Two things are necessary to understand a nation’s strategy. The first is to view the world through the eyes of that nation… to know what it hopes for and fears. The second is to understand that the nation’s leader is far from a free agent. He (or she) became the leader by making endless political and financial deals along the way, and he remains the leader only to the extent that he satisfies others. There are also constraints and imperatives surrounding the leader that shape his actions. Some derive from internal politics, but the most important have to do with power, or the lack of it. In order to deal with an adversary, or to crush him, understanding the world from his point of view is essential.
People tend to personalize power. We believe that the leader makes decisions as he wishes. When he does what we want him to do, he is wise and decent. When he thwarts our plans, he is a fool and a monster. This makes the world a simpler place… but also a fantasy land. It imagines that someone rules a country of millions alone and by his own whimsical neurosis. We see that personalization when people talk about Russia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of an inefficient economy, low oil prices, and extreme demands on the Soviet defense system. Its collapse also led to a cataclysmic decade. Plunging into privatization, the economy was essentially looted by those best positioned to take advantage of it. These were extremely clever and fast businessmen, the intelligence and security services, and Western investors—all of whom became extraordinarily wealthy. The rest of the Federation plunged into far worse poverty than they had experienced in the late Soviet period. What Westerners thought of as liberalization was, from most Russians’ point of view, simply devastating. Even most of the oligarchs and the FSB (formerly KGB) could see this situation was unsustainable and realized that instability in Russia would ultimately threaten their newfound wealth.
This internal imbalance in wealth was compounded by Russia’s strategic position. The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, worked to maintain a buffer zone between itself and the European Peninsula consisting by the 20th century of the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these were all independent states, and the West began asserting its influence on them. From the Russian point of view, this was catastrophic. Russia had defeated Germany in World War II only because of its strategic depth. Westerners respond that surely Russians have no fear of invasion today. But Russia remembers that in 1932, Germany was a tattered liberal democracy, hardly armed, with massive economic problems. By 1938, it was the dominant military and economic power in Europe. By 1941, German soldiers were outside of Moscow. The Russians know for a fact that intentions—and even capabilities— can change in the twinkling of an eye. What Europe or the United States intends now has nothing to do with what they could face in 10 years. Indeed, the Russians saw the contempt with which the West held them in Kosovo in 1999… where their desire that the West not bomb Serbia was brushed aside as if it had no significance.
The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were held together by their intelligence and security services—and by money and the distribution of resources. The region was vast and disorderly. Privileges were used to hold the elites and the security services and to frighten them and others. It was no accident that the most efficient and effective institution in the Soviet Union had been the KGB. And it was no surprise that when it became clear that Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s liberalization had failed catastrophically, it was a KGB officer, deeply embedded with both the intelligence service and the oligarchs, who took over.
That it was Vladimir Putin was not the key. There were many like him. That it was an FSB man who knew where the oligarchs (some of them former KGB officials themselves) kept their money was the key. For only if the oligarchs were served could a new regime be created, and only if they could be intimidated could the new regime take firm control. No matter who the actual person was, an FSB man who knew the oligarchs well, was going to take over.
Russia had two imperatives. The first was to create order out of the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Critical to this was the strategy of using the export of raw materials to fund economic modernization. The means to do this was reversing much of the privatization of the 1990s, crushing resistant oligarchs, and aligning the rest with the export strategy. The second imperative was to restore the buffer zones to the West, accepting the Baltic’s membership in NATO, but being utterly insistent on at least the neutralization of Ukraine. Ukraine provides Russia with much needed strategic depth, forcing invading armies to stretch their supply lines before reaching major Russian cities. It was Ukraine where, in World War II, the Wehrmacht had bled out its life. Ukraine also hosted Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean Peninsula, which gives Russia access to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The two imperatives ran parallel.
The United States and other Western countries had their own strategy in the region, trying to replicate the Eastern European uprisings of 1989 in other nations in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Their goal was to create liberal democracies, and the means was to support democratic uprisings through funding non-government organizations that could shape and organize political change. From the Western point of view, the question of the Russian Federation’s borders had been settled in 1991, and the fate of other former Soviet republics was not Russia’s concern.
From the Russian point of view, the West and particularly the United States were undertaking regime change by funding anti-Russian factions under the guise of liberalization. Liberalization to many Russians was merely another word for economic looting. Russian decision makers saw these uprisings as attempting to create a network of pro-American states intended to deny Russia its buffer zone. For the Russian leadership, the American justification of human rights was simply a cover for what had to be an attempt to destroy the Russian Federation by surrounding it with hostile states along borders that were indefensible due to topography and distances. Whether this was the American intent or whether this was a Russian misreading was immaterial. The Russians could not assume anything but the worst case.
Ukraine was the heart of everything for Russia. If Ukraine was part of the Western alliance system, Russia could not be defended. Russia believed that if the Americans were as obsessed with Ukraine as they appeared to be, their intentions could only be malign. In the Russian view, those malign intentions dated back to 2004 when the US underwrote the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the same year the Baltics were admitted to NATO. The Russians reached a conclusion: The United States was not only a hostile power, but was actively seeking to undermine Moscow’s regional influence.
