What do you do when someone thinks you hate them? Especially when you have very real differences of opinion with them, but must nonetheless share a house or an office with them? Russia these days looks almost as if it is spoiling for a fight with the West, from its brutal bombings in Aleppo to the decision to end nuclear cooperation with the US. However, what may seem like petulant antics actually reflects a difficult and dangerous underlying problem: Putin genuinely believes the West is out to get him.
The Syrian Storm
There has recently been a sharp worsening of Russia’s relations with the West – or rather with Washington, as Putin and his colleagues appear still to assume that Europe and the US’ other allies and partners are really no more than clients. Without in any way endorsing what have been a series of counter-productive and even escalatory moves, though, when seen from the Kremlin’s perspective they look rather less erratic and wilful.
In Syria, for example, the Russians have decided that America either cannot or will not rein in ‘its’ rebels and secure some kind of negotiations on terms they can accept. As a result, they have fastened on the seizure of the rest of Aleppo as a means of demonstrating both indomitable and ruthless will, and also the capacity to deploy devastating firepower. The idea seems to be that a victory on these terms will demonstrate to those rebels possibly inclined to talk that they must do so on Damascus’ – Moscow’s – terms.
The brutality of the assault is thus not simply an act of needless barbarism, nor even an accidental by-product of war. It is, rather, a deliberate show of force by a regime which, from Afghanistan to Grozny, has come to believe that brutality works as a tactic of both warfighting and peace-making. I am reminded of a Soviet Afghan war veteran who once told me that “our plan was to shell our way to peace as quickly as possible”.
That it is no more likely to work in 2016 Syria than it did in 1980s Afghanistan is perhaps beside the point. (After all, a cynic may say, it is not as if Washington, Ankara, Tehran or Riyadh seem to have any more plausible plans.) It is, rather, that given the limitations of Russian soft and even hard power – they simply cannot deploy much more military force into the theatre – this is, if neither laudable nor likely to be successful, at least rational within the Kremlin’s ruthless terms of reference. If you think you’re on your own, you’ll do what you feel you need to do.
The Logic of Paranoia
Likewise, the wider trend towards Russia challenging the West reflects more alarm than confidence.
The fact of the matter is that as far as Putin, his ideological comrades and many within Russia’s security apparatus is concerned, Russia is at war – and a war which was started by the West and being waged on a range of fronts.
When Moscow calls Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution a CIA plot, this is not just laughable rhetoric but an expression of a genuine belief that the US is fomenting risings to displace pro-Moscow regimes. When Moscow identifies all kinds of NGOs as “foreign agents”, this is not only a convenient way to silence and marginalise critics, it also reflects a conviction that the West supports investigative journalists and anti-corruption movements in Russia not on their own merits but to undermine the regime. And so it goes.
Much of this is risible, paranoid even. But it is not wholly without foundation. It rests upon decades of missed opportunities and clumsy Western policies towards Russia that have often been misguided and self-interested. The West sanctified the shelling of Russia’s parliament in 1993 and the rigging of its elections in 1996. It protested the violence of the two Chechen wars, but never let that get in the way of business. It decried the 2008 invasion of Georgia, but soon offered a “reset”. And it has indeed provided moral and sometimes even practical support to those whom the Kremlin regards as enemies and even traitors.
What Is To Be Done?
Ancient history in many cases, to be sure. But very much in the minds of today’s Kremlin incumbents, who see it as proof that the West is hostile yet cynical, and revisited and reconceptualised periodically when a point needs to be made. Meanwhile, the sense of an embattled Russia is not just a handy tool to mobilise the Russian masses when times are hard, it is also constantly being echoed back and forth within a regime that now no longer listens to anything beyond its own rationalisations.
The challenge is how to break through this thickening membrane of paranoia and resentment. Ideally, one might hope to demonstrate goodwill, but it is hard to see what common ground there can be without abandoning Ukraine (and thus the very notion of state sovereignty) or otherwise sacrificing both practical interests and principle.
But standing up to a defensively offensive Moscow just plays to the narrative of Western “threat”, and the Kremlin may feel it must respond in kind.
The difficult balance is to pick a path between these dangerous extremes, giving Moscow neither grounds to feel scared nor undeserved rewards for its behaviour. Consistency, moderate language and unity will be crucial, not rising to Russia’s rhetoric. Unfortunately, that requires consensus, moderation and a clear strategy on the part of the West – all qualities that at present are running short.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.