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STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. Vladimir Putin has put to rest any questions about whether his primary objective is to return Russia to the great power status it once enjoyed. Putin, who allegedly proclaimed that ‘the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,’ has moved to consolidate power in Russia’s near abroad and traditional sphere of influence. Through military campaigns in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014) and Ukraine (2014-present), Putin’s Russia has reasserted itself as regional hegemon throughout vast swaths of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the states that comprise the former Soviet Union (FSU). In countries like Hungary in Eastern Europe and and Serbia in the Balkans, Russia’s presence is felt through aggressive influence, often with the assistance of disinformation campaigns.
The Kremlin has also sought to increase Russia’s leverage in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Many have credited Russian military intervention as the lynchpin enabling the Assad regime’s consolidation of power in Syria, which has placed it on the verge of emerging victorious in the country’s brutal war. The Russian military has operated alongside both the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria. In Libya, Russia has forged a relationship with multiple armed factions in a quest to hedge their bets as Putin looks to extend his influence amidst growing instability in the oil-rich nation.
In Pakistan, Russia has curried favor with successive governments in Islamabad and is eager to find ways to cooperate with Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to mitigate the destabilizing effects of the conflict in Afghanistan.
More recently, Russia has expanded its reach to Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. In late March, approximately 100 Russian military personnel arrived in Venezuela to provide training and logistics assistance to the Maduro regime, and there are reports that private military contractors from Russia are already active on the ground. Russian mercenaries have also appeared throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, with contractors maintaining a presence in the Central African Republic and Sudan.
Moscow is leaving its imprimatur in Africa through arms sales and training agreements in a manner unseen since the height of the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviets competed for influence and sponsored proxy groups throughout the continent. Russia has even made significant forays into the Arctic, where a military base known as Severny Klever, or Northern Clover, houses missile launchers and air defense systems.
Putin is clearly emboldened by what he sees as an opening for Russia in the face of increasing U.S. retrenchment around the globe. As the United States draws down forces in the Middle East and Africa, the Kremlin has filled the power vacuum and remains intent on reestablishing military superiority and access to bases and resources that serve as force multipliers for Russian security policy. Relying on an array of conventional and unconventional methods, from the deployment of troops, trainers and advisers, to widespread disinformation campaign and cyber warfare, Russia has reinserted itself back into the conversation about great powers, even exploring areas of potential rapproachement between Moscow and Beijing, especially where converging interests also dovetail to thwart American interests (TSC).