Russia’s Enduring Challenge And Latent Long-Term Threat



With fighting in Ukraine now subsiding and the initial surprise of the Russian intervention in Syria wearing off, there is a tendency to assume that the differences which opened up between Russia and NATO member-states are amenable to political solutions, or that the predictable strategic environment which supposedly prevailed in Europe until 2014 could somehow be restored. But this is largely an illusion, for the Russian military interventions have created new political facts which are not easily reversible. Worse still, Russia’s strategic posture ultimately aims to overthrow the strategic status quo established in Europe at the end of the Cold War, during the 1989-1991 period. It is a challenge which will persist for years, if not decades to come, one which is guaranteed to be sustained not only by Russian President Vladimir Putin but also by anyone likely to be his successor, and one which will require both constant rebuttal and more preventive military efforts than currently contemplated by the governments of most NATO member-states.

Existing Challenges: Ukraine and Syria

  1. There are plenty of signs that Russia is willing to reduce its military involvement in Ukraine. For the moment, a ceasefire prevails, Russian rebels have largely stopped their offensives, Russian transfers of military equipment to the rebels has been considerably reduced, and the question of the future disposition of Ukraine no longer preoccupies the attention of the state-controlled media in Russia.
  2. However, this cannot be interpreted as an indication of a Russian desire to encourage a peaceful settlement in Ukraine; rather, it is simply an indication that the Russian authorities have concluded that, for the moment, they have achieved their mid-term objectives and are now content to keep matters as they are. 3. From the start of the Ukraine crisis in February 2014, President Vladimir Putin’s objectives were, in probable descending order of importance:
  3. To avenge what he perceived as Russia’s “humiliation” after the sudden overthrow of the Yanukovych regime;
  4. To seize Crimea, thereby asserting Russia’s historic and territorial claims and upholding Russian national pride;
  5. Serve notice on everyone that those who challenge Russia’s “sphere of influence” should expect a first and serious riposte;
  6. Ensure that Ukraine could never be integrated into either NATO or the EU;
  7. Expose NATO and the EU as “paper tigers”, organisations which claim to provide security in Europe but are unwilling to do so when challenged;
  8. Deter other former Soviet states (Moldova, but also Belarus and nations in the Caucasus) from ever considering association agreements with the EU or partnership agreements with NATO;
  9. Achieve all this without risking warfare, or at least without getting Russia bogged down in a lengthy conflict which produces too many casualties and creates a domestic backlash in Russia.
  10. Seen from this perspective, Putin may well have concluded that all his objectives have already been met in Ukraine. Ordinary Russians perceive him to be strong and believe that the Russian leader has handled the “loss” of Ukraine well. Crimea was seized with no visible bloodshed in an operation which not only uplifted Russian national pride, but also showed the Russian military as an efficient force, capable of delivering decisive blows. True, support for Ukraine’s new association agreement with the EU and a new “partnership” and even membership in NATO is now growing fast in Ukraine; Putin has succeeded in unifying the Ukrainian nation against Russia. But the Russian leader cares little about this; what he knows is that the war in Ukraine has made the prospect of Ukraine’s European integration purely theoretical.
  11. More significantly, Russia has succeeded in transferring the burden of fulfilling the provisions of the so-called “Minsk2” agreement to resolve the crisis to the Ukrainian government: it is up to the authorities in Kiev to provide the legislative framework for local elections in the rebel-held regions of eastern Ukraine, and to implement future autonomy proposals. And it is up to Ukraine and its putative Western financial backers to provide the necessary funds for the financial mitigation of the disaster which Russia and its marauders have inflicted on Ukraine.
  12. Overall – and with the notable difference of the outright annexation of Crimea – the strategy which Russia pursued in Ukraine since March last year is almost identical to that pursued by Moscow in creating all the other “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet space: encouraging a separatist movement, supplying the movement with weapons and financial support, using Russia’s diplomatic network and sometimes Russian troops to ensure that the separatist movement cannot be crushed militarily, stabilising the secessionist territory into a self-sustained unit and, finally, pretending that Russia can act as a “honest broker” between the rebels and their central government. It is difficult to see how Ukraine can achieve economic prosperity and political stability. It is even more difficult to see how a reunited Ukraine will come about. And it is impossible to envisage Crimea being returned to Ukrainian sovereignty. Russia may end up paying a heavy economic price for its Ukrainian adventures, but Putin is proceeding in the belief that he has won the showdown.
