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Published on: March 7, 2014
Reacting to Russia
Stand Up or Sit Down

Putin believes that the West is decadent, weak and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.

Le recueillement est fini, as Prince Alexander Gorchakov would have said. The Prince was Russia’s foreign minister in the aftermath of the Crimean war (the 1853-56 one, not the current one). He famously quipped that Russia, soundly defeated in that bloody conflict by a coalition of Western powers, would forego sulking and engage in introspection and self-contemplation (“La Russie ne boude pas, mais se recueille”). The self-examination eventually would entail domestic reforms and military modernization, all pursued with an eye to a renewed competition with the other great powers. Once ready, Russia would then reengage in a more direct strategic game with those states, which previously defeated her. It was a necessary tactical pause, rather than a strategic change of heart.

History repeats itself: after more than two decades of recueillement, Russia has elected to reignite the strategic contest along its border. The tactical pause of relative moderation imposed by the decomposition of the Soviet empire is over, and the current Crimean war is the first shot—a real, violent one—in Russia’s renewed westward push. This is not merely a territorial grab of a peninsula that was already effectively under Russian influence, or an act of desperation by a cornered dictator. It is a forceful and willful act to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Western political, economic, and military alliances in their NATO and EU forms.

Moscow’s current confidence does not arise from its own successful internal reforms or a dramatic military modernization or some sort of social (or demographic) rejuvenation. Putin has achieved none of these. It is also not a whim of a thuggish autocrat detached from reality, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel insinuated after a recent phone call with Putin.

Instead, Russia’s brazenness arises from its assessment of Western—European and American—weakness, decadence and division.

Weakness is perceived from years of self-disarmament, the latest round of which was announced a few days before Russia’s invasion of Crimea. While the Obama administration was proposing to cut defense spending, reducing the US Army to its smallest in 74 years, Putin was busy planning his Crimean takeover and surprise military exercises in the Baltic Sea. Weakness engenders appetite.

The perceived decadence is a result of a mix of factors. A post-modern penchant for social re-engineering, weak politicians peddling for votes through fiscal largesse and promises of foreign accommodation, and since 2008 a teetering financial system, variously have been embraced by Putin and his courtiers as symptoms of a rotting West. As Putin stated in his annual message last December, the West is falling into a “primitive state” where there is a “compulsory equality between good and evil.” Russia, thus, must be the bulwark against the corruption seeping eastward. Decadence breeds disdain.

Gleefully the West is seen as more divided than ever. Moscow’s propaganda outlets from ITAR-TASS to Russia Today ceaselessly point out European leaders’ inability to agree on sanctions: German, Italian, and French leaders are fearful of losing business with Russia, leaving the Central European and Baltic states on their own. London has no intention to impose sanctions that would hurt its financial markets or luxury housing prices. The United States is distracted by Obama’s “pivots” to Asia and contorted extrications from the Middle East, and appears to have no direct interests in Europe. Current U.S. priorities were highlighted by a telling omission: on February 28, Obama indicated that Russian actions are creating instability that is not “in the interests of Ukraine, Russia or Europe,” but not necessarily of much concern to Washington. There is no “West” to oppose Russia. Divisions reveal opportunities.

Whether Russia’s assessment of the West is correct or precise is irrelevant. Perception is reality and Russia’s perspective drives its march westward. Regardless of the specific Western response ranging from sanctions to repositioning of military assets, it is in everybody’s interest to alter Russia’s assessment of our weakness, decadence, and division. Russia will never develop into a more democratic and peaceful state if its leaders think they can pursue neo-imperial ambitions on the cheap. Europe can never be secure if its eastern neighbor continues to destabilize the frontier with impunity. The U.S. cannot live in the illusion that what happens in Europe has little impact on America’s ability to maintain its global position or restrain China’s own expansionary ambitions.

Focusing the end game on “de-escalation” and stabilizing the current situation in Crimea runs the risk of accepting the fait accompli and thus of incentivizing Putin to pursue the next violation. Our objective should be to shock Putin and his entourage to alter fundamentally their assessment of the West. Whether they sulk or not is their choice, but they need to recueiller again.

Jakub Grygiel is an associate professor of international relations at SAIS-JHU in Washington, DC.

show comments
  • Corlyss

    “the West is decadent, weak and divided.”

    Well, he certainly has our number.

