This is the third of three memos (posts) from an imagined Putin advisor to the Russian president on policy after he returns to office for his fourth term. This memo deals with foreign and security policy, and like the others it’s broad purpose is to show why I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see significant changes in Russia policy for at least the next several years (which is about as far as forecasters should try to forecast). As with the previous two memos, I make no fact claims in what follows that are deliberately false, although many facts are left out, and despite the fact that I disagree with some of the interpretations and conclusions.
My next post will summarize my own take on the three posts.
Strategic vision, tactical flexibility
Mr. President, our foreign and domestic critics frequently claim that you’re a masterful foreign policy tactician but lack strategic vision. That is wrong. On the contrary, you have a clearly articulated and longstanding strategic goal, which is to restore Russia to its rightful place as a great power, equal to the United States and China on the world stage. And you have been resolute, and remarkably successful, in implementing that vision.
In your early years as president, you attempted to work with the United States to realize this broad strategic goal. By around 2003 or 2004, however, you had concluded that Washington was intent on preserving its dominance and entirely unwilling to accept a balanced international system. Moreover, as the Iraq War made clear, the United States insisted that, while all other states had to abide by rules that it had largely written, it alone had the right to violate those rules, and it could and would do so at its discretion.
It was also clear that the United States, assisted by its mostly subservient Western allies, was intent on remaking the world in its own image, a utopian and revolutionary project promoting “liberalism” and “democratization” that was in fact destabilizing and immiserating large parts of the world. This is precisely what happened in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004: Western-instigated “colored revolutions” brought down governments while producing only chaos, social disorder, and economic hardship.
Accordingly, you concluded that Washington would have to be forced to accept a new, multipolar order, one in which its imperialistic ambitions would be contained by counter-balancing power. That order would be based on three key principles: (1) non-interference in the internal affairs of at least the three dominant powers; (2) reciprocal recognition of respective spheres of influence; and (3) disproportionate weight in decision-making in international institutions – disproportionate with respect to others, but equal among Russia, China, and the United States.
The commitment to Russia’s rightful status as a great power, and to multipolarism and realism in lieu of the unipolarism of the so-called “liberal international order,” are not specifically your strategic objective. On the contrary, they are shared by the great bulk of our foreign policy and security elites. And they are embraced by the great bulk of the Russian people. It is a consensus that would almost certainly survive you were you to leave office.
Our Western critics are also wrong when they claim that Russia is an imperial and expansionist power. We do not, in fact, wish to reclaim lost lands or restore sovereignty over the peoples who were once subjects of the Tsar or citizens of the Soviet Union. We are realists, and we know that trying to govern lands that aren’t truly Russian and aren’t populated by a majority Russians or Russian-speakers would weaken our state, not strengthen it. The annexation of Crimea was thus an anomaly. The great majority of Russians believe that Crimea is part of historic Russia, and its residents are mostly ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers who wish to be governed by Moscow, not Kyiv.
Like any great power, however, we will take extraordinary measures if needed for self-defense. But we have no desire to govern Ukrainians, let alone Estonians or Kazakhs. Indeed, we would be better off if the minority peoples of the North Caucasus resided on the other side of the Caucasus watershed. But they don’t, and they thus need to be managed so that, to the extent possible, they support, rather than undermine, our state.
We are not an imperial power but we are certainly a revisionist one, and we make no bones about it. We have never bought American claims about the supposed benefits of a “liberal world order” – the notion that interstate affairs are a positive-sum game governed by international law and lubricated by peaceful trade. That was simply a smokescreen for American hegemony and economic exploitation. Instead, almost from the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, we have sought a system governed by interest-driven great states and a balance of power. We seek an international order that is compatible with our interests and values, not those of the United States.
At a minimum, that means other powers, above all the United States, will have to accept that we have the same kind of privileged position in our geopolitical neighborhood that the United States enjoys in the Western Hemisphere. It likewise means an end to NATO expansion and limits on NATO’s hard power along our Western borders. And finally, the West will have to accept that our security interests entail limitations on the sovereignty of our neighbors, just as America’s security interests in the Western hemisphere entail limitations on the sovereignty of its Latin American neighbors.
