There are more than a few momentous international developments these days, but one in particular I would call puzzling: How has Russia, the tottering Eurasian Nuclear Petro State, managed to blackmail the West and make it look so weak and pathetic? The key to this mystery, in fact, begins in understanding how Putin has turned Russian weakness into an asset. He has done so, first, by turning Russia into a risk-taking power, ready to challenge the risk-averse leaderships of the West. But even more important than this is the fact that Putin’s Russia has made the most of the present interregnum, in which the West has lost its bearing. For the weaker to learn how to leverage the weakness of the stronger opponent—this is a work of art!
Future historians will wonder why Russia’s mediocre and corrupt ruling elite, lacking either the skill or desire to build a genuine strategy and having no talent in governance or diplomacy, would poke and prod the Western establishment. What’s the motivation behind Russia’s new aggressiveness and macho bullying? Is it really that the Kremlin is feeling vulnerable, as many prominent Western experts argue? If one looks closely at Vladimir Putin or any other representative of the Russian elite, one is more likely to see genuine confidence. Contrast this with the beginning of Putin’s rule 17 years ago, when he looked timid, even awkward, in meetings with Western leaders. Over the years, however, he got to know the members of the Western Mega Club, observing how its members (Berlusconi, Chirac, Schroeder, Prodi) tried to become his pals in hopes of securing some sort of reward or grand bargain. His time with them gave him not only confidence in his own position but contempt for his Western counterparts. Of the current crop of leaders, only perhaps Angela Merkel (certainly not Barack Obama) knows how to contain the Russian leader’s arrogance.
That the era of the West is over is the leading premise of Russia’s foreign policy doctrine. (“The potential of the historical West is shrinking,” it says.) The key reason for Russia’s newfound assertiveness is the fact that the Kremlin understands a single, simple truth: The West, accustomed to functioning in rational, risk-averse ways, is at a loss as to how to react to the aura of suspense that Kremlin policies are designed to build. These feelings of suspense are created by the Kremlin’s readiness to break rules and undermine the international order, by its attempts to provoke “orchestrated chaos,” and by pursuing mutually contradictory policy lines, such as confrontation and dialogue, simultaneously. The Kremlin’s “Suspense Policy” is designed to keep the West on edge: building up a permanent military threat on Ukraine’s borders and increasing the pace of “snap military drills with no advance notification” (as NATO officials have complained) are examples of the threatening phase of this policy. But the moment the Kremlin seems to be on the verge of a new Cold War with the West, it suddenly shifts to a rhetoric of partnership. How should states accustomed to operating on the basis of predictable rules respond to this?
In the context of a Suspense Policy, traditional means of political discourse are useless. The Kremlin doesn’t care about its reputation, trustworthiness, or credibility—not one whit! Operating in this way, Putin comes off as a ruthless, cynical, unreliable leader who often seems like he lives in “another world” (according to Western criteria). Does he care? Does it matter to him that Western leaders can’t trust him? Of course not! Indeed I would bet he takes a certain pride in the image he has constructed for popular consumption in the West. The more the West suspects that he might upend the global chessboard, the better. This is a far cry from the last generation of Soviet leaders, who wanted the West to believe in their readiness to comply with international agreements. Today the Kremlin isn’t afraid to be a little reckless, impudent, and unpredictable; it has turned these attributes into instruments of persuasion and enforcement—not just because this suits the mentality of Putin and the Kremlin gang, but also because this is what is required to sustain a system of personalized power in an advanced stage of decay.
