It’s judo, not chess, that’s Putin’s game

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

These two refreshingly concise books address the same question from different angles: how should we deal with Russia? Mark Galeotti focuses on Vladimir Putin himself, his background, aims, tactics and strategy (if any).  Andrew Monaghan takes a wider approach, analysing Russia’s strengths and weaknesses, its self-image, its perceptions and misperceptions of us, ditto ours of it. Both argue that relations between Russia and the West suffer because we are sometimes prisoners of our own preconceptions.

Monaghan describes what he calls the two-part security dilemma, a problem firstly of interpretation and secondly of response.  The interpretive problem is partly the automatic assumption that Russia is an expansionist threat, as evidenced by its incursions into Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, and partly our exaggerated idea of its power and capabilities.

He concedes that it does indeed pose a ‘major challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community’, but argues that this originates not from an aggressive strategy but from a series of ‘policy disagreements… emphasised by different understandings of today’s international environment’. We see threats and provocations in Russia’s extra-territorial incursions, along with the 2007 cyber attack on Estonia, the build-up of its armed forces, its constant cyber interferences and the murders and attempted murders of expatriates in the UK.

Russia, on the other hand, sees itself as responding defensively to the allegedly broken promise not to enlarge Nato following the collapse of the Soviet Union; to Nato’s 1999 Serbian campaign; to the subsequent US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty; to the western appetite for regime change (Iraq) and to alleged western support for Ukrainian anti-Russian groups and Chechen terrorists. Regardless of the justification for these beliefs, they are widely accepted and emotionally asserted.

As for Russian power and capabilities, Monaghan points to persistent economic problems, a leader whose writ runs only where and while he focuses his spotlight, and an annual defence budget — despite a ten-year boost — smaller than just the increase in US defence spending instigated by Donald Trump.

Monaghan is also sceptical about the oft-quoted threat of hybrid warfare and what he considers the myth of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’— essentially blanket terms for nefarious Russian activities. The concept has no equivalence in Russian and he reckons it is really no more than shorthand for Moscow’s deployment of ‘measures short of war’, sometimes also known as asymmetrical warfare. He quotes General Rupert Smith’s pertinent characterisation of the latter as a ‘euphemism to avoid acknowledging that my opponent is not playing to my strengths and I am not winning’.

Monaghan argues that neither side appreciates how its actions appear to the other, resulting in poorly framed responses which are essentially reactive policy masquerading as strategy.  This leads to the false dichotomy of either detente (dialogue) or deterrence, treating them as ends in themselves rather than as parts of a wider strategy. What is needed, he says, is a distinctly 21st-century strategy that takes account of the lessons of Iraq and the Chilcot inquiry and is not the result of the kind of lazy thinking that posits a return to the Cold War — another blanket term that Monaghan debunks.

In his account of the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin, Mark Galeotti reminds us that his subject’s passion is not chess but judo. He is an opportunist rather than a strategist who has no grand design beyond his ambition for ‘power and stability at home, recognition abroad’.

Putin grew up in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in conditions we might call deprived. His KGB career was undistinguished, but he subsequently benefited hugely from the collapse of the old Soviet Union he sometimes seems to yearn for. However, his actions as president have not amounted to an attempt to revive communism or the Cold War. They are more ‘an angry, despairing scream… a last attempt to deny history, to pretend the age of Russian superpower is not over’.

He is a Russian patriot, part of whose appeal is that millions of Russians can look at him through the media he largely controls and feel that he’s fighting for them, that he’s on their side. His enormous personal wealth and the corruption that infests so many Russian institutions do not seem to count against him. Neither does the imposition of Western sanctions against Russia — they don’t touch him personally, they haven’t yet seriously hurt those on whose support he depends and most Russians see them as an example of the kind of Western hostility he is there to protect them from. He is ‘a nicer person than I am’, said Trump. His new National Guard is more than twice the size of Britain’s armed forces.

But he is 66. Can he afford to retire, to put himself, his family and wealth into the hands of unknown successors? His Soviet predecessors couldn’t. ‘The tragedy of modern Russia,’ says Galeotti, ‘is that the same is still true.’

As for what to do about Russia, neither author expects any early improvement in relations. Galeotti thinks it will take generations and Monaghan reckons any future UK strategy should assume ‘a deep-set negative atmosphere in Moscow’. Both reject Cold War analogies as misleading and both call for a combination of dialogue and deterrence. In other words, don’t give up, find common interests where you can, be watchful and be better informed. But don’t bet the farm on it.

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