All of this is widely accepted in Russia, as I said. It is with respect to tactics, rather than strategic objectives, where your leadership has mattered most. No one else would have been as successful realizing our strategic goals.
The hallmarks of these tactics have been flexibility and experimentation. You probe and exploit the weaknesses of our adversaries, weigh risks and rewards realistically, and experiment with means and methods, discarding what doesn’t work and doubling down on what does. That, in essence, is what we mean by “hybrid war” – the innovative use of diverse means in a protracted geopolitical conflict with the United States and its Western allies over influence and the nature of the international system.
Our key ally in this endeavor is China. We realize that the Chinese have no particular affinity for us. Even less are Russians particularly fond of the Chinese. We also realize that China is a rapidly rising economic superpower, while our relative weight in the global economy is shrinking. We are thus less important economically to Beijing than is the West. But we share with China the core goal of ending U.S. global hegemony, and we share a determination to resist U.S. and Western interference in our internal affairs. Meanwhile, the security threat we both face from the U.S. and its allies is driving us closer together every year.
In the long run, what is most important is that we have the wherewithal to realize our strategic objectives, despite our relative economic weakness, because our people believe that Russia is a unique civilization and by rights a great power. We are not Brazilians. Our people are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, economic or otherwise, to ensure our security and defend our great power status.
An improbable and dramatic geopolitical recovery
How, then, are we doing? In a word, far better than we had any right to expect in 2014.
The Ukraine crisis of 2013-14 was undoubtedly a major setback for us. It was a blow, perhaps a lethal one, to what we had framed as the core foreign policy project of your third term as president: construction of a Russian-dominated equivalent to the European Union and NATO in post-Soviet space through the deepening and widening of our Eurasian Union.
The Ukraine crisis was precipitated in late 2013 by the European Union’s reckless decision to offer Ukraine a path to membership. Whether Brussels realized it or not, E.U. membership would have precluded Kyiv from ever being a reliable Russian partner, let alone a genuine ally and Eurasian Union member-state. This was something we simply could not accept, and the West should have been aware of that. Ukraine was central to our project not just because of its size and location, but because of its deep cultural, political, and economic ties to Russia. Without Ukraine, the Eurasian Union would have been of little significance geopolitically. Even worse, we knew full well that E.U. membership would be followed, sooner-or-later, by Ukrainian accession to NATO.
Once it became clear that the Maidan uprising, the illegal coup that drove the Yanukovich to Russia, our Crimea operation, and the Donbas war meant that we had lost Ukraine as a reliable partner, let alone ally, we had to adjust. Our core strategic objective became preventing the United States from exploiting the crisis to its advantage. That in turn meant strengthening our internal defenses, as described in my previous memo. But we also realized that we would ultimately lose the geopolitical contest if we played a purely defensive game. We would have to go on the offensive.
In part, this meant undertaking measures to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from joining the West through a sustained campaign of destabilization and subversion. We would use active measures by our intelligence services, economic penetration, cyber attacks, information operations, and manipulation of the Abkhazian, South Ossetian, and Donbas conflicts to weaken Ukraine and Georgia, and deepen their already severe internal divisions.
Equally importantly, we decided to take much more aggressive, and risky, measures to weaken and disrupt our Western adversaries. This campaign was not entirely new, of course. But after 2014 we were more determined than ever to do to the United States and its allies what they had been doing to us. And we would do it more efficiently and with greater efficacy.
In what follows, I discuss the key arenas of our response to the 2014 Ukraine debacle.
Unsurprisingly, our destabilization and subversion operations against our key regional adversaries since 2014 have been successful. Ukraine is an economic and political basket case, and it will not be joining the E.U. anytime soon. Even less likely is an invitation to join NATO, given Ukraine’s unwillingness to accept the loss of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbas, which we can modulate as we see fit. Nor will Georgia, or any other post-Soviet state, join the E.U. or NATO for the foreseeable future.
