Putin keeps gambling. His first, impulsive attack on Ukraine in February 2014 netted him Crimea and 80% approval ratings. He’s stumbled since.
Russia failed to replicate the unopposed Crimean takeover in Ukraine’s Southeast from March-April. Moscow then threatened formal army invasion. That only solidified an improbable Ukrainian nationalism, creating a prohibitive cost. Ukrainians’ vote for Europeanist President Poroshenko is another blow. Yet Putin keeps doubling down on escalation, even if formal invasion isn’t on the table for now.
Putin’s goals lie beyond Ukraine. He seeks to alter fundamentally the global balance of power and pull down the liberal democratic order. It’s ambitious for a $2 trillion economy confronting a combined West of $32 trillion. Russia’s 2020 defense re-armament program tops $90 billion a year, against $1 trillion combined in the West.
Invading Ukraine in 2014 revealed Putin’s plans and techniques 5-7 years early. That’s the good news. Putin so far keeps testing his improvisation against a disorganized Western alliance. Why not keep doubling down?
Russia’s attack on Ukraine, while blatant, disorients the status-quo Western mindset. Russian aircraft also create provocations in international airspace and diplomatic initiatives unfold to create Russian versions of credit ratings agencies or add Argentina to the BRICs. The scale is ambitious.
Putinist ideologue and State Duma advisor Alexander Dugin repeats that “anyone who supports the liberal democratic international order is our enemy”.
This is revanche on an unprecedented scale. One can debate how much Dugin and similar figures such as Markov or Prokhanov, etc. influence Putin or are used by him for domestic theater. Russian actions and Putin’s speech, such as “NovoRussia” to describe eastern Ukraine, reflect their ideas.
A status quo political and social culture historically won’t proactively resist initial revanche. Revanchist powers typically enjoy great latitude to dictate the pace and timing of aggression. By definition, a status quo culture will interpret any revanchist pause as a plausible, welcome return to normative behavior. Widespread European relief that Putin chose not to invade Ukraine formally while pursuing aggression by different means a case in point.
Why are status quo cultures in 2014 still ill-equipped to respond? Simple monocausal explanations such as ‘decadence’, etc. are insufficient. A major factor is inability to understand the power of wounded emotion. True from today’s Moscow to Berlin, Rome or Tokyo, emotions and internal psychological trauma engendered a political narrative based on slights, rage and exaltation of action on racial or nationalist sentiment.
To casual outside observers, the emotional and psychological component is incoherent, comical and inconsistent. Lack of connective awareness renders ‘objective’ negotiation with revanchism unsuccessful and often self-defeating. Objectivity and triumph of reason are themselves toxic concepts, laden with disconnected values such as process. Process and reason can never ameliorate (successfully) fundamentally ‘irrational’ emotion and belief. The revanchist’s pre-imagined end state of triumph and restored lost status rejects a prioi shared systemic values. Revanchism inherently demands a nihilistic acting out.
Status quo mindsets therefore routinely fail ultimately because they lack imagination. First, to see the emotional animus’ ferocity. Second, to anticipate nihilism’s goal to tearing down the established order for revenge.
‘We will win in the end over Ukraine because we’ve got the better argument that offers a better life for the future.’ Barack H. Obama
Consider Putin’s February 2014 attack on Ukraine. Obama and Kerry, exemplars of status quo ‘objective’ mind set, publically offered Russia ‘off ramps’ and other objective, de-escalation verbalisms. Merkel eventually said Russia would face more sanctions if Moscow interfered with Ukraine’s May 2014 elections. Russia did and to this date faces no new sanctions. Yet many in the West claim sanctions threats averted formal invasion. “Putin blinked!” declares Thomas Friedman, et al.
Putin did pull back some troops. Moscow’s military faced structural and organizational constraints of its own. For example, in April 2014 annual contracts on Russian conscripts expired. Rotating troops from the border would be essential anyway. New replacement equivalent conscripts still many months away. POL and logistics forward deployed also generated significant costs and bottlenecks.
Withrawal waited days until Moscow could simultaneously deploy the GRU-controlled (formally MVD) ‘Vostok Battalion’ of Russians, Chechens and Ossetians into Donetsk, Ukraine. They join thousands of new irregular volunteers flowing in from Russia who attack Ukrainian border guard posts in open, pitched gun fights. The status quo mind set calls this actual escalation ‘a blink’.
Putin’s revanchism poses a long term challenge over years. We will see phases of confrontation and seeming de-escalation. The overarching emotional goals, however, will remain unchanged while the regime remains in power.
