Author: David Batashvili, Research Fellow of Rondeli Foundation
People use different names to characterize the present mode of interaction between Russia and the West. Some call it Cold War 2.0. Edward Lucas, in his 2014 book, refers to it as the New Cold War. Use of specific name is a matter of taste and opinion, but the ongoing geopolitical competition is a fact of life. Call it what you want, the essence remains the same: the key grand strategic goals of Russia under its present regime are incompatible with those of the United States and major European powers, in addition to Russia’s embattled neighbors who resist its re-expansion.
As a result, these two camps – Russia and those who oppose its expansionism – are systematically engaged in activities that aim at preventing the other side from achieving its goals. And they will keep being so engaged. This confrontation is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Russia wants to control its neighbors and restore its empire in some new form. It also wants to be one of the central powers in a new “multipolar” world order it seeks to facilitate. What inhabitants of the Kremlin mean by this in practical terms is a world divided into several geographic spheres of influence, much like it was on the eve of World War I, where the dominating power controls the fate of nations within its sphere, irrespective of empty formalities like those nations’ sovereignty.
This would mean the end of the world that the West successfully fought for in the apocalyptic conflagration of World War II, and the long morally exhausting struggle of the Cold War. Despite strategic confusion in the West, it will not concede such outcome easily. The West and the present rulers in Moscow simply need two very different worlds to thrive in. This fact has made the struggle between them inevitable. Like in most other historic competitions of similar kind and scale, eventually one side will win and the other will lose.
The Cold War offers some useful insights into how the competition against the regime that sits in the Kremlin can be won. It is true that there are countless differences between the Cold War and the present geopolitical struggle. Yet the basic structure of the confrontation is similar. It is waged without either side wishing to end up in a direct great power war with another. Instead, Russia employs aggression against smaller players, proxy warfare and political influence operations. Meanwhile, the major Western states give support to Russia’s neighbors who try to retain their sovereignty. The rest of the struggle is conducted by both sides in the realms of covert activities, diplomatic moves and economic measures.
The West did not win the Cold War with some successful aggressive action. Far from it. The military situation during the Cold War was basically a stalemate. In terms of global influence, both sides kept winning or losing one country or another, on various continents all over the planet. In the covert realm, the communist infiltration of the Western nations was much more extensive than vice versa. In other words, the West did not enjoy any decisive conventional advantage over the Soviet Union.
The democratic camp won the Cold War because its political and economic system was fundamentally healthy, while the Soviet one was fundamentally unsustainable.
Bread line in the late USSR
Why the Present Russian Regime Is Going to Lose
Moscow’s kleptocracy of today is not sustainable either. The regime, all its high-level functionaries, all its associates, and Putin personally, are deeply, thoroughly corrupt. Infrastructural underdevelopment in this huge country is profound. The economy is stagnating. And the regime is utterly incapable to apply the reforms necessary to change this state of affairs, because any such reform requires getting rid of the all-encompassing corruption, which is equivalent to getting rid of the regime itself, since corruption is its very essence.
The crucial, decisive factor is that the Russian people have no chance to change their rulers through elections, because no real elections are held. However intensely might some people hate their government in a democracy, they know that already there is scheduled the next election, when they will get a chance to put someone else into the nation’s main offices. The Russians know no such thing. The regime, therefore, has no democratic legitimacy.
It does have legitimacy of another kind – like other authoritarianisms, it retains many supporters as long as it is generally deemed successful. Putin’s messaging inside Russia aims at portraying his rule as a success story. But it is becoming less and less convincing in the eyes of the Russians. The combination of lower oil prices and sanctions is gradually taking its toll, with the rapid economic growth of Putin’s earlier years having become a thing of the past.
Another part of Putin’s success narrative is foreign policy, including Russia’s imperial re-expansion in its neighborhood and its perceived empowerment versus the West. Once the regime is denied apparent foreign policy success, this perception among the Russian people will also begin to dissipate, just like the one about growing economic prosperity already has.
At that point, nothing will remain of the regime’s essence, except corruption, developmental stagnation and authoritarianism. The steam, already evident in the growing support for the opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, will begin its build-up in earnest. Without real elections, this steam will not have any conduit to escape the boiler. There can only be one kind of ending to such story, and it is not a happy one for the regime.
How to Facilitate Victory and Minimize Damage Meanwhile
It is true that historical perspectives of the present regime in Moscow are not very bright. Nevertheless, the targets of its hostile activities cannot afford complacency. This regime has already caused enormous damage, and it can cause much more still. The West needs to consciously seek the defeat of this latest Russian imperialistic effort. To do so, it must deny the regime the capability to effectively spin to its people the success narrative used to justify its authoritarianism.
The first foundation of this narrative – the regime’s claimed economic competence – is already shaken. To consolidate this outcome, the United States and Europe should keep up the pressure applied on the regime through sanctions. Any talk of lifting these sanctions before Russia ends its aggressive geostrategic activities is deeply irresponsible. Existing sanctions must remain, and new ones must be introduced in response to any new (or newly revealed) Russian actions against other nations’ sovereignty, security and political systems.
The second foundation of Putin’s success narrative – his vigorous foreign policy – is still working for the regime. This needs to change. Russia’s efforts to expand its influence beyond its borders should be confronted and frustrated.
The West has much more resources than Russia. Even the U.S. alone does. Russia’s crucial advantage has been its leaders’ full understanding that they are engaged in an adversarial relationship with the West, which the latter’s politicians used to lack. Indeed, some of them, in Europe in particular, still fail to understand the strategic reality of the fundamentally hostile Russia. As a result, the Russian actions have been purposeful and strategically consistent, while the western responses – sporadic and unguided by any unifying and well thought through strategy.
The U.S. and its closest allies need to formulate such strategy. Russia’s geostrategic activities are methodical. So must be the efforts to oppose it.
The main geostrategic goal of the Russian regime is to gain and consolidate control over the former Soviet countries. Denying it accomplishment of this goal will also deny it the opportunity to spin imperial successes to the Russian people in order to legitimize itself in their eyes.
Besides stripping the regime of its “success legitimacy”, the western pressure through sanctions and geopolitical containment of Russia’s re-expansion will also decrease the damage Moscow inflicts on other nations while the regime is still in power. Economic and financial difficulties facilitated by sanctions will limit the regime’s resources, and force it to dedicate more to resisting the protest movement within Russia.
Putin depicted as Brezhnev by protesters in Saint Petersburg during the large-scale 5 May 2018 rallies in Russia.
The less attention and assets Moscow has to spare for things like operations in the Middle East, provoking new conflicts in the western Balkans, helping Taliban, and assaulting foreign political systems, the better for the cause of democracy and rule-based world order.
Meanwhile, Russia’s neighbors, struggling to preserve their independence, deserve more support from the West, which would increase their chances of surviving the ongoing Russian onslaught on their sovereignty. The risk for nations like Georgia and Ukraine is that by the time an internal political change in Russia happens, their sovereignty will be even more damaged by Moscow’s aggression than it already has been.
Russia under the present regime will remain an irreconcilable foe of the existing world order. Dreams of reaching a permanent accommodation with this regime, which are still entertained in some quarters in Europe and America, are hopelessly vain. This does not imply certainty of the West’s direct military conflict with Russia. The Cold War with the USSR was won without such conflict. What is required, however, is a combination of pressure on the Russian regime with containment of its foreign aggression.
The Kremlin regime is probably doomed in any case due to its fundamental character, but a correct western approach would limit malign consequences of its aggressive geostrategy, and facilitate emergence of a new Russia that will be safer for the rest of the world than the present one.