We are also generally satisfied with our political and military relationship with Belarus, although Lukashenko is of course a difficult partner. We have close economic and security ties with Minsk, and we are convinced that, in the unlikely event of some kind of “colored revolution” or coup attempt, we have more than enough assets in place to prevent a hostile government from taking power. Given its internal politics and economic and political dependence on Russia, a genuine rapprochement between Belarus and the West is highly unlikely.
We have consolidated our position in Central Asia, where the United States and its Western allies are now non-factors. The long-run challenge there will be China, given its economic weight and ambitious One Belt, One Road infrastructure project. But for now we have a good understanding with Beijing about our respective roles in the region. And unlike in the past, we have reasonably good relations with all five Central Asian states, including Uzbekistan. Afghanistan is of course a worry for us and our Central Asian partners, but we have managed to prevent the Afghanistan chaos from destabilizing Central Asia, and we are confident that will remain the case going forward, thanks in part to our significant military presence in the region.
We are likewise satisfied with the way things are playing out in the South Caucasus. We have preserved our dominant position in Armenia, which remains highly dependent on us economically and militarily. We have a better relationship with Azerbaijan than we’ve had in many years. And we continue to maintain influence with both sides in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict by selling arms to Yerevan and Baku, which of course is also of commercial benefit to us.
As for Georgia, Saakashvili is long gone and the governing elite there has recognized the costs of endlessly antagonizing us. Tbilisi has accordingly adopted a less emotional, more realistic stance toward us. Above all, the Georgian leadership is aware that we can ratchet up pressure on their country if and when we see fit. We can bolster our military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; we can further integrate Abkhazia and South Ossetia into our economic and political space; we can keep pressing forward along the administrative border line separating Georgia from South Ossetia; we can further restrict trade and renew economic sanctions; and if need be we can annex South Ossetia and even Abkhazia.
East-Central and Western Europe
We have had even greater, and more unexpected, success with our strategic objectives in Europe.
Friendly governments are now in power in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Respublika Srbska. And we have our strong ties with our traditional Orthodox partners, Greece and Cyprus.
Elsewhere, the Polish government has taken a dramatic turn to the right and is now in a de facto alliance with Hungary to resist the liberal imperialism coming out of Brussels. Britain is the midst of its Brexit trauma, Spain is preoccupied with Catalonia, and Italy is struggling economically and is likely to see a conservative, anti-EU coalition take office in upcoming elections. There is even a possibility that the next Italian prime minister will be your old friend, Silvio Berlusconi. Meanwhile, the European Union has yet to resolve its currency and migration crisis, or address its many governance flaws.
All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a surge in nativism, traditionalism, and illiberalism throughout Europe, all of which that threatens to bring an end to, and even reverse, European integration. At the least, the E.U. will not be accepting new members for perhaps a decade or more, which gives us time to try to complicate or even thwart the accession process.
Almost everywhere in Europe we find ourselves with new as well as old allies and sympathizers, and hence with new opportunities.
Our role in bringing about these developments has been at the margins. For the most part, Europe’s crisis is a structural one for which the Europeans have no one to blame (or thank) but themselves. What we have done is deftly exploit existing problems, making them worse where possible, or channeling them in directions that serve our interests.
The United States
Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in November 2016 was a shock for us, but an extraordinarily welcome one, above because a Clinton victory would have threatened our vital national security interests. Clinton is a neo-conservative hawk and democratizing ideologue who, as Secretary of State, devoted herself to destabilizing foreign governments. She brought chaos to the Middle East, had it out for Russia, and was a personal enemy of yours, thanks in particular to her incitement of the opposition during the disturbances of 2011-12.
Nonetheless, like most everyone else, we viewed Trump as a buffoon who would almost certainly lose the election. Accordingly, the primary goal of our influence operations targeting the 2016 election campaign was to make the expected Clinton presidency as difficult as possible.
Our U.S. influence campaign in fact began years ago, as far back as 2003-04 when you concluded that the West was seeking to weaken and isolate Russia. But it picked up steam in 2008 in the lead up to the Georgian war, and then again in 2014 after the Ukraine fiasco. The goal has been, and remains, to weaken American institutions, delegitimize the American regime, and provoke internal divisions among Americans to the extent possible, for the obvious reason that a weaker and divided America erodes its commitment to global hegemony and “the liberal international order.”
