Understanding Provocation

One of the most powerful tools the Kremlin has in its secret arsenal of Special War is provocation, what they call provokatsiya. While Moscow cannot claim to have invented this technique, which has existed as long as there have been secret services, there’s no doubt that Russians have perfected the art and taken it to a whole new level of sophistication and deviousness. At times, it can become a strategy all on its own (not always, mind you, with edifying results).

Provokatsiya simply means taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you. You plant your own agents provocateurs and flip legitimate activists, turning them to your side. When you’re dealing with extremists to start with, getting them to do crazy, self-defeating things isn’t often difficult. In some cases, you simply create extremists and terrorists where they don’t exist. This is causing problems in order to solve them, and since the Tsarist period, Russian intelligence has been known to do just that.

While this isn’t a particularly nice technique, it works surprisingly well, particularly if you don’t care about bloody and messy consequences. Credulous Westerners are a big help. Perhaps the most infamous Kremlin case of provokatsiya was the TRUST operation of the 1920s. In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Bolshevik control was incomplete and Moscow faced the problem that a large number of Whites, their recent enemies, had gotten sanctuary in Europe, where they plotted the reconquest of Holy Russia.

Soon the White emigration klatched in the cafes of Paris and Berlin was invigorated by tantalizing rumors that there existed a secret anti-Bolshevik movement underground in the USSR, calling itself the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. Before long, prominent Whites gave this shadowy group their political and financial support, as did several Western intelligence services who desired the end – or at least the harassment – of Bolshevism. Intelligence from inside the Soviet Union was a scarce commodity at the time. Some emigres were even prompted to clandestinely return to Russia in the hope of aiding the resistance. Among them was the famous revolutionary Boris Savinkov, who had broken with the Bolsheviks and was one of Moscow’s top public enemies.

But word of Savinkov dried up once he reached Russia, as it did for all the emigres and spies who tried to enter the Soviet Union to establish contact with the underground resistance. They were dead. The TRUST operation was all a mirage; there in fact was no Monarchist Union of Central Russia, it was a front for Soviet intelligence. By 1926, Western intelligence began to suspect the truth, but by that point the Soviet secret police had been running their false-flag operation for five years, during which time it had eliminated or neutralized several of its top enemies while causing them, and several Western spy services, to waste time, money, and energy on a mirage that was actually Soviet-run.

Russians have employed this crafty model countless times since, as have the many intelligence services that have received training in the dark arts from Moscow. Cuban intelligence is notorious for this – it can be reliably assumed that many of the most hard-line anti-Castro exiles are actually on their payroll – while in the 1990s the Algerian military intelligence service, the feared DRS, executed an enormous version of the TRUST operation against its Islamist foes, defeating them in detail, but at the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

This model must be kept in mind during current discussions of Ukraine, where the Kremlin assures us that the government in Kyiv are “fascists” planning a “Nazi” takeover. While there are right-wingers in Ukraine who have troubling views, their numbers are inflated for effect by Moscow, something which too many Westerners accept uncritically. Moreover, some of the most hardline Ukrainian nationalists are secretly under Moscow’s control, and there’s nothing new about this.

The Soviet secret police infiltrated far-right Ukrainian emigre groups in the 1920s and 1930s, provoking them into self-defeating acts and killing off their leaders. Similar provocation was employed after the Second World War by Stalin’s secret police to crush resistance in Western Ukraine, which lasted into the early 1950s, while throughout the Cold War, Ukrainian rightists abroad were targets for surveillance, harassment, and sometimes assassination by the KGB.

