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

October 6, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyGrand Strategy Region: RussiaUkraine

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.

Clearly, however, Moscow will not sit idly and simply register new restrictions imposed by Washington—Russia’s retaliatory agricultural sanctions make this clear, as do Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s threats to shut off access to Russian airspace for Western commercial airlines. Moscow understands that if relations continue to deteriorate further, the United States and its allies (many reluctantly and under pressure) may move over to informal but systemic measures intended to deter Russia and cut it off from Western financing and technology. In fact, widespread elite opinion in Russia holds that our relations with the United States have already assumed a state essentially reminiscent of the Cold War. Most believe this situation will most likely continue for several more years, and that it is not simply connected narrowly to the Ukrainian crisis.

Washington regards Moscow as a force that inhibits what the United States considers to be the proper functioning of the international system. Therefore, this force must be curbed and prevented from questioning the order of things. Yet for Russia, the incorporation of Crimea became a red line beyond which there is no going back without risking political collapse. If the United States and the West also view Crimea as a red line, and continue heavy pressure on Russia even after a possible settlement in eastern Ukraine, it may be difficult to avoid a worsening long-term confrontation.

Given these asymmetrical realities, Kremlin leaders understand that Russia should avoid getting involved in reciprocal responses modeled on the methods employed by the Soviet Union, which closely watched the balance of actions and reactions between both sides.

Symbolically, Russia has always acted quite reciprocally. Suffice it to recall its response to incidents involving Russian citizens in other countries, such as when three Russian school kids, the children of Russian diplomats, were beaten up under unclear circumstances in Poland in 2007. Subsequently, three Poles were attacked in Moscow. Or recall that when Dutch police used force against a Russian deputy ambassador during a row over Russia’s detention of a Greenpeace ship in 2013, his counterpart was roughed up in Moscow. This list can be continued.

However, Russia does no more than merely demonstrate its commitment to national prestige. Most understand that Russia lacks sufficient power to deliver an equivalent, reciprocal response to hostile U.S. moves. This means not only that its responses should be asymmetrical and “creative,” but also that they should be systemic and strategic. Above all, Russia should use objective global development trends that can benefit it, especially the rise of China and other emerging economies and the diffusion of economic power, while also exploiting U.S. weaknesses unrelated to Russian interests and activities but tied to America’s position as a global leader.

When experts study Vladimir Putin’s political style, they often recall one of his sport hobbies: Oriental martial arts, specifically judo. While musing over Moscow’s responses to U.S. pressure, one is compelled to draw an analogy from Putin’s pastime; namely, that one of the key skills in many martial arts (in judo and even more so in aikido) is the ability to first avoid a heavier opponent’s overpowering attacks and to then turn the opponent’s weight advantage against him by using momentum and inertia. These principles are likely to prevail in a potential Russian-American confrontation.

Will Russia Seek an eye for an eye?

But before one begins to study this confrontation from a martial arts perspective, one should consider several more likely and expectable Russian measures. They may not necessarily be taken, but the possibility that they will be cannot be dismissed. They are described quite well in an article written by Russian international relations expert Alexei Fenenko[1] and published by the online edition of Russia Direct, and we may as well rely in our analysis on his conclusions.

One way to take revenge upon America, Fenenko argues, would be to create problems for the Northern Distribution Network, which is critical for providing logistical support to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Since the United States is in the crucial stage of its withdrawal from that country amid a disastrous situation in Iraq, intentional complication of this process could create serious problems for Washington.