The Kremlin’s Gambit: Escalation and Responses By Joseph BingHam Opp
This former revolutionary is unusually uncomfortable, visibly fragile - broken. He speaks from his desk slowly, tepidly. Boris Yeltsin is more uncertain than deliberate. “I have made a decision,” he grumbles.
“I want to ask for your forgiveness. For the fact that many of the dreams we shared did not come true. And for the fact that what seemed simple to us turned out to be tormentingly difficult. I ask forgiveness for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the grey, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future. I myself believed in this, that we could overcome everything in one spurt. I turned out to be too naive…” The resigning President announces his successor, “I have signed a decree placing the duties of the president of Russia on the head of government, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."
“Bidding farewell…Happy New Year! Happy New Century!”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, publishing a few days earlier, sounded a call to arms, “It will not happen soon…that Russia will become the second edition of…the U.S. or Britain…For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly that should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.”
Vladimir Putin has his ‘strong state’, a sad euphemism for de facto autocracy. Putin’s idea of just exactly what the Russian state is (or ought to be) has also been made disturbingly clear in recent years, not the reconfiguration of the Soviet Union, but, as Catherine Belton argues, the reconstruction of the Russian Empire. Vladimir Putin wants to be Czar, and it appears Ukraine, the test case for Russian operations further afield of Eastern Europe, will be his first significant conquest.
With 100,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, it is worth asking how, in the post-Cold War democratic world order, the grim prospect of war in Europe is once again threatening international security. At the heart of understanding the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is the dual failure of nascent Russian democracy and the complacency of the West in the aftermath of the Soviet Collapse.
The gangster capitalism and financial insecurity of the Russian ‘90s laid the groundwork for a strong-man authoritarian to take the reins of government and attempt more aggressive foreign and domestic policy. Putin, with stunning rapidity, seized control of most (if not all) major Russian enterprises, restructured the entire Russian media apparatus into a personal propaganda machine, and corrupted the judiciary to a point unrecognizable even by Soviet standards. Those who could afford it fled to London, but they could not flee far enough. Boris Berezovsky, former head of Russia’s Channel One, was found hanged in his Berkshire home and famously Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, was poisoned with plutonium in Mayfair, eventually expiring, reduced to a waif, at University College Hospital. Those within Russia are no more secure. Putin’s former mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, whom he served while
Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg was found dead in a suspected poisoning in a Kaliningrad hotel at the cusp of his former deputy’s accession to the presidency. According to Belton, an ambulance wasn’t called until a half-hour after Sobchak’s discovery. And, of course, there’s the oft-told tragedy of Alexi Navalny, who has reported that he is kept awake and compelled to consume a daily deluge of state propaganda in his dismal Moscow gaol.
Russia’s intelligence operations against the West are creeping slowly and frighteningly into public view. Exploiting with wicked efficiency the darkest potential of social media, poorly policed and poorly understood, the GRU has created a disinformation Leviathan. Already the Russian disinformation campaign has seen great success in delegitimizing elections and institutions in the United States and Western Europe. Russia has exploited and weaponised the London Stock Exchange’s far too lenient regulatory practices (the subject of a proposed financial crimes task force from Sir Keir Starmer) and the culture of don’t-ask-don’t-tell black money dealing on Wall Street. Kremlin cash, used to fund precisely the campaigns that undermine Western institutions and buttress Putinism in Moscow, flows freely through the veins of Western financial institutions. We are being outsmarted.
We could have predicted all of this, however, if we had been paying more attention to Ukraine. Ukraine has consistently been the Kremlin’s testing ground for operations it later deploys against the West, from manipulation of the energy sector to compel obedience to Moscow (a lesson Berlin ought to heed) and the use of false flag operations to justify the annexation of territory, to concerted disinformation campaigns that aim to divide citizens to ensure a preferred election outcome. And now, it appears, Vladimir Putin, the new face of Russian Imperialism, is prepared to stage a full-scale invasion in Europe in an eerie pastiche of 1939.
We have explored (generally) how the failings of a brief experiment in Russian democracy led to the rise of Putin. But this was not inevitable.
After 1991, the West became complacent. Democracy had prevailed, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the spectre of Communism had been exorcised from Europe (if not Asia). We were assured that the newly independent post-Soviet states would, finally free to choose, become shining examples of liberal democracy’s universal appeal. There was hope, for a moment, that even the Russian Federation would be a jewel in democracy’s crown as Western capital and businessmen flocked to Moscow in search of newly open markets. We were quickly disabused of that notion by the travails of the 1990s and the formation of a Russian oligarchy. But the West, preoccupied with the threat of Jihadism post-9/11, did nothing to draw alarm the rise of Putin (who at first appeared quite innocuous, all the bodies were still in Russia). Indeed, President Bush famously remarked on meeting Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country… I wouldn't have invited him to my ranch if I didn't trust him.”
We shouldn’t have trusted him, and we shouldn’t have taken his (and his slavish oligarchs’) black money. We are now so bound to the Kremlin financially and geopolitically that the prospect of an unanswered invasion of Ukraine is a real and chilling one. The West’s failure
to defend its values has led to the revanche of Russian expansionism, testing our limits violation by individual violation.
It is worth, therefore, a moment to reflect on just how dangerous a moment this is. Should Russia invade Ukraine, the United States and Europe are left with a difficult and rather poor choice to make between submitting to the Kremlin’s aggression (and tacitly permitting further encroachments into what Russia condescending calls its “near-abroad”) and thereby throwing Ukraine to the wolves or we can, in an act sure to be deeply unpopular and potentially catastrophic, commit troops to a direct, bloody conflict with Russian troops in Ukraine’s east. Sanctions or further condemnation are a potential ‘third-way’ but offer no practical or proportionate response. Putin has previously used western sanctions and general economic hardship to justify his foreign policy via the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus to great success.
Should the West commit troops, we plunge into a diplomatic nightmare in which nothing is certain and everything bloody and grotesque is possible. Every geopolitical fault line has the potential to open. There is little point in attempting to predict what kind of war would unfold in such a calamity. It is certainly not in our immediate interest. But it is standing up for liberal democracy.
The second route, sanctions and sharp words is equally as potentially disastrous. If Russia is permitted to invade Ukraine, their next step is almost certainly a small and strategically insignificant NATO state with deep historical ties to Russia (any of the Baltic states, for example). If at that point, NATO fulfils its commitment to collective defence, we have potentially a third World War. Should Russia call NATO’s bluff, however, and suffer even a merely reduced military response, any Western promise to guarantee a state’s (or region’s) security is, as Thomas Hobbes put it, mere breath. The implications of this utter collapse of legitimacy in Asia are particularly catastrophic. China, seizing on chaos, may invade Taiwan, North Korea may strike at its neighbours. We have, in short, a two-front war and a completely reshaped world order.
This complicated geopolitics has at its heart one, clear lesson of realist diplomacy. If a nation (or collection of nations) has rendered itself inseparable from a set of values (and has made enemies with a clear and present aim to undermine those values), then they have made it within their strategic, practical, political interest to defend those values at first instance. Failure to do so, no matter how tempting the occasion may be, plays into the hands of our enemies and lends itself to the cascading, spiralling, violent chaos which we may soon see ignite in Eastern Europe. If the West (and liberal democracy) will win the ideological war for relevance and legitimacy, then we will rouse from our post-Cold War malaise and once again defend our principles against the tyrants and dictators that threaten them.