The key to understanding the interests and motives of Russia and its leadership is its история and geography. Understanding Russian policy does not mean its acceptance or approval, but it is necessary for a realistic, and therefore successful, strategy towards Russia.
Disputes about Russia, its president Vladimir Putin and her actions lack realism. After all, most of the opinions are distributed on a scale from naive Russophilism to uncompromising Russophobia. Emotions play a big role. Some idealize Russia or make it a victim of the West, while others would prefer to erase it from the world map and do not recognize the right of the Russian Federation to determine and defend their own interests. But neither side takes into account the motivation of Russian politics. For the former, this would mean the loss of ideals, and for the latter, the desecration of ideological ideas.
Understanding the motivation of Russian policy is not a step towards its adoption or approval, but it is necessary for a realistic, and therefore successful, strategy towards Russia. The West can achieve with it an acceptable level of cooperation, only on the basis of a realistic analysis of Russian interests.
All the same effort
British statesman Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) spoke about Soviet Russia, despite its communist ideology, that Russian interests are key to it. Thanks to the knowledge of her history, Churchill saw in them repetitive processes and constant goals. In his opinion, Russian interests do not change, and they are more than usual determined by three factors: historical experience, geography and a desire to enter the pleiad of great powers. However, all this is deformed under the influence of fears and fears.
The Russian state has no natural barriers that would protect it. From the time of Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), Russia is responding to this by creating new buffer zones that allow it to mobilize against the aggressor. Owing to this defense strategy, the largest state in the world arose by attack. However, Russia did not get rid of the feeling of uncertainty, and the vast territory does not provide it with the status of power.
This status is determined by the use of force anywhere in the world, and Russia is hampered by the fact that it does not have an ice-free port. Therefore, since the time of Tsar Peter the Great (1672 – 1725), his successors have been striving to reach Constantinople and the Indian Ocean, and throughout practically the entire XIX century the British had to prevent Russian penetration into India, as well as establishing control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. For several hundred years, the same striving has been affecting Russian foreign policy - by expansion to ensure security for ourselves and to get out to warm seas, thereby confirming Russia's status as a power.
Past as a guide
Russian history is permeated by military interventions - not only Russian abroad, but also foreign ones. No matter how paradoxical it may sound, but Russia was often the victim of foreign aggression: after the Mongols almost destroyed the Russian people, there was an intervention by the Poles, the Swedes, the French, the British and the Germans.
In addition, the Russians do not perceive history in a linear fashion, as is customary in the West - for them it is an iterative process. Napoleon and Hitler attacked through Poland, so this attack can be repeated, despite the current events. The fact that today in Europe no one wants to attack Russia is of no importance for the followers of the traditions of Ivan the Terrible.
In the 1930 year, there certainly were no signs that in just 11 years the German army would rush to Moscow. And in 1989, no one expected that in 20 years, most of the members of the Warsaw Pact would be included in the European Union and NATO. The Russian leadership is convinced that the past is a much better guide to the future than it is to the present. The Russian past is full of fears, which is confirmed by former US President Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) in his memoirs, when he writes about how surprised Russian fear, who feared the American attack on the USSR, was.
If we talk about Russia's desire to be a power - and the collective identity of Russians requires their homeland to be a power and accordingly respected - then the national scale is of great importance for them. Despite Stalin’s cruelty, they glorify him because he made Russia a superpower. And because the Russians support Putin, although his policy brought Western sanctions to Russia and a decline in living standards.
The Russian understanding of the sovereign status includes, first of all, force, especially military as well as geopolitical potential. It is typical for Russia to pursue its national interests without taking into account economic problems, and this trend will continue. In fact, Russians use every opportunity for expansion, but some regions are more important to them than others.
If we are talking about their key interests, the Russians are uncompromising - in other cases they are diplomatically flexible and ready to make concessions, especially if the enemy is unyielding. In Russian history, a similar algorithm confirms, for example, the concession of Czar Alexander I (1777 – 1825) at the Vienna Congress in 1814-1815, the obsession of Stalin with Poland and his indifference to Greece, where he did not support the communist uprising, the Soviet rejection of the Berlin blockade, as well as the Cuban crisis.
The above is confirmed by Russian actions in Ukraine and in Syria. Ukraine is of great geopolitical importance for Russia, because if Ukraine was controlled by a hostile power, it would have kept Russia in its fist. In Crimea, the Russians have a military port, which gives them access to warm seas, even if limited to the Bosphorus.
Russia has always clearly stated that it will not allow Ukraine to become part of Western structures. Western unwillingness to listen to this statement and understand its motivation, thus preparing for the Russian steps, contributed to the aggravation of the Ukrainian crisis to the same extent as the aggressive Russian policy.
Any dispute between the powers can be reduced to the question of whether they are ready to go to war because of it. In the Ukrainian crisis - from the annexation of the Crimea through Russian soldiers in Ukraine right up to the current situation - the rule of its development remains unchanged: Russia cannot do without Ukraine and the Crimea, and the West can. Russia is ready because of Ukraine to wage war, but the West is not.