Oh no, one might object, this idea of a “Suspense Doctrine” doesn’t add up: Kremlin saber rattling and assertiveness has renewed the NATO alliance along the eastern flank, much to the detriment of Russia. Now, it is true that Russian strategists often find themselves hemmed in by the Law of Unintended Consequences. But in this case Western military deterrence along NATO’s eastern flank doesn’t bother the Kremlin too much. Moscow understands that NATO is not going to invade Russia and its presence in the Baltics and Eastern Europe is merely a warning and a symbolic gesture to reassure allies. In fact, a moderately reenergized NATO in Russia’s vicinity helps Moscow to justify Russia’s Besieged Fortress mentality and to legitimize its military-patriotic mobilization, the only remaining method for consolidating society around the Kremlin. The return to a soft version of mutual containment fits perfectly into the personalized power playbook. To be sure, this logic accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But the Kremlin doesn’t have many options up its sleeve. In fact, it doesn’t have any at all.
At the same time, the Kremlin surely understands that the West’s turning to a military response means that it has less energy and political will to press the button on the biggest threat to the Kremlin: Western economic leverage, which could be devastating for Russia and its elites, who are personally integrated into the West. The West’s reluctance to press this button sends the Kremlin a signal: We’re ready to play your game!
The Kremlin has been extremely lucky, or extraordinarily skilled, in playing a weak hand without any real aces up its sleeve. It is dealing with a Western establishment that is determined to maintain the status quo at any price, even if that means accommodation. The Kremlin is operating in a time when the Western model of democracy and capitalism is in a crisis with no end in sight. The very features of globalization preclude a real containment policy: How can the West deter Russia when it is enmeshed in a web of economic and security interdependency with the Russian elite.
Finally, the Kremlin has been very fortunate in pushing its narrative about Russia’s “grievances and humiliation” at Western hands. This mythology has become the dominant story told in the West to justify the “accomodationist” approach to Russia. In fact, the Kremlin owes a great deal to the proponents of this “grievance theory;” this is the main source of legitimacy for its recent assertiveness.
While good fortune has helped Moscow pursue its Suspense Doctrine on the international scene, domestically we see a different picture. The Kremlin can’t afford to be reckless at home. Well aware of Russia’s dwindling resources, Putin is attempting to minimize risks on the domestic front by building additional layers of security. The creation of a new National Guard subordinated to the President, the kadry reshuffling, the shift to a new regime based on a younger generation of loyalists, the total erasure of any real choice in the recent Duma elections (won by the ruling United Russia party, with low turnout and a lack of real competition, enforced by the authorities) and upcoming presidential election—all of these demonstrate the Kremlin’s domestic insecurity. Indeed there is even an air of desperation in the Kremlin; the ruling team surely understands its waning ability to respond to Russia’s mounting challenges at home. The government’s failure to index pensions to inflation for the most loyal Kremlin voters before the September Duma elections is a risky move in the short term and a bad sign of things to come in the long term. Such domestic troubles are why the Kremlin has had to channel the public’s growing frustration and anger into phony external threats. This strategy can work—but only for a time.
So we can see the dynamic at work: The Kremlin doesn’t fear the West, and it doesn’t put as much stock as it used to in good relations with the West; it is scared, however, of a Russian society that seems quiescent at the moment but is becoming more grumpy and frustrated. No one can predict when it might erupt; Russian society, then, is creating for the Kremlin its own nerve-rattling suspense.
The postmodern ambiguity and cynicism that gradually emerged on the international scene after the collapse of the Soviet Union is probably the best thing that could have happened for the Russian system of personalized power. The liberal democracies dialed back their ideological pressure and relaxed their principles; the once bright lines between peace and war, legal and illegal, normal and abnormal, right and wrong all melted away, freeing the Kremlin to play its imitation game. Let’s enjoy the ambiguity together, the Kremlin seems to be saying to the West. Besides, you can’t deter us; you want our deposits in your banks; you want us to buy your real estate and share with you our gas profits; you want to cooperate with us on Iran and Syria!
Putin’s Russia has thus succeeded in adapting to the ambiguities of a globalized world much faster and more thoroughly than the liberal democracies. True, the Crimea annexation and war with Ukraine have to some extent reminded the West of its principles. But the Western elite, long used to living in a postmodern world, is already looking for ways to return to it. In this world, there is no “containment”—only words like “competition” and “cooperation.”