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Ukraine is Just the Beginning: Secret Document Reveals Putin’s Long War on Europe

A previously unreported internal US military analysis suggests the invasion of Ukraine is a culmination of Putin’s 15-year plan to dominate Eurasia, in revenge against NATO expansion

Vladimir Putin in 2005. Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung/Alamy

Ukraine is Just the BeginningSecret Document Reveals Vladimir Putin’s Long War in Europe

A previously unreported internal US military analysis suggests the invasion of Ukraine is a culmination of Putin’s 15-year plan to dominate Eurasia, in revenge against NATO expansion

A secret draft US military document reveals that a decade ago, US Army analysts expected Vladimir Putin to spearhead an acceleration of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and beyond as part of a 15-year plan to consolidate control of former Soviet states.

The internal US military analysis, which was never meant for public consumption, throws new light on how some of the Pentagon’s top military experts anticipated a dramatic intensification of hostilities between Russia and NATO, with Putin planning to subvert Europe through a series of regional military offensives of which hostilities in Ukraine are merely a launching point. The wider goal, the document claimed, is to extend Russian power back across Eastern and ultimately Central Europe.

Putin has not simply bided his time but actively prepared the ground for the reconquest of Ukraine as part of a wider strategy to reassert Russian power in Eurasia

According to the draft military document obtained by Byline Times via the Wikileaks archive, US military analysts have been well-aware as far back as September 2011 of Putin’s longstanding plans for a series of strategic offensives in Europe, the Caucasus and the Baltic to expand Russian influence in revenge against NATO expansionism – a strategy quietly launched by Putin as early as 2005.

The document, reported here for the first time, is the draft of an internal US Marine Corps’ (USMC) Intelligence Department forecasting paper, produced jointly by senior USMC officials and analysts at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, and overseen by then Lieutenant Colonel Drew E. Cukor, Analysis and Futures Chief at USMC’s Intelligence Department. Cukor would go on to become head of the US Department of Defense’s Project Maven to develop deep learning AI technologies for military combat.

The document concluded that little over 15 years ago, Putin had embarked on a long-term strategy to roll back Western influence, which had “pushed the line of its influence up to the Russian border” in the mid-2000s.

“Russia has successfully launched a series of moves since approximately 2005 in which to reverse Western influence in the former Soviet states,” the document said.

“This will lead to an escalation of hostilities between US and Russia – playing out in the Baltic region, Central Europe and the Caucasus. It will also lead to a further fracturing of NATO as its members struggle over what the alliance’s focus should be.”

The document provides important corroboration and deeper context for the controversial analysis of journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who described Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine as an escalation in the ‘first Great Information War’ that began in 2014.

According to the US Marine Corps intelligence analysis, Putin’s long war was already unfolding since 2005 across four key theatres: a group of countries in Eastern and Central Europe; a group of peripheral former Soviet states in Central Asia; a group of states in the Baltics; and, last but not least, a number of countries in the heart of Europe.

Prepared in September 2011 as part of a series of USMC intelligence briefs drafted with Stratfor’s support, the document was buried in the 5 million strong corpus of Stratfor emails that were originally leaked and published by Wikileaks from 2012 to 2014.

Within that corpus is a body of email correspondence in 2011 between senior US Marine Corps officers and Stratfor analysts. The emails show that the USMC Intelligence Department had commissioned Stratfor to work with USMC officials in drafting this intelligence forecasting paper, along with several other briefs. Other USMC officials involved in establishing the Stratfor partnership included Major William Osborne, then of USMC’s Future Assessments Branch, and USMC Director of Intelligence, Brigadier General Vincent Stewart, who later went on to become Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

The USMC Intelligence Department, for which the forecasting assessment was drafted, is a highly influential agency which, according to its mission statement, “supports the Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) in his role as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), represents the service in Joint and Intelligence Community matters, and exercises supervision over the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA)”.

Although the document is in draft form, the USMC-Stratfor drafting process can be traced through the leaked correspondence and the version cited by Byline Times appears to be a near-final version. While it cannot be assumed to reflect US Government policy, it provides a powerful insight into Putin’s plans as internally assessed by senior US military intelligence officers.

Securing the Buffer

According to the USMC intelligence forecasting paper, the first group of countries Putin planned to control are “Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia”. These countries became “a major focus” of Russian efforts “even before the Kremlin was done consolidating power at home” because they are “the most critical to Moscow’s overall plan to return as a Eurasian power”.

