Dance of the Ghosts: A new cold war with Russia will not serve Western interests

by Anatol Lieven

Russia and her neighbours 80 mins read

In January 2018, the US Department of Defense declared that ‘great power competition’, and not terrorism, was the greatest threat to the United States and should be the chief focus of the country’s military strategy and spending.1

In March, General Curtis Scaparrotti claimed that the United States’ ‘highest strategic priority … is to deter Russia from engaging in further aggression and exercising malign influence over our allies and partners’, echoing comments made by US General Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme commander in Europe, to the effect that ‘Russia … poses a long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies and partners.’2

John McCain, Hillary Clinton and others have called Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election an ‘act of war’ comparable to 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.3 Yet Breedlove’s statement only makes sense if it refers to Russia’s nuclear capacity to destroy the US – which is, of course, balanced by the American, British and French capacity to destroy Russia. Moreover, Russia’s actions during the 2016 election, unlike 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, did not kill a single American. At times, the language of senior US figures has even lapsed into crude generalisations about the Russian people as a whole, as in the statement of former National Intelligence director James Clapper, who claimed that ‘Russians … are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favour’.4

The fear and animosity reflected in statements like these do not correspond to the West’s real interests, the historical context in which Russia’s actions have taken place, the extent of the threat Russia poses to the West, the differences between the vital interests of Russia and leading Western states, or even the respective natures of each side’s state systems.5

Such statements also completely abandon any attempt to see matters from the Russian security establishment’s point of view – a fundamental ethical imperative of statesmanship, according to the great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau6 – and to understand why Russia might fear the West. Rather than a response to Russian behaviour based on objective policy analysis, these approaches stem chiefly from the interests of residual elites and institutions; an exaggeration of external threats in an effort to hold together fraying societies and alliances; and the redirection of citizens’ attention away from social and economic questions which threaten the interests and beliefs of existing political elites of both the left and right. Although Western analysts have frequently argued that foreign regimes have manipulated national hostilities for domestic political purposes, including in the case of Russia,7 it is time they applied this logic to contemporary Western states as well. There would be some precedent for their doing so: in the decade before 1914, one prominent historiographical school, established by Fritz Fischer in Germany, argued for the Primat der Innenpolitik (primacy of domestic politics) in the formulation of the external policies of the European great powers. While aspects of this argument have been con- tested, the school’s overall argument that the traditional elites of the time used nationalism as a way of generating mass political support to oppose the domestic socialist threat has since been generally accepted.8 To be sure, Russia does pose some real and direct threats to Western interests that must be countered. These include aspects of Russian policy in the Middle East (though not the country’s overall strategy there, which has in fact served the West’s interests); the pressure Russia has placed on the Baltic states (which falls far short of an invasion threat, but which nonetheless demands the deployment of limited NATO forces as a tripwire and deterrent); the attempted assassination of Russian secret-service defectors in Britain that was probably (though not certainly) ordered by Moscow;9 and the illicit influence exerted by Russia on the US electoral process, the extent of which remains unclear. The final item in this list represents a new experience for the West, one that will require some careful thought if it is to be defended against in future.

The other three, by contrast, are familiar challenges, for which an established and legitimate playbook of responses already exists. None of these threats amounts to either an existential threat or an act of war. Furthermore, while Western national and collective interests obviously demand that these threats be countered, the accompanying moral hysteria should be qualified by the honest acknowledgement that Western nations too have, in living memory, put pressure on smaller states, pursued state policies that included assassination as a consequence, if not a direct tool, and sought to manipulate other countries’ internal political processes.

The questions to be asked about these Russian threats are therefore the following: whether Russian policies threaten vital Western interests, or only secondary ones; whether they reflect implacable Russian hostility to the West, or are largely (though by no means exclusively) a response to the West’s own policies; how far they are balanced by policy areas in which Russian and Western interests are congruent, or in which Russia has acted in ways that are actually in the West’s interest; and how far in consequence it may be possible to achieve a compromise or to cooperate on various key issues.

The lessons of history

Two historical tropes have dominated Western rhetoric about the relationship with Russia since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014: that the current state of relations constitutes a ‘new cold war’, and that parallels exist with the danger posed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The first image suggests not just a tremendous threat, but an overarching international struggle that is both geopolitical and ideological in nature, and that will inexorably lead to countries being divided between the two camps. It also suggests a competition which can only end with the resounding defeat of one of the sides. After all, during the actual Cold War, the communist side aimed – at least initially – to destroy the entire Western ‘bourgeois’ order through revolution; and the conflict only ended with the complete destruction of the Soviet communist order.

The second image, that of the Nazi threat, is even more melodramatic – as well as being a colossally overused cliché. It suggests that Russia harbours an implacable desire to conquer or dominate the whole of Europe, and that, through subliminal association with the Holocaust, the present Russian administration is a force of absolute evil, drawing on deeply rooted, malevolent elements of Russian culture. In terms of policy, the comparison is intended to suggest that every attempt at agreement or compromise with Russia constitutes ‘appeasement’ that will only lead to new, and more extreme, Russian demands.10 Thus, this analogy to some extent contradicts the Cold War comparison, since Western strategy toward the USSR, while ultimately predicated on containment, also included numerous cases of agreement and compromise, and was characterised much of the time by a philosophy of coexistence – if only because the presence of huge nuclear arsenals made the alternative of actual conflict impossibly dangerous. For example (and of considerable relevance to the present situation in Ukraine), the US and the USSR were able in 1955 to conclude a treaty on the mutual withdrawal from, and neutralisation of, Austria. Further examples include various agreements on access to West Berlin; the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis (whereby the USSR withdrew missiles from Cuba, and the US from Turkey); the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; the 1975 Helsinki Accords on Security and Co-operation in Europe; and a range of international treaties on the regulation of airspace, maritime trade and so on. One might also note that, despite the overall ideological frame- work of the Cold War, ideology did not in practice dictate US policy in many cases. Thus, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s 1971 ‘opening to China’ (intended to turn China into a quasi-ally against the USSR) took place in the midst of the monstrous Cultural Revolution.

