January 29, 2009

“Missile diplomacy” – Potemkin style

Any country with formidable military power at hand is susceptible to the temptations of using it. But this use does not necessarily involve breaking things or putting boots on someone’s ground. For centuries, military might has been employed as a tool to persuade the existing or potential opponents to do or not to do something as well as to assure the allies. Mere military presence or flexing one’s military muscles may have a greater impact on the calculations of the opponents than diplomacy alone – provided, of course, many things such as timing, communication of the threat and demand, nature of issues at stake are appropriate.

Any country with formidable military power at hand is susceptible to the temptations of using it. But this use does not necessarily involve breaking things or putting boots on someone’s ground. For centuries, military might has been employed as a tool to persuade the existing or potential opponents to do or not to do something as well as to assure the allies. Mere military presence or flexing one’s military muscles may have a greater impact on the calculations of the opponents than diplomacy alone – provided, of course, many things such as timing, communication of the threat and demand, nature of issues at stake are appropriate.

he phenomenon is known by many names such as “armed suasion” (Edward Luttwak), “coercive diplomacy” (Alexander George), “strategic coercion” (Lawrence Freedman et al) or plainly as “gunboat diplomacy”. The latter term evokes the memories of the times when the British or American diplomats were twisting the arms of reluctant statesmen of some disobedient countries, with the British or American navy ships lurking somewhere in the horizon. A simple promise of pain and destruction or demonstration of the ability to deprive the opponent of any gains by using those menacing ships often sufficed to achieve the political goals of the coercing side.

Russian political, diplomatic and military elites are quite fond of such use of military power. It is cheap but potentially enormously rewarding. So, even before Vladimir Putin established his nationalist regime with great power aspirations, Russia has been flexing its, admittedly a bit floppy, muscles to the view of many audiences. But under Putin, this flexing has turned into big sports, with only occasional “image disasters” such as the fatal accident of the nuclear submarine “Kursk”.

From military exercises simulating military action against a threat from the West in the wake of NATO enlargement to “accidental” bombing of Georgia’s territory during the second Chechnya campaign, from tests of new ballistic missiles and renewed patrols of strategic bombers in the North Atlantic to maritime voyages in the Mediterranean or even to the Caribbean – the show of force is abundant. It serves to underline tough words that Russia is back as a great power, that it is building new alliances and thwarting the opposing ones (such as NATO) or is at least ready to cause mischief if its interests and demands are not heeded. At the receiving end, the folk ranges from small but vocal and defiant neighbours to Western audiences, always squeamish about provoking Russia.

But the main target is the man sitting in the White House. Anti-Americanism of Russia’s foreign policy has been steadily acquiring military dimension, so it came as no surprise in November last year when Russia’s president Dmitri Medvedev chose a prominent occasion to lodge a threat: during his “state of the union” address, he promised to deploy short-range “Iskander” missiles in Kaliningrad district as a means to neutralise elements of the fledgling U.S. missile defence system, to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia’s opposition to these plans, seen as a threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent (and, given weakness of its conventional forces, its crucial strategic asset underpinning great power ambitions) has been relentless. However, it was the first time when the threat to provide “adequate response” to the U.S. intentions was substantiated.

No one can deny the elegance of the move: perfect timing (Barrack Obama has just won the U.S. presidential elections; unpopular lame duck president still sitting in the White House), most serious communicator (tsar-like president of Russia), already scared multiple audiences in the West (after Russia’s military action against Georgia), sensitive region (surrounded by NATO and EU members), and grim pictures of serious weapons (broadcast in all news channels). In short, “missile diplomacy galore. Less elegant was retraction of the threat this week. True, Russia wanted to portray it as a show of grace by giving the benefit of the doubt to the newly inaugurated President Obama. But retraction was done by an unnamed source in Russia’s General Staff, who was instantly contradicted by the Ministry of Defence.

On the one hand, such contradictions and rumour-like statements suit the purpose of maintaining ambiguity and uncertainty, just in case the game is not over yet and Mr Obama decides to continue with the deployment of the MD system’s elements in Central Europe. On the other hand, when such contradictions emerge, someone may come to doubt the seriousness of the “missile diplomacy”. What on earth that “unnamed” source had on his mind by essentially telling that his boss, Russia’s president, was bluffing? Or, perhaps, we should indeed call that “missile diplomacy” for what it is – pure bluff. In short, “missile diplomacy-Potemkin style”.

It is not the first time Kaliningrad district is used as a card in the game of suasion. We all remember the rumours as well as threats of planned deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the region, as a response to NATO’s enlargement (more recently, as a response to the MD system). But nothing has really happened, except of some uproar and further strengthening of Russia’s reputation in Europe as an elephant in a china shop. But the difference is that the threat this time was very specific, very clearly communicated and done so by the man, whose word is law in Russia. So, how come it is all Potemkin village?

Well, for suasion to be effective, the threat must also be credible. And what do we have now? The threat to deploy missiles, which are still being developed and have not properly entered service yet, against the system which is still being tested and has an uncertain future. How more absurd can it get: threatening the use of weapons you don’t have to neutralise weapons that don’t exist? For anyone with a straightforward logic, this is quite nonsense. No wonder, Russia would seek a face-saving withdrawal from such a threatening stance before someone called the bluff.

Having said that, “Potemkin village” also has served some purposes after all, and the same holds for such style in “missile diplomacy”: decision-making calculus in Washington will probably be somewhat affected, having counted in even a remote possibility of Russia’s threat being executed at some distant point in time. Many NATO and EU members will be also reluctant to push Russia too far, so that it does not really do something quite unpleasant. But, most importantly, tough threats from the president’s mouth directed to the arch-enemy impress the domestic audience, the source and pillar of regime’s legitimacy and survival. This is a function of “gunboat diplomacy” that the theorists of armed suasion do not fully take into account.

But for how long will we be taking seriously the treats as well as ambitions of the country that has no serious means and resources to actually substantiate its (re)claim on the great power status? Despite all its tough talk, Russia should be treated for what it actually is: a large, fragile, struggling and declining country, with the potential to cause lots of trouble either by irresponsible actions or because of its implosion. And then manage risks associated with it accordingly.

Kremlin’s rulers will probably never be honest with themselves and their own people and will never muster humility necessary to acknowledge how bad things are in this vast country. But at least we, in the West, should stop deluding ourselves (being kindly assisted into that by Kremlin’s propaganda) that Russia is a re-emerging great power, because this is exactly what the builders of new “Potemkin villages” have always wanted us to think.

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