Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Is the West poking the Russian Bear?

Maybe the Russian fiddled with the US, maybe it didn’t. But the box called “the Russia problem” looking worryingly full at the moment.

The problem is simple. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to redress historic Russian grievances and believes the West is out to get him. I’ve heard Mr Putin described as a patriot. Not a Russian patriot – a Soviet patriot. Is he correct?

Well, when US President George W Bush went to Russia in 2001, he famously looked Mr Putin in the eye and saw his soul. But Robert Gates, the former secretary of defence, told Mr Bush that when he looked, he saw the KGB.

Mr Gates knew the Russian leader is well-practised in conspiratorial thinking and wants to help erode the global order faster than Washington can accommodate the changes. But Russia is not a resurgent power, it is a revanchist power (the political will to reverse historical losses). This term has acquired a distinct odour of…evil. After all, peace means accepting the results of history. Revanchism means the Welsh Liberation Front demanding the return of London from those human-rights violators, the Saxons – for instance. A recipe for permanent disorder.

Accommodating Russia’s 2014 revanchist annexation of Crimea will happen eventually. Just not right now. Russia is not ready to enter an international community of like-minded, like-governed and like-purposed nations. It has chosen to justify its autocracy by re-identifying Moscow as the “Third Rome” and by pointing its finger at a corrupt and decadent West. The feeling is mutual, I’m sure.

When entering his first term, Mr Putin based his legitimacy on oil priced at over $100 per barrel and a booming sovereign wealth fund. The social contract was simple: I’ll make Russia rich if it gives me power. Yet during his second term, oil has halved in price and the country’s economy is dishevelled. Mr Putin had to re-jig the social contract to a worrying: I’ll make Russia proud if it gives me power.

Russia has latched onto real and perceived grievances by encouraging a view of an outside world that is relentlessly hostile to it. But is Mr Putin right to stir up this fear? In the 15 years between 1997 and 2012, US Army Europe has downsized from 20 brigades to two. The Soviets were famous for their metric of everything that determined relative power – called the “correlation of forces.” So there is no conceivable way a Russian officer schooled in this methodology today could view NATO as representing a serious threat to the Russian Federation.

Lining up the dots instead point to the Kremlin itself. There is a precarious domestic political situation in Russia, from which Mr Putin is trying to distract by blaming the outside world. On top of this, the Russian state is incredibly weak. Mr Putin is essentially sitting on a kiddie chair at the kiddie table of world nations. Mr Putin wants to be at the adult table with the US, Germany, the UK and others, but he can’t make his chair grow bigger. So he attacks everything that makes the adult table tall and comfortable.

And yet, none of his actions would be possible if there wasn’t already a widespread feeling of meltdown within the West. Russian meddling isn’t surprising. The surprise? There was an open wound for it to exploit. To put a stop to Russian revanchism the West needs to believe in itself and close these wounds. Yes, I can hear Mr Putin laughing too...

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