Russia uses provocations to force West into recognizing it as partner
ON NEW Year’s Eve, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on an updated national security strategy. Compared with the 2014 version, two features stand out. NATO is now presented as an adversary rather than a rival, and the instigation of so-called “color revolutions” has been elevated to the status of a national security threat. This has substantial implications for Western policymaking, writes World Review Expert Professor Stefan Hedlund.
As NATO’s military commanders are fond of pointing out, the expansion of the alliance into what used to be a Soviet sphere of influence can in no way be construed as a threat to Russia’s national security. The very notion that NATO would launch an assault is outlandish. But this misses the point.
The Kremlin’s anger over NATO expansion is genuine, not because it presents a threat to the homeland but because it drastically reduces Russia’s reach and influence. Mr. Putin remains firmly in the world of Yalta and Potsdam, where the big boys sit around a table to decide the fate of the world. Instead of conceding that this table has been consigned to the history books, he is angered at being denied a seat. This makes the conflict with the West direct and personal, even as the alleged national security threat to Russia remains obscure.
A similar logic applies to the “color revolutions.” Anger over Western support for regime change in countries like Georgia and Ukraine again has little to do with fears of an immediate replay in Russia. The Kremlin has demonstrated with ruthless skill that it is ready and able to do what it takes to prevent regime change in Russia. The threat perception again is more personal and long-term.
The fear is that Ukraine might become democratic, prosperous and integrated into the European community. Such an outcome would suggest to ordinary Russians that with a different regime, they might be enjoying the very same fruits. This demonstration effect would drastically raise the costs of keeping Mr. Putin in power.
For these reasons, when confronting Russia there is little to be gained by enouncing lofty principles about the rights of nations to choose freely what military alliances and trade associations they wish to join. The real challenge is to counter Russia’s use of military provocations as a means to force the West into recognizing it as an equal partner.
This is no easy task. Mr. Putin has demonstrated his readiness to take big risks for what may seem to be dubious rewards. The 2008 war in Georgia, while victorious, brought humiliation on the Russian armed forces. The clandestine war in the Donbas failed miserably in establishing a Novorossiya. Intervention in Syria triggered a nasty confrontation with Turkey after the downing of a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft.
Western policy makers must come to terms with Russian’s true military capabilities. On this score, observers are split into two camps.
One group considers that Russia’s armed forces have been so degraded that they no longer deserve to be taken seriously. In the words of one analyst, the Russian Navy, for example, is “more rust than ready.” The other school of thought holds that Russian capabilities are seriously underestimated, that the process of military reform and rearmament is making strides, and that we are now dealing with a war machine that is both leaner and meaner than a decade ago.
Which is correct? Those who envision the potential for a major conflict between Russia and NATO are surely right to suggest that it would end very badly for the former. But those concerned about more limited Russian ambitions are also correct in stressing the Kremlin’s ability to do serious harm.