STOLYPIN: Apocalypse Not

By bne IntelliNews July 8, 2015

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


It’s bad enough when people reach for the Cold War as a means of understanding the current mess in Russo-Western relations. But when the unthinking and arrogant slide into the murderous chaos that was World War One begins to be used as a parallel, I get thoroughly frustrated. After all, the consequence is that soon enough, the conversation becomes one of the prospects of a Third World War, and that is questionable and downright dangerous.

The basic line, comprehensively developed by Max Fisher in a recent Vox article, is that while Moscow would not want to initiate global thermonuclear Armageddon (and in such speculations it always is Russia that would start this war, by the way), its aggressive brinkmanship might force the West into responses that, in turn, would make the Kremlin feel it has no option but to initiate hostilities. In other words, a combination of miscommunication, misunderstanding, fear and machismo would take us stumbling into war.

It is certainly true that in geopolitics, as in every aspect of our imperfect human relations, accidents happen. Furthermore, some of the rhetoric on both sides is certainly inflammatory and alarming. Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev has said that the US is looking for “an instrument to weaken Russia dramatically” and “would very much like Russia not to exist at all – as a country”.

Conversely Mac Thornberry, a Republican congressman from Texas and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has affirmed that the US faces an “existential threat” from Russia, and former Nato commander James Stavridis has said that the West needs “to negotiate from a position of strength because that's all that the Russians understand”.

However, let’s not get too carried away by extravagant rhetoric. First of all, there are far more extensive diplomatic mechanisms now in place to prevent war. While it’s hard to be especially excited about the usual bureaucratic responses of delegations and démarches, ministerials and multilaterals, that is often the point, deliberately slowing the pace and cooling the temperature.

Secondly, most wars reflect poor intelligence. Britain knew Argentina wasn’t going to invade the Falklands in 1982, for example, while Argentina knew Britain couldn’t or wouldn’t try and take them back. Oops. Perversely, the scale of both Russian and Western intelligence activity today is in this respects a plus. The West may not be able to get an agent into Putin’s inner circle, but one way or the other they will get prior warning if Moscow is moving to a genuine war footing. Likewise, however much the Kremlin may dislike Nato, unless and until its spies becoming willing to flat-out lie to Putin (and for all his dislike of disagreement, he is also deeply suspicious of attempts to play or manage him), he will know the West does not plan a move against Russia.

Putin is not, after all, a fool, even if he does seem now to be a believer in his own rhetoric and his own mythology. His goals, beyond maintaining and enjoying power, revolve around Russia’s status and autonomy. To this end, he is not interested in exporting Russian values to Europe, much less courting destruction in the name of some abstract ideology. Would he like to see Nato broken? Of course. But not at any cost.

Neither are the people around him fools. They are generally cynical pragmatists with much to lose. Even were Putin hell-bent on confrontation, it is less clear that they would follow him. Potentially, quite the opposite. When Nikita Khrushchev was playing nuclear chicken with Kennedy over the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was his own generals who forced him to see sense, and his willingness to engage in such dangerous brinkmanship was one of the factors behind his ouster in 1964.

In 1914, the balance of power in Europe was broadly even; it would take the entry of the US into the war truly to decide it. This is hardly the situation now. The very reason for Moscow’s adoption of the present non-linear/hybrid tactics, revolving around bluff and political manipulation, is precisely that it understands just how much weaker it is.

Its military may look powerful on paper, but most of its brigades are of indifferent quality. As things stand, the conflict in the Donbas is exhausting most of its more able, intervention-ready forces. The West may look divided now, but Europe actually has been more united and tougher than might well have been expected. There is little doubt that in any direct Russian threat, the key military powers would be fully committed to a rebuff.

Shaking the nuclear sabre

And there is little doubt that Nato and the West have the capacity to make that rebuff as devastating or as scaleable as they please, with a wealth of instruments short of all-out war. The sanctions regime could be massively extended to all but shatter the Russian economy. Russians’ assets in the West could be frozen or expropriated. Russian forces outside Russia shelled and bombed with dispatch and precision.

The prospect of Nato actually invading Russia, though, something that could well trigger a nuclear response, is nil. The prospect of Russia making a first strike attack on Nato – something that, incidentally, even goes against its own military doctrine – seems almost equally unlikely.

Of course, the Russians are happy to shake the nuclear sabre. After all, they don’t have many others – and they know it always gets the West’s attention. Consider Putin’s recent statement that in response to the US’s decision to pre-position unmanned armour in the Baltic states, more than 40 new ballistic missiles would be deployed.

This duly earned alarmist column inches in the West, but actually represented nothing more than a packaging of the modernisation of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, a process in place for years. This is about leveraging Western fears, not signalling a potential attack. Moscow’s real weapons are informational, not thermonuclear.

On one level, the Russian strategy is working. The more the West worries about the risk of a conflict, whether deliberate or accidental, the more it forces people to decide just how important Ukraine, or Georgia, or the Baltic states really are to them.

But the real risk is not that Russia will blunder into war, launching an act of direct aggression that spirals out of control, it is that Moscow might feel it can ignore international norms and adopts an increasingly assertive position in the area it regards as its sphere of influence, including Ukraine.  In response, the West might either lose its unity and will to resist, or else overcompensates.

If Western unity does fray though, it is unlikely to lead to Russian tanks rolling through the Baltic states. However much Moscow may enjoy looming over these states, an actual invasion would net minimal gain and trigger Nato's mutual protection obligations. Instead, just as the war in the Donbas is not about the Donbas but a lever with which Moscow hopes to force Kiev back into line, so too the Baltic confrontation is seen as a way to distract, divide and demoralise the West.

Alternatively, if the West overcompensates, it risks pushing Russia into a position where it feels it has to up the ante. This will not mean war, but disruption. If Moscow really feels it has nothing to lose, it can do much to make the world a miserable and dangerous place for the West, from arming warlords to destabilising allies, cyber-sabotage and market manipulation.

So this is not a counsel for complacency. Rather, it is an appeal – from an historian – to treat historical analogies with caution. We all use metaphors to understand and explain, and history is a great tool. But there are distinct limitations and risks in using it as a tool of prediction. There is a real threat in the escalation of the conflict, but it is a 21st century threat of political chicanery, economic upset and geopolitical destabilisation, not a re-run of the Great War – or a final expression of the Cold War nightmares of nuclear Armageddon.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.

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