The American Interest
In a January 8, 1962 speech that remained secret for more than forty years, Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev announced to his Kremlin colleagues that the Soviets were so thoroughly outmatched in the superpower struggle that Moscow’s only option was to seize the initiative in international affairs. Some decades hence future historians may unearth a similar speech delivered by President Vladimir Putin to his inner circle in February 2014, when he decided to annex Crimea in order to obscure the humiliating fact that Russia had just lost Ukraine. Such a speech would have made clear that, behind the bluster of “two weeks to Kiev!”, Russia’s geopolitical adventures are driven largely by its leadership’s deep anxiety about the country’s domestic weaknesses. Russia is bereft of soft power, its economy is uncompetitive, its petrodollar-subsidized living standards are plummeting, and its population is aging and dwindling.
Moscow’s relative weakness as a global power does not mean that Russia should not be taken seriously, or that it will not achieve some tactical successes in Ukraine. But if the regime’s spasms of aggression reflect its uncertain domestic footing, the West’s response should be adjusted accordingly.
Admittedly, relative power is frustratingly hard to measure these days, due to what David Brooks has intriguingly called “the revolt of the weak.”1 According to a remarkable Harvard study, the weaker side in asymmetric wars waged between 1800 and 1849 achieved its strategic goals only 12 percent of the time. (Strength was measured by number of soldiers and extent of firepower.) In the wars that erupted between 1950 and 1998, by contrast, the weaker side prevailed a startling 55 percent of the time.2 The explanation most commonly given for this discrepancy is that, especially in the second half of the 20th century, the weaker side need not defeat or destroy an enemy but only hold out, usually on home turf. It need merely sabotage the gears of the enemy machine and wait for its nominally superior adversary to lose appetite for the conflict or the political wherewithal to prosecute it further.
In its confrontation with the West, Russia is undoubtedly the weaker party but, taking advantage of the West’s relative passivity and disengagement, it has seized the initiative and managed to define and shape the conflict in line with its own interests and worldview. Moscow’s hybrid war has successfully blurred two borders: between war and peace as well as between Ukraine and Russia. The Kremlin’s dizzying game of escalation and de-escalation in the Donbass region has also bamboozled EU leaders into misunderstanding the kind of challenge Russia poses.
A distracted Europe has proved incapable of reading Moscow’s signals correctly. It fails to appreciate the intensity of Russia’s opposition to the post-nationalist European order, in large part because it thinks of relations with Russia as a win-win game and of itself as a benevolent, vegetarian power that no reasonable Russian leader could possibly view as an existential threat. Until the Crimean annexation, the European Union, and the United States as well, assumed that Russia could only lose if it tried to challenge the post-Cold War international order—and especially if it questioned the inviolability of internationally recognized borders on which control of its own exposed southeastern flank seemingly depends. European and most American leaders had persuaded themselves that, behind closed doors, what Russia really fears are China and the spread of radical Islam, and that Russia’s interminable complaints about NATO enlargement or America’s anti-missile defense system in Europe were simply a form of popular entertainment aimed at a domestic audience for television news. These Western assumptions were wrong.
Most Westerners failed to understand that, after 1989, Russia suffered the double humiliation of being a loser in a world that the triumphant West had defined as a world without losers. European leaders, in particular, failed to realize that while few Russians longed for a return to Soviet communism, most were nostalgic for the USSR’s superpower status. Russia considered the post-Cold War status quo unfair; and what the West saw as order, Russians saw as disorder. Similarly, when the Russian government engineered or reinforced “frozen conflicts” in the Caucasus, Transnistria, and elsewhere, Western leaders thought Moscow was fomenting disorder; Russian leaders saw things differently and still do. They view “frozen conflicts” as defensive buffers created to preserve order by preventing pernicious Western influences from edging ever closer to Russia’s borders. In 1989, only 13 percent of Russians believed that their country had external enemies; now 78 percent of Russian respondents say they do.
Picture: Lokal_Profil [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons