Mikhail Metzel / AP
When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he immediately called in the Russian military.
“It was really her first act, launching the war in Chechnya,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and who met Putin at a conference. annual throughout his presidency.
Russian troops eventually overpowered rebel fighters in Chechnya, a region in southern Russia. Over the years, Putin has sent Russian forces on several overseas combat missions, including the former Soviet republics of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as Syria in 2015.
Putin’s military measures have resulted in sanctions and ostracization from the West. The Russian economy is weak, and Russia is often described as a “declining power”.
But Putin, who has now been president or prime minister for 22 years, strongly disagrees. The Russian military remains a powerful force, and Putin has repeatedly used it – or threatened to use it – to demonstrate that Russia is still a country to be reckoned with.
Russia has now massed some 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, although it is not clear whether Putin is considering another invasion of Ukraine or if he is simply bluffing for political concessions.
Given his track record, however, Putin is taken seriously.
“The Kremlin will not stop until it is stopped,” said Ben Hodges, who was the commander of the US military in Europe when he retired in 2017 as lieutenant general.
Hodges, who currently lives in Germany, has been observing the Soviet and Russian servicemen since he was sent to Europe as a young army officer in the 1980s.
“They haven’t given in an inch,” he said of Russia’s military actions in recent years. “They just kept developing. Sometimes they use real force. Sometimes they use the threat of force. It seems like we’re always on the back foot, that they still have the influence. We always answer them. “
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union, an event Putin described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
Stent says this pushes Putin to pursue two clear goals: first, his insistence that Russia be treated as a great world power and, second, his opposition to Western influence, including NATO expansion, in what he considers his neighborhood.
“Putin has been determined, since taking office, not necessarily to restore the Soviet Union, but to make the West understand and accept that this is a Russian sphere of influence “Stent said.
Andriy Dubchak / AP
Putin likes to guess his opponents. Last April, Russia massed troops on its border with Ukraine. Putin did not invade, but the episode led to a summit between Putin and President Biden in Geneva in June.
Now, Biden is warning of tough financial penalties if Russia invades. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says his country’s military is much more powerful than it was during the invasion of Russia in 2014, in part due to increased Western military assistance .
So what’s the likely outcome this time around?
Russian leaders say their country has no intention of invading and is free to place its troops anywhere on Russian soil. But the rhetoric is hot and the tense conditions increase the risk of miscalculation.
“This may all be swagger from Moscow, Washington and Kiev, but all sides seem to have really hesitated,” said Tim Frye, a Columbia University professor and author of the book. The strong weak man: the limits of power in Putin’s Russia.
AP via Maxar Technologies
Frye distinguishes between what were two separate Russian military operations in Ukraine in 2014.
In the first, Russia captured the Crimean Peninsula quickly and without serious combat. Russia retains full control, although its annexation of Crimea has not been internationally recognized.
“Certainly one of the reasons the annexation of Crimea was so popular [in Russia] is that he was largely bloodless. It was a low risk, high reward surgery, ”Frye said.
In the second, which occurred a few weeks later in 2014, Russia backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. This conflict has turned into a stalemate, although sporadic skirmishes still erupt, and some 14,000 people have been killed.
“The fighting in eastern Ukraine is much more costly for the Kremlin. There is much less domestic support for this kind of fighting,” Frye said.
He thinks Putin would likely settle for a negotiated deal that gives him strong political clout in Ukraine – and doesn’t involve an invasion.
Negotiations between the United States, Russia and others are expected in the coming days. But there is no guarantee that Putin will get any concessions, and his aggressive actions have turned most Ukrainians against Russia.
“If he doesn’t realize that he’s really alienated the Ukrainian people by doing all of this, then he’s really not getting very good feedback,” Stent said.
Hodges says that while the Soviet Union may be long gone, many Russians still share Putin’s belief that they should have a strong influence in the former Soviet states.
“If President Putin fell from his horse tomorrow, we would still be facing this for years to come,” Hodges said. “So it’s not just about him.”
But for now, everyone is watching Putin to see what he will do next.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Russia from 1996 to 1999. Follow him on Twitter: @ gregmyre1.