As Russia settles in for a lengthy period of tension with the United States and the West more broadly, how do Russians see the standoff shaping up? What might their long-term strategy be, and what sort of denouement might they envision, for what Russia Carnegie scholar Dmitry Trenin has dubbed the “Hybrid War?” After all, the Russians saw it coming long before we did: Putin’s memorable speech at the 2007 Munich Security Forum offered us a glimpse of Moscow’s mindset long before the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014. Russia didn’t stumble inadvertently into its conflict with the West, and the Kremlin betrays no sign of anticipating defeat. Presumably Russia’s leaders have given some consideration to how their country might come out on top.
My thoughts on this question take the form of an imaginary memo addressed to President Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, from one of his senior subordinates. It does not purport to present any actual, existing policy of the Government of Russia, but rather speculates on the thought processes in Russian governing circles as they contemplate the country’s geopolitical trajectory at a time of enormous opportunities and grave dangers.
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Esteemed Yuri Viktorovich!
As you prepare for your meetings next week, I wanted to provide you with some of my thoughts, as well as ideas from the experts in my department, regarding the international situation and the challenges we face over the coming decades.
On paper, the state of affairs is not encouraging. The United States, NATO, the European Union, and all of their various satraps and hangers-on are arrayed against us, striving in every way to prevent Russia from rising from her knees and resuming her rightful place as a great power and an independent center of power in a multipolar world. As many people (including the defeatists in our own country) like to point out, by any measure—population, military strength, economic might, or soft power—we are at a huge disadvantage.
However, as you’re well aware, this simplistic bookkeeping perspective on the balance of forces obscures Russia’s decisive strengths as well as the Enemy’s critical weaknesses, and I think it worthwhile at the outset to enumerate them.
Above all, Russians are united in rejecting the inferior status that the West has sought to foist on us since 1991. We are a great nation with glorious traditions and a world-class culture, and we will never accept the role of playing second fiddle in some American-led orchestra (since we’re talking about American leadership, perhaps “vaudeville ensemble” would be a better analogy). All their political, economic, and military pressure cannot overcome our principled determination to reject Washington’s diktat.
The sting of the 1991 humiliation has not abated with the passage of time. By 1985 the correlation of world forces had shifted decisively and irrevocably (or so it had seemed) in favor of the socialist camp, yet a mere six years later, everything lay in ruins. It would have been one thing to lose the Cold War to a nation like the Germans or the French, with their rich histories, imposing martial traditions, and magnificent cultural achievements. Even the English would have been tolerable; they may be Anglo-Saxons, but at least they’re real ones—not like those ersatz Anglo-Saxons across the ocean. However, to lose the Cold War to a nation of cowboys that has never produced a writer of the caliber of Dostoevsky, or a composer on a par with Tchaikovsky, but instead has blanketed the globe with its tawdry advertising and its third-rate Hollywood pop culture—this was the greatest ignominy imaginable. It was Rome being beaten by the barbarians. Russians will not soon forget it—or forgive it.
In addition, unlike our adversaries, Russians are planners, accustomed to taking the long-term view; we are as well a nation of chess-players who instinctively think several moves in advance. Starting nearly 15 years ago, when it became evident that the imperialists would not allow Russia her rightful place in the sun, our leadership set in train a number of processes: the reform and restoration of our military, nationalization of the elites, the strategic leveraging of our hydrocarbon resources, and the purposeful, sustained weakening of anti-Russian regimes in the post-Soviet space. All of these prepared us well for 2014, when the West dropped any pretense of cooperation with Russia and instead assumed a policy of undisguised hostility.
The Westerners failed to take account not only of our preparedness, but of our resilience. A nation that could withstand the full onslaught of the Wehrmacht will not be broken by some pitiful patchwork of Western sanctions—especially in view of the skill and professionalism of our macroeconomic team.
Finally, our centralized decision-making gives us enormous tactical nimbleness. We were able to liberate the Crimea before the lumbering, slow-witted Westerners even realized what was happening. We are well placed to take advantage of other such opportunities as may present themselves over the coming decades.
In contrast to our unanimity, agility and grim determination to prevail, the Westerners cut a sorry figure. Notwithstanding their fierce hostility toward us, their divisions—national, ideological, political, and even personal—prevent them from bringing their preponderance of wealth and might fully to bear on Russia. With a few minor exceptions like the Balts, the conflict is simply not existential for them as it is for us. I’ll admit that I did not predict either the severity or the tenacity of Western sanctions since 2014. Nevertheless, I am confident that we can outlast the imperialists, and that they will weary of the standoff or become distracted long before they can compel us to acquiesce to their vision of Russia’s third-class status in the world.
