Twenty years ago, Russia was a mess – no longer an enemy, not even an adversary and certainly not a partner. What was feared most was a collapse that might turn Russia into something resembling the former Yugoslavia, all pire. “I don’t like it when the U.S. flaunts its superiority,” complained Russia’s then president Boris Yeltsin, who insisted, “Russia isn’t Haiti…Russia will rise again.”
Events now confirm that; Russia is back. And it’s back as a bully to former Soviet holdings in Europe, as a challenge to the United States, and as one of the self-proclaimed leaders of what is allegedly a post-Western world.
This isn’t just a burst of imperial nostalgia akin to that of some European states a few decades ago. Nor is it a moment of post-bipolarity funk – a rebellion against an all-powerful America that didn’t make time for Russia when it was the time to do so, and a revolt against a uniting Europe that didn’t make room for its larger neighbour when it had been hoping for an invitation. As always, ghosts linger on. Seven decades of Soviet governance failed to bury centuries of Russian imperial history. La grande Russie doesn’t stay passively silent for long: her vocation is to be heard and expand, not to withdraw and shrink. The “soul” attributed by former U.S. President George W. Bush to Vladimir Putin after their first meeting in June 2001 mourned two decades of disrespect. Shorn of nearly a quarter of the Soviet Union’s post-1945 territories, Russia was still too big, too near and too nuclear for such treatment – not yet a true European power, but still a leading power in Europe. Russia thus longs for its imperial past, and the vexing question is how to impress upon its government in Moscow that there are limits to self-image that the Russian state can no longer sustain and which the West need not tolerate any longer.
“When Russia was weak in the 1990s,” remembers former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a self-described hardliner on the Soviet Union, “we did a poor job…managing the relationship for the long-term.” The mistake, then, was to pay insufficient attention to Russia’s legitimate interests and concerns. Now that Russia looks stronger, the mistake would be to exaggerate the significance and relevance of those interests. America’s unfinished business with Russia is part of Europe’s own unfinished business, one half of which consists of an ever closer Union while the other half is being undone by national identities that challenge the EU member states’ sovereignty.
The end of the Cold War came abruptly. There was no cease-fire, no peace conference, no formal treaty and no settlement. As the Soviet Union held an unprecedented real estate sale, the West helped itself. What was in Europe was the Russian state of 1917. It might have seemed dead – “Mort à jamais?” as Marcel Proust had asked – but not forever or even for long. It was not wise to dismiss centuries of history that had seen Russia’s territories expand by one Belgium a year for 300 years, that had brutally imposed the Russification of ethnic minorities, and had relied on authoritarian and even totalitarian rule to subjugate its people.
Now it’s Vladimir Putin’s turn to dismiss his country’s most recent defeat and ride at the head of an anti-Western posse against what he calls the world’s “one centre of authority, one centre of force, and one centre of decision-making.” But that moment, too, will pass. As Russia’s economy runs out of gas, so to speak, it also finds itself short of energy – meaning; people and even security space. Over time, an under-developed, de-populated, and encircled Russia has no credible alternative to closer co-operation with the West. Too much history and too little geography separates Moscow from a dangerously ascending China, reportedly Moscow’s alternative of choice.
Boris Yeltsin had whimpered that if there was no clear winner, at least the Cold War had produced no loser. “We’re not talking about a relationship between superiors and inferiors, but between equals,” he wanted his “friend” Bill Clinton to know. There were echoes of Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 who insisted that defeated France should be treated as a co-equal. “If there are still allied powers,” Talleyrand told his victorious interlocutors, “then I do not belong here.” Of course, the legendary French diplomat was one of a kind, but in October 1991, on the eve of its collapse, the Soviet Union was also invited by the United States as the triumphant state to co-chair the Madrid Conference which then-Secretary of State James Baker viewed as “the end game for peace” in the Middle East. A decade later, Putin attacked his country’s implicit surrender and its dismemberment as a geopolitical catastrophe, “impossible to imagine” even while it was taking place.
In autumn 2008, the violence and intensity of the war in Georgia were, according to Robert Gates, “eye openers” that demanded “a different set of lenses.” “Russia’s behaviour,” he announced, “has called into question the entire premise of our [strategic] dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward – both bilaterally and with NATO.” On the whole, though, he ignored his own warnings, which were not heeded by either by the two presidents he served as Secretary of Defence. On the contrary, a newly-elected Barack Obama soon sought a reappraisal, or reset, of U.S.-Russian relations, as if to make amends. Now however, Putin’s will to re-adjudicate the verdict of History restores a sense of conflict that can no longer be ignored by those he charges with having “not simply robbed” but altogether “plundered” his country.
