Opinion: Putin’s War on Terror

Vladimir Putin

In one of her recent articles, renowned American political scientist and columnist Nina Khrushcheva is dealing with this pivotal issue as well, ending her reflections with a moderately positive advice: “If Putin is willing to create some goodwill by cooperating in Ukraine, the West should consider offering some small concessions in return.”

Khrushcheva, who, it should be said, is definitively no sympathizer of Vladimir Putin, adds that “It should be noted that an adversarial relationship with the West was not part of Putin’s original plan.” An interesting question, then, is, what exactly this “original plan” entails. The answer is hidden in a passage at the end of her article: “The Kremlin’s desire to be recognized as a great, global power.”

This almost obsessive desire to regain a rightful Platz unter der Sonne after “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century”, the collapse of the failed totalitarian experiment called the Soviet Union in 1991, has dominated the worldview of Putin cum suis indeed. Ever since he took over the Presidency of the Russian Federation on the last day of the previous century, Putin has tried to substantiate the sacred principle of a national renaissance, Russia’s return as a super power, using different tactics.

At first instance, he opted for more pragmatic, subtle diplomatic means. Time was on his side. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it seemed that NATO would transform itself into a political organization, a second OSCE, that would once in a while be dealing with combating fundamentalist-Islamic groups in desolate, faraway places. This, the Kremlin assumed, not without justification, would make the impact of NATO enlargement in the Baltics less threatening; out of area operations in Afghanistan would distract NATO from its traditional function of collective defence.

After the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, in 2003 and 2004, this moderate approach faded from view. Putin discerned arrant Western, i.e., American, conspiracies everywhere he looked, building on on old fears of a hostile encirclement of Mother Russia. Less sophisticated means had to be employed now to restore the rightful great power status and to keep rivals away from former Soviet territory. Higher earnings from the oil and gas bonanza made it possible to raise both the defence budget and the nation’s morale. Energy resources also turned out to be an effective instrument to play EU member states against one another and to cultivate a special economic relationship with Germany.

That game of divide et impera yielded some results: even George W. Bush was not able to force through a NATO accession of Georgia and Ukraine (Bukarest Summit, April 2008). In a recent interview with the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer even referred to “a near hand-to-hand fight between Bush and Merkel”. Still, to make sure, Russia decided to invade the two unstable republics. The military adventure in Ukraine was openly justified with the argument that “the endless eastern expansion of NATO had to be halted”. A most peculiar elucidation, since the accession of Georgia and Ukraine was off the agenda now and the last enlargement to the east took place in 2004 (if one excludes Croatia and Albania).

Ostensibly returning to his methods of the early 21st century, Putin seems to have made one more turn. He is aware that in post-13 November Europe, a rift might appear between those countries that want to give absolute priority to fighting terrorism and those countries that formally support that fight, but consider Russia’s revisionist whims a far greater problem. And Putin is most fond of political rifts in Europe.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, never afraid to speak his mind, epitomized the latter perception as follows: “Or will we say that the conflict between civilization and barbarism is so fundamentally existential for our citizens that we must suspend the rules that have underpinned Europe’s security since WWII and accept aggression, occupation and annexation, which were, as we know, the proximal causes of the Second World War? Is authoritarian rule and the violation of international law ‘secondary’, a lesser evil compared to terrorism?”

A columnist of the Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Žinios went a step further. According to him, certain similarities between Russia and Islamic State can be discerned; both are trying to exploit deeper feelings of resentment, in order to recruit “soldiers” for their “wars”, “wars” with cultural and religious undercurrents, and both are aspiring to unite people of one culture or faith, in “Novorossya” or the “Caliphate”, using primitive norms from past centuries.

These findings are of a pretty exaggerated, slightly provocative kind, of course, but they are indicative of Baltic-Polish feelings of discontent that might erupt in the event of a Western-Russo rapprochement actually materializing. Immediately after 13 November, it appeared that time was on President Putin’s side again and that he will keep praising his country as an indispensable actor in the revitalized War on Terror. He might therefore be in a position to isolate Russia’s critics in the east of the EU and NATO, dismissing their preference for a focus on traditional territorial defence, i.e., sticking to Article 5, as “out of date” and “unrealistic”. Propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik have already started doing so.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this approach of new pragmatism and “multilateralism” will really work out. Moscow currently faces two hurdles. First, it is doubtful whether the EU will lift sanctions against Russia, the first of which were imposed after the annexation of Crimea, in the short term. Some policy makers in Europe are undoubtedly eager to pay this price for Russia’s “generosity” and to return to the status quo ante, but serious attempts of that kind would evoke infuriated reactions in Central Europe, especially in Warsaw. New tensions between Moscow and Kiev (on the electricity crisis in Crimea, the possible suspension of gas deliveries to Ukraine and the closure of Ukrainian airspace to all planes coming from Russia) will complicate things even further.

Second, as Russia ascertained itself last Tuesday, NATO has a grim, unpredictable self-perceived great power within its own ranks: Turkey. Strained relations with Ankara (and NATO) will surely thwart Moscow’s attempts to “sell” itself as an ally of crucial political and military importance to the West. And more in general, not much is left of the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation of the Antalya G20 Summit of 15-16 November. Joining forces in the struggle against ISIS presupposes a shared Russo-Western vision of the future of Syria and the Middle East, but that is evidently lacking. Chances that President François Hollande, as a mediator between Washington and Moscow, will be able to forge a (detailed) compromise are rather small.

Therefore it is doubtful whether the revitalized War on Terror will enable President Putin to realize his old ambition: restoring Russia back to its “natural” great power status, with a leading role in the European Concert and on equal footing with the United States. If the War on Terror does not provide that opportunity, Russia could relapse into a different, blunt kind of behaviour, like it did after 2003-2004. To Putin, after all, only one thing matters: Russia. Not the victims of ISIS.


Jeroen Bult is a Dutch historian and publicist specializing in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

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