What is the myth?
From a Western standpoint, relations with Russia are often described as a ‘challenge’, but European and North American policymakers are reluctant to recognize the existence of a conflict as such. However, the current leadership in the Kremlin clearly sees itself as in a state of conflict with the Western-led, rules-based liberal world order. This confrontation is protracted, political and moral – and indeed perhaps even civilizational. Although Russia is not openly at war with Western nations, its actions fall within a broad definition of conflict, which is waged through various means, and against a wide range of targets, to achieve Moscow’s foreign policy aims.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
It is often said, even in policy discussions, that ‘Western actions are provoking the Kremlin’, that ‘Moscow is only legitimately defending itself against Western encroachment’, that ‘the West is responsible for making Russia insecure’, or that Russian hostile measures are comparable with similar Western actions.
These myths are entertained by a wide range of individuals, including specifically: those who misunderstand the Russian security debate; accommodationists who argue that Russia should be entitled to a ‘sphere of influence’; well-known politicians willing to trade Ukrainian energy security for the construction of a pipeline; and members of parliament in European countries who make politically motivated visits to occupied Crimea. Governments in Europe and North America cyclically seek ‘dialogue’ with the Kremlin as an end in itself.
Why is it wrong?
Russia is not simply another ‘challenge’ to the rules-based liberal world order. Moscow is in a natural state of prolonged hostility and confrontation with the West. The Kremlin believes that the West, embodied by the transatlantic alliance, embarked on a new phase of conflict as early as the end of the Cold War. Russia’s assumption was that this conflict would be waged with the help of information and influence operations, as well as through the spread of ‘colour revolutions’ at Russia’s periphery aimed at regime change – in other words, via a vast US-led ‘Trojan horse’ operation seeking to destroy Russia from within.
The current Russian leadership sees it as beneficial to attack the West. As a UK parliamentary report on Russia in July 2020 put it, the Kremlin’s view is that ‘any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia’. The situation is compounded by two mutually reinforcing factors: Russia’s perception of itself as a ‘besieged fortress’; and the imperative of regime survival, especially as President Vladimir Putin prepares potentially to remain in power after 2024. Indeed, the Kremlin has been repeating the same security and political grievances against the West since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin’s strategic goals are unchanging. It seeks recognition for Russia as a great power and control in its self-designated ‘near abroad’ in the form of a sphere of influence. What has changed since the late 2000s is the Kremlin’s ability to make its intentions a reality. Moscow is now openly on a destructive path aimed at disrupting, perhaps even overturning, the established international order. The oft-cited speech by President Putin at the 2007 Munich Security Conference should have been a wake-up call to the West that Russian intentions towards this order are anything but benign.
Moscow’s siege mentality also feeds internal politics and regime survival imperatives as a means to boost popular support. Russia can only look strong if its enemies are weaker. Moscow seeks to constrain Western influence and perceived NATO encroachment, which is presented as a threat to national security. Defining the West as morally corrupt and antagonistic to Russia’s stated vital interests also reinforces the narrative of national survival.
The use of unconventional or indirect measures is not just a feature of Russia’s conflict with the West, but actually contributes to the perception of there being no conflict.
The Kremlin seeks to undermine Western interests through a well-established toolkit of unconventional hostile measures and indirect action that remain above the threshold of accepted peacetime activities but below that of warfare. These methods range from election interference in foreign countries to targeted, state-sanctioned assassinations. Information warfare forms a large part of these activities, with the goal of reshaping psychological and behavioural environments to Russia’s advantage in peacetime. Through ambiguity and action that is deniable, whether plausibly or implausibly, these tools seek to soften Western resolve and subvert political and diplomatic decision-making processes – and ultimately change perceptions regarding the nature of Russian intentions.
Crucially, the use of unconventional or indirect measures is not just a feature of Russia’s conflict with the West, but actually contributes to the perception of there being no conflict.
What is its impact on policy?
Many in the West see accepting the proposition that a conflict exists with the Kremlin as dangerous and unpalatable. Yet failure to recognize conflict as a fact fuels misconceptions regarding Russian intentions towards the West among policymakers and the wider public. This also limits the ability of governments to push back and deter Russian hostile action. Cases of Western self-restraint in addressing such action abound – as evidenced, for example, by the weak response following Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in 2006.
The underpinnings of Russia’s strategy against the West are well understood at the expert level but often disregarded by policymakers – even though Russian hostile action has severe consequences for Western security and internal resilience. This failure is causing policy to be misdirected. One fundamental mistake in this regard is to assume that the Kremlin is interested in cooperation. It is not. Moscow equates respect and status with power, not with cooperation. Western policymakers generally fall into a cyclical trap of making overtures to, and being disappointed by, the Kremlin. The US-led ‘reset’ in relations with Moscow in 2009, a few months after Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, did not subsequently prevent the Kremlin from annexing Crimea in 2014. ‘Dialogue’ with Moscow for its own sake often leads to compromising on values and democratic principles in order to accommodate the Kremlin.
Finally, skewed threat assessments regarding the Kremlin’s intentions increase the risk of miscalculation. This ranges from simple conceptual misunderstandings and inaccurate security perceptions to the possibility of unintended military escalation. Moscow’s militarily assertive behaviour increases the risk of tactical errors. The numerous air and sea incidents that have occurred with Russia are the result not of misunderstandings between military personnel but of deliberate Russian provocations designed to extort concessions from the West and demonstrate presence. By engaging in such brinkmanship, Russia learns Western responses. This is worrying, as Russian destabilization efforts often fall beneath the Western threshold for response and classic deterrence.
What would good policy look like?
The West is unlikely to be able to change Moscow’s behaviour – not least because Western actions are understood in the Kremlin as evidence of double standards, and are therefore used to vindicate Russia’s worldview and its behaviour. Instead, Western policymakers must change their way of thinking and recognize the implications of being in a state of protracted conflict with Russia. This should not lead to undue self-restraint: responding to the Kremlin’s actions should not be thought of as escalatory or damaging. The aim must be to re-establish Western credibility.
Responding to the Kremlin’s actions should not be thought of as escalatory or damaging. The aim must be to re-establish Western credibility.
European governments and NATO members should strengthen their resolve in responding to hostile Russian actions. At the policy level, this can be done by decisively and systematically exposing, attributing and discrediting Russian hostile actions. Expressions of outrage are not enough. By contrast, the recent publication of a UK parliamentary report on Russia, in which Putin’s Russia is classed as an ‘established’ security threat, is a first step in the right direction.
Sensible policy should seek to diminish Moscow’s capability to act disruptively. Otherwise, there is a risk that the Kremlin might increase its hostile activities against the West even further. It is a risk that Western policymakers must recognize and mitigate.
Raising the cost of Russian action should go hand in hand with careful engagement. This must come with the caveat that it is a means to an end, not a simple box-ticking exercise. It must also be understood that the West should never make concessions at the expense of its values and principles.
Another useful starting point would be to identify what a desired reasonable state of relations with Russia should be – namely what should the West expect from Russia? It follows that policies aimed at achieving a manageable Russia are needed. And whatever the West wants to achieve with the current and future Kremlin leaderships, the only way to do it is through consistency and unity in understanding the ‘Russia challenge’ – and primarily the fact that the Kremlin will remain locked in an adversarial and conflictual relationship with the West for the foreseeable future. The best that policymakers can hope for (and achieve) is damage control.