Reuters/Scanpix A Ukrainian serviceman with a national flag gestures as he attends the “RAPID TRIDENT-2021” military exercise at Ukraine’s International Peacekeeping Security Centre in the Lviv region in September 2021. Ukraine hold the military drills with US forces, NATO Allies. James Sherr argues it is not too late to communicate to Moscow that the West’s response to aggression will be disproportionate to any gain Russia hopes to realise. If instead of this, the US pursues the mirage of off-ramps and Russia concludes it is being offered ‘lollies’ instead of substance, then the threat to Western interests will grow, and so will the risk of war.
Jan 5, 2022
The collective Putin, the Russia of grievance, ambition and resentment, was born the day the Soviet Union died. Today, it lives off the creation and harvesting of threats. The crushing of civil society inside Russia and threats to Ukraine are two sides of a coin. Ukraine’s independence and Western security are also two sides of a coin, as Russia’s latest demands confirm.
Coincidentally or otherwise, Russia’s authoritative journal, Russia in Global Affairs, has chosen the month of the liquidation of Russia’s prestigious historical-educational association, Memorial, to republish former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s August 2021 essay on ‘Perestroyka’ and ‘New Thinking’.1 Need reminders be necessary, the founding of Memorial, like the rehabilitation of its co-founder, Andrey Sakharov, was one of the high points of perestroyka. Reading the essay is like visiting a museum. Despite the passage of time, Gorbachev restates the articles of his faith without amendment. ‘The experience and lessons of perestroyka are relevant for today, and not only for Russia’. ‘And most importantly, we brought the process of change to the point where its reversal became impossible’.
Whatever one might say about Vladimir Putin, when it comes to the credo of Gorbachev’s policies, he cannot be faulted for ignorance. The judgement of the Supreme Court of Russia on the liquidation of Memorial is but the latest sign that it is now deemed safe to discard that credo. To be sure, it is not the first. The poisoning of Alexei Navalny in August 2020, Navalny’s subsequent arrest, trial and incarceration, the crushing of the ensuing protests made it clear to all but the most credulous that Vladimir Putin is determined to eradicate the civil society with which perestroyka is intimately associated. The award of a Sakharov prize to Navalny is a reminder of that association. Yet another notation from Gorbachev’s essay is relevant: ‘an absolute majority [in the country] believed that ‘continuing to live in this way is impossible’. Putin has concluded that it is all too possible, and he has yet to be proved wrong. (According to a Levada poll in December 2020, only 15 percent of respondents believed that Navalny was poisoned on state orders, whereas 19 percent blamed Western special services).2
Yet perhaps the most pertinent statement in Gorbachev’s essay is the following: ‘Alongside its internal reasons, perestroyka was predicated on international factors’. No less than Gorbachev, Putin subscribes to Lenin’s axiom: ’there is no more erroneous or more harmful idea than the separation of foreign from internal policy.’ Those seeking doctrinal justification for this premise need look no further than Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and its 2021 National Security Strategy. The former cites as a ‘main internal military danger’:
subversive information activities against the population, especially young citizens, aimed at undermining historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions related to the defence of the Motherland. [author’s emphasis]
And as a ‘main external military danger’:
the establishment of regimes whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation in the states contiguous with the Russian Federation, including the overthrow of legitimate state administrative bodies.
Connecting the Dots
Are the enlargement of NATO, US policies in Ukraine and the activities of Memorialconnected? Yes, to the Russian state leadership they are. Why, asked the prosecutor, does Memorial promote a mendacious image of the USSR as ‘a terrorist state’ and defame its record in the Great Patriotic War? ‘Because somebody is paying’ [author’s emphasis].3
If the architects of Western policy and its ‘wards’ in Ukraine have become, in Putin’s parlance, the ‘anti-Russia’, then Putin has become the anti-Gorbachev. He is recalibrating the connection between internal and foreign policy in ways that have implications not only for Russia’s development but the security of its immediate neighbours and Europe as a whole.
This process did not begin with the issuing of Russia’s ‘demands’ on 15 December. Nor did it begin with Putin’s chilling address to the Valdai Club in 2014 (‘new rules or a game without rules’) or his intemperate speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. As far back as 2004, Putin connected the terrorist assault of the schoolhouse in Beslan to those who want to ‘tear off a big chunk of our country…[who] think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated’. Earlier still, in November 1999, he derisively charged the West with offering ‘credits to buy lollies, while…they annex our territory’. This is not Putin’s personal syndrome. It is the syndrome of the collective Putin, and it was born the day the Soviet Union died. Today the collective Putin is stronger than at any time since the resignation of Boris Yeltsin. But if it weren’t threatened, and if it didn’t create threats, it wouldn’t be strong. The harvesting and generation of threats are not only a syndrome, but a state interest.