Italy’s war against Ethiopia (Abyssinia) followed this pattern. Formal war began in October 1935. Italy pre-occupied the victorious WWI Allies and the League of Nations with years of negotiations. By 1935, Britain belatedly realized Mussolini had no intention of functioning within agreements. Mussolini had escalated minor tensions with Ethiopia over the years into international crises, testing the Versailles Powers. He then lowered tensions, waited and then re-escalated.
When Mussolini started war he faced little danger. He broke Western morale. The Corporal saw this and went into the Rhineland less than 6 months later. Putin understands the status quo psychological temperature. His long calls to Obama and Merkel during the initial phase of Ukraine’s crisis had little to do with actual solutions. He sought an emotional read of his opponents.
Beyond Ukraine, Putin does face limits, mostly from China. His much scrutinized trip to Beijing for a gas deal underscores their differences and shared interests.
First, China carefully hasn’t put all its eggs in Putin’s revanchist cart. Beijing’s own narrative is about becoming the next status quo metropole. Irredentism – for now – is not part of Chinese foreign policy. Chinese official public support for Crimea is muted.
Second, China’s own revanchist narratives also compel its own acting out and escalation. Chinese provocations rile nearly all regional powers from Japan to ASEAN. And Russia herself lacks a real Asian strategy beyond using Asia to give Europe the bird.
Chinese factions have different approaches to Putin’s offered alliance. Beijing supports Putin but on their terms. The gas negotiations showed this difference explicitly. Beijing knows Moscow has no other place to go, allowing her to demand and get massive Russian concessions on price, Chinese investment penetration of Siberia, etc. Russia’s global humiliation will be remembered in Moscow. Meanwhile, China explores individual Putin initiatives like creating their own ratings agencies, joint naval exercises and other symbolic (for now) systemic attacks.
Russia created a significant apparatus to infiltrate domestic Western political and media audiences. One component is technical.(See, e.g. Russian troll farm exposed). Reportedly, Russia spent spent $100 million on the Internet component already. Another is political subversion. Moscow’s aim is to manipulate both Western ‘Left’ [sic] and Right internally to clash, undermining liberal democratic legitimacy. (See generally, Dugin’s various writings on the Russian “Fourth Way’ which rejects liberal democracy, Western socialism and Western fascism for an ersatz Russian fascism).
Political substance in Western countries, per Dugin quote at the beginning above, is unimportant. Fostering cynicism and division, replicating French societal paralysis in the 1930s, for example, is the game. Europe only now, slowly, wakes up to this danger. Moscow nurtures Pro-Putin fascist parties in Hungary, Bulgaria, UK, France, etc. Le Pen gleefully is out of 1930s Paris. Dugin, the Putin ideologue noted supra, recently received a fete in Vienna by Austrian Rightists, who hailed Putin as savior.
Russia’s American inroads use less direct means. Besides The Nation’s Katrina and Stephen Cohen show, Russia’s propaganda uses the Kremlin-sponsored Russia Today and systematic bot and infiltration campaigns to dominate Reddit, Twitter, blog and news sites. Russia cultivates relationships by providing broad platform and net traffic support for issue silos such as feminism, privacy, religion and the 99% critique.
It works. The ground is fertile. Probably the most troubling societal phenomena is Millennials’ pernicious and snarky relativism. And the effect often subliminal. For example, an’American feminism’ pundit such as Naomi Wolf pushes Kremlin-sponsored talking points on Ukraine to her broad audience. Such commingling of Russia Today video, blogs and tweets can be seen in conversations from American conservatives and progressives, self-declared anarchists and so-called socialists. All in service of critiques of liberal democracy to which they attach the prefix “neo” (neo-liberalism a hoary favorite).
Moscow’s Rightist outreach traffics in stoked racial animosities, manipulation of presumed ‘moral values’ resentments. A key exploit is fanning American chronic mood swings between over engagement abroad and isolationism. Conversations among the American Right about direct money from Moscow – so far – largely are kept offshore, discussing international initiatives to oppose womans’ rights, gay rights, etc. By contrast, Russian money is more evident in domestic European politics.
It’s the old Russian/Soviet game from the 1917-1940s with naive elements of the Western Left. Moscow’s new, prematurely revealed info-war apparat shows more overt success than earlier Soviet efforts.
So we have work cut out. Pauses and periodic de-escalations aside, Putin will keep pushing his overarching goal. It’s his emotional make-up and profoundly useful domestically. China’s current tacit, less fullsome support should not be assumed perpetually.
Let’s not be like generations before us. Let’s imagine what Putin wants to do. And stop him together.