in the worst-case scenario, expelling Russia from the SWIFT payment system.

The lack of a firm response from the West is a victory for Russian propaganda efforts aimed at creating fragmentation among EU states and drawing attention to declining U.S. influence.

While the West delays setting concrete red lines and making the Kremlin pay a high price for its aggression, in his latest speech Putin set his own “red lines.” He declared that Russia would be forced to act if NATO countries deploy missiles in Ukraine, because such weapons would be capable of reaching Moscow in just a few minutes.

As a prelude to his actions, earlier this summer, in his essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin was clear enough about his intentions to absorb Ukraine by manipulating historic facts and claiming that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people,” while Ukraine’s “true sovereignty” can only be achieved in partnership with Russia. The essay also hinted at the prospect of annexation of more Ukrainian territories, serving as a warning for the future.

In the meantime, the Kremlin’s actions have had real consequences. Based on intelligence shared by the United States, Russia has a possible plan for the invasion of Ukraine. According to Ukrainian officials, nearly 115,000 Russian troops and armored equipment are being deployed close to Ukraine’s border. In contrast to its explanation of large-scale troop movements close to the Ukrainian border in April, Moscow has not justified the recent military buildup as being part of military exercises. While the latest massing of troops may not signal an imminent invasion, this time Russia is sending a clear message that the military option is also on the table.


Six years after the Minsk II peace plan was signed to stop the fighting in Ukraine’s Donbass region, it is clear that the Minsk protocol has reached a dead-end. The Kremlin may be hoping to force Ukraine’s government into fully implementing Russia’s interpretation of the terms of the 2015 Minsk II agreements, which would entail granting special status and more autonomy to the Donbass region and a veto power over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Yet, given Putin’s inability to accept Ukraine as a sovereign state, it is hardly imaginable that the Minsk deal could lead to a political settlement, because Russia is unwilling to settle for the status quo.

Russia claims that Ukraine has deployed 125,000 troops to the Donbass, implying that this signals Kyiv’s intention to pursue a military attack in the region. These claims were immediately denounced as disinformation by Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmitro Kuleba. In fact, this is a well-known scenario from the Kremlin’s playbook and bears an astounding resemblance to the escalation of the conflict in Georgia in 2008, when the Kremlin justified its military aggression by arguing it needed to protect civilians from an alleged Georgian offensive.

Recently, Putin went so far as to demand legal guarantees from NATO that it would not enlarge any further or deploy its weapons near Russia, implying that Ukraine should never be allowed to join the alliance. Such ultimatums leave the West with limited options—losing credibility in the eyes of its allies or taking bolder action to deter Russian aggression.

It is hardly a coincidence that Russian military build-up along the Ukraine border has coincided with the manufactured migrant crisis on the EU’s border with Belarus. Enraged with the West’s response to rigged elections and refusal to recognize him as a legitimate head of state, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has threatened to cut gas transit to Europe and played with refugees’ lives by pushing them to the Polish and Lithuanian borders, causing greater instability within the EU.

The strategy that Lukashenko referred to seems identical to the maneuver the Kremlin used in 2016, when Russia tried to weaponize migration by pushing migrants from Russia into Finland and Norway. Although Russia’s attempts were less successful back then, it seems Lukashenko has learned some important lessons from the Russian playbook.

The Kremlin cannot afford to let Belarus follow the path that Georgia and Ukraine went through in the early 2000s.

Despite the bumpy relationship between Lukashenko and Putin, the Kremlin cannot afford to let Belarus follow the path that Georgia and Ukraine went through in the early 2000s. The migrant crisis is Lukashenko’s revenge against the West that Russia has been using in its favor—both to shift attention from Ukraine and to weaken the EU while remaining below the NATO Article 5 threshold, according to which an armed attack against one NATO member is considered as an attack on all members.

By flying two supersonic long-range Russian bombers over Belarusian airspace, Putin has once again demonstrated that Belarus falls squarely within his sphere of influence. And while the Polish government’s hardline policies in response to the crisis have eventually decreased the migrant flow from Belarus, Poland still faces provocations on the ground in conjunction with Russian state media repeatedly spreading disinformation.


Despite the Kremlin’s busy schedule, the South Caucasus is still on the agenda. With Georgia remaining the West’s only credible ally in the area, Russia’s aim is to keep Western leverage out of the region. The Kremlin created the crisis in Ukraine and used Lukashenko’s reckless decisions to its advantage; when it comes to Georgia, the country’s ongoing domestic political instability and polarization gives Putin a free hand to increase Russia’s influence. Additionally, since the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, Moscow has significantly increased its military presence in the region, with Russian troops now present on the ground in all three South Caucasus states.

Following the ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia has been pushing the idea of forming a 3+3 cooperation platform. This controversial idea places Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in conjunction with Turkey, Russia, and Iran under a single framework, aiming to deepen cooperation and ensure regional stability through joint economic, transport, and infrastructure projects. Under the pretext of boosting economic cooperation, Russia is looking to establish itself as a dominant power and hence isolate Georgia from the West.

The format would allow Moscow to potentially legitimize the so-called independence of Georgia’s occupied territories—Abkhazia and what Russia calls South Ossetia, which have been occupied and recognized as independent by Russia since the 2008 August War—by pushing their participation in the format as “independent” entities. Additionally, the current political instability in Georgia creates fertile ground for the Kremlin to further polarize Georgian society and present the country to the West as a failed state.

The ongoing political tensions have recently further escalated due to the return of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to the country, who had been found guilty in absentia in two cases and was imprisoned upon his return. The inability of the government and the opposition to find consensus, in conjunction with endless street protests, has increased tensions within Georgian society. In the meantime, the local pro-Russian forces are openly promoting violence, hate speech, and closer ties with Russia, representing a good overview of the Kremlin’s multidimensional approach in its bid to turn Tbilisi away from the West.

By using military force and other tools, the Kremlin aims to showcase that once-promising young democracies—Georgia and Ukraine—are increasingly becoming failed states unsuitable for NATO membership. The West has simply lost too much time in seeking to accommodate Russian interests, with Nord Stream 2 being the latest failure in the appeasement playbook. The failure to take the lessons of Ukraine and Georgia into consideration is resulting in the EU’s borders being directly threatened by Russia.

Recent events have shown what happens in Russia’s neighborhood does not simply stay there. Now the West must choose between deterring Russia and accepting defeat—and the long-term consequences for democracy in Eastern Europe and beyond that will come with it.

Natia Seskuria is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @nseskuria

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