  13. The Russian leadership may soon also reach the same conclusion about its military intervention in Syria. Some Western government officials still treat this as a bizarre episode, something to have emerged unexpected, the product of a capricious whim from the Kremlin rather than the outcome of a well thought-out strategy. But that’s not the case, for there is a strategy behind the Russian behaviour. Again, in probable descending order of importance, the objectives of the Russian intervention in Syria are:
  14. To prove that Russia stands by its allies, and that President Bashar al Assad can count on Russian support;
  15. To protect existing Russian military installations in Syria;
  16. To signal to the West in general and the US in particular that Russia is a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East, and that no conflict in that region can be handled without consultation with Moscow;
  17. To provide President Putin with enough levers of influence which can be traded off in future negotiations with Western powers over the disposition of the Middle East. In short, Russia is seeking to bomb its way to the negotiating table.
  18. Russia’s decision to launch airstrikes should not have come as a surprise. Moscow’s covert preparations for military involvement were detected by Western intelligence agencies from late July and with greater persistence since early August. But, in an eerie repeat of their tepid response to last year’s Ukraine war, governments preferred to ignore inconvenient evidence, rather than plan for the eventuality of Russian military action. The result was that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine tactic – that of a secret but and sudden military deployment, which remains utterly deniable until it becomes an irreversible fact on the ground – has worked yet again.
  19. Western leaders – and particularly US President Barack Obama, like to point out that President Vladimir Putin has sent his jets into Syria not because he feels strong, but because he feels weak. And every Western leader is now warning President Vladimir Putin that, if he continues with the bombing, Russia will be “sucked” into a “Middle East quagmire” of “Afghanistan proportions”. But none of this is actually true either, for the fact remains that Russia hold many more strategic cards in this game than commonly assumed:
  20. Moscow military planners in Moscow are only too aware of harrowing comparison with the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan: that’s why the Russians are merely copying the West’s model of waging modern warfare, of using bombs and missile from a safe distance;
  21. Despite all its current vehement protests, Turkey knows that it needs Russia more than Russia needs the Turks: everything, from stability in the Caucasus and the Black Sea to Turkey’s dreams to become a regional energy hub depend on Russian cooperation. So, although relations between Turkey and Russia have nosedived, Moscow still holds the initiative and the Turks would be more than happy to settle on a deal which locks the Russians in Syria, should there be a predisposition to strike such a deal in the Kremlin;
  22. The same applies to Saudi Arabia, which hates what the Russians have done but is privately awed by the way the Russians can stand up to the Americans. Plenty of deals over the supply of Russian weapons or the management of energy prices can be had between Moscow and Riyadh in the future in return to political compromises; in little-noticed recent comments, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak has already said that his country is ready to “consult” Saudi Arabia about “stabilising” global oil markets;
  23. A similarly intricate strategic game is being conducted between Russia and Israel: The Jewish state doesn’t relish Russia’s military return to the region, but is already secretly dealing with the Russians over Syria, if only in order to prevent the creation of a Russia-Iran axis;
  24. And then, there is Russia’s budding alliance with Iran. Mr Putin has been careful not to formally align himself with Iran. But he doesn’t need to; that option is known to all.
  25. In short, what we are witnessing is not a Soviet-style “wholesale” return to the Middle East, but a shrewder and more flexible Russian policy which offers Moscow plenty of opportunities, and can still be pursued at a relatively low cost. And the chances are still high that Russia will attain its limited objectives in this operation.