Since the Soviet collapse, similar Russian provocations in Ukraine are broadly understood by security circles in Kyiv, which is part of why the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, is now attempting to reign in far-right groups like the Right Sector (Pravyy Sektor): not only are they potentially dangerous to democracy, they may be on Moscow’s payroll too. This has come to a head due to the death this week of the notorious far-right activist Oleksandr Muzychko, AKA Sashko Billy, a vocal hater of Russians and Jews, who fell in a murky shootout with police in the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne. Muzychko was so extreme that he actually fought in Chechnya in the 1990s with the local resistance – Moscow accused him of war crimes there – and his funeral turned into a far-right rally against the government in Kyiv. Predictably, all this got huge coverage in Russian media, which is eager to demonstrate the “fascist” nature of all Ukrainians who do not wish to be ruled by the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, we can expect more provocations as this crisis continues. A directly relevant example of what may happen is a series of events in Croatia in 1991, another country where the position of Jews is politically sensitive due to the Second World War and the Holocaust. As Yugoslavia was collapsing, Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian allies constantly parroted the line that the government in newly independent Croatia was really “fascist” and they planned to resurrect Nazi-era war crimes against minorities, including Jews, and intervention was required from outside the country to prevent “genocide” (if this all sounds to you remarkably like Kremlin propaganda now against Ukraine, it should). As in Ukraine today, there were neo-fascists in Croatia in 1991, but they were politically marginal and considered a threat by the government.

Just like the Soviet Union, Communist Yugoslavia had manipulated, harassed, and killed off Croatian nationalists for decades. In a Balkan version of the TRUST, in the late 1940s, Tito’s secret police lured would-be guerrilla fighters into the country – you knew this was coming – to support a shadowy resistance army: of course it didn’t exist, and it served to get the infiltrators killed. For decades, Yugoslav secret police kept close tabs on Croatian emigres involved in anti-regime activities, employing provocation to discredit them very effectively. Several dozen Croatian exiles in the West were also murdered by Yugoslav assassins. Croatians understood that many of their most radical nationalists were actually under Yugoslav control.

Fears that newly independent Croatia was under threat by “fascists” – just as Belgrade was telling everyone loudly – reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1991 with a series of attacks on Jewish targets in Zagreb. That August, bombs went off at a Jewish community center and the main Jewish cemetery; although there were no casualties, the explosions caused a panic in Croatia’s tiny Jewish community, particularly because there were other bombings at the same time on rail lines in several locations, leading to a sense of anarchy. Soon unverified reports emerged placing blame for the attacks on the government, explicitly fingering President Franjo Tudjman as the figure behind the bombings.

This was all strenuously denied by Tudjman and his government, which moved quickly to reassure Jews they were in no danger. This was all a significant distraction while Croatia was fighting for its life as Yugoslav troops and Serbian irregulars took over one-third of the country that summer and fall. The bombings and accompanying propaganda earned Croatia a black eye internationally when it least needed it, and before long Jewish groups were pondering a mass evacuation from the country, just in case.

It turned out it was all one big provocation engineered by the Yugoslav military’s Counterintelligence Service (KOS), which boasted a substantial agent network in Croatia, including several prominent right-wingers. The Zagreb bombings and accompanying anti-Croatia propaganda were termed Operation LABRADOR by KOS, which considered it to be highly successful. On the heels of the attacks, Zagreb security services worked hard to roll up the KOS networks in the country, but by that point the damage had been done. The false-flag bombings were a reminder to the world that Zagreb was “really” under the control of “fascists,” a lie that the Tudjman government never fully overcame in certain quarters.

Provocation combined with propaganda can be powerfully effective in transmitting Big Lies about people, places, and even whole countries, especially in times of crisis. The Kremlin has been honing this unpleasant skill for more than a century. The next time you hear about violence in Ukraine – and, sadly, you certainly will – it’s good to remember that provokatsiya is real.

The Coming War for Ukraine

As I write, Russian forces, reportedly close to 100,000 troops, are massing on the eastern borders of Ukraine for a possible invasion. The Kremlin is either about to start a major war, or wants the world to think it is: there is no third choice now. Given the scheduled referendum in the Crimea this Sunday, smart money has it that Putin, if he really launches an all-out push for Ukraine – which, as I’ve already explained, could be a disastrous move on his part – it will come early next week. Needless to add, this scenario brings chills to me and to anyone who understands the stakes in what would immediately be the biggest European war since 1945.

Yet that invasion, with its terrible consequences, is what many in Ukraine now expect. That mood of resignation, and what a Russian invasion might look like, are elaborated well in a new piece in Novoye Vremya (The New Times), a Moscow newsmagazine that is a rare outlet for anti-Kremlin views in Russia. The article by Maksim Shveyts, titled “Kyiv: Expecting War,” follows in toto, with my analysis following.

