Russia's Strategy: Look Scarier Than You Are

Western fears play into Putin’s game.

With its saber-rattling the Kremlin has, over the last months, succeeded in taking large parts of the Western elite under its “reflexive control,” a Soviet strategy of action designed to trigger desired reactions on the enemy’s side. Moscow has impregnated politicians, journalists, soldiers, intellectuals and diplomats around the world with the belief that Russia is posing a serious military threat and is up, if necessary, for a fight against NATO, perhaps even for World War III. As a result, the West’s political and military leaders are busy responding to threats that are, in fact, largely ephemeral. Brussels and Washington are, on the other side, insufficiently attentive and inadequately reacting to really existing new challenges in Europe’s east.

Such distraction is the very purpose of the Kremlin’s confrontational stance towards the West. Rather than contemplating the actual nature, real risks and final purposes of Russia’s demonstratively aggressive posture, NATO’s generals are fighting the last war—the Cold War—over again. Instead of soberly assessing the the real nature of today Russia’s challenge and the entire gamut of the West’s new options to respond, a collective déjà vu has taken hold of large parts of the Western elites. NATO’s and the EU’s resulting incomplete and misconceived rebuttals are serving rather than containing the Kremlin. They are increasing rather than decreasing insecurity in eastern Europe—a situation full of existential risks for humanity, yet beneficial to the stability and sustainability of Putin’s regime.

NATO and its member states are overreacting rhetorically, militarily and politically to Russia’s new aggressiveness. Without realizing, they are barking up the wrong tree and playing Moscow’s game. Western politicians and military men are sending, on an almost daily basis now, public oral and written messages to Moscow responding to its military provocations along Russia’s western borders, and subversive activities on EU territory. NATO troops and installations are moving eastward. Western and eastern European defense budgets are on a steep rise. A possible new intra-EU enlargement of NATO, i.e., an inclusion of Finland and/or Sweden, is being contemplated. As NYU political science professor Mark Galeotti has perceptively observed, large parts of the Western elite are nothing less than “panicking about Russia’s ‘hybrid’ warfare.” The alarm bell is being rung by leading national politicians, senior NATO commanders, prestigious think tanks, opinion-shaping journalists and seasoned Western diplomats. Yet it is exactly this alarmism, not a real conflict, that the Kremlin’s posturing is trying to achieve. Moscow would be simply unable to fight a real new Cold, let alone a hot, war with the West. Why?

There is a fundamental difference, in principle well known, but nowadays often forgotten, between the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union, as well as a related fundamental paradox of Moscow’s new confrontation with the West. Not only is the Russian Federation much weaker than the USSR, but unlike Moscow’s former communist leadership and largely autarkic planned industry, Russia’s new ruling elite and inflexible petro-economy are deeply integrated with the West. Surveying its major pipeline destinations, its foreign direct investors, its most attractive tourist sites, its private real estate locations, its regular or secret bank accounts, its preferred shopping malls, and its popular foreign educational institutions, a large part of the Russian elite’s core interests is located in, connected with or related to countries that are members of NATO, the EU or both (or, like Switzerland, closely tied to them).

Though Moscow is trying to create the impression of an aggressive Eurasian hegemon, the Russian Federation is neither a reborn USSR, nor an eastern European China, nor a modern equivalent of Nazi Germany. Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of Italy or California, and Moscow’s economic problems are currently accumulating by the month. Still, during the last two years, the Kremlin has succeeded impressing scores of Western diplomats, analysts, businesspeople and politicians with the idea that “Russia is back.” To be sure, Russia today is again well-armed and has a well-trained army capable to operate effectively abroad. Moreover, it has a political system as well as an agitated population that allows Putin to act swiftly, radically and resolutely. Yet, Russia remains a second-rate industrial nation, or, in the words of Russia’s former economy minister German Gref, is an economic “downshifter.” Russia’s relatively impressive military prowess is the result of ever more disproportionate spending on security, defense and armament—a potentially self-destructive use of resources.

Yet, most curiously, the target of the Kremlin’s unpredictable foreign actions have recently become states and organizations on whose good will the functioning of Russia’s weak economy, oversized bureaucracy, social security system and Westernized national elites is dependent. Oddly, the West is now arming itself against an enemy whose major foreign trading and investment partner is that same West. That is even more bizarre in view of the fact that, in contrast to the impression that the Kremlin is projecting abroad, Russia is largely isolated internationally. So far, Russia is succeeding in papering over the grave repercussions of its insufficient international embeddedness with political bombast and diplomatic grandeur.