One thing you can always count on Russian Experts to tell you is that Russia is a mystery. Or an enigma. I actually find that difficult to believe because Russia is largely transparent if you take a few things into consideration.
- Russia is an Asian country that has a toehold in Europe. This means you need think about Russia in the same understanding as Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi, Ghengis Khan, and Tamerlane.
- Russia will always act in what Russia perceives as Russia’s best interest. Forget humanitarianism, forget internationalism, these things are only tools to be used to get Russia what Russia wants.
- Russians want a strong man in charge. They want a leader they can fear, and even better if he is popular. But a Russian leader must be feared, because fear is respect.
- Most Russians view the Soviet Union as just a temporary change of political parties for the Russian Empire. Russia will continue to act like an Empire, and will continue to have imperial goals.
- Russia takes the long view. Russians know that Western Politicians have a short shelf life, with few exceptions here or there. Play nice when you can’t play rough, play rough when you don’t have to play nice is the best summary of Russian foreign policy.
With that in mind it’s easy to see why the Russian Experts are so thoroughly confused, because Russian Experts in the west are generally western thinkers who become enthralled at the beauty and brutality of Russian culture and history. Many Americans fail to understand why poor Americans can support Republicans, because they don’t understand that many Americans don’t view themselves as poor, only as the temporarily embarrassed rich. This is the same way that Russians viewed Russia after the fall of the Soviet system as a temporarily embarrassed superpower, and were more interested in becoming a superpower again than in anything else.
Not economic development. Not political reform. Power.
So with that in mind, Georgia was a test. Ukraine was a proof of concept, and Syria is the birthing pains of a new “freezing” or “hardening” of Russian foreign policy towards the west. Russia views NATO as a threat to its regional hegemony (and rightly so from their point of view) and will seek measures to limit the effectiveness of the alliance by exploiting the rules of consensus under which NATO operates. Russia doesn’t want a war with NATO, Russia wants NATO to be less influential in regional politics than Russia.
While NATO was in Afghanistan and the “surge” pushed US forces into Iraq, Russia invaded Georgia and got its nose bloodied. Russia learned that it needed to reform its military forces. Fast forward to Crimea, and what Russia views (and rightly so from its point of view) that US meddling in Ukrainian affairs requires intervention so Russia annexes Crimea and works to bring Kiev back into the fold. The rebels get support from Russian military, the Russian military gets real world operational experience. The Russian economy burns through reserves to keep things going in the face of sanctions (I always expected the Ukrainian situation to become resolved when Russia runs out of cash reserves and not a moment before). Now in Syria the Russian military proficiency gained since Georgia is put on display. A notice to NATO that an arms race and a proficiency race is on.
It is not difficult to understand that Russia’s next move will be to protect Russian interests. And Russia will continue to do this through alliances with China and Belarus. And economic manipulation as it is able, especially in energy sectors to prop up its own economy. Russia will continue to curry favor with India, who will continue to try to play all sides against each other in an effort to maintain autonomy and independence (a reasonable position to take considering their history).
Now I do not think that Russia wants a war. I think that Russia wants respect, and I think that Russia wants the US to stop “helping” in the Middle East. Our foreign policy towards the ME since Clinton was in office has not helped stability in the region, and Bush and Obama have clearly had a negative impact on regional stability.
But, President Clinton’s intervention into the Balkans back in the 90s gave Russia the “precedent” to intervene without an authorization from the international community. And Russia will continue to use that as an excuse to intervene when it wants, where it wants, and challenge the west to do something about it because nobody wants world war three. So yes, Russia will be provocative, intentionally provocative, and there is nothing we can do to stop Russia from being provocative because it is an international game of poker where we lose if we lose our temper and react to Russian provocation.
Russia knows this, and so there is no reason for Russia to calm down. Russia doesn’t have to play nice, so Russia will play rough.