The West must vehemently defend its core values.
Old generals, it is often observed, fight the last wars; and those who are forced to play defence in new ones are often quickly replaced when the strategy and tactics they assume will continue to work don’t. But long-time security analysts and government officials, when confronted with a radically new threat, are often slow to do so—they have even more invested in the old way of doing business than the generals—and are even more slowly replaced by others who can see that what is true now is not what was true then, and that what worked then will not work now.
Vladimir Putin has created exactly such a new threat to Russia’s neighbours and the world, and if they and we are to respond adequately, we must first understand just how radically different his approach is from those employed by his Soviet predecessors, then recognise how radically inadequate the existing Western institutions are to counter that threat, and finally begin to think about new institutional arrangements, both immediate and tactical and longer term and strategic, if the West is going to succeed in containing and countering Putin and ultimately preventing him and others who may try to take a page from his playbook in the pursuit of their goals.
That is not going to be easy but, as a contribution to the process, I want to use this essay to identify five ways in which Putin’s behaviour represents significant departures from Soviet approaches during the Cold War, five ways in which the paradigms and institutions of the West that worked so well in the past are today poorly prepared to respond to what Putin is doing, and five steps that the West must begin to take now.
Putin’s New Approach
Many have used the term “hybrid war” to describe what Putin has done in Ukraine: his use of forces that pass under the radar or at least below the level of direct military aggression as defined by the West. The term is useful as far as it goes, but those who use it tend to limit its application to Ukraine rather than seeing it as reflecting an entirely new understanding of modern war, one in which uniformed armies and flagged weapons are less important than other means, both tactically—that is, in gaining a short-term advantage—and strategically—that is, in gaining the overall outcome one seeks.
Putin’s new way of war represents a change by Moscow in the balance between conventional forces and these others and puts a premium on five things—subversion, propaganda, direct and indirect corruption, the deployment of natural resources as a weapon, and diverting attention. Only by understanding each of these and then thinking about how they are being combined in a new mix can we hope to be able to respond successfully.
First, subversion has always been a weapon in Moscow’s arsenal, but it has now become a central feature. On one hand, this reflects Russia’s weakness (it can’t compete militarily with NATO) and its limited aims—it does not have the supporters in countries around the world that the Soviet Union did and must limit itself to the use of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, or others culturally or politically linked to what it calls “the Russian world” and the defence of tradition. But on the other hand, it means that Russia’s neighbours who have such communities within their borders, and countries further afield who have other groups that identify with some of its goals, face particular dangers. Putin can approach each as if it were a limited target and thus prevent the mobilisation of the West that broader Cold War threats entailed.
Second, far more than his Soviet predecessors and often more than his Western opposite numbers, Putin understands the power of propaganda and especially television. He rose to power by exploiting the medium, and he has used it to set Russia’s domestic agenda ever since. Now, over the last half-dozen years, he has extended the power of Moscow television to much of the rest of the world, more often than not defining how those who consume it view the world and, consequently, him and Russia. He has been especially successful because the leaders of other countries have failed to recognise this power and have cut back or failed to launch their own international television networks.
Third, Russia has been using corruption, direct and indirect, since the days of the tsars but never as broadly, boldly and baldly as now. Not only is Moscow paying off any number of people and groups abroad to advance its cause, but it is also offering economic deals that are nominally not corrupt to win support for its policies or at least to generate opposition to any Western government that seeks to hold Moscow responsible for its violations of the rules of the international order. Neither the former nor the latter are being tracked and publicised to anything like the extent they could be, thus allowing Russia to operate under the radar in this area as well.
Fourth, Moscow is using its reserves of natural resources as a weapon against others, playing games with its neighbours and Europe more generally by offering various degrees of concessionary pricing to those who cooperate and threatening to cut off supplies to those who don’t. Other countries have used their control of this or that resource, but none so cynically and boldly as Putin’s Russia.
And fifth—and again far more frequently and flexibly than his predecessors—Putin has specialised in the art of diversion, not only sparking conflicts in one place to distract people from what he is doing or plans to do elsewhere, but also flooding the media with stories that point in multiple directions, thus exploiting the Western media (which pride themselves on balance above all) against the West by ensuring that his statements, however outrageous, will be uncritically reproduced alongside those of others.
