Russia Out for a Fight—or Backed into a Corner?

NATO rhetoric is based on an erroneous interpretation of Putin’s behavior, claiming that his intent is to restore the USSR. In reality, such rhetoric is aimed at legitimizing US efforts to maintain its global dominance.

Opening a public debate on Russia, former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman asked the following question: “Is Russia on the prowl, or in the corner?”

The domestic discourse does not trouble itself with such questions, which is a pity. Questions like this allow us to look at the issue from a distance, and gain a sense of perspective. Here, the key starting point is a statement uttered by Vladimir Putin in his 2005 speech to the Duma, claiming that the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Analysts interpret it as the expression of Putin’s intent to restore the USSR, even though the context of the speech makes it clear that Putin was talking about Russia’s decline and impoverishment in the 1990s, defining the conditions and pace of transfer toward democracy. For the Czech media, though, this has spawned the overwhelming conviction that Russia is again on the prowl.

When dealing with particularly complicated issues, it is best to ground one’s conclusions in a theory. The realist school of thought in international relations theory claims that the world’s great powers base their actions on optimizing a single parameter—their own self-preservation. Factors like a country’s political system, or even its current leader, are virtually irrelevant. The realist theory emphasizes that well-defined national interests are the best possible justification for utilizing military power in international politics. This may seem cynical and immoral at first glance. Consider, however, how much fewer wars there would be if they were only fought in situations when a country’s security was really threatened. Only then would we realize how humane the realist approach toward foreign interventions really was.

To the political realists, arguments denouncing the Russian effort to create a safe buffer around itself appear biased and one-sided. Would the United States allow Cuba to form a coalition with another power or bloc? From the realist perspective, Russia’s reaction to a perceived threat has been completely predictable.

Israeli-American mathematician and conflict theorist Robert Aumann received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis. In his interview for the Czech business daily Hospodářské noviny, entitled “The West Has Rocked the Boat,” Aumann explains—in line with the realist theory—that we do not live in an ideal world. A country cannot always choose what it wants. In Ukraine, the West has encroached on the Russian sphere of influence. Aumann further claims that in international politics, sending unclear signals to your partners or rivals is one of the worst actions. This is what actually leads to military conflicts, Aumann adds.

It takes two to tango, as Ronald Reagan liked to say. The realist theory shows that Russia’s behavior cannot be analyzed separately, without taking into regard the actions of the Western powers, especially the United States. If we refuse to do that, we’re entering the realm of propaganda.

Let’s look back at how the tango actually started. When Putin took over, Russia was on the brink of a collapse. He needed to consolidate his power, wresting it back from the local oligarchs, represented especially by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin had offered them a deal: he would let them keep their fortunes, as long as they kept their investments in Russia and stayed out of the Russian politics. Khodorkovsky had managed to obtain control of Yukos, one of the key oil mining companies, through a fraudulent auction in a scheme known as “Loans for Shares.” He bribed deputies in the State Duma to vote down the bill on oil mining taxation; provided funding to opposition parties; and announced his intention to enter politics. At the same time, he had been reported to be involved in negotiations with Exxon and ChevronTexaco to sell a major stake in Yukos to them. In order to do that, he needed transparent accounting. Some people therefore see Khodorkovsky as the quintessence of an honest Russian entrepreneur, who represented a threat to Putin’s corrupt government, and so had to be eliminated. I will not comment on that. Yukos had controlled about a fifth of the Russian oil, gas, and mining industries. Putin had Khodorkovsky convicted in a sham trial, which, quite predictably, gained him no favor with the United States. The American Administration protects the interests of its businesses. However, losing to the oligarchs would mean Russia’s collapse, not dissimilar to what had happened in Ukraine.

An equally important task was re-establishing central state power in the Russian regions, which Putin has managed to accomplish through amending the election law in 2004. Unfortunately, this Russian effort to consolidate power also led to the brutal Chechen War. Simply put, the restoration of Russia’s power gave its opponents ample reason to criticize the way it was “building democracy.”

At the time of his 2005 speech, Putin had just entered his second term of office, after an overwhelming victory. The United States repeatedly let him know that Russia could not claim the same superpower status as the Soviet Union, and must get used to the fact that it no longer had decision-making power. NATO had admitted the Baltic States as new members, and the United States had withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty several years previously, undermining one of the pillars of stability from the times of the Cold War. Putin’s suggestions about Russia joining NATO remained largely ignored, even after the help Russia had provided to the United States after 9/11, and after it closed its military base in Cuba. As a part of its “War on Terror,” the United States had decided they would no longer rely on the current international security structures, that is, the UN Security Council. In the words of General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO during the 1999 War on Yugoslavia, the Pentagon was getting ready to “take out seven countries in 5 years” after 9/11, “starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” Clark described this decision as a “policy coup,” since in his campaign, George W. Bush had promised to act with far more restraint than Clinton. As early as 1991, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had told Clark that it was necessary to replace the regimes installed with Soviet help during the Cold War now, while Russia was still weak. This was another reason why sitting at one table with Russia seemed like a bad idea to US policy-makers.

