Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and his words in 1939, like so many quotations attributed to him, are all the more relevant today. They eloquently capture the sense of Russia as the “other”—inscrutable and sometimes menacing, a power that plays by its own rules, usually to the detriment of those who choose more transparent conduct.
By Gregory F. Treverton
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
The enigma aspect of the Russia riddle is also relevant, for Russia is in many respects a failing state. Its economy is only a fifth the size of the United States, and it remains heavily dependent on its petroleum economy. Years ago, I suggested, only half facetiously, that Russia risked falling prey to the “North American solution,” its sparsely populated east overrun by China, much as American settlers outmanned and outgunned native Americans in taking over the U.S. west.
That said, Vladimir Putin—who seems a much better tactician than strategist—has played a weak hand very adroitly, often as a spoiler, that menacing “other.” Russia’s intervention in the 2016 elections was not even subtle; indeed, it was thought Putin wanted us to know what he could do. In 2020, he hardly had to do anything, for we did more ourselves to discredit our democracy than Putin could have imagined. He has continued to play by his own rules, more than tolerating hacker groups like DarkSide, so long as they stay away from Russian targets. The renovation of his military has been constrained by money, but it has produced units able to hold the balance in Syria and threaten Russia’s neighbors.
Russia’s constraints also suggest it will continue to give pride of place to what is relatively cheap—cyber attacks and social-media aided propaganda. Think, for comparison, about the Cold War: then if Russia wanted to place an article in another country’s newspaper, doing so was not easy and often expensive. Not so with the virtual realm, for all it takes is a proxy to tweet and bots, perhaps automated, to retweet in the hopes that will “trend,” thus coming to the attention of what we still call, awkwardly, main-stream media.
As worrisome, the third pillar of Russia’s waning power is what it already has—nuclear weapons. What Russia calls its doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” really is “escalate to win,” on the calculation that any response to a Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons will be deemed by its adversaries too escalatory to contemplate.
Russia’s strategic legacies are plain enough, ones that go back to the Tsars—control the invasion route across the North European plain, hence backing Lukashenko and destabilizing Ukraine; establish naval supremacy in the Black Sea, hence annexing Crimea, and decouple the United States from Europe. Putin’s main objective is to discredit western democracies, thus making his own distinctly illiberal democracy look better. It is always worth remembering that the paramount audience for all of his pronouncements is the Russian people, not anyone outside Russia.
Yet, as President Biden addresses the mystery and the enigma of the Russia riddle, the final piece is geopolitics. By that logic, one that runs back to Richard Nixon’s opening toward China, this would be the time to engage Russia, surely to dissuade it from closer ties to China. Pulling that off while hanging tough with Putin over dissidents, elections and cyber attacks will be no mean feat. Putin may not be interested, and it remains unclear how disposed the Biden administration is to reach out.
If it were so inclined, the agreement to sustain New START is a start, but, as critics note, that agreement does give Russia a pretty free hand with medium-range missiles. The administration has decided to revoke sanctions over Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline connecting Russia directly to Germany, and perhaps that could be turned from an irritant in trans-Atlantic relations into a positive in reaching out to Russia, all the more so because Russia probably needs the money more than Europe needs the gas. Another possibility might be beginning to engage that Russian “other” in discussions of cyber rules of the road, especially attacks on critical infrastructure. But all will depend on whether the Biden administration is inclined to reach and, more so, Putin is disposed to respond.