Foreign Policy, Security

Artificially Inflating the Threat From Russia Does Nobody Any Good

Much has been written lately about Russia “hacking” the US presidential elections, and how Vladimir Putin’s government is in a new Cold War with the West.

Molly Mckew, who advised Mikhail Saakashvili when he was president of Georgia, writes that the West is already fighting a war in defence of the values on which its liberal order is based. Like many others, she never attempts to define what exactly “The West” is, or what its contradictory state interests add up to. In the Financial Times, meanwhile, Lilia Shevtsova is even more pessimistic. She claims the current situation is without historical precedent, and that current Western strategy “requires ideological clarity, but the ambiguity of the post-Cold War world made the strategy irrelevant”.

Countless pieces like these are churned out in the Anglophone media every day. They share a remarkable deficit of proportion and objectivity; they present what’s happening today as historically unprecedented, an incorrect diagnosis that simply stirs up hysteria and panic.

They also overlook the pattern that Russian foreign policy has followed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and often emphasise the individual prowess or genius of Vladimir Putin over the forces of international relations — forces that since 1990 have made much more difference than any individual leader.

After the USSR collapsed, Russian foreign policy suddenly became unmoored. Without the organising principles of Soviet communism, its leaders struggled to formulate a coherent grand strategy, instead spending years mired in internal power struggles, crises and economic collapse. Their foreign policy record understandably looks chaotic at first glance, but we can nonetheless detect a pattern to it: a cycle of short phases of increased co-operation followed by longer phases of disillusioned confrontation.

Under its first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, Russia became far more Atlanticist, liberalised its economy, and began to participate in the world democratic order. With Russia economically and militarily on the ropes, the Yeltsin government understood that a turn towards the West was in order. But by the mid-1990s, economic collapse, the first war in Chechnya, and pushback from domestic hardliners turned the government away from the West once again.

But even at this stage, Russia was economically and militarily much weaker than its Western rivals – and for all that it protested against Euro-American intervention in the Balkans, it tacitly accepted Western hegemony in Europe.

The second short co-operative phase started around 2001. Just as Russia was mopping up after the second Chechen war, the aftermath of September 11 ushered in a remarkably close tactical alignment between the US and Russia in Central Asia. But again the relationship faltered, this time thanks to the American invasion of Iraq and the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe, which the Russian government saw as a direct threat to its survival. Vladimir Putin chilled any warmth that had crept in with a terse, critical 2007 speech in Munich, and in 2008, things sank to a truly icy level when Russia invaded Georgia.

The cycle has continued ever since, with the Obama administration’s ill-fated “reset” policy ushering some forms of co-operation but eventually giving way to the renewed froideur we see today. But for all the consternation at Russia’s current activities, including its near-incessant efforts to influence European and American domestic politics, the danger it presents and the singular nature of its behaviour are both greatly overstated.

As things stand, Russia measures up relatively poorly on the usual metrics of greatness. It is still in demographic decline; its sluggish economy is overly dependent on a bare few industries, and its technological innovation prowess lags far behind the West’s.

Russia has some recent battlefield successes under its belt in eastern Ukraine and Syria, but it has no clear exit strategy for either situation. Both are showing signs of mission creep, and their costs are starting to bite as Islamist terrorism against Russia becomes the new normal. Russia’s military performance is often unsophisticated and beset with operational failures. And that’s without considerable resistance from an organised national army or air force.

As for Moscow’s supposedly unprecedented global meddling, there is surely no great power on the planet which hasn’t at some point tried to influence the domestic politics of another, or commit espionage even against its allies. That is how great powers have acted since Athens and Sparta went to war.

There is considerable dispute over how successful Russia’s efforts have been, but even if they have achieved their most extravagant ends, that would mostly indicate that the US and Europe had failed to head them off. A more urgent question, therefore, is to what extent Russia and the West’s core interests overlap.

