Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations
Vladimir Putin addresses the seventieth session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 28th, 2015. (Photo: United Nations)

On Christ­mas Eve in 1979, the Sovi­et mil­i­tary launched an inva­sion of Afghanistan to extend its sphere of influ­ence and con­trol along the USSR’s south­ern bor­ders (which are now the nation states of Uzbek­istan and Kazakhstan).

On Christ­mas Eve in 1991, my hus­band and I sat with my Mom in our child­hood home in Man­ches­ter-by-the-Sea and watched the Russ­ian ham­mer and sick­le flag low­ered and the Russ­ian tri-col­or raised over the Russ­ian Parliament.

This sym­bol­ic event marked the end of sev­en­ty-four years of com­mu­nist rule over the Sovi­et empire and the begin­ning of some­thing new for the Russ­ian Fed­er­a­tion and the Russ­ian people.

Here we are, Christ­mas present, thir­ty years lat­er. Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has been exe­cut­ing a grad­ual mil­i­tary force build-up on Russia’s bor­der with Ukraine. Unit­ed States intel­li­gence offi­cials start­ed track­ing Russ­ian mil­i­tary deploy­ments toward the bor­der last February-March.

Will he or won’t he order anoth­er inva­sion of Ukraine?

Spheres of influence, spheres of control

Defin­ing spheres of influ­ence and estab­lish­ing spheres of con­trol are at the core of Russ­ian nation­al secu­ri­ty pol­i­cy and mil­i­tary strategy.

What­ev­er hap­pens between Rus­sia and Ukraine in the com­ing days, weeks or months, it’s going to come down to this: Putin’s cal­cu­la­tion of the exis­ten­tial threats to his own pow­er and Russia’s influ­ence on the world stage.

Through all his­tor­i­cal peri­ods and under all polit­i­cal lead­ers – from the tsars and tsari­nas to Lenin to Stal­in, Krushchev to Andropov, Yeltsin to Putin – Rus­sia has sought to secure itself against invasions.

That’s been true ever since the Vikings estab­lished the Rus Land in mod­ern-day Kyiv (Ukraine) in 800 A.D. It was true four hun­dred years lat­er, when the Mon­gol Hordes swept from the Far East­ern steppes across Siberia into the Rus region, destroy­ing and occu­py­ing cities in Rus­sia and Ukraine.

It was true in the 1800s, when Napoleon was Emper­or of France, and before World War II, when Hitler’s Reich signed a nonag­gres­sion pact with the USSR, and dur­ing the Cold War that fol­lowed the Allied victory.

And it’s true now.

Putin has spent his life fight­ing per­ceived and actu­al threats to his nation:

  • Groomed as a Sovi­et for­eign intel­li­gence oper­a­tive in the Sovi­et KGB (Com­mit­tee for State Secu­ri­ty), now known as the Russ­ian FSB (Fed­er­al Secu­ri­ty Service)
  • Sta­tioned in the KGB offices in East Ger­many when for­mer Sovi­et Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev end­ed the Sovi­et Union’s alliance with the War­saw Pact and with­drew Sovi­et forces out of the East Euro­pean countries
  • Wit­ness to the wave of protests lead­ing to the col­lapse of East Euro­pean com­mu­nist regimes across East­ern Europe and the Novem­ber 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the final phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­er pro­tect­ing the Sovi­et Union’s west­ern bor­ders from a U.S.-NATO attack
  • Still sta­tioned in East­ern Europe on Christ­mas Eve, 1989, when the bru­tal Roman­ian dic­ta­tor Nico­lae Ceaus­es­cu and his wife were exe­cut­ed by fir­ing squad in Bucharest

The col­lapse of the Sovi­et empire and the loss of bor­der pro­tec­tions on its west­ern flanks infu­ri­at­ed Putin.

Ever since assum­ing the reins of pow­er from Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin on Decem­ber 31st, 1999, Putin has held one goal: restore Rus­sia as a great pow­er, one to be feared and respect­ed on the world stage.

Putin on edge

Decem­ber days in Rus­sia are cold, dark, short, and snowy.

Putin enters 2022 still in pow­er after twen­ty-two years, still wag­ing wars against his ene­mies, both for­eign and domestic.

Poi­son­ing adver­saries, mar­shal­ing troops, orches­trat­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and autho­riz­ing cyber attacks: Putin wields pow­er through espi­onage, cyber attacks, and the threat and actu­al use of mil­i­tary force.

