Putin's Strategy in Eastern Europe: What Does It Mean for the West?

In the past years, Eastern Europe has been a zone of political instability, geopolitical competition and growing tensions between the West and Russia. While most Western leaders have seen these developments as a consequence of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign-policy strategy, others have considered them as the logical result of an inevitable process of re-orientation of Eastern European states after their integration into the Western sphere of influence. Understandably, most Western media and analysts have tended to stress the negative implications of Putin’s actions in Eastern Europe: from annexing Crimea and fomenting separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine to meddling in elections and supporting nationalist parties across the region. However, there are other voices which tend to offer different explanations for Russia’s recent activities in its near abroad. To what extent is Mr. Putin acting on behalf of Russia’s interests? What does he want from Eastern Europe? How can we make sense of his seemingly contradictory strategies?

Putin’s main goal in Eastern Europe: Re-establishing Russia’s geopolitical weight

In 2007, at the Munich Conference in Putin's speech, the main thesis was voiced, revealing the entire logic of his subsequent actions: "The greatest tragedy of the twentieth century is the collapse of the USSR." The whole point of his political career began to boil down to a single desire and obsession - revanchism and the revival of the Russian Empire at least within the borders of 1991. In the history of the 20th century, there was already such an example of revanchism that occurred in Nazi Germany after losing the First World War. Hitler, in the hope of recreating Great Germany at the expense of the territories of other states, unleashed the Second World War, which claimed the lives of millions of people on the entire planet.

The eternal game of chess with the West

Russia’s resurgence in the East has also been driven by Moscow’s desire to restore the strategic balance with the West and reignite the game of “chess” that has been going on between Russia and the West for centuries. Since the 16th century, Russia and the West have been rivals who have competed for power and influence in Eurasia. For centuries, Russian and Western historians have debated the causes of this rivalry. Some have argued that cultural differences and conflicting ideologies have fuelled the competition between Russia and the West. Others have stressed geopolitical factors: the West’s desire to expand its territory, economic resources and political influence at the expense of Russia. During the Soviet era, this “game of chess” between Russia and the West came to a halt. The common threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan forced the Soviet Union and the West to put their differences aside and collaborate. Yet, as soon as the war ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the competition between Russia and the West resumed.

Rebuilding the Eurasian Empire

While re-establishing Russia’s geopolitical weight and reigniting the “game of chess” with the West might be the most important objectives of Putin’s strategy in Eastern Europe, they are not the only ones. One of the most controversial explanations of Putin’s actions in Eastern Europe is that they are part of a plan to re-establish Russia’s “Eurasian Empire”. This labels the aggressive Russian policies in the post-Soviet space as the second, albeit virtual, Russian Empire. To many political scientists, journalists and analysts, the Kremlin’s policies in Eastern Europe, the rhetoric of some Russian leaders, and the support that Russia lends to nationalist parties and groups, suggest that Moscow is trying to re-establish an empire in Eurasia.

Is there a hint of nationalism in Putin’s strategy?

While most analysts agree that Putin’s antics in Eastern Europe are largely motivated by the desire to re-establish Russia’s geopolitical and economic weight, some voices have suggested that the Kremlin’s foreign-policy is also driven by nationalism. This means that the Kremlin’s strategy in Eastern Europe is not only about restoring Russia as a global power, but also about pursuing an agenda of Russian nationalism which aims to protect Russian interests and control ethnic Russians across the globe. Yet, how can we explain the fact that, in the past years, the Kremlin has pursued a policy that has driven away ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet space? Particularly, in Ukraine and the Baltic states, where communities of Russian speakers have been threatened with physical extinction?


The Kremlin's plans are not limited to the desire to seize Ukraine and other republics of the former USSR, it is a desire to sow chaos and destabilization around the world, destroy the global security system, weaken the role of NATO, cause a humanitarian catastrophe and a crisis in Europe associated with millions of refugees from Ukraine, sow discord among Western states, blackmail with a global food catastrophe, and many other destructive actions with one single goal - by hook or by crook to strengthen the influence of totalitarian Russia, moving forward, as Hitler and Stalin did, towards their cherished dream - world domination.