    “Once ready, Russia would then reengage in a more direct strategic game with those states, which previously defeated her. It was a necessary tactical pause, rather than a strategic change of heart.”

    No doubt that explains the Russo-Japanese war – they re-engaged in the strategic game by getting walloped again, followed quickly by WW1 . . . Is there a pattern here somewhere?

    • Thirdsyphon

      “The West is decadent, weak and divided”. . . that phrase (though it’s arguably correct and arguably always has been) should have a prominent spot if someone ever publishes a book of “Tyrants’ Famous Last Words.”

      Failing that, at an absolute minimum, it should be engraved on the tombstones of Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Tojo, Kaiser Wilhelm, Napoleon, Tamerlane, Subutai, Darius, Xerxes. . .

      . . .to the extent that any of them have tombstones.

      • Fred

        Problem is, the country that got chased out of Iraq and Afghanistan by a bunch of stone age savages with IEDs is not the same country that defeated the combined might of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.

  • Pete

    “As Putin stated in his annual message last December, the West is falling into a “primitive state” where there is a “compulsory equality between good and evil.”

    He’s exactly right.

    And for your information, junior-professor, the Ukraine is Europe’s problem. It is America’s problem only marginally — and that’s what galls you neo-cons. You will say and do anything to get the U.S. to pick up the burden that Europe and the Ukranians themselves won’t. Sorry, but that dog stopped hunting after the follies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Furthermore, Americans are far more concerned about the lawlessness of president, not Russia’s. People care about their health insurance, not whether the Crimea is part of the Ukraine or part of Russia.

    • Fred

      Because isolationism served us so well in 1941, 1979, and 2001.

      • Pete

        Isolationism is a strawman argument.

        What I and most Americans are arguing for is not what you call isolation but rather non-intervention.

        If the unity of the Ukraine is so important, let the Europeans take the lead. After all, the Ukraine is in their backyard, not ours. And if Europe does not take the lead, are they isolationist?

        In any event, just like Obama found out when he was ready to jump into the middle of the Syrian civil war, the American public won’t stand for it. The same applies to the Ukraine. So loons like John McCain and other neocons can rant & rave all they want. America is pulling back from being the world’s unappreciated policeman.

        • Fred

          And are you really naive enough to believe the world will cooperate?

  • gabrielsyme

    Putin believes that the West is decadent, weak and divided.

    On the first matter, there is absolutely no doubt. On the second, while the West has enormous capabilities, both economic and military, it is hard to see the West’s political elites will exert such capacity in a bold manner.

    On the third – I think Putin is wrong. The West is united – in not doing anything useful; in speaking loudly and carrying a feather; in failing to comprehend the strategic battlespace, much less adequately plan to deal with strategic issues.

    Putin takes two of three, which ain’t bad; and the unity of the West in cowardice is a nice thing to have turn up when you get one thing wrong.

    • Thirdsyphon

      The West has been consistently underestimated by tyrants like Vladimir Putin for as long there’s been a West for them to sneer at. Like all his predecessors, Putin is acutely alert to the decadence and weakness of Western societies. . . but surprisingly blind to the rot that’s consuming his own.

      • gabrielsyme

        The West has not long been decadent in a historical sense. It has long had a greater economic and military margin over its rivals than it has now. I would say the West has greater political unity know than in most (though not all) past periods.

        • Thirdsyphon

          Decadence is in the eye of the beholder. To a certain type of mind, capitalism and democracy are, themselves, symptoms of a culture in decline. History, thus far, has reached a different verdict.

          The West’s military and economic strength relative to most of its rivals might be at a low point, historically, but relative to Russia in particular, I’d say the West is doing quite well.

          A Superpower is defined as “a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemony.

          At its height, the Soviet Union was a Superpower: a viable candidate for the role of planetary hegemon. The Russia led by Vladimir Putin is –to put it as generously as possible– not.

  • Victor

    Malarky. Putin is an opportunist who is falling back on nationalism to keep a restive public distracted from his country’s economic troubles. The West has been meddling in Russia’s backyard, but Putin knows that Europe is too dependent on Russian oil and gas to put up a fight on behalf of Ukraine. He also knows that the U.S. was never interested in protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, just in making life difficult for him. He’s called the West’s bluff.

  • Neal

    OMG … the man, holding the flag, in the photo is my doppelganger – almost my exact double. Does anyone have any information on where this picture was taken, or who the man in the photo might be?

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