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The Rights and Wrongs of Russia


“Can NATO deter Russia?”[1] “Can NATO face up to Russia task?”[2] “Stop Putin’s Next Invasion Before it Starts,”[3] and “Putin Wants to Destroy NATO.”[4]

Those are the headlines that appear in the Western press and foreign policy literature. It seems a legitimate question: Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea and supported secessionists in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, and has now sent an expeditionary force to Syria in 2015. The Russians maintain important military garrisons and frozen conflicts in Moldova, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. And the Russian military has acted provocatively by flying nuclear capable bombers near NATO airspace, sending submarines near coastal population centers and conducting large-scale unannounced military maneuvers on the borders of Ukraine and the Baltic States.

All these things are true and they have provoked fear and anger in Europe and North America. Ohio Governor John Kasich said during a nationally televised Presidential debate that: “Russia has gotten away with too much in the world and its time we punched them in the nose” while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suggested more Russian war planes should be shot down if they continue to trespass over NATO airspace.[5] Such are the foreign policy suggestions of the Republican candidates. Only Senator Rand Paul showed a glimmer of rationality when he countered: “You want to start WW3? You have your candidate.” Without going so far, European leaders have also expressed their worries by contemplating increased defense spending for the first time in over a decade. Chancellor Merkel undoubtedly desires better relations with Russia and she might even think that Ukraine and the Baltic States are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, but she also knows that Germany cannot close its eyes to what is going on.

What is exactly going on? We cling to our most recent historical reference points: the Second World War and the Cold War. The rhetoric used makes it clear that the heavy burden of the Munich Betrayal still hangs over us: appeasement remains the vilest term that can be used to describe – and instantly bury – any foreign policy initiative. Russia is viewed as a revanchist state, like Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. In 1991, the work of every Russian leader over 300 years from Peter the Great to Yuri Andropov was undone in months. Vladimir Putin has said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,”[6] – and undoubtedly it was from the point of view of the Great Russians. The other nationalities comprising the former Soviet Union might have a different point of view[7]. So Western politicians assume that Russia, like the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany, is continuously seeking to change the verdict of history in its favor.


Voters in the West only hear one song that is repeated over and over to them like a mantra; it takes time and effort to try and hear anything else. Most people don’t. Yet every record has a B-side, and the tune that the Russians dance to is a very different one. Without understanding how Russians perceives the world, how can we possibly craft a foreign policy towards them? And it is time to get it right: the West has not had an adequate foreign policy towards Russia since Ronald Reagan[8].

Russian Reflections

The Russians are also fixated on the lessons of the Second World War and the imprint it left is still very much a part of the Russian psyche. It was the existential crisis for the Russian people in a way that no previous war was: a Nazi victory would not have been confined to a loss of territory, as in the First World War, but the genocidal liquidation of the Slavic people. Even in victory, more than 20 million Russians lost their lives. So the Russians view it as a question of national survival to ensure that there is as much strategic depth between themselves and Germany as possible, and that means owning or controlling as much of the territory between themselves and the Oder River as they can.


They drew some other conclusions from the war:

  1. The Germans, obviously, were never to be trusted. They had twice tried to destroy Russia and had broken the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact less than 2 years after it had been signed;
  2. Western guarantees were worth nothing. Hadn’t the French and British guaranteed the borders of Czechoslovakia? And rather than accepting the Soviet offer of military alliance, they had brokered a deal with Hitler and sold the Czechs into slavery. Didn’t they also refuse another Soviet alliance in 1939 during the Danzig crisis? They hoped that Germany and Russia would destroy each other and leave the West to pick up the spoils;
  3. Military disarmament means nothing. The Third Reich was pitifully weak in 1935, with an army of barely 100,000 men, no tanks and no air force. By 1939, the Wehrmacht had over a million men under arms with thousands of tanks and a modern fleet of aircraft. The military situation can change with incredible rapidity and only a fool lets his guard down.

When Pravda or Tass publish an article stating “NATO forces preparing for war,”[9] or as a “cancer”[10] it is not merely propaganda: they really believe it. And why not? We believe the worst of our adversaries. When the European leaders protest that NATO is a defensive force and that the European Union is peaceful and open to everyone, the Russians can barely keep a straight face. They’ve heard that one before:

The Russians don’t buy all this talk of a peaceful, only-for-defense NATO either. Why then, they ask, has NATO expanded so aggressively over the years, far beyond what a purely defensive posture would require?[11] And why have they participated in so many offensive combat missions over the years?

  • NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 – a nation with historic, ethnic and religious ties to Russia – and imposed a punitive settlement on them, including a “peace keeping force” the Russians were not invited to participate in, and then recognizing unilateral territorial changes in Kosovo;

  • If NATO was bent on peace, why did it go back on its word less than 2 years after the Vienna Accords and admit all the former Warsaw Pact nations? What’s worse, why did it admit the former Soviet Republics in the Baltic States?
  • What about the NATO combat mission from 2003 to 2013 in Afghanistan, a nation that is relatively far from the North Atlantic?
  • NATO was apparently defensively “bombing for peace” in Libya in 2011, overthrowing the regime of Muammar Qaddafi and leaving chaos, anarchy and jihad in his place. Love your work, NATO.


Nor are the Russians encouraged when they hear that the European Union has proposed the formation of a European army[12] and a Border Force that can be imposed on members even without the consent of the national government[13]. To them, that sounds a lot like what the Wehrmacht used to do…and not just to them. Is it surprising that Moscow doesn’t believe the European Union when it says that economic integration with Ukraine will never lead to NATO membership? It has with almost every other member state. And even if they kept that promise – which seems improbable – what about that European Army? What is to stop them from stationing it on the Don?

Only the Strategic Rocket Forces.

The European Union isn’t doing itself any favors on the credibility front. The crisis years since 2008 have shown just how dysfunctional the institutions are. It have also laid bare the face of the unelected, ruling elite in Brussels: an elite that has trampled on the fundamental principles of the EU whenever it has found it convenient to do so in its mission to centralize power. Freedom of capital? We’ll set up capital controls in Cyprus and Greece. Freedom of movement? We’ll suspend Schengen for 2 years and impose a Border Force on Greece whether they like it or not. Democracy? You can vote for whomever you like as long as you do as you’re told and pay your creditors on time. National sovereignty? Please…the whole point of “ever closer union” is the dissolution of national sovereignty.

The Russians aren’t going to be taken in by all this fine talk of democracy and “human right”: those have been used as the justification for many military interventions by the West. Nor do they need to; the Humiliation Years of supine Yeltsin and military weakness are behind them. Moscow fully intends to look after its own national interests and push back against further encroachments. And the red line must be drawn at Ukraine. A glance at the map will tell you why: Russia has lost over a thousand miles of strategic depth since 1991. The border between East and West Germany used to be 1,500 kilometers from Moscow, and even that wasn’t enough space for comfort. Now, the Polish border is only 945 kilometers from the capital and just 620 miles from the Baltic States. St. Petersburg is even closer. But Belarus still acts as a buffer between Poland and Russia, while the narrow “Suwalki Gap” renders it impractical to station large numbers of troops in the Baltic States: they would be easily detected and very difficult to supply.

The situation changes completely if Ukraine were to suddenly decide that it wanted to join NATO after all. There would be no buffer and little warning of a troop build-up, which could be more easily hidden. The border with Ukraine is only 510 kilometers from Moscow and 380 kilometers from Volgograd, which was once called Stalingrad. And we all know the importance the Russians attach to that city. The ascension of Ukraine into the Atlantic Alliance would make the Russian border indefensible; any reasonable strategy would demand the immediate use of battlefield nuclear weapons.

No self-respecting nation on Earth, with the means to prevent it, would accept such a situation. Imagine Mexico[14] joining a hypothetical Pacific Union with China, and the US being asked to swallow it because “we promise never to turn it into a military alliance, honest.” That’s a little hard to see, isn’t it? Well, it is for the Russians too.

A Return to Détente

If the preceding paragraphs paint a convincing picture of diametrically opposed world views, it begs the question if we can have good relations with the Russians. The answer is a qualified “yes”: but it faces some daunting obstacles.

The first of these, and most immutable, is the geography of Eurasia. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains stretches the Northern European Plains, a vast area of relatively flat land broken by a few large rivers running from south to north. There are no other substantial obstacles to stop the flow of people or armies, which is precisely why people, armies and entire tribal nations have swept through from Asia into Europe since the dawn of human history. The entire history of Russia, since the time it was called Muscovy, has been a search for natural frontiers in all directions while withstanding periodic invasions from east, west, north and south[15].