It was not until early 2016, however, that we began targeting the U.S. election campaign in earnest. Once it became clear that Trump had a shot at becoming the Republican candidate, we concluded that the better he did, the better it would be for us. He was pro-Russian, isolationist, doubtful about the value of NATO to the United States, internally divisive, and vulnerable to kompromat. Again, however, we thought there was very little chance he would win. Our objective was to use Trump to undermine Clinton, reduce her margin of victory, delegitimize the American electoral process, and aggravate the ever-widening divisions among the American public.
When Trump prevailed, we remained relatively realistic about the implications. We felt it was unlikely he would preside over a “grand bargain” or a new “reset” in our relationship, one that would accommodate our vision of the post-liberal international order. We were, however, rather more optimistic that Trump could engineer a weakening of sanctions, perhaps in collaboration with our supporters in Europe.
Nonetheless, we were of course extremely pleased by the outcome. As expected, he has indeed been deeply devisive, for both the United States and the Atlantic Alliance. He has also severely undermined American soft power abroad.
That said, it now seems clear that Trump won’t bring about a more realistic approach to Russia. You have met and spoken with him on a number of occasions, and each time you tried, with some success, to win him over by conveying your respect for a fellow strong man and realist. But Trump doesn’t have the political capital or skills needed to oversee a lasting improvement in our relations. That is especially so now that the United States has been overtaken by a wave of Russophobia, even if there are elements in the Trump camp that still sympathize with us and admire you. It’s possible that these forces will ultimately prevail, but we think that’s very unlikely. Our relationship will therefore remain hostile, and perhaps even deteriorate further, in the coming years and months. For this we must be, and are, prepared.
That said, we can take comfort in the knowledge that the damage that Trump is doing to the U.S. internally, and to its reputation and standing in the world, will likely get worse. He may even provoke a constitutional crisis over the Mueller investigation, the outcome of which would be anyone’s guess. At the least, Washington will be mostly preoccupied by domestic affairs at the expensive of foreign and security policy as long as he is president. Trump, for example, seems entirely uninterested in developments in Syria at the moment.
We have responded to the Trump windfall by continuing our influence operations, albeit somewhat more cautiously. We continue to use cyber and intelligence assets to probe public and private sector vulnerabilities, including critical infrastructure and the U.S. electoral system. Our information operations are likewise ongoing, in part by means of RT and other organs of Russian state media, and in part by means of plausibly-deniable private cutouts, such as the Information Research Agency in St. Petersburg. We also continue to benefit from, and encourage, the efforts of patriotic private hackers and trolls. In general, our information tactics are to produce some of our own “fake news”; to amplify the “fake news” produced by others when we conclude that it helps our cause; and to highlight any non-fake news and voices that divide and weaken the United States and the Atlantic Alliance.
To date, Washington has been completely flummoxed by these operations. In part, the reason is that it’s extremely difficult for liberal societies to combat information and influence operations in the age of the Internet and social media. But in part it’s because the Trump administration has been so obsessed with the Mueller investigation. Trump himself apparently fears that we have substantial kompromat on him, which may be why he is unwilling to take defensive or offensive measures to counter our influence operations.
These operations will continue unless and until we conclude that costs outweigh gains, or until the West sues for peace. That would require the United States and its allies to cease their own operations to destabilize Russia and our Eurasian partners, which means ending their “democracy” and “civil society” promotion campaigns. It would also mean restraining their own instruments of information warfare, including state organs like the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Given the extent of Western and American ideological commitment to the promotion of “Western values,” however, an agreement of this nature seems very unlikely, so we will keep “meddling,” as will they.
With respect to sanctions, it’s unclear which way the European Union is headed. But it is now quite clear that Washington is likely to expand sanctions, not ease them. To date, efforts by Congress to add new sanctions have been mostly neutered by the Trump administration. But there’s a strong consensus within the American political class to impose more sanctions, which we think will eventually force Trump’s hand. With luck he will manage to water them down, but in any case we don’t think they will have much of an effect on our economy unless they are really ratcheted up.
