Putin's Offset: The Kremlin’s Geopolitical Adaptations Since 2014
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (Download the full report here)
The West has had some success in countering the Kremlin since Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has found ways to offset external pressures on Russia without relinquishing his gains and goals. Putin’s center of gravity is increasingly his ability to shape others’ perceptions and create the image of a powerful Russia based on limited real power.
Putin’s efforts since 2014 to offset the weaknesses of Russia’s position and advance his goals have focused on creating a Russia-favorable global information space; growing Russia’s military footprint in a targeted way that provides asymmetric opportunities to influence decision making; cocooning Russia in a network of coalitions and international organizations to amplify Russia’s limited power; diversifying the tools and means of Russia’s influence and subversion; expanding Russia’s influence in peripheral theaters; and consolidating power inside Russia.
Putin’s evolving approaches enable him to play a bad hand well, but his hand remains weak. Putin’s dependency on asymmetrical approaches will grow as the gap between his means and aims likely increases. This gap will not necessarily threaten the survival of Putin’s regime, but it will provide opportunities for the US to counter the Russian challenge.
The West should cut oxygen to two key amplifiers of Putin’s power — narratives and coalitions. The long-term solution versus Russia would be building collective immunity to the Russian challenge, including strategic intelligence capabilities in the US and its partners to recognize Putin’s slow tactical creep before it becomes his strategic advantage.
How Does Putin Succeed or Fail at Achieving His Goals?
Several sources of resilience have allowed Putin to retain power for 20 years. Putin understands Russia. He offers a limited and periodically changing but nevertheless real value proposition to the Russian people and other countries. He has several sources of real power, including nuclear weapons, a global military footprint, and veto power on the UN Security Council. Putin’s grip on Russia’s domestic narrative and the capabilities he has developed to influence the global narrative are other major sources of strength.
Putin adapts to the changing geostrategic environment. He has dynamically updated his value proposition to his constituencies in Russia over the past two decades. Putin recalibrated the methods he uses to achieve his foreign policy objectives after 2014 without fundamentally altering those objectives. Most recently, Putin has shown he is willing to experiment with less oppressive tactics for taming public discontent in Russia. He has allowed the 2020 anti-Kremlin protests in Russia’s Far East to simmer without suppressing them for far longer than he would have done in the past, for example. He is evolving Russia’s hybrid warfare approaches as he is exploiting anti-government protests in Belarus to regain control over that former Soviet state.
Putin’s power has real and growing limits, however. Putin is accumulating risk on fundamentals such as Russia’s economy and human capital, as both deteriorate. What Putin can offer Russia and its foreign partners is also limited, and in some cases harmful. Putin recognizes these problems but is unlikely to be able to significantly expand Russia’s resources and capabilities. His kleptocratic regime is incompatible with the reform required to meaningfully grow Russia’s economy. Additionally, Putin’s efforts post-2014 have skewed toward damage control and constraint mitigation, not toward improving Russia’s fundamentals. He has focused, for example, on controlling Russian society more effectively and pressuring other countries in a more lasting way rather than reforming Russia or becoming a more appealing international partner.
Putin must increasingly sustain the perception that an alternative to his rule in Russia is either worse or too costly to fight for. Putin’s reliance on his ability to shape the narrative is thus an existential requirement.
Putin no longer has the luxury of covering his actions in Russia in legalisms. For two decades, Putin tried to maintain a façade of democracy in Russia and repeatedly stated he would not change the constitution to suit his political agenda.1 Putin, however, openly did just that in 2020 to give himself effectively the opportunity to rule for life.
The façade of legitimacy, which Putin has generally seen as important to the effectiveness of his approach, is also a limit on the Kremlin’s actions globally. The Kremlin stopped its offensive in eastern Ukraine in 2014 at the limit of its “information frontier” — the point at which Russia ran out of information cover to advance its campaign in a hybrid manner — without openly committing to a full-fledged military offensive on Ukraine. The Kremlin planned to capture six regions in Ukraine but was only able to secure portions of two regions in part because the Kremlin greatly overestimated support for the idea of the “Russian World”[i] among the population in Ukraine. That lack of support stripped the Kremlin of the information cover it required to seize additional areas. As a result, Putin had to accept a lesser objective, at least for a while, than he initially planned to accomplish.
Some of Putin’s post-2014 efforts exposed Russia to additional vulnerabilities. For example, Putin’s pivot to non-Western powers, especially China, to offset losses resulting from deteriorating relationships with the West may backfire in the long run. The economic power imbalance between Beijing and Moscow is so great that Putin cannot be confident in his ability to prevent China from imposing costs and limitations on him over time that he is in principle unwilling to accept.