The confrontation between the West and Russia in the spring of 2014 is no more about Ukraine than the 2008 war in Georgia was just about Georgia. Neither of these countries is a core American interest, and the EU states have shown little interest in bringing either into their Union any time soon. Ukraine and Georgia before have been crises for Russia more than for the West, and what has made of “their” crisis “our” problem is Russian behaviour that in each case has threatened the European institutional and territorial order built up over the past 60 years. From the start, though, Putin was not discreet about his intentions – how he viewed Russia and what he thought of the West. “A proud man who loves his country,” nevertheless felt George W. Bush, deceptively moved by a “sense of Putin’s soul.” In his first major speech after Putin returned to the presidency which he had for a while loaned to Dmitri Medvedev, Putin urged the Russians “not to lose themselves as a nation” and to reject the “standards imposed on us from outside” at the expense of “our traditions.” In a dubious replica of Ronald Reagan 20 years earlier, the Russian president unveiled an “evil empire” – a U.S.-led, post-Christian Western world said to be exporting godlessness, permissiveness, and moral depravity. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, Putin does not want a common home with Europe, but hopes instead to build one of his own: No longer Russia in Europe or even Europe with Russia, but Europe to Russia and even, at least for the post-Soviet space, Europe in Russia.
Why Nikita Khrushchev chose in 1954 to return Crimea to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine is more puzzling than Putin’s decision to return it to Russia. A proletarian intellectual who goes to the geopolitical barricades to fight for what he believes more than for what he knows, Putin echoes Nikolai Danilovsky, whose brand of Russian nationalism nurtured Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s belief in a “Great Russian hegemony” dedicated to “a great renewal … for the whole world” which, wrote Dostoyevsky, was endangered by a Western civilisation whose invasion “begins with luxury, fashions, scholarship, and art – and inevitably ends in sodomy and universal corruption.” That same conviction makes of Putin a gambler prepared to bet heavily on a doctrine of imposed self-determination for what he claims is, “the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”
Nor is the renewed confrontation between Russia and the West about more recent but no less spurious analogies. Comparing Putin to Hitler, and interpreting his discourse as a translated rendition of Mein Kampf, is no more constructive than comparing Nazi Germany to post-Soviet Russia. Tantamount to assimilating spring 2014 with autumn 1938, the analogy is hardly relevant when the Western democracies today show so little interest in waging the war against Russia that they should arguably have favoured in the 1930s over appeasement. History does not grant time outs for the replay of bad calls. Similarly, evoking a new Cold War with Russia is to return to March 1948, and call for the rollback that the United Sates might have favoured over the containment that the influential commentator Walter Lippmann at first dismissed as a “strategic monstrosity.” Get real: conditions with Ukraine are not comparable to those that prevailed in Munich, or on the eve of the coup in Czechoslovakia; Putin is no more a menacing reminder of Hitler or Stalin than Obama is a reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“There will be costs for any military intervention,” warned President Obama in February 2014, on the eve of the Russian annexation of Crimea. But pray tell: what was there for Putin to fear after he had witnessed a year earlier Obama’s reluctance to enforce his own “red lines” in Syria with John Kerry himself calling their threatened strike “unbelievably small”? There has been little Obama could do relative to how much Putin can take, in Ukraine and even some of the non-NATO territorial space in Europe. After the military option has been taken off the table, what’s left is pontification – about being on the wrong side of history, as Obama put it – to deter an adversary whose sense of history goes the opposite way.
“Not to rush to judgment,” advised veteran American diplomat George Kennan after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and “not to write off the Russians and their leaders. Patience, patience – that’s what we need.” That may well be sound advice, but for how long and how far? There is a long game to be played: don’t provoke Russia and its leaders with empty threats, to be sure, but don’t indulge Russia and its people with too much “understanding” either. Let it be stated once and for all: History does not owe Russia the apologies it owes Ukraine and other territorial pieces of Europe’s tragic geography of pain. That is the area where can still be heard the silenced sounds of war, and where can best be smelled the worst odours of death. As historian Timothy Snyder has noted, more Ukrainians were killed fighting Nazi Germany than American, British, and French soldiers combined – not to mention the millions who had been starved to death by Stalin before the war. The history of Russia has been written by what it did to its people and in the lands of its neighbours rather than the other way around.
In short, the Russian government does what it does because Russia is what it is: a country unable to imagine life without empire, and unprepared to populate its new democracy with truly democratic leaders. The annexation of Crimea was not just Putin’s way of showing Obama his manhood, rather it is a renewed bid to fulfill the idea the Russians have of themselves and of Europe. Russians may not like all that their president does, but over 80% of them approve his action. Meanwhile, Obama satisfies the broad preference of Americans who wish to do less in the world, but his foreign policy approval rating shows support from fewer than one person in three. It is as if there was public embarrassment and even some shame relative to the way in which Americans as a nation like to think of themselves.
