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Russia’s International Strategy

Is Russia waging a lukewarm war on the West?

An article in the Huffington Post of October 6, entitled “Nuclear Smugglers Shopped Radioactive Materials To ISIS And Other Terrorists” got me thinking. This ‘little’ incident is arguably part of a much bigger picture, which when you look at in its totality, is extremely disturbing and potentially very dangerous. In fact, if one considers all the evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Russia is actually waging a war on the West that is neither a full-scale one of open military conflict, nor the staged Cold War of the fifties, sixties and seventies, with its clearly defined rules and spheres of influence. Is what we are seeing a ‘lukewarm’ war, where a rogue Russian state has as its single-minded goal to decrease the influence of the West, destabilize it, and where possible, expand into areas where its adversaries show weakness?

Compared to Russia, despite its ‘unifying institutions’ (EU, NATO etc.), the West is fragmented, and since most of its constituent countries are democracies, less able to pursue a unitary goal, and more subject to budgetary weaknesses than the de facto authoritarian state. To make matters still worse, some recent polls show that in most countries in the EU, the resolve for mutual self-defense is weakening ( In fact, a majority is in favor of not living up to Article 5 commitments of the North Atlantic treaty which would compel their country to come to the defense of another NATO member. No doubt, Mr. Putin and his advisors are aware of this, and clearly, some of Russia’s military actions can be seen as testing the limits of NATO bonds and resolve. It is therefore no wonder that some countries bordering Russia, in particular the Baltics, are extremely nervous.

Putin’s international strategy can be summed up in three overlapping and complementary tenets:

  1. Restore and expand Russian (i.e. Soviet) hegemony and power. Essentially, the goal is to exert its influence over the Eurasian landmass (except for China and the Far East and the Indian sub-continent), as well as the half of the Arctic on the Russian side.

  2. Weaken, and if possible, destroy NATO and the European Union, as well as US influence.

  3. Use every possible means to achieve these goals, short of outright war that could be costly in terms of human life, financial resources, and popularity for the Putin government.

The above is evident in Russia’s flexing of its muscles militarily and diplomatically in several theaters on its periphery since Putin’s assumption of power.

The Former Soviet Empire:

Putin’s aim is to restore and expand the geographic reach of the ex-Soviet Union. Starting with Transnistria (Moldavia), Chechnya, North Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia), and arguably, the Ukraine, he has used these frozen conflicts to deprive reform-minded or nationalist elements of territorial integrity in order to hinder their development as separate states and / or to prevent them from joining western institutions. Moreover, the Russian government has stoked these separatist conflicts to

In the Baltics, starting with the cyberwar unleashed on Estonia in 2007 that tried to shut down government services during a three week period (after a memorial to a Soviet soldier was removed from a central position in Tallinn), Russia has moved on to flexing military muscle in the region.

In the Ukraine, Russia managed to employ discord in Kyiv and the sacking of the pro-Moscow Yanukovych government, on top of its historical claims and military weight in Crimea, to annex the peninsula. The Russian leadership correctly ascertained that, since Ukraine is not a NATO country, the West would make a lot of noise but not intervene. It continues to foment discord in the eastern half of the country, and will not stop this low level military intervention until the Poroshenko government is sapped and replaced by one that is a pliable, pro-Moscow one, thereby essentially bringing all of Ukraine back into the Russian sphere. (

The Arctic:

This is the big territorial play for Putin: using the international legal framework of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia recently resubmitted to the relevant UN Commission a beefed-up rationale for why an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of seabed should be deemed Russian territorial waters. The submission was originally made in 2001 and rejected for lack of sufficient evidence; essentially it is a claim to almost half the Arctic, largely mirroring the former Soviet Union’s unilateral appropriation of the sector from either tip of the Eurasian mainland to the North Pole. However, this is not the whole story: Russia is backing its claim with a militarization of the Arctic that the West cannot match. A Russian Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN) has been created to include its upgraded Northern Fleet as well as several new bases, 10 Arctic search-and-rescue stations, 16 deep-water ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defense radar stations across Russia’s Arctic periphery (See for example Russia already has 41 icebreakers (to the USA’s 2), and is planning the placement of cold-weather capable surface-to-air missiles and specially designed Arctic drones. Russia’s anti-access/area denial strategy in the Arctic is already in place, and in any case, whether the UN Committee approves Russia’s claim or not, who is going to challenge Vladimir Putin’s de facto control over half the Arctic? (Potential conflict over the Arctic is the topic of my thriller, ARCTIC MELTDOWN).

