A Novel and Radical Way to Deal with the Russian Threat

Confession: I really don’t know if my suggestion is actually novel or radical. Someone may have suggested. Then again, I don’t really know if the idea has any merit at all, so maybe no knowledgeable person actually suggested this. With that said, I want to throw out an idea first came to mind while reading Kissinger’s Diplomacy, specifically the section about Gorbachev. I don’t remember specifics now, but I’ll explain my general impressions and the way that relates to the idea I’m throwing out for consideration.

Huge Mistake

There was one big mistake that I sensed Gorbachev made, and this mistake involved abandoning the story that Russians told about themselves without any viable and appealing replacement. By “story,” I’m talking about the narrative that helps a people know who they are, what their place is in the world, why they’re special, or at least valuable. For example, part of America’s narrative involves being the land of the free, where experimenters and exporters in freedom and self-government. A light on the hill. E Pluribus Unum. These are just fragments of the narrative. In reality, the narrative is richer, more organic and compelling. A great leader, orator, or writer could articulate the narrative much better than I’m doing here. But the point is that we do have a narrative and it informs us about who we are, what makes us valuable and even great. A nation’s self-esteem is built and organized around this narrative.

For the Russians, or Soviets at the time, their narrative was based around communism. I’m not sure all the specifics of their narrative, but the sense I got was that Gorbachev seemed willing to throw that all out–without really replacing it with another narrative that would resonate with Russians. The new government and economic system, that would replace the old, really didn’t matter in my view, even if both were functioning. Maybe that’s going too far. Or maybe a nation needs a strong, compelling narrative for both the government and economy to function well. In any event, it’s hard for me imagine transitioning successfully from the Soviet Union to something entirely different without this type of narrative. This is especially true since Russians, like Americans, believe they are a great country, with a prominent role to play in the world (which is what I’ve heard). If that’s true, the narrative is even more important–and not just any narrative but a grand one, worthy of that expectation.

If Gorbachev, or any subsequent Russian leader, couldn’t provide a compelling replacement narrative, I thought (or at least I believe this now), the Russians would be drawn back to the old narrative–or something similar. Or, in seeking a narrative they could find one would ultimately have a negative impact for the world and/or the Russian people themselves.

I believe that’s the situation we’re in now. Putin is the a former KGB agent. He’s trying to find ways to construct a narrative to make them–while also linking to their policies and actions. They will have a presence on the world stage or at least they will be a regional power, overseeing satellite states around them. Putin seems to have developed an ingenious, albeit diabolical, plan of doing this. Conventional military or economy means aren’t available to him, so he will use guile, deception, active measures–to weaken more powerful nations from within. If he can’t bring Russia up to them, economically and militarily, he’ll bring them down to him. I understand he’s also trying to rally the nation around Orthodox Christianity, but I don’t know much about that, so I won’t say more.

The point is that he is doing things to boost the national self-esteem, and it’s causing problems for the Russian people and the world.

What Can Be Done?

Right now, many in Europe and some in the U.S. are thinking about responding to Putin’s approach–dealing with hyper-warfare. I think those things are critical, but I think they don’t get at the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that the Russians haven’t found a narrative that can satisfy them and also allow them to be good neighbors to the world community. That’s the key. If that’s true, then logically, if they can find this narrative or role, then that will end their current strategy of gain global status by undermining nations around them.

My premise could be totally wrong. On some level, I suspect what I’m saying doesn’t pertain to Putin himself. That is, suppose Russia develops the narrative I’m speaking of, that’s probably not going to stop Putin. (It would be hard to envision him making that transition, but if he could, that would be great.) But even if this is the case, if they can find this narrative, the Russians will have something to aspire to and replace the existing approach. That can provide a powerful impetus to move on from the status quo.

By the way, one of the things I like about this is that it doesn’t seen Russia, even the Kremlin or even Putin, to some degree, as evil. (Putin may be totally corrupted at this point, though.) It says that their mischief and problems their causing stems from an identity crisis, and that crisis is greater because of the rather grand sense of self they have–which I don’t mean to say judgmentally or unsympathetically.