You know where to begin, noted Kennan on more than one occasion, but often ignore where you’re going to end. So it was after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and with the division of Germany in 1949, and since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. First Georgia, and since then with Crimea and Ukraine, Putin started “something” – but what? Does he know where he is going? In the same vein, Obama has shown he knows how to stand up to the so-called swaggerers – but will he also know where to stand up, and for what? This is Kennan turned inside out: knowing how it will end because of the limits of Russian power may actually be easier than knowing where to begin. War is no longer the way of history, but how do you bring along those whose own history takes them another way?
Over 40 years ago, President Richard M. Nixon hoped to put in place a strategy that would calibrate interests and capabilities. Knowing “when it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest” was not easy then, with a surge of Soviet power and the rise of “new influentials” which Nixon viewed as the introduction of a new multipolar order. America, he pledged, “cannot – and will not – conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defence of the free nations of the world.” Now as then, Obama’s foreign policy reticence is shared by a majority of Americans who want “to come home.” But also like them, it is a source of concern for a large number of America’s closest allies in need of strategic reassurance. The irony is plain for all to see. Ten years after the fiasco in Iraq, the global demand for American power has never been higher, but its credibility rarely lower and its reliability more in doubt.
To convince its friends, a preponderant power must be right; to tame its enemies it must be strong; to do both, it must inspire trust. All too often Obama has appeared to do the reverse – at best, right for what he said but weak for what he did and ineffective in the way he did it. By his own account, comfortable with complexity – “the big things” as Bill Clinton noted – Obama can easily win an argument, but a lack of attention to what follows often leaves his exchanges with adversaries unheard, his reassurances not implemented, and his likeable personality not trusted. In any case, this, too, is not just about Obama but, more broadly, about a post-American world. Long past the Cold War, and possibly past America’s prime too, this is not a world an emerging post-Western America understands well: every power a potential ally but every partner a possible adversary, depending on needs and urgency; every judge a penitent and every penitent a judge, depending on the case and the moment – Kosovo and Crimea, Iraq and Syria, Moscow’s Afghanistan and Washington’s Afghanistan, and so forth.
Obama did not originate this world – one in which the dwindling U.S. supply of security for growing world demand since the Cold War, comes together with a reduced world supply of security for rising American demand since 9/11. Nor did Obama “lose” Putin or “betray” Crimea any more than Roosevelt betrayed Eastern Europe at Yalta and Truman lost to Stalin at Potsdam. Still, there has been too much loose talk in the United States about rebalancing, to Asia or elsewhere; too much ill-timed talk of a reset, with Russia or others; too much vacuous talk, about leadership from behind and too much dismissive talk about the EU and its leaders or about Putin and his leadership. Words can impress momentarily for their elegance, but they matter more durably for their substance. Admittedly, Putin is not in Obama’s intellectual league, but more plainly, he can nonetheless hammer home his points the old fashioned way – with the domineering Slavic idea of a strong and united Russia.
After World War II, the strategy of containment was embraced as a third way between appeasement and war, the two options that had been pursued by the Western democracies during the interwar years – the former to avoid the latter until the latter grew irresistibly out of the former. Fears that containment was too passive and could not rollback Soviet advances were proved wrong, and whether a different strategy would have achieved rollback faster seems unlikely. What is now known is that after some initial geopolitical confusion, the Soviets were stopped until they ran out of time, and the United States was careful to look elsewhere whenever the Soviets used force to control their half of Europe, in Hungary and elsewhere. With war on behalf of any non-NATO or non-EU country now largely ruled out in the West, Russia’s renewed passion for empire must be denied with a firm yet prudent narrative similar to that of President Truman in March 1947.
How best to assist Ukraine begins with the plaintive recognition that little can now be done to keep the country entirely whole, or even free. Twenty years of Western neglect stand in the way of the former goal, and centuries of territorial and cultural intimacy with Russia constrain the latter. The echoes of past calls for the early “liberation” of Eastern Europe during the Cold War still resonate. “What are you proposing to do,” John Foster Dulles was asked when Secretary of State. And President Eisenhower answered at the start of the 1956 crisis in Hungary when he announced that “the day of liberation may be postponed where armed forces for a time make protest suicidal.”
What followed – a “holocaust,” wrote Eisenhower – should not be forgotten. But we must face the fact that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will not be reversed any time soon, if ever, and preventing further amputation is the best that can be expected. History still shapes Ukraine’s destiny – two peoples in a single country that urgently needs a new constitutional formula to if it is to maintain its unity. But geography, with borders shared by seven neighbours, also gives Ukraine pivotal significance for Russia and the West. Attempts by either to build Ukraine up as an outpost against the other will not go unanswered and would deepen a dangerous geopolitical fracture in the heart of Europe.
