Russian Activities Across Europe (A Contrarian Assessment)

I was asked by the Pentagon to write up my thoughts on Putin’s Russia and its strategic intentions towards the US, NATO and the West for a DoD Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) White Paper. That paper has been released to the public, so here is my portion of the SMA, for those interested.

Abstract

Russia today is a spoiler in the U.S.-led international system, especially in Europe, where the Kremlin continues to enjoy advantages over USG and NATO in key areas such as espionage and propaganda, in which Russian asymmetric power punches far above its weight. Contrary to conventional analysis, after two decades under Vladimir Putin, Russia represents an ideological challenge to the West, not just a political and military rivalry. Although NATO continues to possess impressive overmatch against Moscow, that edge is dwindling, and Western vulnerabilities in certain military areas are alarming. Moreover, the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological – as well as political and military – aspects of our rivalry with Putinism means that the threat of significant armed conflict is rising.

The Nature of the Regime

Putin’s Russia bears similarities to the Tsarist past and the more recent Communist one but is truly reflective of neither previous system. Although Putin himself is very much a product of the Soviet system, indeed he is derided as a sovok (‘dustpan’ in Russian, meaning one who uncritically admires the Soviet past) by his enemies at home, his two decades in power since the end of the 1990s have delivered significant breaks from the Bolshevik experience in politics and Russian society more broadly.

Putin’s Russia is neither free in a Western sense or unfree in a Soviet one. It is a hybrid regime, a ‘managed democracy’ of a peculiarly Russian sort, with the Kremlin bestowing accolades on aspects of the Tsarist legacy and the Communist one too, while still being critical of both. Though power is centralized at ‘the top’ in the Kremlin, and regional power centers were brought under Moscow’s heel in the early years of Putinism, it would be incorrect to view Putin’s regime as possessing the long arms of the Soviet system under Stalin, for instance.

Here the prominent role of wealthy businessmen, so-called ‘oligarchs,’ is important but frequently overvalued by Western commentators. Although Putin rules with help from oligarchs and has become a billionaire himself thanks to those close and mutually beneficial relationships, top businessmen who fall afoul of ‘the top’ go into exile and not infrequently wind up dead under mysterious circumstances. [1]

It’s customary to track Putin’s disenchantment with the West (particularly the United States) to his infamous speech at 2007’s Munich Security Forum, yet it needs to be stated that too many Western experts failed to realize just how angry the Kremlin was growing at the West by the late-aughts. Moreover, most of them missed indelible signs in the years running up to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that Moscow was becoming implacably opposed to the postmodern West on an ideological level. Here Putin’s fiery comments at the 2013 Valdai Club, where he denounced the West as godless and even Satanic, deserved more attention than they received abroad. [2]

These themes became regime propaganda, and the events of 2014 were hailed by Putin with an unprecedented dose of Russian (russkiy not rossiskiy) nationalism [3], combined with Third Rome-flavored religious mysticism with the staunch backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become a major supporter of the regime and the de facto state religion under Putin. [4] This heady brew of religious nationalism falls on deaf ears in the West, which finds it strange and atavistic, yet it resonates with average Russians in a way that Bolshevism never did.

It should be noted that Russians are not especially religious in terms of churchgoing but under Putin, Orthodoxy has been reborn and weaponized to bolster the regime and encourage popular support for its policies. Putin himself puts on a convincing act of being an Orthodox believer, and whether he really is one (or not) is immaterial to the prominent role that Russian Orthodoxy now plays in creating pro-regime ideas and actions among average Russians. This hearkens back to ancient Orthodox notions of symphonia (‘symphony’ meaning symbiosis between secular and religious rulers) which stand in marked contrast to current Western ideas about ‘separation of church and state.’ Moscow in recent years has made clear that it views the present clash with the West as having a deep ideological aspect, rooted in nationalism and religion, whether the West notices this or not. [5]

After 9/11, there was a rush among Americans to grasp ‘Why they hate us,’ meaning trying to understand the Salafi jihadist ideology that motivated their aggression. Similarly, it is now imperative for Westerners to grasp the Putinist ideology, what motivates it, and why it is encouraging more confrontation – not conciliation – with the West.

The Special Services

One aspect of Putinism that is unique in Russian history is the dominant role of the security agencies, what Russians term the ‘special services,’ in nearly all regime affairs. The dominance of these secretive agencies in the formulation of policy, foreign and domestic, has no precedent in Russian history, which for centuries has valued its spy services more than Western countries do. The connection of Putin’s special services to the past, including the darkest periods of Communist oppression, is illustrated by the fanfare with which the regime recently celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Soviet secret police – and their direct connection to Kremlin spies today. [6]

Here’s Putin’s past in the KGB plays a major role and as the Kremlin boss he has surrounded himself with senior decisionmakers very much like himself. Indeed, there are few people at ‘the top’ in Moscow who didn’t grow up in the Soviet intelligence apparatus, military or civilian. They are ‘Chekists’ to use the proper term and Putin myself famously stated, ‘There are no “former” Chekists.’ [7] In many ways, Putinism can be viewed as the fulfillment of the long-term goal of Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB from 1967 to 1982 (and briefly the top party boss, 1982-84), who assessed a political system in collapse and wanted Chekists, the only truly reliable element, to take over everything. Under Putin, they have done so.