What Does Russia Want

  1. A good case can be made that Russia’s imperial obsession, the desire to be great and be recognised as such by others, remain largely responsible for the deterioration of relations with the West. But it’s undeniable that the failure to integrate Russia in a stable Europe is complete, irreversible, and potentially catastrophic for that continent’s security. For, when stripped of the superficial intellectual veneer with which Putin has coated his policy – his anti-Western “morality” message, his appeal to Orthodox Christianity props and his incessant talk about perceived injustices – the implications of Russia’s stance for European security are very clear:
  2. The crisis is not so much about Ukraine, but about the maintenance of status quo which resulted in Europe at the end of the Cold War. The overwhelming majority of European nations have embraced this status quo as both entirely satisfactory, and acceptable for the long duration, but Russia has rejected it as an imposed status quo forced upon Russia when that country was in a moment of weakness. What most of Europe sees as stability, the Russians see as the perpetuation of injustice: in that respect, Russia’s behaviour today is similar to that of Germany’s Weimar Republic during the 1920s;
  3. As such, the showdown between Russia and most of the rest of Europe is not a transitory phenomenon. Western governments may choose to treat it as such, as they have done in the aftermath of war in Georgia in 2008. But the Russia challenge to the status quo is sustained, fundamental and relentless;
  4. Just because Russia has undermined and continues to undermine Ukraine does not mean that Moscow will adopt a similar tactic elsewhere. The challenge for the West will, therefore, come at various levels and with various alternative strategies, so a one-size-fits-all response is guaranteed to fail;
  5. The security pressure from Russia – a pressure to either destabilise or overturn the existing status quo – will continue, at least until President Vladimir Putin relinquishes power, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. And although a successor may potentially change the way Russian diplomacy is pursued, he is highly unlikely to change the final objective or restoring Russia’s greatness, and of doing so through the creation of spheres of influence;
  6. Very often, Moscow will not have a fixed objective or a clear strategy in mind; Russia’s security policies in Europe are more random and poorly-thought out than commonly assumed. Still, broad hostility to the West will be unremitting, and will involve a mixture of dangling economic carrots while brandishing military sticks of the kind observable now in Ukraine, and in Syria. Overall, the challenge to European security is sustained, serious and in urgent need of a response.

Future Russian Strategies

  1. The danger is not so much that Russia would start encouraging ethnic Russians secessionist movements in the Baltic region, the sort of “next showdown” that is often invoked in Western strategic predictions. That always looked improbable because:
  2. a) Russia does not exercise the same levers of influence over ethnic Russians in the Baltics as it did over Russian-speakers in Ukraine;
  3. b) Ethnic Russians in the Baltic states enjoy the right to work and live throughout the EU, the sort of privilege which invariably trumps the dubious honour of becoming not only a “remote citizen”, a passport-holder of Russia which many of the Baltic Russians are, but an actual resident of the Russian Federation;
  4. c) The Russians know that any challenge in the Baltics region will be met with considerable resolution and force from NATO, so they are unlikely to test the West there.
  5. Nor is it necessarily the case that Russia will treat all the former members of the Warsaw Pact, its former colonies in Eastern Europe, in a hostile manner. For not one, but four different Russian policies are now unfolding towards Central and Eastern Europe:
  6. a) Countries which are regarded as irredeemably hostile to Russian interests but are too big to ignore, such as Poland and Romania. For countries in this category, Moscow’s strategy is to seek their isolation, rather than confront these nations;
  7. b) Countries irredeemably hostile but too small to matter on their own, such as the Baltic States. There, the Russian tactic is to ignore them altogether, to try to engage in a strategic dialogue about the fate of these nations above their heads and without their knowledge;
  8. c) Nations which are either historically friendly to Russia, or are run by leaders who are favourably disposed to the Kremlin. Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and potentially the Czech Republic fall into this category. These nations are likely to be embraced by Russia and offered enticing economic opportunities;
  9. d) Nations left outside NATO or the EU, vulnerable enough to be influenced and strategically important: Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia are part of this group to which the Russians are already offering a variety of economic and political inducements, all tied to the condition that they should refuse offers of integration into other European structures.
  10. Russia has always seen “Western Europe” as a distinct entity requiring a different policy, and will continue to apply a different approach there:
  11. It will seek to recreate a strong political and economic bond with Germany, or at least try to limit the fallout from the current tensions between Berlin and Moscow over Ukraine;
  12. Moscow will continue to reach out to France, partly in order to have another lever on Germany;
  13. It will concentrate on other big and medium-sized European powers, such as Italy and Spain with the objective of ensuring the breakup of a unified stance against Russia;
  14. Moscow will also pay attention to preventing countries such as Finland and Sweden from joining NATO: the objective is to maintain a distinction between countries in NATO and the EU.
  15. It is tempting to dismiss these Russian manoeuvres as being not that different from what the old Soviet Union tried but failed to achieve. And it is equally plausible to dismiss them as unrealisable. But it is important to note that the Russian policy is:
  16. OPPORTUNISTIC. It does not have to be coherent: all that Putin is trying to achieve is to be ready to pounce on any divergence which opens up in Europe, exploit any division, benefit from any weakness;
  17. OPEN-ENDED. Putin understands that the objective of overthrowing or even amending Europe’s strategic map is not something that can be achieved overnight. He has time to pursue this policy for the long duration;
  18. UNREMITTING. The revanchist pressure is relentless, and it is being pursued at every stage, on every issue, and everywhere. It can also be achieved in a variety of ways, many of which do not entail direct military intervention or the insertion of “green men”;
  19. COST-EFFECTIVE. Provided it does not spill over into direct confrontation with the West, Russia can sustain its revanchist policies and can afford the relatively modest costs.
  20. Although no accurate prediction of Putin’s next moves can be made, the following can be predicted with a relatively high degree of certainty:

