Is Russia a superpower or a house of cards? This was the subject of a debate organised by RaamopRusland in De Balie in Amsterdam. According to one of the speakers, security expert Mark Galeotti, it is neither. In his opinion Putin is just 'agressively offensively defensive', trying to protect a weak state by using the flaws of the West. Even before Trump he was trying 'to make Russia great again'. Russians see the West as an 'attention deficit disorder society' and capitalise on it. High time to get our act together.
Russian soldiers inspect the ruins of Aleppo in Syria, after its liberation (photo Russian ministry of Defense)
Is Russia a superpower or a house of cards? It may sound surreal that this is a question at all: shouldn’t we know? In my opinion this precisely illustrates one of the crucial issues about trying to understand Russia these days.
On the one hand we are told to fear Russia as an extraordinary and even existential threat to the West. Russia is undermining our electoral processes, penetrating every cranny of our information space, buying politicians and lobbyists. Meanwhile Russia is projecting its military power in unexpected and unforeseen ways. They are a crucial player and powerbroker in the Middle East. They are present in North Africa, sail their aircraft carrier through the Mediterranean, launch cruise missiles. At the same time, they seized the Crimea peninsula in an almost bloodless military operation and subsequently engineered a conflict in the Donbass.
Russia is the chess-playing grandmaster of modern hybrid warfare. It has nuclear power. Kaliningrad, this little port next to the Baltic states, is being turned into a military fortress, bristling with missiles. It’s all very scary.
And yet! Let’s look at it from another perspective. From the Russian perspective.
Russia is a country with an economy smaller than that of Spain. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about Spanish geopolitical aspirations. Russia is an authoritarian regime that focuses most of its resources on things that matter: they don't bother spending money on hospitals and schools, but put 30 or 40% of the entire state budget on security. But its basis is very small.
Russia has spent a lot of money modernizing its military from an absolutely appallingly low level in the 1990s. But still, Russia today has fewer soldiers than the European NATO-members combined – even without the Americans and Canadians. Sure, Russia has nuclear missiles, but what can you do with nuclear missiles except blow up the world? Nuclear missiles didn’t stop 9/11. Nuclear missiles didn't stop Saddam Hussein from going into Kuwait. They didn’t stop Argentina from taking the Falkland Islands from Britain.
Then there is the question of the information war. We can point to RT, the Russian foreign TV channels and their nonsense propaganda. But if you ask for data about their impact, for evidence that the Russians can change people's minds, there is no proof.
Our problem with Russia is that we are not sure what we’re dealing with. Is this a country that is expanding, confident about the way it wants to project itself? Or is this actually a country with some very serious challenges looming?
What is Russia's goal?
If you try to understand what Putin is doing, you have to answer one basic question: what does he want? What is the Russian goal? Is he out to recreate some neo-tsarist Soviet Union? Is he just waiting for an opportunity to roll his tanks all the way to the English Channel? I would suggest not.
I see no evidence at all that Russia has territorial ambitions, beyond Crimea, which was an unusual case. If you talk to Russians, whether those thinking Putin is the reincarnation of the saviour or the devil incarnate, everyone says: ‘yeah but Crimea was Russian’. That was a unique situation.
Hybrid war: Crimea was conquered by 'little green men' without one shot being fired
What does Putin want? I would suggest that he is defensive. Very aggressively, offensively defensive. He’s trying to protect something. Even before Trump, Putin’s message was ‘make Russia great again’. He’s a product of the 1990s, this extraordinary traumatic period, in which the Russians found they’d lost an empire. We Brits have not yet gotten over losing an empire, as the Brexit vote showed. The 1990s for Russians was a period of extraordinary immiseration. In their minds, losing an empire, gaining democracy of a sort, becoming a capitalist state, and ending up with a really miserable life – all this became inextricably connected.
So people think: we have to regain Russia’s rightful place. Putin tries to assert that Russia is a great power. What does that mean?
19th century politician
In my opinion, Putin is essentially a 19th century politician. He doesn’t really understand the modern world in which might and influence is more about soft power, about alliances, networks, international structures. In his view power is what you can enforce onto other people. If other people tell you what to do, it means they are more powerful, greater than you are.
So making Russia great again means basically: no one gets to tell us what to do. No international courts, no interfering foreign busybodies, stating that our elections are not democratic (which they’re not), no one saying that Russia is a corrupt state (which it is). Putin is trying to push out what he regards as Western interference. Our attempt to impose our values on Russians.
He does so despite the fact that our values are the values of most Russians as well. If you ask Russians what kind of country they want to live in, they say they want a Russia that is prosperous, stable, predictable, a Russia where they can set up a business, in which they feel that their kids can have a better life than they, that they are not simply subjects, but participants.
But if Russia sees itself as a great power, of course it has to have a sphere of influence. Every 19th century empire had one. So Ukraine and Belarus cannot be allowed to be part of Western alliances. Putin is trying to push the West back. But he realises how weak Russia is compared with us. Economically, militarily and certainly in terms of soft power, we are vastly more powerful. So he has to divide us, he has to dismay us, he has to distract us.
Divide us by pushing the differences between us and within countries. Dismay us by getting us worried, getting us scared, getting us thinking that maybe we’re not better than him, our values are no better than his, so that we ultimately want to make a deal with him. Distract us, get us looking at other things, migrants, Syria, whatever, rather than the stories that matter closer to home, Ukraine being the crucial one.
American Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland at Euromaydan in Kiev: Russians see meddling of US in their 19th century sphere of influence
How does he do this? This is where the hybrid war comes in, although the term is not the right one to use, but we are stuck with it. The Russians are waging a political conflict against the West, using everything from informational propaganda through to espionage and subversion.
Whenever I talk to Russians, my contacts I’ve cultivated in the military and security apparatus, they almost unanimously say ‘we are at war with the West’. Quite scary. And invariably they will follow it up with ‘and the West started this war’. For them hybrid war is something that the West, above all the Americans, invented. They look at various coloured revolutions against authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet space. They look at what’s happened in Syria, at the Arab Spring risings. Instead of seeing in them an upwelling of dissatisfaction, of peoples saying ‘we’ve had enough’ of authoritarian, exploitative, and sometimes murderous regimes, they see the cunning hand of the CIA.
I tell them: the CIA wishes it had the capability to topple regimes. Just as we look at the Russians and see them as three meters tall, so they too see us as being much smarter, powerful and dangerous than we really are.
What is war? War is simply a way in which one country tries to make another country do what it doesn’t want to do. But traditional military war is very expensive, not only in terms of money. Even authoritarian regimes have to worry about their soldiers dying. The Russians are still not admitting that they have forces in the Donbas, and in order to minimize the apparent casualties in Syria they created a pseudo-mercenary unit.
So why not try to get the same effects by using political, economic and other pressure? This is how, in my opinion, 21st century wars are fought. The Russians have just stumbled upon it first. Putin tries to wage this non-military war against us. I do not believe that this is the same model as in Crimea and the Donbas. There, non-military means were preparing the ground and then the little green men, the commandos, went in. That is how soldiers see hybrid war.
When you talk to people in the national security or policy sphere in Russia, though, they present another model. It’s everything short of fighting. To that end, Putin has mobilised his whole state. There’s nothing in Russia that cannot be used by the state. You can be a successful, profitable business. And then one day someone from the state will come along and say ‘we want you to donate money to that person’s political campaign in that European country’. Or ‘we’d like you to give a cover identity to this individual who’s actually not going to work for you’, but is a spy.
Inforwar: Russian ministry of Defense after the downing of MH17 immediately published their version of the crime
The same goes for the media. We saw that with MH-17, when the Kremlin said even to independent media: ‘write what you want about MH-17, but if you cross these lines, don’t expect to be open tomorrow’.
Putin’s regime is not a dictatorship, it’s not a return to Stalinism. He does not murder his people. But it’s a kind of authoritarianism that doesn’t accept there is anything outside its control. He will mobilise whatever instruments he has at his disposal in order to influence us, precisely because he realises how weak he is.
As successful as we let him be
What’s going to happen? Is this the formation of a superpower or is this the construction of a house of cards? Putin is as successful as we let him be. Why are people willing to listen to sometimes ridiculous lies put out by Russian propaganda networks? It’s because we’ve become used to believing that our media may be not accurate, that our politicians may well lie to us and therefore we’re ready to believe alternative answers.
Why are people willing to believe that the European Union is a force that makes everyone give a migrant their spare bedroom? Because the Russians are able to tap into some real concerns and fears, however mythologised they may be.
The West is going through a legitimacy crisis. A period in which we think that our existing political structures, our political leaders do not have the answers. That they no longer fit the modern world. A lot of us are scared, a lot of us are uncomfortable with globalisation and all sorts of other things. We would be going through this anyway, regardless of what happens in the East.
It is because of this that the Russians can capitalise on it. They are simply able to exploit our weaknesses. They are able, for instance, to use corruption as an instrument to influence the West. We are pretty weak on policing corruption. It’s painfully easy to move dirty money around western institutions. The City of London is after all one of the greatest places for money laundering.
We’ve become accustomed to the fact that people use media to their own advantages. It’s not inappropriate for the owner of a newspaper to be able to dictate a particular line. We are not very tough on the whole on Russian intelligence operations. There are 145 Russian diplomats in Prague, there are 8 Czech diplomats in Moscow. Of those diplomats in Prague it is estimated that at least a third are intelligence officers. We have been lax, we have been hypocritical.
When the Russians went into Georgia in 2008, we said ‘this is terrible, absolutely terrible, but let’s try and get beyond this’. So the Russians concluded: ‘The West is an attention deficit disorder society. Give them a few months and they will be distracted by some other shiny thing'. We have given Putin many opportunities and he has exploited them remarkably effectively. If we get our act together, if we create populations that are able to identify when they are lied to, if we manage to tighten up a lot of our controls on finances, on money, if we manage to address the issue of media ownership, if we do more of the things we say we should be doing, Putin will have so much less traction.
We have made this hybrid war threat and we can unmake it.
That’s why I don’t regard Russia as a superpower. I frankly don’t regard Russia as a great power. Then is it a house of cards? It’s not going to fall apart tomorrow. I think the current situation is basically here to stay as long as Putin is in the Kremlin, which is at least until after his reelection in 2018, I think we will have maybe 4 to 6 years of this.
But let me end with an unfashionable note of hope. I’m an optimist about Russia. The values of Russians are essentially our values. I think Putin is the last gasp of a particular kind of toxic sense of where ‘did the empire go? Things were not meant to be like this.’ The representatives of the new generation, even if they are cynical kleptocrats, are very much Western-style cynical kleptocrats. Russia is heading our way.
Watch the whole event Russia: superpower or house of cards?