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Pondering Russia

I do not know what to think about Russia. I have been writing this entry for four months, revising it again and again in my head. So, if you came here looking for answers and policy suggestions, then you have come in vain. I am going to explain why I cannot figure out this situation. I cannot even figure out where the problem lies or with whom fault lies for precipitating the conflict. Firstly, because the whole situation has striking similarities to the film adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel The Sum of All Fears, which certainly casts Putin’s actions in a more favourable light. Secondly, the situation in Ukraine extended to view all of Russia’s military actions against neighbours in the 21st century does seem an awful lot like salami tactics: a frequent communist approach to political expansion in the 20th century. The second hypothesis portrays Russian foreign policy as Machiavellian empire building by directly attacking western interests. Both scenarios have legitimate scholarly underpinning and a degree of truth.

The first scenario is about nationalist elements within Russia empowered by the post-Soviet dissatisfaction with their fall from “superpower” status. It is a story about a Russia that was trying to fit into the liberal democratic order, but grew frustrated with the West insisting that Russia were somehow still “the enemy”. Furthermore, Russia feels that NATO broke its promise of not expanding into the former Warsaw countries in the wake of the collapse of communism. Taking into account Ukrainians having “irreversibly supported Ukraine’s course towards Europe” and of course Russia feels paranoid. Russia, a former professor used to remind me, has always sought Eastern Europe as a buffer to keep warmongering Western Europeans (like Sweden and Germany) off sacred soil, the heart of Kievan Rus. This threat to the motherland could be the source of nationalist sentiments in the Russian Federation. Nationalist sentiments that Putin has expertly harnessed in developing his cult of personality. This raises the question, if Putin disappointed the nationalists under him, if they would they retract their support of him? If the strongman falters and revealed to be mortal, would those Russians continue to worship at the alter of Vlad? If we assume hypothetically that should the strong man show weakness that his support would destabilise– a big assumption– then Russian aggression in Ukraine becomes an act of self preservation by a man trying to keep more radical members of his government and public in line. Now I don’t believe Putin is a Nemerov. I can’t believe that all of his policy decisions are just tempered to court populist support. I do believe that it is likely that domestic support is playing a role in the events. One doesn’t court popular support, if popular support is irrelevant. If it were, the resources would be better used elsewhere.

The second scenario is that Russia is using various events to give legitimacy to their attacks against their neighbours with stronger Western times to expose Western weakness and re-establish a Russian empire around their ideology of conservative, authoritative and illiberal democracy. It knows that NATO is slow to act and pain adverse. Using these features to portray us as ineffectual, ineffective and effeminate (a term I use only to highlight the machismo with which Putin markets himself with), Putin’s Russia is discrediting us internationally. They are achieving this best by engaging in small scale military campaigns against pro-western neighbours. For the uninformed, this approach is refereed to as salami tactics; in which you pursue your objectives one slice at a time until you have the entire “salami”. This could be said to be exactly what Russia doing to achieve its foreign policy goals while keeping the West reluctant to commit armed forces to combat roles. This fear is based on the potential, at most, of starting World War III or, at least and the much more likely outcome, of devastating a potential ally by turning their country into a conventional war zone. Even if the NATO did commit military forces and achieved a short, decisive victory over Russia, a question still remains; if Putin was destabilised, who would replace him? It would be unlikely to be a liberal democrat. Putin didn’t come to power in spite of society. Those social forces keeping him in power could be reorganised under a more radical populist nationalist. Defeats do not have the tendency to make countries feel less marginalised.

I have a personal mantra that helps remind me of something I need to keep in mind when thinking about this situation: Russians are not dumb. Putin could be using the second scenario masquerading at the first or vice versa, depending on which audience he’s playing to. The truth rarely lies in extremes however, and more likely is that the reality is a blend of both ideas. This is why I don’t know what to think about Russia. We’re staring across the board at a famously clever adversary who is renowned for their long game and there are far too many pieces in play.

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