In 2008, seven weeks before Lehman Brothers collapsed, the Russians went to war with Georgia. The issue over the security of the Caucasus was really secondary to a simple message the Russians delivered to Ukraine. Georgia was a de facto American ally, and from the perspective of Moscow strategists, US entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan meant Washington was unable to come to Georgia’s aid. The message to Ukraine: this is what American guarantees are worth. It was a warning not to stake national security on American guarantees. To a great extent, it worked, as Ukraine shifted from a neutral to a pro-Russian stance.
Starting in late 2013 and again looking at it through Russia’s eyes, the Americans resumed their attempt to subvert Ukraine by underwriting the uprising in Kiev. This time, however, it was the Russians who failed their allies. Russian intelligence clearly failed to understand what was happening in Kiev and failed to counter it. Russia “seized” Crimea officially, but Crimea was already a major Russian base by treaty and was dominated by the Russians. They changed the legal status… not the correlation of forces. In eastern Ukraine, their attempt to trigger a pro-Russian uprising failed, and the Ukrainian forces, as poorly trained and armed as they were, ultimately fought the Russians to a standstill. If 2004 was a warning to others in the region about American weakness, 2014–15 was an American warning to them about Russian weakness.
The events of 2008 led to Russia’s economic crisis of 2014. As I have written previously, the economic crisis in Europe and the United States led to the decreased appetite for Chinese exports. This in turn lessened China’s need for importing raw materials. After the markets caught up with reality, oil prices plunged, and with them the viability of the Russian economy. Behind this was a much greater problem: the failure of Russia to use oil revenues to modernize its economy. The deals Putin made to become president required the diversion of funds from that purpose to gaining political support for Putin. The state could not both manage the support base of its regime and modernize the economy. It was an economic and managerial impossibility. Thus, Russia was massively vulnerable to energy price cut offs. It also lost one of its major weapons—the ability to cut exports of gas—because Russia urgently needed that cash flow and because the Europeans had worked hard to diversify sources of energy.
Thus, in 2014, Russia faced a dual crisis. It had failed to prevent the installation of a pro-Western government in Kiev, and its economy had been struck a terrific blow. Russia feared that, given its imbalance from the two blows, the United States would follow up with further aggressive moves. When a boxer is staggered, he goes into a clinch. In this case, the Russians understood that the Americans’ vulnerability remained an overextension in the Middle East. Russia also recalled that the overextension in 2008 had paralyzed the United States in Georgia. For Russia, the period from Sept. 11, 2001 until 2014 was a period in which the United States was so obsessed with the Middle East, it had no resources to place elsewhere. Russia’s strategy, therefore, was to prolong the American focus in the Middle East, while creating the basis for a settlement over Ukraine.
From a military sense, the Russian intervention in Syria was of little consequence. A small number of fighter planes were sent with enough troops to protect them. However, from the psychological point of view, the Russians hoped to transform their position. First, they had demonstrated the ability to project power far from Russia’s borders. Second, Moscow’s intervention was designed to make it appear that Russia had saved the Assad regime, and therefore it drove the decision. The US had no intention of overthrowing Assad while IS was the likely beneficiary.
However, the Russians made the US appear to be an equal power. This was critical to Russia both overseas and at home.
Currently, the Russians are trying to increase their influence, reaching out to Iran and to the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as talking to the Israelis. They are brilliantly creating the sense of Russia as a great power and causing the US potential grief. At the same time, the Russians have sought to minimize conflict in Ukraine. The goal is either to split Germany (which wants a settlement) from the United States, or to get the US to agree to a settlement. Such a settlement would include an agreement that Ukraine can have a pro-Western government, but that no Western military assistance or forces would be made available. Eastern Ukraine would be given some autonomy. And Crimea would return to some prior condition in which Russia is the overwhelming power, but Ukraine has some formal rights.
That would be the Russian goal. But it should be noted that Russian strategy is built on a base of sand. Syria is intended to roll back the reality of Ukraine, but nothing can roll back the reality of the Russian dependence on a deeply discounted resource for its economic survival. Russia is engaged in a massive defense buildup in the face of this economic crisis. And its deployment in Syria is far from decisive. It can reach out to Iran and others, but they are aware of the limits of Russian power.
In the long run, the Russian Federation is facing the same problem as the Soviet Union did… and will thus weaken. Its current strategy is constrained by weakness but compelled by the fact it is the only option available. A strategy of bluff follows from the reality of weakness when that weakness threatens to be fatal. Meaning that the economic and strategic weakness we see makes Russia more of a risktaker in the coming years, not less.
Having been unable to overcome its core economic weakness and having a clearly dysfunctional intelligence service on which it must depend for national unity, Russian strategy appears logical. Its economic weakness is deeply rooted in its political arrangements. The FSB’s weakness stems as much from its deep involvement in the complex financial arrangements that run Russia as the challenges of maintaining the security of the Federation. Russia’s strategy is not the result of miscalculation but of hard realities.
And, therefore, any strategy based on bluffing strength when weakness is manifest is unlikely to succeed. Russia is trying to buy time, but time may hurt rather than help. The economic bleeding will not stop soon. The United States has time on its side and can afford to be clumsy. In fact, that clumsiness is built into its national strategy, which is a story for a later date.