The Kremlin’s Pressure-Point Strategy to Undermine the West
From the outset of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vast ambitions for the war were obvious. He intended to topple the government in Kyiv and either partition or take control of Ukraine. But Putin’s aspirations extended beyond carving a sphere of influence in central and eastern Europe. By subjugating the Ukrainian polity, Putin hoped to initiate a new era of global politics, one detached from American leadership. He promised an international system that would be genuinely postcolonial, solicitous of conservative values, and robustly multipolar, with Russia serving as one of its central arbiters.
Even after setback after setback on the battlefield in Ukraine, Putin remains committed to a brutal, immiserating war effort. He will do what he can to isolate and impoverish Ukraine in pursuit of an international order that sidelines the West and restores Russia’s proper place in the world, as he construes it. Announced by Putin at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Moscow’s turn from the West accelerated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, reaching a breaking point with the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The longer the war lasts, the more Putin will look for opportunities to undermine and supplant the West.
Russia’s strategy to globalize the war has multiple dimensions. In its economic relations, Moscow has capitalized on the opportunism of countries indifferent to the conflict: the Kremlin aims to integrate Russia into non-Western networks of trade, defense, and commerce. Ideologically, Russia blames the war on Western deceit and Ukrainian betrayal, leveling accusations of hypocrisy against the United States and its allies. Diplomatically, Russia and the West are carrying the conflict into international institutions. Whether in the UN Security Council or at the International Atomic Energy Agency, whatever modus vivendi there had once been between Russia and the West has come apart. By nurturing apathy and frustration with the war in non-Western capitals, Moscow hopes that other countries will join its ranks or at the very least distance themselves from the West.
Central to Russia’s global strategy are force and fear. Consciously stoking anxiety about nuclear catastrophe, the Kremlin seeks control over global pressure points. Its bid to strong-arm Europe through gas and energy exports may have failed, but the Kremlin has other tools at its disposal, one of which concerns the global supply of food. By pulling out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2023, after threatening to do so for months, Russia has upped the ante. Brokered by Turkey and the UN, this agreement ensured the wartime export of Ukrainian grain. Since leaving the deal, Russia has tried to impose a de facto blockade on civilian shipping to and from all Ukrainian-held Black Sea ports. To hinder Ukrainian shipments, it has attacked ports, grain storage facilities, and other sites along the Danube River. In so doing, Russia hopes to gain long-term coercive leverage over Ukraine, while waging a prolonged military struggle to subdue the country.
The United States, along with other countries supporting Ukraine, must avoid wishful thinking about Russia’s chronic decline. They should not underestimate the scale of Moscow’s ambitions. Neither a great power nor a regional power in the classic sense, Russia exists in a confusing category of its own: it is a regional power with considerable global reach. To fend off Putin, the United States and its partners should think of the war in similarly global terms. This involves recognizing the limits of sanctions, preemptively identifying Russia’s next pressure points, emphasizing the importance of food security, and developing a diplomatic stance that is less narrowly transatlantic and more broadly appealing to non-Western countries. Russia will use its global assets and instruments to prolong the war. The United States must harness its global influence to shorten the war, maximize support for Ukraine, and contain Russia.
Putin’s Russia inherited the dual legacies of imperial Russian foreign policy and Soviet great-power status. Russia had been a part of the European state system since the seventeenth century, extending far west in the decades before World War I and making its presence felt throughout Asia and the Middle East. The Soviet Union embraced Russia’s imperial past and was extremely active in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, especially when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the mid-1950s and devoted himself to new varieties of Soviet internationalism. Yevgeny Primakov, the foreign minister under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, contended in the late 1990s that the world was “multipolar” and that Russia was too large, consequential, and proud to be impeded by Washington’s hegemonic pretensions.