In his speech to the American Enterprise Institute (a major lobbyist organization) in February 2002, President Bush claimed that the rest of the history of the civilized world would be written by the United States, and called for a worldwide campaign to spread American values. The “building of democracy” in Iraq started but a year later. One of the American strategic goals was to prevent the emergence of any rival power that might become a threat to them. Prominent neo-conservative Robert Kagan claimed quite unambiguously that military power was the key factor in foreign policy. If the United States decide to spread democracy by force, and if it’s the United States who decide what democracy actually is, it is hardly a surprise that Russia might hesitate to dance this kind of tango. At the 2006 Vilnius Conference in Lithuania, Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Putin for taking anti-democratic measures, but then he visited Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and praised their authoritarian dynastic regimes. For Putin, this was a clear confirmation that the United States were not interested in partnership as much as obedience.

Putin commented on the changes in international situation at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, claiming that America has undermined the international security system, and that Russia had to react accordingly. The country started preparing for the threats it perceived from unilateral US policy, and renewed its armament efforts.

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, influential Polish-American geostrategist and former adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Ukraine is key to maintaining US global dominance. In his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski claims that without Ukraine and access to the Black Sea, “Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

Russia, whose protests against NATO’s eastward expansion had been to no avail, decided it would not allow Georgia and Ukraine to become part of NATO. Precisely at this point it is most apt to repeat Freeman’s question. Is Russia’s behavior the sign of being on the prowl, or is it the act of a country backed into a corner?

To be clear, my goal is not to defend Putin’s policy. The Crimea operation seemed somewhat improvised, but in the end, it has led to the first annexation of another country’s territory since World War Two. What about Kosovo, though? It might not have been annexed, but its territory was still separated from Serbia without its consent. Putin took Bush’s recognition of Kosovo as a message to the republics within the Russian Federation: should they decide to separate, they would have no trouble gaining international recognition. The world order, already shaken by the United States, received another blow. The proxy war in the Donbass region has only escalated the seriousness of the situation. We need to understand all of these facts in mutual correlation; only then can we decide on an adequate reaction in a world threatened by a new geopolitical conflict.

Under Obama’s leadership, America has continued its strategy of weakening Russia. In the context of American politics, this is quite understandable. The American public traditionally tends to view the United States as an “indispensable nation” (in the words of Madeleine Albright), and the triumphant Cold War rhetoric has suited it perfectly. Any kind of compromising behavior toward Russia would be considered a weakness: in spite of Obama’s sanctions, his actions were criticized—he has failed to intervene in Syria, made an agreement with Iran, and has not sent any weapons to Ukraine.

NATO rhetoric is based on an erroneous interpretation of Putin’s behavior, claiming that his intent is to restore the USSR, including the Baltic States. In reality, such rhetoric is aimed at shaping public opinion in the West, and legitimizing US efforts to maintain its global dominance. Moving NATO military bases ever closer to the Russian borders, citing some hypothetical threat as a reason and ignoring Russian security interests, only deepens Russia’s concerns about being surrounded. In other words, the West is sending “unclear signals,” which is the kind of behavior Aumann has warned against. President Obama keeps describing Russia as a mere regional power: to say that about a country that has intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads at its disposal is a colossal mistake.

What has been the EU’s response? To a considerable extent, the Czech European Commissioner Štefan Füle and the Swedish- Polish Presidency of the EU have contributed to the pointless tug-of-war over Ukraine. Poland was allowed to taint EU policy with its historical resentment toward Russia—which is understandable, but counter-productive. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told Russia that the EU would only commence talks about an association agreement with Russia after it has signed the association agreement with Ukraine. This was a mistake with severe economic consequences for Russia. The EU should never have negotiated with Ukraine without Russia’s involvement. From the Russian perspective, the EU has sided with the United States by this act; even though it is in the EU’s interest to cooperate with Russia, not compete with it.

The criticism of such policies is not meant to be taken as an automatic excuse or approval of any of Russia’s actions. In history, mistakes were often made by both sides of the conflict. However, the stronger side always carries a greater responsibility. One can hardly dispute that the West, undoubtedly the stronger side, has failed to handle its responsibility here.

