Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put Moldova on high alert. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

With Russia’s forces attacking Ukraine by air and on land, Western attention is quickly turning to President Vladimir Putin’s longer-range goals.

Putin plans to push North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allied forces away from far eastern Europe and turn the military clock back to the 1990s, before NATO expanded into former Soviet Baltic republics and satellite countries. He also clearly wants to neutralize NATO members Poland, Romania and Bulgaria and end prospective NATO membership for Ukraine, Sweden and Finland.

With possible threats to its flanks looming, NATO moved to bolster its forces by moving thousands of US troops to the alliance’s eastern frontier, and made plans for a reposition of other forces to face potential danger along the frontiers of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia itself. “We are faced with a new normal in our security,” said NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.

The quickened planning comes as Russia wiped out any notion that conquest of Ukrainian territory would be limited. Russia’s troops invaded from the east, north and south and Russian jets and missiles bombed military installations and its navy cut off the country from the Black Sea. Ukraine’s elimination as an independent state is underway.

Russia has moved newly-arrived national guard units to the Ukraine frontier that can be employed to secure roads and conquered cities while combat troops mop up resistance elsewhere. “Russia does not believe Ukraine should exist,” said Scott Lucas, a professor of foreign policy at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

The United States and the European Union announced new economic sanctions on Russia’s economy, limits on Russian banks’ access to international finance, bans on exports of technology and freezes on property of Russian officials in Europe.

“Russia bears full responsibility as it tries to rewrite history. Russia has shut the door to a political solution,” Stoltenberg said. He added that NATO had activated plans to permit NATO ground commanders to shift troops and material where needed at will.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives a press conference during a NATO summit at the NATO headquarters in Brussels June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet / Pool

One important friend may be giving Putin confidence he can prevail—and survive Western punishments: China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying declined to describe Russia’s actions as an invasion. “China did not wish to see what happened in Ukraine today,” Hua said.

She took a swipe at Washington instead. “As for American hints that Russia had China backing it up, I’m sure Russia would be pleased to hear it,” Hua said. “We won’t be like America and provide Ukraine a large amount of military equipment. Russia as a powerful nation also does not need China or other countries to provide (aid).”

The ferocity of Russia’s assault matched Putin’s verbal blasts in recent days. Overnight, he warned in apocalyptic terms that foreign powers must not interfere with the invasion.

“Whoever tries to impede us, let alone create threats for our country and its people, must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to the consequences you have never seen in history,” Putin said, a statement some interpreted as a nuclear retaliation threat.

NATO officials and Western analysts pointed out that this crisis is the tip of the spear in Russia’s long-running campaign under Putin to restore the country’s place of anti-Western influence in the world. Several of the efforts have been long underway and are likely to continue.

In Europe, the effort includes appeals to Slavic brotherhood in Bosnia, where Putin supports Serbian citizens of Bosnia to secede and join next door Serbia, once the heart of Communist Yugoslavia. Serbia is not yet biting at supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine; it still harbors hope of someday joining the EU.

Belarus, already under Western sanctions for crackdowns on protestors and beholden to Russia for economic and political support, hosted part of Putin’s invasion force.

In the Middle East, Putin helped Syria harry Islamist rebels and as a reward the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has let Russia refurbish a major Mediterranean Sea naval base it used dating from the Cold War.

In Libya, Russian mercenaries operated by the nominally private Wagner Group are backing anti-government rebels based in eastern parts of the country.

The Wagner Group and other front organizations for Russian interventions take part in counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations on behalf of several governments. These are “unconstrained by human rights responsibilities, unlike the United States, allowing African governments to be as brutish in their military efforts as they like,” said a report from the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Russian-backed mercenaries affiliated with the Wagner Group rejoice in Libya. Image: AFP

Russia is paid for the services with contracts for natural resources, commercial contracts or access to strategic locations, such as airbases and ports, Brookings said.

The Wagner Group was formed by a Russian ex-special forces officer who took part in Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine that climaxed in the annexation of Crimea and the creation of rebel provinces in eastern Ukraine. 

It has not only operated in Syria and Libya but also Yemen, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mali and the Central African Republic. In January, crowds waved Russian flags in Burkina Faso after an army coup backed by the Wagner Group pledged to crack down on jihadist Muslims.

A statue unveiled last year in the Central African Republic shows local soldiers, backed by Russian mercenary fighters, protecting civilians from marauding rebels.

Meanwhile, in a Cold War throwback, Russia reopened close relations with Cuba after a long break. Putin is delaying repayment of $2.3 billion in loans Havana owes until 2027 to ease a burden on the cash-strapped island nation.

Cuba responded by supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A Russian defense official met with representatives of Venezuela, Nicaragua as well as Cuba in Caracas last week to discuss military cooperation.

German leader Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin give press conference in Moscow, February 2022. Image: Handout

It is hard to pinpoint the moment Putin gave up on peaceful relations with the West, if he ever harbored such hopes. Putin has frequently hinted at one such moment, however: when NATO bombed Serb forces in breakaway Kosovo and targets inside Serbia itself.

During a press conference with German leader Olaf Scholz, Putin railed against the West’s involvement there, leaving out the expulsion of Kosovar Muslims from the territory by then- president Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO intervention opened the way for the takeover of Kosovo to the Kosovo Liberation Army and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from the province—an event that attracted no Western condemnation. If that’s a key origin of Putin’s resentments, he is now venting his rage on Ukraine.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.