Western Europe:

Putin is using several means to destabilize and weaken Western Europe and it institutions. For one, he and his government have shown open support to extremist parties and movements on both sides of the political spectrum; after all, they have common cause in their anti-EU, anti-immigration, often fundamentalist religious policies. For example, last year France’s far right Front National party received a loan from a bank owned by an oligarch close to Putin, and in January of this year, there were investment projects and trade agreements offered to Greece’s far left Syriza Party. Perversely, while Putin foments the anti-immigration views of these parties, many in Europe hold the view that the bombing of non-ISIS rebel (and civilian) positions in support of the Assad government in Syria also serves the goal of putting more immigration pressure on an already migrant-beleaguered Europe. Similarly, the unresolved frozen conflicts in the borderlands between Russia and EU tie up diplomatic, financial, intelligence and military resources of the latter as well as of the USA. The oil card is one Putin could also play; however, with the sanctions currently impacting the economy, much-needed oil revenues would only be sacrificed under serious circumstances.

The Middle East:

Russia’s strategy of propping up the Assad government in Syria by using bombers and cruise missiles to hit largely non-ISIS rebel targets is at odds with the West, which believes that Assad cannot be part of the solution in the Middle East. The support for a government that, with its indiscriminate bombing, has made living in Syria for its people generally hell in the last few years, serves a multifaceted role for Putin: for one, it is a high-risk tactic that creates problems for the West’s military strategy, forcing US and other NATO bombers to take great care to avoid a mistake that could quickly evolve into major conflict, and, as argued above, it increases the flow of refugees to the already swamped states of Western Europe, diverting government focus and resources. It also serves the important domestic purpose of showing Russia’s population that the government stands up to the West and forges its own path internationally. Supposedly accidental provocations such as over flight of Turkish airspace or locking radar on Turkish planes or ships are also high-risk tactical plays, which only elicit diplomatic responses and serve as pinpricks in the side of NATO. More important in the long run for its strategy is the build-up of the Russian military base in Syria which will permit it to project power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

These are some of the areas where Russia is causing problems for the West. To sum up, let us look again at the means―short of outright war―that Putin is employing to further his strategic international goals of expanding Russian power and hegemony and weakening NATO and the European Union. Several of these are discussed above, but a few require more explicit focus.

  1. Overt, Covert or Passive military activity. This would include the bombing in Syria, the intervention in the Ukraine with soldiers not wearing identifiable uniforms, the frequent incursions into NATO airspace and the military build-up in the Arctic.

  2. Cyberwar. Russia has employed cyberwar against Estonia in 2007, Georgia 2008 and most recently, the Ukraine. This is generally believed to be coordinated by units of the FSB or a special IW (Information War) unit in the military.

  3. Support for Extremist Groups. As pointed out above, Russia has provided diplomatic, logistic and financial support to both far right and left extremist groups in Europe.

  4. Diplomatic efforts. Examples are the on-going diplomatic underpinning of the Assad regime and the submission to the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea regarding the Arctic.

  5. Use of, or cooperation with, criminal groups / merchants of evil. This is the least talked about, but possibly the most dangerous element of Putin’s ‘lukewarm’ war. A 2010 report in Der Speigel ( clearly connected the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, to arms merchants. An interview with an insider detailed how this works: clandestine arms sales are made through companies founded by retired GRU officers, while active GRU agents supervise deals and the profits are divided up, with Russian intelligence pocketing about 30 percent. It is, however, the Huffington Post article I cited right at the beginning that points out how dangerous this can be for the West: it talks of an officer with the FSB (successor to KGB), who through a middleman arranged the sale of bomb-grade U235 as well as blueprints for a dirty bomb to a man from Sudan. Again what this does is, at the minimum, tie up Western resources, and in a worst case scenario, create real destruction that nevertheless Russia could (with at least a veneer of plausibility) deny in the international arena. Often, these criminal groups―for example, Solntsevskaya Brava, which, with its close ties to the FSB has turnover of over USD8.5 billion―are engaged in not just arms trading, but also drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, cybercrime, kidnapping and other nefarious activities, which the Kremlin condones and actively encourages since a portion of the revenues ends up in key officials’ pockets and the activities help to undermine the capitalist West. (I explore this in my thriller, TWISTED REASONS).

Taking all the above together, the conclusion that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is waging what can be dubbed a ‘lukewarm’ war on the West, is difficult to deny. This is clearly an undeclared war at that―and one that would be denied by the Russian government. However, one must remember that when one analyzes Russia, it is essential to separate words from action, propaganda from reality―this was always true going back in history, certainly to the Soviet era and perhaps even earlier. Despite the rhetoric though, it is clear that Putin is waging such a war in many different theaters and using many different means at his disposal. The West better be wary!

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