With Russia, the West must avoid the pitfalls of underestimating a rival’s capabilities and then overreacting.
By Thomas Graham*
Russia is neither as strong as it seems nor as weak as we think. That aphorism has been attributed to the great French diplomat of the early 19th century, Prince Talleyrand, and numerous other European statesmen thereafter who have dealt with the puzzle of Russia. It encapsulates the flawed assumptions behind America’s Russia policy since Putin rose to power in 1999. As the temperature rises in Washington with three investigations and revelations about Russia’s role in the US election, it may be useful to review the reasons for America’s bumpy relations with Moscow.
The George W. Bush administration operated on the assumption of Russia’s weakness, ignoring its expressed concerns and fueling resentment. The US National Security Strategy of 2002 devoted three short paragraphs to Russia, which focused on the possibilities of strategic partnership, but made a point of Russia’s weakness. That assumption did little immediate harm. Confident that Russia’s ability to resist was minimal, the administration abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 and expanded NATO in 2003 over Russia’s strong objections. Convinced that Russia had little to offer, the US ignored Russian entreaties for more active roles in post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq. Russian resentment boiled over as the administration pushed for Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in NATO, blithely asserting that Russia had no veto. In fact, Russia did, in the guise of the use of force against Georgian in 2008, which devastated an American client state but underscored Russia’s determination to assert its prerogatives in what it considers its historically justified sphere of influence, the former Soviet space.
Even then, the poor performance of the Russian military – it lost four advanced aircraft in a short five-day war against a minor military power – and the subsequent global financial crisis that hit Russia hardest among G20 members helped revive the narrative of Russian weakness as the Obama administration took office. In 2012, Obama curtly dismissed Mitt Romney’s contention that Russia was America’s top geopolitical foe, certain that Russia was in decline and a new cold war impossible. Once again the United States underestimated Russia. In 2014, Russia seized Crimea and instigated a separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine in response to what it saw as a blatant American effort to rip Ukraine away from its sphere of influence. The Obama administration’s Ukraine policy lay in tatters.
The Ukraine crisis marked a shift in narrative that grew more pronounced as Russia flexed its muscles. Russia’s incursion into Syria to shore up the Assad regime defied American assessments of Russian capabilities and made Russia the key outside power there. Washington is now enveloped in an anti-Russian hysteria. Many are convinced that Russian interference last year was instrumental to Donald Trump’s victory and fear that Russia will pull off similar upsets in critical elections in Europe this year, notably in France and Germany. That Russia adeptly used cyber tools to exploit American vulnerabilities only adds to the alarm. In a few short years, Russia has been transformed in the American mind from a weak, declining power we could safely ignore into the main adversary, setting the agenda in the Middle East and determining the course of electoral politics in long-established democracies in the West.
This much inflated view of Russian power risks provoking the United States to overreact at home and abroad.
Why has it proven so hard to assess Russian power correctly? The task is admittedly complex, combining objective and subjective factors in a shifting geopolitical context. But the US must master this assessment for its own security and well-being.
A good starting point is Russia’s own assessment of its geopolitical predicament. Throughout history, Russian leaders have insisted that Russia is a great power. Yet they have been acutely aware of their country’s vulnerabilities – how to defend a vast, sparsely-populated country with long borders with powerful or unstable neighbors located on a broad plain with few physical barriers to foreign invasion? How to advance one’s interests when typically poorer and more backward technologically than rivals?
Today, Putin has tried to solve this dilemma by acting like a 19th-century great power, seizing territory and displaying military might. But his seeming successes have increased the risk of parlous overstretch. Eighteen months after the Syrian incursion, which Putin promised would be short, Russia remains deeply engaged with no exit in sight. Considerable forces are tied down along the border with Ukraine to deal with various contingencies arising from Russian actions in the Donbas. Provocative Russian behavior in Europe has revitalized NATO, which Russia has always seen as a threat. Meanwhile, the melting Arctic ice is compelling Russia to take defense of its northern border seriously for the first time in history. Troubles in Afghanistan threaten to exacerbate conditions in the poor, fragile states of Central Asia and in Russia itself. And, despite the talk of strategic partnership, Moscow casts a wary eye toward its newly assertive neighbor, China, with which it has a long history of uneasy relations.
All those challenges come at a time of declining economic fortunes. Russia may be exiting a two-year-old recession, but even official sources project stagnation for at least the next decade. Russia lags far behind the West and is losing ground to China in developing cutting-edge technologies. In these circumstances, how will Russia generate the resources it needs to back up its great-power ambitions against richer, technologically more advanced powers? Putin has already had to cut back on his ambitious military modernization program in deference to economic realities.
These objective conditions make the case for assuming Russia weakness. Yet Russia has repeatedly defeated superior powers, including Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany, which grievously underestimated Russian power and resilience. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia dominated half the European continent for more than 30 years.
For most of its history, and most emphatically today, Russia’s authoritarian system has demonstrated a surprising ability to mobilize resources for state purposes and to rally its people against external threats. It has been tenacious, prepared to make huge sacrifices, in the defense of its interests, especially in Eurasia, the Balkans and the Middle East, the zones of active Russian intervention today. Pervasive corruption has not dangerously sapped its potential, with two – admittedly catastrophic – exceptions that precipitated the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Soviet Union in 1991. After both events, however, Russia quickly reconstituted itself and reasserted itself on the global stage. Moreover, corruption has not prevented Russia from educating superb diplomats, skilled generals and creative scientists, who have enabled a seemingly poor country to hold its own among great powers.
The final factor in the assessment of Russian power is the West. To paraphrase the eminent scholar of Russian history, Martin Malia, the West’s assessment of Russian power reflects less the realities of Russia than its own hopes and fears. A confident West tends to minimize Russian power. At the extreme, as during the Bush administration, arrogance can lead to an unwarranted dismissal of Russia. By contrast, a West mired in domestic turmoil and politically polarized, as it is today, tends to inflate Russian power and the threat it entails and forget the sources of its own strength that have produced the world’s most prosperous societies. Russia is never as weak or as strong as it appears, it turns out, in part because the West is never as strong or as weak as it thinks.
*Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was the senior director for Russia on the US National Security Council staff 2004-2007.