I don’t presume to instruct you, who have so much first-hand experience with the Americans, about the state of play with our principal adversary. However, let me make a couple of points in connection with the larger geopolitical picture.
While I was happy enough to see Clinton defeated in the 2016 American elections, I was never, as you will recall, delirious with joy over Trump. Any President who seeks to “make America great again” with a massive military buildup and increased U.S. hydrocarbon production could never be, from our perspective, an unalloyed good.
Still, as we have all recognized, Trump’s bombastic and combative character creates a propitious environment for Russia to drive wedges among our adversaries. In particular, the deep antagonism between Trump and European elites holds out the prospect of a radical, definitive Transatlantic decoupling. NATO has always been a grotesque, unnatural alliance, with a group of cultured nations allowing themselves to be led by a country of bumptious yahoos. Indeed, it can only be a matter of time until Western Europeans recognize that their best interest lies in making common cause with a kindred European civilization—namely, Russia.
Nevertheless, I must warn against excessive optimism on this score. All the Transatlantic tension in the world will do us little good if it falls short of an actual breakup of NATO. In fact, if Washington manages either to shame or to frighten the Europeans into taking their own security more seriously, Russia could end up worse off than before. I note as a cautionary tale the fact that security cooperation has never been closer or more fulsome between Washington and certain congenitally anti-Russian countries such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, as well as the American puppet regimes in Ukraine and Georgia.
While it is psychologically deeply satisfying to see a large portion of the American elites convinced that we have the power to sway their elections, our bumbling propagandists don’t deserve the credit they’re receiving. If they’re so talented, why couldn’t they have prevented the expansion of NATO and the alarming growth of Western influence in the post-Soviet space more generally? Were they lulling the Enemy into a false sense of security, waiting until Russia’s back was to the wall before revealing their awe-inspiring prowess at flipping Western elections? I think not.
On the other hand, I hope that our special services have drawn the appropriate conclusions from the unimaginable impact of the Steele dossier, which has sown incomparably more discord and division than any of the puerile pabulum that our Internet Research Agency has generated. If I may make an outside-the-box suggestion, we should ensure that in 2020 there is a comparable “salacious and unverified” dossier on each American presidential candidate. In fact, let there be multiple, mutually contradictory dossiers on each candidate—both to dovetail with the general post-truth tenor of our “active measures,” and all the better to get the Americans wrapped around the axle of their own domestic political antagonisms. If we can pull it off, it should be quite an entertaining show!
Of course, that assumes the bunglers in our vaunted special services could start thinking creatively, instead of persisting in the sorts of ham-handed operations that merely give the West further pretexts for sanctions against us. But you’re already aware of my opinion on this rather delicate matter, so I won’t belabor the point.
Let me turn to the topic of alliances. In any “balance sheet” assessment of Russia’s conflict with the Americans, the juxtaposition of NATO’s formidable assets with our own admittedly paltry, disappointing CSTO is counted as a major advantage of the imperialists. However, the NATO alliance is a double-edged sword. The tendency toward lowest-common-denominator, consensus-driven policymaking can lead to indecision and paralysis. A related shortcoming is a navel-gazing preoccupation with the “state” or “health” of the alliance in the abstract, instead of a focus on the urgent tasks at hand. It is always amusing to observe the Westerners fretting among themselves about whether or not they all “share the same values”—as if mutual security depended on everyone holding identical opinions about climate change, progressive taxation or same-sex marriage! The sheer audacity of our Crimea operation is completely beyond such people.
In contrast to their ossified, unwieldy alliance, we have a) our freedom of action; and b) a group of like-minded countries that, though not formally allies, see the world much as we do. China, North Korea, Iran, and increasingly Turkey agree with us—for their own specific reasons, of course—regarding the injustice of the world order imposed by Washington. We don’t need to coordinate every action with them. We don’t need to ensure that we all have a common political structure, economic model, or set of social policies. We merely need to chisel away, each in our own fashion and at our own pace, at the tottering supports undergirding the Liberal World Order, and eventually we will bring the whole repulsive edifice crashing to the ground.