The 1955 neutralisation of Austria, concluded at a time when Moscow could have imposed partition, is an adaptable precedent. For 40 years after that, Austria was left out of the Western institutions, but the West was not kept far away from Austria. That time-out was well used, for Austria gradually became a non-member member of the European Community, thereby easing its transition to full EU membership shortly the end of the Cold War. By comparison, a quarter of a century of bad governments has made of Ukraine a failed state which the EU is unwilling to adopt and which Russia looks unable to rehabilitate. We should also consider Russia’s own condition – the state of its economy, the health of its society, and the efficacy of its own governance. Russia is back, admittedly, but not as Yeltsin had hoped: however influential it wants to be, this is a demandeur state whose staying power suffers from a lack of capabilities, including people; dwindling market power, including oil; and shrinking security space, with an expanding NATO in the West, while China grows ever stronger and more intrusive in the East and Islam more unsettled and even threatening in the South. These are the facts of geographic and economic vulnerability which Gorbachev understood when trade, mostly with Eastern Europe, amounted to less than 4% of the total Soviet economy. Now, Russia’s foreign trade represents 30% of GDP, with more than half of its exports going to the West, mostly to Europe and mainly consisting of oil and gas sales that contribute the major share of Moscow’s revenues. Add to this Russia’s need for Western capital for technology purchases and the question of who needs whom is clear. Even as the West lacks the military will to deter Putin in the short term, it has the economic power to alter Russia’s behavior before long.
When asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi reportedly answered that “it would be a good idea.” At 65 years of age, the transatlantic alliance, too, still looks as if it would be a good idea. The obstacle to putting the idea into practice is not a matter of capabilities or even commitment. Rather, what is lacking is the confidence that the capabilities will be used effectively and the commitment assumed evenly; absent such confidence, the will to act is lacking. For the European allies who have become used to relying on the United States for waging, winning, and ending their wars, the recent display of inefficacy in Iraq and Afghanistan is squarely un-American. But if not the United States, who? For Americans who have repeatedly urged Europe to do more, the institutional standstill since the 2008 financial crisis is increasingly exasperating. If Europe cannot be rendered capable as a Union, how can it be responsible for its own security?
These questions, and the expectations they raise, have surfaced many times before. Now, however, their resonance is being heightened not only by Russia’s resurgence in the East but also by Germany’s influence in the EU and America’s drift to Asia and other influential newcomers. In other words, the Western alliance is once again troubled by a Russian problem which the United States can no longer ignore, a German problem which the EU can no longer hide, and an American problem which NATO can no longer dilute. The balance of military forces appears to favour Russia more than ever before; rarely, too, has the balance of economic influence been as favourable to Germany as it is now and never has America sounded less European.
In all these cases, the dilemma is daunting. This is a surprising end to a century of total wars that were fought mostly around these two European superpowers and where there was decisive American leadership. Yet as the United States “pivots” to Asia, which it knows to be inevitable, it hopes for a Russia that is strong enough to not be tempted by China, but weak enough to not concern the EU. And it expects a Europe that is united enough to bury the past century with a fully completed union, but divided enough to depend on an American leadership that is still learning how to consult with, rather than merely inform its allies. Meanwhile, as Europe struggles with institutional questions that it knows to be indispensable, it awaits a Germany assertive enough to lead, but compliant enough to be overruled.
Back to Kennan, then: patience, patience – don’t provoke but indulge. What else? This is how the Cold War was won and half of Europe redone; this is how the other half of Europe will make the continent whole after it has been kept free. The strategic recipe hasn’t really changed much: To borrow from the quip of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, America is still very much “in”, and while Germany should no longer be kept “down” (now that the EU is up), Russia must be kept “out” until such time as it’s prepared to come in.
First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission
Any “red lines” left for Putin?
“Red lines” have become a ubiquitous narrative of Russian-initiated conflict with the West. Putin repeatedly used “red lines” as a warning metaphor for the West, trying to establish his boundaries of international influence. The “red lines” acquired this warning connotation in his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on April 21, 2021, to be repeated several times later up to February 24, 2022. As explained by his press-secretary Dmitriy Peskov and many other Russian politicians and experts, “red lines’ relate to Russian national interests, outlining its national borders.
And not only Kremlin but the West also talks about “red lines”, though the West sees “red lines” in using nuclear weapons by Putin in his futile attempt to conquer Ukraine.
When addressing the nation on February 24, 2022, announcing an invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that any “interference” in Ukraine by outside powers would be “a red line” for Russia. However, the West started to support Ukraine long before the Russian invasion supplying Javelins and intelligence information. The West certainly interfered in different ways from the first day of the Russian invasion providing more weapons, ammunition, humanitarian aid, volunteers, anti-Russian information campaigns, sanctions, intelligence sharing, and military training, to name a few.