Although a range of factors have contributed to the West’s growing hostility toward Russia over the past decade, the most important of these have been the Georgia–Russia war of 2008 and the Ukrainian crisis (encompass- ing the Russian annexation of Crimea and the covert Russian intervention in the Donbas) that began in 2014. These developments were widely taken in the West to be evidence of Russia’s expansionist ambitions and determina- tion to destroy the US-led liberal international order.

The key point about both the Georgian and Ukrainian crises is that these were post-colonial conflicts, resulting from the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Every such collapse, without exception, has led to such conflicts, as sup- pressed ethnic and religious tensions have risen to the surface; different groups have fought to seize the powers of former colonial states; succes- sor states have fought over disputed territories; minorities have revolted against their new masters; diasporas have sought to reconnect with their countries of origin; former imperial nations have attempted to retain some of their former influence; and outside states have sought new influence and advantage. These phenomena were observed, for instance, during the col- lapse of the Spanish Empire in the 1820s; of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires in 1918; of the British, French and Belgian empires from the 1940s to the 1960s; and of the Portuguese Empire in the 1970s. It should further be noted that, as with the conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, conflicts resulting from the end of an empire often break out decades after such collapses – as with the Sri Lankan civil war, which erupted 36 years after the British quit Ceylon.

This is not to say that Russian actions are justified, any more than those of previous imperial powers were. The point is that, rather than reflecting some specifically Russian characteristics, what has happened in the former USSR since 1991 forms part of a wider – and probably inevitable – historical pattern. If anything distinguishes the former Soviet space from other post-imperial cases, it is the relative absence of conflict and the relatively low number of casualties when compared, for example, to Indochina from 1945–75, Algeria from 1954–63, India and Pakistan in 1947, and the ongoing Burmese and Congolese civil wars, among others.11

The post-imperial nature of the conflicts involving Russia is not in and of itself reassuring when it comes to an assessment of the Russian threat to the West. After all, even when the internal calculations of the regimes concerned are taken into account, both the first and the second world wars can be seen as resulting, to a considerable extent, from the decline and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The First World War resulted from the desperate attempt of that empire to save itself through external war. Germany’s involvement resulted from a fear of the growing power of Russia and the widespread belief among Germans that a conflict over who would dominate Central Europe, Slavs or Germans, was inevitable, and therefore should be fought sooner rather than later. Likewise, the first stages of Adolf Hitler’s expansionist programme in the run-up to the Second World War consisted of the merging into Germany of what remained of Austria and of the German- populated parts of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, what Britain and France in the 1920s and 1930s regarded as a liberal international order guaranteed by the League of Nations was seen by the vast majority of Germans as a victor’s peace that overturned centuries of German dominance in Central Europe. This analogy does therefore appear to provide at least some basis for the ‘Vladimir Putin as Hitler’ view.12

A more searching examination, however, reveals the falsity of this conclu- sion both from a realist perspective and from a moral one. Central Europe, as its name suggests, is central to Europe. Whoever controls it is likely to dominate the continent as a whole. The lands of Central Europe border on and overlap with Germany, without which neither the European Union nor NATO would be possible in any meaningful sense. The Cold War began in a struggle over whether the United States or the Soviet Union would dominate post-Nazi Germany, and led to a partition of Germany that lasted more than four decades. By contrast, from a realist perspective, Ukraine, and still more the Caucasus, are geographically and geopolitically peripheral to Europe. The disputed territories there lie nearly 2,000 kilometres away from the Cold War’s front line along the Elbe River in the middle of Germany. No Western strategist has ever satisfactorily explained (nor even tried to explain) why and how areas which, prior to the 1990s, were seen as irrelevant to the security interests of the US, Britain and France suddenly became central to those interests after the Soviet Union collapsed.

For Russia, on the other hand, these areas are of vital interest, and the incursion into them of an actually or potentially hostile Western alliance was bound to provoke a harsh Russian response.13 The protection of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against Georgian reconquest is directly connected to maintaining the loyalty of the Ossete and Circassian co-ethnics living in the northwestern Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation itself. Ukraine is of central interest to Russia as the birthplace of the Russian state, as the home of some ten million ethnic Russians, and as the vital (and now lost) element of the Eurasian Union, an economic and security bloc under Russian leadership. Both Georgia and Ukraine border on Russia, but not on any countries considered ‘Western’ during the Cold War. Moreover, Russian behaviour to date provides no reason to think that membership of NATO and the EU will not be an adequate deterrent in the defence of Poland, Romania and the Baltic states against conventional military threats. As Russian, and some Western, analysts have pointed out, in terms of respective national interests, the Russian response to Western ambitions in Ukraine should be compared to US attitudes toward the geopolitical position of Mexico. In other words, Russian policies in Ukraine are not – as the Hitlerian analogy is intended to suggest – stepping stones to the conquest of the rest of Europe. Ukraine is the goal in itself.

The false Hitlerian analogy also highlights the fact that, far from living up to the portrait of reckless ambition drawn by many Western analysts, Russian strategy under President Putin has generally been reasonably cautious. Putin did not establish Russian protection over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but rather inherited it from the Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin administrations of the USSR and Russia respectively. Conflict first broke out in South Ossetia in 1990 and in Abkhazia in 1992, in both cases initiated by the Georgian side.

