7 November 2016

Containing a rational Russia


The question of how to handle Russia is a pressing one. In inverse proportion to the weakness of its economy, demographics and armed forces, Russia seems determined to ratchet up its confrontation with the West and break the international system for good. Now, for good measure, explicit threats of nuclear war are being made.

Dealing with this situation presents a dilemma: idly observing Russian adventurism in Syria, Ukraine and the Baltic region (as well as in Western states’ internal affairs) risks encouraging aggression by weakness, while symmetrical responses risk playing into Russia’s hands. We are, in other words, damned if we do take action to limit Russia and damned if we don’t.

Establishing a framework for understanding the aims and motives of Putin and his circle, while difficult, is necessary in order to navigate this minefield. The fact that Russia itself throws up so much smoke in the form of disinformation and the output of its useful idiots makes the task harder, but by no means impossible.

First, it is worth eliminating a canard. Much of the Western discussion of how to deal with Russia focuses on Vladimir Putin’s state of mind – is he a rational player or not? The answer is almost certainly ‘yes, but not necessarily in a way you’re familiar with’.

In strategic terms, Russia is playing a game of deterrence in which the aim is to deter interference in its extraterritorial ventures, rather than a direct attack on Russia.

The classic deterrence gambit (especially where nuclear weapons are in play) is to appear unbalanced and scare your adversary into submission. (Nixon instructed Henry Kissinger to drop hints to his Soviet counterparts that cast doubt on Nixon’s own sanity; Kissinger did this, but he later realised that he was simply telling them the truth and that the president was indeed to some extent deranged.)

To many Western onlookers the Kremlin’s actions seem inexplicable, and so they infer that the Kremlin’s inhabitants are irrational. But what they are seeing is merely the result of a radically different world view and set of incentives which make perfect sense from the Moscow perspective. The onlookers, in other words, are displaying a failure of imagination.

The people who control Russia are not mad, but to work out how to deal with them we need to understand something about their interests and world view.

In short, changes within Russia and changes in Russia’s behaviour abroad are part of the same phenomenon.

After Putin came to power in 1999, the chaos of the Yeltsin years gave way to ‘managed democracy’. Russia would have all of the ornaments of a democracy such as elections, opposition parties, civil society groups, a free press and so on. But in reality all of these were ‘managed’ by a cadre of ‘political technologists’ who ensured that the elections would always return the correct results and that no element threatened the ‘power vertical’.

Where truly independent actors like the newspaper Novaya Gazeta were allowed to operate, it was on the understanding that they were a minority interest that helped to dress the window but posed little threat. Major broadcasters, by contrast, were taken under direct or indirect state control.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, it seems that this ‘managed democracy’ is being abandoned in favour of naked authoritarianism.

One sign of this is the government’s decision in September to muzzle the Levada Centre, the country’s independent polling organisation. After it released research showing a decline in public support for the ruling United Russia Party ahead of parliamentary elections, the justice ministry declared the Levada Centre a ‘foreign agent’ and banned it from election-related work. Similarly, the assassination of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin in February 2015 sent the message that red-blooded opposition was not to be tolerated.

Another ominous development is the planned creation of a new, integrated Ministry of State Security ministry (MGB) – nothing less than a new KGB.

These actions and many others like them are not entirely new, but coming together, in parallel with Ukraine and Syria, they point to the start of a new phase.

Putin has been in power directly or indirectly (via Medvedev) for 17 years, and faces a presidential election in 2018. In democracies, as in managed democracies, that is a long time, and aside from Russia’s chronic economic, corruption and social problems, voters can simply get bored and long for a change.

The Levada Centre report that preceded its demise showed a mere 31% public support for United Russia, down from 39% in the last poll.

As well as bearing bad news, the Levada Centre’s work risked exposing massive electoral fraud: there was, to put it in a diplomatic way, a striking anomaly between the Levada poll and the outcome of the parliamentary election. United Russia won by a landslide, winning 54% of votes cast and securing 343 of the 450 seats in the Duma, an increase of 105 seats.

A former Kremlin insider who now lives in exile explained Putin’s situation as follows:

He’s not a charismatic leader and he doesn’t sit on top of some hierarchical system. He’s not a populist or an ideologue, but rather an elitist who acts as the manager and arbiter of various elite groups.

As these groups become more fractious (for detailed reporting on this, look at Karina Orlova’s brilliant output in American Interest) their management becomes more and more problematic.