Kyiv: Expecting War – Ukraine is forming a National Guard and preparing in earnest for the defense of the capital against the aggressor

In Kyiv, Russia’s possible plans to invade mainland Ukraine do not appear to anyone simply to be a fantasy. Many recall how during his latest “appearance to the people” in Rostov-na-Donu, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych once again said that he considers himself the legitimate head of state and also promised to return to Kyiv “soon”. The fugitive president could only do this accompanied by the Russian military, local experts are convinced. And, indeed, they do not rule out scenarios in which Russian tanks enter the city.

Vice Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, ex-deputy chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Staff, said that Russia is preparing an air and ground offensive frontal operation against the country. Testifying to this, Kabanenko says, will be the next steps of the Russian authorities: first, “the training of airborne forces of the Russian Federation led by General Shamanov with the involvement of strategic aviation. Second, completion of the formation of an echelon, massing of air defense, and the formation of an air defense force grouping. And, finally, continuation of a deep special operation on the territory of Ukraine and the buildup of a battle group in Crimea and the East.”

Kabanenko called on the country’s political leadership to immediately mobilize reserves and to arm the citizenry. This retired military officer is certain that it is necessary to declare a patriotic war against the occupiers, form a supreme command staff, and began armed resistance to Russia’s plans to invade mainland Ukraine.

Stanislav Shum, director of Ekonomika publishers, says, “the next city where Russian troops are to be expected is Kyiv”: “Because if the Ukrainian Army is as weak as the defense minister maintains, there’s no point from the military perspective in attacking the regions if the capital can be taken. Again, without a single shot being fired, to the cannonade of protests and profound concern of the West,” this expert believes. “Events subsequently will unfold as rapidly as in the final days of February, only in reverse order,” he explains.

Escalation of Tension

Kyiv really does have grounds for fears. On 13 March, the Russian Federation (RF) Defense Ministry announced exercises to be conducted on the eastern border with Ukraine. The same day in Inkerman [in Crimea], the Russian military sealed off a weapons depot. Two explosive ordnance storage units – of the Ukrainian Navy and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – are stationed there. It was then learned that RF service personnel had sealed off the Ukrainian Ai-Petri Battalion. They posted thirty men with assault rifles around the perimeter and said that any transport traveling in the direction of the Ukrainian battalion was “subject to neutralization.” Meanwhile, the Crimean “self-defense force” prepared for an assault on the Ukrainian military unit in Simferopol, with the demand that the fuel depot be handed over to it. The new authorities of Crimea, led by the unrecognized Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, have taken control of the Feodosiya oil transshipment terminal.

On the whole, the mood of the military on the Crimean peninsula has over the past week changed considerably. New Times’ sources in the Ukrainian Navy report that while in the first days of the conflict the Russian military often behaved politely and proposed patrolling together with Ukrainian soldiers, in recent days they have been calling themselves the “bosses” and have been talking to Ukrainians exclusively in superior tones, ordering them around.

Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, commander of the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade stationed at the Bel’bek airfield, became known to the whole country after he defended his right to that airfield. On Thursday, he called the national leadership, the Defense Ministry, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff. Mamchur claims in this call that ultimatums from Russian servicemen are becoming increasingly serious, and he asked the command, therefore, to make a decision as quickly as possible about guidance for his personnel in the event of a direct threat.

“The Russian Federation has in the Luhansk and Chernihiv regions massed an assault force, heavy equipment, and military helicopters. Simultaneously, pro-Russian forces in Kharkiv are preparing an ‘assembly rally’ for the 16th, at which they plan to make a decision on a referendum based on the Crimean model,” independent political analyst Alexey Blyuminov points out. “Considering that the Kharkiv Region Council has refused to conduct any referendums for such purposes, I do not rule out attempts at a strong-arm seizure of the regional council by pro-Russian assault units and their adoption of an appeal to the Russian regime for the commitment of troops. The same provocation is possible in Luhansk region also,” he warns. This expert says the FSB continues to operate in the country’s eastern regions.

