The West must take Russia seriously as an opponent – and reject both unworkable appeasement or aggressive threats to break up the country
JADE MCGLYNN 3 November 2022 •
In Russia, there is an often told story in which a young Putin chases a rat on a dilapidated Leningrad staircase. Cornered, the rat lashes out. It is almost certainly contrived to convey the impression that, if the Russian president is ever trapped, he escalates. But this has often been a false impression. There have been times when he has upped the ante, only to back down when a stronger opponent has bared their teeth. But when the likely tool of escalation is nuclear weapons, any ambiguity is a problem.
And, today, the Kremlin is giving off decidedly mixed signals. On the one hand we hear statements about the Russian Federation’s doctrinal commitment to the maxim that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. On the other, we learn that Russian generals have been discussing the possibility of deploying tactical nuclear weapons against the backdrop of a war in Ukraine that is increasingly painted as an existential struggle with the West.
Thus, even with official statements playing down the prospect, there can be no confidence that Putin would not escalate into the nuclear field – especially if he felt that it was the only way to save his regime. For with every day that passes, the Russian president and his inner circle are becoming ever more unknowable, infected by an intense paranoia.
This atmosphere of suspicion is what underpins the rumours swirling around Moscow that only three people had advance warning of the plan to attack Ukraine. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, is said to have learnt of the invasion while in his pyjamas, just two hours prior. And the paranoia will only grow as the war continues to deviate from the plan. Closed off from the world and driven by a messianic conflation of his nation and himself, Putin will do anything to stay in power.
How should the West respond to this essentially unknowable situation? It is an unenviable task for policymakers, but the most important thing is the rejection of the binary that insists on either unworkable appeasement deals or inadvisably aggressive threats to break up Russia.
Instead, we should take Russia seriously as an opponent, following the example of the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces (General Zaluzhnyi has studied Russian army doctrine, tactics and personnel in minute detail). In practical terms it means setting out a combined Western doctrine for dealing with Russia – most probably some variation on containment, with clear red lines and evidence that we will enforce them, rather than cheap rhetoric and empty threats.
That said, Western support for Ukraine should not be mitigated by shapeshifting claims of “not humiliating Russia”. It is not in the West’s gift or Ukraine’s gift to humiliate Russia; Putin has done that on his own. If Russia stopped fighting, the war would end and so would his humiliation.
There are, however, natural limits to Western influence, and we should recognise this by shifting the focus from defeating Putin to helping Ukraine win. Resources ought to be tailored towards the most effective outcome, which is safeguarding the future of Ukrainian society.
In Russia, the pressures of the war will take their toll over time, and change will come, almost certainly unexpectedly, probably for the worse but hopefully for the better. Until then we can expect more nuclear bombast and stories of cornered rats.