On the 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and with it collapsed the tremendous stretch and power of the Soviet Union. Before this collapse, the Soviet Union had taken its place as one of the two major superpowers emerging out of World War 2 and entrenched itself in a forty year long Cold War with the United States. The Soviet Union stretched from modern-day Russia to encompass large sections of Asian and Eastern European nations including Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, and Belarus. By 1986, the Soviet Union and its allies boasted a massive 6.1 million armed forces compared to 5.5 million Western forces. The Soviet Union more than tripled the amount of US Tanks and doubled its amount of nuclear weapons. But while the Soviet Union seemed to have a formidable opponent in terms of military force, the strength of the state itself was in serious turmoil. The large sects of regions and land the USSR had acquired were filled with non-Russian ethnic groups who were resisting assimilation to Soviet culture. Poor economic planning coupled with an aggressive arms race with the United States was leading to economic decline. Mikhail Gorbachev, who would turn out to be the very last leader of the Soviet Union, only made matters worse when he introduced a range of reforms intended to help the collapsing USSR, including allowing freedom of speech. Finally, their frustrations, dissent and anger swallowed the outer regions of the Soviet Union until the weight of the country collapsed under itself. In 1991, Gorbachev realized the people would settle for nothing less than democracy and resigned, allowing the Soviet Union to disintegrate. The great power of the Soviet Union, who had once personified a fearsome threat for Western democracies, crumbled into fifteen independent countries. Out of the ruins of the Soviet Union came the formation of the Russian Federation.
Twenty-six years after its disintegration, the allure of the Soviet Union’s great empire still lingers in the mind of the Russian Federation. “You know my attitude towards the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no need to do it” Vladimir Putin said in 2016. To some main players in US government, Putin’s agenda seems clear. “Putin’s main interest is to try to restore the old Soviet Union. I mean that’s what drives him” Said former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in December 2016, “It’s pretty obvious that his intent is to try to spread Russian influence, particularly over the former Soviet Union. He is clearly trying to prevent the countries of the former Soviet Union from joining NATO and working with the European Union”. But Putin has brushed off accusations he intends to restore the former Soviet Union to its glory claiming, “no one wants to believe us when we say it is not our goal to restore the Soviet Union”. His actions, however, tell a different story.
Putin has a long history of autocratic behavior, from his first year as elected President. In March 2000, Putin was officially elected President of Russia with 53% of the vote. After being elected President, Putin wasted no time in using his newly won title to assert power. He nationalized economic sectors including the gas sector, assuring the state would have a tight grip and full control over the economy. He weakened key business Oligarchs by prosecuting them or stripping their assets, thus ensuring they did not have the means to challenge the government. The Russian media, which was largely controlled by these Oligarchs would in 2002 be taken over by the government, leaving Russia without independent media. By cracking down on critics Putin left himself with little opposition and in the 2004 Presidential election, overwhelmingly won with 71% of the vote. Putin’s autocratic behavior did not go unnoticed by the West, who criticized him but did little else. US policy was unaffected by Putin’s actions, and their criticisms did little to deter him. Favorable oil prices meant Russia was benefiting largely through both economic and strategic importance, which would largely help their presence on the world stage. Putin continued using his autocratic power to crack down on media censorship, which helped him to achieve little to no competition in coming elections. In 2008 he was forced to step down, the Russian constitution forbidding any two-term President from seeking reelection. Putin was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev who then appointed Putin Prime Minister of Russia. This was a calculated move by Putin to play within the rules of the constitution, but to also ensure he would not lose political dominance. Sure enough, in 2012 with the rules of the constitution being satisfied, Putin succeeded in being elected once again as President of Russia.
Up until 2014, Putin’s autocratic behavior was largely criticized but mostly ignored by Western powers. This all changed when in an alarming act of aggression, Russian forces invaded the Ukrainian-held territory of Crimea. This was a bold move from Putin, and it sparked outrage in Western countries. Putin’s invasion of Crimea prompted the biggest European security threat in decades, and many feared the post-cold war world order was crumbling in front of them. In response, Western governments backed Ukraine, demanding Putin withdraw from Crimea and responded with harsh economic sanctions on Russia. Undeterred, Putin not only refused to pull out of Crimea, but held a disputed referendum which resulted in the Russian annexation of the territory.
Putin’s greatest enemy is the united front of the Western world. If this much wasn’t clear after the economic sanctions and the invasion of Crimea, it becomes apparent in Russia’s latest cyber attacks on Western democracies. Most notably, US intelligence agencies including the CIA and FBI have confirmed Russian hackers were responsible for dispersing propaganda and fake news through social media intended to put voters off voting for democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. British MPs have indicated they believe similar propaganda attacked by Russia took place in June 2016 intending to influence the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Fears of similar white nationalist movements propagated by Russian bots in European countries such as Germany and France have taken root with upcoming elections. The motivation behind these cyber attacks is clear; Putin intends to divide the West. This strategy of hybrid warfare is not new, especially in the circumstance of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has long used Soviet-style propaganda to censor and control and its citizens as well as its enemies. However, Russia’s adoption of cyber warfare against its Western enemies provides a new, sophisticated style of attack that is hard to counter. Russian bots pop up through social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, encouraging divisive Nationalistic candidates and dissent within political bubbles. The use of cyber propaganda and fake news allows Putin to rally citizens of their countries against each other, creating division and chaos. Putin’s propaganda also tends to favor nationalistic candidates such as Trump, LePen and Farage, all of whom happen to hold less than savory views of globalism and entities such as NATO. By interfering in Western elections Putin hopes to tear Western countries apart from the inside.
The response to these attacks by Russia needs to be swift and stern. Where cyber attacks by Russians can be proven, such as the case with the US election, nations should respond by employing further economic sanctions. Despite Russia’s insistence the current sanctions imposed on them aren’t doing much damage, experts suggest they are hurting Russia more than Putin likes to admit. As well as this, European reliance on Russian energy needs to come to an end. The EU has already made moves towards breaking this reliance, with projects such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline which intends to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to European countries. Further efforts to break Europe’s need for Russian energy need to be championed for two reasons. Firstly, Russia’s energy economy is amongst the strongest of its natural resources. By funding this economy, Europe is strengthening Russia, whether it means to or not. Secondly, European reliance on energy is potentially dangerous, as it allows Russia a certain control over something as fundamental to the modern day as energy. In a combination of breaking away from Russia’s energy and employing strict economic sanctions, this strategy would restrict Russia in its actions by crippling its economy.
Putin’s dream of restoring a Soviet empire will continue to drive his attacks on Western democracies. Yet his own tactics expose his greatest weakness; while the West stands together Putin’s dream will never be realized. Now more than ever it is important the West stands shoulder to shoulder, united in the face of Putin’s hybrid warfare. Allowing Western solidarity to crumble is playing right into Putin’s hand.