How to think about Russia
With the new sanctions on Russia in response to the Solar Winds hack and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, plus the announcement on additional military aid to Ukraine, it appears that the administration of Joe Biden is starting to use elements of a policy toward Russia. While the full makeup of this policy remains unclear, it is critical to understand the power and interests of Moscow which remain over the years.
If the administration is to craft a wise and more strategic policy toward Russia, it must view the position and behavior of the country as it is, and not assume it is born out of any structural decline or some other flawed premise. To understand Russia does not mean to accept it, but rather to view it as it is rather than as Washington would wish it to be.
At its core, Russia is not a soft power playing its hand well, as it is often described. Its tactics and actions are not born out of any weakness, but rather out of a raw calculus of its abilities, its interests, and its resources, which any smart country or regime does. Indeed, if we assess Moscow by Washington standards for power, that will lead to poor decisions and risk miscalculations. If we blithely ignore the domestic and global interests of Russia, we will be outplayed and outmaneuvered at all turns.
This necessitates moving beyond the lexicon of gray zone warfare or the other modern notions associated with the actions of Russia. Interesting and useful as those debates are, they fixate more on what Moscow does and less on why it behaves this way. What we have seen in recent years is the application of its power on the ground. Its success is noteworthy, so we must recalibrate how we understand its abilities. It seized Crimea with barely any conflict, sustains low intensity conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and conducts overseas operations in Syria with remarkable effects. These are not certainly not the signs of any soft power on the decline.
It also says nothing of the activities of the intelligence services of Russia. While their success or failure is open to debate, the fact that Moscow feels emboldened to continue their conduct indicates a strength rather than a weakness. Russia seeks to achieve such security aims not with overt force alone, but with subversion, active measures, and clandestine efforts out of a demonstration of their efficacy in the eyes of the Kremlin.
Moreover, to assume that the successor to Vladimir Putin will behave in a fundamentally different way is to assume that style will trump substance. These interests of Russia will remain the same regardless of who is at the helm in Moscow. The style could change from the “burger diplomacy” of Dmitry Medvedev to how Putin runs the course yet one imagines that the substance of the interests of Russia will remain the same.
Even with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transition under Boris Yeltsin, the interests and security concerns of Moscow continued. The one thing that changed was its pursuit of these interests with the same relative power it did before the end of the Cold War. It managed to intervene with the military in pursuit of these interests during the chaotic years after the collapse. The history of Russia dates back beyond the Soviet Union, as do the geographic tensions and security concerns Moscow faced, something many officials in Washington would do well to remember.
Moreover, to place everything on the shoulders of Putin is to suggest that the United States and Europe can merely wait out the regime, the flawed premise that would ensure worse relations with Russia. Though Putin will one day leave office, his departure will not mean the interests or security concerns of Moscow can simply just evaporate. A policy that assumes so would only lead us to strategic failure and miscalculation.
Getting the policy toward Russia right means to understand it from the start, not as Washington wants it to be but rather as it is. Russia is not “a gas station parading as a country” which is “lashing out in a moment of decline” in the words of Mitt Romney. A better starting point would be a line that is very often attributed to Winston Churchill. “Russia is never as strong as she looks. Russia is never as weak as she looks.”
Joshua Huminski is director of the National Security Space Program and director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.