In recent years, the West’s strategy has revolved around the imperative to spread, promote or defend “values” rather than narrower geostrategic “interests”. This strategy is near impossible to achieve or sustain, since it demands that the West simultaneously balances itself against China and Russia while somehow stabilising the Middle East and promoting democracy the world over. No great power, including the Soviet Union at its peak, has ever come close to global hegemony; that is a lamentably foolish aspiration.

The current trend in the West is towards retrenchment. As surveys of public opinion make plain, European citizens are already fed up of their leaders endlessly trying to stabilise the chaotic Middle East at taxpayers’ expense; now they’re growing weary of their governments meddling in what Russia wants to do in its own backyard.

Clearly a change is in order. Realism demands that the West treat Russia as a declining great power, with patient caution and respect for its sphere of influence. It also demands that the West defines just what it is and where its core interests lie; until it does so, it’s doomed to clash with other great powers as its vague, values-based interests and alliances overlap with theirs.

Rather than neurotically treating every threat as an existential one, today’s Western governments need to remember how international politics was conducted when there really was a Cold War on. In the twilight days of the Soviet Union, George HW Bush – quite possibly the last true realist to serve as US president – declined to interfere in Eastern Europe. He understood that the Soviet Union was doomed, and that as far as the US was concerned, a long game was the most prudent approach. He duly waited for the Eastern Bloc to implode on its own — and so it did.


Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is in Great power politics and Neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Filed under: Foreign Policy, Security


Sumantra Maitra is Doctoral Researcher on Great power politics and Neo-Realism, with a special focus on Russia at the University of Nottingham, UK. He writes for War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and is a regular analyst for The Centre for Land Warfare Studies, India. He holds a Masters of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a Masters of International Studies, both with distinctions.


  1. Aldo Matteucci says

    “In recent years, the West’s strategy has revolved around the imperative to spread, promote or defend “values” rather than narrower geostrategic “interests”. This strategy is near impossible to achieve or sustain.”

    The categorical discussion of “values” vs. “interests” may be helpful in getting an academic title but does not contribute much to the understanding of the situation. “Interests” is just as vague a term as “values”, as seen in the author’s difficulty to highlight “core interests” vs. tactical ones. In any case, both values and interests meet around the core question posed by the other great political scientist of the Renaissance: Baldassarre Castiglione. In his Il cortigiano he does not ask whether a move is right or wrong, morally or from the point of view of one’s interests. He asks the even more fundamental question, which is common to both approaches: “When is the right time?” This question can only be answered by the consequences of the proposed action. Of course, there are overt and hidden consequences (Bastiat). It is regrettable that Adam Smith posited dogmatically that the “invisible hand” is forever for the good. Today’s economism has blinded us to the essential flaw of his assertion.

    Consequentialism is the true – if the forever silently changing – king. This is even more important when one is faced with the “three body problem” (US, Russia, China) which reminds us of China’s three kingdoms before the Hui and Han.

    In addition, both “values” and “interests” ignore emotions. How emotions may come into the game here may be gleaned by comparing the Borders of Russia now from those established at Brest Litovsk. One would have difficulty telling them apart. Russia today is where it was then. After 100 years of terror, war, and stagnation. Resentment is understandable as a force to be reckoned with. Those emotions need accommodating, as is the insistent and strident demand of Islam for dignity.

    • For generic reading on Values vs interests debate, start with Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau. For more about the core interests of the West, read John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Michael Desch, et all. Hope that helps.

  2. Aldo Matteucci says

    I have – about as good as Huntington speaking of Islam without having a clue about Indonesia.

    But you repeat yourself while failing to engage on both core points I’m making:

    TIMING escapes both the value and interest approach.
    EMOTIONS disregard both values and interests.

  3. There are so many basic misconceptions stated as facts in this article as to render it useless except as a resume to get on at some status quo institution. It’s not enough to try to state, “Stay the course” but with less decibels of pitched propganda, for anything else.

    • Carl Rod says

      One just has to wait a few days with this administration to see where the rabbit hole will lead before publishing articles. The ‘Deep State’ has already thrown out Flynn and it turns out European countries have been tracking Team Trump and his communications with Russians for months. Do people really think the above actors outside of Russia have any vested interest in solving an existential crisis for what was Trump’s remarkable break in policy and one that now carries hints of collusion?