The Russians will always feel vulnerable without natural frontiers; the next best thing are buffer states and they more they are controlled from Moscow, the better. That’s never going to change. It also creates an important discrepancy in the degree that our respective interests clash:

  • The borderlands, but especially Ukraine and Belarus are strategically existential to Russia, they are life-or-death territories that Moscow cannot permit to be held by hostile – or potentially hostile – states;
  • Europe and the United States have a high, but not vital, security interest in keeping Belarus and Ukraine independent from Russia. The further away Russia is from the European heartland, the happier everyone is. It allows them to continue spending more on butter than on guns. But the European Core would still not be in any direct danger should Ukraine and Belarus rejoin Russia, which is why it cannot be called a vital interest;
  • However, neither the European Union nor the United States have a major interest in having Ukraine or Belarus join NATO. The alliance can get along fine without them. In fact, bringing them in vastly increases the likelihood of war and both countries are economic and military wrecks (Ukraine slightly less so now than 2 years ago).

A second big obstacle is the status of Crimea. Now that Russia has formally annexed it, though Ukraine and the West do not recognize the referendum or the act as legal, it will be very difficult to get anyone to back down. Simply handing it back to Kiev with apologies would probably cause his government to fall, even if Mr. Putin agreed in the first place. Willing minds will need to find a solution to this impasse if a lasting settlement is to be achieved.

The third impediment, and perhaps the greatest, is the existence of hardline factions in the West that have no desire for peace with Russia, except on terms of abject humiliation. These are people who would enjoy seeing a Maidan movement in Moscow, who wouldn’t mind a little regime change in Russia, and who long for the days of Boris Yeltsin, when Russia counted for nothing in the deliberations of the world. These cliques hold powerful positions in both Washington and Brussels; the former seek to maintain American hegemony at any cost, while the latter seek to continue the relentless expansion and centralization of the EU at any cost. When Vladimir Putin speaks of those in the West who seek to destroy Russia, he is referring to these people.

That is a painfully depressing list of obstructions.

A Way Forward (but not a “Reset”)

But keeping Ukraine as a frozen conflict for the next 20 or 30 years shouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests. The risks of something going badly wrong are too high; just look at Syria. The solution lies firstly in recognizing the return of Russia to Great Power status and her legitimate defense interests in the states bordering her. I stress legitimate because I am not suggesting abandoning any nation or our convictions regarding representative democracy and human rights. What I am suggesting is that these principles must not be used as cover for an aggressive expansionist policy in Europe or the US to destabilize Russia or hem her in a ring of steel. That will only lead to war; a war NATO and – increasingly – the US are not prepared for[16]. A return to realpolitik is therefore called for.

  • Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus Republics – there should be mutual treaty guarantees that these nations will never form part of the European Union or NATO; but neither shall they then form part of the Eurasian Union that Moscow is attempting to set up in response to the pressure from the West. They will be true borderlands: their external security shall be guaranteed by all parties;
  • Crimea should be turned over to the United Nations for a period of 10 years, during which time normal economic links will be reestablished with the mainland, but Russia will also be allowed to complete any infrastructure projects currently underway between the peninsula and the mainland over the Kerch Strait. During that period, neither Ukraine nor Russia will be allowed to station military or paramilitary forces on the peninsula – with the exception of the existing lease of Sevastopol for the Black Sea Fleet. At the end of the period, the UN will organize an internationally monitored referendum to determine the permanent status of Crimea: to rejoin Ukraine or Russia;
  • Ukrainian separatist forces will disarm and the area of Donetsk and Luhansk will be policed by a UNSC-backed peace-keeping force until the full implementation of the Minsk Protocols is verified. Ukraine will have to modify its constitution to grant a certain degree of federalism to the eastern regions as well as issuing a general pardon to all who have borne arms in the recent civil war;
  • Russia will have to explicitly and legally renounce the pernicious doctrine of “protector of Slavic minorities” wherever these may be. That is a formula for intervention at Moscow’s convenience and a bludgeon over the heads of the Baltic States. It will be impossible to rebuild trust without such a renunciation.

