international analysis and commentary

Can Europe solve the Russian enigma?


“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south-eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia”.

This is how, in October 1939, Winston Churchill famously summarized his views on a counterpart that was as puzzling as it was important.

Russia: military aggressor in Ukraine, large and unavoidable neighbor, eternally problematic energy partner, transactional diplomatic partner, and in the wake of the Paris attacks de facto ally in the fight against the Islamic State. Can Europe solve the Russian enigma in the 21st century?

It is easy to look at Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and indeed in Syria, and suggest that Moscow has again become an aggressive revolutionary actor determined to impose its will on its strategic sphere of influence by force and forceful rhetoric. There can be no doubt that President Putin has again retreated into a classically Russian realist foreign and security policy, tinged on occasions with self-justifying paranoia. However, Churchill’s 1939 aphorism suggests that Putin is far closer to a traditional Russian view of its place in Europe, and the wider world, than fellow Europeans are willing to admit.

Indeed, from the perspective of a KGB-trained, Russian traditionalist, nationalist, which President Putin undoubtedly is, and who for the moment at least controls all the ever-more-centralized direction and execution of Russian strategy, it is easy to see why Russia has of late become not so passive aggressive. From Putin’s ultra-realist perspective it is not the sovereign choices of recently freed peoples to join free associations such as the EU or NATO that define Europe in the wake of the Cold War. Rather, it is the march of Western power in both its civilian and military forms towards Russia’s western border that to President Putin is an affront not only to Russia’s strategic interests, but the heroic role into which Russia casts itself in the fight against “fascism”. A view of Europe that is all too apparent in the language of the Kremlin, particularly following Moscow’s loss of control over Kiev.

What is new of late is not just the placing of the EU in the same “aggressor” category as NATO in the Putin-Russia strategic mind, but the sense that the West in all its forms has betrayed Russia by slapping down Moscow’s offer of strategic friendship. This narrative is of course nonsense because neither the West in general, nor Europe in particular, “lost” Russia; Russia lost Russia.

Indeed, the real cause of Russia’s estrangement from its “counterparts” in the West was Putin’s own unrealistic expectations at the start his first of many presidencies back in 1998.  Then he harbored the genuine belief that Russia would again emerge as a “co-hegemon” with the United States in the running of Europe and much else. With an economy and armed forces significantly less capable than those of Britain, France and Germany such a lack of actual real realism could have only led to strategic disappointment. It is that disappointment that seems to drive a Russian policy and a rapidly modernizing and expanding military that is still based on an economy significantly smaller than those of Britain, France and Germany. Too much military on not enough economy will not end well. 

Equally, one can understand given the Putin world view how the emergence of Germany, via a German-led EU, sticks in the history-minded craw of President Putin. Berlin via Brussels might dress up the enlargement of the EU to Russia’s borders as a new community-based concept of international relations. However, the November 2013 attempt by Germany and Brussels to offer Ukraine an Association Agreement with the EU from Putin’s perspective was a key piece in a new great power jigsaw that would “inevitably” end up with Russia encircled.

In that context, Putin’s 2014 incursion into Crimea was a defensive move to prevent such encirclement. Moscow was determined in particular to prevent denial of access to the warm water Russian Black Seas Fleet naval base at Sevastopol. His destabilization of eastern Ukraine can also been seen through the Putin lens as an attempt to freeze Ukraine into a permanent state of instability thus preventing the extension of Western direct influence to more of Russia’s border. And, his use of snap military exercises in and around Kaliningrad and the Baltic States can also be seen as Putin’s attempt to use hybrid warfare to thwart what he sees as Western political and strategic expansionism.

The problem is that the Putin’s paranoia is triggering paranoia, which of course may be the aim. In fact his view of Europe and Russia’s place therein is completely wrong. There is no strategy to encircle nor indeed to contain Russia. In fact, it is precisely Putin’s response to his mistaken (deliberate or otherwise) assessment of Western/German/NATO/EU strategy that is triggering the kind of strategic reassurance that NATO agreed at the September 2014 Wales Summit and which will be front and center at the 2016 Warsaw Summit.        

The hard facts are that Russia relies on Europe for 70% of its trade income, NATO and the EU offer Russia the only stable border it could enjoy if it chose to stop de-stabilizing it, and on a whole raft of risks to Russian internal stability – from organized crime to Islamism, to drug and human-trafficking – Moscow’s European partners are vital partners.

Sadly, a toxic and rather bizarre mixture of paranoia and realism has led Russia at one and the same time to be a de facto partner in the fight against ISIS, whilst a de facto aggressor against members of the EU and NATO, and threatens to make frozen conflicts dangerously tepid. For example, at the time of writing British forces are hunting down yet another incursion into British waters of an advanced Russian Graney-class nuclear attack submarine, believed to be the Severodvinsk

So, what to do? Western strategy must both contain and engage. There is no other option. The recent British Strategic Defence and Security Review commits London to constructing a future force that will lead Europe in countering, deterring and defending against Russian “assertion”, including hybrid warfare and cyber-attacks. And, until Russia is willing to talk about a political settlement for Ukraine, including the future status of Crimea, EU sanctions must be maintained, not weakened. Equally, efforts must also be maintained to convince Russia of the need to again observe the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and to return within the fold of the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty.

Europeans must also collectively endeavor to convince President Putin that partnership remains a realistic goal, but only if Moscow seeks such partnership via mutual confidence-building, rather than intimidation and aggression. Indeed, such a partnership is clearly in Russia’s interest. Until then dealing with Russia, be it in the strategic, military, diplomatic, energy or commercial spheres, can and will only be transactional.

The irony is that back in 1939, far from being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, Churchill felt he understood Stalin’s then Soviet Union. It was a large, weak state with a very conservative concept of its national interests. Just like today.