All Kremlin’s propaganda targets the inner audience first. When they speak to the West, at the same time, they address ordinary Russians. The apparent importance of “red lines” for the Kremlin, the ability to show that they are not violated, made the West artfully create information campaigns before supplying new deadly weaponry to Ukraine. These information campaigns aim to provide valid arguments for such supplies as a response to the escalation of the war from the Kremlin’s side. At the same time, they shift attention from the weaponry itself to “conflicts” inside the NATO countries around the supplies. They expose various technical problems, such as a lack of trained personnel to master new weaponry, no service maintenance base, and others. Finally, these information campaigns often highlight Kremlin’s atrocities against civilians (Bucha and missile bombing cities, villages, and critical infrastructure).
We have seen these tactics successfully employed more than once. The Kremlin’s loss of information war has become evident from the beginning of the war. However, when one talks about supplying Ukraine with modern tanks to fight against the Russian army, it takes one to be a master of information tactics to supply the tanks and not to break this crucial “red line.” For the last two decades, Putin has made the Victory of the USSR in the Greta Patriotic War (WW II in the Western tradition) the main achievement of recent Russian history, utilizing it as a unifying myth for multi-national Russia. This myth also serves as a justification for its aggressive foreign policy. Furthermore, this makes it very painful for Russia to think of fighting with foreign tanks, especially german tanks, making this red line very thick and visible.
Nevertheless, the West could dilute it without any seemingly essential consequences. Let’s see how it was done.
The German play: at first, Olaf Sholz, Chancellor of Germany, said that Germany would allow Leopard tanks to be sent to Ukraine only after US Abrams; this statement gets immediately refuted by the German Minister of Defense; the refutation followed by supporting statements in the US media that even go as far as saying that the German position irritates Washington.
The Polish play: first, Poland says that it can send a Leopard tank to Ukraine; then it refutes it; then Poland threatens that it would send the tanks even without Germany’s consent, to be followed by a statement of Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs that Germany would not block Poland sending tanks to Ukraine.
All these “conflicts and disaccords” happen before an official decision-making session in Rammstein format. Then the plays continued with Boris Pistorius, recently appointed Germany’s Minister of Defense, who, after the meeting at Rammstein, not only said that there were other countries besides Germany to disagree on shipping tanks to Ukraine (although he never revealed which ones), but also hinting later that the decision on tank shipping could be negative. In such a case, the decision would become irreversible. They even remembered a previous German Minister of Defense who allegedly refused to conduct an inventory of available Leopard tanks.
Less than five days later, a positive decision is taken, making it hard to believe that such significant disagreements and confusion could exist not only inside Germany’s government but also between leading European countries and the US. Of course, conflicts and disagreements might exist, and they do exist for different international topics. However, it is hard to imagine them being so publicly visible on such a vital issue as the Ukraine-Russia war. The war has been going on for almost a year now, and effective mechanisms of communication and decision-making must have been developed, at least in such an essential part of it as military aid.
After the war’s beginning, the West took a principal position in the war: to provide diverse support to Ukraine to fight against Russia. All sanctions and humanitarian and military aid issues get communicated, coordinated, and then agreed upon.
According to Francis Bacon’s famous quotation, knowledge is power; this power comes with information, and information comes with noise. The West utterly understands it employing this understanding with art and craft. And the Kremlin fails to play this game. Instead, this wonderful chaos of noise prior to any critical decision allows for diluting more and more “red lines.”
These information tactics allow the West to supply Ukraine with more deadly weapons. We will see another act of this information play before a decision to ship modern jet fighters to Ukraine is agreed upon. Then, of course, there will be the same level of “disagreements and conflicts,” but eventually, one shouldn’t doubt that Ukraine will get jet fighters, starting with Soviet MIG- and SU-fighters from Slovakia and Poland, then followed by F-16s and other NATO models.
The Kremlin’s reaction is precious. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, commented on the decision to ship tanks to Ukraine, saying that it became clear to the Kremlin that there was no accord in the West in general around the issue of military aid to Ukraine. Also, the fact that the West has enough modern tanks capable of fighting with Russian remains obscure for the Kremlin, according to Peskov. This is what the Russian propaganda wants and needs to see: disagreements and conflicts. This conflict’s agenda allows them to lullaby the Russian people with tales that the support for Ukraine will wither soon and that Russians need to be patient just a little bit more. Then Victory will come, exactly like in the Great Patriotic War.
The strategy of the West is clear; no Western country wants to be at war with Russia. At the same time, Ukraine needed support, so the West started supplying it with more advanced weapons. Now the supplies happen much quicker than at the beginning of the war. The “tank case” shows this change in the western approach to the weapon supply, where a silent embargo on offensive weaponry was in effect for 11 months.
The Kremlin’s narrative of “the red lines” failed from the beginning as Russia violated international “red lines” when it invaded a sovereign state. Furthermore, this ‘red line” is not only part of Western values but is one of the pillars of the system of International Law. Another pillar of international relations is that supplying weapons and even using one country’s experienced army officers to help another country’s army in its military actions has never been seen as direct involvement in a war. No one has seen, or described Soviet military support and presence in Vietnam against the U.S., or in Egypt and Syria against Israel as direct war between the U.S. and the USSR.
