January 21, 2021

Getting Russia Right

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011.

Remarks at Conference on Biden and Europe, Co-Sponsored by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and the Wilson Center, 14 January 2021.

1. A purposeful, consistent and robust policy by the Biden administration will not put an end to European divisions — or American. But it is essential if we are to restore the steadiness and trust that has been lacking over the past four years. Yet no matter how well-judged its policy, or how well words are integrated with action, the new administration should have no illusions about altering Russian policy anytime soon. Vladimir Putin has brought the perspectives of Russia’s military and security establishments into close alignment with those of the political leadership, more so than at any time since the Brezhnev/Andropov era. These establishments are highly motivated and resourceful, and whilst we might disagree, they believe that time is on their side.

2. Our greatest challenge in dealing with Russia is intellectual. It is time we accepted that Russia has its own belief system. Its opposition to the post-Cold War (‘hegemonic’) security order is ‘principled’, not opportunistic, and it must be treated as a systemic reality. We have to live with it, maturely and intelligently and not lose sight of collective Western interests. ‘Changing Russia’ is not a core Western interest. The defence and security of the Atlantic Alliance is, irrespective of what Russians think about it and irrespective of what happens inside Russia itself. This does not rule out cooperation on a transactional basis where it is realistic and mutually beneficial. Nor does it rule out — in fact it requires — institutionalised communication between Western and Russian national leaderships and defence and security establishments. The best maxim to follow is ‘neither a crusader nor an accommodationist be.’

3. The purpose of deterrence and defence is not to defeat Russia’s forces in being, but its strategy, which in wartime will be to destroy Allied forces in the immediate theatre of operations, fracture NATO and force it to concede defeat at the earliest possible moment. Our aim must be to demonstrate that this is impossible, that even a short war will have harrowing consequences for Russia and unite North America and Europe in a war that Russia cannot win. It is not enough to speak deterrence; we have to do it. The issue is not whether NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Poland and the Baltic states is called ‘continuous’ or ‘permanent’; what matters is that we identify the capabilities we need and provide them.

4. Ukraine matters profoundly. Let us not forget that the political basis of Russia’s intervention in 2014 was the defence of Russian speakers. Its so-called ‘compatriots’ are well established in border regions of Estonia and Latvia (and not only there). I was in the room in September 2014, at the height of Moscow’s confidence, when Sergey Lavrov said, ‘Moldova and the Baltic states need to consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions’. Let there be no doubt that sacrificing Ukraine or appearing to sacrifice it will embolden Russia and shatter the confidence of front-line NATO Allies.

5. Finally, the Biden administration can expect to be tested, and I suspect that these tests —whether by kinetic military means, intelligence-led ‘provocations’, cyber and info ops, or by diplomacy — could come relatively soon, possibly in more than one domain and in more than one theatre. Russia’s state and military leadership have inherited a Leninist methodology of waging war and waging peace. Testing is what Leninists do; it’s what the Russian military calls разведка боем (intelligence by combat): not only probing for strong and weak points but measuring an adversary’s cohesiveness and nerve. Forewarned is forearmed.

In case you have missed the conference, the recording is available online:


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).