20 years under Putin: a timeline

What is Putin thinking? What will his next move be? What is his ultimate goal? These are just just a fraction of the questions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia that have been occupying the minds of the Western officials, pundits, journalists, and numerous Russia observers. A new book titled Putin’s Master Plan provides a possible range of answers and policy recommendations on how to tackle the resurgent Russia. IMR contributing author Nathan Andrews discusses the book, noting, however, that the authors do not provide a holistic view of the issue, as their vision mainly reflects the approach typical of some factions inside the U.S. political system.


Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu shake hands ahead of a meeting with Russian military officials to discuss a development strategy for the country's Armed Forces. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS.


“We will say what others are silent about. The world is tired of one country thinking of itself as exceptional.” With this statement in late 2014, Dimitry Kiselyov, head of Russia’s prime TV channel Rossiya Segodnya and one of the Kremlin’s most enthusiastic ideologues, unwittingly initiated a new era of international politics. The post-Maidan world has presented growing challenges to the international community, to American hegemony, and to European solidarity. Co-authored by political strategists and Democratic campaign consultants Douglas E. Schoen and Evan Roth Smith, Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence attempts to draw attention to the role of Vladimir Putin in upsetting the global order, and boldly sets out some of his key ambitions: to destroy Europe, divide NATO, and restore Russian power and global influence. 

In quite daunting terms the book begins with the claim that the West faces a fundamental crisis.  That governments and peoples alike have become comfortable and complacent with fundamental Western values such as liberty, democracy, and the rule of law—values which have more or less prevailed without a serious threat since the end of the Soviet Union.  

The European Union faces a series of complex internal problems, the rise of anti-establishment sentiment amidst crises in the Eurozone, and growing public discontent across the continent. In light of this, many key NATO members barely meet their required defense budget of 2 percent of GDP. The list includes France and Germany, Europe’s largest economies, which, alarmingly, are actively cutting defense spending below the two-percent mark. Meanwhile, U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump has brought the question of future relations with Russia into the heart of the U.S. presidential election, speaking of distancing America from NATO, and has even shown a soft side for Putin, praising his authoritarian strongman rule. On this basis, Putin’s Master Plan claims that:

Putin’s meddling in Western Europe poses a threat to the future of the Western alliance—and with it, the future of Western civilization.

The book is a tour of Russian misbehavior over the last decade; it seeks to contextualize everything from Russian-sponsored insurgency in eastern Ukraine to its support of right-wing parties in Europe, and pro-Russian politicians in the Baltic states. These actions all point to one thing in particular: destabilization. Putin is openly challenging the Western status quo, forging controversial alliances with Iran and Syria, while simultaneously attempting to bypass dependence on European energy markets by building pipelines across central Asia with the help of Beijing. 

A central theme of the book is the “weaponization” of energy. The book claims that Europe is “addicted” to Russian energy, with countries such as Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania receiving up to 100% of their gas consumption from Russian markets, most of which travels through Ukraine.  Schoen and Smith view this dependency as a security threat, citing the famous instance of Gazprom cutting off supplies to Ukraine in 2006 over a payment dispute, thus highlighting Russia’s ability to effectively starve its neighbors at a moment’s notice.

Substituting Russian oil and gas suppliers with American and indigenous European sources is the only way out of this vicious cycle of dependence and corruption.

The authors believe that Europe lacks the political will to compromise its environmental policies for the sake of security. Europe’s reluctance to engage in fracking leaves many indigenous reserves untapped, which increases the already heavy reliance on Russian exports. The book advocates a rethinking of this policy that would allow Europe to become more energy self-sufficient. Moreover, Putin’s Master Plan goes one step further, outlining the need for an increased American presence in the Arctic, so as to lay claim to billions of dollars of reserves which Russia is already working towards securing. 

“Hybrid warfare” is a term often used in Putin’s Master Plan to describe the Kremlin’s aggressive activity in its immediate sphere of influence. This modern brand of warfare combines propaganda, cyber-attacks, and misinformation to disrupt the information space, causing confusion among security officials and delaying strategic responses. Putin has repeatedly adopted this technique to great success, most significantly of late with his “little green men,” the term given to Russian special forces who infiltrated Crimea during its annexation under the guise of “local defense forces.” The nature of this type of warfare allows official “facts” to be established long after the purported actions have taken place, an effective tactic in controlling the subsequent political narrative. 

Political fragmentation in Europe is a symptom of lost mutual interests between itself an America, as well as estrangement from the values that “once bound America so closely to Europe.”

Numerous instances of recent cyber-attacks have highlighted the inability of Western security services to prevent and counter this new, much more subtle and civilian era of warfare. Russia has effectively adopted “cyberwar” as a part of its “conventional offensive warfare measures,” as was demonstrated during the annexation of Crimea, when hundreds of minor cyber-attacks were launched upon European institutions. Additionally, a number of high-profile attacks have been conducted on State Department and Pentagon targets, including leaks of President Obama’s emails. An appropriate response to such attacks is currently being debated among policymakers, but one thing is clear: in the information war, Russia is one step ahead. 

The book ends its exposé of Putin’s master plan by proposing a number of policies that America and its allies should adopt in response to a growing Russian threat. These policies represent the prevailing view inside the U.S. Democratic Party that insists on a renewed American presence in international affairs and, in particular, a response to Russian aggression abroad.

The authors advocate increased material support for the Ukrainian army in fighting the Russian-backed insurgency in the Donbas region, as well as creating favorable conditions for Ukraine to join NATO and become an EU member state—a decision in which “Moscow does not get a say.”

As regards NATO and America’s relationship with Europe, Schoen and Smith advocate nothing short of full-scale rearmament. 

Instead of proposing unilateral nuclear drawdowns, our priority should be developing the next generation of nuclear warheads and missiles and keeping our arsenal a step ahead of Russian missile defense and detection capabilities.

Schoen and Smith accuse the EU and NATO of “spinelessness” in failing to break their addiction to Russian energy supplies, and liken their reluctance to confront the Russian threat as reminiscent of the “darkest days of appeasement.” They rightly claim that Europe is wealthy because it has taken an active role in world affairs, and to abdicate from the role of global powerhouse would be to cede power and influence to countries like Russia, which are “less timid or lethargic in their global role.”

As to what constitutes legitimate Russian interests, Schoen and Smith’s work does not say. In the book Putin and Russia effectively become a single entity, a force that has trampled on the decency of Western values and therefore deserves to be punished. This lack of insight leaves little room for a peaceful compromise between the West and Russia as countries along its border seek further alignment with Western political and military institutions. 

This brings us back to the question of values. The book finishes on a more sentimental note, observing that political fragmentation in Europe is a symptom of lost mutual interests between itself an America, as well as estrangement from the values that “once bound America so closely to Europe.” 

At the heart of this clash of values lies a conflict of interests. Although expansion of the transatlantic alliance may indeed be antagonistic to Russia, NATO should not be viewed as an “American sphere of influence,” rather a set of “like-minded countries agreeing to provide mutual security.” Putin’s Master Plan has as its central theme the values that brought America and Europe together after the Second World War, and in an increasingly bipolar world, both have an interest in defending them.