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Why the West Misunderstands Russia’s Challenge

Looking past the bluster and hyperbole of Russia’s political leaders and business elites.

June 8, 2016

Looking past the bluster and hyperbole of Russia’s political leaders and business elites.

With its saber-rattling over the last months, the Kremlin has succeeded in taking large parts of the Western elite under its “reflexive control.”

That term refers to a Soviet strategy of action designed to trigger desired reactions on the enemy’s side.

Moscow has done its utmost to convince politicians, journalists, soldiers, intellectuals and diplomats around the world that Russia is posing a serious military threat, and that if necessary it is up for a fight against NATO – perhaps, even for World War III.

As a result, the West’s political and military leaders are busy responding to threats that are, in fact, largely ephemeral. Brussels and Washington, for their parts, are insufficiently attentive and inadequately reacting to really existing new challenges in Europe’s east.

Reflexive control is working

Such distraction is the very purpose of the Kremlin’s confrontational stance towards the West. Rather than contemplating the actual nature, real risks and final purposes of Russia’s demonstratively aggressive posture, NATO’s generals are fighting the last war – the Cold one – over again.

The West’s biggest failure at this juncture is this: Instead of soberly assessing the real nature of today Russia’s challenge and exploring the entire gamut of the West’s new options to respond, a collective sense of déjà-vu has taken hold in large parts of the Western elites.

NATO’s and the EU’s resulting incomplete and misconceived rebuttals are serving, rather than containing, the Kremlin. And they are increasing insecurity in Eastern Europe, rather than decreasing it.

This leads to a situation full of existential risks for humanity, yet beneficial to the stability and sustainability of Putin’s regime.

NATO’s alarmist acts

NATO and its member states are over-reacting rhetorically, militarily and politically to Russia’s new aggressiveness. Without realizing, they are barking up the wrong tree, and playing Moscow’s game.

Western politicians and military men are sending, on an almost daily basis now, public oral and written messages to Moscow responding to its military provocations along Russia’s western borders, and subversive activities on EU territory.

NATO troops and installations are moving eastwards. West and East European defense budgets are on a steep rise. A possible new intra-EU enlargement of NATO, i.e., an inclusion of Finland or/and Sweden, is being contemplated.

As NYU political science professor Mark Galeotti has perceptively observed, large parts of the Western elite are doing nothing less than “panicking about Russia’s ‘hybrid’ warfare.”

The alarm bell is being rung by leading national politicians, senior NATO commanders, prestigious think-tanks, opinion-shaping journalists, as well as seasoned Western diplomats.

It is exactly this alarmism – and less a real conflict – that the Kremlin’s posturing is trying to achieve. Moscow would be simply unable to fight a real new Cold, let alone a hot, war with the West. Why?

Russian economic integration with the West

There is a well-known, but nowadays often forgotten fundamental difference between the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union that points to a related fundamental paradox of Moscow’s new confrontation with the West.

The Russian Federation is much weaker than the USSR. Unlike Moscow’s former communist leadership and largely autarkic planned industry, Russia’s new ruling elite and inflexible petro-economy are deeply integrated with the West.

Looks at Russia’s major pipeline destinations, its foreign direct investors, its most attractive tourism sites, its private real estate locations, its regular or secret bank accounts, its preferred shopping malls, or its popular foreign educational institutions.

In all of those arenas, a large part of the Russian elite’s core interests are located in, connected with, or related to, countries that are members of NATO, the EU, or both. (Some of the remainder is in places closely tied to them, like Switzerland).

Russia isn’t “back”

Though Moscow is trying to create the impression of an aggressive Eurasian hegemon, the Russian Federation is neither a re-born USSR, nor an East European China, nor a modern equivalent of Nazi Germany.

Despite its oil riches and much larger population, Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of Italy or California. Moscow’s economic problems are currently accumulating by the month.

Despite its inherent weaknesses and dependence, during the last two years, the Kremlin has succeeded impressing scores of Western diplomats, analysts, businesspeople and politicians with the idea that “Russia is back.”

To be sure, Russia is today again well-armed and has a well-trained army capable to operate effectively abroad. Moreover, it has a political system – as well as an agitated population – that allows Putin to act swiftly, radically and resolutely.

Seeing through Russia

Yet, Russia remains a second-rate industrial nation. Or, in the words of former Russian Economy Minister German Gref, Russia is an economic “downshifter.”

The relatively large Russian military prowess is the result of ever more disproportionate budget spending on security, defense and armament – a potentially self-destructive use of resources.

So far Russia is succeeding in papering over the grave repercussions of its insufficient international embeddedness with political bombast and diplomatic grandeur.

Western governments and publics need to better see through the self-serving rationale of the Kremlin’s actions. They need to understand the gambler’s attitude of Russia’s shrewd “political technologists” and the cold calculations of Russia’s super-rich power-holders.

Until that happens, Moscow will continue to try to control the reflexes of the West as much as possible by military provocations. It will go on unsettling Brussels and Washington by other means too, so as to prevent sober analysis, intergovernmental unity, strategic coherence and sustained counter-action by the West.

No showdown

Yet, given its multifarious economic ties with the West, the Russian elite will also make sure to let the confrontation not get out of control, so as not to risk a showdown.

In our own interests, we should rise above these petty games, avoid military competition, employ instead our multiple economic instruments, and, as Galeotti put it, “stop playing nice,” with the Kremlin.

As soon as Russia’s elite gets this message, we will see quick improvement in the Donbas, Syria and elsewhere.


NATO is overreacting rhetorically, militarily & politically to new Russian aggressiveness.

Moscow would be simply unable to fight a real new Cold, let alone a hot, war with the West.

Russia is today much weaker than the USSR and its elite & oil economy integrated into the West.

Moscow wants to pose as a hegemon, but it is neither the USSR nor even a European PRC.

Westerners must understand the gambler’s attitude & cold calculations of Russia’s power-holders.