When it comes to a moral assessment of the Russian position, Western analysts should recall that while in legal and moral terms there is no significant difference between the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh (which has declared its autonomy from Azerbaijan), Western attitudes toward these cases have been very different indeed. In the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute – in which influential Armenian lobbies in the West have been engaged on the side of Armenia – Western governments have generally supported the greatest possible autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh (amounting to quasi-independence), and provided extensive security guarantees. Western approaches to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, by contrast, have been much more supportive of Georgian demands for the restoration of full sovereignty.14 Whatever Western propaganda may claim, it is entirely clear from the evidence that Georgia attacked South Ossetia and Russian forces there in August 2008, and not the other way round.15 Moreover, after defeating the Georgian army in South Ossetia, the Russian government could easily have marched into Tbilisi, overthrown the Georgian government and replaced it with a Russian puppet regime. It did not do so. Similarly, in spring and early summer 2014, there was almost nothing in military terms to stop the Russian army from occupying not just the Donbas, but all the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine.16 Indeed, the killing of pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa in May 2014 by Ukrainian nationalists would have given it a good excuse for doing so.17 The US and NATO had already made clear (as they had in Georgia in 2008) that there was no chance of their fighting Russia over Ukraine.18 In other words, if Putin had been reckless (or ‘mad’, as certain Western commentators have described him19) the Russian army would be in Odessa and Kharkov, rather than in Crimea and in part of the Donbas under the (admittedly threadbare) cover of a volunteer separatist force.

Russian caution in 2014 seems to have been motivated by three factors: an unwillingness to run even a small risk of Western intervention; a desire not to do anything that would drive the Germans in particular (whom Moscow still sees as a long-term partner) back into unconditional alliance with the US; and an awareness of the acute difficulty of governing a huge and, in part, deeply unhappy Ukrainian–Russian population in eastern and southern Ukraine – as opposed to the small and generally pro-Russian populations of the Donbas and Crimea. It should also be pointed out that Crimea had been part of Russia until it was transferred to Ukraine (then a Soviet socialist republic) by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, and is home to Sevastopol, the historic base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In Russia at least, the annexation of Crimea to prevent the possibility of it becoming part of NATO was therefore seen not as an aggressive but as an entirely defensive move.20

The deal sought by Russia under both Yeltsin and Putin, at least until 2008, was Western recognition of dominant (though not exclusive) Russian influence among the countries of the former USSR in return for Russian support on other issues. No less a master of realpolitik than Kissinger has acknowledged that this aim represents the traditional view of Russian state interests within Russia’s ancient sphere – but not megalomaniac ambition.21 Nor does it amount to a Hitlerian programme of limitless international aggression and threats to the international order. Rather, Putin has pursued a limited, corrupt authoritarianism that would be familiar to several US allies. Russia’s ruthless war against ethnic separatism in Chechnya, for example, has counterparts in India, the Philippines, Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, all of which enjoy mostly friendly relations with the US. Moreover, those republics that did not revolt against Russia enjoy extensive cultural and economic autonomy. And while a (small) number of opposition politicians and journalists have been murdered in Russia, the great majority – including the main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny – have only been barred from elections and exposed to limited judicial harassment. This is a record that compares very favourably indeed with that of many US allies. As Patrick Buchanan has remarked, ‘Which of these U.S. allies shows greater tolerance than Putin’s Russia? The Philippines of Rodrigo Duterte, the Egypt of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the Turkey of President Erdogan, or the Saudi Arabia of Prince Mohammad bin Salman?’22

It is likewise unfair to claim that Putin represents ethnic Russian nationalism, let alone fascism. (Indeed, ethnic nationalism is much more characteristic of the main Russian opposition movement led by Navalny.) Instead, he is best described as a Russian state nationalist, heavily influenced by the Soviet tradition, who believes that the Russian people play a leading political and cultural role, but also that state positions should be open to any citizen who can demonstrate loyalty to the regime. Putin’s longest- serving interior minister (2003–12), General Rashid Nurgaliyev, is a Muslim Tatar, and General Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s defence minister and the man considered most likely to succeed him if he should die suddenly, is a Tuvan Mongol on his father’s side. Nor has Putin ever employed anti-Semitism as a political tactic, a remarkable track record considering the many opportunities Russian politics would present for him to do so. He drove out Putin is a Russian state nationalist or imprisoned Jewish oligarchs from the Yeltsin era who opposed him or tried to control him (such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky), but left in place those who accepted his rule (such as Roman Abramovich, Viktor Vekselberg and Pyotr Aven). Indeed, Putin has explicitly criticised Russian ethnic nationalists, saying in 2012:

The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilisation. But all kinds of provocateurs and our enemies will do their best to snatch this linchpin from Russia, through phoney talk about the Russian right to self-determination, ‘racial purity’ and the need to ‘complete what was started in 1991 – the elimination of the empire that is feeding off the Russian people.’ What they really want in the end is to make people destroy their homeland with their own hands.

I am convinced that the attempts to preach the idea of a ‘national’ or monoethnic Russian state contradict our thousand-year history. Moreover, this is a shortcut to destroying the Russian people and Russian statehood, and for that matter any viable, sovereign statehood on the planet … The self-determination of the Russian people is to be a multiethnic civilisation with Russian culture at its core.23

The Cold War analogy is no less inappropriate than the Nazi one by implying that Russia and the West are locked in an all-embracing struggle in which almost every local issue or dispute leaves them on opposite sides, and seeking in every case to harm each other’s interests.24 This is a false picture not just because Russia is aligned with the West as a whole in the struggle against Islamist terrorism and extremism – portrayed in Washington after 9/11 as the greatest security threat to the West; because it has been aligned with at least some Western countries on every other major issue; or because, in crucial cases, it has adopted positions that turned out to be the correct ones while the US and the UK got it wrong, not just from Russia’s point of view but from that of the US and other Western countries too. It is above all because the Russian conception of the over- riding importance of maintaining reasonably effective and orderly states (as opposed to democratic ones) is shared by a large part of the US foreign and security establishment.

In opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russia sided with Germany, France and most other Western European countries – as well as most members of the UN General Assembly, including democratic states such as India. They were right to oppose the invasion. Apart from the blow it delivered to international law (which certainly rivals that delivered by the Russian annexation of Crimea), the invasion of Iraq was a disaster that led directly to the establishment first of al-Qaeda in Iraq and then of the Islamic State (ISIS). This, in turn, led directly to the latter’s intervention in Syria and the transformation of the Syrian revolution into a sectarian civil war. All this is now acknowledged even by many supporters of the Iraq War.

Russia also sided with much of Europe and most of the international community in opposing the way in which the US, the UK and France turned a ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya in 2011 into a campaign to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gadhafi. Here too, Russia turned out to be entirely correct, even from the West’s point of view. As in Iraq, the US intervention destroyed not just the regime but also the state. The resulting anarchy not only helped to spread Islamist extremism throughout North Africa, but was directly responsible for Libya’s loss of control over its sea borders and the con- sequent massive, unregulated flows of migrants across the Mediterranean.

This contributed to the victory of right-wing populist parties in Italy and elsewhere, which poses an existential threat to the European Union. On Syria, Russian fears that the destruction of the Ba’athist state would lead to anarchy and a takeover by the Islamic State were echoed by some members of the US and Western security establishments, and gained credence from what had happened in Iraq and Libya.25

It is important to note that Russia’s stance on these issues is rooted not only in opposition to US interventionism and a defence of Russian interests, but also in a conception of international order that is shared by many Westerners. Neither Russia nor China has opposed Western or international intervention in states that have collapsed, such as Sierra Leone. What they object to is the destruction of existing states by actors lacking the capability to replace them, any clear and practicable plan for what to replace them with, or any reasonable evidence that the resulting situation will not be even worse. This is the same basis on which some US policymakers – including some presidents – have supported a range of authoritarian regimes around the world in the face of local revolts, and continue to do so.

When it comes to the greatest new crisis facing the Middle East today – the United States’ abandonment of the Iranian nuclear deal and the threat of a US or Israeli attack on Iran – Russia is aligned not just with all the leading European states against the US, but also with a large portion of the US foreign-policy and security establishment (especially in the Pentagon) against the Trump administration.

A safe enemy

In view of all this, it is difficult to see how a reasoned and objective Western analysis of Russian policy and the Western–Russian relationship could produce anything like the alarming picture painted by officials such as Scaparrotti and Breedlove. Based on the available evidence, a more accurate portrait of Russia would depict a more or less normal great power pursuing its own interests, sometimes in concord with the West and other times not, but usually in alignment with at least some Western countries. Moreover, the Russian establishment’s views both of international order and of what constitutes national interest do not differ fundamentally from those of the harder-headed members of the West’s own security establishments.

Why then the hysteria? Why the intense focus on the Russian threat, when, in their different ways, both Islamist terrorism and China seem to present much greater challenges? Islamist terrorists have killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of Europeans, and are constantly plotting to kill many more. Islamist terrorism, coupled with mass migration, is also playing a critical role in driving the right-wing populism that is eating away at the European Union and NATO, and threatening the foundations of American soft power. From this point of view, the US Department of Defense’s finding in January 2018 that ‘great power competition’ and not terrorism posed the greatest threat to the United States appears premature at best. It also ignores the fact that the gains made against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were largely the work of Russia and Iran.

While China is a peer competitor whose economy has already over- taken that of the US in terms of purchasing-power parity, the Russian economy is only one-fifth as large as the United States’, and one-tenth as large as the US and EU economies put together. Moreover, while Russia is seeking to re-establish influence in regions that were linked to Russia for hundreds of years, that were never previously of interest to the US, and that are of minor economic and strategic significance in general, China is making new claims and challenging the US in a region where it has exercised hegemony since 1945, which is one of the three economic hubs of the world, and which has been regarded for most of the last 100 years as highly important to US national and geopolitical interests. China’s plans to create a vast overland infrastructure network in Eurasia, if successful (admittedly a prospect that remains in doubt), will redistribute global economic power in ways that are both highly disadvantageous to the US and that vastly exceed anything Russia could achieve. It therefore seems strange that the US would portray Russia as presenting a strategic threat equivalent to that posed by China, not least because doing so seems bound to drive Russia and China closer together.

The reason for this seemingly illogical stance may be that Russia is not just a useful enemy for Western policymakers, but also that paradoxical thing, a safe enemy. The USSR (usually seen in the West, and especially the US, as simply ‘Russia’) was the enemy against which NATO was created and configured to fight – but which it never actually fought. The balance of nuclear terror compelled coexistence rather than attack, and by the mid- 1960s each side had a reasonably clear understanding of where the other side’s red lines lay.

Today too, the red lines on both sides have been clear at least since 2014, and possibly as far back as 2008. It is understood that NATO will not defend any country that Russia might attack, and that Russia will not attack any country that NATO might defend. This leaves both sides – unlike the great powers before 1914 – free to employ the rhetoric of confrontation without running the risk of actual catastrophic war. The truth of this proposition is strongly suggested by the forces that the US and NATO have deployed to meet the Russian threat. Four years after the Ukrainian crisis supposedly heralded the start of a new cold war, most European NATO countries have failed to increase their military spending, and plans to create a new 50,000- strong emergency force remain mostly on paper. The US defence budget of 2018–19 asked for $6.5 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative26 – a hopelessly inadequate sum if a Russian attack were really regarded as imminent. Moreover, the economic costs of confronting Russia remain low for Western countries. Trade between the US and Russia has always been minimal, and trade between European countries and Russia has been little affected by the poor state of Western–Russian relations. This would change if – as President Trump has urged – Germany ceased buying Russian gas; but Germany has no intention of doing so, and Russia has no intention of turning off the tap so long as Germany continues to pay. Nor can Russia credibly threaten to cut off gas supplies to EU states in any scenario other than a full-scale war. Such a move would be extremely damaging to the EU, but it would also deal a devastating blow to Russia’s foreign-exchange earnings and state revenues, and therefore to the domestic position of the Putin administration. Thus, the energy relationship is not a Russian weapon but rather an economic version of mutual assured destruction, which kept the peace during the Cold War.