American CIA Director John Brennan said on 12 March that a full-scale invasion of Russian troops onto the territory of Ukraine will begin after the referendum in Crimea. The Ukrainian political analyst Pavlo Nuss shares this viewpoint: “On 17-18 March, regular troops of the Russian Federation will begin an invasion of Ukraine,” he says. This expert believes the invasion will begin simultaneously from the south and east of the country. “They will begin the occupation of Kherson and Mykolaiv from Crimea, attempting to take control of the shoreline of the Dnieper. They will attempt simultaneously to enter the territory of Mariupol and Berdyansk to establish control over the Azov region plus the Sea of Azov. This will happen, if we consider the invader’s ‘maritime interest’ scenario. The mobilization of the RF army at the borders of our motherland testifies that Russia is prepared for any scenario of military operations,” Nuss explains.

Guard to the Rescue

On 13 March, the Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine voted to form a National Guard. According to the document, this will be a large military unit with law-enforcement functions as part of the Interior Ministry. The strength level of the Guard, according to the document, could be up to 60,000 men. It will be formed by detachments of troops of the Interior Ministry and representatives of the Maydan Self-Defense Force, and also by some ordinary citizens of Ukraine who have experience of actual military operations and who have already registered at enlistment offices as volunteers in the event of aggression. The Defense Ministry says that there are about 40,000 Ukrainians in the latter group.

Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security Council, said that the National Guard is seventy percent manned by volunteers.

As far as the armed forces of Ukraine are concerned, they are in a frankly deplorable condition. Ihor Tenyukh, Ukraine’s defense minister, rated the capacity of the nation’s armed forces for switching to the highest readiness status as “unsatisfactorily low.” This official noted the “dispiriting state of training of the personnel of the Armed Forces, the insufficient manning of units with specialists, and the absence of equipment and arms in good working order.” In the ground forces, whose total strength is 41,000 men, “only 6,000 servicemen are really combat-ready,” Tenyukh emphasized. “More than seventy percent of the armored equipment is composed of obsolescent and worn-out Soviet-made T-64 tanks with a time in service of thirty years and more,” Tenyukh provided as an example.

What are Ukrainian politicians to do in this situation? Political analyst Taras Berezovets, president of Berta Communications, believes that local authorities need to “be more decisive in their appeals to the EU and the United States for the imposition of stiff economic and visa sanctions by the EU and the United States against Russian officials and the Russian president’s closest associates.”

“I believe that the probability of war is very high,” political analyst Alexey Blyuminov sums up, in turn. And he adds: “Locally in Crimea this is an almost 100 percent probability, outside of Crimea, over seventy percent. The events of 16 March (the Crimean referendum) could be the kickoff. Hearing one round go off would be sufficient – from either side.”

The notion of a coup de main by Russian forces against Kyiv, led by airborne (VDV) troops, with groundwork paved by intelligence operatives, that was elaborated by VADM Kabanenko, is entirely consistent with Moscow’s longstanding doctrine – think Czechoslovakia 1968 or Afghanistan 1979, among many possible examples – of how to execute quick, decisive operations for political effect. It is also consistent with reports this week of VDV forces marshaling near the Ukrainian border and of Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives caught in Ukraine spying and prepping local ethnic Russians for action.

The real question, then, is would Ukrainians prove to be more like Czechs in 1968 – passive and accepting of aggression – or more like Afghans in 1979 – full of fight to the bitter end against the invader? While I sense few Pashtun-like tendencies among any Ukrainians, I have little doubt that there are plenty of them who are willing to resist if Russian forces really move on Kyiv, the capital. That would be a real war quickly, no matter the dilapidated condition of Ukraine’s military. As the U.S. military learned to its great chagrin over the last decade, relatively small numbers of determined insurgents with small arms, RPGs, and IEDs can cause enormous pain to even the most powerful occupying army.

The Kremlin would be wise to recall that resistance to Soviet occupation in Western Ukraine lasted into the 1950s and cost many thousands of lives; it took brutal Stalinist methods of mass repression that even Putin would not dare attempt in the 21st century to bring Ukraine fully under Kremlin rule after World War II. Clearer heads in Moscow know this and I can only hope they are being listened to now. I suspect we will know the answer quite soon.

