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Fighting The Long War

  • Brian Whitmore

Settling in for a protracted conflict.

Settling in for a protracted conflict.

The U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says Washington may consider putting intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, and Britain's top diplomat says the United Kingdom would consider hosting them.

A Russian military plane buzzes NATO warships in the Baltic Sea; a Russian fighter jet comes within 3 meters of a U.S. spy plane over the Black Sea; and U.S. and Russian naval officers meet to to discuss how to avoid an accidental clash at sea or in the air.

The Pentagon announces plans to station heavy weapons in the Baltic states; and Moscow pledges to retaliate by speeding up the deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and beefing up Russian forces in Belarus.

Welcome to the new normal. After more than a year of conflict in Ukraine, the standoff between Russia and the West has become routine -- and it is becoming institutionalized.

No, this isn't a new Cold War, at least not yet.

Russia isn't a superpower with global reach and it doesn't lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. But it is deploying the power it does have very effectively and is capitalizing on its asymmetrical advantages.

The Kremlin also isn't offering a viable alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. But Vladimir Putin's challenge to the West has an ideological component that taps into a potent backlash against globalization and the universalization of liberal Western values.

So while we may not be in a Cold War, which, after all, was the product of a specific period in history, we are in the early stages of something that is shaping up to be a Long War.

Russia may not be a global superpower. But neither is it some rogue state that can be easily isolated and neutralized. And the recent Western measures show an understanding that Moscow has to be dealt with in a systematic and sustained way.

The West's conflict with Russia, says Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, "is not going to be resolved in weeks or months; this challenge will take years, even decades."

And at stake is nothing less than the fate of the post-Cold War international order.

The Security Challenge

Boris Yeltsin did it. Vladimir Putin did it. And Dmitry Medvedev did it.

Every occupant of the Kremlin since 1991 attempted to persuade the West to negotiate a European security architecture that would diminish NATO's primacy and give Moscow an exclusive sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

Each was rebuffed. And Russia's reaction to this is at the heart of Moscow's current challenge to the West.

The post-Cold War European order, political analysts Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, was based on the assumption that "economic interdependence, international legal institutions, and mutual interference in one another’s domestic politics" was the "primary source of security."

And the belief was that this model would extend outward through NATO and European Union enlargement coupled with the rise of global institutions like the International Criminal Court and World Trade Organization.

"Until recently, most Europeans believed that their post-Cold War security order held universal appeal and could be a model for the rest of the world," Krastev and Leonard wrote. "Russia shattered that assumption last year when it invaded Crimea."

The Kremlin has long feared that the European security order was a potential threat to Russia's sovereignty. And it was this fear -- more than any Slavic affinity for Serbia -- that was at the heart of Moscow's opposition to NATO's intervention in the Kosovo conflict.

But Russia's concerns about its own sovereignty also had a flip side -- a disregard for the sovereignty of others. Specifically, Moscow was also afraid that the post-Cold War order would prevent it from intervening in the affairs of its neighbors.

This was at the heart of the Kremlin's opposition to NATO -- and later EU -- enlargement.

"For 20 years, the Russian Federation has officially -- not privately, informally, or covertly, but officially -- equated its own security with the limited sovereignty of its neighbors," veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr said in a lecture at the Latvian Defense Academy's Center for Security and Strategic Research in March.

On last week's Power Vertical Podcast, Sherr noted that prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russia bided its time and more or less played by the West's rules. Although it did test the waters, with moves like cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007 and the five-day war against Georgia in 2008.

"They pushed and played with the rules, but they stayed inside sufficiently so that it was convenient for key actors in the West to ignore the changing mood in Russia, the growth of its bitterness and at the same time its confidence," Sherr said. "And now what has happened is that the Russians have mounted a fundamental assault on the legal basis of the post-Cold War security order."

And given the determination of Moscow's challenge, the West is now forced to defend the post-Cold War security order or cede a sphere of influence to Russia in the former Soviet space.

"The West has made an enormous political, economic, and moral investment in this post-Cold War security system. You have to be very shortsighted and very ignorant to be indifferent to all this," Sherr said.

The Ideological Challenge

It is Moscow's duty to represent, protect, and defend ethnic Russians everywhere. The Russian world is a distinctive civilization where the West's rules, norms, and values do not apply. Western civilization is decadent and in decline.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not offering an alternative model to Western liberalism. Instead, the ideological component of Moscow's challenge to the West is instead a negation.

Speaking on last week's Power Vertical Podcast, New York University professor and Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti called it "a backlash against the globalization of values."

Moscow is presenting a potent cocktail that unites cultural resentment, antiglobalization, Euroskepticism, cultural conservatism, and anti-Americanism.

"The whole ideology of Putinism is based upon civilization," Sherr said on the podcast. "It is based upon identity. It is based upon opposing liberal postmodernism, which is caricatured as opposing gay rights."

Putin's civilizational challenge has garnered sympathy among the members of the BRICS group uniting Russia with rising powers Brazil, China, India, and South Africa.

And with its adherents on Europe's far left, such as Greece's ruling Syriza party, and on its far right, such as France's National Front, it is creating something of a wedge within the West itself.

It even has supporters among leaders in Europe and on its periphery, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This may not be a unified ideology or a truly viable alternative to Western liberalism. But for the time being, it is a powerful spoiler with some traction.

And it appears to fulfil a prophecy the late political scientist Samuel Huntington made in his seminal 1993 essay The Clash Of Civilizations that the future fault line of world politics was likely to pit the West against the rest.

So it's time to settle in for a Long War. It promises to be a protracted conflict of variable intensity that will be fought on multiple fronts.

It will involve brinksmanship on NATO's eastern frontier. It will be a clash over the futures of former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova and for influence in former Yugoslav ones like Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

It will be a battle for hearts and minds fought on the airwaves and in cyberspace.

And it's going to last for some time.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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