The West was saved from the fiasco by a structurally weak Russian economy and its dependence on oil and gas exports. Lower commodity prices reduced Russian budget revenues and provoked an economic crisis. However, this should not reassure the West, because Crimea belongs to Russia, and Ukraine will not become a member of Western structures in the foreseeable future.
During the economic crisis and despite many predictions that the Putin regime would collapse, Russia unexpectedly supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, thereby emerging from international isolation after the annexation of the Crimea. In addition, it was the first military operation of a non-Western power abroad since the end of the Cold War.
But the main thing is that within a few months the Russians prevented the collapse of the Assad army, helped it advance and return many territories, and then left without allowing themselves to be drawn into the conflict, as before in Afghanistan, or as it happened with the Americans in Iraq. The Russian goal was not to strengthen the position of Assad, because for Russia it has no fundamental significance. However, the limited time support suggests that the Russian Federation is interested in recognizing its sovereign status.
Syria is designed to show that Russia is not only capable of conducting operations abroad, but is one without whom the problem of the Syrian civil war cannot be solved. Where and how the Russians will use their support for Assad is not clear yet, but undoubtedly they want to settle relations with the US and Europe and cover up the collision in one crisis with cooperation in another in order to confirm their position in both crises: they will not give up Ukraine, but Syria for anything exchanged.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
By his actions, Russian President Putin continues the foreign policy of the kings and secretaries general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Putin’s goal is to strengthen the Russian sphere of influence and secure the key interests of his country. Some commentators and politicians shouted hysterically that Putin is the modern Hitler, and the Crimea is the Sudetenland. But if the Russian president really was Hitler, today he would have seized half of Europe.
Putin teetered on the edge, but always so as not to provoke a real confrontation with the West. The president assumed that Crimea would get away with it, because the West would not fight because of the peninsula. Putin did not go to Kiev, although many predicted this, and there was no one to stop the Russian troops. But the president was content with provoking and coordinating unrest in eastern Ukraine — that was enough for Putin’s intentions.
To achieve Russian goals, Putin has always chosen the least aggressive tactics in order to preserve the strategic advantage that the West is not as interested in Ukraine as Russia, but a ground invasion could change this balance. After all, it could push the West to retaliate, which Russia could not withstand for a long time. Russia can tactically defeat the United States where they have no key interests, or where they conduct erroneous policies, but Russia will not endure a long-term clash.
Perhaps Putin wants to restore the Soviet sphere of influence, but his real policy is more prudent. He is not a madman who wants to start the Third World War, but a virtuoso of real politics. He managed to get the Crimea and make sure that Ukraine did not become a member of Western structures, all without real and continuous confrontation with the West. Western sanctions are just an attempt to save face, and they will soon end. Today, Putin is seeking to normalize relations with the West, for which he uses the intervention in Syria, which confirms the agreement on Syria with the United States.
The main thing is that the West should take Russian interests as a fact. Despite the fact that Russia violated international law and acted as an aggressor, for her it was reasonable steps, because they were taken in the most urgent interests - to ensure security. And in this respect, Russia behaves in the same way as some other powers.
The principle of self-determination and non-interference, which the West presented in Ukraine, is commendable and theoretically correct, but Russia's readiness to disregard it for the sake of its interests makes it irrelevant if the West is not ready to defend this principle as its key interest. He can pretend that international relations are not determined solely by states, their interests and power, but in this case, the West will lie.
The West will not succeed with a position based on theoretical and practical rejection of the fact that Russians have interests that the West does not like. However, understanding the recognition that Russia has such interests and that it will defend them does not mean their support. Knowledge of the interests and motivation of the major powers has always been a prerequisite for the functioning of the international system.
No matter what the West chooses - cooperation with Russia, its ousting or something in between - he must recognize Russian interests and their significance for the Russian Federation. Otherwise, Western policy will be irresponsible and ineffective, and the West will not be able to foresee Russian behavior. This would be a roulette game, where safety and reliability are at stake, as happened in Ukraine.
The advantage of the West is that Russian interests are, in fact, transparent and predictable. Therefore, the West can take its every step, based on the alleged Russian reaction, and respond to every Russian action in accordance with how it agrees with Russian interests. From the history it follows that the Russians are uncompromising when it comes to their key interests, as is the case with Ukraine. But in other cases it is possible to negotiate with them, cooperate or persuade to concessions, as it happens in Syria.
Chimera absolute security
It should be assumed that the Russians will want to increase their influence. However, some regions are key for them. Putin will do anything for Russian interests and use any opportunity for this, but from his previous policy it follows that he does not want a prolonged confrontation with the West. In relations with Russia, the West must realistically assess its own interests and make it clear what it will not yield to.
In the case of key Russian interests, the West should carefully consider whether to interfere in them and how it will respond to the Russian reaction. It is also necessary to avoid simplifications, the consequence of which is hysterical hostility towards Russia or arrogant contempt for it. In addition, the West must take into account the attractive, but in fact problematic, concept of absolute security, which emerged after the Cold War.