Trump’s position on sanctions is one reason why we continue to try to work with him. We don’t want him to turn on us, although there’ve been signs recently that he’s headed in that direction. Regardless, our plan for the time being is to keep up influence operations in support of the Trump faction of the Republican party through this year’s election cycle, after which we will reassess. Our goals will be to help the Trumpist at the ballot box and undermine confidence in the American electoral system.
If Trump does turn on us at some point, we may decide to start discrediting him. If it comes to it, it is hard to imagine a Western political leader who is more vulnerable to manipulation by us through selective leaks of kompromat.
The Middle East and North Africa
The other region where we have achieved tremendous success since 2014 is the Middle East and North Africa, where we have displaced the United States as the main external power broker.
We have more influence in the region today than we’ve had at any point since perhaps the 1970s. All the main regional powers – Tel Aviv, Teheran, Ankara, the Palestinians, Cairo, even Riyadh – have had to go through us, to one degree or another, to address their core security and geopolitical concerns. This is a dramatic change from where we were when the Arab Spring broke out in 2012, that moment of irrational Western exuberance about the prospects for “democracy” in the Arab world.
The region of course remains highly unstable, but one of the most notable aspects of our success has been its low cost. Our footprint has been, and remains, relatively light. This is so because we, unlike the West, have no illusions about reshaping the region in our image. We are not nation builders, democracy promoters, or naïve advocates of “universal human rights.” We deal with the world as it is, not how it might be. We use all instruments at our disposal – economic, diplomatic, and military – to find reliable partners who serve our interests. We prefer partners who can deliver internal stability and order, not colored revolutions or utopian social breakthroughs. And we stand by our partners as long as they stand by us, a stance that regional actors understand and appreciate.
The key to our strategic turn around in the Middle East was our bold and risky intervention in Syria. At the time, Assad was on the verge of defeat, but in the period since he and his allies have retaken most of Syria with our assistance. They now control most of the western and central parts of the country, where the great bulk of Syria’s population resides. There is now no doubt that Assad will survive the war. We also expect him to remain a dependent and an ally for the foreseeable future. That was made clear, if it wasn’t already, by his willingness to accept permanent aviation and naval facilities for us at Khmeimim and Tartus in Syria’s Latakia Governorate.
Militarily we have avoided deploying significant numbers of regular forces, and instead have used mostly airpower and stand-off missile strikes. We have also provided stabilization forces, including military police, in areas controlled by Assad and his allies. Our ground presence has been relatively low risk and low profile, with combat operations conducted mostly by private military contractors, some of whom we simply encourage and some of whom we informally control. When representatives of these groups get in trouble, as they did earlier this month in Syria, we don’t have to own them.
Despite our successes on the battlefield, we realize that a stable outcome in Syria is unlikely, at least in the medium run. But we are now the dominant mediator in the settlement process. We initiated and oversaw the Astana process, which brings us together with the Iranians and the Turks to discuss a settlement that would respect our respective interests. It was at Astana last year where we marked out the so-called de-escalation zones, which have helped reduce the violence in certain areas even as they allow Damascus to defeat the opposition one region at a time.
So far the United States and Israel have gone along with these de-escalation zones, including in southern Syria, where we have an informal agreement with Tel Aviv to keep the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and allied militias at least 40 kilometers from the Israeli border. Of course, we may not be able to enforce that agreement, as we don’t control the Iranians, but that will be Israel’s problem, not ours, as long as we make an effort to implement the agreement.
We are also the initiator of the Sochi process, the goal of which is to bring the key Syrian parties to the conflict, including the Kurds (but excluding ISIS and some of the other extreme Islamist groups), to the bargaining table. The Sochi meeting in December was badly managed and mostly a failure, but we will keep trying.