Understanding the Crimea Crisis

As I write, the Ukrainian region of Crimea is being absorbed by Russia, more or less openly. This represents a blatant challenge to the post-1991 European order, make no mistake, and so far Vladimir Putin is winning. After a sudden increase in Russian military personnel on the sensitive peninsula, more than 6,000 troops, mostly Special Operations Forces (SOF), Moscow has pulled out all the stops in waging what I have termed Special War: provocations, espionage, black and white propaganda, and the use of deniable SOF, often under false flag. None of this is new to the Russians, indeed it’s second-nature to the Kremlin, and Crimea today can best be viewed as one huge operation by Moscow’s powerful military intelligence, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which controls not just defense espionage matters but SOF too, what the Russians term SPETSNAZ.

The outcome in Crimea is no longer in doubt. The referendum on its status, whose vote tally is preordained, is scheduled for March 16; that President Obama and many Western leaders have noted this is illegal is all the more reason Moscow will do it. Western powers are spending much time and effort trying to undo the fait accompli in Crimea, to no effect now save posturing. What needs to be done is deterring the Kremlin’s next move, which is sure to come.

It is widely assumed that Putin’s next aggression will arrive in Eastern Ukraine, where there are large pockets of ethnic Russians, and where Moscow’s intelligence services have been playing their customary provocative games, laying the groundwork for full-scale Special War. Regrettably, I suspect the chances of a more-or-less overt Russian military move into Eastern Ukraine, to “protect” ethnic kin from “fascists,” are rising as Putin smells Western dithering in the face of his Crimean coup. Such an act will mean a full-scale war for Ukraine, which will soon involve NATO indirectly at least. Putin has the ability to seize much of Eastern Ukraine without much chance of defeat, but he may win himself a protracted conflict for which Russia is unready.

That said, there is no room for confident pleasantries yet of the sort we are seeing in the Western media: that the Kremlin is really losing, that Russia is on the ropes, that Putin is sowing the seeds of his eventual defeat. There is no doubt that Putin is lashing out in part due to Russia’s many weaknesses: economic, social, demographic, and political. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union – really, a deep longing for again having unquestioned Great Power status – is well known, but it needs to be recognized that over Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is acting simply in the manner of traditional Russian leaders: touchy about borders, at turns nakedly aggressive, desiring to have weak neighbors it can manipulate, worried about defending his land and people against myriad aggressors (some of them quite imaginary). Russia’s neighbors all know this pattern of conduct well, and are planning accordingly. Poland announced major defense reforms emphasizing territorial defense (i.e. defense against resurgent Russia) last fall, and now Sweden is following suit: there will be others.

To the surprise of no one actually acquainted with post-Cold War Europe, the collective response of European powers to the Crimean crisis has been underwhelming, to be kind. There has been no united front against Kremlin aggression as there is no common vision of what needs defending among members of the European Union (EU). While Eastern members properly feel an urgency about Russian moves, members further West seem less inclined to inconvenience themselves and their comfortable lives. The response in Germany, the most powerful EU country economically and politically, has been particularly repulsive where, thanks to underfunding and a lack of seriousness about defense matters, the Bundeswehr is incapable of offering much in terms of deterrence anyway, and the Kremlin’s buying off of much of Germany’s political elite has done the rest. Given German misdeeds in Poland and other Eastern European countries between 1939 and 1945, that are now threatened by Moscow, Berlin’s lackadaiscal response reveals moral, not just political, failings.

As the EU has been revealed to be a dilettante’s talk-shop outside economics, better suited to debates about cheese regulations than serious matters of statecraft, the burden must fall on NATO which, thanks to gross underinvestment in defense by nearly all European members, means that falls on the United States. There is no doubt that, in extremis, the United States would honor its Article 5 obligations and go to war to defend any NATO country directly threatened by Russian invasion. But what of countries threatened more indirectly by Special War à la russe – by subversion, terrorism, and violence by “self-defense militias” that the Kremlin swears it has nothing to do with? And what happens in a few years when the American military, already tired by a dozen years of failed wars  in the Middle East and increasingly hollowed out by massive defense spending cuts, lacks sufficient power to deter Russia quickly and convincingly? These are the stuff of Eastern European NATO nightmares, and properly so.

