After Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 caught the United States off guard, Western observers have since struggled to understand Russian strategic decision-making. The apparent disconnect between Russia’s strategic gains and economic costs in theaters such as Ukraine and Syria leaves more questions than answers about “what Putin wants,” and how he perceives Russia’s interests. Alarmed by this uncertainty, a growing chorus of influential voices has warned that unless NATO shores up its land and maritime capabilities in Europe, it risks inadvertently inviting Russia to make a land-grab of NATO’s eastern territory. While NATO must prepare for such a scenario and reassure nervous eastern allies, Putin is probably not looking to rebuild Russia’s imperial frontiers or start a war with the United States, nor is he interested in or capable of reestablishing Russia as a global power like the Soviet Union was. Most analyses about “what Putin wants” miss the mark. Putin realizes that in an era when Russia’s internal challenges dramatically limit its ability to project power, Russia’s security depends not on rolling tanks across the borders of the NATO alliance, but instead on fracturing the West and paralyzing decision-making among Western leaders. Russia’s apparent success in exploiting these fissures within the Alliance is thus the greatest threat the United States and its NATO allies face from Moscow.
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