All in all, Russia appears to be a very safe enemy. It is also a useful one, because it allows Western security structures to do what they were created to do (and did, in their view successfully, for four decades) – and, in the process, to draw attention away from other threats that they were not configured to deal with and that they have proved extremely poor at con- fronting. As Michael Klare and others have noted, the US high command was never really happy with the ‘global war on terror’, and since Vietnam the Pentagon has abhorred messy, inconclusive and potentially disastrous counter-insurgency operations. Such conflicts tend to draw attention and money away from the sophisticated, highly expensive weapons systems that all armed services love. In Klare’s words,

While the long war against terror did fuel a vast, ongoing expansion of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) it provided surprisingly little purpose or real work for the military’s ‘heavy metal’ units: the Army’s tank brigades, the Navy’s carrier battle groups, the Air Force’s bomber squadrons, and so forth. Yes, the Air Force in particular has played a major supporting role in recent operations in Iraq and Syria, but the regular military has largely been sidelined there and elsewhere by lightly equipped SOF forces and drones.

Planning for a ‘real war’ against a ‘peer competitor’ (one with forces and weaponry resembling our own) was until recently given far lower priority than the country’s never-ending conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. This alarmed and even angered those in the regular military whose moment, it seems, has now finally arrived.27

By contrast, the other main challenges to the West are ones that Western institutions are not configured to meet, and that tend to cause divisions among Western allies. The principal problems of the Muslim world, including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, have set European nations against the US, against each other, or both. As for the participation by European NATO members in military missions (whether as part of agreed NATO missions, as in Afghanistan, or as ‘coalitions of the willing’, as in Iraq and Libya), results have ranged from the unsuccessful to the catastrophic.

Other than the US, the UK made the biggest contribution to these efforts. Yet its activities in both Basra and Helmand resulted in humiliating failure, redeemed only in part by the courage and self-sacrifice of British troops. British missions that were intended to please and impress the US needed in the end to be bailed out by disillusioned and somewhat contemptuous US forces. These missions, like those of the French and British air forces over Libya, revealed the severe limitations placed on European military forces by a lack of funding, particularly since the recession of 2008. Of course, if the threat of war with Russia were really taken seriously, NATO members would have to contemplate military reconfiguration and spending increases on a politically unimaginable scale – which is precisely why so much of the West’s anti-Russian language is pure theatre, not serious strategy.

Dealing with China promises to be even more difficult and divisive for the West. NATO was not created to confront China, and persuading NATO members to make serious military deployments to support the United States and India against China would be politically impossible for most European countries – including the UK, which, it should be remembered, rejected US appeals to participate in the Vietnam War. China’s colossal and growing economic weight is also inhibiting Western countries from adopt- ing a US-led confrontational stance. The UK, like other European nations, rejected the appeals of the Obama administration not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and like other European nations is likely assiduously to seek contracts under China’s Belt and Road project, assuming these are on offer. Moreover, since the Trump administration came to power, the leading European nations have been aligned with China against the US not just over the Iran nuclear deal, but over climate change and trade as well. Far from serving to reunite the West, Chinese power is helping to pull it apart.

Existential threats

There may be a deeper cause of the exaggerated Western focus on the sup- posed Russian threat. All of the West’s mainstream political forces, on the centre-left as well as the right, are now facing challenges which – if they can be met at all – will require the overturning of dominant ideological paradigms. In the US, for example, the Democratic establishment has no real idea how it can win back the white, working-class vote while maintaining both its appeal to racial and cultural minorities, and its links to Wall Street and corporate America. The Republican establishment, meanwhile, has little idea of how to free the party from the populist monster into whose arms so much of the Republican base has thrown itself. Nor will Republicans’ free-market dogma allow them to contemplate the socio-economic measures necessary to relieve their base’s economic distress, or strengthen the US in its economic competition with China. In Europe, neither the traditional left nor the right is prepared to confront the implications of the Muslim migration which is doing so much to drive the rise of right-wing populism. The left cannot bear to think seriously about the need to reduce migrant numbers, while the right cannot bear to acknowledge that even if the number of new migrants is greatly reduced, higher birth rates, marriages between immigrants and people from their countries of origin, and family reunification will mean that, for the foreseeable future, large proportions of European populations will be Muslim, with critically important implications for domestic cultures and politics, as well as international affairs.

In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, Robert Keohane and Jeff Colgan analyse the importance of the disappearance of the Soviet threat for the current rise of anti-establishment populism in the US and Europe, writing that,

During [the Cold War], the perceived Soviet threat generated a strong shared sense of attachment not only to Washington’s allies but also to multilateral institutions. Social psychologists have demonstrated the crucial importance of ‘othering’ in identity formation, for individuals and nations alike: a clear sense of who is not on your team makes you feel closer to those who are. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the main ‘other’ from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States. Without the specter of communist-style authoritarianism haunting their societies, eastern Europeans have become more susceptible to populism and other forms of illiberalism. In Europe, as in the United States, the disappearance of the Soviets undermined social cohesion and a common sense of purpose.

They go on to recommend that Washington ‘nurture a uniquely American social identity and a national narrative’, a project that ‘will require other- ing authoritarian and illiberal countries’.28 The implications of this advice for American attitudes and policies toward Russia could hardly be clearer. Whether such policies correspond to US interests or actual Russian behaviour is another matter.

Further problems that are defying traditional political solutions include automation, which threatens to eliminate not just working-class but also middle-class jobs, and which may require a rethinking of economic certain- ties that have held for generations; and human-induced climate change, which capitalism (at least in its existing form) may be intrinsically incapable of preventing. Faced with problems like these, it is easy to see why politicians, policymakers and journalists might prefer to concentrate on a threat that is really not that threatening, and indeed, almost like an old friend.

