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Sunday, April 15 2018
The Strategic Goals of a Restored Russia
The Soviet « Deep State » survived the desintegration of the Soviet Union. It is back with a vengeance.
The Soviet Union was not vanquished by the West in the Cold War. It simply desintegrated in the late 1980’s, out of cumulative failures. A military defeat or a popular insurrection might have resulted in the elimination of its « deep State » : its seven decades old totalitarian infrastructures and superstructures. A mere collapse, however, had completely different consequences.
Beyond the abandonment of the Eastern European glacis and the formal independence of the fifteen Soviet Republic, the ruling Soviet elite stayed largely in place. This was especially true in the very heart of the Empire, the former Federative Socialist Soviet Republic of Russia, rebranded as the Rusian Federation. The army and the secret police were intact, the planned economy was turned to a State-controlled oligarchy, nationalism was substituted to communism. And Russia soon engaged into a systematic rebuilding and reconquest.
This process started under Boris Yeltsin, the allegedly « liberal » First President of post-Soviet Russia. Just a few weeks after the USSR’s dismantlment, Yeltsin’s army seized Transnistria as a Russian outpost between the now formally independent former Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Moldavia. It was the Yelstin bureaucracy in the early 1990’s that issued 1) the « Near Abroad » doctrine, according to which Russia retained « vital interests » in the neighboring post-Soviet countries, and 2) the parallel doctrine of « the Russian World », that envisioned the « reunification » of all Russian-speaking communities into a single nation-State.
Putin, screened as secret police chief in 1998, as prime minister in 1999, and finally as Yetssin’s successor in 2000, just managed the process with more alacrity and tenacity and with more results.
The primary strategic goal of a restored Russia is to bring together all the Russian-speaking people into a single nation-State. In 2014, after the forced incorporation into Russia of Crimea, a province of Ukraine under international law, Putin elaborated that, after the dissolution of the USSR, « millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders ». What is at stake is not just Transnistria, or Crimea, or the Eastern Ukraine, but also the Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic States or in Central Asia. This contention resembles that of Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939, when he carved an ethnically defined Greater Germany in the heart of Europe.
A second goal is to reestablish the former Soviet Union as a single geopolitical unit if not as a single State : an « Eurasian community » with « Russia as the primus inter pares ». It has been largely met. Most post-Soviet countries, with the glaring exception of the Baltic States, who joined both Nato and the EU, and of the Ukraine, who strives to do the same, have reverted into a Russian sphere of influence. The only countervailing power so far has been China, at least in Central Asia.
A third Russian goal is to weaken or eliminate any rival power in Europe : be it the United States and Nato, its military arm, or the European Union, at least as long as it entertains close ties with the United States. A fourth to resume a world power role, by reactivating support for former Soviet client regimes, like Baathist Syria or Cuba, or striking new strategic alliances with emerging powers like Iran.
Sadly, most Western countries either failed to understand what was going on, or decided to ignore it, even in spite of hard evidence. In his recently published book, The End of Europe, James Kirchick writes : « As early as 1987 », when the Soviet Union still existed, « Mikhaïl Gorbatchev advocated Soviet entry into what he called ‘the common European home’ ». Ten years later, after the demise of the Soviet Union, « Boris Yelstin hoped that Russia would one day join ‘greater Europe’ ». In both cases, Western politicians and strategists responded rather enthusiastically : many of them insisted that « a whole raft of institutions, strategic theorems and intellectual currents born out the struggle against Soviet communism » were now passé, and that « it was time to supplant the bipolar order with more inclusive and ‘equitable’ arrangements ».
Eight more years later, in 2005, a gaullist president of France, Jacques Chirac, and a social-democratic Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, still acquiesced plans for « a European Security and Defense Union », a « triangular » military alliance with Russia « that would exclude Washington, to parallel and perhaps one day replace Nato ». It did not occur to them, for instance, that « as the West slashed defense budgets and relocated resources to Asia and the Middle East », Russia was undergoing « a massive conventional arms buildup to the point there exists now a perilous imbalance on Nato’s Eastern flank ».
Even more intriguing has been the Barack Obama administration’s attitude from 2009 to 2017. It did not do much to deter the Russian inroads into the Caucasus and Ukraine, and opted from 2015 on for a complete passivity in the Middle East or even active cooperation with Iran, the new Russian protégé.
Much was achieved, in this respect, by soft power. The old Soviet Union created or cultivated all kinds of networks in order to spy on foreign countries, or to influence them : from the communist parties to front communist organizations, from fellow-travelers to peace activists, and from businessmen or companies interested into East-West trade to illiberal rightwingers. Indeed, these networks accounted for perhaps one half of the Soviet global power : as Cold Warriors used then to say, in a somehow exaggerated but more graphic way, « East minus West equals zero ». Putin’s Russia is resorting to the same means, with equal or perhaps greater success.
© Michel Gurfinkiel and the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, 2018
Michel Gurfinkiel, a French public intellectual and the editor at large of Valeurs Actuelles, is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum.
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