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.