The West needs a lot more than tepid sanctions and tired rhetoric to counter Russia’s patient, skillful effort to rebuild its empire.
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By David B. Kanin
Russia today may be the first state in history to be run by its intelligence services. Former KGB officers like President Putin himself, the current bureaucracies of Maskirovna and propaganda, and their puppet oligarchs have garnered more power than not only Soviet-era predecessors, but also any security structure in the history of Russia. These cynical and strategic-minded people know how to give and take—give by acting as if they respect Western norms and residual, if fading influence; take, well take whatever it is they want. Georgia, Ukraine, Hungary, the Baltics, Balkans, even Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics are not out of bounds.
Russia’s general approach to imperial expansion somewhat resembles the Roman conquest of Greece over the decades between, say, 220 and 146 B.C.E. The Romans expanded their presence in stages from influence to control to direct administration., Like the Romans—and unlike the Soviets in Eastern Europe after 1945—Rome did not have an overwhelming military presence in Greece to ensure its domination (especially while Hannibal was operating effectively in Italy). Succeeding consuls and praetors carried out the Senate’s policy of methodically creating the diplomatic, legal, and military means of coopting and undermining the leading powers of the Greek universe (the various leagues and dynastic descendants of the various successors of Alexander the Great).
To be sure, Rome did not exhibit the sorts of insecurities that mark Russia’s aggression, and was less cynical than Putin when it came to the legal veneer both empires placed over their diplomatic and military actions. Still, what Putin has in common with the Romans is the patient, methodical approach to strategic expansion so lacking in the approaches of divided, floundering adversaries.
Putin’s personal project is Angela Merkel. However strong and influential she seems in the West, to Putin she is merely his most important agent of influence. This does not mean he actively recruited her during his time in Germany (although, that notion would make a good Oliver Stone-esque movie), but it does mean a major part of his approach to a floundering EU is to help Merkel convince her weaker, poorer partners (and a breathtakingly indecisive United States) that Merkel really can carry their water with Russia’s very successful Tsar. He gives her cease-fires and promises, and acts as if her lectures and sanctions give him pain. All the while, his troops keep moving, and his covert organs keep chipping away at European and American sources of hard and soft power.
Putin’s military successes in eastern Ukraine permit him to use the cease-fire to perform mid-course corrections regarding his covert actions in the rest of Ukraine, while preparing for a future drive through Mariapul and along the Black Sea coast. Unless the West strengthens and backstops Ukraine’s military and imposes structural sanctions, Moscow is likely eventually to engage these targets and then again permit the ever-cooperative Merkel to arrange another favorable (to Russia) cease-fire. Further Western bluster and sanctions against individual Russians would have little impact on these decisions—the tougher issue for Putin will be figuring out a strategy for covert action and overt kinetic pressure aimed at engineering victory for Russia’s proxies in the next Ukrainian election (as was done in 2010, once it became clear the heroes of the 2004 Orange Revolution were just as corrupt and incompetent as their pro-Moscow opponents).
Serial Russian diplomatic and military successes have given pause even to decision makers in Warsaw, where a deep, violent, and otherwise unhappy history of relations with Russia precludes the fantasies that feed German-style style strategic pietism and American simple-mindedness. Poland softened its previously hard public line against Russian aggression in reaction to Merkel’s latest concessions to Putin in Minsk. This development could become a trajectory working very much in Moscow’s favor unless the Americans reverse their retreat from Europe (reflected most notably—from Poland’s point of view—in Washington’s damaging capitulation over missile defense).
Putin likely intends to manage his imperial reconstruction project in the Balkans differently than in the Baltics. Baltic reactions to Western defeat in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine have centered on Article V in such a way as to paint possible NATO failure to protect Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia as an Alliance-ending repeat of the 1939-41 Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Most pieces of the former Yugoslavia and the Albanian universe are not in NATO (Russian policies toward Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria demonstrate membership in the EU is strategically irrelevant). Moscow can contrast its strategic successes since the war against Georgia in 2008 and its financial support to clients and patronage networks throughout the Balkans to the West’s continuing approach of lectures and demands for meaningless, ideologically fantasized “reforms.”
However, regarding this group of fragmented targets, Putin has two problems. First, Russia’s lack of borders with Balkan states other than Romania and Bulgaria limits the possibility of plucking the kinetic low-hanging fruit so readily available in Ukraine (and, if Moscow decides it is appropriate, Belarus). Merkel’s acquiescent approach to Putin means military options will remain conceivable regarding Romania and Bulgaria (no matter their membership in NATO) during the remaining months of Obama’s lame-duck presidency, should the governments of those countries continue to perform as poorly as their predecessors have and should Russian covert operations produce the sort of overtly pro-Russian political forces that so far have not been significant in either country. Russia has no such immediate geographic access to Albania and the terminally dysfunctional shards of former Yugoslavia.
Second, Russia cannot offer its clients the material benefits necessary to underpin its skillful use of military power and propaganda. Russia’s economy continues to be a mess and is as corrosive to the country’s prospects as it was during the Soviet decades. Putin clearly has had no problem out-thinking Merkel and other Western competitors when it comes to geo-strategy, but he appears to have no answer for the fall in energy prices. As noted, his economic approach to the Balkans so far has been to strengthen ties with various patronage bosses (Dodik is the most obvious example, but Russian policies toward Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, the Albanian universe, and Ukraine itself also follow this pattern). Going forward, Russia is likely to attempt to quietly build political machines in these countries connected to the economic networks the West derides as corrupt or informal, but which are much more central to material realities than what passes (and is measured by official agencies and NGOs) as economic activity.
If the US and EU want to construct a serious response to longer-term Russian assertiveness as well as to Moscow’s immediate military aggression—and it is far from certain they do—they will have engage for the long run while providing Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic allies with the weapons and training required to increase the cost to Russia of its policies. It is essential that Russia come to sense that its approach carries real danger. There is no question Such a turn would carry with it an increase of fighting between Russian and Western forces, but war would remain very unlikely. One problem with the lack of a kinetic response to Moscow’s policies is that Putin is left free to brag about Russian military prowess at home while using his troops and local proxies to create in domestic and foreign minds a perception that he is Russia’s first worthy successor to Stalin. Another is that his pal Angela Merkel and other Western decision makers appear to the same audiences as not worthy at all.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
1) For a particularly pollyanish praise of the Chancellor, see Elizabeth Pond, “Misreading Berlin,” Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2015, pp. 173-176. Pond defends Merkel for being in the lead on sanctions, rather than accepting them only reluctantly (as if the sanctions matter). She also claims the most urgent challenge to Western diplomacy after Russia seized Crimea was to keep Putin talking rather than shooting—as if Merkel and the rest have done anything to stop him from doing both, how and when he chooses.