Russia regularly mixes demonstrations of military might and claims of devotion to cooperation with the West as a means of weakening Western solidarity. And Moscow has been fine-tuning this conspicuously contradictory signaling ahead of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 70th anniversary, which is being celebrated at the London Summit this week (December 3–4). Russian propaganda inflates every sign of disagreement in the Alliance, which is due to increase to 30 member states, to a purported symptom of its irreversible decline (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, November 28). At present, Kremlin-linked media is most vociferously advertising the alleged erosion of the United States’ transatlantic leadership, as marked by the Donald Trump administration’s announcement that it would cut the US contribution to NATO’s budget (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 28). Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron’s curious choice of words last month, describing NATO’s “brain death,” has invited much speculation in Moscow regarding European frustration with Washington’s abrasive unilateralism (Novaya Gazeta, November 9). Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly hopes to hear more on that during his visit to France next week.
The Kremlin is encouraged by Macron’s ambivalent response to Russia’s proposal on non-deployment of intermediate-range missiles after the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (Gazeta.ru, November 28). Of course, this quasi-initiative disregards Russia’s deployment of 9M729 Novator land-based cruise missiles; but the French leader still found it worthy of consideration in light of European public concerns over the escalation of nuclear threats against the continent. The Russian “peace offensive” also calls for preventing incidents along the Russia-NATO line of contact. This was advanced by the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, at his recent meeting with the chair of the NATO Military Committee, Sir Stuart Peach, in Baku, Azerbaijan (RIA Novosti, November 26).
At the same time, Russian military demonstrations have continued at a rapid pace. Over the past week, the military test-fired a Topol (SS-25) intercontinental ballistic missile from a launch site in Astrakhan region on a shorter range to the Sary-Shagan target site in Kazakhstan (TV Zvezda, November 28); the new frigate Admiral Kasatonov tested its long-range Kailbr missiles in the White Sea; and a MiG-31K fighter tested the experimental Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile at the High-North Pemboi site. All the while, the Russian foreign ministry accused NATO of expanding its activities in the Arctic (Izvestia, RIA Novosti, November 29; TASS, November 30). A test of the new hypersonic anti-ship Tsirkon missile (SS-N-33) is scheduled for this month, and Putin already promised to arm the newly built corvette Gremyashchy with this superior weapons system (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 25). The Russian president also pledged that the new nuclear-propelled Burevestnik cruise missile, which exploded during a test last August, claiming the lives of five scientists (see EDM, September 3), would be developed “no matter what” (RBC, November 21).
While some NATO member states may be awed by this brandishing of nuclear weapons, and others could be allured by Moscow’s sweet-talk of good-neighborly relations, Russia will be most concerned about Turkey’s particular stance. Putin has invested much effort into cultivating personal ties with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and likely expects this investment to finally pay off in light of Ankara’s threat to hinder NATO deterrence plans in the Baltic region if Turkish interests are not also recognized by the Alliance (Izvestia, November 30). Here again, Macron supplied the most poignant criticism of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, thus provoking Erdoğan’s ire (RIA Novosti, November 29). For now, Putin can pretend the deal he has negotiated with Erdoğan on granting Turkey a limited “buffer zone” works perfectly fine; but tensions are, in fact, building, and a new spasm of hostilities looks all but inevitable (Newsru.com, November 25).
NATO can neither avoid nor resolve its issues with Turkey, and this conundrum makes it particularly difficult to deal with the problem that is of pivotal importance for Putin: Ukraine. The long-postponed meeting in the so-called “Normandy format,” which involves the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, is scheduled to take place in Paris, on December 9; and the Kremlin has been demonstrating a modicum of flexibility in preparation for this hard test for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (New Times, November 25). The Kremlin seems to assume that the accumulating fatigue with the deadlocked conflict will translate into weakened Western support for Kyiv, thus compelling Zelenskyy to accept a series of compromises unacceptable to the majority of Ukrainians (Rosbalt, November 26). As Ukraine sinks into domestic quarrels, a series of Russian “goodwill” gestures—such as last month’s return of the naval vessels (stripped of all equipment) seized a year ago near the Kerch Strait (see EDM, November 21)—could pave the way for the easing of Western sanctions on Russia (Russiancouncil.ru, November 29).
The Kremlin’s cynical presumption of European indifference to, and French accommodation of, Russia’s continuing military aggression against Ukraine is underpinned by historical experiences, which Russian authorities are keen to reinterpret—erasing all guilt and shame. Eighty years ago, the Soviet Union, encouraged by the pact with Adolf Hitler’s Germany, attacked its neutral neighbor Finland, which turned out to be a grave mistake in Joseph Stalin’s strategizing (Znak.com, November 29). The Finns rose up in determined defense of their newly independent state. But what matters most for Russia’s present-day adherents of the politics of power is the fact that Finland was unable to galvanize any active support from even its Nordic neighbors (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, November 29). The Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations, but that minor diplomatic setback did not hinder Moscow’s subsequent annexation of the three Baltic States (Gazeta.ru, November 26).
Russia today cannot field the armies Stalin commanded from Poland to Mongolia; but the thinking in the Kremlin about the new “multipolar” world is remarkably similar to the old dogmas that were focused on escalating conflicts among imperialist powers. Moscow is counting on further disappointment in Europe over the US abandoning its responsibility of leadership as well as on the continuing inability of the European states to produce anything resembling a meaningful common foreign and security policy. NATO’s responses to Russian breaches of international law and treaty obligations since 2014 have been more robust than the Kremlin expected, but it takes only one failure to derail this work in progress. Celebrations at the London Summit will be muted by the gravity of the looming challenges, and Moscow wants to ensure those challenges are multifarious and bolstered by temptations to avoid hard decisions. Russia in decline is dangerous and inventive; but it is also containable and prone to misjudgment.