Russia is using a not-so-secret weapon that has flipped Western notions of strength and weakness on their head. If trends continue, the U.S. could be faced with the terrible choice of losing its credibility as a conventional ally and a strategic nuclear power or overreacting in order to prevent such a loss.
Kremlin strongman Vladimir Putin’s orchestration of the Ukraine crisis, and the U.S. and Europe’s response to it, have set the stage for further actions that could threaten the expanded NATO alliance itself.
Paul A. Goble, considered the dean of American experts on the different nationalities of what Russia regards as its rightful space, warns that a small, newer NATO ally could be next.
With a near-fully modernized strategic nuclear arsenal to give teeth to his iron will, Putin is using a low-cost, high-impact weapon against which the West has built no effective defense: political and economic subversion.
The KGB excelled at political and economic subversion, and Putin built his career practicing both. He ran hard-currency operations for the KGB in St. Petersburg before moving to the Kremlin to run then-president Boris Yeltsin’s Presidential Property Administration, from which he maneuvered to take control of the secret police section of the old KGB and, ultimately, taking power from Yeltsin himself. He then ensured that he would face no credible political rival.
Externally, Putin has intervened in the internal politics of former Soviet-occupied countries, rewarding pliant dictators in Belarus and Central Asia, protecting isolated Armenia from its unfriendly neighbors, dismembering independent-minded small countries like the republic of Georgia, and apparently attempting to assassinate pro-western leaders like former Ukrainian prime minister and future president Viktor Yushchenko.
Left permanently disfigured by the 2004 dioxin poisoning, Yushchenko was an arch-rival of Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, whose ouster in a popular revolution earlier this year prompted Moscow’s seizure of the Crimea and subversion across eastern Ukraine.
Dangerous to be a Putin critic
Putin has made it dangerous to be a serious critic. Few journalists whose job is to cover Russia can examine him seriously if they wish to survive professionally – if at all. Radio Liberty correspondent David Satter, an American who has reported from Moscow for decades, was recently banned from Russia. Satter’s American citizenship arguably saved him.
Putin has not been so soft toward his own countrymen. Russian journalists, members of parliament, and even former KGB colleagues who exposed Putin’s power tactics have had unusually high mortality rates.
State Duma lawmaker Galina Starovoitova, investigating Putin’s hard currency interests in St. Petersburg, was shot to death in the stairwell of her apartment. Her friend and colleague, journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, was poisoned to death. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose investigations pointed to Putin as a gangster-chief of a mafia state, met her death in October 2006 after being shot to death in a professional hit. Former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko was assassinated with radioactive polonium-210 the following month. He had received political asylum in Britain with a compelling story of how Putin was the culprit behind terrorist bombings of two Russian apartment buildings to provoke the Second Chechnya War and propel himself to the presidency. As he lay dying in London, Litvinenko blamed Putin by name.
Weakness is strength
Russia has not only subverted the political systems of its neighbors in former Soviet-occupied countries but has subverted the Western democracies as well.
Putin has turned Russia’s internal weaknesses into external strength. In presiding over the wholesale theft of the Russian economy, Putin has made the Western banking and financial systems – from Zurich to London to New York – dependent on his kleptocratic status quo. He has used his Gazprom gas monopoly to dominate Europe in ways his military never could.
Critics of Western softness toward Putin during the Ukraine crisis point to the Gazprom pipelines, whose routes through Ukrainian territory fuel Europe with gas and the Kremlin with hard currency, as a big reason for the West’s flaccid stance.
The West has handed Putin a “complete victory” in Ukraine, according to a prominent Moscow journalist, who calls the recent Geneva peace agreement a “complete capitulation” to the Kremlin and an invitation for more trouble.
Yuliya Latynina, commenting over the weekend on Ekho Moskvy radio, said the “capitulation” gives Putin a “mandate” to take as much of Ukraine as he wants.
Critics of U.S. policy say that Washington is acting weak when it should be strong. The West’s inability to face Putin’s asymmetrical warfare strategy, they say, has invited more trouble. Last September, American Foreign Policy Council President Herman Pirchner told Investor’s Business Daily that the U.S. was strengthening Putin through what he called “provocative weakness.”
“Provocative weakness is a state in which you look weak, and you inadvertently provoke Russia, and others who mean you ill, into thinking they can grab something for nothing,” Pirchner warned at the time.
NATO seen as next target
Goble, whose landmark work at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was considered as decisive in helping Ukraine, the Baltic Republics, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, and others to break apart the USSR, sees Putin turning his attention to subverting NATO next.
NATO is still structured to defend against a conventional Russian military invasion. It has pretended in recent years that Russia no longer threatens alliance members and has helped configure the armed forces of new members – countries formerly under Soviet military occupation – for international peacekeeping, not territorial defense.
However, NATO is not configured to defend itself against an aggressor with an unconventional strategy. That strategy, and the tactics to execute it, are where the militarily inferior Russian Federation excels: political subversion.
“As Vladimir Putin has proved in Ukraine, one can occupy and annex part of a neighboring country and destabilize much of the rest of it without officially sending tanks and troops across the border by using more deniable means of subversion, including the provocation and exploitation of the attitudes of some of the population in the target country,” Goble writes today in his Window on Eurasia blog.
Putin’s next target, Goble predicts, is likely to be in one of the three Baltic republics that are now full members of NATO. The most likely target, in his view, is Latvia.
“That test would not necessarily take the form of an attempt to seize a portion of Latvia or force Riga to withdraw from the alliance, although some in Moscow might like to do either or both of those things,” according to Goble.
“Instead, it could involve itself in creating the kind of social and political instability that no defense alliance is designed to block,” he says, “and thus call its utility into question among some.”
Putin’s combination of low-scale military aggression and intensive political subversion is a winning formula. By Western standards, the Russian Federation is weak: militarily inferior, economically sagging, politically underdeveloped, demographically declining and fragmented. The Kremlin leader has turned those weaknesses into a strength.
To maintain the stability and order that western diplomats and financial markets crave, Putin has won a pass from the West as a dictator, as long as he goes through the motions of a democratic process to provide some appearance of legitimacy.
Moscow has been a weak power, in the Western sense, for centuries: politically underdeveloped, economically backward, ethnically divided, structurally fragile – an overextended mess held together by powerful armies and secret police systems under the control of oligarchs and dictators.
That Western sense of weakness is a Russian sense of strength. The internal weaknesses cry out for strongmen to maintain order.
By creating more disorder, Moscow can expand its influence by destabilizing and fragmenting its neighbors, without the need for a traditional invasion.
“While few question that NATO would respond to an overt Russian military move into Latvia or any other NATO country, the Western defense alliance is not designed to counter the kind of subversion that Moscow has already used in Ukraine,” Goble argues, “and that it could deploy in Latvia to undermine that country’s independence and test the alliance as well.”
Washington policymakers are grasping for options. “The KGB respects only the strong,” martyred Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote in her book, Putin’s Russia. “The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.”
J Michael Waller is a Washington, DC-based scholar who worked to help dismantle the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and was in the Kremlin the day the USSR was abolished in December 1991. He foresaw the resurgence of the former KGB in his 1993 book, Secret Empire: The KGB in Russia Today, and the merger of the KGB, criminal kleptocracy, and organized crime in a variety of academic and policy articles at the time, that led to the rise of Vladimir Putin.