• The Russian leader is not aiming to see the disintegration of NATO; he is merely seeking to “defang” the Alliance, by depriving it of military relevance or credibility;

• That objective can be achieved by discrediting the significance of NATO’s famed Article 5 security guarantee to its member-states through the engineering of a series of small crises which, each one when taken alone does not merit NATO’s military reaction, but when taken together put NATO in an unflattering light and raise doubts about the applicability of Article 5 security guarantees;

• Increase the potential price which NATO may have to pay to come to the aid of its members in times of crises. That’s the explanation for the rapid build-up of Russian military assets in the Kaliningrad Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea: this is intended to remind NATO that, should it seek to reinforce the Baltic States in times of crisis, it may have to reckon with an early confrontation with the Russian military. That, the Russians assume, will reduce NATO appetite to respond, and thereby devalue the nature of NATO’s security guarantee;

• Install suspicions in the minds of leaders in the new NATO member-states about the readiness of Western nations to come to their aid in times of need;

• Prevent the EU and NATO from cooperating in providing security: one of the most spectacular about-faces performed by Russia over the past two years was Moscow’s decision to treat the EU as a hostile entity, virtually indistinguishable from the way Russia views NATO;

• Exploit any of the lingering doubts which exist inside the Western alliance about our future posture and reactions. The fissures which can be exploited by Moscow are many, but it would suffice if the Russians engineer crises or situations which raise the following questions:

o Are we really prepared to shed blood to defend our Eastern NATO members?

o Do Western nations believe that this is the moment to spend more on defence?

o In any future crisis in the East, would western public opinion instinctively see the East Europeans as victims, or would there be the assumption that “there is no smoke without fire” and that the East Europeans must also be blamed for being “irresponsible” or “unnecessarily provocative” towards the Russians and for precipitating crises?

o If a new crisis erupts in Europe, would NATO be the first responder, or would the tendency not be – as it was in Ukraine – to shunt NATO to one side and offer a variety of political “solutions” instead?

o Is there a NATO consensus about the permanent stationing of Western troops on the territory of new member-states?

o Is the Alliance prepared to accept that it may have been wrong in advocating the creation of smaller, nimbler and more mobile forces, while the East Europeans now realise that larger standing militaries dedicated to the defence of the national territory are just as important?

o Would the US ever regain its interest in the defence of Europe, and be prepared to stand up to Russia?

o Is the West prepared to reconsider nuclear deterrence doctrines and concepts of conventional deterrence in order to deal with Russia?

Either way, it is becoming obvious that Ukraine and Syria are part of a wider Russian effort to eat away at the edges of both NATO and the European Union, undermining the cohesion and peace of both institutions. The threat from Russia is that of a corrosive impact on existing security institutions. There is no doubt that Mr Putin is determined to much as much resources as he can afford into this effort. And there is equally no doubt that, as Putin sees matters, the purpose of the Russian activity is nothing less than making sure that the last 25 years since the Cold War will be remembered by history as the “phoney peace”, a transition period, rather than the normal state of affairs in Europe.

 Dr Jonathan Eyal

International Director,

Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies




5 November 2015

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