From Mutually Assured Destruction to Mutually Assured Delusion (and Back?)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex in the city of Volgograd, Russia February 2, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

While separatist insurgency lingers in Russia’s North Caucasus, it is a far cry from the 1990s and early 2000s.

During the Cold War, the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship was partly based on the well-known concept of M.A.D.: mutually assured destruction. Both sides knew they had enough nuclear weapons to destroy not only each other, but all of humanity many times over. This knowledge deterred them from initiating an overt, direct military conflict with one another.

Today, however, the current bilateral relationship is becoming increasingly rooted in another concept that can also be abbreviated as M.A.D.: mutually assured delusion. When harbored by leaders on both sides, such mutually reinforced delusions, as one side’s expectations of the other’s pending demise, can lead the former to adopt a more assertive stance toward the latter. Other illusions, such as one state leader’s false suspicion that the leader on the other side seeks to dismantle his country, can cause that leader to misinterpret the other’s benign actions as part of a plot to dismember his own country, thereby causing him to overreact. While neither of these delusions can directly cause a conflict, some of them can, nevertheless, fuel a bilateral confrontation, increasing chances that the United States and Russia will inadvertently stumble into a devastating conflict.

American Delusions

In recent years U.S. policymakers and policy shapers have voiced a number of misapprehensions about Russia. Perhaps the best known of these was formulated by Barack Obama: Russia is a regional power; it does not make anything; and it is not attractive to immigrants. While these misapprehensions about Russia have been substantively challenged time and again, others endure in the minds of America’s policy-makers and shapers. Of these, two stand out because they encourage a more assertive U.S. attitude against Russia, which if reciprocated, can fuel tensions between the two countries:

1. Russia’s foreign policy is shaped by Vladimir Putin’s personal beef with the West rather than by Russia’s national interests, and if only a change of guard could be organized in the Kremlin, then the new leader would agree to toe Washington’s line. The proposition that a regime change in Russia could be the solution has been made on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal (see here, here and here), the Washington Post (see here) and Newsweek (see here). Hopes that Putin’s departure from power can pave the way for the ascent of a pro-Western leader are sometimes grounded in the notion that White House got along with the Kremlin when Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin was in office because Yeltsin, unlike Putin, had more pro-Western views. It is true that Yeltsin developed a good rapport with Bill Clinton. However, it is also true that under Yeltsin, Russia was too weak to resist the United States on contestable issues, such as influence in post-Soviet states—which not only Russia’s first president, but even some of the most liberal Russian legislators of the 1990s described as Russia’s zone of vital interests. As one of America’s most thoughtful Russia experts Thomas Graham has noted: “Putin is not an aberration among recent Russian rulers, as he is routinely depicted to be in the West. . . . His policies toward the West are a logical evolution and, in important respects, a continuation of theirs, grounded in a similar understanding of Russia’s destiny.” Like Yeltsin, Putin—who once noted that he thinks post–Soviet Russia’s biggest mistake in relations with the West was the failure to assert its national interests early on—is inclined to put Russia’s national interests first. Unlike Yeltsin, he actually has sufficient resources to advance those interests.

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