Putin’s several public warnings to respond if NATO crossed “red lines” by providing Ukraine with certain missile strike systems remained just words. Other prominent Russian officials repeatedly made similar warnings, promising to consider U.S. and NATO vehicles transporting weapons on Ukr
The West understands that Putin’s “red lines” are for the internal agenda only. Even the fact that they are not named but outline some obscure “national interests’, allows the Kremlin to interpret them differently, twisting its propaganda around. But the “red lines” do exist. The West should not underestimate them. Inability of the Kremlin to define and observe them. It is quite obvious that the next “red line” is national borders between and Ukraine and Russia as of Feb.24, 2022. This issue lacks accord in the West. Should Ukraine get Crimea back? Should it get it now or later? Should the West publicly announce its “red lines” outlining them as the Russian Federation’s borders as of 1991?
While these questions are still to be answered, one red line obviously exists for Putin. This line is his personal safety, and in the current power construction in Russia, Putin can secure his safety only if he retains power. When the West challenges his personal power, then he will feel the real threat. One should remember that it might be dangerous to corner a rat, especially one with a nuclear bomb. Putin’s body, ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, regularly reminds us of that, saying that “a nuclear power can never lose a conventional war.” His regular remarks clearly state that the Kremlin acknowledges its possible defeat in Ukraine, but they also warn against such outcome. We should hope that Western leaders have learned how to play with Russia and will continue the winning game, weakening Russia further and successfully staying away from nuclear confrontation.
Russia’s Support for Terrorism: A Carry-Over of Soviet Policy
During the Cold War, the Kremlin was a supporter of foreign terrorism, in order to destabilize enemy governments or to further Moscow’s policy objectives. The same strategy is being used, today, by the Russian Federation in countries around the world.
Beginning in the 1990s, critics of the Kremlin began turning up dead in Ukraine and Western Europe, including in the United Kingdom. Russia has also been accused of backing despots and dictators who have committed massacres and other crimes against humanity, such as Syria’s Assad, who was accused of supporting chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Currently, the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, a private military and security companies (PMSCs) is actively fighting in conflicts, ranging from Ukraine to Syria, where they have been accused of war crimes, including targeting civilians, murder, rape, and torture. The Wagner Group has been declared a Transnational Criminal Organization by the United States and is expected to be recognized as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by both the E.U. and the U.S in the near future. If that designation is applied to Wagner, the Russian Federation will be an official sponsor of international terrorism.
During the Cold War, the West similarly accused the USSR of supporting terrorism, an accusation which the Kremlin emphatically denied. Before discussing the veracity of these accusations, it would be constructive to define terrorism. The definition of terrorism used for this article is violence or the threat of violence applied, often against civilian targets, in order to bring about change, often political, religious, or social.
In 2011, the Director of the CIA released a report, finding that the Soviet Union supported terrorism, in the form of foreign insurgents and fighters, if such support was constructive to the goals of the Soviet state. This was the case in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Angola, El Salvador, Mozambique, and Chile, among others were supported somewhat covertly. The Soviet Union openly supported some groups which enjoyed a certain degree of political legitimacy within their own territory, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) or the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO).
When the Soviet Union dealt with foreign extremist groups, however, they camouflaged their involvement. Often, support was carried out through allied and radical states. Many of these radical states also support terrorist groups, on their own, which further complicates an analysis of Soviet involvement. The CIA charges that Soviet support for terrorism fell into several categories, among them (1) Support for anti-Israel and anti-U.S. groups, (2) Soviet-backed insurrections in Third World countries, which the Kremlin made more socially acceptable by dubbing them liberation movements, and (3) Violence by left-wing groups in the West, which did not overtly reveal the direct involvement of the Soviet Union.
One example of a foreign terrorist group supported by the USSR was Italy’s Red Brigades. This violent far-left Marxist–Leninist group, was responsible for hundreds of deaths, in the 1970s and 1980s, including the abduction and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The Red Brigades were born of the radicalization of the 1968 student movement, which took place across the European continent. The Red Brigades were linked to the Soviet Union through the Italian Socialist Party and through training and support received in Czechoslovakia. U.S. intelligence services believe that the Red Brigades and other terrorist organizations were supported by the Soviet Union to covertly carry out state objectives. In 1981, the group kidnapped a NATO officer, United States Army General James L. Dozier. The Red Brigades was later discovered to have kept files on NATO leaders. Opposition to NATO has been a longstanding policy of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.
Many experts, writing during the Cold War, believe that supporting terrorism was an integral part of the Soviet strategy, a strategy meant to destabilize Western democracies. Other experts were of the opinion that Soviet support for terrorist groups was short-lived, deriving from an immediate need to fulfill a particular policy objective. After reviewing declassified documents, in the post-Cold War era, the Soviet Union’s relationship with terrorism was inconsistent. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union did not trust these organizations. But, during the 1970s, their policy changed. And, by the 1980s, the Kremlin was regularly supplying weapons to the PLO, among other terrorist groups. And this was indeed part of the Kremlin’s Cold War strategy, as long as the terrorist groups focused on Western targets.
