This article first appeared on the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University site.
In 1985, a Soviet leader came to power, leading one of the two superpowers in a bi-polar world, commanding a powerful military and leading a party mandated with changing the world.
Mikhail Gorbachev was also equipped with something far more powerful than the weapons in the Soviet arsenal—forecasts of the USSR’s future inability to compete with the United States in economic, technological and military terms. Gorbachev was convinced that the Soviet war economy and its priorities would constrain and exhaust its national capacity to compete successfully at the end of the 20th century—and that the internal system needed change for the USSR to sustain itself as a competitive, global power.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia today, however, is on a very different course from Gorbachev. After implementing liberal economic reforms aimed at strengthening Russia’s sovereignty in the early years of his rule, Putin has rejected structural, internal economic and political reforms, fearing that like Gorbachev he too could be swept from power.
Putin’s choice reflects a view that Russia can only address its non-competitiveness by changing the world around Russia, and most critically, by changing the European security system. In Putin’s view, any solution short of changing the European security system—including full integration, separation by erecting new walls, freezing the status quo around Russia, or partnering with other countries to counter-balance the powers in the European system—only means Russia’s inevitable loss of great power status and the loss of his personal power at home.
Consequently, Putin is rearming Russia, remilitarizing Russia’s overall approach to security, changing Russia’s defense concepts, adopting continuous destabilization strategies against neighboring states and returning to old policy formulas for internal and external security—all justified and rationalized by the perceived threat posed by the U.S./European security system around Russia.
His policy requires a changed Europe to enhance Russian strategic competitiveness and requires a changed Europe to avoid political change inside Russia. These two Russian campaigns—one external and one internal—are interfused. Success in one campaign is dependent on success in the other. More importantly, failure in one campaign is perceived as prompting failure in the other.
President Putin’s decision is influenced by Russia’s experiences since the end of the Cold War—internal coup attempts, terrorist attacks, “colored revolutions” around Russia, wars inside and outside of Russia, unfinished reforms and perceptions of Russia’s natural vulnerability to a fate similar to that of the USSR given its one-dimensional economic base and political superstructure.
Dimitri Medvedev, then the President of Russia, proposed a new European security architecture shortly after the Russian conflict with Georgia in 2008 to change the European security system. While Putin’s policy is consistent with well-documented Russian criticisms of Europe’s security architecture, his actions differ substantially from previous Russian approaches.
Previous Russian approaches could be characterized as attempting to “break into” the European security system to politically divide and overrule. In contrast, Putin’s current approach attempts to “break out” of the European security system, divide Europe and establish new rules. This is a fundamental change of approach that reflects a fundamental change of policy.
Russia’s leadership wants a Europe without strategic Alliances, without multi-national organizations and without a U.S.-Europe Transatlantic link that can through collective policies and action offset the national strengths Russia would hold over any one European nation. It would be a European security environment that would allow Russia to apply its national strengths to great effect without challenge and competition—enhancing its power abroad and at home.
This is the end-state of Putin’s strategy, and it requires changing the European security system—the rules of the game—to sustain Russia’s capability to compete with Europe and other regional powers poles outside Europe. Conversely, the policy strictly seeks to freeze the political rules of the game inside Russia, and end meaningful political competition at home. Russia’s leaders have concluded that the European system is both vulnerable and unjust.
Russia’s leaders claim the European security system is part of a global system whose purpose is to advance a unipolar, U.S.-dominated global order. Moreover, Russia’s leaders assert that preventing Russia from attaining its proper place in a just global order is a prerequisite to sustain the current unjust global order.
Full article: Putin’s Gamble: An End to NATO and Restoration of Russian Might (Newsweek)