The by-now almost complete defection of Turkey from the American camp has been one of the most significant developments of the past few years. While astute Russian diplomacy has played a role, the principal reason has been sheer objective reality. Dread of Soviet might was the only glue that really bound Turkey to the Atlantic Alliance in the first place, and those ties began to unravel as soon as the USSR collapsed. Since then Turkey and Russia have shown themselves to be kindred spirits, with Turkish abhorrence of the West and dissatisfaction with the Liberal World Order every bit as intense as our own. The Turks have a Herrenvolk complex nourished during the centuries when the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents and crushed everyone in its path. They fancy for themselves a leadership role in the post-Ottoman space, and presume that American jealousy and hegemonism are the only things preventing Turkey from resuming her “natural” status as a great power. With that psychological backdrop, when the Americans rather unwittingly found themselves allied in Iraq and Syria with the Turks’ mortal enemies, the Kurds, the fate of the Turkish-American alliance was sealed.
Once again, a word of caution is in order. Like the chess-players that we are, we should always be thinking a couple of moves ahead. Just as Turkey’s Western orientation did not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, our current entente with Turkey will not survive the collapse of the American hegemonic order, when objective reality will once again intrude. And the objective reality is that Turkey’s “near abroad” overlaps considerably with our own, and Ankara’s neo-Ottoman pretensions are almost diametrically opposed to Russian interests in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Crimea, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Once NATO falls apart and the Americans are back across the ocean where they belong, we must be prepared to make a quick pirouette to check Turkish ambitions in our backyard. Happily, the odious legacy of Ottoman rule should actually help us regain some of our lost positions in the Balkans, Georgia, and the Arab world.
It is worth bearing in mind that our strategic partnership with China is situational as well, and it will not survive in its present form once we have dispatched the Liberal World Order to the scrapheap of history. As you know, I am not one of those fools who imagine that China poses a greater threat to Russia than the United States. Nevertheless, I find it irksome that the Chinese seem quite content at the current time to let Russia do all the heavy fighting, and take most of the return fire, in our common battle against American unilateralism. China has gotten away with its encroachments in the South China Sea, while Russia has been grievously sanctioned merely for reclaiming what is rightfully ours in Crimea and the Donbass. The fact that Washington beats us mercilessly while letting the Chinese off practically scot-free is further proof—as if we needed it—of America’s special animus toward Russia.
All the same, our demographic and economic weakness with respect to China in the Far East is an objective fact that will not soon be remedied, and there is no point tempting fate by assuming eternal Chinese benevolence. Once the Europeans send the Americans packing, we should extend the hand of friendship and cooperation to the Germans, French, and Italians (the Poles, Romanians, and British are an altogether different story) to create a united front of European civilization to ward off any possible depredations against our common European home by either the Turks or the Chinese. And while the departure of the Americans from Europe cannot come too soon, I would not be at all sorry to see them remain engaged in the Far East, where they do us little harm currently—and might even make themselves useful to us someday. Hard to believe, but the Americans might turn out to be good for something after all!
While I am bullish on Russia’s prospects in the current conflict with the West, and confident of our ability to hold our own in a post-American multilateral world order, I would be remiss if I failed to note two nagging concerns.
First, in the metaphorical besieged fortress in which we find ourselves, our financial reserves are the sustenance required to see us through the siege—and corruption is like an army of rats quietly consuming our provisions. In the existential struggle in which we find ourselves, Russia simply doesn’t have the luxury to see its precious resources plundered in this manner. And while our current President has exercised admirable discipline in building up our financial reserves, I fear lest any successor lack his foresight and allow our vital resources to be squandered through myopic fiscal populism or outright theft.
Second, I must acknowledge a certain sense of discouragement at the degree to which our natural protégés—the other states in the post-Soviet space—seem inclined to distance themselves from Russia. I’m not just talking about the shameless treachery of the Georgians and Ukrainians. Even people like the Belarussians, Armenians, and Tajiks—who hypocritically accept our generous economic and security assistance and constantly wheedle us for more—apparently lack the basic human decency to provide even rhetorical support to their selfless Russian benefactor in her hour of need. Moreover, all our post-Soviet neighbors are engaged to varying degrees in a willful policy of falsifying our common history, minimizing Russia’s crucial role in bringing the light of civilization and the blessings of technology, education, and prosperity to these previously benighted regions.
Nevertheless, I cannot believe that such flagrant ingratitude will continue indefinitely. Either the brazen local elites who seized power after the collapse of the Soviet Union will realize the error of their short-sighted anti-Russian policy, or a new, more discerning generation will grasp the wisdom—indeed, the imperative—of aligning their nations with Russia. I remain convinced that one way or another—perhaps with a little judicious persuasion here and there—the little brothers will all find their way back into our happy Eurasian home. Together with our other partners we will smite the arrogant Americans and end their blood-soaked unilateral hegemony once and for all.
Our cause is just—victory will be ours!