Perhaps most unsettling is the manner in which Western observers fail to note what actually motivates Putin and his country. Let there be no mistake, Moscow’s nakedly nationalist chest-beating is widely popular among average Russians; its opponents represent a distinctly minority view that natives will cheerfully explain is foreign-controlled anyway. We hear much happy-talk about the “irrationality” of Kremlin conduct, that such aggression has no place in our current, advanced age, and that it all makes no economic sense anyway. Historians are aware that remarkably similar language was employed by Western pundits and statesmen in the late 1930s to explain away the increasingly aggressive behavior, including cheerful disregard for international norms, by another leader of a resurgent yet recently defeated power.

Russia was indeed a defeated power after 1991, and it nurses a deep sense of humiliation at the hands of the West and especially the United States. I have more than a little sympathy for this viewpoint, and there can no doubt that, in the 1990s, Washington, DC, paid far too little attention to Moscow’s views on much of anything, and we are now paying the price for that, repaid with onerous interest to the Kremlin. U.S. and NATO actions in the Balkans, at the expense of Russia’s troublesome old friend Serbia, have come back to haunt, and Moscow’s representatives now cannot contain their glee  pointing out that, if NATO could unilaterally redraw the internationally recognized borders of Serbia in 1999, why cannot Russia to the same to Ukraine now? If the brief Georgia war of 2008 was payback for Kosovo – and it certainly was – what is playing out now over Ukraine is merely the next stage of Moscow’s revenge, for much higher stakes.

Revenge is a category not much discussed in college International Relations classes, but it is a prime motivator for Putin and his country now. Humiliating the United States and NATO is a major strategic aim for the Kremlin, and from their viewpoint an entirely rational – not to mention entirely delicious – one. While the Kremlin will not risk a major war with the West, which they know would be a disaster of vast proportions, they are quite happy to come close enough to show NATO and America to be the decadent weaklings that Putin and millions of Russians are quite confident that we are. To state the obvious, the risk of serious miscalculation, another historic Russian speciality in foreign affairs, is grave now.

But do not expect the Kremlin to back off yet, Putin and his retinue are enjoying this too much to stop now. Moscow has wanted to redraw the internal borders of the USSR, which do not reflect ethnic realities well, ever since 1991, and in this revanchist game Ukraine is the biggest prize of all. Simply put, Barack Obama is the first American president Moscow has felt they could pull this off against. This is painful to say, not least because this author – like many foreign policy watchers – was optimistic at the start that President Obama could undo the massive harm done to America’s international reputation by George W. Bush. Yet Moscow has taken a different view of all this from the outset, seeing weakness where others saw lawyerly consideration and American-style optimism.

This has been plain to see for some time. While Western Europe was celebrating Obama as something vaguely divine – his pre-victory speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing save not being President Bush, are fated to go down as two of the strangest happenings in modern foreign affairs – Russia was much less impressed. When Obama was first elected, Moscow pundits, including respected, level-headed ones, spoke as if America had lost its collective mind. Putin’s contempt for Obama has never been well disguised, and has only become more obvious with time, and many average Russians feel the same. Russian, like many Slavic languages, revels in countless put-downs implying weakness and effeminacy, and if you spend any time among Russians, even highly educated ones, you will hear the full range of them of them used to describe President Obama – lately, often with a laugh.

This was probably inevitable: how else did anyone expect the “former” KGB officer and judo master to look at the law professor and community organizer? Yet policies matter more, and over the last five years, Obama’s policies have gradually opened the door to a stronger, more assertive Russia in the world, above all the disaster over Syria which, as my colleague Tom Nichols and I noted several times last yearrepresented an opening beyond the Middle East that Putin was sure to take advantage of, and so he has.

All is far from lost. In his last year in office, President Jimmy Carter, shaken by Kremlin aggression, above all in Afghanistan, woke up to reality and took decisive action, raising defense spending and getting tough with the USSR in something like Special War, thereby setting the stage for victory in the Cold War a decade later, something which too few pundits have been willing to credit President Carter. Something similar can be done now, and ought to be. Deterrence, particularly in the realm of Special War, is the language that Putin speaks and understands well. This, plus bolstering NATO’s conventional defenses in the East, is entirely within our power and needs to be done urgently to forestall more Russian bad behavior.

