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Churchill was Right about Russia and Still Is

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The world buzzes with headlines of Vladimir Putin and Russian action and reaction to world events. On the surface it seems virtually all Russian foreign policy responsibility is vested in Mr. Putin alone.

Certainly the Russian governmental decision­ making process is not bestowed solely upon one man, but it seems that little happens in Russia’s name that Putin does not endorse. Russia’s, and by extension Putin’s, actions and reactions tend to confuse and mystify us despite the rhetoric of various politicians indicating that they clearly understand Russian intentions. Actually understanding how Russia will act or react is as difficult as it has always been. In the West we tend to default to Winston Churchill’s famous epigram on forecasting Russian actions: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”

This frank admission by Mr. Churchill about forecasting Russian actions and reactions holds today. If a politician of Churchill’s grasp and intellect placed prognostication of Russian proclivity within virtually impenetrable concentric circles, why should we assume to be blessed with better equipped political actors on today’s stage? The answer is simple: we should not because we are not.

Churchill’s observation of Russian predictability is quoted so often we sometimes fail to remember that he did not stop with merely his observation of Russian inscrutability, and we can be thankful for it. He left Britain and the West with an insight into deciphering Russian will with his additional surmise that “perhaps there is a key” to Russian reaction to political stimuli. Wisely Churchill posited, “That key is Russian national interest.”

Churchill’s prescient observations were aired in an October 1939 broadcast and concerned his speculation on how Russia would act throughout the course of WWII. Offering insight into solving the Russian riddle Churchill shrewdly noted that Russia would not put aside anything that “would be contrary to the historic life­-interests of Russia.” It is very important to note that Churchill was not simply referring to what the Soviet leadership of Russia would do in a specific instance; he was looking instead to how Russia had historically acted, and he was predicting that Russia’s future actions would be in keeping with the major Russian interests exhibited in the past.

In 1939 Russia was faced with a Nazi threat to establish a physical presence on the shores of the Black Sea, occupy the Balkans, and subjugate the Slavonic population in Southeastern Europe. Churchill knew then what we should know now: Russia will act and react in traditional ways as it evaluates its national interests. Correctly interpreting Russia’s “historic life­-interests” allowed Churchill to predict Russia’s future actions only a month into WWII. Nazi Germany and the USSR had signed a mutual non-aggression pact less than two months before Churchill stated his conviction that “Hitler, and all that Hitler stands for, have been and are being warned off the east and the southeast of Europe” by Russia.

Churchill knew that Russia would not allow its traditional geopolitical aspirations to be threatened without mounting a serious response. A precursor to the coming Nazi Germany-­Soviet Russia death struggle came with the 1940 invasion of Romania by the USSR. This invasion underscored the conflict between the Russian “historic life­-interests” and the strategically critical Nazi requirement for oil and other war material. Hitler had to see from Stalin’s actions that the USSR would be a competitor for the Balkans, and this knowledge, correlated with his view of “Slavic races”as Untermenschen and his ambition, propelled Germany’s massive preemptive strike against the USSR in June of 1941.

Hitler sowed the wind with his invasion of Russia, and Germany reaped the whirlwind of defeat and occupation. German defeat in effect gave Russia the Black Sea, the Balkans, and rule over the Slavonic people of Eastern Europe. With Germany’s defeat Russia’s traditional geopolitical interests gained a large measure of satisfaction.

Russia may be the most traditional actor of all the major and secondary powers of the earth. But the assertion that Russia acts according to traditionalist tendencies runs the risk of venturing into an academic definitional fog because of the strand of religious belief known as Traditionalism. The difference between “traditional” and “Traditional” is largely a spiritual demarcation.

Traditionalism, either lowercase or uppercase, implies a handing down or generational passing on of beliefs and/or practices and may be applied across a range of practices from cuisine to courting to fashion. Uppercase Traditionalists believe that spiritual and religious truths have existed from time ­out­ of mind and that only certain groups of selected and initiated candidates have been chosen to gain and maintain the pure revelations of Truth that Traditionalism possesses. Traditionalists do not confine their belief system to any specific religious expression, rather they claim that kernels of original (therefore pure) Truth still exist and can be discovered within the major religions. Hence, Traditionalists often embrace selected elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism within the exclusive claims of Traditionalism.

Although traditional religious belief and practice cannot be equated exclusively with Orthodox Christianity, Russia does have a strong and pervasive embrace of Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity is certainly traditional.

