Why Russia is on the warpath

Jonathan Power


The other day in a rare and stunning criticism of the West, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said. Since the fall of the Berlin wall the West had engaged in triumphalism. New York Times that in the past readily carried most Gorbachev’s pronouncements did not carry the news item. I was in Moscow then and everyone I talked to agreed that the West had set out to humiliate Russia.

Gorbachev had long been a darling of the West. The West valued him because he unraveled the straitjacket that enveloped Soviet society. He allowed the reunification of Germany. And not least he played a major role in ending the Cold War.                                                                                           

So the question is will the West listen to Gorbachev now? Will it listen to his warning that the expansion of Nato makes Russia feel threatened? Will it understand that there is a good reason why he and a majority of Russians support Putin’s foreign policy? Will it share his fear that the world is on the brink of a new Cold War?

One of the people I talked to was Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Global Affairs, the magazine read by Russia’s foreign policy experts. Lukyanov told me Russian elite was developing a neo-conservatism of its own to match America’s influential neo-conservative clan. 

Putin is desperately seeking something that will unify Russia, Lukyanov argued. The Crimea crisis is very useful to him but it will not last forever. And Putin doesn’t know with what to replace it, Lukyanov said.

Putin is trying to restore the geo-political and military might of the Soviet Union. He seeks sufficiency in armament, not equality; and a readiness to use it.

Putin is not ready to contemplate a nuclear war. However, nuclear deterrence is back on the agenda, even though the skills necessary to deal with a situation of nuclear confrontation are no longer available. Russians think that nuclear capacity is the country’s only equalizer.

Emotions in Russia are now running higher than in the Cold War. So the West must understand the risk. The West must not go as far as to say it will defend Ukraine. Any attempt to do so by the West will be seen as a casus belli.

It must understand that Putin’s goal is not to occupy Ukraine. Putin would see that as a failure. Putin is not interested in taking over the eastern, Russian speaking, part of Ukraine. He doesn’t want to destroy Ukraine’s integrity. But if Ukraine becomes a pro European country he will regard this as a defeat. Lukyanov argued at length.

Lukyanov believes that President Barack Obama is at odds with the US’s political culture which is to stand up and fight. But at the same time he doesn’t think Obama has the strength to nullify that culture.

Another intellectual I talked to was the liberal minded Igor Yurgens, an intimate of former president Dmitrij Medvedev. We have entered a period of a ‘Cold Peace’ not a ‘Cold War’, Yurgens said. People around Putin think that in the higher echelons of the US there is a theory of Regime Change, Yurgens said.

Yurgens sees a peace agreement in Ukraine as eminently possible: A reaffirmation of full language rights for the east, a federal system of government with much devolution, as in Scotland, an announcement by Nato that it has no intention of bringing Ukraine into Nato and acceptance that while Ukraine makes trade arrangements with the EU that it is no longer hostile to Ukraine belonging to Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union.  Ukraine can face both ways as the EU common market does with the US. Consideration of Ukraine joining the EU must be put off to a more distant day, and the EU must say this.

I asked Yurgens, given that all the above is agreed to, if it will be possible to stop the pro-Russian militias in the East fighting to join Russia. That is the million dollar question, Yurgens replies. “It won’t be easy but without our economic support and procurement they can’t survive. However, we can’t allow the militants to say Putin is a traitor.

Most people in Russia, he argues, don’t want Russia to be deeply involved in Ukraine. And “I don’t see military confrontation with the West over Ukraine”. Nevertheless, “we are thinking of nuclear deterrence once again”.

He concludes by saying that Russia probably did lend the militants a BUK which fired the missile that brought down the Malaysian airliner.

My conclusion after listening to both men is that it is up to the Europeans, who precipitated this crisis, with their statements and proposals, to lead the way out of this crisis. Obama is too hemmed in by the neo-conservatives to take the necessary steps.