I think it was the late, great Rush Limbaugh who used to say that if you want to know what the left is up to, listen to what they are saying. I think we have enough evidence right now to say that aphorism applies to Vladimir Putin as well. Listening is only part of it, though. We must put aside our blinders and preconceived notions and pay attention to Putin's previous actions and place what he's saying in that context.
On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zajarova leveled a warning at Sweden and Finland.
Finland and Sweden should not base their security on damaging the security of other countries and their accession to NATO can have detrimental consequences and face some military and political consequences
My colleague Nickarama covered this broadcast in Russia Threatens Two More Countries With ‘Military and Political Consequences.
Some have critiqued this as Putin cracking up and made light of it. They shouldn't. This threat is very real.
To be a great man, you have to do great things.
My personal view is that Putin's actions are driven more by his sense of Russia's place in the world and by his legacy. If you think the goal is a reconstituted USSR, I believe you have it wrong. The goal is the Russia of Nicholas II. He's not interested in Potemkin Soviet Socialist Republics. He sees Ukraine and Belarus, and Moldova integral parts of Greater Russia. All the information we have about Putin is that his idol is Peter the Great. Putin is 69 years old and knows his time to create a lasting legacy is not long. So never underestimate what he might do and always expect him to do something that will emphasize the unique nature of Russia and restore Russia to its imperial glory.
The next move is inevitable.
If the Ukraine adventure goes badly, Putin will have to come up with something that looks like a win and do it fast. If he can spin the Ukraine invasion as a win, there will be pressure for an encore. Again, Putin is in the Third Act of his matinee. He has a limited amount of time to do what he thinks needs to be done, don't count on him wasting it.
Remember what Putin has done.
Putin's Russia has gone to war twice. The first time against Georgia and now against Ukraine. These two countries have some commonalities. They were part of the USSR, they developed close ties to the West, shared a border with Russia, and were candidates for NATO membership.
What characteristics do they share with Finland and Sweden? All share a border with Russia; Finland in the Arctic Circle and Sweden in their Baltic island of Gotland. Finland has the vulnerability of having been part of Romanov Russia, and, as Putin said, it was “granted” independence by Lenin. Both Sweden and Finland have open invitations to join NATO, and while they have not done so (Sweden is leaning that way, Finland is saying “we'll think about it”), they are building close military ties with NATO.
Russia considers the Arctic to be its territory.
I encourage you to read Russia's Coercive Diplomacy in the Arctic, published in July 2021 by the Arctic Institute. The author points out that Russia has spent billions developing military and civilian infrastructure in the Arctic, some of it assisted by Chinese development money.
While trying to limit the potential of a military conflict in the region and still hoping to cooperate with the United States for global and regional stability, Russia is bolstering its influence in the Arctic through coercive diplomacy, to show that the United States should not overlook or underestimate Russia's interests in the Arctic – part of Russia's desire to be recognized as a global power by the United States.
I think part of this is misguided. It is hard to think of anywhere in the world where US and Russian interests come into contact that you can find the Russians pushing for “global and regional stability.” Just the opposite. Russia thrives on conflict because Putin is convinced that conflict shakes up the status quo and Russia, under his leadership, will benefit from what comes out of the instability. A Russia interested in “stability” would not act as it has for the past decade or so.
Russia has now laid claim to 70% of the Arctic seabed. Note that it hasn't made new claims near US economic zone areas, but the new Russian claims butt up against those claims of Canada and Denmark (Greenland).
2/2: New bits add ca 705k SqKm to Russian seabed, bringing total to 2,103k SqKm. Comparisons: Canada: 1,178k SqKm; Denmark: 907 SqKm. Leaves < 14k SqKm beyond coastal state jurisdiction (using @ibrudurham model of potential US submission). Russian submission = 70% of CAO seabed. https://t.co/2ZSCrS0YRR— Phil Steinberg (@philbey2) April 3, 2021
Putin is likely to continue to do what he has found works.
In my view, Putin is highly unlikely to pick a fight directly with NATO. He will work to undermine NATO, though he's delusional if he thinks he can do a better job than Joe Biden. I doubt that he'll make a run directly at Eastern Poland even though it is very clear from Putin's speeches that he considers that area to be historically Russian because Poland's army could probably thrash the Russian army, and it would activate Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. I think Latvia and Estonia are especially vulnerable because they have a large number of ethnic Russians. Russia could do in the Baltic States what they've done in Moldova and Ukraine; they could create AstroTurf “separatist” groups to declare independence and invite Russia in to protect them. That would be dicey as both are NATO members, but something we should keep an eye on. The logical target for Putin's next adventure is a country where his intervention poses a direct challenge to the West but does not represent a direct challenge to NATO.
My guess would be Finland.
Northern Finland would be useful to Russia's Arctic expansion. Moscow can dig up plausible claims to Finnish territory going back to Tsarist times. As Putin has labeled Ukraine “neo-nazis,” I expect Finland's role as a Wehrmacht auxiliary force will be brought to the fore. Tearing a piece off of Finland would present the West with the same dilemma it faces in Ukraine. It would also make many NATO members on the line of contact with Russia start looking to Moscow to make a deal rather than risk being the proof-case of NATO being useless.
In short, Russia's threat against Finland and Sweden was not something out of left field. Both countries fit in the model that Putin has used in his military adventures. Attacking both countries supports Putin's personal goals and supports Russia's strategic goals in the Arctic. Attacking either would weaken NATO without the danger of creating a NATO military response. Plus, the warning issued to Sweden and Finland sounds very much like Putin's earlier warnings to Georgia and Ukraine. I think he's telling us what his next move is, and we're fools if we don't listen.