Here the Federal Security Service (FSB), which Putin headed in 1998-99, plays a preeminent role, and the FSB and Russia’s other intelligence agencies carry much more weight in broad policymaking than any Western spy services do. They function as the regime’s backbone, its corps d’elite, and they possess the favor of ‘the top’ – and all Russians know it. Under Putin, Russia’s special services hold a power and prestige they never had under the Communists, when those had to be shared with the party and the military. However, the dominance of Chekists in Moscow mandates a bias for action (sometimes for its own sake), a knack for tactics over strategy, and a tendency to conspiratorial group-think in the upper reaches of the Kremlin.

The Military

Russia’s military was a major loser of the Soviet collapse, and only over the past decade has it begun to show signs of renewed vitality and operational competence, both of which were sorely lacking in the 1990s, as revealed by the debacle of the First Chechen War (1994-96). More recent operations in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea/Ukraine in 2014-15 have demonstrated that the Russian military is a force to be reckoned with again.

The appearance of the Little Green Men of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the latter conflict stunned the world, but just as impressive was the battlefield performance of Russian artillery and electronic warfare, which when linked together decimated Ukrainian units. In these areas, Russia is ahead of NATO, including the U.S. Army, which has lost a generation in artillery and EW and is playing catch-up now. Given the historical dominance of artillery in the Russian army, this merits serious attention by the Atlantic Alliance. [8]

Russia’s military still has major problems with readiness, corruption, and morale compared to most NATO forces, but it is again a force to be reckoned with. While there is little question that NATO would prevail in any protracted war against Russia, in which the Atlantic Alliance’s full military resources could be brought to bear, Russia’s odds in any short or medium-term conflict appear more favorable.

That said, there is a dearth of serious strategic thinking in the Kremlin, as witnessed by the ‘frozen conflict’ in southeastern Ukraine, where the Russian military and its local proxy forces in 2014 purchased a bridgehead to nowhere and nobody in Moscow seems to know how to end that low-boil war while saving face, five years on. Given Russia’s mounting economic problems stemming from its aggression with Ukraine, the fact that the General Staff seems stuck in Donbas raises questions about strategic decision-making in Moscow.

Spiritual Security

That seemingly endless war in Ukraine has been sold to the Russian public as a strategic necessity to protect fellow Russians from the genocide-inclined ‘fascist junta’ in Kiev. The religious aspects of the Ukraine war have been given prime attention in Kremlin media, and the conflict has become a showcase for the regime’s ideology, which approves of conflict with the West – even military conflict – when needed since the godless postmodern West is in league with the Devil: according to Kremlin propagandists, quite literally.

Such messages seem laughable to the West but are taken seriously by many Russians, not least because they possess deep resonance with centuries of their history, which has long preached about the incompatibility of Eastern Orthodox values with the ‘heretic’ West. Now that critique encompasses withering language about Western secularism and decadence too, but its outlines were found in Russia half a millennium ago.

This religious vision has been endorsed by the special services also, which led by the FSB have created a doctrine they call ‘spiritual security,’ meaning an adherence to traditional religion and conservative social values as a core component of national security. This is the driver of Kremlin efforts to kick Western ‘heretics’ (usually Protestant Evangelicals or Jehovah’s Witnesses) out of Russia, which show no signs of abating; rather the contrary since 2014. Putin has stated that Russia’s ‘spiritual shield’ – meaning the Orthodox Church and its teachings, with the backing of the regime – are as important to Russia’s security as her nuclear shield, so the West needs to pay attention. [9]

What Putin Wants

We have no idea what Putin ‘really’ believes as a matter of faith, but in practical terms he is a hard-headed realist who is fundamentally cautious – in 2014-15 he repeatedly turned down General Staff pleas to widen the war in Ukraine when Russian strategic victory over Kiev would have been relatively easy – yet prone to occasional gambling in va banque fashion. We should not expect that Putin will wake one day and decide to unleash all-out war on NATO, but the chances of that happening by accident are rising as both sides grow increasingly wary and prone to provocations.

Putin does not want the restoration of the Soviet Union, nor a Tsarist Empire 2.0, but he does not recognize the 1991 post-Soviet settlement as final. To the Kremlin, those are merely lines on a Communist map. Putin’s acceptance of Ukrainian statehood is conditional at best, and the same can be said for his take on Belarus; Minsk’s efforts to distance their country from Moscow’s tentacles are doomed to fail in extremis. Putin will never part with Crimea, that matter is settled as far as most Russians are concerned, but a negotiated settlement of the Ukraine crisis is possible, yet only on Russia’s terms, which seem unlikely to find favor in Kiev – or Brussels.