After all, absolute security in international relations is just a chimera, and the desire for it often entails unintended consequences, which, rather, reduce security. An example is the German Empire before the First World War. While the first German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898) was engaged in its foreign policy, Germany fought its panic fear of war on two fronts in a diplomatic way.
Bismarck created networks of intersecting diplomatic alliances and agreements that isolated France and Russia, and put Great Britain against them. However, the successors of Bismar decided to strengthen the German position, strengthening the army and refusing diplomacy. In a short time they managed to unite the three former rivals - the UK, France and Russia - into the anti-German coalition.
Not only power
Bismarck knew that in relations with these countries it was impossible to rely only on the number of German divisions and their armament. And although the chancellor understood that the army was important, he was thinking the same about diplomacy. Bismarck considered the army and diplomacy communicating vessels, which, however, can not be combined. Diplomacy in international relations removes the tension that builds up between the powers and their interests. As soon as everything begins to be reduced to military capabilities, and diplomacy becomes a tool for military planning, war soon breaks out. After all, the method of relieving tension is lost.
Bismarck maintained good diplomatic relations with Russia, not because he admired her, but because he was afraid of her. The West and NATO, like Bismarck, should look for a way between strengthening military capabilities in Eastern Europe to repel a possible Russian attack and striving to convey to the Russian Federation that the defense of this part of Europe is taken seriously and, if necessary, the alliance will not hesitate. Of course, the West should not abandon the military solution and limit its military capabilities, because the Russians, better than anyone else, will feel weak and take advantage of it. But relying only on force is not worth it.
In the first case, in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States would have to place hundreds of thousands of NATO soldiers, to which Russia would respond by strengthening its own military forces. In the second case there would be a simultaneous strengthening of military forces with equipment and supplies, as well as an expansion of defense systems, military exercises and diplomacy. The best defense of the Baltic states is the threat of a war with NATO, and not the deployment of such a number of soldiers that could repel a potential Russian strike, which, by the way, is unrealistic.
So far, fortunately, NATO is choosing the second path: a few fighters and a hundred military will not stop a possible Russian invasion. This is not about being measured by military forces or showing them - this is a diplomatic signal. The Alliance gives Moscow to understand that it will defend its members, but its military units are not so large as to give the Russian the impression that NATO is preparing for an attack. Against the NATO base in Eastern Europe was the Czech General Peter Pavel, who does not take a naive pro-Russian position, and, according to which, it is best to strengthen the infrastructure and activate NATO exercises.
If Putin thinks pragmatically, he understood that signal. If NATO fell apart, Putin, of course, would try to point out the failure of the alliance and expand the Russian sphere of influence. But NATO does not break up and demonstrates, at least in Eastern Europe, self-confidence and awareness of the Russian threat. And although the Russian invasion of the Baltic cannot be ruled out, this probability is low. Putin knows how to evaluate forces, so he knows that in a few days he will be able to seize the Baltic States, but he will not win the war with NATO.
In connection with the desire for absolute security, it is necessary to understand that even during the Cold War, NATO in Europe did not have as many traditional forces as the Soviet Union, much less had the advantage or the slightest chance to stop the Soviet invasion. And then the threat was much greater. The West relied on intimidation - not only nuclear, but also that the USSR could not be compared with its military capabilities with the United States.
Consequence of weak politics
Despite the fact that during the Cold War the arms race was conducted and the threat of military confrontation constantly existed, intensive diplomatic negotiations were continuously held. Diplomacy was not a reward from the West to friendly states, but a tool for regulating relations with states with dissimilar interests. The diplomatic prerequisite was the ability to determine one’s own interests and foresee them from other countries. This was perceived as a fact, and not as a topic for discussion with the aim of convincing the adversary that his interests were not genuine.
If, despite this, there was a clash, force was used to achieve their own goals. That is, something opposite to the actions of the West in Ukraine took place, where he did not take into account Russian interests, and when a conflict happened, he retreated. Russia can be a rival, an ally, and from time to time a partner. However, all these relationships should be based on a realistic analysis of interests.
There are areas between the West and Russia for both clashes and cooperation. The key to understanding the interests and motivation of Russia and its leadership is its history and geography, from which differentiation of Russian interests and reactions follows. At the same time, Russian statements and actions that rather serve propaganda or domestic political goals should not be taken into account.
In addition, it is necessary to come to terms with reality: Russia will not allow Ukraine to enter into Western structures, and in the West there is no will to achieve this inclusion. However, Ukraine can become a buffer state that economically cooperates with both the West and Russia.
It is necessary to fulfill the obligation to defend all NATO member countries, but to do so in such a way as not to build up weapons. That is, the policy should take precedence over military planning. The union of Russia and China, as a result of a weak, as well as provocative policy of the West, is not in the interests of the latter, because, unlike Ukraine’s rejection of NATO, this alliance can really threaten the Western position. By its hysterical rejection of Russia, the West does not help Ukraine, but supports the alliance between Russia and China.