In the wake of the capture of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Soviet Union of attempting to “foster, support and expand” terrorist activities by “training, funding and equipping the forces of terrorism”. It is well documented that the Soviet Union was guilty of state terrorism, utilizing torture, arbitrary detention, intimidation, and imprisonment, often under inhumane conditions, against its own citizens in order to maintain control. States sponsored by the Soviet Union, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, were guilty of similar crimes on the domestic front, while also exporting murder to other countries.
The Soviet Union was also guilty of violations of human rights, such as massacres, in armed conflict in Afghanistan. Rebel groups supported by the Soviets also engaged in similar terroristic massacres. Regarding terrorist organizations in Western Europe, such as the Red Brigades and Germany’s Red Army Faction, some experts claim that there is little hard evidence of direct support by the Soviet Union. However, they also find that Libya and other countries supported by the Soviet Union directly supported such groups. Consequently, arms and funds for the Red Brigades and other terrorist groups flowed from the USSR, through other international terrorist organizations supported by the USSR. Additionally, there is evidence that Red Brigades operatives were trained in Czechoslovakia, although it is unclear if this was at the behest of the Soviet Union.
The 2011 findings of the Director of Central Intelligence are even clearer and more direct in their accusation that “the Soviets have no moral compunctions about supporting foreign insurgent and terrorist groups”. Additionally, the Director of Central Intelligence posits that Eastern European countries follow the Kremlin’s lead in terms of supporting terrorist groups, which further obfuscates Moscow’s involvement. Moscow also condemns the actions of Western terrorist groups, such as Germany’s Red Army Faction and France’s Action Direct, in order to send a signal that Russia, like Western powers, opposes terrorism. On the other hand, Moscow and the Soviet Bloc also opposed efforts to form international anti-terrorist policing agencies.
A recent example would be that after 9/11, Vladimir Putin made a big show of joining in western efforts to combat terrorism, but this was because he needed international support for his condemnation of Chechen freedom fighters. Since then, he has reversed his stance on cooperating with the west. Additionally, he now supports the Chechens and has deployed them to Ukraine, where they have been accused of atrocities. This raises the question of whether or not the Kremlin’s deployment of Chechens to Ukraine could be considered supporting international terrorism.
Experts, such as those at the Brookings Institute, currently believe that the Russian Federation is a sponsor of terrorism, an opinion supported by the State Department. Russia’s actions match the definition of terrorism in that they involve violence, committed in a foreign country, with a political motive. Modern Russia’s support of terrorism is an extension of the Soviet Union’s support of terrorism beyond its borders, including in Western Europe.
Whether a group utilized these violent actions to achieve independence or some other goal was of no interest to the USSR, which was only concerned with promoting its own foreign policy objectives. Evidence shows that the Kremlin was directly, or indirectly, supporting multiple insurgent and separatist movements. A concrete example would be El Salvador, where the revolutionaries coordinated directly with Moscow. The Kremlin provided local groups with guns and training. The International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party was directly responsible for operations focusing on establishing new, foreign governments. A range of military and paramilitary training and support was provided to insurgent groups by the KGB, GRU, and 10th Directorate of Soviet Staff. This included training revolutionaries from Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia in training camps, both inside and outside of the Soviet Union, as well as in other Soviet Bloc countries. The weapons often flowed through Cuba, Libya or Czechoslovakia. Semtex, the explosive used by many terrorist groups, of the time, was invented in Czechoslovakia.
Today, in addition to the semi-covert aid the Russian Federation extends to the PLO and other terrorist organizations, the Wagner Group enjoys overt support. They obtained their training and weapons directly from the Kremlin, and actively deployed by Russian companies, close to the government, engaging in acts of terrorism.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and became the Russian Federation. The KGB was replaced by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Putin, a former KGB agent, was once head of the FSB. The tactics, training, experience, personnel, and even the leadership of KGB have carried over to the FSB, as has the Kremlin’s support for foreign terrorism.
Context and Practice of International Politics: Experience in 2022 and Expectations from 2023
The dramatic events of 2022, centred on the military-political conflict between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian issue, are a vivid example of the interaction of context and practice in international politics. The global context, within which one cannot help but consider the most acute manifestation of the current clash of interests, is the end of a period which saw the relative monopoly of Western countries in world politics and economics, their ability to determine what the international order should be.