The Kremlin has experienced numerous setbacks as the result of its limitations, such as failing to prevent the expansion of NATO in the Balkans in 2017 (when Montenegro joined) and again in 2020 (with the admission of North Macedonia) despite Kremlin efforts. The effectiveness of several key Russian foreign policy pressure tools, such as the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s energy exports, is also falling as many countries are trying to limit their exposure to Russia’s influence.
Putin nevertheless continues to make gains— often in the West’s blind spots. Putin is still securing additional influence in former Soviet Union countries, as well as expanding Russia’s military footprint and information influence globally.
Putin exploits the forces that drive the West toward accepting his gains and dropping pressures on him. He accelerates the erosion of memory of Russian aggression. He uses legitimate causes such as counterterrorism cooperation to pull countries into Russia initiatives and legitimize his malign activities. He refocuses his opponents away from their long-term interests and from the leverage they hold vis-à-vis Russia towards the short-term benefits or costs the Kremlin can inflict on them. He benefits from the desire for normalcy in the West and the ingrained reluctance to engage in confrontational policies toward Russia.
The West’s tendency to ignore Russia’s trivial activities is another major opportunity for Putin. Slow, under the radar creep, often at the tactical level, is generally how the Kremlin sets conditions for strategic gains.
Another Western vulnerability is the inclination to mistake the Kremlin’s sloppiness and adaptability for opportunism. This inclination results in part from the fact that Putin does move rapidly when he sees opportunities and often jumps from one theater to another in a way that appears to lack coherence to a Western audience that regards, say, the Middle East and the Baltics as entirely separate issues. In reality, Putin has pursued the same goals consistently for years. He has shown a willingness to accept losses to advance his larger efforts. The Kremlin’s means of pursuing these goals are being designed and improved to support them, even though their execution is often ineffective, poorly coordinated, and even counterproductive.
The West must also understand that when the West legitimizes the Kremlin’s narratives and joins its international frameworks is provides oxygen to two major amplifiers of Putin’s power. Without this oxygen, Putin would likely be brought down closer to his actual size.
Putin’s Efforts and Adaptations post-2014
Putin's efforts since 2014 have been increasingly focused on shaping, not just disrupting, an international environment that will foster Russian interests and provide the Kremlin with resources and legitimacy. Putin likely has assessed that the long-term solution to deflect international pressure is to create an environment that will accept Russian principles and narratives and limit the need for it to use coercive measures against Russia.
Putin’s core lines of effort that support this aim:
- Creating a Russia-favorable global information space and expanding the Kremlin’s information capabilities. The battle for minds is Putin’s key battle. Russia’s national security paradigm shifted toward the information space around 2014 likely in response to the informational successes and failures of its hybrid offensive on Ukraine as well as recognition of the increasing requirement to shape the narrative internationally to advance Russia’s foreign policy. The Kremlin also assesses that the chief threat to Russia’s sovereignty will emerge in the information space — from the West’s attempts to destabilize Russia from within by turning Russians against their government, as well as eroding Russia’s power in the world. The Kremlin has overhauled its information policies and increased its information operation capabilities and the area of its information impact globally. This area of impact is vast and goes beyond media and troll farms. Its purpose is strategic. It is no longer a supporting effort, but the principal focus. It is supported with both physical and information tools. It would thus be more accurate to define it as a perception space — the Kremlin’s efforts to promote specific narratives and create specific perceptions in support of its objectives or as an end in themselves.
- Expanding the security space around Russia without engaging in a costly arms race. Putin is expanding Russia’s military footprint in a targeted fashion, reflecting the Kremlin’s assessment that Russia should rebuild its power without falling into an expensive arms race trap. The Kremlin has thus prioritized building security coalitions to offset the limits of Russia’s growing but still limited military footprint. The Kremlin is using these security partnerships with other countries to source forces for the Kremlin’s military campaigns, legitimize Russia’s interventions under the umbrella of international cooperation, and advance the Kremlin’s broader goals—such as regaining influence over the former Soviet states.
- Cocooning Russia in a web of coalitions and international organizations. Putin is expanding and interlinking Russia’s formal and informal partnerships to shape the international agenda, withstand Western pressure, as well as to gain access to sources of cash and legitimacy. Russia has signed hundreds of agreements in areas from media to military cooperation since 2014. Putin is also trying to engage the US. It is not a contradiction for Putin to want to partner with the US while trying to undermine US influence. US-granted legitimacy is a major power amplifier for Putin in the short-term, while diminishing America’s overall influence remains Putin’s long-term goal.
- Reinforcing the primacy of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The post-WWII order and Russia’s status as one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the G5) is a key base of Russia’s real and perceived power. The Kremlin aims to both revive G5 cooperation and reinforce the primacy of the UN, where Russia holds veto power on the Security Council, as a key international arbiter. Preserving these powers is vital to Putin.