Of course, a realist might argue that exaggerating the Russian threat is still justifiable because doing so helps to hold the West together at a time when the disintegration of Western alliances could produce severe consequences. But this reasoning is inadequate for several reasons. Firstly, as George Beebe argues in his forthcoming book, the fact that neither Russia nor NATO has any intention of fighting the other nevertheless leaves open the possibility of an unintended collision.29 Secondly, unnecessary hostility toward Russia precludes the peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict, leaving the West captive to the internal troubles of a deeply corrupt, incompetent and divided Ukrainian government. Likewise, the West’s hostility toward Russia is standing in the way of a stable order in the Middle East and, by helping to prevent detente with Iran, tying Western governments to Israeli and Saudi agendas that actually undermine Western interests. In Afghanistan too, the cooperation of Russia and China will be essential if the US is ever to extricate itself from a conflict which may otherwise drag on indefinitely.

All this points to the conclusion that the United States’ existing global agenda, on which its policy toward Russia was founded, is unsustainable. It was formulated by Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, who presented it in 1992 to the Bush administration in a notorious memo in which they argued that the US should strive to become the sole hegemon in every region of the world – effectively extending the Monroe Doctrine to the entire planet.30 Generally derided as megalomaniac when it was first leaked, this plan became in effect the strategic goal of all subsequent administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

It has since become apparent that this strategy stemmed from what has turned out to be an extremely brief period of US unipolar dominance, lasting only from 1989 to a point falling somewhere between 2004 (when the occupation of Iraq began to go badly wrong) and the recession of 2008. The US is simply not strong enough, economically, militarily or ideologically, to maintain the Wolfowitz–Libby vision. No country could. Attempting to do so is not only deepening international disorder, but leaving the US beholden to ‘allies’ which may have very different interests, such as Saudi Arabia.

Cooperation between the great powers will be essential for the regulation of global affairs, the avoidance of conflict and the tackling of global problems. As Hugh White argues in his book The China Choice, this will require an acknowledgement not only of other countries’ vital interests, but of the legitimacy of their political systems.31 This acknowledgement on the part of Western democracies should be made easier by the increasingly apparent failings of Western democracy itself in the face of economic, social, demographic and political challenges. Rather than focus- ing on the alleged links between the Putin and Trump administrations, analysts would do better to look at the rise in death rates among Russian working-class males in the 1990s and their American counterparts after 2008, and try to understand just how far trends like these are likely to undermine the legitimacy of liberal democracy.

By concentrating on their disputes with each other rather than on the threats to modern civilisation as a whole, today’s great powers risk making mistakes on the same scale as did the European powers before 1914. The principal difference today is that not just European but all advanced states are at risk. They cannot afford to make things worse by undermining each other. Of course, Russia stands accused of doing just that – of interfering with the American political system. Seen from Moscow, this interference (which is clear, even if its extent and impact may have been exaggerated) was a legitimate response to US pressure and propaganda directed against Russia and Russian interests since the end of the Cold War, and especially to what were believed to be US attempts to stir up revolution against the Putin administration and allied regimes on the territory of the former USSR. The covert nature of Russian manipulation does put it in a more sinister and illegitimate category than most of the United States’ tactics in the former USSR, and certainly necessitates strong US retaliation; but it should be noted that where Russian propaganda has been public and overt, this has also been treated by the US political and media establishment as absolutely unacceptable.

The core point here is that the legitimacy and integrity of political systems is seen by state elites as a vital interest to be defended at all costs, and that it is All advanced states are at risk therefore impossible and illogical to hope for any serious degree of cooperation between states which challenge each other’s basic legitimacy. Russian

interference in the US electoral process has rightly been seen as a threat to vital American interests, to which the country must respond. Given the dreadful consequences of US-backed regime change in a number of countries, it is by no means irrational for Russians (and Chinese, Iranians and others) to see US efforts in this regard as threats to the integrity, the cohesion and even the survival of their states, and to back strong responses. Just as the corruption and oppression of the Putin administration gives the US many opportunities to seek to undermine it, so too do the growing internal divisions, social ine- quality and paralysis of Western democracies give opportunities to Russia. Neither side can afford to play these games any more.

Cooperation between the great powers will clearly require a measure of ideological and geopolitical detente. In the end, communism collapsed in the USSR not because of Western propaganda or support for opposition groups, but because the capitalist democracies were obviously more functional in every way than the Soviet system. If Western capitalist democracy is to maintain its superiority, it will have to go on being seen as working better than its equivalents – something that will clearly require deep and painful reform.

* * *

Nurturing a fear of Russia does not merely distract attention from the problems that are weakening and dividing the West, but by doing so helps to make them worse. A new cold war with Russia will do nothing either to restrict migrant numbers or to develop new strategies for their integration. Nor will it suggest solutions to the structural unemployment and semi- employment occasioned by deindustrialisation and the rapidly increasing pressure of automation. It will do nothing to deal with the structural problems of the EU and the euro, nor the looming threat of climate change and its consequences.

This may be why stoking fears of Russia is such a popular activity among Western politicians. Doing so appears to be helping Western elites – liberal as well as conservative – avoid thinking about these problems, most of which will almost certainly require the abandonment of key Western shibboleths. But it is only in the meeting of these challenges that the democratic West will stand or fall. What happens in Tskhinvali or Donetsk is far less important.