Russian culture is a very traditional culture, and Russian geopolitical interests run along recurring traditional strands. It is understandable that Orthodox Christianity and other religious expressions are considered traditional, but it would be a mistake to confuse the correlation of religious tradition between Orthodox Christianity and other Russian traditions. Although Russian religious and geopolitical traditions may be related, correlation of religious traditional traits should not be considered the cause of the traditional geopolitical interests of Russia a priori.

In addition to the recognizing the definitional fog surrounding “traditional” and “Traditional” (as if the common spelling is not enough) affecting those attempting to predict Putin’s future actions, it is important to recognize that distinctly anti­-Modern, therefore anti­-Western, sentiments are distinguishing elements in some contemporary adaptations of Traditionalism. Some influential members of the Russian political right, especially those identified as the “Russian New Right,” assert a connection with the Traditional strand of religious belief and practice.

Alexander Dugin, for example, is a Russian political philosopher who has been very closely associated with the ideas and teachings of the controversial Italian self-­proclaimed Traditionalist, Julius Evola. Documentation of Evola’s association with Fascism is extremely alarming to some students of Traditionalism. Mark Sedgwick’s provocative history and commentary, Against the Modern World, devotes considerable attention to Evola, hence to the reasoning of Dugin and the anti­-Modern bend of Evola’s disciples.

To an adherent, Traditionalism is right belief, and right belief guides right actions. If right belief and right actions include a distinctly anti­-Western characteristic, then Russian actions under Putin should be of serious concern based upon Putin’s reception of Dugin and others of the Russian New Right. Leaders and diplomats of the West would be well advised to study the works of Dugin and other seriously right-­leaning writers and thinkers and their influence on Putin and his political actions.

The West should not be so naive as to believe that the Traditionalist factions evident in Russia today are not significant forces. Evola and his interpretation of Traditionalism influences Dugin and the Russian New Right; thus Putin is influenced in turn. Important manifestations of the contemporary Russian New Right thought include beliefs that the West is dangerously materialist, morally corrupt, and godless. The Western tendency toward more direct democracy is viewed as promoting these damnable traits. Does this characterization of the West sound familiar? There is a certain resonance between these views and accusations in many Islamic criticisms of the West. It is hubris of the worst sort to treat these accusations of Russia or the Islamic world in any flippant way; perhaps a too light consideration even borders on the suicidal.

Russian traditionalist perspectives (its “historic life-­interests”) are certainly geopolitical. The Russian Empire long coveted the Balkans and the warm water ports of the Black Sea and other access points to the Mediterranean and other seas. Imperial Russia aspired to become the single great Eurasian power — an empire stretching from Western Europe to India and perhaps farther. Does contemporary Russia under Putin aspire to less? One needs only to look to the plans and purposes of the Eurasian Economic Union to realize that there is an elephant (more appropriately a bear) in the room and that the bear is attempting to rearm in the grand style of the USSR.

It is a cultural and historical fallacy to project Western inculcated responses onto Putin’s Russia. A Coca­-Cola sign displayed at a market in Moscow does not necessarily mean Russia is eager to be “just like us;” perhaps it means nothing more than there one may purchase a Coke. Russia (under Putin) will act and react purposefully, not as a Western actor, but as the Eurasian imperial power it aspires to be. Putin may, or may not, be genuinely influenced by Traditionalist beliefs of the Russian right, but he will act traditionally (that is, within Churchill’s “historic life­-interest” understanding) as a Russian imperialist.

Some experts on Russian political behavior credit Putin’s actions to his being a practitioner of realpolitik, others to Putin’s having pronounced megalomaniac tendencies, still others to Putin’s being a product of KGB culture. While expert opinion should be considered, no opinion affords the traction provided by viewing Putin as a Russian leader steeped in Russian geopolitical tradition who is open to the aspirations of Dugin and the Russian New Right. Putin does not, as some pundits proclaim, desire a 21st Century return of the USSR; his imperial desire is a return of the Czarist Empire constructed to his specificiations — a Czarist Empire wielding the might of the USSR in its glory days and fulfilling the “historic life­-interests of Russia” in a very real and recognizable way.

Mr. Churchill was right. Where geopolitics are concerned, Russia will act in historically traditional ways. To predict how contemporary Russia will behave, forget reading of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution; instead read Alexander Dugin.

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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