This week, Vladimir Putin was sworn in for a third term as Russian president, and France's presidential election continued the trend of losses for incumbent European governments when French President Nicolas Sarkozy lost to socialist challenger Francois Hollande. Putin's return to the presidency was not unexpected; he was never really unseated as Russia's leader even during Dmitri Medvedev's presidency. Nevertheless, the changes in Europe exemplified by the French presidential election will require Russia to change its tactics in Europe.
Putin's Plans for Russia and Beyond
Russia has been on the path to resurgence since Putin won the presidency in 1999. He inherited a broken, weak and chaotic Russia. As Stratfor has noted over the years, Putin did not seek to re-create the Soviet Union. He is a student of geopolitics, and he understands Russia's constraints and the overreaching that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin's mission was to return Russia to stability and security -- a massive undertaking for the leader of a country that not only is the world's largest but also is internally diverse and surrounded by potentially hostile powers.
During his first presidential term, Putin launched a comprehensive series of reforms that recentralized power over the Russian regions, cracked down on militancy in the Russian Caucasus, purged the oligarch class and centralized the economy and political system. Putin implemented an autocratic regime and used the military and Russia's security apparatus (including the Federal Security Service), following the example of previous leaders, from the czars to the Soviet rulers. Putin's maneuvers were the natural evolution of how a successful leader rules Russia.
With Russia strong and steady, Putin was able to focus on his country's near abroad. However, the countries surrounding Russia were hostile to the Kremlin's view, with NATO and the European Union pushing ever closer to Russia's borders and forming partnerships with numerous former Soviet states. The czars and Soviet rulers used two primary tactics to counter such a situation.
The first tactic was to mobilize Russia's military to push out foreign influence, whether directly (as Moscow has done with Georgia) or indirectly (by forging military alliances with former Soviet states such as Belarus and Kazakhstan). Although Putin's Russia could do this for one or two countries, it could not use this tactic everywhere in its periphery.