It has been observed that when societies become overwhelmed by forces of change that threaten to end existing ways of life, people often turn to some form of magical thinking, whereby a vanishing past can be restored by the invocation of certain sacred formulae. One well-known example of this phenomenon was the Native American Ghost Dance ritual practised from the 1870s to the 1890s, which was supposed to rid North America of white people, resurrect dead tribal heroes and restore vanishing buffalo herds to the Great Plains.32 In recent years, it has been suggested that the support offered by embattled middle-class whites to Donald Trump in the US and to Brexit in the UK are a modern form of this kind of thinking. In their nostalgia for the Cold War, Western elites may also be trying to revive the comforting ghosts of the past to cope with a frightening present. It didn’t work for the Sioux, and it won’t work today.

Survival (London), 2018-09-03, Vol.60 (5), p.115-140 


1 Idrees Ali, ‘US Military Puts “Great Power Competition” at Heart of Strategy: Mattis’, Reuters, 19 January 2018, russia/u-s-military-puts-great-power- competition-at-heart-of-strategy- mattis-idUSKBN1F81TR. For a critique of this view, see Micah Zenko, ‘America’s Military Is Nostalgic for Great Power Competition’, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 21 March 2018, https://www.

2 For General Scaparrotti’s statement, see ‘EUCOM 2018 Posture Statement’, 8 March 2018, For Breedlove’s, see ‘NATO Commander: Russia Poses “Existential Threat” to West’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 25 February 2016, russia-existential-threat/27574037.html.

3 See Theodore Schleifer and Deirdre Walsh, ‘McCain: Russian Cyberintrusions an “Act of War”’, CNN, 31 December 2016, https://; Kristine Phillips, ‘Cheney Delivers a Statement on Russian Meddling: It’s an “Act of War”’, Washington Post, 28 March 2017, https://www. republican-to-call-russias-alleged- meddling-in-u-s-elections-an-act- of-war/?utm_term=.2c69499d6bf9; and ‘Clinton Calls for Act of War Classification for Cyberattacks’, MeriTalk, 9 October 2017, https:// classification-for-cyberattacks/.

4 Quoted in Stephen Cohen, ‘Russophobia in the New Cold War’, Nation, 4 April 2018, in-the-new-cold-war/. For a history of Russophobia, see Andrei Tsygankov, Russophobia: Anti-Russian Lobby and US Foreign Policy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

5 Indeed, as the former British intelligence official Alastair Crooke has noted, ‘The compulsive hatred of President Putin in elite western circles has surpassed anything witnessed during the Cold War.’ Alastair Crooke, ‘Will the War Clouds Pass Us By, or Will the Storm Break?’, Sic Semper Tyrannis, 3 March 2018, war-clouds-pass-us-by-or-will-the- storm-break-by-alastair-crooke.html. Reflecting this attitude, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (for one) has described Vladimir Putin as ‘a truly evil man’ – a characterisation that seems never to have been applied by a senior US official to any Soviet leader during the Cold War. Damien Sharkov, ‘“Putin Is a Smart, but Truly Evil Man”, Says Madeleine Albright’, Newsweek, 20 April 2016,

6 According to Morgenthau, ‘The successful political act presupposes a respectful understanding of its object, its nature, its interests, its propensities and potentialities. The political actor … must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does, anticipate in thought the way that he will feel and act under certain circumstances.’ See ‘The Limits of Historical Justice’, in Hans J. Morgenthau, Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade 1960–1970 (New York: Pall Mall Press, 1970), p. 83.

7 Former US vice president Joe Biden and Michael Carpenter, for example, have written that, ‘To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia’s borders to attack what it per- ceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy. By attacking the West, the Kremlin shifts attention away from corruption and economic malaise at home, activates nationalist passions to stifle internal dissent, and keeps Western democra- cies on the defensive and preoccupied with internal divisions.’ See their ‘How to Stand Up to the Kremlin’, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018. Other examples include Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, ‘Who Lost Russia (This Time)? Vladimir Putin’, Washington Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015; Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, ‘Russia’s Aggressive Isolationism: Putin Is Leveraging Foreign Policy for Domestic Purposes, a Flip Made Possible by a Globalised World’, American Interest, vol. 10, no. 3, 10 December 2014; and John Sipher, ‘Vladimir Putin Isn’t as Russian as He Says He Is’, Foreign Policy, 6 December 2017.

8 See, for example, Arno J. Mayer, ‘The Primacy of Domestic Politics’, in Holger Herwig (ed.), The Outbreak of World War I (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 42–7; Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon, 1981); Fritz Fischer, Hajo Holborn (trans.), Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2007); John Anthony Moses, The Politics of Illusion: The Fischer Controversy in German Historiography (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975); Annika Mombauer, The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus (New York: Routledge, 2002); and Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Imperial Germany 1867–1918: Politics, Culture and Society in an Authoritarian State (New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishers, 1995).

9 It is necessary to point out that official Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal remains unproven, and that if circumstantial evidence suggests the involvement of the Russian secret service, it equally suggests an attempt to undermine Putin and Russian foreign policy during the World Cup, which Russia hosted, and in advance of the Trump– Putin meeting in July. See Simon Jenkins, ‘If the Novichok Was Planted by Russia, Where’s the Evidence?’, Guardian, 5 July 2018.

10 Max Bergmann, a former State Department official under Barack Obama and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (a Democratic Party think tank), managed to use the term ‘appeasement’ with reference to US–Russia relations in each of three successive interviews with the Washington Post, on 2 August 2017 (Jennifer Rubin, ‘State Department Dysfunction Reaches New Heights’), 13 February 2018 (Jennifer Rubin, ‘We’re Defenseless Against Russian Sabotage in the Midterm Elections. And Trump’s Not Helping’), and 28 June 2018 (Jennifer Rubin, ‘The Trump–Putin Summit Should Set Off Alarm Bells’). Brian Katulis makes similar comments in Jennifer Rubin, ‘Will Trump Play the Part of Putin’s Poodle, Again?’, Washington Post, 14 March 2018. For other versions of the Hitler analogy in a leading US newspaper, see Paul Krugman, ‘A Quisling and His Enablers’, New York Times, 11 June 2018, trump-quisling-enablers.html; and Roger Cohen, ‘Of Course, It Could Not Happen Here’, New York Times, 29 June 2018, immigration-trump-putin-germany.html.