Together, these countries give Russia “access to the Black and Caspian seas and serve as a buffer between Russia and Asia, Europe and the Islamic world”, the document observed. “So far, Russia has consolidated its influence in three of the four countries; Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all have pro-Russian leaders.”

At this time, Ukraine was increasing its cooperation with a proposed new Russia-dominated military alliance structure and had signed a deal for the Russian Black Sea Fleet to remain in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol until 2047.

The Russian grand strategy was, however, rudely interrupted in 2014 when anti-government protestors in Ukraine toppled the Russian-backed regime. This led to the emergence of a Western-friendly government and prompted Putin to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine. Russia of course still controls Sevastopol, where it operates a naval base, as part of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Crucially, USMC analysts in 2011 appeared to have no idea that Russia would lose control of Ukraine despite continuing US government support for Ukrainian opposition and civil society groups. The document argued – wrongly in hindsight – that Russia had “a secure grasp” of the buffer state.

US military analysts had thus expected Putin to use its control of Ukraine as a springboard to extend Russian influence back into Central Europe. That’s why the document assessed that the first major flashpoint between Russia and the West would begin on “the Central European chessboard”, starting from around mid-decade:

“Traditionally, when Russia is threatened, it lashes out. Although Moscow is currently acting cooperatively – while concurrently creating chaos across the Continent – it can easily resume using more aggressive tactics.”

In other words, the fall of Ukraine to the West in 2014 was seen by Putin as a major setback to a far wider strategy of regional Russian military and economic resurgence – a long war in which the recapture of Ukraine today is therefore just one step.

The Asian frontier

The document describes a second group of former Soviet states where Russia has successfully consolidated control, and will work to minimise Western influence:

“These countries – Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Armenia – are not geographically, politically or economically important, but their natural instability and weakness does on occasion make them more trouble than they are worth.”

Other Central Asian republics Putin wants to control, it continued, are Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Control of the former is about “preventing other powers from gaining a foothold in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan also has access to vast amounts of energy wealth, something that the West and Turkey have been trying to tap more heavily in to and something Russia wants to prevent.”

As for Uzbekistan, Russia’s main concern is that it could become “a regional leader in its own right, commanding the other Central Asian states,” thus shifting the whole of Central Asia out of Russian influence:

“Losing Uzbekistan would mean losing half of Kazakhstan (including the critical southern region around Almaty), Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and half of Kyrgyzstan. So Russia has currently surrounded the country militarily with troops on the Uzbek border with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Russia has also been tampering with the anti-regime movements in the eastern part of the country.”

Controlling the Baltics

A third group of former Soviet states where Russia is planning to consolidate control include Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: “These countries have either strategic geographic locations, links to Russia or valuable assets.”

The Baltics, the document concluded, “are the most critical to Russia’s plan” as they lie on the North European Plain, Europe’s easiest route for marching into Russia:

“Whoever controls Estonia also controls the approach to the Gulf of Finland, Russia’s main access to the Baltic Sea. Lithuania is different from its Baltic brothers since it does not border Russia proper, although it does border Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave, which is home to half of Russia’s Baltic Fleet and more than 23,000 troops.”

The Baltic states joined the EU and NATO in 2004, putting the Western alliances “right on Russia’s doorstep”. Russia’s response to this will be to increase its military presence on their borders, “essentially encircling them”, the document warned.

Putin’s next move is then “to create influence among the Baltic populations with concerted propaganda programs among their youths and political parties”. The document also noted that Russian military exercises in Belarus were “based on scenarios to ‘invade’ the Baltics”.


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The European heartland

Russia’s influence operations would not stop in the regions around its borders, but extend well into the heart of Europe, the document warned, to manipulate key European countries into playing ball with Russian ambitions.

“Russia is actively trying to keep NATO from consolidating behind a common cause,” said the document. “In Moscow, this strategy is called ‘the chaos tactic.’ In other words, the Kremlin will sow chaos within Europe by cooperating with Western Europe on security issues” – such as by appearing to cooperate with NATO on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) while painting Eastern European countries opposing Russia’s participation as belligerent and uncompromising.

Putin will in particular forge “close relationships” with Germany, France and Turkey to leverage their geopolitical clout as NATO members in favour of its drive to expand control over former Soviet states.

Russia’s goal is to use these European powers “to help shape the Eurasian landscape,” the document said, primarily using energy exports and financial investments.

Of these three countries, the document explained, Germany is “the most important regional power with which Russia wants to create an understanding,” especially as it is “a key market for Russian energy exports.”

The success of this strategy at the time had resulted in Germany opposing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The document described Germany’s stance as the main factor blocking “Washington’s plans to push NATO’s boundaries further eastward.”