To read Russia’s demands and its draft treaties is to understand its indignation at the West’s impertinence and that of its Ukrainian ‘wards’ as well. President Volodymyr Zelensky, initially regarded as an emollient figure, if not a clown in Moscow, has proved to be nimble, defiant and audacious. (None of his predecessors had the temerity to disempower Putin’s prefect, Viktor Medvedchuk). Europe, which Kremlin wags call a ‘shopping superpower’ has not ‘stood up’ to Russia, but it has not allowed ‘Ukraine fatigue’ and its eternal divisions to alter its policy either. Therefore, the Kremlin has decided that it is not only ‘senseless’ (in former President Dmitry Medvedev’s words) to talk to Ukraine but that involving Europe, in the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, ‘will simply drown [negotiations] in talk and verbiage’. What matters is negotiation with the ‘sovereign’ itself, the United States.
The Stark Truth
Stripped of psychological undercurrents, the ‘collective West’ now faces a truth that is both prosaic and stark. If accepted, Russia’s ‘demands’ would dismantle European security as we know it. The equally blunt truth, far from new but now unavoidable, is that Russia’s objectives are not limited to Ukraine but encompass the entire normative and security system put in place since the Charter of Paris was concluded and the Cold War brought to an end. Its demands are not a ‘menu’ for contemplation or, as Washington prefers to describe them, a set of proposals, but an ultimatum by any definition of the term. The only purpose of ‘negotiation’ is to devise a set of mechanisms for acceding to it, and ‘without delay’. Otherwise, the West will face, in Putin’s words, a ‘military-technical alternative’, and ‘in places where [it] is not expected’ and ‘extremely different’ from those expectations.
Where might the parameters lie? The last thing Russia will do is box itself into the West’s stock alternatives: bluff or war? In the Russian matrix, war (kinetic conflict) is not an alternative to coercive intimidation but one of its instruments. The Russian military term for ‘coercive intimidation’,ustrashenie, also means ‘terror’. When Putin speaks of diplomatiya i ustrashenie, he doesn’t mean, ‘first the one, then the other’. He is speaking about a unity.
The war that the West dreads most — an all-out invasion of Ukraine — is unlikely. It is not that the battalion tactical groups on Ukraine’s borders are insufficient for invasion. They will be good at it, but not for what comes afterwards. The Russian military leadership is better informed than those Western commentators who believe that Ukraine’s army will disintegrate in hours and stay dead. But whether they know it or not, they will be opening the door to people’s war. It will be waged by reconstituted forces, veterans of the Donbas conflict, volunteer insurgents, saboteurs as well as special forces who know, at least as well as their Russian counterparts, how to wage war in places and by means the adversary does not anticipate.
But the last thing we can expect is the kind of ‘off-ramp’ and ‘face-saving retreat’ that Washington hopes to prepare. Things have gone too far for that. It is time Western democracies understood that in Russia, authority does not depend upon institutions, but respect. As Putin said during his recent press conference: ‘Russia has nowhere further to retreat’. Neither has Putin.
Rather than these unlikely scenarios, we need to focus our minds on two others, which are likely to merge. The first, as I wrote in March, would be an occupation in force of what Russia already occupies, viz., the Donetsk and Luhansk pseudo republics. The second or simultaneous scenario, also mooted by the author has been set out in detail by Frederick Kagan and other experts at the Institute of War: viz. the deployment of ‘airborne and/or mechanised units to certain locations in Belarus’.
These deployments would have three merits. First, in all likelihood, they would be unopposed. Second, they would create a new military-political reality for Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states and, to be sure, a substantial augmentation of threat. Third, they might be sufficiently justifiable in legal terms and sufficiently ambiguous in political terms to defer or dilute Western counter-measures and undermine Alliance cohesion as well.
The only effective deterrent is one that persuades Moscow the West will erect tomorrow the very threats we are accused of posing today. It is late to be doing that. But it is not too late to communicate resolution. To that end, two messages need to be delivered. First, Russia should be in no doubt that our primary objective is not to avoid war, but to preserve Western security. Second, our response to aggression will be disproportionate to any gain Russia hopes to realise. If instead of these points, the US pursues the mirage of off-ramps and Russia concludes it is being offered ‘lollies’ instead of substance, then the threat to Western interests will grow, and so will the risk of war.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).
1 Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘Understand perestroyka, defend new thinking’, [Ponyat’ perestroyku, otstoyat’ novoe myshlenie] (Excerpts translated by the author). Russia in Global Affairs, 2 August, 2021, republished 1 January 2022.
3 ‘Supreme court of Russia liquidated the association, “Memorial” ’ [Verkhovniy sud Rossii likvidiroval obshchestvo “Memorial”], BBC Russian Service, 27 December 2021