In his fourteen years in power, Vladimir Putin has now made three successful land grabs. In 2008 he de facto annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two miniscule and impoverished provinces in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. More spectacularly, this March he annexed de jure the Ukrainian province of Crimea.
For the moment Putin is riding high. However, satisfying any further territorial ambitions will be near impossible, and Moscow is unlikely to attempt further encroachments on his neighbors. In fact, Russia’s own internal weaknesses suggest that it has already reached the limits of its capabilities to project raw military power beyond its borders.
Of course, Putin fully intends to defy the West and to menace his neighbors to the fullest possible extent, it is in his ex-KGB officer genetic code. He truly does believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geo-political tragedy of the twentieth century.”
And he could care less that 150 million citizens of former Soviet satellites and Soviet republics would nearly unanimously disagree with his assessment. For Putin, the power and prestige of imperial Russia, once known as the USSR, are all important.
However, his restoration project rests on remarkably weak foundations. First of all, even with $100 a barrel oil, Russian GDP is a mere one trillion dollars, or about 3% of the US and EU put together.
And even after a decade of reforms and sharply increased spending, Russia’s military is reliant on second-rate weaponry and lacks the high morale and training of the U.S. or Chinese militaries, among others. He can convincingly prevail only against much smaller post-Soviet states. But he’s running out of much smaller and weaker neighbors to pick upon.
He’s also running out of plausible pretexts to annex neighboring territory. In their own ways, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea were special and unique cases where people did in fact welcome Russian military intervention.
In the first two, after a brutal civil war in the 1990s, accompanied by ethnic cleansing, the local populations were permanently alienated from the Georgian authorities. Russia was merely waiting for the pretext of conflict with Georgia to recognize their “independence” and pry them away from Georgian jurisdiction.
Similarly, in Crimea there was a majority Russian population disgruntled with being in Ukraine. Separatist sentiment has been strong there ever since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.