News about the United States’ decision to withdraw from the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty produced the predictable explosion of propaganda commentary in Moscow. But by the end of last week, the feigned outrage had expired, and some sober second thoughts emerged. The Russian top brass wanted out of this Cold War–era agreement for a long time, and the Kremlin only sought to push the blame for the inevitable breakdown on the US (see EDM, October 25). This intrigue has worked; but still, President Donald Trump’s declaration, at a rally in Nevada, about scrapping the INF caught President Vladimir Putin by surprise. Russia’s prepared response had barely started to unfold when the visit to Moscow of Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton forced a serious rethink in the Kremlin.
Bolton started with a five-and-a-half-hour-long meeting with Nikolai Patrushev, the long-serving secretary of the Russian Security Council. The tone of official commentary in Moscow immediately shifted from hostile to respectful, with emphasis placed on trust-building (TASS, October 22). In a remarkable sequence, Bolton then met separately with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, before concluding with a 90-minute-long audience with Putin (RBC, October 23). The Russian president was sarcastic rather than indignant about the US decision, which Bolton presented as final and irreversible; and the Kremlin’s propaganda counter-offensive was effectively curtailed (Kommersant, October 24). One political game-changer probably was Bolton’s proposal for a Trump-Putin meeting in Paris at the grand ceremony commemorating the end of World War I, combined with a re-confirmation of the invitation for Russia’s leader to visit Washington, DC (Vedomosti, October 26).
This sweet prospect has apparently helped Russia to swallow the really bitter loss of prestige, which the Kremlin failed to anticipate would follow from the collapse of the outdated and detested treaty (Republic.ru, October 22). Indeed, Russia’s only material foundation for its claim of “great power” status is its nuclear arsenal, numerically equal to that of the US. However, Trump has firmly and even scornfully dismissed this long-established parity (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 23). Russia’s traditional security experts tried to raise the alarm about the risks of an unchecked arms race in the environment of zero treaty-established limits (Carnegie.ru, October 22). But missing from this alarmist risk-assessment is the fact that Russia has no capacity to engage in an arms race similar to the one in the 1970s, which forced the Soviet Union to overdrive its military machine to the point of breakdown (Rosbalt, October 25).
Putin has already made a forceful start in the virtual arms race, delivering a picturesque presentation of hypersonic and nuclear-propelled missiles as a part of his address to the Federal Assembly last March (see EDM, March 5). That boasting—more than the persistent Russian non-compliance—proved the irrelevance of the INF Treaty, which could not be easily modified to include weapons systems based on modern technologies (Forbes.ru, October 24). The actual deployment of Putin’s “March missiles” has so far not progressed much, due to various technical issues. Nonetheless, the Kremlin leader continues promising future breakthroughs (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 18). Now, however, he maintains that new Russian missiles will be deployed not with the formal elimination of the ban, but only in response to the arrival of land-based intermediate-range US missiles to Europe, which is at best many years away (Gazeta.ru, October 25).
This self-restraint is driven primarily by the intention to exploit the angst in Europe that Trump’s decision to terminate the treaty is ill-timed, barely justified, poorly coordinated, and that it potentially imperils the security of many European states. As such, Russian commentary typically exaggerates the Europeans’ support for the agreement, which symbolized the end of the Cold War. Yet, those same Europeans are aware of the dynamics of the new confrontation and know that non-compliance is not a technicality but a policy pursued by the revisionist Russia (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 22). Putin tried to sell his devotion to peace and cooperation in Europe to Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, who visited the Kremlin soon after Bolton. But Russia’s reputation as a partner has sunk too low as a result of the chain of botched operations of its special services on foreign soil (Kommersant, October 25). Anti-nuclear feelings run deep and strong in Europe; yet, it is next to impossible for Moscow to connect with them because a key source of the public indignation is Russia’s own policy of manipulating and modernizing its nuclear weapons (Novaya Gazeta, October 24).
One strong political gesture from Bolton was laying a wreath on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was murdered on February 27, 2015 (Interfax, October 23). This simple commemoration reminded Putin that his control over Russia was not strengthened by the confrontation with the West—and it could be further jeopardized by a new missile crisis. The Kremlin enforcers, including Viktor Zolotov, who played a key role in covering up Nemtsov’s murder and now commands the Russian National Guard, are too corrupt to be reliable under the pressure of personalized sanctions (Navalany.com, October 19). Meanwhile, the West is becoming increasingly proficient at seeing through the Kremlin’s methods of recruiting various “Putinverstehers” (“Putin explainers”) and “appeasers” abroad, which involves employing the same corruption that underpins Russia’s various “hybrid” operations (Novaya Gazeta, October 22).
The initial understandably negative reactions to the demise of the INF Treaty in Europe and among those in Russia who try to think beyond the daily turmoil are giving way to reflections on the risks of the new confrontation and the inadequacy of the old frameworks of arms control (Russiancouncil.ru, October 24). Indeed, there is an urgent need to find ways and means to manage these escalating risks. An imperative also exists to rescue Russia from the peril of this confrontation, which can only result in a fiasco, perhaps more dangerous than the one that ended the existence of the Soviet Union. The problem with addressing these issues is that every sound recommendation clashes with the reality of Putin’s regime, which can only prolong its own existence by exploiting the “besieged fortress” mentality and proactively damaging the (by no means rock-solid) Western solidarity. This regime cannot subscribe to a new edition of détente or a policy of “peaceful coexistence,” because its foundation is too weak and corrupt to withstand the challenges of normal economic and political competition. Containment remains the best response to its hostile behavior, and this George Kennan–inspired strategy needs to be constantly modified to address the fast mutation of Putinism.