Because he can deploy these tactics almost at will against a West that appears to be expecting something else, Putin is succeeding far more often than one would predict or would be the case if his opponents were not operating on the basis of their assumptions but rather were responding according to those things driven by his.
A Western Response Still Mired in the Past
There is a great debate taking place in Moscow and the West just now as to whether the world is heading into a new cold war. That discussion, of course, is intended in the first place to unite Russians behind their supreme leader and, in the second, to raise questions about whether it is “worth it” to stand up to whatever Putin is doing. But even as the West has responded to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, what is striking is less the use of economic sanctions—which are based on the highly problematic assumption that his calculus and those of the elites around him are based on the same value sets as ours—than the use of tools from the past such as the dispatch of military personnel and equipment to NATO member countries, which is based on the equally problematic assumption that the West will face a Red Army-style invasion that such Western forces were designed to counter.
Putin’s world has changed more than the West’s way of thinking in five key ways. First, the Cold War was a remarkable conflict in which there was an existential and universal threat by one side towards the other. That is no longer the case. The West long ago declared victory and turned away from this competition. Moscow has got back into a different game, one in which it threatens its neighbours existentially, but not everyone universally. That makes it harder for the neighbours to garner support and harder for Western countries to stay focused, given that their leaders can always suggest that not that much is at stake.
Second, one of the most amazing aspects of the Cold War in Western countries is one that few in the West have attended to and which is no longer the case in most—the rare alliance for almost four decades between the business community and those concerned with promoting democracy and human rights. The threat of communism cemented this unexpected alliance, but with the disappearance of that threat, the alliance has disappeared too. There is no longer a united front between the two, and governments typically are more prepared to listen to business interests than to advocates of democracy. Because businesses see the potential for profit in Russia, they are less willing to oppose it; and that means the old coalition in support of containing Russia is no more. Putin understands and uses this reality, even if many in the West refuse to.
Third, perhaps the most disturbing change of all is that the discipline imposed by the existence of the principle of mutually assured destruction has been called into question. Because his military is so weak, Putin is now ready to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, something one hopes he will never do but a step that he could very well take, especially because his use of one or two against targets in what he still calls “the near abroad” would be unlikely to lead to the response now that would have been guaranteed three or four decades ago. The West still talks about MAD and assumes Putin is only sabre-rattling, but his position and his words make the world and especially the region around Russia a far more dangerous place.
Fourth, because he is playing to his strengths and trying to use his weakness against others, Putin is advancing his cause primarily by non-military or at least not formally military means. The West, however, has continued to think about the challenge the way it did during the Cold War, considering it primarily if not exclusively in military terms. That is dangerous in a double sense. On one hand, no amount of NATO equipment and personnel can prevent subversion, even in NATO countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And on the other, far too little attention is being paid to measures that might be taken to block such subversion, thus allowing Putin and his regime to achieve their ends.
And fifth, the West has continued to believe that countries are driven by broad ideologies rather than by narrower national interests. Since the West has proclaimed—quite inappropriately, given the reality—that almost all countries are democracies, its leaders have assumed a commonality of interests or at least assumptions about how these interests are to be pursued, and are routinely surprised when this or that country defines its interests and the rules of the game differently. The Cold War was a time when ideology mattered; now, the countries of the world are driven more often by narrowly defined national interests. That increases the variety of approaches and makes finding common ground more difficult. The assumption that things are what they once were lies behind head-scratching about why different European countries are pursuing different agendas and leads to speculation that, if they are, it must be because of the success of Moscow’s propaganda.
What the West Must Do to Win
When individuals face unexpected changes, they typically go through three stages: denial, a fevered search for analogies in the past and, only latterly, an empirical focus on what is actually going on. Countries are no different, and the Western world’s response to Putin’s actions in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere is a tragic confirmation of that reality. Consequently, the very first step the West must take if it is to respond at all adequately to the challenge Putin presents is to recognise the increasingly poor fit between what Putin is doing and what the West expects.
Otherwise, like the German generals who had always expected the Allies to attack across the English Channel at the Pas de Calais when in fact the Allied armies were landing in Normandy, the Western democracies will find themselves unable to respond in a timely and forceful manner.