Mean­while, Russia’s pop­u­la­tion shrinks. The pan­dem­ic rages through­out the coun­try. Russia’s Arc­tic regions are melt­ing. Siber­ian forests are on fire.

Putin throws down the gaunt­let to warn against NATO expansion.

He poi­sons and jails domes­tic critics.

He declares – as if say­ing it makes it true – that Ukraine and the oth­er for­mer Sovi­et Republics are in Russia’s sphere of influ­ence in perpetuity.

But regard­less of which coun­tries are mem­bers of NATO, there are no defens­es or bor­der pro­tec­tions against the rav­ages of glob­al pan­demics, cli­mate dis­as­ters, and waves of human refugees flee­ing civ­il wars and per­se­cu­tions by bru­tal dictators.

If Putin invades Ukraine again, an inva­sion will not reverse these forces of dis­rup­tion and desta­bi­liza­tion at work inside Russia’s own borders.

Thirty years from now

Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations
Vladimir Putin address­es the sev­en­ti­eth ses­sion of the Unit­ed Nations Gen­er­al Assem­bly on Sep­tem­ber 28th, 2015. (Pho­to: Unit­ed Nations)

Pow­er pol­i­tics work dif­fer­ent­ly in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry than they did dur­ing the Cold War.

Lead­ers no longer con­trol the forces wreak­ing hav­oc inside nation­al borders.

Lead­ers no longer can use weapons of war to pro­tect their peo­ple against the kinds of inva­sions that are hap­pen­ing every sin­gle moment: dis­ease, cli­mat­ic destruc­tion, and eco­nom­ic hard­ship borne by those who have no power.

Putin is on the edge. His sphere of influ­ence is dimin­ish­ing. His sphere of con­trol is con­tract­ing. Will he lash out against Ukraine to teach the Unit­ed States and Euro­pean nations a les­son? Will he sim­ply sus­tain the threat of using mil­i­tary force, just as he’s been doing for most of 2021? Or will he con­clude that a frontal assault on Ukraine will back­fire on his own polit­i­cal future?

As Putin pon­ders his choic­es, Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans need to regroup and reflect. A reflex­ive and reac­tive resort to tit-for-tat mil­i­tary force may just esca­late the risks. The Cold War alliance mod­el is not working.

We need a new mod­el or mod­els to pro­tect region­al secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty from author­i­tar­i­an regimes like Putin’s.

Putin is on edge because his sphere of influ­ence and sphere of con­trol are over­whelmed by threats that know no borders.

The world is on edge because 7.9 bil­lion peo­ple have been under assault from a pan­dem­ic for two years and reel­ing from cli­mate dam­age for decades.

Nuclear weapons and threats of nuclear war hang over our col­lec­tive heads like a mon­ster from a post-nuclear holo­caust while peo­ple on every con­ti­nent are suf­fer­ing from oth­er kinds of holo­causts every day.

Putin per­ceives threats to his pow­er through the prism of a for­mer KGB operative.

What­ev­er his next move, the peo­ple who have pow­er and influ­ence in the Unit­ed States, Europe, Asia, the Mid­dle East, Africa, Latin Amer­i­ca, and South Amer­i­ca need to think three moves beyond Putin.

How we shape pol­i­cy to advance a more sta­ble, secure future for our peo­ple is on the line right now. It is the right time to re-eval­u­ate and evolve the secu­ri­ty struc­tures and rela­tion­ships designed dur­ing the Cold War.

Our spheres of con­trol are inher­ent­ly con­strained and unpredictable.

But our spheres of influ­ence are more agile and adapt­able to con­tend with diverse threats and pro­tect peo­ple regard­less of where they live.

If Putin is on the edge, then what’s our move?

Putin looks around and sees new lead­ers and polit­i­cal tur­moil in the Unit­ed States, Ger­many, and Japan, with British Prime Min­is­ter Boris Johnson’s gov­ern­ment seem­ing­ly on the ropes. Maybe Putin per­ceives an oppor­tu­ni­ty to exploit the dis­rup­tions asso­ci­at­ed with these lead­er­ship transitions.

Now is the time to show how demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ments expand our spheres of influ­ence. These are the deep, dark days of Decem­ber, but a new year with new promise is with­in reach. Can we give Putin a rea­son to step back from the edge?

About the author

Gael Tarleton is an NPI Advisory Councilmember and former Washington State Representative who led two Russian subsidiaries during the 1990s and lserved as a senior defense intelligence analyst on Soviet strategic nuclear programs at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency from 1981-1990. She served on NPI's board from its inception through 2021.

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