What in the hell is Vladimir Putin up to? It's perhaps one of the most important and salient questions of 2014. Russia-watchers and Russians have spent much of the year debating what's behind Putin's adventurism in Ukraine, his meddling in eastern Europe's Baltic states, his support for anti-American dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, and the headaches he is generally causing Western leaders.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russia, suggested an answer: Putin is remaking Russia from a former world power into a geopolitical racketeer. Galeotti is not the first person to suggest this theory, which is gaining traction even among Russia experts who tend to be more sympathetic to Moscow, but he put it awfully succinctly in a great interview with the Swiss-based International Relations and Security Network.
Galeotti made his point when asked how Russia's role as an international actor had evolved since the end of the Cold War (I've added line breaks and bold for emphasis):
Russia is now regarded not as ineffective but as toxic; it has shown that it can act, but above all as a spoiler.
Its main tactic in eastern Ukraine, in Syria, and elsewhere is not to fix problems, nor even to build coalitions, but to create problems in the hope that this grinds down the will of the other party or parties until they decide that making some kind of deal with Moscow is the least-worse option.
These are, in the short term, effective tactics, but this is the geopolitics of the protection racketeer and it wins no friends, earns no soft power. It has empowered those who say this current regime in the Kremlin is dangerous and can only be contained or, ultimately, confronted.
Of course running a racket can be useful. It's essentially the strategy Portugal used to become a world power five and a half centuries ago. It lacked the power to dominate the trade across the Indian Ocean, but the military effectiveness of its caravels allowed it to run a very profitable protection racket there. English piracy, preying on Spain, proved crucial to it's emergence as a great sea power. It's ultimately a question of whether the rest of the world has the will to resist the predations of the racketeers. Certainly there were powers in India in 1500 that could have built a great fleet to sack and burn Lisbon in the early Sixteenth century. But they were preoccupied with local concerns.