11 The literature on France’s late-colonial wars and atrocities, and on the US record in Vietnam, is both so volumi- nous and so well known that it hardly needs to be cited. For a reminder that the British Empire was itself not immune to the temptations of colonial violence (to say nothing of the catastrophes that followed the British Empire’s collapse), see, for example, Caroline Elkins’s book on the suppres- sion of the Mau Mau Revolt, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London: Bodley Head, 2014). In Northern Ireland, what was in effect a late-colonial conflict lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s.

12 For examples of comparisons between Putin and Hitler, see ‘Hillary Clinton Says Vladimir Putin’s Crimea Occupation Echoes Hitler’, Guardian, 6 March 2014,; and Aaron Blake, ‘All These People Have Compared Putin to Hitler’, Washington Post, 5 March 2014, hitler/?utm_term=.764188d526c2.

13 See the comments made to this effect by George Kennan, the architect of the US containment strategy during the Cold War, in Thomas L. Friedman, ‘Foreign Affairs: Now a Word from Mr X’, New York Times, 2 May 1998; and John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’, Foreign Affairs, 20 August 2014.

14 See Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War (New York: NYU Press, 2013); Uwe Halbach and Franziska Smolnik, ‘The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Light of the Crisis over Ukraine’, in Sabine Fischer (ed.), Not Frozen! The Unresolved Conflicts over Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Light of the Crisis over Ukraine (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2016), available at research_papers/2016RP09_fhs. pdf#page=63; and Urban Jaksa, ‘South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh Between a Contested Territory and a Small State’, Centre for Small State Studies, University of Iceland, 26 May 2015,

15 See the September 2009 report of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini and commissioned by the European Union, at; and C.J. Chivers and Ellen Barry, ‘Georgian Claims on Russia War Called into Question’, New York Times, 6 November 2008.

16 Putin himself made this point during a conversation with José Manuel Barroso. See Ian Traynor, ‘Putin Claims Russian Forces Could Capture Ukrainian Capital in Two Weeks’, Guardian, 2 September 2014.

17 Howard Amos, ‘Ukraine Clashes: Dozens Dead After Odessa Building Fire’, Guardian, 2 May 2014,

18 For details of the discussion within the Bush cabinet on whether to intervene militarily on the side of Georgia (an option rejected by all the principals), see Ronald D. Asmus, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 186–8.

19 See, for example, Julia Joffe, ‘Putin’s Press Conference Proved Merkel Right: He’s Lost His Mind’, New Republic, 4 March 2014; Peter D. Coleman, ‘Mad with Power?’, Huffington Post, 29 August 2014; Ian Traynor and Patrick Wintour, ‘Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin Has Lost the Plot, Says German Chancellor’, Guardian, 3 March 2014; and John Kampfner, ‘Putin: A Brilliant Strategist, a Cunning Tactician, or Mad?’, Telegraph, 7 February 2015.

20 See Anatol Lieven, ‘Face-off in Ukraine’, Prospect, 14 March 2014; and Anatol Lieven, Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 1999).

21 See Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘World Chaos and World Order: Conversations with Henry Kissinger’, Atlantic, 10 November 2016; Kissinger’s appear- ance on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’, 18 December 2016,; and Edward Luce, ‘We Are in a Very, Very Grave Period’, Financial Times, 20 July 2018.

22 Patrick J. Buchanan, ‘It’s Time to Get over Our Russophobia’, American Conservative, 9 March 2018, http://www.theamerican-

23 Vladimir Putin, ‘Russia: The Ethnicity Issue’, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 23 January 2012, available at

24 For what I regard as sensible and accurate analysis of the Russian administration’s international goals by academic members of the Russian establishment, see Fyodor Lukyanov, ‘Putin’s Foreign Policy: The Quest to Restore Russia’s Rightful Place’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016,; Andrey Kortunov, ‘Russia’s Changing Relations with the West: Prospects for a Hybrid System’, Russia in Global Affairs, 22 January 2018, with-the-West-Prospects-for-a- New-Hybrid-System-19308; and Ivan Timofeev, ‘Theses on “Russia’s Foreign Policy and Global Positioning 2017–2024”’, Centre for Strategic Research (Moscow), June 2017,

25 See the statement of General Martin Dempsey to the US Congress as reported by Spencer Ackerman in the Guardian (‘US Military Intervention in Syria Would Create “Unintended Consequences”’, 22 July 2013, https:// jul/22/us-military-intervention-syria): ‘We have learned from the past 10 years … that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consider- ation of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state.’ For warnings to this effect from within the intelligence community, see Seymour Hersh, ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’, London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 8, 17 April 2014; and John Nixon, ‘Saddam Hussein’s CIA Interrogator: He Should Have Been Left in Power’, Time, 16 December 2016,

26 See Jed Judson, ‘Funding to Deter Russia Reaches $6.5 Billion in FY19 Defense Budget Request’, Defense News, 12 February 2018, https://www. 65b-in-fy19-defense-budget-request/.

27 Michael T. Klare, ‘The Pentagon Is Planning a Three Front “Long War” Against Russia and China’, Foreign Policy in Focus, 4 April 2018, three-front-long-war-against-china- and-russia/.

28 Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane, ‘The Liberal Order Is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Wither’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2017, https:// world/2017-04-17/liberal-order-rigged.

29 George Beebe, The Russia Trap: How Our Gray War with Russia Could Escalate to Nuclear Armageddon (and How to Stop It), forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books.

30 See Patrick Tyler, ‘US Strategy Plan Calls for Ensuring No Rivals Develop’, New York Times, 8 March 1992.

31 Hugh White, The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

32 See James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011).