What in the hell is Vladimir Putin up to? It's perhaps one of the most important and salient questions of 2014. Russia-watchers and Russians have spent much of the year debating what's behind Putin's adventurism in Ukraine, his meddling in eastern Europe's Baltic states, his support for anti-American dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and the headaches he is generally causing Western leaders.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russia, suggested an answer: Putin is remaking Russia from a former world power into a geopolitical racketeer. Galeotti is not the first person to suggest this theory, which is gaining traction even among Russia experts who tend to be more sympathetic to Moscow, but he put it awfully succinctly in a great interview with the Swiss-based International Relations and Security Network.
Galeotti made his point when asked how Russia's role as an international actor had evolved since the end of the Cold War (I've added line breaks and bold for emphasis):
Russia is now regarded not as ineffective but as toxic; it has shown that it can act, but above all as a spoiler.
Its main tactic in eastern Ukraine, in Syria, and elsewhere is not to fix problems, nor even to build coalitions, but to create problems in the hope that this grinds down the will of the other party or parties until they decide that making some kind of deal with Moscow is the least-worse option.
These are, in the short term, effective tactics, but this is the geopolitics of the protection racketeer and it wins no friends, earns no soft power. It has empowered those who say this current regime in the Kremlin is dangerous and can only be contained or, ultimately, confronted.
The problem that Putin was trying to solve is this: when he came into office in 2000, Russia had sunk from its former status as a global power to a disgraced, weakened, shell of itself. The world was dominated by the West, Russia's former enemy and rival. How was Russia going to find its place, and its former glory, in that world? At first, Putin tried to make Russia part of the Western-dominated world, buddying up with Western leaders (remember his friendship with George W. Bush?) and joining into international organizations. Russia was going to make the new system work for it.
That didn't work out. Putin still saw central and eastern Europe as a contest ground for Western versus Russian influence — not totally without reason, as new countries joined NATO — which led into the old dynamic of competition. Crises in the Caucasus and the former Yugoslavia became points of tension. But Putin couldn't win them outright; Russia was just not strong enough anymore, and in any case seemed to always pick the losing side. Putin's great power ambitions were just not going to happen.
So he tried something else. If Russia couldn't maintain geopolitical relevance on its merits, it would force itself onto the world stage by acting as a spoiler to the great powers of the West, mucking up their plans until they had no choice but to acknowledge Russia's influence.
When Western powers pressured Iran to curb its nuclear program, Russia built Iran a nuclear reactor. When Western powers weighed bombing Syria to punish Assad for mass-murdering civilians, Putin handed Assad air defense weapons and installed some Russian sailors at a Syrian port to act as human shields. When Edward Snowden released American secrets, Putin welcomed him into Russia and then maneuvered him into staying. When North Korea allegedly hacked Sony Pictures, Putin invited Kim Jong Un to Moscow.
Partly this is about pride — Putin asserting Russia as relevant and important any way he can, even if just by trolling Western powers — but partly it's also about strategically preserving the last shreds of global Russian influence and interests. Still, as Galeotti notes, this a strategy that works in the short-term but is a long-term loser. Every time Putin acts as a geopolitical spoiler or racketeer, he's spending away some of the international stature and credibility that Russia has accrued over centuries of actual power and influence. He's making himself, and Russia, more distrusted and isolated. His solution for Russian weakness is to make it even weaker.
President Obama hinted at this, subtly but acidly, when he referred to Russia as a "regional power" in response to a journalist's question this summer about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The line wasn't just an insult of Putin — although it was certainly that — but a summation of the inevitable end result of Putin's use and misuse of Russian power.