In my opinion, it is far closer to the truth to assume that Russia is not acting as an imperialistic power, but that its actions stem from fears of something similar to the Maidan Revolution taking place on the Red Square. It must have raised the Kremlin’s concerns when the West accepted the coup in Ukraine, an agreement with three EU foreign ministers had become nothing but a scrap of paper, and losing control over the Black Sea naval bases became a distinct possibility. The West had two options: it could either ignore Russia’s concerns, or it could try to understand that using Ukraine and Georgia as pawns in a chess game between the West and Russia might lead to a confrontation.

Russia had decided to demonstrate its unwillingness to allow NATO’s expansion to Ukraine by force. However, using force is never without risk. The turning point in the events starting with Crimea’s secession/annexation and leading to the support of the separatist forces in East Ukraine was the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airplane, probably by the separatists—even though the aircraft was most likely brought down unintentionally, and Ukraine may be partly at fault due to the failure to close its air space. Russia has been branded as a clear culprit in the whole conflict: it may only be Crimea for now, but restoration of the USSR could easily come next.

Truth was the first casualty the conflict, with propaganda escalating to unprecedented proportions on both sides. To secure the public’s support, Putin decided to play the “badmouthing- the-West” card. Still remembering Russia’s humiliation in the 1990s, the Russian public accepted it with glee. Russian nationalism, accompanied by messianic tendencies stemming from the Russian Orthodoxy, is certainly nothing liberal Europeans would admire, but neither is it an ideology geared primarily toward world domination. Those who scold Russia for violating human rights should search their own conscience, and remember how they felt about the United States resorting to torture in their crusade to spread American values. It was US actions that were one of the key factors in the rise of Islamist terrorism; yet those who dared to call attention to the West’s political mistakes were branded Putin’s lackeys.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria are prime examples of a “foot-in-the-door” tactic. Prominent Western analysts presenting various scenarios of the Russian occupation of Ukraine base their assumptions on Russia’s eagerness to expand. I would say they are mistaken. The costs of such actions would vastly exceed the benefits. The “foot-in-the-door” tactic merely ensures that Russian cooperation will be essential to settle the conflict. The same applies to Syria: surely no one could reasonably think that Putin’s decision to intervene there has stemmed from a desire to restore the Soviet Union.

Russia’s presence in the region ensures it a seat at the negotiating table, which is essential for maintaining its sphere of influence. The region’s direct importance for Russian national interests is indisputable; and not just because of the oil reserves there, which is the primary concern of the United States. Russia is more concerned with the threat presented by radical Islamism: if Assad’s regime were to fall, the possibility that the entire Syrian territory would fall under the reign of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) seems extremely real. However, Russia has also made it abundantly clear that it does not consider restoring Syrian sovereignty under Assad’s leadership a viable alternative. For a while now, Russia has been an explicit proponent of some kind of temporary solution, which the West has largely ignored.

If we consider the situation realistically, it is hard to understand why the EU is so keen to support the American political goals. Weakening Russia should not be the EU’s strategic intent. It is time for a change. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker has realized that. Without the support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, ISIS would only constitute a marginal threat. Add to that the Saudi offer to build several hundred mosques for the migrants in Europe, which would likely preach the radical Saudi version of Islam, and it becomes abundantly clear that some of our Great Ally’s allies are just as questionable as Russia.

Some proponents of the so-called “European values” see a solution to the world’s current problems in restoring colonial rule in countries the West (and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan) has managed to destabilize in the past 30 years. One would think they have just read Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.” Colonialism had not done much good in the past, and would lead to tragic ends in the future.

How can the West negotiate with Russia if they insist on calling Putin the new Hitler? The idea that Western sanctions would lead to Putin’s downfall is merely wishful thinking. The only thing the sanctions have succeeded in doing is confirming the Russians’ conviction that the West is trying to impose their own intentions on them. They have only boosted Putin’s popularity. Putin’s authority would only be shaken if he showed weakness in his dealings with the West. Unfortunately, recent Western policy has lost the West any credit it had with Russia in the 1990s.

Even if any such action were successful, what then? Establishing democracy of the sort that has been imposed on Iraq? Unlike Iraq, Russia actually owns nuclear and chemical weapons. Once Russia’s central government is weakened, who will ensure that tons of fissile material do not end up on the black market? Why would countries yearning for nuclear weaponry bother with building complex production facilities if they could buy it ready-made? Within the foreseeable future, Putin’s brand of personal power would only be replaced by a similar system. The risks of such a change in power should make us think seriously of the consequences of our current strategy toward Russia. Does it really pursue any rational goals, or is it steering us ever closer to an increased risk of war? Professor Aumann’s warnings should not be taken lightly.


Journalist, signatory to the Charter 77, former MP and Vice Chairman of the Czech National Council, Chairman of the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Editor-in-Chief of Listy, a bi-monthly.

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