For decades scholars have been deliberating over what the world would look like if an authoritarian state usurped Western democracy.
Staunch critics of the West describe democracy as hypocritical, bureaucratic and laden with corruption. While some of those criticisms are valid, the alternative is simply beyond comprehension for your average 21st century citizen.
For Vladimir Putin, it is his primary goal to have these opinions spread like wildfire.
Following the bloodiest century in human history, the Russian war machine has soldiered on to re-emerge as one of the most dangerous players in 21st century geopolitics.
But, as Ivana Stradner of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies asserts, Russia is much more than just a “mafia-run country with nuclear weapons”.
Putin has cultivated influence everywhere around the globe as part of his plan to discredit the West and legitimise his takeover of Ukraine. Carefully placing his pawns to encircle smaller nations, Russia’s commander in chief has done everything in his power to turn the hearts and minds of potential allies.
It is an immutable fact that a large part of Russia’s national identity is in military success. The nation still spends millions annually to celebrate the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad almost 80 years ago.
But in the 21st century, with no barbarians at the gate, Putin has flexed his military outwards in fear of an unfulfilled legacy. In the later stages of his life, he knows that expanding the Russian empire is what he needs to do to secure a favour, at least in the eyes of Russia’s extreme right.
Putin’s undeniable influence
While the bombs continue to drop in Ukraine, a much bigger disinformation war is being waged every second of the day.
A big part of Putin’s master plan involves the whittling away of the legitimacy of NATO. The potential for Ukraine to join the alliance has been a major issue for Russia, given its strategic location directly south of Moscow.
But it’s its also a matter of principle for staunch Russian nationalists, who baulk at the idea of former Soviet territory being presided over by Western enemies.
Pro-Russia separatists residing in Ukraine have stood firm on their nation’s independence from NATO and are willing to side with Putin, which generated a maelstrom of internal tension even before the tanks began rolling in back in February 2022.
Even before that fateful day, information campaigns were being run to legitimise the toppling of Kyiv. Stradner believes the claim that the US was producing bioweapons in Ukraine was one of the most effective campaigns to persuade the Russian public.
“The message was is that they will attack Russia. Even one day before the invasion, the Russian minister of defence was talking about bioweapons. They also deliberately claimed the US was producing monkeypox in Ukrainian labs,” Stradner said in an interview with news.com.au.
“There was also a claim from the minister of defence that the Covid-19 swab tests were used to extract DNA from and create a virus that would only affect Russians.
“Russia is peddling this information throughout Eastern Europe and Africa and it has huge repercussions, because if you repeat the lie so many times, it becomes ‘truth’.”
But it’s not just Ukraine that is subject to the crippling might of the Russian information machine.
Smaller Balkan states have also been pressured into believing Russia is on their side via complex information campaigns to vilify NATO.
“Putin wants nothing more than to show these countries that NATO is nothing but a paper tiger,” Stradner said.
Putin has used conflicts between non-NATO countries to his advantage, particularly the recent flashpoint between Kosovo-Serbia in May, where Serbian far-right groups attacked 30 NATO peacekeepers.
“What did NATO do? They issued a statement saying ‘this is unacceptable’. That is exactly what Putin wants, to show that NATO will not do anything,” she continued.
Stradner asserts that Russia is also “fuelling tensions” in these regions via “far right proxies” to distract the West from the conflict in Ukraine.
One example can be seen in the recent military coup in Niger, where protesters proudly paraded Russian flags as a clear message against Western influence. Analysts fear it is just another example of how effective Russia’s rhetoric can be even in far-flung regions.
Putin’s biggest fear is a legacy of failure
As someone originally from Eastern Europe, Stradner stressed that the West has a fundamentally different value system, especially when it comes to war.
“The first question I’m asked is ‘Why would Putin invade, it will just hurt his economy?’ It’s not about that. It’s about Russian greatness, Russian pride and Russian dignity. That’s what he cares about. To leave a legacy as there was a Stalin, as there was a Lenin,” she said.
“He wants to leave a mark on history, as someone who was finally able to restore Russian greatness. He has prepared for this for a very long time, destroying the liberal opposition in the first 20 years of his career. He understood how he needed to manipulate the West by encouraging them to ‘co-operate with Russia’.
“But many people in the West believe Russia is not a serious threat, that they’re just a mafia-run state with nukes. People need to understand other people around the world do not think like them. For Russia, all Putin had to do was destroy the unity within the West.”
While the concept of widespread Russian disinformation is nothing new, Stradner warns the West has fallen behind as authoritarian regimes make a push for a new 21st century superpower.
Whether it is China or Russia, the end goal is the same, and it involves a complete collapse of global order and trust in the US to be the planet’s fixer.
Stradner is adamant that if the West is to stamp out this rhetoric, it must enter Russia’s information war to campaign for the removal of authoritarian regimes.
Criticism over funding Ukraine
Criticism over the West funding Ukraine to the tune of billions of dollars has been a sticking point throughout the war, which has now raged for 18 months. But Stradner believes the alternative — sitting idly by as an open enemy of democracy usurps sovereign land — is untenable.
“There are a lot of things happening away from the battlefield. Anything you touch right now in regards to international relations, it seems to come back to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” she said.
Analysts are now also cautious that China, which has entered the BRICS partnership with Russia, may follow Putin’s lead and usurp territory in Taiwan.
“One thing I can say with full guarantee is that if China invades Taiwan, it will have huge repercussions,” Stradner said, asserting that “Russia is targeting the whole global ecosystem”.
Moscow’s plan is to now draw out the war and exhaust Ukraine’s allies.
“Putin understands he cannot win this war on the battlefield. The only way he can win is by making it a protracted war, a long war,” Stradner says.
“The only way he can do that is exhaust and polarise the West, to make sure we will not support Ukraine. Some conservatives in the US are already alleging we are sending blank cheques, which is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
“The only way we can finish this war is send Ukraine what it needs to defend itself. The US is spending 3 per cent of its entire defence budget to obliterate the Russian military. To me that sounds like a bargain.”
Originally published as Vladimir Putin’s master plan is being exposed, and it poses a threat to his legacy