There is also a need to reengage Russia on a host of Reagan-Gorbachev era agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement and the START treaties. The treaty worked well enough that it survived until last month; since then, the Russians have stopped abiding by its terms. That should not be allowed to happen; if anything, this format ought to be permanently institutionalized to provide for regular reassessment of conventional and nuclear force reductions, and it should be expanded to include major powers like China, Japan, India and Pakistan at a minimum. It is inexcusable that we allow the remilitarization of dormant conflicts, or that we renege on our promises of eventual disarmament. So while in the short-term, the West must increase spending on defense, it should not be the goal to make Europe or the Pacific into an armed camp again, like in the 1980’s. That is not idealism, it is the reality of maintaining stability in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.

Geography and proportionality of interests dictate that the West should be more willing to compromise on Ukraine than the Russians. Time and demography, however, are undermining the Russian position. The Russian economy is a one trick pony, highly dependent on the export of fossil fuels. Its principal market remains Europe and the “shift to the East” is proving more difficult and expensive than was originally thought. With Europe actively diversifying away from Russian gas and with the Gulf States doing what they can to tank the price of oil, Russia’s Federal Budget is in poor health. That makes them very vulnerable to outside forces they cannot control. The demographic situation is even grimmer. Russia’s population is aging rapidly and shrinking rapidly; more rapidly than any other state in Europe. The fastest growing segment of the population are Muslim citizens; as their percentage of the population grows, it is likely to lead to friction with the Orthodox ethnic Russians and to internal instability.


There is thus no need for the West to overreact to the “Russian challenge”, one that is much weaker relatively than the threat of German hegemony over Europe between 1870 and 1945. Our values and our institutions give us an enormous reserve of strength to draw from and a resilience unknown to more authoritarian states; but the first step in ensuring peace is understanding the Russian perspective, their rights and their wrongs, in order to craft the appropriate policy for future good relations.

Sources and Notes

[1] Jeffrey Rathe, “Can NATO Deter Russia in View of the Conventional Military Imbalance in the East?” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 30 November 2015

[2] Jonathan Marcus, “Analysis: Can NATO face up to Russia task?” BBC, 01 April 2014

[3] Terence Kelly, “Stop Putin’s Next Invasion Before It Starts,” US News and World Report, 20 March 2015

[4] Justin Huggler, “Putin wants to destroy NATO, ‘not by attacking it but by splintering it,’ says head of U.S. forces in Europe,” National Post, 5 March 2015

[5] Susan Jones, “Kasich: Punch Russians in the Nose; Christie: Shoot Down Russian Warplanes; Paul: Hello to WWIII,” CNS News, 16 December 2015

[6] “Putin: Soviet collapse a ‘genuine tragedy,’” NBC News, 25 April 2005

[7] Though not all of them would disagree with Mr. Putin. There are former Soviet Republics that were actually better off in the Soviet Union than after 20 years of independence; and there are ethnic groups that are more empire.

[8] Ronald Reagan may not be one of my favorite Presidents and he has many faults I dislike, but considering how badly the collapse of the Soviet Empire could have gone, he must be given an enormous amount of credit for handling it well. Between them, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev truly achieved “peace in our time.”

[9] Polina Tikhovna, “Russia Picks Nuclear Allies For Imminent War With NATO,” Value Walk, 1 December 2015

[10] “Duma speaker describes NATO as ‘cancer tumor’ of Europe,” Tass, 17 December 2015

[11] Sergei Savostianov, “New spiral of NATO expansion affects Russia’s interests — foreign ministry,” Tass, 02 December 2015

[12] Peter Foster and Matthew Holehouse, “Merkel ‘expects Cameron to back EU army’ in exchange for renegotiation,” The Telegraph, 12 September 2015

[13] Henry Foy and Duncan Robinson, “Frontex chief welcomes plan for more powerful EU border force,” The Financial Times, 13 December 2015

[14] An even better example was the one that nearly happened: during the Civil War, Secretary of State John Seward made it plain to his British counterpart that any alliance or even recognition of the Southern Confederacy would lead to war between the United States and Great Britain.

[15] The Mongols from the East; the Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, even the French from the West; the Vikings and Swedes from the North; and the Turks and Tartars from the South.

[16] Fernando Betancor, “The Dangerous Hollowing of Europe,” Common Sense, 28 October 2014

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