To no one’s surprise, the Astana and Sochi processes haven’t made much progress toward a final settlement so far, but they’ve ended the monopoly of the UN-endorsed Geneva process, and of U.S. and Western diplomatic leadership in the search for a solution. Even if a settlement proves elusive, we will remain a key, if not the key, broker in the peace process. If we do, finally, arrive at a settlement, they will also help us preserve our influence and ensure that our interests, particularly our economic interests, are respected in any post-conflict order. At the least, our role will be analogous to that of the United States in the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” – endless talks, endless influence, endless opportunities for manipulation.
Again, we have achieved all this at very little financial or military cost. Our losses, leaving aside private military contractors, have been some 100-200 KIA over more than two years of combat, along with two fighter-bombers and several helicopters. Equally importantly, we’ve avoided the blowback effects that many of our critics predicted. We are not the consensus enemy of the Middle East’s Sunni powers, despite our close cooperation with Shi’a Teheran and indirectly with Hezbollah, and despite our critical support to the Alawite-dominated Assad regime. To be sure, we have a complicated and evolving relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but the main Sunni powers are no longer hostile to us, and our relations with them are better than they’ve been in years. Nor have we seen a surge in Islamist terrorism within Russia. On the contrary, since our crackdown on radical Islam in the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, incidents of Islamist terrorism have declined within Russia.
There are other targets of opportunity for us in the region in addition to Syria. In Yemen, yet another country where the Arab Spring brought civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe, we have established a relationship with the Houthi rebels, who currently control the northeast part of the country. But we at the same time have ties to the government of the President Hadi, which controls most of the rest of country, including Aden. We are thus in the advantageous position of working with all the key parties to the conflict, which puts us in a good position to preserve our influence, and perhaps establish a naval presence on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, regardless of who prevails in the conflict, unlike Saudi Arabia, the United States, and their coalition allies.
An even greater target of opportunity is Libya, where we are providing military assistance General Khalifa Haftar and his National Libyan Army. Haftar controls much of eastern Libya, including Benghazi, and is challenging the western-supported Government of National Accord in Tripoli. He is receiving military assistance not just from us but from Egypt and the UAE, and with Cairo’s approval, we have a small base of operations in Egypt’s western dessert near the Libyan border. Egypt has also agreed to let us use its airspace and certain airports to facilitate arms transfers.
We were right, of course, to warn the West in 2011 against exceeding its U.N. mandate for a military intervention in Libya. The mandate was for the use of force to preventi Qaddafi from attacking rebel forces then in control of Benghazi. It was not for military force for regime change. Washington and its allies ignored our warnings, and instead engineered the ouster and assassination of Qaddafi. Once again, the result has been chaos.
While we vehemently objected to the violation of of the U.N. mandate, the fallout has been a useful reminder to the international community that “colored revolutions” and “Arab Springs” have disastrous consequences. There have been other silver linings for us as well. The crisis put additional pressure on Europe by increasing the refugee flow to the north; it has given us another opportunity to sow discord within the West between so-called “humanitarian interventionists” and “realists”; and it has reinforced the perception of Western weakness throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Finally, a word about our commercial activities in the Middle East and North Africa. We continue to make deals throughout the region, and not just with traditional partners such as Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Our improved relationship with Riyadh (King Salman visited Moscow in October) helped us reach agreement on production quotas with OPEC, which has kept oil prices relatively stable. Additionally, we have contracts worth some $4 billion in arms and energy deals with Saudi Arabia. Elsewhere, we have entered into a $21-billion deal for Rosatom to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, and Egypt has agreed to buy $3.5 million worth of military jets, helicopters, and missiles from us. We’ve restored full commercial relations with Turkey, after SU-24 setback of November 2015. Most encouragingly, Turkey is set to purchase our S-400 air defense system at a cost of some $2 billion. If we are lucky, this will lead to Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated air defense system, and perhaps even contribute to Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO itself. Our state-run oil company, Rosneft, now has deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, despite the fact that the KRG is in effect an American protectorate, as well as new deals in in Libya. And we have an arrangement with Damascus that gives Russian companies 25 percent ownership of any gas and oil fields retaken from the opposition with Russian assistance.
