The motive for Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine is unclear, but opacity is the point. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is meant to defy and confound international onlookers. Ordinary Russians have nothing to gain from the Kremlin’s sending tens of thousands of soldiers, plus tanks and artillery, to menace a neighbouring state, just as they saw no material benefit in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. On the contrary, they suffered from the ensuing international sanctions.
But Putin’s military adventures allow him to pose as a strongman who defies the west. Seizing territory that was once in the Soviet Union was central to the campaign to restore national pride after the loss of superpower status. That agenda is vital to a president who has little else to offer his people. Endemic corruption and bullying authoritarianism have produced economic stagnation. For want of a plan to make Russia competitive in civil spheres, the Kremlin relies on military posturing, cyber-espionage and geopolitical mischief to prove that it cannot be ignored.