Even if what I’m saying is correct (and I’m not sure it is), the main problem is developing this new identity, this new narrative. It’s not something one can easily make up–at least it does seem that way to me. We’re talking about the stuff of great, visionary leaders, and they’re not commonplace. It would be hard enough for some leader like this to emerge in Russia (or any country)–it’s even more difficult that we (or another nation(s)) could play a role in bringing this about. On the face of it, the idea really does sound absurd. But it doesn’t seem illogical, either.

One takeaway is that Europeans, Americans, and other countries that try to help shouldn’t just think in terms of economic or political help. These gestures have to address the identity issue as well, otherwise they could make matters worse. It’s about being sensitive to their identity crisis, and not in a condescending way, and respecting their desire for greatness–definitely not trying this scornfully. Maybe this seemingly modest gesture, by itself, would go a long way.

In any event, I don’t know what the specific role or identity could be, and I don’t know how to get there. But I do think it is a problem. And even if the West finds a successful response to Russian hyper-warfare, if the identity issue isn’t adequately dealt with, the problem likely won’t go away.

1 Response to “A Novel and Radical Way to Deal with the Russian Threat”

  1. Reid

    New York Times op-ed by former CIA acting director, John McLaughlin: The Smart Way to Deal with Putin’s Russia

    Lots of good points. I found the following idea interesting:

    As for changing Russia domestically, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament told me in Kiev, “Ukraine is the only former Soviet state that can change Russia.” She meant that Russians regard Ukraine as the birthplace of the historic Slavic state (in the ninth century) and see Ukrainians as their closest ethnic relatives. If Ukraine could overcome its endemic corruption and develop a prosperous democracy, it would spur support for similar governance in Russia. Helping Ukraine is our most promising strategy and one that Mr. Putin fears. That’s why he invaded Ukraine.

    (emphasis added)

    I’m make a couple of points:

    1. I think it’s important to keep in mind that this move, as McLaughlin acknowledges, is a big threat to Putin. To say this in broader terms: Putin will view actions to promote democracy abroad–while criticizing authoritarian and illiberal regimes–particularly in Russia and the states surrounding it, as hostile, even warlike acts.

    My sense is that Putin equates these attempts with his attempts to subvert democratic nations through information and cyber warfare. Putin and his defenders may trying to create an equivalence between these two actions, but Americans and the Russian people must see that this is not the case (or not always the case).

    Promoting democracy involves promoting fair elections, a strong free press, the rule of law, a respect for human rights. Truth, in the form of facts and information that are critical to public debate can be known, and citizens should receive this information.

    Putin’s efforts seek to undermine faith in democratic institutions and processes–promoting a narrative that all governments are no different from authoritarian regimes, using information simply to acquire and keep their power. Truth, in terms of information critical to public debate, is impossible to know.

    Democratic nations/leaders do act in ways to manipulate information to acquire and maintain power, but the good leaders also have a healthy respect for the free press, rule of law, and the truth. Authoritarian regimes/leaders, for the most part, do not.

    So the battle or war we’re in involves two competing narratives, and two different objectives. On one hand, you have democratic nations that genuinely strive to promote the rule of law, democratic institutions and human rights. And you have authoritarian regimes that want to undermine these things–including creating narratives that say these things are viable, normal, or even real.

    2. Even if Ukraine becomes a successful democracy, my sense is that this won’t be enough. The Russian people will also have a find a new narrative for themselves, one that can adequately satisfy their belief and desire for national greatness. (Or the Russian people will have to collectively give up this sense of their national identity.)


    One other aside that came to mind while reading the article–and I would want to bring this up if I could talk to McLaughlin or someone knowledgeable. Russia may have all the ambitions mentioned, but since their economy and domestic politics aren’t in the best shape, wouldn’t their global ambitions (e.g., in the Middle East) lead to potential over-extension? Can they exert influence without bleeding their resources? In other words, while they may pose a global threat, I would think their economy and domestic politics would limit their extent to which they can exert influence. And if if they ignore these limits then that could jeopardize, i.e., bring down, Putin’s regime.

    Or, can they exert global influence in a relatively inexpensive way? Maybe this is possible via information/hybrid warfare. To me, this might be the only way they can succeed, which is the reason I think it’s critical for the West to find a way to counter this type of warfare.

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