Together, these extensive and expanding commercial arrangements in the Middle East and North Africa have put the lie to the assumption that Western sanctions have marginalized us a global economic player. They also promise to give us a presence, and influence, in the region for years to come, regardless of how the Syria conflict plays out.
The military balance in Europe
It goes without saying that we wish to avoid war with NATO. But we are also confident that we can modulate the risk of conflict to suit our interests. Our goal is to use military means to raise the fear level in the West, with the intent of destabilizing the Western Alliance, deepening political divisions between doves and hawks within NATO member-states, and blocking further NATO expansion. But we seek to do so without provoking an actual clash, one that could quickly get out of hand. In effect, we are practicing the same kind of controlled brinkmanship that we mastered during the Cold War.
We are confident that an incident that gets us into a dangerous cycle of escalation is unlikely, for one very decisive reason: we have the ultimate deterrent in the form our formidable arsenal of strategic, intermediate-range, and tactical nuclear weapons. We are concerned about U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities, the counter-force capabilities of its strategic nuclear arsenal, and its conventional “Global Strike” program. But the truth is our military professionals are not as concerned as we make out. Our strategic forces can defeat any conceivable ballistic missile defense system for the foreseeable future, and we have many ways to counter any U.S. attempt to achieve a first strike capability. If the United States is struggling to defend itself against a nuclear threat from North Korea, imagine the difficulty, indeed impossibility, of defending itself against our diverse and highly capable nuclear forces.
We are also very conscious of the fact that a conventional war with NATO would likely go nuclear, and that a nuclear war between peer nuclear powers would be a catastrophe. But that in turn gives us an opportunity to enhance deterrence, and at the same time increase the fear factor, by signaling our intent to use nuclear weapons if need be. That includes a willingness to use a tactical nuclear strike to end a conventional conflict on favorable terms – a so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strike.
For example, were we compelled to seize part or all of the Baltic states to defend Kaliningrad in a crisis, and should NATO then attempt to seize Kaliningrad or drive us out of Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, we could use a tactical nuclear weapon against the attacking forces to force a ceasefire before NATO could achieve its objectives. Again, it is very unlikely that it will ever come to this, but the point is that we have many options short of a protracted conventional war or all-out nuclear exchange should we find ourselves in an escalatory cycle with NATO. And that greatly enhances our deterrence, which in turn reduces the risks of brinkmanship for the purpose of intimidation.
We are also aware, despite our rhetoric, that a NATO attack on Russian territory is extremely unlikely and almost certainly beyond NATO’s conventional capabilities. That is true even if we ignore the certainty that we would use nuclear weapons to defend our mainland, including Crimea. As I noted earlier, a partial exception here is Kaliningrad, which we would be very hard pressed to defend using conventional means were war to break out. But again, the West knows that any attempt to seize Kaliningrad would risk a tactical nuclear strike. It is doubtful that the United States and its West European allies would risk nuclear war to defend the Baltic states. It is even less likely that they would do so in an effort to seize Kaliningrad.
There is yet another important factor that gives us confidence in our ability to defend our vital security interests going forward, despite the fact that the United States spends orders of magnitude more on defense that we do, and despite the growing budgetary pressures on our defense spending. War in general, and especially war between peer nuclear states, is a contest of wills. And here we have a considerable “asymmetry of interest” advantage along our western borders. The fact is that we care a great deal more about Kaliningrad, let alone Crimea, than Americans care about Vilnius.
Finally, we are aware that the West’s efforts to weaken, dominate, and even destroy us are pursued by means of political subversion, economic coercion, and military intimidation, not by the actual use of force. We are also convinced that the risks of a conflict with NATO are very low. That means that we have the margin of error we need to use force elsewhere, including but not only along our borders. And it gives us he margin of error we need to use our brinkmanship, unannounced large-scale military exercises, and force deployments for signaling redlines and for intimidation.