Faced with a natural decline in public support and turbulence among the elite groups, the one thing Putin cannot contemplate is leaving the Kremlin, and it is this imperative that explains his rationality.

The litany of crimes such as the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the shooting down of MH 17 over eastern Ukraine and the flattening of Aleppo raise the prospect of prosecution for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Merkel and Hollande’s recent statements referring to the Aleppo bombardment as a ‘war crime’ have reportedly been greeted with horror at the highest levels. However much the chief propagandist Vladislav Surkov spins out his fairy tales of disinformation and moral equivalence, these crimes cannot be washed away. They lock the Kremlin elite into its own fortress.

This, then, goes on to illuminate Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria and its nuclear sabre rattling (such as the impressively unhinged ‘nuclear de-escalation’ doctrine, whereby dropping a single nuclear warhead on a NATO state supposedly cows the Alliance and brings it to the table).

The domestic population is blitzed with blood-curdling warnings of war – the ministry of defence channel Zvezda told viewers earlier in October ‘Schizophrenics from America are sharpening nuclear weapons for Moscow’, while the Kremlin cheerleader Dimitri Kiselyov has said US ‘impudence’ could have ‘nuclear implications’.

Like imminent Armageddon, the restoration of a great Russia that defends its honour and its people against an aggressive and decadent West is a fantasy intended to scare, distract and make pliable the Russian population.

Its aim is not the stated aim, and it really has nothing to do with Aleksander Dugin’s dreams of ‘Novorossiya’ and Orthodox greatness. It is part of an odious, but rational, scheme to secure the personal futures of a group of kleptocrats and war criminals.

If this analysis is correct, it is bleak indeed for Syria, for Ukraine and for the Russian people.

But for the West, it removes much of the fear and uncertainty from dealing with Russia. Just because the Russian armed forces now stage annual drills that culminate in a nuclear strike on Warsaw, we should not assume that this is being seriously contemplated. Indeed, there is no ‘new Cold War’ because the West is not reciprocating.

The US and West European states are focused on reviving their economies and managing social issues, and have no fundamental quarrel with Russia. They are reacting to Putin’s unpredictable and alarming tactical moves, but much would rather not have to deal with the problem.

This is not to recommend complacency – conversely the US and its allies have probably been far too passive since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Obama administration, which views disengagement from Europe and the Middle East as a strategic goal, has encouraged Russia’s activities by creating a security vacuum which Russia (again rationally) has opportunistically sought to fill.

Obama’s fatuous Russia-US ‘reset’ telegraphed to the Kremlin early in his first term that it was welcome to run amok in the chicken coop, which it has naturally done.

The best policy, then, would be firm containment.

We must walk a line between being drawn into the ‘new Cold War game’ and provoking further adventures by weakness. The NATO tripwire deployments in Poland and the Baltics (including a British infantry battalion in Estonia) are a well-calibrated response.

If Russia’s domestic political situation becomes acute, there may well be a temptation to call NATO’s bluff in the Baltic region; it must be made perfectly clear that this will be not be taken lying down.

Similarly, proportionate and legal measures should be taken to limit Russian ‘active measures’ that interfere in European and US political matters. Areas where Russia may be pulling ahead in militarily technology – air defence and submarine warfare, for example – should be addressed as a priority. At the same time cheap loans to Russia and high tech transfers should be heavily curtailed.

Since Russia has sited Iskander-M missiles which nuclear-armed in Kaliningrad, and since Russia has unilaterally torn up the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then the US should deploy nuclear-capable assets in the Baltics. Ambiguity is a game both sides can play.

Conversely, a path of action that will almost certainly lead to fighting, such as imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, would go beyond containment and potentially lock Putin into a situation he feels he cannot back down from.

By showing a rational Kremlin elite that its window for outrageous actions is closing, the Western allies can forestall further deterioration of the international security situation.

Realistically the will not be able to undo the annexation of Crimea or the hideous events that have already taken place in Syria. There will of course be serious risks, but the risk of further inaction is far greater.

Neil Barnett has 15 years' experience as a journalist in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Middle East, writing for the Telegraph, the Spectator and Jane's Defence Weekly. He covered the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine and the conflict in Iraq and has written a biography of Tito. He now runs Istok Associates, a risk consultancy specialising in CEE and the Middle East.