Russia is more and more willing to test the principled resolve and unity of Western democracies, as democratic values represent both an enemy and a threat to the Russian leadership. Russia itself tends to suffer from a deficit of these values – the rule of law, human rights, fair elections, free media. The fears of the Russian leadership are justified, as these principles can become contagious if left unchecked among the population. The reason is simple enough: unlike an actual virus, they tend to enhance citizens’ quality of life and dignity significantly and are therefore attractive to people. All authoritarian regimes are faced with this problem in one way or another and, time and time again, respond by stepping up repressive measures, the foreign policy equivalent of which is to constantly cultivate the image of an external enemy. At times, this can amount to a hysteria of war.
Russia sees itself as a global superpower but fears democratic countries on its borders.
Consequently, Russian leadership is relieved that the repressive measures taken over the past year have effectively neutralised the population of neighbouring Belarus and deprived it of its fundamental democratic rights. This allows Alyaksandr Lukashenka to focus on a hybrid attack against his EU neighbours while the Kremlin has his back. We will see continued hybrid attacks in 2022.
The situation is different in Ukraine. In 2021, articles essentially denying Ukraine’s right to sovereignty were published under the names of both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In 2021, Russia demonstrated that it considers military pressure on neighbouring countries a legitimate policy tool, as it has assembled a massive military force along the Ukrainian border. For Russia, a democratic Ukraine represents a strategic problem that it needs to address before it is too late.
Buffer zone against the West
Russia sees itself as a global superpower on an equal footing with the United States and China but fears democratic countries on its borders. Institutions in such countries are less vulnerable and more difficult to influence or control. One of the national security indicators used by Russia is the extent of institutional control over its neighbouring countries. For the neighbours, this inevitably implies relinquishing some of their sovereignty, especially in foreign and security policy.