STOLYPIN: The war that dare not speak its name

By bne IntelliNews October 20, 2014

Mark Galeotti -


To German military thinker Karl Von Clausewitz, war was a continuation of politics by other means. By the same token, the present Western sanctions regime against Russia ought truly to be considered a continuation of war by other means, one geared for a post-industrial and globally interconnected age. Of course, no one in the West will admit this – any more than Moscow admits that its activities in Ukraine ought really to be considered war, too – but the implications are important, and need to be acknowledged.

First of all, wars need clear objectives if they are to be fought well and have a chance of being brought to a successful conclusions – just look at the messy and inconclusive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as cautionary tales –  but it is still unclear what the Western aims are. To a large extent, this reflects a lack of unity in that inchoate bloc, "the West." Is it simply to force Moscow to pull back from its aggressive adventure in eastern Ukraine? That is doable, even if the key sticking point will be the optics: Vladimir Putin needs to be able to claim a victory, but Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko cannot afford to give him that. Or is it to see Crimea returned to Kyiv's rule – over the objections of a majority of the peninsula's population? That will happen over Putin's (politically) dead body, and this seems to be recognized, and it is unlikely that this is truly an aim.

Or is it, even if no one may want to articulate this openly, that the true aim is, in effect, regime change? This might mean an actual change of the guard in the Kremlin, or at least to force policy redirections so extensive and lasting as to mean a redefinition of the existing regime. In other words, a Putin government that is not truly sovereign – and sovereignty is a central element of Putin's very concept of Russia. It is hard to see Putin broken to the point at which he is willing to, as he would see it, simply becoming the West's local satrap.

Indeed, this would probably represent such an existential challenge to Putin's image not just of Russia but of himself (and we should never underestimate the power of the vanity of a near-absolute leader) that he might even feel he had no option but to up the stakes in the hope of scaring off the West. Further incursions into Ukraine, escalating pressures along the Nato border, digging in his heels over Syria, massive cyberattacks, expropriating Western corporate assets in Russia, militarizing the Arctic – all of these might seem acceptable risks.

Risks for the West

After all, just because the sanctions regime is a sublimated surrogate for war, that does not mean the policy does not have risks and costs. Consider the present White House's pyrotechnic enthusiasm for the drone as an instrument of national security policy. Drones allow an administration that has a terror of being entangled in foreign adventures, yet which has been faced with a range of challenges it feels it cannot ignore, a seeming opportunity to square this circle. 

Minimizing the flow of flag-draped coffins coming home comes at different, less obvious costs, though. "Collateral damage" – civilian casualties – from poor intelligence or targeting decisions appear all the more inhumane when delivered by robot, leading to yet greater resentment. Furthermore, as drones cannot build schools or kick a football with local kids, the range of policy options they offer shrinks to essentially kinetic ones: killing people.

Sanctions, of course, don't kill people. In some ways, they are an inverse neutron bomb, leaving people alive while shattering economic infrastructures. But they also, as Europe in particular is discovering, cost money to fight – as all wars do. Nonetheless, in this economic war, the balance of power is overwhelming in the West's favour, at least if it can find the political will to mobilize its capacities. Russia's "energy weapon" pales before the West's capacities to withhold finance, and no, China isn't eagerly waiting to step in at anything other than exploitative rates.

But wars must end, and a well-planned war needs an achievable, meaningful goal. Again, let the recent adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq loom in the corner as bloody reminders of the risks in having no such goal. Until the West not only clarifies its collective goals, in the most explicit terms, and communicates this to Moscow, the risk is that Putin will assume the worst. I find more and more of my Russian interlocutors from government circles talking in apocalyptic terms, of a West determined to break, tame or humble the Motherland. And if Putin comes to believe he has nothing to lose in this undeclared war, what is to stop him escalating, invoking the most extreme and disruptive asymmetric options at his disposal?

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University's SPS Center for Global Affairs and blogs at In Moscow's Shadows.


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