  4. I agree with most of this article, but I’d point out that George HW invaded Iraq, ostensibly on the basis of Western values, but largely as a way of “teaching” Americans that gratuitous use of force was a good thing (and as a way to keep them voting Republican now that the Soviet menace no longer existed). As it turned out, using the U.S. military to run the Middle East proved not so “realistic”.

  5. A.I.Schmelzer says

    While I agree with the general gist of the article, Russias “demographic collapse” is much overstated. Russian overall life expectancy is currently the highest it ever was, tfr rate is considerably above what one sees in most of western/central europe. It currently has net demographic growth even without factoring in migrants. This picture will worsen as the cohorts born in the Yelzin years make up more of the childbearing age cohorts, but Russias demographic progress so far is pretty remarkable.

    Russias economy is also considerably better then advertised. There are not many countries which are capable of producing everything from grain to spaceships and advanced submarines. While there are sizeable issues with Russias economy, GDP adjusted by PPP comparisons place it at roughly the level of Germany. This still means that the individual Russian worker is about 60% as effective/productive as the individual Russian one, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon, but it is a far cry from the “economy smaller then Italys” boilerplate one often hears.

    Concerning its military, Russias military tends, often with some difficulty, to achieve the goals its political establishment sets. This is pretty unusual currently.
    It has also shown itself quite capable of self criticism and reform, and is actually quite efficient in terms of “bang for the buck”.

    There is a bit of a schizophrenic thing going on the west, decisionmakers frequently simultaneously hold the opinion that Russia is A) going to overrun western Europe and B) going to collapse any day soon. Neither A nor B is true.

    In terms of grand strategy, the US could still achieve a position of primus inter pares, in which it uses its uniquely favorable geography to its advantadge and adopts a strategy of offshore balancing. Potential threats to the US would be potential Eurasian hegemons, which could come, in theory, either from East Asia or from Europe. Russia is not in a position to be a contender for hegemony in Eurasia, however, it is arguably among the strongest obstacles to any other other power attaining this kind of hegemony.

    As such, the machiavellian core interests of the USA and Russia, preventing the formation of a Eurasian hegemon, align. Secondly, both the USA and Russia wield political power that exceeds their actual economic core features. As such, both should be Status Quo powers.

    In the view from Moscow, the USA is a revisionist hegemon. The US keeps expanding its Empire, including across borders it agreed to respect (Ukraine in particular, the Budapest Memorandum included a US no regime change pledge, and neutrality is explicitly stated in Ukraines founding document, the Ukrainian declaration of state sovereignity), and an Empire which constantly revises and reinterprets the Status Quo ante in its favor, and then calls any disagreement other powers have with these (often very creative) reinterpretations as “revisionist threats to the post cold war order”.

    What increases tensions further is that, from the hard Russian realist pov. US actions in Ukraine only make sense if the US plots a mid to short term assault on Russia proper. If you make a sizeable enemy, you must have a plan to finish that enemy off.

    If you would scoop up the most machiavellian and hard Russian strategists, magically turn them into US patriots, and have them come up with a US grand strategy in the US interest, they would never go into Ukraine as there is nothing in Ukraine which is worth permanent hostility with Russia, or worth the effective end of “deproliferation” (states giving up their existing nuclear infrastructures in return for security and non aggression guarantees from the great powers, after what happened to Ukraine, which was first regime changed by one guaranteeing power, and then get its integrity violated by the other one, no one is going to take such deals). Russian realists cannot predict American actions from their realist povs, and this causes uncertainty and fear. For a state as powerful as Russia, well, Russians fall on the “Fight” side on the “Fight or Flight” spectrum.

    The US has a lot of things going for it, its geography alone is an asset other powers would quite literally kill for, but it has to adjust its overly grandiose designs of democratic world revolution to something in line with its actual economic and military capabilities.

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