Yet there are reasons to doubt this will happen soon enough, not least due to the basic dysfunction of this White House in foreign policy. This is not news, yet matters greatly now. Simply put, President Obama has surrounded himself with people who are not up to the challenge presented by the Kremlin over Ukraine and beyond. I’ve named some of them before, and don’t need to do so again. Most seriously, the consolidation of foreign policy decision-making in a few hands in this White House is without modern precedent and cancerous. It’s hardly a secret inside the Beltway that both the Departments of State and Defense, the former not exactly being a right-wing bastion, have been marginalized under Obama to a dangerous extent. In the recent scandal of Obama appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships when they seemed not to even know where the country in question was, I could not help but note that this really makes no difference, since all important foreign policy decisions are being made by a few, often young, staffers in the White House, outside the normal State Department chain.

A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.

In the present-day West, it’s commonplace to have a laugh at Vladimir Putin’s weirdly macho (and more than a little homoerotic) posturings, and I’ve done it too – how not, among the panoply of martial arts, bears, and countless shirtless adventures before the cameras? Yet in Russia they love this stuff, without a laugh-track. They are not yet as post-modern as we are, and they find reassurance in an old-school leader who talks about – and more importantly demonstrates – strength in a dangerous world. The first decade of the post-Soviet era was an economic, political, and social catastrophe for Russia, and Putin, whatever his faults, has been a pleasant change in the eyes of most Russians, which is why they back him through thick and thin. The Putin era will end someday, probably with Russia more isolated from the world than ever, but that coda may be some difficult decades off.

In the meantime, Western leaders must find the strength to resist Russian aggression through deterrence. Credibility must come first, as without it all our nuclear warheads, conventional forces, and economic leverage mean little and will not impress. NATO can deter Putin’s misdeeds, far beyond Ukraine, but that will require reinvestment in collective defense, not just cheap talk and expensive conferences. European NATO members have become accustomed to American leadership and gap-filling at all times, but they need to confront the reality that they must do more, and soon. Across the West, we need leaders who understand the stakes now and how to prevent war through strength and cunning. As is always the case in war, cold or hot, we need to become a little bit like our enemy to deter him. If our leaders cannot do that, get new leaders – and soon, as this game is real and the stakes are high.

[The author’s comments are his alone and certainly not representative of any of his employers, past or present.]

“Moscow understands only force and willingness to sacrifice human lives”

As I write, the Kremlin has won a seemingly bloodless victory by seizing Crimea without real resistance. As Europe panics and U.S. leadership seems to have no idea what to do about Vladimir Putin’s single-handed shredding of Europe’s post-Cold War rulebook, the next step is unclear. To be sure, if Putin moves forces into ethnically Russian areas of eastern Ukraine – as the Duma has “approved” and he told President Obama he reserves the right to – Europe will have a real war on its hands; it is already in its biggest crisis since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But a wider war cannot be ruled out. At a minimum, the post-1991 assurances that Europe would be forever at peace, that “soft power” could conquer all, or nearly so, that the continent’s biggest problems would be arguments over EU agricultural subsidies, have been shattered for good.

It is time to face some unpleasant facts. History – and force – is back with a vengeance, thanks to Kremlin belligerence, as I predicted last fall. Unless Europe wants to confront endless intimidation and worse at the hands of a resurgent Russia, it must dispense with pleasing nonsense and address the pressing need to defend itself and its values. I am posting below, in toto, the most forthright explanation of the situation I have yet found, an op-ed by Mart Helme, the former Estonian ambassador to Russia (thanks to Estonian relatives who saw this and alerted me). Entitled, “Moscow only understands force and willingness to sacrifice human lives,” this is a bracing, no-holds-barred must-read for anyone who cherishes European values, as I do, and wants to see them survive, as old threats reappear with a vengeance.

Was Hitler done with the Anschluss? No. Neither will Russia be satisfied just with Ukraine. And after Ukraine, Russia can only have one target – the Baltic states.

Russia has occupied Crimea. Western countries, including Estonia, are confused and able to utter only outdated and increasingly embarrassing platitudes. Russia will not wait for EU foreign ministers to eventually convene for a meeting, but is making hay while the sun shines – it is moving new military units and equipment to Crimea, expanding the conflict to eastern and southern Ukraine, and using Victor Yanukovych, who has sought refuge in Russia, to question the legitimacy of the people who seized power in Kyiv, and to create a cover for its criminal activities.