The practice of world politics is determined by the still-colossal resources of the United States and Western Europe, on the one hand, and by the obvious insufficiency of the forces that are their main opponents – China and Russia – insufficient for a real fight. As a result, if the objective factors in the development of international politics and the world economy speak in favour of the inevitable retreat of the former leaders to new positions, then the subjective qualities of their opponents, and indeed of the powers of permanent status, are such that the advent of a new international order looks like a completely uncertain prospect.
The change in context, which is very likely to be one of the factors underpinning Russian resolve, is quite obvious. First, it is easy to see this in the voting in the UN General Assembly on the resolutions adopted by Western countries as part of their anti-Russian campaign.
Despite the fact that, from the point of view of formal international law, condemning Russia would not be a problem for it, an increasing number of countries prefer to exercise moderation, by abstaining or avoiding voting on such resolutions. Of course, this contributes to the infrastructure of institutions created over the past couple of decades that are not oriented towards the West and are not subject to its will – BRICS, the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union. But first of all, many countries simply do not feel the need to unconditionally support the West in its campaign against Moscow. It does not meet their interests or their main goals of development; these states do not have their own claims against Russia. In general, it should be noted that the reaction to Russian actions since February 2022 has been extremely mild. For example, in 2003, the Indian Parliament passed a special resolution condemning the US and allied invasion of Iraq, which is now unimaginable outside of the West in relation to Russia.
Second, the change in context is underlined by the failure of the US and its allies to build a sustainable broad-based coalition against Russia early in the conflict. Now the list of states that initiate measures of economic war against Russian interests is limited to permanent members of the military-political blocs of the West – NATO and the European Union, with the involvement of Japan and Australia, which have strong bilateral allied relations with the United States. All other countries of the world, with the exception of the microscopic clients of the United States in Oceania or the Caribbean, only enforce “sanctions” at the state or corporate level under pressure. In other words, the circle of those whom the United States and the European Union do not have to force to carry out their decisions regarding Russia turned out to be extremely narrow. This means that relations between the West and the rest of the world are now based on a repressive policy of coercion, which in itself does not mean anything good for the global positions of the United States. First, because it inevitably forces a significant number of countries to strive to extricate themselves from American influence for purely practical reasons. The need to fear Western reprisals is gradually shifting relations with the West from factors that promote development to those that hinder it. Thus, we cannot have serious doubts that the context – the objective development of the international environment – is now very friendly for Russia and its main interests.
This allows Moscow and Beijing to look to the future with relative confidence and to assume that they are on the “right side of history”, while their opponents in the West resist inevitable changes. However, it is worth recognising that a favourable context is an important, but not the only condition for the survival of states in a chaotic international environment. No less significant is the ability of states to respond to current challenges that arise during critical historical periods. The fact is, what we are experiencing now represents just such an era.
Therefore, in addition to the realisation of its selfish interests, the whole world is closely watching the ability of Russia to survive and succeed in various aspects of its conflict with the West. In particular, attention is drawn to the ability of the Ukrainian forces to continue active resistance, especially in the context of a fairly stable supply of weapons from the West. Whether we like it or not, the pace at which Russian goals are being realised on the territory of Ukraine is becoming a factor that influences the behaviour of friendly states. In addition, the apparent concentration of Moscow’s efforts in one direction creates numerous temptations for third countries to solve their problems with less regard for Russian preferences. For example, we see the behaviour of Azerbaijan in its difficult relations with Armenia; it shows signs of haste, caused by the understanding that Russia is not ready for sufficiently decisive action in the South Caucasus. We find less striking examples in Central Asia, where the political regimes perceive the course of Russian operations in Ukraine as an incentive to achieve their own short-term goals. In short, Moscow’s justified delay in resolving the most important aspects of the Ukrainian problem creates nervousness in its environment, which would be better avoided. In a more favourable position is China, which has not yet joined the direct confrontation with the West. Despite the fact that the problem facing the leadership of the PRC is no less significant, as Taiwan is a constitutional part of Chinese territory, Beijing is still showing restraint. This helps to buy time, but increases the world’s fears that the Chinese authorities are behaving this way not because it is part of their long-term strategy, but because of the inability to act more actively. At the same time, one must understand that restraint is good for the time being: for example, the United States 105 years ago chose the moment to enter the war with the Central Powers, and did not experience fears about its consequences. Although, of course, every historical comparison is an oversimplified vision of the situation due to the change in that very context.
In summary, as conflict grows over the structure of the future international order, the tension between context and practice can grow as much as it shrinks. However, in any event, it will be the most important systemic characteristic of the confrontation, which we had the opportunity to observe throughout 2022 and will continue to do so. In this sense, 2023 may turn out to be, in a certain sense, a turning point – the opposing sides will begin to run out of accumulated reserves and the question will arise of mobilising the resources that they originally planned to save for the purposes of future development. In this regard, it will be important for Russia to use a favourable context not only as a confirmation of its strategic rightness, but, first of all, as a source of resources for its own stability. This means making relations with the World Majority a central part of our foreign economic relations and making real efforts.
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