Should We Fear Russia?

USSoldiersAfghanistan_Newsweek
US soldiers in Afghanistan (Source: Newsweek)

“Russia has no serious reason to fear the West », writes Dmitri Trenin – Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center – in his insightful book Should We Fear Russia? But President Vladimir Putin is not shy to “punch above his weight” and “always testing and pushing one’s boundaries” to ensure that Russia’s place at the table of great powers is respected.

ShouldWeFearRussiaAs I read these words, the New York Times revealed last Sunday that “United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

Then, another quote from Dr. Trenin came to mind: “Forcing his way to the high table, and making others deal with him out of necessity if not of choice, has become Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic trademark in his relations with US leaders.”

There is always a murky zone around special ops and covert operations, which always offer “plausible deniability” for operations like what allegedly happened in Afghanistan. Conventional wisdom would suggest that targeting soldiers for assassination does not appear like a good way to make and keep friends. But Moscow might get away with murder, since “for all its military superiority that it has been using elsewhere quite liberally, the United States lacks serious military options vis-à-vis Russia.” In other words, Vladimir Putin can continue pushing his luck with impunity.

It also means that, like with Ukraine and Syria, Russia is likely asserting its intention of becoming a key player in Afghanistan, again. A sweet revenge for a country that had to leave the region with its tail between its legs in February 1989. I have a vivid memory of the picture of the last Soviet tank to cross the Hairatan bridge.

Does this mean Russia represents a serious threat to the West? Not likely, according to the author’s rationale. Compared to the US Armed Forces, Moscow can only align a military budget that is equivalent to 1 tenth of the Pentagon’s resources. So why bother?

Russia’s trump card (no pun intended here) is its weakness.  Fragility is what makes Vladimir Putin want to “punch above his weight”. If he was to march in the footsteps of weak predecessors, he would be history. Fair enough, the Russian President is a pragmatist. Dr. Trenin outlines this fundamental characteristic in many places between the covers. But he’s also a tough player who doesn’t hesitate to flex his muscles, military muscles this time, to show 1) that Russia’s military power is no longer in decline and 2) that he wants his country to be seated in the great powers section of world politics. No matter what it takes.

Nothing to make the relationship with the West any easier will you be tempted to think. And you would be right, since “Under the present politico-economic system, it is likely to continue on a declining trajectory, but its military power will grow for the time being. This unequal mix of competition and cooperation, economic decline and military expansion, will make crafting a Western policy toward Russia a particularly difficult task.”

Current circumstances certainly don’t make it easy, but showing consideration for the importance of Russia’s place in world politics might be a key ingredient in that recipe. To that end, the author adroitly quotes Robert Gates – an American expert on Russia who also served as Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama:

“The arrogance, after the collapse, of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling the Russians how to conduct their domestic and international affairs (not to mention the internal psychological impact of their precipitous fall from superpower status) had led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness.”

“History is a very powerful ally” for the Kremlin in the words of Dmitri Trenin. The Victory Day parade was a vibrant manifestation of that. But correcting past resentment is not necessarily the best method to pave the way for good relations. I’m all for respect and consideration, whether it is in private or international life. But it proves a little more difficult when I hear that a foreign country is supposedly putting a bounty on the head of soldiers I tremendously admire and respect for defending the values that are dear to my heart. War is one thing. Mafia-like back alley methods are quite another.

The book was published in 2016. But it is still extremely timely and, in light of recent developments, this short but insightful read gave me plenty of food for thought. Fair enough, Russia has no reason to fear the West, but should the West fear Russia? I’m perplex.

Anyone seeking to better understand what’s happening with Russia nowadays should immediately get a copy of this book and bring it for the vacations. Russia’s place in the news is not about to diminish and it is vital to understand why it is acting the way it is now. Dmitri Trenin’s work is an excellent starting point.

______________

Dmitri Trenin, Should We Fear Russia?, Cambridge, Polity Books, 2016, 125 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Lucas Jones, North American publicist for Polity Books, for kindly offering me a copy of this book.

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