Global Aikido: Russia's Asymmetrical Response to the Ukraine Crisis

"As masters of judo teach, it is better to not rely on one’s own strength but to instead use your opponent’s strength against him."

Editor’s Note: The following is the first of a series of articles from the Center for the National Interest’s new report: Costs of a New Cold War: The U.S.-Russia Confrontation over Ukraine. You can read the full report here.

Forecasting global developments is the first and foremost task of professional policy analysts, whether they work for the government or for corporations, and for researchers, who attempt to study events from an academic perspective. But experience shows that such forecasting is not always precise, in part because those who conduct it are often influenced by prevailing stereotypes. Thus, a combination of rational evaluation and literary fantasy sometimes proves to be much more accurate than traditional, matter-of-fact analytical work.

The specter of the future

Let us imagine a not-so-distant future—the fall of 2017. A major international conference entitled “One-hundred Years after the October Revolution: Lessons for the 21st Century” is taking place in Moscow. The conference’s attendees include Chinese President Xi Jinping, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, South African President Jacob Zuma, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the leaders of many other Latin American, Asian, and African countries. Additional guests include prominent European politicians—not only those professing leftist and social-democratic views but also Eurosceptics—and representatives of non-governmental organizations, anti-globalization movements, etc.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a keynote address. Its focus is not on communist ideology or attempts to revive the Soviet economic and political model. Instead, its underlying message is that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 ushered in a new era in the history of mankind. It was a pivotal point that began a drive for equality and justice, and that rejected the power of a small group of countries, monarchs, and financial and industrial conglomerates over most of the world’s citizens. Although actual practice exposed the faults and blunders made when building “real socialism,” these mistakes did not undermine the international, historical importance of the event. In today’s new chapter, mankind should remember the energy for renewal and the aspirations to build a fairer and more democratic world that the 1917 Revolution unleashed. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world is again undertaking this quest, having become tired of an international system dominated ideologically, politically, and economically by one power center that seeks to impose its development model on others, often by force. Everyone immediately recognizes the identity of this single power center.

Today, this sounds like fantasy. Modern Russia was born in 1991, through the rejection of communism. Vladimir Putin is the direct heir to Mikhail Gorbachev, the politician who drove to dissolution the Soviet system created by the October Revolution. Russian life and economic practices are characterized by many of the typical features of early capitalism, and are much harsher than living and economic conditions in the United States or in Western Europe. Doing business in Russia – and living there – are sometimes extremely unfair, partly due to the country’s feudal form of government and partly due to this government’s inefficiency. Beyond this, Kremlin ideology is based on conservative, traditional values, at least as they are understood by the present Russian leadership. Although Russia’s foreign policy is based in part on opposition to the West, Russia is not engaged in an ideological confrontation like the one that secured the Soviet Union support from and robust diplomatic ties with many developing countries.

However bizarre this vision may seem to Western readers, the logic of politics may push Russia to seek ways to expand its support in the world should confrontation with the West, and especially with the United States, deepen. If America and Europe respond to a possible political settlement in Ukraine by further increasing the pressure on Russia—to add to Ukraine’s negotiating leverage, or to try to go beyond stabilizing eastern Ukraine to return Crimea to Kiev’s control—that could still happen. And Moscow has many options for responding to American pressure, which is likely to grow in the years ahead almost regardless of immediate outcomes in Ukraine. But the situation is not symmetrical, and the United States objectively has more ways to influence Russia than vice versa.

The “war of sanctions lists” that erupts from time to time between Russia and the United States is a vivid, albeit comical, example that shows the uselessness of the “eye for an eye” approach. In 2012, after the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, Moscow responded by adopting a similar law and creating a list of American officials to whom it intended to deny entry to Russia. But it was hardly a match for Washington’s move. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine why American Senators or judges would consider it necessary to go to Russia; their Russian colleagues are far more likely to travel to the United States. Furthermore, the mutual freeze of assets looks like a joke. There is no proof that the officials from the so-called “Magnitsky list” or other such lists have assets in the U.S., but America’s “violators of the rights of Russian people” surely do not have any holdings in Russia.