Once a political rival to Primakov, Putin soon became a disciple of the former foreign minister and prime minister. Money poured into Russia after 2000, allowing Putin to modernize the Russian military and revive the Soviet Union’s soft power. By 2015, Moscow’s military modernization had enabled power projection in the Middle East, and Russia intervened in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Kremlin’s soft power might have appeared negligible to the casual observer; Russia lacked the economic might of China, the lifestyle appeal of Europe, and the military power of the United States. Yet Putin’s Russia avidly fostered ties with non-Western countries, often by invoking historical grievances about the West. Putin has consistently presented Russia as an autonomous global actor and an antidote to a reckless, revisionist United States. In this guise, he seeks to appear as a role model for other leaders dissatisfied with the international status quo.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has tarnished Russia’s reputation in Europe and the United States, raising doubts about his regime’s competence. But the war has not isolated Russia from the world. Instead, the war has signaled a new chapter in Russia’s global orientation. Styling itself as a David to the Western Goliath, Russia has cultivated a wartime soft power that resonates. Many countries perceive the West as focused on the Ukraine war to the exclusion of other urgent challenges. They contend that the United States, having fought wars of aggression in Vietnam and Iraq, falls short of its purported standards and principles. Some governments, including those of Brazil, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, parrot the Kremlin’s line about the West’s aggressive and arrogant policies toward Russia, blaming the war on the West. Moscow invokes these sentiments in the UN Security Council, at the diplomatic gatherings it convenes (such as the Russia-Africa Summit held in St. Petersburg this past July), and at the summits of the BRICS grouping, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and will soon be expanded to include six other nations. Time and again, Russia argues that Ukraine and the West—not Russia—are out of sync with the global majority.
The durability of Russia’s economy illuminates the war’s global context. The West has not knocked Russia’s economy substantially off balance, and many major economies ranging from India’s to South Africa’s are either continuing or expanding their commercial ties with Russia. The war has shifted Russia’s trade and technology transfers, whether it be drones supplied by Iran, microchips smuggled through the “roundabout trade,” or emerging energy markets in Asia. Although the West initially assumed that the threat of sanctions would deter Russia from invading or that sanctions themselves would prevent Russia from waging a long war, the conflict has thus far shown otherwise.
Trapped in a forever war of its own making, Russia is increasing global pressure in critical areas. Russian foreign policy experts and media propagandists alike have insinuated that a nuclear conflagration could occur unless the West backs down over Ukraine. These veiled nuclear threats have been heard in the West and globally, bolstering the belief (held by some) that Russia should not be pushed too far and that its demands should not be dismissed. Russia has greatly curtailed collaboration with the West on pressing global challenges such as nuclear arms control and nonproliferation while also becoming more and more obstructionist at the UN, where cooperation was unexpectedly robust in the months following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Russia has recently undermined multilateral arrangements it once tolerated, such as a mechanism facilitating cross-border aid into Syria. Russia’s appetite for tackling global problems jointly with the West is gone. Putin blithely attributes this decline of multilateralism to the West.
When yesterday’s pressure points do not deliver, Russia moves on to other ones. The Kremlin’s most recent preoccupation is the global food supply. Putin’s abandonment of the Black Sea Grain Initiative was a cruel, calculated action in line with Russia’s broader strategy: blocking Ukraine’s access to international markets and gaining control over a major global chokepoint. Beyond the Black Sea, Russia has attacked Ukrainian grain terminals near Romania. This follows the Kremlin’s futile attempts to degrade Ukraine’s economic wherewithal through strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure last winter. Russia’s attacks against Ukraine’s grain supply are affecting global foodstuff prices, with Russia standing to profit as one of the major global alternatives.
In withdrawing from the grain deal, Russia is pursuing aims beyond mere profit. With the twinned goals of gaining advantage in Ukraine and pushing back against Western influence, Moscow is asserting itself as a pivotal global actor in the supply of foodstuffs. Having imposed immense suffering on the people of Ukraine, Russia’s attacks on grain supply are expanding the perimeter of this suffering to people all over the world, and in this suffering resides real geopolitical leverage. Such behavior is yet another reason for the United States and other countries—states that are food producers or have viable alternatives to Russian grain—to counter Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.