- Diversifying foreign policy tools and means of building coalitions. The Kremlin has evolved its set of “nodes” — legitimate causes such as counterterrorism efforts — that it uses to pull countries into Russian initiatives. These causes are often not the primarily goals of the Kremlin’s outreach, but rather ways to build influence. Putin has expanded on the umbrella notion of sovereignty and has been engaging countries via an expanded set of “sovereignty”-related offerings, such as financial or digital independence from the systems of the “hegemonic” West. Putin has evolved his approach toward the “Russian World” — one of Putin’s core geopolitical constructs. He adjusted its rhetoric and tactics after Russia’s war in Ukraine resulted in pushback against the “Russian World.” Putin has also adapted how he uses armed forces in the FSU; they are not his first resort, nor his last resort. The Kremlin can leverage a credible threat of military intervention, given the precedent it set in Ukraine, to shape FSU politics without the use of force.
- Investing in new bilateral relationships while expanding Russia’s influence in peripheral theaters. The Kremlin launched outreach campaigns into the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America in search of influence, legitimacy, and resources after 2014.
- Consolidating power inside Russia and pushing for the “sovereignization”[ii] of Russia. Putin has been offsetting his declining value proposition to the Russian people by tightening his grip on Russia, increasingly isolating Russia — especially from the global information space, as well as pushing Russian identity toward militaristic patriotism.
Putin’s sources of resilience and his adaptations will allow him to maintain his regime and his international campaigns on the current trajectory for a while. Putin’s offsetting efforts do not fundamentally change Russia’s strengths, but they help Putin buy time while he attempts to erode anti-Russia efforts globally and gradually build influence in multiple theaters. Putin’s future gains are not a given, however. Putin’s hand remains weak. The cost of maintaining Putin’s power will only grow, as will the cost of his foreign adventures.
The US can take several steps to halt the Kremlin’s malign activities and gains:
- Embrace complexity. Simplifying Putin’s regime to a "third-world dictatorship, a mafia-run gas station with nuclear weapons" as some US officials have done hides nuanced ways in which Russia poses a challenge to the US and its allies. Putin gains a lot by perception—in the blind spots the West often does not realize exist. Information operations, especially their cumulative effects over time, pose a real threat to Western societies. But it is not all perception — we should not forget about the real power Putin holds. The Kremlin treats its varied efforts as a comprehensive undertaking, and the West needs to confront them the same way. The US should focus not only on Russia’s tools of malign influence, but also on the strategic campaigns they support. The US should avoid bifurcated frameworks of military and civilian, state and non-state tools but rather apply the Kremlin’s lens of a consolidated national security space that dynamically draws on whatever resources it deems necessary to achieve its goals.
- Build immunity against the Kremlin’s malign activity. Develop strategic intelligence capabilities in the US and within US partners to recognize the Kremlin’s campaigns and perception manipulations early — before they amount to strategic gains. Monitor, prevent, and counter the Kremlin’s efforts to destroy antibodies to its influence.
- Retain dampeners. Keep sanctions and legitimacy restrictions, such as access to international organizations, on Russia unless the Kremlin stops and reverses its belligerent acts. Prevent Putin from offloading his problems on someone else’s balance sheet, such as transferring financial responsibility for Russia-created illegal republics in Ukraine without restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty; or offloading the financial struggles of Assad onto the balance sheet of the international community.
- Prevent Putin’s false narratives from becoming accepted as truth. Constantly debunk the Kremlin’s false narratives and perception-altering activities that are malign. Enhance international mechanisms to keep the ‘truth’ in place. Build a broad international coalition to investigate Russia’s violations of international law and the law of armed conflict.
- Do not empower Putin by legitimizing his actions. Do not fall for the Kremlin’s cooperation frameworks. Watch for and when possible disrupt early Russia’s emerging cooperation frameworks. Recognize the vital importance of the Kremlin’s web of partnerships to Putin’s ability to amplify Russia’s power. Contest Putin through these international platforms, especially at the UN.
- Help Ukraine win its fight against Russia’s efforts to regain dominant influence over Ukraine’s decision-making. Recognize that Ukraine is the major dampener on Putin’s ambitions globally by tying down limited high-end resources Putin would use elsewhere if he could. Work with European partners to prevent Putin from manipulating Ukraine into a peace deal on Russia’s terms, in particular; counter the Kremlin’s false narratives about Ukraine; empower Ukraine’s reform efforts.
- Test Putin’s commitment to his aggressive foreign policy by challenging him across multiple theaters.
- Build coalitions to achieve all of the above. Prioritize Europe as it can significantly affect the international balance and momentum on Russia’s issue. Broaden the coalition. Russia derives a lot of legitimacy from the non-Western world.
- Keep the information exchange with Russia open. Understanding why Putin exists as a phenomenon is equally important to understanding the threat he poses to the US and its allies.