Second, and arising from that, the West must recognise what Putin already has: national security is not just a military issue. The West needs to focus on economic, communications and other means not just to track what Moscow is doing but also to come up with methods designed to counter it. Had Western governments gone public with the illegally acquired funds Putin and his entourage have in Western bank accounts immediately after the Anschluss of Crimea, that would have done far more good than any amount of military assistance to NATO front-line states. And had the West been willing to call an invasion an invasion and aggression aggression, that too would have helped. The failure of Western leaders to do so until very late in the game gave Putin a victory he didn’t deserve.
At the same time, however, if military power is not the only defence of a nation’s or an alliance’s security, it must never be forgotten that it is a critical one. The foolish assumption of many in the West that they do not need to spend the money a modern military needs, or that they can rely on sanctions and moral persuasion to protect themselves, is a dangerous delusion to which all too many Western governments have fallen victim. Putin could not be happier with that outcome.
Third, Western governments must re-establish something like the coalitions between business and rights activists that allowed them to prosecute the Cold War for so long. Each of the three parties to this arrangement must recognise how different the situation now is, and to make some concessions it won’t like. But unless there is a recognition that fascist regimes like Putin’s are ultimately a threat to all, there won’t be the political will needed to fight them. The first step has to be to tell the truth: what Putin is doing in Georgia or Ukraine is ultimately a threat to the interests of the democratic and free enterprise worlds. That is because it gives primacy to a corrupt politics over individuals and groups far from the political world, and that is a threat that can be understood if Western leaders are willing to speak about it in terms. To date, tragically, they aren’t even willing to stop talking about Moscow as “a partner” and its political system as “a democracy,” a use of words which drains them of all meaning.
Fourth, the West needs to recognise that, in the new world Putin is seeking to create, the best defence is often a good offence—not only militarily but also in all other spheres. Western leaders can and should pre-emptively extend security guarantees to all countries who feel threatened by Moscow. Even Neville Chamberlain did that to the countries of Europe after Hitler tore up the Munich Accords. What he did not do is go back there a second time, much as Western leaders did after Minsk-1 failed. To make sure that offer is credible, the West must spend far more on defence than many of its citizens want. Their ranks include the front-line states as well. It is simply appalling that some of these are talking about only approaching the 2% of GDP target for defence spending sometime later this decade.
And the West must go over to the offensive in other ways as well, using its diplomatic heft against Russian aggression. Why have no Russian consulates been closed, no Russian ambassadors sent home and no Russian visas cancelled? In addition, the West must restart its international broadcasting, especially via direct-to-home satellite channels to Russians and Russian speakers to counter the Kremlin’s lies about the world. And it must recognise that it is engaged in a conflict in which cash, corruption and subversion must be held up to public scrutiny, blocked where possible, and condemned in every case.
Finally, the West must plan for something that no Western leader has yet been willing to talk about. There is no possibility that the world can return to the status quo ante, even if Putin backs down everywhere—something he will not do or, even if he is overthrown, something which no one can count on. The current international order and all its institutions were created at the end or immediately after World War II. These institutions reflected both the power relations, military and economic, that existed at the time and, equally, expectations about what the allies of the end of that conflict would do in the future.
Those power relations have shifted, and the expectations have not been fulfilled. But now, by his actions in Ukraine, Putin has made a return to the old order impossible, however much those in the quest for “stabil’nost’ über alles” may think otherwise. There needs to be an international organisation in which no rogue state can veto any judgement against itself, no matter how many nuclear weapons it may possess. There need to be political and financial arrangements that reflect the shifting balance in the world between the US, Europe and Asia. And all of those things will require new organisations and a new generation of wise men—and now wise women, as well.
Putin and Russia must pay a price for what the Kremlin has done, and that price will not be paid just by having them stop doing it. The world needs to remember the 1957 Krokodil cartoon in which a student complains that he has been given a failing grade even though he has admitted all his mistakes. The way ahead is going to be far more difficult than almost anyone now imagines. But the longer these intellectual and political tasks are put off, the more damage Putin will do, and the harder it will be for the West to defend its values and itself in the future.