That said, we remain vehemently opposed to NATO expansion, as well as to NATO’s military buildup close to our borders. In part, that’s because the risk of conflict is low, but it’s not zero, particularly if we assess risk over a decade or more. Moreover, NATO expansion and its eastern flank deployments are viewed within Russia and abroad as a challenge to our status as a great power. That in turn undermines the leverage we have over our neighbors, particularly Ukraine and Georgia, because elites in those countries are convinced that the greater the NATO presence in the region, the greater their ability to ignore our preferences and security needs.
Unfortunately, Washington and NATO have signaled that they are seeking a favorable military balance along our western borders. We are therefore watching carefully as they forward deploy assets and develop surge capabilities for rapid deployment. We are also concerned that overall defense spending for NATO is increasing, and that the United States may be at the beginning of a major surge in defense spending.
Nonetheless, the defense capabilities of many European states – for example Germany – are limited, particularly with respect to force projection. NATO unity has also been undermined by Trump-related political differences between Washington and its European allies. Consider also Britain’s declining defense capabilities; its Brexit-related alienation from its European Union partners; the growing hostility toward Germany and Brussels, and toward American interference in their internal affairs, among NATO’s eastern flank countries; the lack of cooperation and distrust among those eastern flank countries themselves; and the serious tensions between Poland and Ukraine. All these factors, which we continue to exploit and aggravate to the extent possible, serve to weaken NATO and enhance our security.
A word about another important concern: the Trump administration’s decision to sell lethal weapons to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank weapons. We have not made a major fuss about this, in part because we don’t want to undermine Trump, at least not yet. But in any case we are confident that this additional military assistance, at least as currently envisaged, won’t change the military balance in the Donbas enough to allow Kyiv to retake lost territory. Moreover, while we prefer to avoid a major escalation, Kyiv knows that were it to undertake a major offensive in Donbas, we would take whatever measures needed to ensure that the offensive fails, and we would make Ukraine a heavy price for that failure.
Finally, as I suggested a moment ago, our security position has been enhanced by the diminished credibility of the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision, thanks to Trump’s general line on Russia, his obvious reluctance to embrace collective security, and his resentment at what he considers inadequate burden-sharing by America’s European allies. At the least, Trump is very unlikely to consider further NATO enlargement for countries close to our borders. (If we do see new NATO members in the next decade, they will be in the Balkans.) We are also convinced that Washington under Trump will concentrate on securing NATO itself, not meddling in our neighborhood. That, I remind you, was a core objective of ours: an America focused on domestic problems and vital national interests, not one competing for influence in our sphere of interest.
Finally, a word about our cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. We believe these are domains where the United States and NATO have much more to lose than we do. It is also an area where we are at least as capable as our Western adversaries, and where we can preserve our capabilities at relatively low cost. In the event of a conflict, we expect our cyber and electronic warfare operations to be very effective in disrupting our enemy, especially a technologically sophisticated one like NATO that relies heavily on electronic resources for command, control, and communication. And Western countries are of course very vulnerable to cyber attacks on critical infrastructure at home, much more so than we are.
We have long understood that the world is moving inexorably from a unipolar order dominated by the United States to a multi-polar one in which Russia will be one pole among several. This process is mostly structural and would happen at a certain pace regardless of our efforts. But our policies have been remarkably successful in helping the process along.
As a result, our influence in global affairs is now almost on a par with that of the United States, despite the size of our economy and relative weakness in hard and soft power. Nothing symbolizes this achievement more clearly than the recently published U.S. National Defense Strategy, which explicitly recognizes us, along with China, as a strategic competitor of the United States.
Our foreign political successes are also recognized, and welcomed, by the Russian public, and they are important sources of regime legitimacy and domestic stability. Our military is the most respected institution in our country, and countless polls confirm that the Russian people value your decisive leadership, the respect and fear that you command abroad, your determined defense of Russian national interests, and your ability to outwit and disrupt our Western adversaries. Were you to show doubts about the general direction of our foreign or security policy, or were you to make significant compromises to accommodate Western preferences, public support for you and the current might well decline, possibly rapidly.
Accordingly, much the wisest course – for you, for the Russian state, and for the Russian people – is to stay the course, on foreign and security policy as much as at home. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.