Skip to main content

Putin Has Opened a Pandora’s Box of International Adventurism

Maxim Trudolyubov
Nagorno-Karabakh - October 8, 2020. The military in special camouflaged clothing with machine guns
NAGORNO-KARABAKH—October 8, 2020. Soldiers participating in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.


In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has failed on many levels. He is paying an enormous cost, but he has been “successful” enough to usher in a barrage of unintended consequences for the world’s economy and some of the world’s most opportunistic players.

The cost of this conflict is incalculable, since it is still expanding. The human toll of this war is immense. By the end of July, the UN reported that more than 12,000 civilians had been killed or injured in Ukraine. Neither Ukraine nor Russia has disclosed the numbers of soldiers who have been killed or wounded, but even estimates that are independently verified, and thus highly conservative, are grave. Some of the unconfirmed ones sound horrific.

Despite its complete disregard for human life, Russia’s leadership has not been able to achieve its maximalist goals in Ukraine. It is clear now that Putin’s original full-scale invasion of Ukraine was a reckless gamble. He relied upon a dysfunctional network of high-ranking plants, sleeper agents, and saboteurs to do the job of subverting his neighbor. He thought he would be able to pull off a Crimea-style takeover of the entire country.

Putin trusted his security apparatus so blindly that he clearly believed that all it would take for Russia to have an overwhelming effect would be a display of force. But security officials who were in charge of war planning failed their boss, as did his military industrial complex (headed by a close friend, Sergey Chemezov), which was unable to supply enough smart precision weaponry. As a result, Putin turned to crude, destructive Soviet equipment, which in turn resulted in a large number of fatalities among civilians.

Shooting Himself in the Foot

Making Russia immune to sanctions and at least somewhat self-sufficient in the case of increased external economic pressure turned out to be a pipe dream. Putin’s economic advisers have failed their boss too. Russian imports have collapsed. According to a recent study, the more than 1,000 global companies that have left Russia since early March represented about 40 percent of the country’s GDP. Nearly three decades’ worth of foreign investment have been reversed. Russia is bleeding capital and talent.

The greater the economic divide between Russia and the West, the more clearly Russia’s elites will see how intimately connected their nation was to the rest of the world and how much it profited from that connection.

It could not have been Putin’s plan, but his invasion of Ukraine reenergized NATO and made two historically neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, join the alliance. The Kremlin’s “demilitarization” campaign has led to the opposite result and has seen Ukraine militarized. As the performance of Putin’s armed forces has been less than spectacular, this war may lead to a long-term weakening of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO or ОДКБ in Russian), post-Soviet Russia’s answer to NATO.

The list goes on, blunder after blunder. Putin’s adage that “everything is going according to plan” is meant to persuade his subordinates that their boss is in control and knows what he is doing. Maybe some of the Russian officials are buying the message for the sake of their own psychological comfort, but I have yet to meet a single expert or any independent-minded person who would take the phrase seriously.

For most Russians, the phrase is the stuff of dark humor in personal conversations and on social media. “Everything Is Going According to the Plan” is also the name of a widely remembered punk song from the 1990s that mocked the gloom and desolation of the early post-Soviet Russia.

Nothing about Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is going as planned. The fact that most wars—particularly wars of aggression—do not proceed as expected offers little solace. Out of sheer stubbornness and an unwillingness to make a sound retreat, Putin might still be holding onto his original intent of putting Ukraine under the Kremlin’s full control.

Russia has also retained or even increased its oil and gas revenues, which may be the main factor behind its persistence in waging war at all costs.

Creating Opportunities for Newly Assertive Players

Regardless of Putin’s thinking, which is impossible to decipher anyway, this war is producing a sprawling “tree” of unintended consequences. Apart from the consequences for Russia listed above, this war has opened a Pandora’s box of international adventurism and economic opportunism for a diverse set of players in Russia’s vicinity.

It is unlikely that strengthening China, India, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and other powers at Russia’s expense was the Kremlin’s plan all along. Yet, a lot of opportunistic actors are trying to take advantage of the fact that Russia is deeply enmeshed in an exhaustive war of attrition with an undaunted neighbor.

China’s leadership may be prompted to speed up action on Taiwan. “In the coming weeks Xi may decide that the Taiwan issue must be resolved definitively while there is a window of opportunity and while he is in power,” Alexander Gabuev, a China expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in his Telegram channel. “The result will be further escalation, which may well lead to an operation to take over Taiwan in the horizon of 5–10 years.”

As a result of the Russian invasion, many American politicians have felt the need to reaffirm their support for Taiwan’s independence, Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to the island being the centerpiece of this drive. Beijing responded by scrambling fighter jets and promising to hold military exercises near Taiwan.

On Wednesday, Azerbaijan announced the capture of several commanding heights in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but governed by the Armenia-supported unrecognized Republic of Artsakh. Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in the region were unable to prevent Baku’s swift operation. Turkish military equipment and training programs for Azerbaijan’s armed forces are considered a crucial factor behind the latter’s victory in the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Turkey is poised to reassert its stance in northeastern Syria, controlled by Kurdish forces that Ankara considers “terrorist,” while two other brokers in the region, Russia and Iran, do not. In the sphere of energy, Turkey has been strategically decreasing its reliance on Russia’s gas. Ankara, as well as Baku, are playing an important role in securing an alternative gas supply for Southeast Europe, through the recently completed Southern Gas Corridor.

Kazakhstan is also reasserting itself, economically, trying to take advantage of the exodus of international companies from Russia. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has said that as many foreign companies leave Russia they should be made welcome in Kazakhstan.

Some of these new developments around Russia, particularly economic ones, are benign, but some sound outright threatening. Before this war, Russia played a limited but stabilizing role in the many regions it is near, due to its geographic vastness. The tentative contours of a newly destabilized world are starting to show through on the map. In a way, Putin could be said to be “winning” his war in the interests of some of the opportunistic players that surround Russia, who would be happy assert themselves at Moscow’s expense.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more