Meanwhile, Putin would use purchases of military equipment and “heavy economic investments” with France to leverage it as “another heavyweight to help keep the US and Central European initiatives to contain Russia from gaining steam.”

As for Turkey, Russia’s main goal is to use the country to “guarantee its dominance of the Caucasus and assure that Turkey remains committed to transporting Russia’s – rather than someone else’s – energy to Europe.” Its main tools of control are “supplying the majority of Turkey’s energy, and Russia’s military presence in the Caucasus”. The intelligence assessment went on to warn that:

“Russia’s resurgence and dominance in its former Soviet states have left Central Europe as the main chessboard for which the US and Russia will struggle over in the coming years.”

Countries in Russia’s line of sight after Ukraine, by this analysis, include “the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria”.

Rolling Back NATO

Although the geostrategic picture of Putin’s long war on Europe since 2005 is unnerving, the US military intelligence analysis is startlingly evenhanded. The document candidly acknowledges that Russian belligerence has intensified in direct response to NATO expansionism.

It details early US efforts both to interfere in internal Russian politics after the Cold War and to ensure that post-Soviet states would not gravitate back to Russia by covertly “fomenting colour revolutions” in these countries, revealing: “The Soviet disintegration did not in any way guarantee that Moscow would not resurge eventually in another form, so the West had to neuter Russia both internally and externally.” The document admitted, though, that these early efforts failed:

“First the United States nudged the pro-democratic and capitalist forces inside Russia to try to change the nature of the Kremlin. Theoretically, this led to the democratic experiment of the 1990s that ended in bitter chaos, rather than democracy, within Russia.”

The US and Western Europe simultaneously “began working to contain Russia’s influence inside its borders and pick away at its best defence: its buffer,” the document continued. Some of this was through legitimate political and financial engagement – but some went beyond this:

“The West used its influence and money quickly after the fall of the Soviet Union to create connections with each former Soviet state. It also fomented a series of colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and (an attempted one in) Azerbaijan that solidified Western influence in those countries. NATO and the European Union also expanded into former Soviet territory to include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Washington and NATO even opened military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to facilitate moving supplies into Afghanistan.”

According to the document, Moscow saw this strategy as “a direct and deliberate challenge to Russian national security.” The earliest stage of Russia’s revenge against the NATO strategy began with Putin’s attempts to internally consolidate the Kremlin’s political, economic and social control of the country, while re-establishing state dominance of Russian energy reserves:

“Kremlin also put an end to the internal volatility created by the oligarchs, organised crime and wars in the Caucasus. The re-centralisation of the Russian state under Putin’s rule, coupled with high energy prices bringing in exorbitant amounts of money, made Russia strong again, but it still needed to reclaim its buffer zone.”

It is impossible, though, to grant Russia any moral high ground as Putin will attempt to deploy precisely the same sorts of strategies it condemns in NATO to both, directly and indirectly, reabsorb former Soviet territories into the orbit of Russian power, the document made clear. This includes, for instance, expanding Russian military influence through its alternative to NATO: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Under the CSTO, Russia has forged bilateral military alliances allowing it to install “many of its military installations in the former Soviet states”, the document noted, which in turn would enable deployment of Russian “rapid reaction forces into any of the member-states” while also integrating many member-states’ military-industrial units into Russian forces.

Ukraine is just the Beginning

If the analysis contained in the USMC intelligence forecasting paper is accurate, it suggests that the eruption of the largest military action in Europe since the Second World War is not simply about Russia’s interests in Ukraine.

It is about Vladimir Putin’s longstanding plan, launched little over 15 years ago, to retake Russia’s entire former Soviet sphere of influence using money, energy or military force if necessary.

This provides a new context for understanding Russia’s action since 2014: Putin has not simply bided his time but actively prepared the ground for the reconquest of Ukraine as part of a wider strategy to reassert Russian power in Eurasia.

Russian actors linked to Putin have attempted to influence elections in both the US and UK and elsewhere in Europe. They have established powerful media institutions and social media operations across the Western world. And they have sponsored far-right movements and nurtured extreme right-wing political players, forging close ties with ruling right-wing governments – including the Trump administration and Boris Johnson’s premiership.

The extent to which those actions have been successful, and the exact manner in which they have been organised, remains open to question. But the systematic pattern of activity emanating from Russia – military expansion along its borders and information warfare in Western heartlands – illustrates that as far as Putin is concerned, his invasion of Ukraine is merely the next stage in his long war on Europe.

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