At the same time, the West is prattling in the United Nations where Russia holds veto rights at the Security Council, and making noise in the OSCE where all decisions need a consensus, which Russia (or any of its vassals) will naturally not allow to happen, while letting the leaders of big countries issue comically toothless statements instead. And with each passing day, Moscow is adding to the hard facts which the so-called international community must face.

In a nutshell, Russia is fighting ruthlessly and brutally, and proving to all that the post-Cold War world has been replaced by the post-post-Cold War world in which Moscow no longer considers the current international order, law, and organizations competent to solve problems.

What is applicable then? From Moscow’s point of view, only force and the willingness to sacrifice human lives when force is applied.

Is the West willing to do that? That is extremely unlikely. It is one thing to mount military operations against Afghan poppy growers and quite another to accept the challenge of a nuclear power with the world’s largest territory and the richest deposits of natural resources, which feels cornered in a deepening confrontation with the West and is not going to surrender its habitats without a fight.

Moscow knows – and so does the West but it is not willing to admit it even to itself – that Western civilization in its decadence has reached the final stage of its degradation where only money and comfort count. Careerists and anglers, who are able to navigate the ship only in good weather, have risen to the top during decades of inert existence. They will lose their heads in a storm, and can only utter banalities and behave accordingly.

Oswald Spengler in his “The Decline of the West” predicted more than correctly that money will bring down  Western democracy (that is exactly what has already happened), and then the power of money will be conquered by force. Europe, fighting for the rainbow flag and gender quotas, is a complete impotent in that respect; the United States, on the other hand, when considering intervening, is thinking about moves of a broader global game and must inevitably take into account that average Americans do not have a clue where someplace called Crimea is located. Moreover, the United States is tired of the problems of the rest of the world and wants to take a rest. And we do not know whether it intends to wake up and do something if a small country like Estonia screams for help at some point.

This is the essence of an existential question for a wider audience: Is the West (especially the United States) willing to start what would likely be a truly uncompromising fight in order to win Crimea, as well as the eastern and southern Ukraine back from Moscow? That is not likely. It is much more likely that the West will behave exactly the way it did in 1938 when Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler demanded that they have Czechoslovakia, the independence and territorial integrity of which had been guaranteed by the Soviet Union and France in the League of Nations.

At the time, the issue was left for Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to mediate, which resulted in Czechoslovakia being left to Hitler to tear apart. Was Hitler satisfied with that? No. Neither will Russia be satisfied with this. After Ukraine, Russia will only have one target – the Baltic states.

It is naive to maintain that the West can influence Russia by imposing sanctions and freezing funds of the ruling kleptocratic clique. Putin & Co. have transferred their assets to a safe place by now, and Russia can withstand a long economic blockade stoically because the average Russian, unlike Europeans and Americans, is able to survive on vodka and potatoes alone. But it is Germany which will be unable to stay in business without Russian raw materials.

In 2008, Russia tested the West by launching a military attack against Georgia. The West failed the test. According to the peace treaty, negotiated with the French president as a mediator, Russia should have withdrawn troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but we all know very well that Moscow has so far not done that. It is highly unlikely that Russia will leave Crimea now that it has been conquered; even moreso, considering that historically it has never been an organic part of Ukraine.

In fact, Ukraine has only one – bloody – option to regain control over Crimea (and other potentially separatist regions). That means mobilizing the armed forces and going against the aggressor with arms. Just like Yanukovych was brought down at a price of victims’ blood, Russia will retreat when it meets decisive armed resistance. Because Russia is not nearly as strong as it makes itself out to be.

The authorities currently in power in Kyiv with all their economic problems are probably too much Western puppets to do what they are obliged to do under the Ukrainian Constitution. Sacrificing a Crimea or a Donetsk means nothing for Western countries which are sprawling in their own comfort zone.

After all, Western leaders, brought up in the spirit of the 1960′s hippie ideology, are familiar with only one motto – “Make love, not war”. Russia is familiar with the lyrics of a different song: “A yesly zavtra voyna … ” – if there is war tomorrow.