Greater Russia? Four Scenarios For Putin’s Expansionist Ambitions
A mind map of the Russian leader’s possible plans to increase his influence, and expand his territory.
Vladimir Putin has always had his eye on the neighborhood.
In Georgia, the border with Russia has effectively been controlled by Moscow’s FSB security services since 2008. Washington this week accused Russian agents of recruiting pro-Kremlin Ukrainian operatives to take over the government in Kyiv and cooperate with a Russian occupying force. Meanwhile, all of Belarus has been on a short leash for two decades.
“What does Putin want?” and "What will he risk to get it?" are the twin questions all world capitals are asking. The answers, as unknowable as it might be, are compromised of a mix of personal psychology, national myth-making and current realpolitik, but all variations on themes from Russia's complicated history.
Here are four scenarios for how Putin can fulfill his ambition for a Russia greater (larger and stronger) than it is today:
1. Creeping Occupation
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia in 1991, two more lines appeared on the map separating unrecognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 20% of the territory of Georgia. The establishment of this border is still quietly controlled by the Russian FSB to this day.
This border is moving deeper into Georgia, taking more and more territory without a single shot being fired. A correspondent from Georgia told the Ukrainian newspaper Livy Bereg that the concept of “creeping occupation” emerged in Georgia after the end of the war in 2008. Both Georgian and Russian troops were to withdraw from the nearby territories — and the latter, predictably, broke the agreement. Since 2008, the FSB managed to occupy additional 1,500 square kilometers.
New grey zones are being created around them
Over the past 18 months, Georgian human rights activists have also discovered gray zones, places on the unoccupied territory of Georgia where local people and police do not go because of threats from the FSB. The authorities of unrecognized South Ossetia made publicly available a video from a meeting of the "delimitation commission" on the additional occupation of 2,000 square kilometers of Georgia, including natural areas, villages and strategic routes. New grey zones are being created around them.
Just like the "governments" of the Donbas republics in contested southeastern Ukraine, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are backed by the Kremlin. Gas, electricity, weapons are supplied to these territories, and even pensions and salaries for the local population come from the pockets of Russian taxpayers.
Soldiers of the 46th Separate Task Force Battalion Donbas-Ukraine surveying the territory.
2. Puppet Neighbors
The direct financial injections approved by Putin to support pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and Georgia still pale in comparison to what the Kremlin spends in Belarus, where only Putin's financial support keeps Alexander Lukashenko in power. In 2021, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published data on how much money Moscow has spent on aid to friendly regimes and political megaprojects abroad over the past 20 years. The estimate is notable: $609 billion.
The most ambitiously romantic scenario for Putin's future relations with Georgia and Ukraine is the establishment of puppet regimes there, similar to Belarus. Had it not occurred to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013 to violently disperse an innocent student demonstration, this plan might already have worked well in Ukraine. However, Yanukovich was overthrown, fled to Russia, and with pro-Western leaders installed in Kyiv, Putin was forced to occupy Crimea and move troops into Donbas.The well-known Russian political blogger Maxim Katz believes that thanks to his aggressive policy Putin has destroyed the existing "Russian world" and friendly relations between Ukrainians and Russians; so even such a mild scenario will be met extremely negatively in Ukraine and Georgia. No politician, even in Belarus, can count on bonafide popular support if he states his pro-Russian sympathies.
3. USSR Revisited
In 2007, at the end of his second presidential term, Putin made a speech at the Munich Conference, where he was actually quite transparent with his geopolitical plans. He called Russia and the U.S. the only superpowers, the struggle between which is equal to the struggle of civilizations.
Vladimir Putin harbors dreams of bringing back the Soviet-era
In his foreign policy, he is clearly in line with the Brezhnev doctrine, of limited sovereignty, according to which the USSR could interfere in the internal affairs of Central and Eastern European countries that were part of the Communist bloc in order to ensure the stability of its political course. More recently, Putin said that he perceived the collapse of the USSR as a tragedy, as the disintegration of historical Russia.
There is no need for speculation or conjecture: yes, Vladimir Putin harbors dreams of bringing back the Soviet-era global standing to the Kremlin. Yet the Russian President is also a realist and is well aware that such a scenario is virtually impossible — not because a lack of political will to do so, but because it is not economically viable.
Brezhnev at a Party congress in East Berlin in 1967
Tsarist Imperial Glory
After the release of Alexei Navalny's acclaimed investigative film Palace for Putin that revealed the wealth and corruption at the heart of the regime, the tsarist ambitions of the Russian president could no longer be doubted. No amount of propaganda could conceal the appetite for some kind of restoration of the Russian empire. In these ideas, Putin actually had admitted to in his famous article "On the historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians," arguing that the single people who founded the ancient state of Kievan Rus' cannot be divided by present life nonsense. Others have compared his ambitions directly to Peter the Great, the mythic tsar who ruled for 42 years beginning in the late 17th century.
By appealing to such ancient models, Putin can justify his actions today. Yet even war with Ukraine would not be enough to unite the former Soviet republics into a new empire state. In a recent interview, however, Putin, as usual, again speculated about the distant past and lamented that the collapse of the Russian empire, like the USSR, was due to the interference of other countries: "Who did it? Those who served other, alien interests, unrelated to the interests of the Russian and other peoples of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation."
Fomenting fears and animosity toward enemies beyond one’s borders can itself become the fuel for both national identity and statecraft. The question for the future of Russia and its neighbors, of course, is who decides what are the borders.