Putin came to power on the heels of the Kosovo war. Russia had insisted that the West not go to war with Serbia, what was left of the former Yugoslavia. Russia was ignored, and its lack of influence left President Boris Yeltsin humiliated. But it was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that convinced Putin that the United States intended to break Russia if someone like Yeltsin led it. Ukraine is economically and geographically essential to Russian national security, and Putin saw the attempt to create a pro-Western government that wanted to join NATO as Washington, using CIA-funded nongovernmental organizations pushing for regime change, attempted to permanently weaken Russia. Once the Orange Revolution succeeded, Putin moved to rectify the situation.
The first step was to make it clear that Russia had regained a substantial part of its power and was willing to use it. The second step was to demonstrate that American guarantees were worthless. The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 achieved both ends. The Russians had carried out an offensive operation and the Americans, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, could not respond. The lesson was not only for Georgia (which, similar to Ukraine, had also sought NATO membership). It was for also Ukraine and all other countries in the former Soviet Union, demonstrating that Russia was again going to be the heart of Eurasia. Indeed, one of Putin's latest projects is the Eurasian Union, tying together Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, a large economic and military part of the former Soviet Union. Add to this Ukraine and the former Soviet Union emerges even more.
Remaking the Union
For Russia, the recreation of a union is a strategic necessity. As Putin put it, the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe. Russia needs the economic integration, particularly given the new economic strategy of post-Soviet Russia, which is the export of raw materials, particularly energy. Aligning with states such as Kazakhstan in energy and Ukraine in grain provides Moscow with leverage in the rest of the world, particularly in Europe. As important, it provides strategic depth. The rest of the world knows that an invasion of Russia is inconceivable. The Russians can conceive of it. They remember that Germany in 1932 was crippled. By 1938 it was overwhelmingly powerful. Six years is not very long, and while such an evolution is unlikely now, from the Russian point of view, it must be taken seriously in the long run -- planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
Therefore, the heart of Russian strategy, after resurrecting state power in Russia, is to create a system of relationships within the former Soviet Union that will provide economic alignment and strategic depth but not give Russia an unsustainable obligation to underwrite the other nations' domestic policies. Unlike the Russian Empire or Soviet Union, Putin's strategy is to take advantage of relationships on a roughly mutual basis without undertaking responsibility for the other nations.