Many see today’s Russia as one of the most challenging threats to Canada, the United States and, to varying degrees, their allies. There is much debate about how to counter these threats — where Russia might strike next, and how to deter Russian aggression — but there’s no doubt that Russia is, once again, on Canada’s security agenda. The war in Ukraine, Russia’s intervention in Syria, its attempts to influence the recent presidential elections in the U.S., combined with its extensive program of military modernization, lend urgency to this debate.
Moscow’s perspective on those events will help illustrate the increasing abyss between the ways security issues are perceived by western capitals and by Moscow.
For many western observers, the war in Ukraine is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the characteristics of the post-Cold War era. Although Russia’s relations with the west had already been strained since the mid 2000s, the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014 have dramatically aggravated the situation. Russia, which, for most of the post-Cold War era was absent from western political radar, or was not perceived as a significant military threat, made an impressive return to the forefront of the strategic agenda.
Russian actions have raised a series of concerns in the Euro-Atlantic community about Vladimir Putin’s intentions and what the Russian president might do next. Considering Putin has established an authoritarian, expansionist state, some western analysts, although not the mainstream, have even expressed fears that a belligerent Russia might, at some point, launch an attack against some NATO members, namely the Baltic states, which could result in a confrontation with NATO. In the same vein, many NATO members have observed with apprehension Russia’s resurgence, its recent “militarization” and the substantial increase in Russian defence investment resulting in significantly improved military capabilities.
Beyond the obvious disagreements over the nature and causes of the war in Ukraine and the causes of the deterioration in relations between the west and Russia, the big picture of international affairs might be perceived, in some respects, similarly in Moscow and in western capitals. Official documents and speeches from Russian officials point to an increasingly unstable, threatening international environment; indeed, Russia also faces an “arc of crisis” around it.
Still, the two perceptions diverge in many fundamental respects. Russian officials, for instance, have voiced their concerns about western attempts to provoke a “colour revolution” (think Ukraine’s Orange Revolution) in Russia and its neighbouring states. Moreover, rather than having confidence in an international system that could be working with the collaboration of all, it appears that the Russian leadership is implementing emergency measures based on the assumption that Russia is not ready to face these external and internal challenges. From its perspective, rather than “militarizing” aggressively, Russian officials are putting in place a defensive plan for an eventual war.
A “new containment” against Russia
Given the deep deterioration in Russia’s relations with the majority of the west, there is much debate in Russia, and western countries, about the potential emergence of a Cold War 2.0 and a new confrontation between Russia and the west. This confrontation takes the shape of a “new containment,” performed by NATO member states, both by the alliance’s successive enlargements of the past two decades and by the deployment of additional troops and weapons in new NATO member states.
There are often-stated and well-known accusations made by Russian officials denouncing the destabilizing role of the west, particularly the United States, in international affairs. Some depict a growing encirclement of Russia, emphasized by NATO enlargements and by U.S. deployments around the world. More specifically, Moscow accuses the west of causing an imbalance in Euro-Atlantic security through the expansion of exclusive organizations such as NATO (and the European Union). Yet another type of intrusive intervention by the west is perceived within Russia itself. Unless the new Trump administration completely stops playing that role, the U.S.-led west is seen by Moscow as interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states, exacerbating instability through its financial and military support to rebel groups and mercenaries, which facilitates the appearance of colour revolutions in states that resist U.S. hegemony. Thus, senior figures in the Russian leadership, including Putin himself, have often pointed to a threat posed by those colour revolutions.
In this sense, the war in Ukraine is seen by Russian authorities as just one part of a wider crisis that has been evolving for some time.
Russia’s actions and perceptions
Facing the combination of this perceived external arc of crisis and neo-containment, in addition to internal problems, the Russian government appears to be implementing emergency measures exploiting a besieged fortress narrative in order to mobilize popular opinion and to obtain high approval ratings among the Russian population. Of course, this patriotic mobilization is also aimed at sustaining high levels of popular support for Putin until the presidential elections scheduled for 2018. Some observers have suggested, though, that the peak of Putin’s popularity has been reached and that it will be difficult for him to maintain this level of support, given dire economic trends that might provoke social protest against his leadership.