But the situation is different for countries dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain or for those vulnerable to rising food prices. Countries struggling to feed their populations—the most fundamental obligation of any society—may be compelled to work with Russia to ensure a steady supply of grain at acceptable prices. To achieve their food goals, these countries may need to flatter Russia or reconsider votes in international institutions on issues critical to Russia. At the Russia-Africa Summit, Putin melodramatically offered free grain to six African countries—an act of empty showmanship. The Kremlin may provide grain at high cost, low cost, or no cost at all, but it will always press for something in return.
In November 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his leverage with the Kremlin, after it had reneged on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, to get it back to the deal; that deal required periodic renewal. At the urging of Erdogan, who is scheduled to visit Russia soon to discuss the grain deal, among other topics, Putin may eventually agree to a revised deal. Even if he does, he retains a source of leverage he can dial up or down at will.
Russia’s control of food supplies has dramatic implications. Scarcity is driving up the price of grain and other foodstuffs, generating inflation in global markets. Rising inflation is eroding support for incumbent governments while bolstering the popularity of opposition parties and movements. Despite subsiding inflation in the United States, Europe is still grappling with this challenge, coinciding with the rise of far-right parties throughout the continent. By releasing or continuing to withhold grain through a temporary deal, Russia can try to shape global economic conditions in accordance with its foreign policy agendas.
Food scarcity begets hunger, behind which looms instability. When coupled with global warming, which increases competition for agricultural resources such as water and arable land, hunger can generate political upheaval. It was a source of revolutionary anger in eighteenth-century France and in twenty-first-century Syria, where civil war was preceded by drought. Migrant flows, such as those that Europe experienced in 2015, can quickly export instability from one part of the world to another—Russia and Belarus have long exploited migration in pursuit of geopolitical objectives. Russia’s manipulation of global grain supplies is surely targeted at Europe and the United States, where a clear concordance exists between political actors opposed to migration and those reluctant to back Ukraine.
Putin’s goal is not to create vulnerability in a specific area. Rather, he aims to foster global dependence on Russia’s policy decisions. These elements of global influence matter more to Putin than his good reputation in Africa or the Middle East, where Moscow’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative dismayed many countries.
A LONG WAR
Effective support for Ukraine demands a policymaking imagination that extends beyond Europe. Ukraine’s well-being runs through global networks, which Russia—confronted with constraints on the battlefield—seeks to disrupt and damage. The Kremlin’s ultimate goal is clear: strangling the Ukrainian economy, society, and state by whatever means necessary. Moral scruples, appeals, and accusations will not deter Putin. Instead, it is essential to preserve Ukraine’s integration into the global economy, which Russia is deliberately attempting to degrade.
The United States’ most immediate challenge is food security. While energy’s geopolitical significance has long been recognized, with the U.S. government calibrated to handle energy contingencies, it is important to invest in similar interagency mechanisms for food security. These efforts—helping countries such as Ukraine protect their commercial grain industry, supplying food where it is urgently needed, and increasing the grain available to global markets—could rally global support behind Ukraine more effectively than abstract arguments about international order or the merits of the UN Charter.
Over the past two decades, Moscow’s foreign policy decisions have often caught U.S. policymakers off-guard, whether it was the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, or meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Yet the U.S. government correctly anticipated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late 2021, acting decisively to complicate the Kremlin’s plans. Washington should now understand that Moscow is geared up for a long war over the future of both Ukraine and the international order and that it will use global levers of power and influence to hurt Ukraine and the West. The effects of Russia’s actions will not be trivial. Nor will the Kremlin’s ruthlessness necessarily turn non-Western countries against Russia. The sooner U.S. policymakers appreciate the global dimensions of the war in Ukraine, the sooner they may be able to engineer the failure of Russia’s designs for Ukraine.