Disrupt and Distract: Russia’s Methodology of Dealing with the West
Author: David Batashvili, International Relations Analyst
Those of Russia’s neighbors who have no wish to find ourselves one day within its zone of influence are in a very difficult position. We face sustained Russian subversion, the ugly routine of the continuing occupation of our territories, hostile diplomacy, and, on occasion, military attacks, in the Georgian case accompanied by ethnic cleansing. Under the circumstances, it is fully understandable why we want to see the West stand up to Russia more than it does. Indeed, it should.
And yet, it is also true that, in fact, the West does stand up to Moscow’s imperial ambitions, however imperfectly. The best testimony to this being the case is Russia’s present aggressive effort to damage the Western interests wherever it can.
Political systems of the Western nations, geopolitics of the Middle East, ethnic tensions in the Balkans, war in Afghanistan – Moscow exploits all of these venues, diverse as they are, to disrupt and distract the West, seeking to undermine its capability and will to confront Russia’s aggression against its neighbors.
Moscow’s purpose is to change the global balance of power in its own favor. Given the deep structural weaknesses of the modern Russia, it can hardly hope to achieve such outcome solely through internal development, and the present Kremlin regime is incapable of the necessary reform in any case. The solution, in the eyes of the Russian leadership, lies in resurrecting, in some new form, the geopolitical structure that in the past was manifested first as the Russian Empire and later as the Soviet Union.
Basically, the Russians seek to overcome “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” as Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union back in 2005. Perhaps Moscow does not intend formal abolition of its former colonies’ independence, but it definitely wants to damage their sovereignty, and ultimately to control their fate, one way or another.
In this endeavor, the West is an obstacle for Russia. Understandably, the Western nations do not want Russia to subjugate its neighbors and resurrect its empire, upending the existing international order in the process. And the West will act accordingly, as the Russians ascertained after their attack on Ukraine. The Western sanctions, diplomatic involvement and limited military support of Ukraine might not be enough in the eyes of Russia’s neighbors who stand against its imperialism, but in the eyes of Moscow they are not welcome. Worse, they show the potential for even more robust responses to Russia’s aggressive moves in the future.
It appears that the method Moscow has come up with to defeat this Western opposition to its expansionism is to exacerbate all kinds of problems that the West is facing. If the U.S. and the EU have to deal with a set of critical problems at home and globally, they might not be able to stop Russia’s geopolitical resurgence. At least, this appears to be the bet that the Kremlin is willing to make.
The most dangerous weapon, directed at the very heart of the Western nations and the international order they have built, is the latest resurgence of the radical forces within their own political systems. These forces feed on the public concerns regarding economy and immigration, but their crucial features are narrow nationalism and opposition to the ties that bind the nations of the West to each other and to the rest of the world.
Where such political forces to become powerful enough, they could allow the said international order to lapse, freeing the hands of Russia, among this order’s other opponents, to act at will towards its neighbors and beyond.
Moscow does whatever it can to cultivate the Western radicals. It engages with its arsenal of active measures, including the never-ending disinformation campaign, evolving relationship with the European far-right extremist groups, armies of internet trolls, covert cyber operations, as well as a direct political and financial support of this political rebellion within the West.
In the Western Balkans, the Russian policy is directed against the EU. Moscow has developed close ties with the Bosnian Serb Republic president Milorad Dodik, who harbors secessionist ambitions that are unacceptable to the country’s Bosniak majority. In Macedonia, Russia is inflaming dangerous ethnic tensions between the Macedonians and the Albanians.
If conflicts in the Western Balkans were to reignite, the headache for the EU would be immense. The Albanians of Macedonia and the Bosniaks are both Muslim. The global jihadist movement would be certain to exploit such an opportunity for its propaganda. The jihadists in Europe would be encouraged to act even more aggressively than presently. More European Muslims would get radicalized. Additional jihadists would arrive to Europe from other parts of the world.
Such developments would provide a new boost to the Western far-right, giving credence to their war of civilizations narrative in the eyes of the voters. The EU and the mainstream European political elites would be further undermined. Russia would portray itself as the best hope and protector of the Western civilization. More people would believe it than do at present.
In the Middle East, Russia has helped the expansion of the Iranian sphere of influence, which is now about to constitute a geographically contiguous area between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean coast. Prevention of Iran’s regional dominance is, of course, a key goal of the American foreign policy. With the fall of the Daesh quasi-state, containing Iran is becoming the chief U.S. objective in the Middle East.
Russia’s actions in Syria have guaranteed that the U.S. will have its hands full dealing with Iran, limiting the attention and resources America will be able to commit elsewhere. Aggravating this problem is the fact that Iran’s empowerment in Syria has considerably increased the chances of a large and destructive war between Israel on one side, and the Iranian military proxies in Lebanon and Syria on another.
In sum, Russia’s policy in the Middle East, and particularly its involvement in Syria, has complicated America’s strategic position in that region. In the months and years ahead, this will contribute to distracting the U.S. from Russia’s actions against its neighbors.
Moscow’s policy in Afghanistan serves exactly the same purpose. Despite the fact that fundamentally the Taliban is no ally of Russia, Moscow is now supporting it in order to force the Americans to dedicate more resources to salvaging the embattled Afghan government.
The Sunni and the Shi’a, the Western Islamophobes and the radical Islamists – all are useful instruments in the Kremlin’s eyes. Their particular and often contradictory agendas do not matter, as long as they are helping Russia’s strategy directed against the West. The purpose of this strategy is to disrupt the Western nations’ political systems and global interests, and to distract both the United States and Europe from the imperial project Moscow is presently seeking to implement. It would be wise of the American and European political elites to recognize this unifying principle that ties together Russia’s diverse geostrategic activities.
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