In Moscow’s view, Russia finds itself under pressure from external and internal risks and threats. The Russian leadership is responding with a review of its strategic documentation and an attempt to consolidate Russian society and concentrate its resources. Moscow’s military campaign in Syria is, in many ways, the practical demonstration of Russia’s new posture. It represents a continuation of the competition, even confrontation, with the west that erupted in Ukraine and that is sustained by Russia’s attempts to rebuild a military capacity that is deployable across the world. Its new capacities allow Moscow to prevent what it considers as undesirable developments, such as a western-led campaign of regime change in Syria, and to defend Russian interests throughout the world. Indeed, the Syrian conflict is the first substantial demonstration of Russia’s determination and its ability to conduct expeditionary warfare in a remote geographical region, made possible by the improvements to its air force and navy thanks to its modernization program of the past few years.
In short, there is an increasingly obvious abyss between the ways security is perceived by the west and by Russia. Although the assessment of some security threats is quite similar, Moscow draws different conclusions from its own view on the current international environment. Developments in Syria are the most recent example. Furthermore, it appears that although western observers tend to date Russia’s threats and aggression back to 2014 when it invaded Ukraine, a number of Moscow’s concerns date back a decade or more, and are a consequence of western interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Real Russian capacities
Despite the new Russian assertiveness described above, we have to put Moscow’s capacities into perspective. Notwithstanding formidable military capabilities, Russia remains a weak major power. Without any doubt, a qualitative change is occurring in Russia’s military and influential capacities, especially if we compare them with those it had at the time of its military intervention in Georgia in 2008. This being said, Russia’s recent military actions also indicate that the country’s relative weakness remains.
If we take the intervention in Ukraine as an example, it is clear that, from a geopolitical perspective, Russia needs Ukraine to act as a buffer to western powers. Before the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian government was in power in Kiev. It was overthrown and replaced by a pro-western government. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, where Russia already had forces deployed by treaty, was simply an attempt to demonstrate decisive force, but turned out to be a half-defeat. True, with the conflict boiling, Ukraine cannot join the EU or NATO, but Putin’s bid to foment an uprising across all of eastern Ukraine failed. Despite a much wider distribution of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, the uprising only occurred in the Donbass region.
After the Ukrainian experience, Russia needed a military victory that would be seen by the world. Putin’s intervention in Syria allowed him to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Even if the success in Syria is real, it took more than a year to recapture ISIS’s fort of Aleppo. Now that Aleppo has fallen, Russia’s new assertive power appears somewhat blemished. During the Cold War, Russia dominated or heavily influenced entire strips of the Middle East: Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Today, Russia controls only parts of Syria.
This is not to say that Russia no longer constitutes a threat. If its leaders should lose their minds, they have a variety of nuclear weapons they could use. If the Russian leadership was willing to take extreme risks, it could attack the Baltics and thereby do what is needed to reunite NATO — or to dissolve it. But instead, Putin is increasingly supporting extreme right-wing groups around the world.
Trump’s victory: Opportunities for Russia
Over the past year, mounting tensions have exposed that not only was the abyss increasing between Russia and western powers, but that new cracks — some were there since the old-new Europe divide identified by former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld — appeared in the western front against Russia. The Brexit issue revealed deep rifts in the European Union, and the establishment of Donald Trump’s new administration makes a rupture appear in Washington’s policy towards Russia. Elections across Europe in 2017 — France, Germany, Netherlands — could further widen the cleavages dividing the Euro-Atlantic bloc and challenge the future of the EU.
For Moscow, the west’s looming struggles in the coming year represent new opportunities. Russia has worked to exploit and, in some cases, influence the dynamics of the EU and the U.S to undermine western unity through propaganda campaigns and cyberattacks. Moscow will likely intensify these efforts in 2017, making the most of the discord within the west to achieve its goals, such as an end to the sanction regimes. Moreover, the relative success observed in Syria could improve Russia’s position to negotiate with the Trump administration over a range of issues.
Closer to Russia’s borders, these changes will enable Russia to recover some of its influence on the former Soviet Union’s territory. Given the state of the EU, Brussels will be hesitant to move forward with the admission of new members in the near future. As their prospect for integration with the EU and NATO is collapsing, countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia might re-evaluate their relationship with Russia. Some signs are already showing. In Moldova, a recent presidential vote has elected Igor Dogon, a candidate who has pledged to increase ties with Russia and re-evaluate the country’s EU integration perspectives. Similarly, Ukraine and Georgia might adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Russia, increasing trade ties with the big brother and, to their great despair, compromising over the status of their breakaway territories.
Pierre Jolicoeur is a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. He’s currently a Fulbright fellow at the Peace and War Center at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont.