By Miro Smith

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 turned the world upside down and changed the way the global system functioned. It dealt a great blow to the post-Cold War order, undermined European security architecture, broke all the rules and norms of international law and brought lawlessness to interstate relations while creating conditions for more tensions, hostilities and conflicts. Moscow’s forceful move against an independent state raised legitimate questions about the willingness and capacity of the West, particularly the United States, to meet and overcome systemic challenges posed by revisionist Russia. 

Notwithstanding the magnitude of this occasion and the graveness of the Russian challenge, Western states failed to come together in a concerted manner to deter, isolate or punish Moscow. The U.S., tied down in the Middle East, was caught flat-footed by Russian behavior and failed to come to Tbilisi’s rescue as it was reconsidering its European strategy and rebalancing towards Asia while giving the European Union ample room in the region to chart its own course in political, economic and security terms.

Europe, enjoying cheap Russian oil and gas imports, was neither ready to oppose Moscow for its actions in Georgia nor wanted to endanger regional energy security. Thus the EU’s dependence on Russian resources on the one hand and the U.S. retrenchment in Europe on the other not to mention its indirect, albeit visible, acceptance of Russia’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, encouraged the Kremlin to move boldly and take high-risk actions; the first was in Ukraine and the second in Syria.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the following invasion of the Eastern Ukraine, however, meaningfully changed transatlantic security calculus. It visibly revitalized the transatlantic bond and revived NATO, imbuing the alliance with the sense of mission it lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. More importantly, it brought together, albeit to a lesser extent, previously divergent positions of internally divided European states and consolidated the EU’s position vis-a-vis Moscow. In the span of a month, the U.S., the EU and other allied countries slowly but effectively imposed biting sanctions on Russia and shook its forcefully crafted resource-reliant economy.

The sanctions, coupled with an oil price slump took a toll on Russia’s economic and social conditions and forced Moscow to make painful changes in economic, social and internal policy formations, threatening the cohesion, legitimacy and survival of the regime. Higher food prices, combined with weakened currency, contracting economy and budget cuts, created an environment in which public discontent and social grievances were going through the roof. However, although the measures have played a sizable role in weakening Russian state and laying bare its structural deficiencies, mere sanctions have proved not to be effective enough to compel Moscow into submission and make it change its destructive course.

On the contrary: In response to the sanctions, Moscow expanded the scale and scope of its confrontation and created a new point of contention — this time in Syria, increasing its foothold in the Middle East, strengthening anti-Western forces on the ground and changing regional power balance. By doing so, among other things, Moscow killed two birds with one stone. It strengthened its hand in the Middle Eastern deal making and put in doubt the U.S. credibility as a main power broker and reliable partner in the region.

The sequence of these events clearly reveals the revisionist and imperialist nature of the Russian state. Despite its deep-seated structural deficiencies and visible economic vulnerabilities, Moscow aspires to revise the rules of the current international order and return to its, self-perceived, erstwhile greatness. It defies Western-led multilateralism and calls for multi-polarity. In this regard, it strives to restore forcefully its predominance in the post-Soviet space, create an economic, political and military powerhouse and ultimately become one of the global poles of attraction while balancing against other global power centers such as the U.S. the EU and China in the so-called, newly emerged, multi-polar world. Recent conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria and subsequent “saber rattling” along the borders of the post-Soviet states clearly showed the contours of Russia’s strategy and tools it is willing to use to advance its agenda.

Essentially, Moscow meeting its objectives means the world divided into spheres of influence where small states are threatened by regional powers, borders are redrawn by force and international norms are no longer valid. It also means that Russia’s aggrandizement is taking place and is designed to come at the expense of sovereignties and territorial integrities of neighboring countries. With all this in mind, one can easily argue that Moscow’s Ukrainian gambit was not an unexpected move but a deliberate continuation of its Georgian voyage — this time with different tools of military warfare. Whereas Russia used conventional means to invade and dismember the Georgian state, it resorted unconventional — or in other words hybrid —tactics to divide and weaken Ukraine. Syrian intervention, however, falls in line with its long-term strategy and serves the same purpose. It is designed to reinforce the image of Russia as a global power, reliable partner and credible alternative to the West.

Although Moscow has a plethora of soft power instruments and resources available to influence its former clients states in its near abroad, it still relies on the tools of coercion to achieve its goals. From time to time, the Kremlin cunningly uses all the tools in the toolkit to undermine, divide and dominate countries containing minority groups. Then Moscow opportunistically fans ethnic conflicts and applies military force at a moment of political uncertainty, before pushing for territorial revisions that allow it to maintain a foothold in the disputed region. Since 1990s, Moscow has repeatedly backed, financed and armed ethnic minorities — Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Transnistrians and so-called “Russian speakers” with the intent to cripple the national governments in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. As a result, Russia has ultimately increased its clout in the region, impeding and in some cases reversing the gains these countries made towards progress, modernization and Euro-Atlantic integration. In addition, Russian presence in the occupied territories, creates conditions for clientele-ism, corruption, stagnation and renewed armed conflicts rendering them less appealing to the West to invest in and ultimately more amenable to Russian agenda.

Since Russia’s ability to take aggressive approach toward the West is limited, it seeks to intimidate, weaken and to the extent possible increase the divisions between and among the Western states. To that end, Kremlin is engaged in carrying out hybrid warfare strategy, which includes and not limited to disinformation, propaganda, cyber-attacks, subversion and intimidation while supporting ultra-left and ultra-right parties embarked on undermining cohesion and legitimacy of the Western political establishments. Recent surveys in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other leading European countries alarmingly revealed a correlation between Russian narratives designed to sow distrust and confusion in Western societies and the voices of those of anti-establishment actors. Similarly, the recent presidential election in the U.S. and discoveries of Russian hacking designed to influence the election results, once again, demonstrated with chilling clarity that even a superpower such as the U.S. is not immune to Russian assertiveness. Clearly, Russia’s invisible hands are becoming more visible and in certain ways more effective factor in shaping attitudes, public opinions and false perceptions in Western societies.

In assessing Russia’s attrition warfare and its hybrid revisionism, as well as the strategy to counter it, one needs to take note of the fact, often forgotten in the debate, that the invasion of Georgia was the starting point, the first Russian test for the West and the very first major crack on the international system. Appeasement in Georgia turned out to be a turning point in the history of post-Cold War order as it undermined the system, emboldened Russia and paved the way for its bolder actions.

Considering the Georgian experience, the Ukrainian conflict and the pattern of Russia’s behavior, one may conclude that Russia is poised to fill the power vacuum in Europe until it hits a wall or, in other words, is contained by superior military power. So far, the West’s commitment to Eastern European security, including deployment of rotational forces in four NATO countries, has not been sufficient enough to withstand an attack by Russia’s increasingly capable conventional forces, should one take place.

Evidently, Moscow thinks it has more at stake and is willing to do more to expand its spheres of influence. On the other hand, strategic indecisiveness and the conceptual deficiencies in NATO’s declared policy that in times of trouble draws a red line between NATO member states and likeminded partners lying beyond NATO border, plays in the hands of assertive Russia and helps it erect a virtual wall between the West and newly conceptualized Russian world, an area of spherical interest dominated by authoritarian, corrupt and regressive forces.

In these circumstances, when destructive forces are on the march and Western institutions in growing peril, U.S. is left with a stark choice: Either it can defend and strengthen the international system it created and persuade or coerce the disruptive actor to abandon behavior that threatens global peace and security or it can assist in its destruction through retrenchment and inward looking policies. Evidently, survival of liberal world order depends on the choices the U.S. will be making with regard to the Russian challenge since it will have global consequences, not only to the immediate players involved in the game, but to states in remote regions and territories, setting expectations for the allies, partners and adversaries for their future endeavors.

Miro Smith — a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity — is a highly-placed Eastern European official with deep professional insight into global affairs. He has studied, worked and developed policy internationally, including stints at major think tanks and at the United Nations. Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.

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