At root, Putin wants Russia to be respected as a great power, the historic and geographic hegemon over Eastern Europe, possessing a proprietary interest in Russians outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Putin and his regime view the European Union with undisguised contempt while the Kremlin’s assessment of the Baltic States is that they are not ‘countries’ in the sense that Russia is. The risk of a Russian provocation going badly wrong is notably high regarding Estonia, given recent aggressive FSB operations against that country. [10]

Russia’s current economic problems, derived in large part from sanctions caused by the Ukraine war, will make the Kremlin more, not less, likely to engage in adventurism against the West and NATO. While Putin does not consciously seek major war in Europe, the possibility of that breaking out on the fringes of the former Soviet Union are rising, not falling, in 2019.

What’s Ahead For EUCOM and NATO

Aggressive Russian Special War – that is, espionage, disinformation, cyber-attacks and disruptions, propaganda, terrorism, even assassinations abroad – will continue to be the Kremlin’s major day-in, day-out weapon of choice against NATO and the West. [11] Special War, led by Russia’s powerful and aggressive special services, will be employed, without restraint, to weaken Western resolve while creating political and military conditions favorable to Russia. That Moscow wants the end of both NATO and the EU – and the U.S. military out of East-Central Europe – should not be in doubt.

EUCOM and NATO need to be prepared to blunt aggressive Russian military moves on the Alliance’s fringes, especially the Baltic States, while the possibility of a Kremlin-backed coup in Minsk is real. For want of a rapid response by NATO, such regional confrontations could easily turn into a wider war which nobody on either side really wants.

EUCOM’s current force posture in the AOR is inadequate to realistically deter possible Russian adventurism on the Atlantic Alliance’s eastern edge. Deficits in artillery and EW are especially serious, while overall NATO readiness to contest possible Russian aggression in Eastern Europe is lacking.

What is to be Done?

  1. Understand the ideological aspects of the reborn military and political confrontation between Putin’s Russia and the West since 2014.
  2. Understand the real drivers of Kremlin policymaking, particularly as they relate to Russian activities designed to weaken and divide the West (especially NATO and the EU).
  3. Understand the central role of the ‘special services’ in Kremlin decision-making, and how the dominance of spies in Moscow creates threats – and opportunities – for the West.
  4. Understand Putin’s strategic aims in Europe and the preeminent role of Special War in the Kremlin’s quotidian aggressions against NATO and the West.
  5. Strengthen NATO’s military posture (including rapidly deployable forces) on the Alliance’s eastern edge to deter Kremlin provocations and aggression.
  6. Develop effective NATO counterespionage and counterpropaganda capabilities to limit the damage inflicted on Western institutions by Kremlin Special War, which will not cease, since they are cost-effective for Moscow.
  7. Accept that Cold War 2.0 is here and shows few signs of abating without the fall of Putinism – which is unlikely to happen soon. Moreover, Putin’s replacement could be a more sincere Russian nationalist than he is. This conflict, to include ideological aspects, is here to stay for at least decades.

References

[1] John R. Schindler, “Another Defector Dead in Washington,” The Observer, 16 March 2016.

[2] John R. Schindler, “Putin’s Orthodox Jihad,” The XX Committee, 27 December 2014.

[3] In the Russian language, russkiy denotes Russian in an ethnic sense while rossiskiy refers to anyone in Russia, e.g. the Russian Federation is Rossiskaya Federatsiya.

[4] On the Third Rome myth and Russian imperial ideology see Marshall Poe, “Moscow, the Third Rome: The Origins and Transformations of a ‘Pivotal Moment’,” in: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd.49, H.3, 2001.

[5] John R. Schindler, “Russia Has an Ideology – and It’s as Entrenched as Communism Was,” The Observer, 21 March 2018.

[6] John R. Schindler, “Russia Celebrates the Grim Centenary of Police Rule,” The Observer, 22 December 2017.

[7] In the original (which has become a mantra of Putinism): Бывших чекистов не бывает.

[8] John R. Schindler, “Outgunned US Army Isn’t Prepared for War with Russia,” The Observer, 28 August 2018.

[9] Julie Fedor, Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition, from Lenin to Putin (Routledge, NY, 2011), pp. 168-181.

[10] The FSB’s 2014 abduction of the Estonian counterintelligence officer Eston Kohver on the tense border between their countries is precisely the sort of aggressive Chekist provocation that could result in an unwanted war between Russia and NATO. See: “Why Eston Kohver Matters,” RFE/RL, 3 June 2015.

[11] This author coined the term “Russia’s Special War” in 2014, see: “Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia,” New York Times, 20 Apr 2014.